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Comment is free, but facts are sacred 

The media play a crucial role in a modern democracy in informing the people. To do this they must be free. The media agree that there is an ethical requirement that  fact and comment should be distinguishable, and that the news should be as truthful as is reasonably possible.

As the editor of the Manchester Guardian famously declared in 1921, " Comment is free, but facts are sacred."

But while the private media are entitled to editorialise, this is not a luxury which the taxpayer funded public media, the ABC and SBS, can properly have.

In the 1999 referendum, the media were mainly and strongly in favour of change.  What became clear was that this seriously affected the presentation of the news..

As the international authority, and in his earlier career a highly respected editor, Lord  Deedes, wrote in the London Daily Telegraph :

"I have rarely attended elections in any country, certainly not a democratic one, in which the newspapers have displayed more shameless bias. One and all, they determined that Australians should have a republic and they used every device towards that end."

Dr Nancy Stone undertook a survey for The Samuel Griffith Society of two outlets at the time, The Age and The Australian.  Her research confirms Lord Deedes’ conclusion.


"Our great misfortune, as we continue to consider the possibility of constitutional change,” observes Sir David Smith, an authority on the role and function of the Governor-General,” is that most Australians do not know enough about our present Constitution to be able to understand any proposals for change.

" To make matters worse, there are those who ought to know better yet would ignore or misrepresent its current provisions in order to advance their case for change.

“The media, who might have been expected to take a role in informing the electorate during the 1999 constitutional referendum campaign, behaved disgracefully, and no doubt would do so again in future. “Instead of reporting, the media were active partisans and conducted their own campaign for the republic.

“For example, when former Governor-General Sir Zelman Cowen and former Chief Justice Sir Anthony Mason signed an open letter for the republic, it was published on page 1 of The Australian.

“The open letter in reply, signed by, amongst others, former Governor-General Bill Hayden and former Chief Justice Sir Harry Gibbs, was published on page 10 of The Australian.

“Support for the present constitutional arrangements was equated with disloyalty to Australia, and there were some particularly nasty and offensive examples, such as The Daily Telegraph’s “Queen or Country” masthead; and The Australian’s “scales of justice” motif featuring a crown versus a slouch hat.

“Writing just after the referendum, Tony Abbott, himself a former journalist at The Australian, noted that ‘the reputation of the media can hardly be enhanced by so consistently misreading the public mood, so unrelentingly barracking for the losing side – and by subsequently insisting that voters got it wrong. ... But if the media’s job is to reflect (as well as to lead) a pluralist society, journalists as a class should be embarrassed at the way they have allowed ideological enthusiasm to get the better of professional detachment.’

"Even the editor of The West Australian, himself a direct electionist republican, had this to say about The Australian’s coverage of the referendum debate:

“’I think it’s one of the lowest ebbs in Australian journalism because The Australian’s become totally partisan. It’s boosterism at its worst and it’s propaganda that goes beyond the rights of a newspaper to have a point of view. It was semi-hysterical most days and as it became apparent that the yes case was in trouble, it got more hysterical.”


“Even one year after the referendum, the ABC could not restrain itself. In a television news item about separate functions held in Sydney by Australians for Constitutional Monarchy and the Australian Republican Movement in November 2000 to mark the first anniversary of the referendum, the voice-over commentary by the ABC news reader told viewers that the republic would continue to be an issue 'because most Australians still wanted independence.'

Sir David adds "What was that about ABC bias?”


So how will the media behave in any future plebiscite or referendum? Will they behave ethically?

Sir David Smith doubts that they will lift their performance. If they do not, they will serioulsy risk the one valuable possession they have - their credibility.

There is a concern among journalists as to the future of quality journalism, and that is justified. The closing of The Bulletin and the running down of current affairs progammes on the Nine network  reminded journlists that these had existed only because of the indulgence of the late Kerry Packer.

The Australian only exists because its creator, Rupert Murdoch is willing to subsidise it. The last thing journalist and editors should do is to jeopardise the standing of their outlets by indulging in shame faced bias in something as important as a proposal to change the bases of our constitutional system.

And journalists and editors must understand that the power of the mainline media has been diluted.

Well before the mainline media were already losing their monopoly with the advent of talk back radio, which they serioulsy underrated. And since the 1999 campaign, the internet provides a way in which a voice minimised and suppressed by the mainline media can go behin the media filters and reach a large and increasing audience. 

Another factor will be the model presented in any referendum. If it involves a general election of the president, the united front among most of the mainline media in 1999 will fracture.

The mainline media were unable to ensure a victory for the politicians' republic in 1999. But there can be no doubt that their long campaign for change had some effect, increasing to some extent  the "yes" vote.

Should they behave as badly as they did in 1999, they will only reinforce the lack of confidence people already show in survey after survey.


 

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