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Tag Archives: Media bias

A question of balance

JamesCarleton-e1405549218653 ‘Where’s the balance?’ I raged as I listened to ABC Radio National this morning. In yet another example of a run-of-the-mill interview that you might hear on any news media platform or channel across this country, James Carleton was interviewing a business owner about the Carbon Tax. This interview may as well have been produced and gift-wrapped by the fishing industry’s PR firm, it so reeked of one-sided bias. But that’s the thing about balance that the mainstream media just don’t get. Or just don’t care about. Or both. Balance isn’t the ability to find someone who wants to speak in favour of the Carbon Tax (if these people have been interviewed in the mainstream media over the last few years, I must have missed it) and then to balance the argument, interview someone staunchly against the Carbon Tax, like Carleton’s guest this morning. That’s kindergarten simple thinking on what balance might be, and they can’t even get this right. No, an intelligent producer and interviewer would aim to find balance in the very questions they ask, so to provide an insight into the two sides of an argument within the one segment of news that they’ve given over to a particular topic for a limited amount of time.

So let’s look at how Carleton might learn from this sloppy, unbalanced interview. First of all, it’s important that the audience know who is being interviewed in order to properly frame their ‘well you would say that wouldn’t you’ opinion. Carleton introduced his interviewee Gary Heilmann as apparently a ‘small business’ owner, the managing director of De Brett Seafood at Mooloolaba on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. Carleton explained that Heilmann’s business includes a tuna fishing boat, a fish processing plant and a fish and chip shop. Fine. But it’s often what is left out of such an introduction which is so lazy on the part of the interviewer and also most telling. Because a quick Google of Heilmann makes it very clear that he isn’t just some random small business owner who the ABC happened to come across to provide his views on the repeal of the Carbon Tax. Here he is quoted in the Sunshine Coast Daily, posted on Liberal Mal Brough’s website, bemoaning the Carbon Tax back in March 2013. Here he is on the ABC’s website in 2011, apparently representing his own business and other fishing operators in lobbying the government to provide $76 million in compensation because of the proposed introduction of a marine park. In this article on the same topic from 2011, the author writes that ‘Fishing operators such as Heilmann say drastic measures are needed because Australia’s waters are over-fished’ and makes the point that since many operators have gone out of business, licenses have been cut back to 115 and Heilmann has slashed his fleet from 10 boats to only 2. This time he’s talking about the Coles fish price-war (aren’t free markets fun?). Here he’s complaining about the Sunshine Coast Regional Council building a roundabout that makes it hard for his fishing trucks to get away from the port of Mooloolaba (how dare the council try to improve traffic conditions for people visiting the beach when Heilmann’s trying to move stock!). And finally, here is Heilmann defending against claims that fishers were raiding Gold Coast recreational fishing areas, in, you guessed it, his role as Managing Director of his company, and a member of a tuna fishing industry advisory committee. Wouldn’t this background as a fishing industry media spokesman have been helpful to the balance of Heilmann’s Carbon Tax interview?

So what questions might Carleton has asked so to at least challenge Heilmann’s pre-prepared-press-release-like rant about why the Carbon Tax is bad for his business and must-be repealed? What could Carleton have done to provide some balance, rather than offering nothing more than the perfect Dorothy-Dixer-like combination of questions which came off sounding like they had been written by Heilmann himself to keep his flow of ‘I’m anti-Carbon-Tax-and-my-opinion-is-important-because-I’m-a-business-owner’ script perfectly intact? How could Carleton have avoided the same-old-lame-overused-statement that was so perfectly rehearsed it sounded like Abbott himself had planted it in Heilmann’s head, when he said ‘governments… have simply managed to drive the cost up to the point where it’s just not worth being in business anymore because you can’t generate a return on the assets’. I know what you’re thinking. I know you’re thinking it’s not Carleton’s fault that Heilmann so perfectly slotted into the Abbott anti-Carbon-Tax narrative which brought us to this point tonight where the Carbon Tax is, devastatingly for the environment, about to be repealed. But it is Carleton’s fault and it’s every journalist’s fault who has given exactly this sort of interview all the airtime it ever wanted, without once asking a question that challenged the very basis of the argument about pricing carbon. What if he’d tried even one of these questions, just to throw an alternative argument into the mix and to provide some balance for the audience:

‘Being a fisherman, and clearly concerned about over-fishing, you must be concerned with the sustainability of not just your business, but also your family’s safety in the environment you live and work in. Do you worry that climate change will have a detrimental effect on the sustainability of your livelihood and the sustainability of the planet we live on?’

‘Do you think it’s appropriate for a government to put the concerns about business profit for a handful of business owners ahead of their concerns for the safety of our planet in an unstable climate?’

‘What policy would you prefer the government introduce to encourage large polluters to cut down on their carbon emissions instead of the Carbon Price, to change their business practices to ensure we limit the catastrophic effects of climate change? Or do you not believe climate change is real?’

‘Have you considered renewable solutions such as solar energy to cut down on your high electricity costs, in order to improve your margins and to make your business more sustainable as fossil fuels continue to deplete and grow in cost?’

‘If you can’t make a profit running your business in a sustainable way, is it time to think about doing something else and to stop blaming the government for every challenge your business faces? If you can’t run your business without producing unsustainable amounts of carbon emissions, isn’t it better for the community if you do try something different?’

If people like Heilmann don’t want to answer such questions, they can choose not to be interviewed on a national radio station. Someone else can be interviewed instead. How about me? I would be happy to answer balanced questions about a particular topic. But I would never be invited because I’m not a business owner or an industry spokesperson. I guess that’s the thing that’s most disappointing about Carleton’s interview in the first place. Journalists like Carleton never interview a nobody like me who has to actually live in the community where climate change is happening. The Carbon Price was not just some economic burden on large polluters. It was designed to try to save our planet. How about interviewing a member of the community on this topic, rather than a whinging-he-would-say-that-wouldn’t-he-self-interested-axe-the-tax-business-owner. Just for a change.

March in May

MiM SW March in March saw tens of thousands of disenchanted voters take to the streets across Australia in protest against the Abbott Government. But it was just the beginning. After the marchers had dispersed, the anger at the government still simmered.

Now the people are marching again.

The AIMN has been contacted by the organisers to promote the next instalment: March in May.

This we are more than happy to do.

After March in March many in the mainstream media ridiculed it as nothing more than a rabble. It was just a group of lefties, they mused, coming along for the walk and waving a placard.

March in May will have a clear message (see list below). The media will know why people are marching. It would be foolhardy to ignore it.

Here is the promo The AIMN received:

Media Diary, Sydney Event Alert for May 18 2014
MARCH IN MAY TO TAKE PLACE SYDNEY, ADELAIDE AND PERTH
SUNDAY MAY 18TH 1PM

MARCH IN MARCH saw over 110,000 Australians rally together across 33 locations to express their concern and disdain for the policies of the current government. This grass-roots movement gave a voice to a broad demographic including the elderly, young families, first-time activists, long-time activists and even Liberal voters.

This event was a positive, empowering and uplifting exercise in unity and democracy attracting a range of speakers from many walks of life. To follow on from its growing success, there will be a snap demonstration to register public objection to the ongoing irresponsible and dangerous decisions of our current Federal Government and the impending budgetary announcement – Sydney, Adelaide and Perth will again MARCH IN MAY 2014.

What exactly are we marching for? Better policy making NOW and better governance long-term; transparency, accountability, ethics and equity. We want a progressive Australia which reflects the open-minded, conscientious and intelligent nature of its citizens.

Core areas of concern include:
– Education (cuts to funding and new fees)
– Public services (healthcare, welfare, ABC & SBS funding cuts, the National Broadband Network)
– Environmental Issues (animal rights, climate change, dredging of the Great Barrier Reef, logging of heritage-listed forests, coal seam gas and mining)
– Human Rights (asylum seeker rights, indigenous issues, women’s issues, worker’s rights)
– The Economy (anti-Trans Pacific Partnership)
– Corruption within the government and pandering to corporations
– Political bias in the media.

MARCH IN MAY – SYDNEY SUNDAY MAY 18th
BELMORE PARK, CBD
AN EXCITING LIST OF GUEST SPEAKERS AND PERFORMERS TO BE ANNOUNCED

Get ‘em onside

Referee Assigning a Red Card In sport we quickly learn to play to the ref. All Black Richie McCaw is a master at it. If the ref isn’t penalising offside then why stay behind the last feet in the ruck? Netball umpires have individual interpretations of how much contact is allowed in striving for the ball or how far three feet is. Some cricket umps seem loathe to give an lbw decision. And their decisions can affect the outcome of the game as Manly Sea Eagles fans will tell you about last year’s grand final – that pass was forward!

Because the independent arbiter is so important to the game, they have come under increased scrutiny with mechanisms of review of individual calls and overall performance. Technology is helping them get it right with replays and hotspot and hawkeye and the like. Review panels assess performance and referees and umpires quickly find themselves dropped if they don’t do a good job of enforcing the rules competently and impartially.

In politics, the media is the referee. It is their job to scrutinise what our politicians are saying and doing and to call foul when necessary. This scrutiny should be applied to all government policies and procedures as well as alternative suggestions. Pertinent facts should be presented and falsehoods exposed.

Journalists are paid to research available information, to seek out expert analysis, to canvas options and opinions, and to present to the public an accurate portrayal of the situation in a way that non-experts can understand. It is their job to keep a level playing field, enforce the rules, and to penalise those who break them.

In Australia in recent times we have the referee not only ignoring foul play but actively promoting it. They are unashamedly wearing the club colours and making no effort to hide their bias. And it isn’t just one or two incompetent rogue refs – Bolt, Hadley, Jones, Devine, Ackerman, Albrechtson, Kenny, Cater, Henderson, Shanahan, Switzer, Whittaker, Murray, Savva…the list is endless.

Why haven’t these people been demoted? Where is the independent review panel that holds them to account? Is sport more important than the running of our country? When the ref has joined one team then the game is no longer fair.

Social media can only go so far in assuming the responsibility for enforcing the rules as it takes active participation to search for the truth. Main stream media still has a considerable reach and must be reminded of their obligation to inform the public and to keep the bastards honest. To the Murdoch press and associated shock jocks I would say…

Get a pair of glasses ref – they’ve been doing it all day!

Opiate of the masses

There has been a lot of angst in left-wing circles since the election of Tony Abbott and his Coalition into government. Blogs, Twitter and Facebook are all agog with posts indicating that Tony Abbott is going to be a wrecking-ball for a wide range of policies, organisations and social expectations. Under the Coalition, employee power will be smashed, unions will be outlawed, annual leave will be abolished, people on incomes under 100K will lose the right to vote, laws will be passed requiring coal-fired power stations to burn brown coal exclusively even when the power’s not needed, just in case, and small animals will be tortured in an attempt to prove that cigarettes cure cancer.

It’s not unreasonable for the left to have some fears about the approach Tony Abbott will take to government now he’s attained it. After all, the Coalition has some hard-nut right wing extremists in its fold, some even in Cabinet. Tony Abbott has been described by Kevin Rudd as “one of the most extreme right-wing conservative leaders or politicians that the Liberal party has thrown up”. The Coalition is on public record as supporting most of the ideology and specific policy suggestions of right-wing think-tank the IPA. And Tony Abbott and his Coalition have single-mindedly pursued one of the most negative agendas in history over the past term of government. So there’s reason to expect that he is now going to go early, go hard, and get many of his less popular initiatives under way while the next election is still far off.

Here’s why I think he won’t be doing that.

The first few actions of the incoming Coalition government – some of them even before swearing-in – have been viewed as the thin edge of a vindictive wedge; the first steps in the wholesale destruction of all we hold dear. But they can be viewed from a different angle, which is perfectly consistent with Tony Abbott’s approach to Opposition, to the election campaign, and now to government.

For this Coalition government, it’s all about perception. Policy and outcomes are secondary. This government knows as well as we do that the fundamentals of our economy are relatively good, in global terms. It knows that its hyperbole about a budget emergency was a politically expedient concept that now needs to be locked away. You won’t hear the Coalition talking about a budget emergency from now on, that concept has had its desired effect, and dwelling on it will raise questions about why the Coalition is not making more significant changes to the budget outlook. The Coalition knows that the NBN is not a huge issue for Australian debt, and that their alternative is inferior, and that the public actually likes the idea of fast broadband delivered to their door, so you can expect obfuscation, reviews, examinations and not a lot of actual change. The rollout will continue apace, and when it’s good and ready the Coalition just might think about a judicious adjustment to bring in some elements of its own model, just so it can say that it’s done something at the next election. The Coalition knows that the Direct Action plan is not going to work, and that the ETS has been working and has not been a “wrecking ball through the Australian economy”; it also doesn’t believe that Australia can have any impact upon global climate change even if it is real. So you can expect the repeal of the carbon tax, as one of the big ticket items on which it swears it got elected, but not a lot of Action from the Direct plan.

The most important priority for this government is not doing things. The vast majority of its election promises are to undo things, after which we’ll be back in a nice pre-Labor state of comfortable hiatus. The Coalition does not expect to make Australia better by making changes. It expects to make Australia better by letting people calm down. As Abbott has said:

“…happy the country which is more interested in sport than in politics because it shows that there is a fundamental unity, it shows that the business of the nation is normally under reasonably good management…”. (Interview with David Koch and Samantha Armytage, Sunrise).

Tony Abbott, the ex-journalist, wants to control the conversation again. For the last three years, the failings, alleged failings, ructions and supposed dishonesty of Labor have been the story. Aided and abetted by a hostile media, the Opposition has made politics continual front-page material, and has deliberately fostered interest and concern in all manner of things. Asylum seeker dog-whistling, budget emergencies, NBN appalling waste, class warfare – none of these things had very much reality to them, and all of these things were blown enormously out of proportion by the outrage of the Opposition and the media’s eternal search for the Story-of-the-Day. The net effect is a populace energised, outraged, horrified, and politically engaged – exactly what an Opposition wants, going in to an election.

The Coalition knew that elections are lost, not won. Particularly in 2013, where the one actual policy on offer from the Coalition (Tony Abbott’s PPL) was roundly debated and opposed even by some within his own party, the Coalition did not win the election on promises to build things. It won the election on its promises to undo the things that Labor had already done. Labor lost the election over the past six years, with a particular emphasis on leadership issues – issues which have no actual bearing on the governing of a country, but which added to the Coalition’s continuing barrage of concern.

Tony Abbott does not intend to lose the next election.

In order to make sure that he does not, the priority is to calm the conversation down. To take things in a “methodical, measured, calm” way. To use rhetoric that includes the words “adult”, “sober”, “calm” and “deliberate” to shape the political conversation, rather than “disaster”, “emergency”, “appalling”. To some extent, this is the transition faced by every incoming government; opposition almost demands the use of hyperbole, and government requires a more defensive approach. But with the Coalition in 2013, what may have been a necessity of politics has become a deliberate strategy.

Calming things down means keeping politics out of the media. Thus, fewer press conferences, no pandering to the 24-hour news cycle, a slower pace (compared to Kevin Rudd, this is almost a given). It means adopting a culturally neutral middle ground – one where the older white men are in charge, where success is measured in a well-turned wife and obedient children, and where men are men, women are women, and small furry animals are kept in the back yard.

Calming things down also means controlling the news. Thus the first actions of the incoming government are not actually about reducing costs or winding back bodies based on the ‘fiction’ of climate change, but rather about controlling who says (and knows) what. The new approach to boat arrivals – in that the Coalition will now give the media a weekly digest, rather than notifications upon arrival – ensures that the story of boat people will wither. The daily news cycle won’t be fed with regular news of boats, and the issue will fade off the front pages. The abolition of the Climate Commission gets rid of the body charged with providing “an independent and reliable source of information about the science of climate change, the international action being taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and the economics of a carbon price” to the Australian people. It saves a pittance – the budget for the Commission was $5 million over five years. More importantly, it deprives Professor Flannery of a source of authority, it deprives the environmental movement of a source of authority, and it deprives the Australian people of a source of information. By itself, it won’t remove climate change from the front pages of the news. But the wholesale dismantling of government climate bodies will have that effect.

Tony Abbott wants you compliant, and comfortable, and happy, and smothered in marshmallow. The last thing he wants is to go making big changes that will upset people. He wants Australia to get used to the dichotomy: under Labor, you get an endless barrage of waste and fear and concern; under the Coalition you get a country that just gets on with it and lets you focus on your own life. So there will be no changes to the GST. There will be no remorseless cuts into health and education. There will be no overt attack on worker’s rights. In three years’ time, when the next election comes around, the only things the left will be able to criticise in the Coalition’s term of government will be that they dismantled the things they said they would dismantle, the things that Labor built.

Once again, the media will be an enormous assistance to the Coalition. Endless, deafening silence will help Abbott smooth the ruffled waters of Australia’s concerns. An appearance of calm and control will likely lead to actual calm, to an improved consumer and business confidence, and to better economic outcomes. The Coalition will be aided in this by circumstance. Just as Labor came to power in 2007 on the cusp of a real budget emergency – the Global Financial Crisis – the Coalition is coming to power just as Australia is showing signs of growing into a new prosperity.

Calm… or panic?

So what is the way forward from here for left-leaning progressives? The Coalition has attained government, and their ideal is to retain power for several terms at least – to be a long term government. They will attempt to do this, I believe, by not rocking the boat; by adopting and retaining many of the structural reforms that Labor put in place; by maintaining some distance from the news cycle and lulling the populace into a drowsy state of contentment. It now falls on Labor to prevent the Coalition succeeding in this. There are a couple of possible approaches that could be taken.

Labor can choose to adopt the same tactics that Tony Abbott pioneered with such success. Endless negativity, endless opposition, endless noise and fury, intended to blow up every little foible and failure of the new government into a thousand thorns of discontent. The strategy is to make sure the Coalition can’t get any clear air. After all, it worked for Tony Abbott between 2010 and 2013. Unfortunately, Labor is at a disadvantage in this battle. The mainstream media is dominated by opinions and owners hostile to Labor’s approach, and success at the Abbott model of opposition requires the involvement of the media. The media is hungry enough for stories that it might nonetheless be a viable strategy, but in a hostile environment it may prove an uphill battle.

Alternatively, Labor could attempt to rise above the example that Tony Abbott set. It could maintain a stately disdain, reserving its ire for any overt missteps or vandalism or ideologically-driven extremes emanating from the Coalition, but generally supporting or ignoring the Coalition for much of its term. Further, it could concentrate on building a new vision for the future, a policy platform that by its successes demonstrates the failures of the Coalition’s status-quo approach. The problem with this method is that it relies on missteps by the Opposition, and Tony Abbott has been astoundingly successful to date with keeping his party in line. There are many on the Coalition benches who would go too far given an opportunity, but with a deliberate don’t-offend political strategy at the helm, they may never get that opportunity. And it is astonishingly hard to win government on the basis of what you intend to do. In addition, three years of stately silence is not likely to be sufficient to prevent Tony Abbott pointing back to the hot air of 2010-2013 and blaming it all on Labor. Thus the Coalition would be bound to achieve another term or two, and this would simply reinforce the impression that ‘everything’s running smoothly, unlike under the previous mob’.

It may sound like heresy to some on this site, but the question must be asked: is it really so bad for us to have a Coalition government at the helm when they’re so intent on not offending anyone?

The answer to this depends on your expectations for a long-term future under the Coalition. To date, Tony Abbott’s opposition and government has shown no practical answer to the two-speed economy – indeed, Coalition policies will undo what little progress Labor has made in refocusing Australia’s approach to this problem. The Coalition is certainly no more supportive of education, of R&D, and of high-technology industries than were Labor. Clever country, we are not. The Coalition’s approach to climate change and mitigation of carbon emissions is well understood, and will withdraw Australia from even what little it has the ability and commitment to do in this field. And by promising to slow or halt the rollout of the NBN, if the Coalition actually intends to follow through on this promise, it is engaging in a deliberate sabotage of one of the most critical pieces of national infrastructure in history. All of these things give me no confidence that Australia’s future beyond the immediate three-year electoral cycle is at all promising.

Are we locked in to this cycle? Does life, the economy, industry and Australia’s status have to slowly stagnate under the Coalition until another inspirational Labor leader comes along with grand visions of what we might have if only? Or is there a third way?

News media: A little word, a big effect

Image from alexhamilton.com.au

Liberal news media (image from alexhamilton.com.au)

I sometimes pick up on some sloppy reporting, deliberate spin or bias in the mainstream news media (MSM). It always creates huge interest on Twitter because many people are aware of the decline in professional standards and bias throughout the MSM.

I refer to it occasionally. But I could make a full-time career of it, so widespread are the examples of biased, unbalanced and unprofessional reporting.

To some degree, a process of correcting a perception of Left-bias in Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) News and Current Affairs has been under way for some time (since the last Liberal government of former Prime Minister John Howard, in fact).

At the same time, Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited (at least 70% of Australia’s news media outlets) has been running a Right-wing Conservative agenda against the federal Labor government, which is probably related to mining taxes, environment/pollution control, news media regulation, construction of a National Broadband Network and control of Radio Australia (the ABC’s overseas broadcast network) Australia Network News (now operated by the ABC).

Now that you have the background, let’s look at a specific example I picked up yesterday afternoon. It was still being discussed on Twitter late this afternoon. But if I hadn’t referred to it I imagine it would have gone unnoticed.

On the ABC’s website, Simon Cullen (ABC Chief Political Correspondent) produced a report that referred to a story published earlier in the day by The Australian. The story referred to the latest Newspoll figures. Now, you need to know that The Australian has exclusive rights to publish the Newspoll results, that The Australian is 100% owned by News Limited, which also owns 50% of Newspoll.

Labor figures are quoted in three paragraphs, Newspoll chief Martin O’Shannessy gets two paras and Opposition front bencher Greg Hunt gets four. Two Labor politicians and one Opposition politician commented, with slightly more quotes. Let’s call that a draw because it’s hard to strike a perfect balance.

My attention was drawn to one little word in the third last paragraph. It doesn’t need to be there and the fact that it is there can be seen as an attempt to influence the reader. That is either careless or deliberate writing, or lazy clichéd writing, or amateurish sub-editing. Here are the last three pars; my comments continue below.

Despite recording a six-point bounce in Labor’s primary vote, Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s personal satisfaction rating increased only two points to 38 per cent.

That compares with Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s personal satisfaction rating of 29 per cent.

More people are dissatisfied than satisfied with the performance of both leaders, with Ms Gillard recording a voter dissatisfaction rating of 49 per cent, while Tony Abbott is on 58 per cent.

The word that caught my attention was “only” in the first of the three pars above. “Only”, used in the context of the highly charged atmosphere of the relative popularity of the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, is a serious breach of professional ethics. It is a subtle attempt to influence the reader.

But it gets worse. Simon Cullen, the ABC’s Chief Political Correspondent, ought to know how the Newspoll works and what it measures. He has made the mistake of comparing the government’s popularity with the Prime Minister’s popularity. They are two distinctly different measurements. Mr Cullen seems to think if the government’s popularity is up by six points then the Prime Minister’s popularity should have risen by about the same amount. This is demonstrated by the use of “Despite” and “only”.

He does not emphasise the fact that the Prime Minister’s personal popularity has risen by another two points, continuing the upward trend that we began to see some months ago.

By separating the second par from the first, Mr Cullen (or the sub-editor) is separating the good news from the bad — avoiding a direct comparison of the two. Mr Cullen begrudgingly points out, by using “Despite” and “only”, that the PM’s rating is up two points, but he does not point out that the Opposition Leader remains stuck on his historically low rating of 29.

I could also take issue with the use of “while” in the third par. If I was subbing that par I’d rephrase it to avoid any accusation of bias, like this:

People remain dissatisfied with the performance of both leaders. Ms Gillard’s voter dissatisfaction is 49 per cent. Mr Abbott’s is 58 per cent.

How much of those dissatisfied ratings is due to policy debates we are not having and how much is due to sensationalist, sleazy and sloppy reporting, along with rampant bias, is something that keeps me awake at night.

Read Simon Cullen’s report here:

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-01-15/support-for-labor-surges-in-latest-newspoll/4464788