The (Australian) Age
In Alston v the ABC, the winner must be journalistic integrity
August 6, 2003
What is fair reporting? The answer lies somewhere in the language that is used, writes Peter Ellingsen.
Behind the case made against the ABC for alleged left-wing bias is a skirmish more bitter than the one surrounding broadcasting standards. It is a war over what constitutes valid journalism, and it's being fought on the field of language.
At stake is not just the standing of a particular ABC current affairs program, in this case AM, but the shared understanding of what journalism is, and how it is assessed.
There are no exact standards here. While both sides agree fairness is a goal, they differ on what it is. What Richard Alston brands as anti-American prejudice, the ABC sees as scene setting. It comes down to interpretation. Is "grudgingly", used in a report to describe Turkey's decision authorising US military activities on its territory, spin or analysis?
Not surprisingly, Alston and the ABC cannot agree. What is surprising is that anyone would think they could. We are not dealing with transparent, one-sided reporting, the sort of thing you might have found in Pravda or on the Voice of America.
The ABC is not accused of blatant errors of fact as much as loaded comment - that is, the words used to say what the available audio cannot. Pictures may be worth 1000 words, but radio has neither vision nor the time for long essays. So reporters doing their job need to say what they see or hear. Alston does not dispute this. As he told the PM program, context is OK for current affairs radio.
The problem, he says, is to remain balanced and impartial. And here we enter the realm of language. Asked what the difference is between analysis and bias, Alston explained: "Analysis is doing your best to be balanced and impartial."
This does not help much. Balance and impartiality are a matter of judgement, not measurement. They depend on perception, which, like belief, is notoriously subjective. Where you sit, as the old saying goes, depends on where you stand.
According to the chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Authority, Professor David Flint, balance and impartiality mean presenting a wide range of views and not favouring one over the other. It does not involve being unquestioning.
On this score, according to research being done by Cardiff University's school of journalism, public broadcasters, at least in Britain, are in the clear.
The school's Professor Justin Lewis found the BBC did not have an anti-war agenda. In some ways it was the most sympathetic to the Government, he said. The problem was not too much analysis, but not enough. Lewis said the research showed that by taking information straight from military sources, without subjecting it to analysis, reporters routinely got it wrong. For example, the southern Iraq town of Umm Qasr "fell" four different times, there was an "uprising" in Basra that did not happen, and "Scud" missiles were fired that were not Scuds.
Alston's attack on the ABC, echoed by at least three writers on this page, Gerald Stone, Gerard Henderson and Gregory Hywood, questions not just the questioning, but the tone and values of journalists filing the reports.
Stone, like Alston, detects sneering in the AM coverage, and condemns any report that "begins with a value judgement before the fact". Leave aside the irony that, as a former executive producer of 60 Minutes, Stone was in the value judgement business, this does not clarify the crime.
A gut assessment can be the best way to begin, especially when the event is overwhelming and the authorities are in denial of the truth, as I found when reporting the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.
Henderson finds fault with the ABC for having an insider, former Victorian manager Murray Green, as the one-man complaints review executive, to consider Alston's complaints. But is this not the way the Government investigates charges against its own ministers? And to criticise Green for being "subjective" is to suggest others are not. Flint, for instance, who may be called on by Howard to review Alston's dossier, has just published a book, Twilight of the Elites, which critiques parts of the ABC.
Hywood, a former publisher and editor-in-chief of The Age, takes a broader view, arguing the ABC needs not just to crack down on gratuitous commentary, but get more conservative commentators and programs. These, apparently, to offset what is seen as a left-wing bias, or what Hywood calls internal culture.
He sees a conflict between what journalists think is worth covering and the demands of the market, and believes the ABC suffers from not having such a battle going on. But does not the appeal of the ABC lie in being free of market or commercial demands? In fact, the independence demanded by the charter of the ABC depends on its avoiding the commercial links other media must pursue.
And here is the nub of the dispute. Questions of bias are not only difficult to establish, they exist in a web of language and ideas that inevitably have their own values. Yes, the ABC has a culture with inherent beliefs, but so does the Government, or any other institution. The only way around or through it is with language, and, as George Orwell warned, here we are dealing with deliberate deception and the attempt by spin doctors of all sorts to make lies sound truthful.
Language needs to be clear for society to stay sane, Confucius advised. Former Czech president Vaclav Havel, a poet, put it more elegantly: We have fallen morally ill because we have become used to saying what we do not believe.
This, sadly, is a new battleground of the media. As Tony Hart, president of the Marketing Institute of Australia in 1999, told me, the line between editorial and advertising has been blurred for some time. This, he said, is the new reality.
It is not one that Nate Thayer, who refused to accept the broadcasting world's version of the Pulitzer Prize for his scoop on Pol Pot, embraces. "My main objection," he told The New Yorker, "is that the industry has taken control of journalists, and part of our job is to fight for the integrity of our profession."