At Sydney Town Hall, 2014, protesting funding cuts to the ABC
Editor’s note: The old saying, “Death by a Thousand Cuts,” might soon apply to the mainstream media. This is Gumshoe News’ 1,000th article.
by Mary W Maxwell
I’ll make three arguments here. The first is that there should be no restrictions on commercial media, and no special privileges for them either.
Second, I argue that there is no role for “media ethics.” That’s a game – prevalent in the professions – whereby a group gets excused from legislated restrictions by saying it will guard its own henhouse thank you. Don’t fall for it.
Third, I want there to be very good practice at the ABC — Australian Broadcasting Corporation – as it is publically funded and has a specific mandate.
Let the Free Press be Free
I recently saw a website writer gasp over the fact that some TV networks had collaborated with Hillary Clinton. Historically, the press in America came about to support one candidate over another. There is no requirement for them to be neutral! It’s like leafleting. You can hand out leaflets supporting a cause, with no need to give the other side a voice.
This freedom of the press was hard won and has been solidly established in law. Let a TV network do what it wants. Vote with your feet if you don’t like it.
Oh, you say they are too powerful? That is a different story. Accumulations of power should of course be counteracted by law. But that is outside the scope of this article.
The fact that commercial media get privileges is based on an assumption that they are performing a special service for society. But they are not doing so. They have their own motives for what they do, and helping society is not a biggie.
I noticed at the Lindt Café Inquest that media could get a hold of documents that I could not get a hold of. It’s natural for citizens to think the media should have special access to material so they can communicate it to the public. But I can say from my experience at this Inquest that the media did not communicate to their readers what was actually transpiring in that courtroom. So rescind their privileges.
I have also found, since becoming a sleuth, that any practice of sleuthing that the media once indulged in has now disappeared. Investigative journalism seems to be done almost solely by the “alternative” media (GumshoeNews being an example.) I do wish we sleuthies had some socially-agreed-upon right to ask questions of those who are making the news.
I keep hearing that the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston was the scene of the killing of Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. How would I find out? That hospital is not governmental and thus not subject to a Freedom of Information Act.
I could write to the administrator but do you think she’d reply “Yes, Tamerlan came here in a bruised condition.” She would not answer at all, or perhaps send me the bedbug letter (“Sorry, Privacy police prevents our discussing any patient.”). Very likely she would simply lie.
In my day the hospital spokesperson would have been pleased to reveal all. Silence is a big clue to skullduggery.
Ethics? Oh Puh-leeze
If you were to look up the rules governing journalists at the major newspapers you might think you were reading Sanskrit. They list things we know a newspaper never does. It would be much better to do without “codes of ethics.” Those codes exist IN ORDER to confuse people. Since there is no mechanism of enforcement, it is a bad joke to expect media to act ethically. Better we should say what they really do; this would guide us on how to punish them.
Impartiality Does Not Belong
I said above that a news network did a sneaky thing by helping Mrs Clinton at the debates.
Good. Let them. We can catch them at it. (In this case the candidate’s chicanery was exposed.)
Years ago, a new broadsheet, USA Today, pretended to hold debates in its editorial section. It let “A” proclaim the value of sugar for children (for example) and “B” hold forth against it. This was a bad move. It gave an impression of honesty that was not there. USA Today was able to choose the topic and appoint two spokespersons. They set the agenda and they controlled the content.
Note: when you buy a newspaper you are buying a piece of merchandise. The market rule applies: Caveat emptor — buyer beware.
Lying Is Normal
Perhaps we don’t realize how a whole society used to rely on there being a general prohibition on lying. It was embarrassing to be caught telling even a small “fib.” Now it is a point of pride!
How can we counteract this? As I said, we should stop imagining that there is some kind of restraint involved.
Think of the Walkley Foundation. In its own words:
“The Walkley Foundation is at the very heart of the Australian media. A champion of innovation and a respected thought leader (!), the Walkley Foundation generates vital discussion on the future of our rapidly changing industry and encourages journalism that enriches our communities.”
Hello? Does it really?
It rewards staff of press and electronic media who stay well within the guidelines of NOT investigating and NOT telling it like it is. (With the exception, as Dee McLachlan has said, of “ankle-biting.”)
Consider the following code of ethics. It says:
“Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. [Good God!] Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough. An ethical journalist acts with integrity.”
So “an ethical journalist acts with integrity” — a circular definition. The person who happens to act with integrity will be seen as “an ethical journalist.”
And what of the sentence “Ethical journalism strives to ensure [this or that].” How can the subject of the sentence be an amorphous entity like “journalism”? No entity anywhere – other than human beings – can do any striving of any kind. I can strive, you can strive, but journalism cannot strive.
Again, it is a trick. We are led to believe some standard exists and so expect its enforcement. Wrong-o. Listen to what the Society of Professional Journalists say they believe in, and then think if you know of any real cases of it today. They say:
“Never deliberately distort facts or context, including visual information.”
They might as well say “Don’t use photoshop.” But photoshop is widely used, and what comeback do you have against such use of it harms you?
Does it sound like I am encouraging ruthlessness? No. I am encouraging awareness of ruthlessness.
Someone wrote, in a Comment at GumshoeNews, that schools of journalism in Australia have six semesters, two per year for three years. Of the six, the first five teach honesty and the sixth – by which point the student is settled on his career – teaches “Nah, kidding, you gotta lie.”
Vote with your feet against those institutions of higher learning, Folks. Give ’em hell.
The ABC, As in “It’s Your ABC”
The ABC is unique in Australia. It is a “nationalized” media organization that exists for the purpose of raising people’s awareness of what is going on. It does not have to focus on any bottom line. It is not owned by a segment of the population that makes a profit or seeks to control people. It’s owned by me and thee.
It must live up to its mission, its legislated mandate. If it is found to be telling untruths or hiding information, it must be forced to stop doing that.
Of course that entails punishing any broadcasters secretly working for someone other than the Australian citizenry. By using the facilities of the ABC for private ends they are engaging in theft, are they not?
Note: I am not saying that the Australian Broadcasting Corporation itself is thieving (though it may be, and its officers would be liable under law). I am saying individuals who are using ABC’s airwaves to act for a concealed party are thieving. File a criminal complaint!
The BBC and Vaccination
Lionel Dole wrote a book in 1956 called The Blood Poisoners, which I quote in my book Consider the Lilies. Dole makes no bones about the culpability of the BBC (as a corporate body) for defrauding people and also harming them medically by purveying wrong information about vaccines:
“The radio advertising of commercial vaccines, especially with public money, is the greatest enemy we have to fight. This dishonest propaganda is incessant, and it is impossible to be forewarned against it. We are always defenceless if we cannot hit back, and one cannot measure its total effect. The radio has often been proved to be a dangerous fomenter of panic.
“When the pretty legends about Jenner and Pasteur have to be pumped into immature minds, announcers must be found who really believe these stories. The really expert technique is to tell nothing but the truth, but to omit part of it. A perfect example of this occurred in a BBC TV extravaganza, ‘Matters of Medicine,’ which was designed to boost the terrors of poliomyelitis. ….
“Is there any reason why the BBC should not be charged with fraud if they encourage the use of commercial vaccines by misrepresenting the facts of history? The Postmaster General would, in such an event, be perfectly justified in withdrawing its licence for causing a public mischief — even, in fact, for committing multiple murder.”
Gumshoe has recently spilled a lot of blood, oops I mean ink, on the matter of a certain popular radio show host on ABC in Melbourne, Jon Faine. His pay is said to be $300,000 per year. Recently, Dee McLachlan phoned in to talk about the third building that collapsed on 9-11 at the World Trade Center, and which mainstream media refuses to mention.
It was expected that Faine would not allow such talk on “his” (excuse me, “his”?) radio show. He had already done a job on the president of the Trades Hall, Kevin Bracken, over the same subject. Predictably, he chopped McLachlan off the air. (I heard it mese’f.) Dee wrote, in a comment, “Who controls the button controls the debate.” Indeed.
I would not disapprove of Jon Faine selling his wares at a commercial station. The rule there is “Caveat emptor” – watch what you are buying. But there is no place for any radio host on ABC to pontificate, or to block members of the public from having a say.
Recently at GumshoeNews, James O’Neill, an international lawyer, balked at both the mainstream media’s and the ABC’s failure to tell the truth about the bombing of Syria.
As I have said in this series (called “Are Media Lies Criminal?”), if media commit crimes they should be charged. Possibly the crime of treason is relevant here. If, by spreading false information, media cause Australian lives to be lost in a war that the people would not participate in but for that false information, I think that meets the threshold of treason.
The point of O’Neill’s thesis was, though, that we are wrongfully harming another nation – Syria. Treason cannot be invoked for that. But you are welcome to insist that ABC not do what it is doing, misleading the population of Australia about Australia’s foreign policy.
I have argued that commercial media (aka “the corporate media’) should not spout any code of ethics. As for ABC, it does not need a code of ethics, as the requirement that staff of the ABC act honestly goes without saying. It is ABC’s job to present information honestly to the public and to accept challenges from persons who disagree.
What other task could it possibly have?
— Mary W Maxwell is co-author with Dee McLachlan of “Truth in Journalism,” a 2015 book freely downloadable at GumshoeNews.com
Photo - Anne Barker