Fair and balanced?

One of the most rewarding – and most deeply frustrating things about being a news junkie is that you get to see a lot more than the few soundbites that make the evening bulletins. Rewarding, because you get to hear what politicians say in context, and in full, when you watch the media conferences. Frustrating, because you also become rapidly aware that the treatment given to politicians is astonishingly uneven.

Greens leader Senator Bob Brown, Prime Minister Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott all gave media conferences this morning, and the contrast between how the media treated Senator Brown, and how it treated the two leaders, could not have been more marked.

In Brown’s conference, the questions and answers flowed pretty easily at first. For example:

What did Brown think of Malcolm Turnbull’s apparent disloyalty to Coalition climate change policy in his appearance on Lateline last night? Brown: ‘He’s been loyal to Australia and to the common sense that says we must tackle climate change … he’s exhibiting a wider loyalty’.

How about the UK government’s announcement of a 50% carbon reduction target, should Australia do the same thing?
Brown: ‘Australia has to take that into account … (but) the UK is not Australia’. Then came the first criticism from Brown: The maturity of the debate in Australia is very much under question … the Murdoch media has a great deal of responsibility to take for debasing that maturity’.

Asked about what sort of measures should be in place to ensure the carbon price scheme is ‘shyster-proof’, Brown responded simply, ‘Good ones’. He then addressed the journalist directly, pointing out that his position on a particular issue was misrepresented by that journalist in an article, and commenting, ‘Back to the question, we’ve got to look at shysterism and fabrication all over the place and do what we can’. (my italics)

That was the turning point. From then, the questioning became increasingly aggressive. Now, there’s nothing wrong with aggressive questioning in itself. It’s one of the ways the media can force a politician to answer. That’s not what happened here. Several times journalists attempted to interrupt Brown in his answers, and one journalist repeatedly interrupted Brown, describing his answers as ‘political gobbledygook’. She didn’t preface this with the phrase, ‘With respect, Senator …’, which usually accompanies a criticism.

Then Hugh Riminton dropped the bomb. He referred to Brown’s recent description of News Limited papers as ‘hate’ media’, and asked if this was a change in tactics for the Greens leader: ‘Are you on the front foot?’

Brown replied: ‘Yes, I’m being very much on the front foot here because I think the media – with some very, very good exceptions – can at times lose track of the fact that it’s part of the process of moving Australia into a much more secure future … some heat needs to be put onto those sections of the media which are trying to drag this process down’.

A journalist off-camera asked if Brown meant The Australian, and challenged him to name a paragraph, repeatedly interrupting Brown’s answer in an angry voice. Brown commented, ‘You compare and contrast and take on politicians and other sections of the media, but you don’t like it when we take you on … don’t be so tetchy’.

That statement apparently angered a 2UE journalist, who started haranguing Brown: ‘You just come out here every day and just bag out the Murdoch press …. why are you so obsessed with it … you bag out the Murdoch press, anyone you don’t like’. This went on for several more minutes, with the journalist not so much asking questions as taking Brown to task. It was difficult to follow Brown’s responses, due to the interruptions. Off-camera, several others called out, ‘Why won’t you answer the questions.’

It was a more aggressive and lively media conference than I’ve seen in a long time. Certainly, the media had no fear of Brown’s position as a party leader and influential Senator – in fact, their treatment of him bordered on completely disrespectful.

Gillard received very different handling. Questions were asked in an orderly manner, and in neutral tones. She was asked about Brown’s comments on the Murdoch media, the carbon price, and the UK government. Unless the question allowed her to score against the Opposition, she dodged it and served up a good helping of government talking points instead.

She was never pushed to answer the question, never interrupted and never subjected to insults or raised voices. Even when she brought up a recent example of The Australian misrepresenting the position of Westpac CEO Gail Kelly, she was not attacked.

Abbott, visiting a Sanitarium manufacturing plant on the Central Coast, was even more blatant in his refusal to directly answer questions. While challenged twice on Malcolm Turnbull’s comments, the questions were respectful in tone and did not interrupt. Abbott responded by restating coalition climate change policy, attacking the government (‘Our way is the smart way … theirs is the dumb way’) and bluntly informing the journalist that he was ‘completely misunderstanding Malcolm’s approach’.

Again, no attack followed this comment, and Abbott cut off that line of questioning. No one protested.

The rest of Abbott’s conference consisted of journalists asking questions, Abbott regurgitating talking points and criticism of the government, and never being challenged for it. Asked if Sanitarium had said they would suffer terribly under the ‘carbon tax’, Abbott replied that everyone would suffer. Asked if he thought Brown’s comments about the Murdoch media were fair, Abbott responded that Brown should tell the public about his dealings with Treasury on carbon pricing.

Not one of these evasions was challenged. Abbott controlled the media from start to finish.

This is not balanced coverage. This is not equal treatment. Each of these three leaders is enormously influential. What they say and how they say it informs the public in a way that no amount of sound bites can do. The media, as the sector that has the responsibility of bringing that information to us, should at the very least ensure that they subject them all to the same rigorous questioning. Why was Abbott allowed to turn the entire Q&A session into another platform for his message, while ignoring what was actually asked? Why was Gillard permitted to dodge a question on just how high she was prepared to consider setting her carbon price? And why was Brown the only one repeatedly challenged when his answers didn’t satisfy?

For that matter, why was Brown treated with far less respect than Abbott? Perhaps because – despite the Greens’ central role in policy and legislation under the minority government – he’s still portrayed as a Johnny-come-lately, an ‘extreme’ leader of a ‘fringe’ party. Or perhaps because he challenged some of the media for doing exactly what they are doing – giving the government and the Opposition a pass on actually providing any information, while focusing on trivial issues, misrepresenting people’s positions and generally engaging in blatant bias.

Exhibit A, the report that hit The Herald-Sun online front page at 12.30pm today.

The report was nominally about Brown’s press conference. The headline? ‘Greens Leader has no plans to return’.

That should read ‘retire’, and speaks to how quickly the article was produced (and just how valuable sub-editors are, but that’s another story).

Sky’s headline, ‘Browned-off leader takes on media’, was a little better, but the story was the same.

Instead of talking about carbon pricing, asylum seekers or anything else that was actually asked of Brown (including the announcement he had made at the beginning of the media conference regarding a current enquiry before the Senate), the article opened with the news that Brown did not plan to retire any time soon. It mentioned that Brown had referred to Rupert Murdoch, who had just celebrated his 80th birthday with no plans for retirement.

Rupert Murdoch is, of course, the owner of News Limited, which controls The Herald-Sun and Sky.

The only other mention of the media conference conflated Brown’s response to the question about shysters with his response to the question directly about News Limited. Their selective reporting characterised Brown as taking a cheap shot at one reporter, to which all the assembled media rightly took offence – and that when they did so, Brown abruptly ended the conference.

Compare and contrast with the actual events, an audio transcript of which is available on the Greens website.

These are major news organisations. The Herald-Sun’s circulation alone is over half a million readers. They have a responsibility to report the news fairly and accurately, and to clearly label anything that is opinion. Their own code of ethics emphasises this:

1. Report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts. Do not suppress relevant available facts, or give distorting emphasis. Do your utmost to give a fair opportunity for reply.

And sadly, this is precisely what we don’t get.

Today is just a snapshot. The mainstream media gets away with this every day. And Murdoch media, at least, doesn’t take kindly to being criticised.

But this is precisely why they should be criticised. They should be held accountable to their own code of ethics, and be made to remember their obligations to the public.

Until they are, the only alternative is to find out for yourself what was really said, by whom, and in what context. Footage or transcripts of media conferences can usually be found with little difficulty.

It can be … enlightening.


18 Responses to Fair and balanced?

  1. […] Conscience Vote’s analysis of the media’s differential treatment of the three political leaders, and their savage reaction to the criticism, as described here by Ben Eltham, tends to prove […]

  2. Eugene says:

    You make some valid points, but the ‘evidence’ you have used to back up your argument needs some clarification.
    Your ‘exhibit A’ is actually an article produced by Australian Associated Press (AAP), the national news agency. It appeared on many websites soon after the Brown press conference, as a large amount of AAP copy does. Sky also takes AAP copy and it is the basis of much of their live reads.
    The story was not produced by anyone at the Herald Sun. They receive the story, change it to house style and publish it.
    So to use that story as basis for an argument against News Ltd is wrong. For the record, AAP is part-owned by News and Fairfax.
    Also, claiming the story shows how valuable sub-editors are is also misguided. If anything, it shows how sub-editing at newspapers is being phased out.
    The article simply illustrates how a news agency like AAP works. Quickly, but not comprehensively.

  3. Thanks for your blog. I think the best way to combat this horrendous bias and lack of care re balance is through exactly what you’re doing: smart, independent bloggers who go out of their way to dig deeper into the politics of the day and point out where grievous misrepresentation occurs.

    I, too, am often in awe of how little regard papers like The Herald Sun have for balanced reporting. When I was in school, we were taught about media and bias, and that it was the journalist’s job to try and remove opinion from every story and supply only the facts from both sides of an issue. I look at reporting now and I seriously wonder if my teacher was living in a fantasy world, or if she was speaking of a bygone era.

    Why has the standard changed so dramatically that I genuinely think modern journos

    • Gah! Stupid phone. I hit publish by mistake. Ok…

      modern journos aren’t even taught about bias and opinion.

      I like to hope that if enough of us point out and crusade against this terrible trend of bias and show them how it should be done, we can show them their error, or at best, transfer the national attention away from dud reporting, to balanced reporting online. At least this could stimulate discussion about why online blogs are doing it better and cleaner than paid professionals.

      You’re the future, Conscience Vote. Keep at it.

      You might like my own take on the Herald’s bias after the budget:

      • Absolutely! I think it’s imperative that news bloggers and media-watchers speak up about bias and unethical behaviour – and to be an example ourselves.

        Opinion is one thing, and there’s no doubting that we’re all influenced by what we believe. The least we can do, though, is strive to avoid blind prejudice and acknowledge our own feelings publicly.

  4. Jess says:

    I feel for Brown. I don’t always agree with him, but the way the media treats him is shocking.

    Gillard’s copped her share of unfairness, too: funnily enough, it seems since she got in and became conservative, the heat’s died down for her a bit. I can only imagine what she’d be subjected to if she had policies which were in favour of human rights and the environment.

    I miss Kerry O’Brien so much. He was polite, he kept things relevant, and he didn’t allow his interviewees to dodge questions easily.

    Then again, it’s the Murdoch machine: are any of us expecting much better of these guys? I avoid the media nowadays: unless I’m wanting to keep an eye on what the right-wing big knobs want us to be thinking, I stick to independent stuff and the internet.

    • Gillard and the government in general have lately received far less respect from interviewers. While I don’t hold with utter rudeness, I have no problem with the idea of an interviewer pinning someone to the wall and not letting go until they answer the question.

      Certainly, if you contrast the treatment given to Gillard and that to Abbott, you see clear bias – but it’s even worse when it comes to how the Greens are treated.

  5. […] Murderdoch’s minions bully Brown. Fair and balanced? Australia, BDS, Human Rights, Israel, Palestine, Politics, Zionism   apartheid, BDS, gaza, Human Rights, imperialism, international law, Israel, Palestine, peace, Politics, Zionism      BDS in Australia is Unstoppable! » […]

  6. Tim says:

    Good piece, but I think you over-rate the respect Gillard gets. Remember her interviews with Alan Jones and Neil Mitchell? At least as disrespectful and aggressive as what Brown got today. And what about Terry McCrann today likening the carbon price to a case of herpes?


    Would a male pollie ever get that sort of comparison?

    Still, the Brown interview today was amazing…

    • Oh no doubt, Gillard has been treated with an incredible lack of respect by the media, but this tends to be during interviews with avowed media opponents (Jones and Mitchell, as you point out above, are two of the worst).

      It’s one thing to push a politician to answer a question. It’s another to refuse them the common courtesy due any human being.

      The contrast is marked between her and Brown, however. Gillard is treated comparatively neutrally, while Brown is actually insulted and harangued.

      That’s not reporting or interviewing, it’s grandstanding. And I think much of it stems from a sense of inflation on the interviewers’ part – that they are in some way doing the politicians a favour, rather than the other way around. Nothing obliges a politician to take questions from hostile media – look at John Howard’s refusal to appear on any number of programs because of what he perceived as ‘left-wing bias’.

  7. michelle says:

    Very large companies pay very large amounts of money to newspapers. They are also under attack from the Internet where small operators need less money to provide opinion and where the space for high paying ads is much smaller. Fair and balanced was never more than a ‘nice-to-have’ on the mission statement. Nowadays its more like ‘fairly hysterical’.

    Sadly, the only way around it is for Brown to learn to manage the media like Gillard has had to. Abbott will always get a free pass because he represents the big advertisers, though even he appears to be learning to manage them better

    • It’s by no means confined to newspapers. The most aggressive person in the Brown conference was a radio journalist, and TV journalists are participating in this unbalanced coverage far more than the rest of the mass media.

      Balanced reporting is an ideal of journalism – sure, it’s very difficult to achieve, but recently, it doesn’t even seem that many journalists even try.

  8. Well said Marian. Excellent work.

    • Thanks … the spin is already in, mind you.

      One News Limited program this afternoon tore Brown apart, and leaped to the defence of two other Murdoch outlets. It would have been less pathetic if they hadn’t tried to convince viewers that it was some kind of ‘objective truth’.

  9. morte says:

    Thanks, Marian. I knew each of the newspapers was biased in their own way, but I hadn’t quite realised just how biased the media is in general.

    While I don’t support the Greens, I do think their leader should receive fair treatment by the media.

    Thanks for bringing this to my attention. Much to think about.

    • JTJANAI says:

      Thanks so much for taking the time to write this. I too saw all 3 press conferences. Was stunned by the defensive and attacking behaviour of the reporters towards Bob Brown. They were like kindy kids in a sand pit – and I wouldn’t have accepted that behaviour from my CHILDREN when they WERE in kindy. I kept thinking “Hang on – aren’t these people supposed to be JOURNALISTS?” I have 2 other thoughts to add as to why they think it’s ok for them to behave like that. One – Bob Brown’s easy-going ‘I won’t eat you’ attitude. Think they’d be afraid to do that to Abbott or Gillard because they both just MIGHT (or that’s what reporters think). Two – T Abbott and his mob have lowered the tone of ‘debate’ in politics in this country SO far that everyone seems to think it’s a free-for-all and respect is no longer a required aspect of behaviour.

      Also, like you, despair about the headlines and sound-bites. Am dismayed that many of my friends and acquintances only appear to have time to source their news from these skewed and inaccurate one or two liners. They have NO IDEA what’s really going on and cast their votes accordingly. Am beginning to think that compulsory voting is a very bad thing. At least if voting were voluntary, only those with a serious interest who make the time to really follow the issues would be deciding who should govern this country.

      Thanks again. Will be reading more from you in the future

      • Thank you for reading, and hope to hear more comments from you soon!

        The problem I have with voluntary voting is that it opens up the possibility of vote stacking all too easily. We see this in the US all the time, with ‘get out the vote’ initiatives, buses organised by political parties and dirty tricks employed to prevent people getting to the polls before they close (including detour signs and false announcements of booth closures).

        As paradoxical as it sounds, democracy is something in which everyone must participate. That’s the only way to even attempt to have dissenting views heard. The current minority government is a case in point.

    • I would have little difficulty in seeing the same kind of close questioning applied to every politician.

      While I think a level of respect is called for – particularly in the case of the office of the Prime Minister, I don’t think anyone should get a free kick just for being a leader.

      Spin and talking points should not be tolerated. That’s one thing I always admired about Kerry O’Brien in The 7.30 Report – he was firm without being rude, and didn’t let politicians wiggle off the hook.

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