Chasing the Truth – for whom and to where?

As I reflected on “Chasing the Truth” by Margaret Simons in the Sunday Age 13/11 (read the article here), deep down I thought “praise God” that Australia’s still a place where, even in mainstream media, journalists can exercise their independence to investigate and write in the interests of the citizens, rather than the powerful.

To put Australia’s journalistic climate into perspective, this report (Targeting Journalists in Honduras) gives a stark comparison.

“Since March 1, seven journalists have been murdered in execution style. Many fear their deaths may signal a new, more violent chapter in the Honduran political crisis, which began after last summer’s military coup and has since caused the U.S. a raft of diplomatic headaches in Latin America. “We can’t reach sure conclusions yet about these cases,” says Honduran newspaper columnist Alfredo Haces. “But a lot of journalists here are living in terror.””

Press freedom is not an academic argument. It’s about power! It goes to the heart of democracy and our freedom.

My personal opinion is that Australian citizens must call upon journalists to act on their behalf, and truthfully inform and empower them. In all sorts of ways, Australians must be encouraged to do this. Essentially, journalists must inform and empower the people about any systemic injustice being set up by forces of politics, the law, and money. Considerable research shows that powerful forces, including media, do collaborate against the long-term interests of citizens.

This places journalists and editors in a very difficult place, even in Australia.

So, where does journalism in relation to Australian democracy go from here?

Using Margaret Simons’ framework, I’d like to explore some of the issues, a little more. I hope what I’m saying will challenge others to investigate the big emerging issues for the media.

As an observer I think major issues are:
1. Strategic links among media, business and political power in relation to:
a. Business models that drive ‘infotainment’ rather than expository journalism
b. Personality-driven politics that ultimately invests itself in the “Politics of Scandal” and character assassination
2. Independent Code of conduct of journalists
3. Independence of the Australian Press Council (APC) from media organisations and government
a. Sole authority in Australia for accrediting journalists
b. Access for accredited journalists through the APC to same government information given to political parties
c. Partial funding from the Electoral Commission to match money paid to political parties
d. Technological capability to track globalised networks affecting Australian society, particularly any detriment to informing and empowering Australian citizens.

Margaret Simons says, “The main way to control powerful people is public opinion and good journalism is our best chance that public opinion will be informed.” Correctly, this statement highlights the vital role journalists play in our democracy.

However, I perceive two obstacles in the way of good journalism.

The first involves the level of control that elite political networks have over the political agenda, their desire to have their agenda communicated, and their influence within the media. If my perception is correct, not only will the agenda favour the powerful, so too will the outcomes. The second obstacle lies in the manner the media gains its knowledge of ‘public opinion’. There is a model called ’cascading network activation’ based on the research of one Robert Entman, which studies relationships between power, news framing and public opinion. This model suggests that even ‘public opinion’ can be manipulated by powerful political elites.

Sadly for the poorest and most vulnerable citizens, they won’t fully benefit if the main goal is political power, rather than service to Australian citizens.

Another risk to good journalism is the growth of personality-driven politics, which arises because abstract political messages do not hold great meaning in the minds of citizens.

Research apparently shows that citizens only pay close attention to messages about significant topics that affect their day-to-day lives and experiences. It obviously disempowers the elites if nobody wants to listen to their agendas. However, it seems that citizens will listen to another person, if they trust them. Even if that person is a politician! Therefore, ‘the politician’ must become the message. This also causes those trusted people to become targets for political assassination by those in opposition. This is a deadly game, which may be a crisis for democracy around the world.

My observations are that the elite corps of political journalists, and aspirants, are often trained for and seduced into this game. To effectively expose the destructive character of the players behind this strategy would destroy careers. Yet, by choosing to be players in this political game, aren’t journalists failing to be prophetic voices acting on behalf of Australian citizens, and the common good of Australian society?

If research was to prove my observations, would we have reached the stage that independent accreditation of journalists is the only acceptable course of action that citizens should expect?

This probably leads on to the thought about the need for an independent code of conduct for accredited journalists. The Australian Media Engagement Project Inc (AMEP), while always trying to encourage journalists in their vocation; also tries to evaluate their work against the MEA code of conduct. While not perfect, this seems to be a good, common sense document. When testing content against this code, it raises good questions: questions that journalists should frequently be asking themselves.

But, I’ve seen a list of 20-30 codes of conduct under which journalists and other media workers in various media organisations work. Considering how important it is for our democracy, the Australian people should be demanding (a) one accepted code of conduct, and (b) independent accreditation of journalists.

Finally, is it time to reform the Australian Press Council (APC)? Are unhealthy linkages between media politics and money, now making APC’s present structure untenable? If the democratic freedoms of Australian citizens are to be protected!

How could APC be restructured so that its governance and funding are outside the influence of media organisations and political elites, or their lobbyists? Legal frameworks, justly representing the interests of citizens, would be important. Systems of licence fees for media organisations to operate in Australia may work. Membership fees from accredited journalists would probably work. Sharing revenue currently used by the Electoral Office to fund elected political candidates, and therefore their parties, could be the main funding stream. There are probably other potential revenue streams.

Care in drafting a restructure should note few key objectives. One is that the main stakeholder of the reformed Council must be the Australian citizens. Second, all “Journalists” should be accredited by APC, and held accountable under APC’s code of conduct. Others would revolve around the APC’s capability to resource good journalism.

In reflecting on the above thoughts I was interested in Margaret Simon’s comment, “(Julian) Disney himself will either crash through or crash with this (media) enquiry – publishers are unhappy that Disney has helped place them in a situation where the council may grow teeth.

It made me wonder who is in the network of Julian Disney’s key supporters. Are they principally ‘political’ players? Heaven forbid! Or, are they servants of the citizens?

Margaret Simons, and the Sunday Age, should be applauded for her contribution. If readers are interested in furthering this conversation through AMEP, you could use www.amep.org.au.

Bob Simpson
Director
The Australian Media Engagement Project Inc (AMEP)

About Bob Simpson

Bob is project manager of The Australian Media Engagement Project (AMEP). He believes that ethical and independent journalists are vital to the continuing freedom of Australian citizens. You could argue that In recent decades media organisations have subtly subverted journalism to their own private commercial interests, and away from an integrated sense of fairness, well being and shared prosperity in Australian society, especially for the disempowered. AMEP aims to change general media narratives towards greater fairness, well being and shared prosperity in Australia.

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