Dr Karl didn’t breach ethics, but now he should spruik the science

Dr Karl shouldn’t be afraid of getting political - as long as he’s doing it for science, not politicians. AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

The headline “Media personality used by government for advertising” is hardly riveting. Yet Dr Karl Kruszelnicki’s travails over his adverts for the federal government’s Intergenerational Report seem to have turned him into the Cate Blanchett of science.

Remember when Blanchett made a partisan advertisement in 2011, calling for a tax on carbon? The then opposition leader Tony Abbott retorted that “people who are worth $53m have a right to be heard but their voice should not be heard ahead of the voice of the ordinary working people of this country”.

The difference between Blanchett and Dr Karl (aside from the obvious) is that Blanchett advocated a policy on behalf of the environmental groups who funded the carbon tax campaign, whereas Dr Karl has been rather blandly advocating for people to “join the conversation” and “make up their own minds” after reading the Intergenerational Report.

The other crucial aspect is money. While Blanchett reportedly gave her endorsement for free, Dr Karl was to be paid for his appearance, although we don’t know how much. He told Fairfax Media that he took the job partly because his employment with the ABC and University of Sydney paid him “bugger all”, although he subsequently pledged to donate the fee to public schools.

Neither Blanchett nor Dr Karl is beyond reproach. Speaking from a cashed-up celebrity position is suspect, but so is speaking from the position of an empty bank account. It’s not always wise to be politically vocal, but it’s also not good to be bland and merely advocate that others make up their own minds.

It’s a Catch-22 that is only worsened by the fact that critics on social media will gleefully find fault with either strategy.

But wait. It’s not just that Dr Karl did the adverts. There’s also the fact that when the full report was released, he decided he didn’t like the scope of the report he was spruiking, and turned his ire on the government.

Dr Karl (and others) saw a glaring lack of discussion of climate change in the report. It would seem he arrived at this realisation a little late in the game, but at least it’s honest.

Up to this point it’s all really rather unremarkable – a bit of political argy-bargy with an ABC journo caught in a tight place. That is, until one considers what Treasurer Joe Hockey, who released the report, had to say last month, before the issue blew up.

When asked what inspired the ad campaign, Hockey had said: “Dr Karl is a wonderful communicator. He can reach out to audiences that we’re not very good at being able to make contact with.”

This is a revealing comment about what exactly was in it for the government. By hiring Dr Karl, it is buying a specific audience. And this is where things start to get a bit uncomfortable.

The idea that journalists sell audiences is problematic, even though the mantra that media organisations sell audiences to advertisers has been popular since the 1980s. The journalists themselves generally stay far removed from that transaction, leaving it to the media company’s executives so as to preserve their editorial independence. The implication here is that, by taking Hockey’s coin, Karl wasn’t just selling out his audience, but selling the government potential voters.

Ethical Guidelines for Journalists

At this point, let’s have a quick look at the accepted ethical standards for journalists, as set out in the Media, Arts and Entertainment Alliance (MEAA) code of ethics. The relevant sections say:

4) Do not allow personal interest, or any belief, commitment, payment, gift or benefit, to undermine your accuracy, fairness or independence.

and

5) Disclose conflicts of interest that affect, or could be seen to affect, the accuracy, fairness or independence of your journalism. Do not improperly use a journalistic position for personal gain.

Did Dr Karl violate these principles? Because he was asking for an audience on behalf of the government, and not advocating a policy, it’s not really about accuracy or fairness, though there might be an issue about independence.

But then again, it was Karl’s insistence on remaining independent (by speaking out about what he found not to be in the Intergenerational Report) that raised eyebrows, rather than any lack of independence.

The payment or personal gain (which he was very open about) might be seen to transgress the standards. But Dr Karl also writes books as a private author (not as an ABC journalist), so should he be censured for those personal gains too? That would seem harsh.

Finally, there’s this guideline, which Dr Karl surely followed to the letter:

12) Do your utmost to achieve fair correction of errors.

In an ABC news interview, Dr Karl spent well over 6 minutes explaining how he regretted doing the advertisements, including saying: “I made a mistake … how could you talk about the next 40 years without talking about climate change?”.

Dr Karl’s ABC mea culpa.

But as much as this episode may have been a simple case of Dr Karl trying to earn a few extra dollars for drawing our attention to a government report that turned out to be not what he thought, there is one final aspect of this saga that is worth looking at.

Dr Karl is one of Australia’s public faces of science. Joe Hockey certainly wanted the audience that he knew Dr Karl could draw. And, by association, he got Dr Karl’s implicit imprimatur on the report – until Dr Karl no longer wanted to give it. Karl said that as soon as he saw the “political” nature of the document, and its lack of credible detail about how Australia should address the climate threat over the next 40 years, he felt he had to say something.

And there’s the rub. How could this report not be “political”? At least one of its main purposes is to drive policy-making into the future. The knee-jerk response to the document’s perceived scientific shortcomings is to seek to defend “pristine” science from the political process. I suspect that this view was at least partly what prompted Dr Karl’s second thoughts. But this is misguided.

Science, and by this I mean the institutions of science as well as the questions that the scientific process tries to answer, has always been political. Indeed, many in Australia were recently very worried that science was being left out of the political process altogether.

On this reading, Dr Karl didn’t get involved enough. He’s mentioned that there is a some good information in the report, even some surprises. Could he help us out with the provenance of this “good information”, coming as it does against a backdrop of cuts to publicly funded science?

Until our science pundits have the status and courage to go that extra step, I suspect tempests in teacups (or hate on social media) will swirl around journalists (and celebrities) who spruik for the government. And that’s too bad. Because the sideshow distracts us from asking the hard questions about this report.

I suppose the only thing left to do now is actually read the report, which of course is what Dr Karl asked us all to do in the first place.

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