Election 2013 media panel

Fallacy of ‘the view from nowhere’ in the election campaign

Paul Barry this week asked on his Media Watch program: “who could forget the way the Tele kicked off the election campaign?”

The Daily Telegraph’s front-page Kick The Mob Out editorial drew positive reader comment but also triggered a firestorm of complaints, including 77 to the Press Council.

As Barry put it, the council “instantly rejected” the complaints “because it was marked editorial and newspapers have every right to express an opinion”.

The extreme positions some newspapers have taken in the current federal election campaign have dominated media commentary although the gravamen of the complaints is not entirely clear.

Press Council chairman Professor Disney correctly said the council’s obligation was to complaints about “things that breach its principles” rather than with “things that may be desirable or undesirable for other reasons”.

The council is not an arbiter on matters of taste. The council’s General Statement of Principles, to be sure, exhorts the press to ensure that reports are accurate, fair and balanced (Principle 1).

The “Kick This Mob Out” item, however, was an editorial albeit a page one editorial. It was clearly labelled so, and not a “report” to which Principle 1 would apply. In fact, Principle 6 clearly provides that publications are:

…free to advocate their own views and publish the by-lined opinions of others, as long as readers can recognise what is fact and what is opinion.

A noted English legal dictum on comments of an extreme nature allows for the free expression of strong views on matters of public interest – even views that may be “exaggerated, obstinate, or prejudiced” provided the views are honestly held (Silkin v Beaverbrook Newspapers, 1958, Lord Diplock).

In Australia, Justice Michael Kirby famously commented that from its earliest history Australian politics has regularly included “insult and emotion, calumny and invective, in its armoury of persuasion. They are part and parcel of the struggle of ideas” (Coleman v Power, 2004).

The politicians who now grizzle about strident and partisan media coverage belong to the very institution with its own entrenched traditions on robust speech.

Justice Kirby remarked in the Coleman case:

Anyone in doubt should listen for an hour or two to the broadcasts that bring debates of the Federal Parliament to the living rooms of the nation.

While the notion that the media’s “job is to present the facts objectively” has a seductive appeal, the ideals of objectivity, neutrality and impartiality are elusive. Philosophers employ the term “view from nowhere” to describe a complex, widespread conflict in media ethics, specifically between being objective and informative.

In journalism, as Professor Jay Rosen puts it, this is a bid for trust by advertising the viewlessness of the news producer; to serve as a defence against charges of bias originating in partisan politics; and, an attempt to secure a kind of universal legitimacy that is implicitly denied to those who betray a point of view.

While those on the receiving end of some media’s blatant lack of viewlessness claim victimhood, former ACT chief minister Kate Carnell, speaking last week on The Drum (ABC), proffered this thought:

I think its interesting that the Murdoch press declared as dramatically as they did who they thought should win the election in the first week of the campaign. But you know I think it’s actually good, I think it’s really transparent, you know exactly where they are coming from. And, normally what the media does is, it spins stories and only tells you how you should vote on the last day of the campaign – they didn’t tell you where they were coming from for the first four weeks – I think this [early disclosure] is a good approach.

On this occasion this approach is inconvenient to some. On a different occasion this approach suited them nicely.