KIM WINGEREI. Media Ethics and Politics

As the political circus goes from bad to worse, it is important to not only demand that our politicians improve their behaviour, but the media has an equally important role to play. Journalists and the media already have a code of conduct setting ethical standards, but do they adhere to it? 

One of the few programs I watch every week is ABC’s Media Watch. I like the short and sharp format and the acerbic wit of Paul Barry. It is a lone voice in a media landscape dominated by the entertainment giants on one side, and the more fragmented plethora of news and commentary on the other.

I never bother with the “news” as presented by the commercial channels, but occasionally relax with clips from my favourite comedy show, Sky News. Their satire is second to none, made even better because most of it appears to be unscripted. Very impressive. Some terrific guest appearances, too. My favourite is the woman impersonating the Fairy Godmother from Shrek!

Anyway, I digress.

Media Watch serves an important purpose. Calling out the mainstream media for being loose with the truth, exaggerating stories while ignoring others, lack of fact checking and undeclared bias. Nobody, including the ABC itself, is shielded from the Media Watch culpability torch.

But what Media Watch doesn’t do, and not enough political commentators do, is reflect on the role the media plays in the malaise that is our current political climate.

The comedians at Sky have a running gag about lefties – getting a bit old in the tooth, that one. And on the other side of the divide everybody loves to hate Rupert Murdoch, closely followed by the other giants of the mainstream media. Including Fairfax, once a great media company, now a subsidiary of an entertainment and sport broadcaster – Channel Nine.

And scattered across that wide chasm of diverse opinions are the commentators, twitterati and other social media warriors, bots and trolls. All of us passing comment on the daily shenanigans of public life, and most of all on our politicians and their particular approach to the public debate.

Over the last few years our Parliament has become more of a hotbed of unbridled bias, intolerance and partisanship than ever before.

And the media – particularly the mainstream media – lap it up with daily relish, salivate over the prospects of yet another stoush and another sound-bite to place in a headline.

The inevitable result of the relentless spotlight on the debate itself rather than what is being debated is that the focus is all on the protagonists. It is all about the personalities. Canny politicians play on it and the media thrive on it.

So when Temporary Prime Minister Scott Morrison angrily shouts at his counterpart across the aisle that the fight is now getting “intimate” – it’s you and me, baby – the press gallery loves it, it is tweeted and blazed onto the top of their home-pages within minutes.

The media will claim they merely report what they hear and see, and they’d be right. If one forgets that in a functioning democracy the press is “the fourth pillar”. To quote French political schemer in chief, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand: “Without freedom of the press, there can be no representative government.”

The media have a role not merely to report on what it sees. It also has a responsibility to call out the impact, to question unethical behaviour, to demand answers and to hold politicians accountable for their actions – not just in rhetoric but also in deed.

But mainstream media is lazy. To report on politicians brawling is easy. To hold them to account for promises made is much harder. Good journalism is asking hard questions and not taking evasion for an answer. Good commentary is deliberating not just on the politics of an issue but focus on the ideas, policies and possible solutions.

Good journalism (and commentary) is doing the research, asking questions, declaring bias if one exists, not to pretend it doesn’t – lo-and-behold, even admitting when one is wrong!

Good journalism is reporting on what you see and what you observe, without fear or favour.

Good journalism is being prepared to hold the powerful to account, to question the status quo, to seek truth when withheld, concealed or twisted.

Lazy journalism is to report on personalities and street-fights. Good journalism is to contribute to the understanding of issues and why the fighting started.

Lazy journalism and commentary solely focused on the messengers instead of the message enables our politicians to behave the way they do.

The MEAA Journalist Code of Ethics states:

“Respect for truth and the public’s right to information are fundamental principles of journalism. Journalists search, disclose, record, question, entertain, comment and remember. They inform citizens and animate democracy. They scrutinise power, but also exercise it, and should be responsible and accountable.”

All of us who write should reflect on that and the 12 ethical rules outlined on the MEAAethics poster.

The MEAA and Media Watch stand on the barricades of good journalism. But we, the people, must demand better not just from our politicians, but for the media to heed their own code of conduct.

Strong support for independent media like this publication is one way of doing it, too!

Next: Murdoch, the ABC and all the rest.

Kim Wingerei is a former businessman, turned writer, blogger and commentator; passionate about free speech, democracy and the politics of change. Author of “Why Democracy is Broken – A Blueprint for Change”. Follow @ kimwingerei.com or on Facebook.

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9 Responses to KIM WINGEREI. Media Ethics and Politics

  1. Kevin Bain says:

    On what is lazy or good journalism, we had a field test tonight (Monday) with the new tenure rules for Liberal PMs announced after a snap meeting of MPs. The obvious issue for journalists to communicate first was whether it affects Morrison’s current position. Katharine Murphy was quick off the mark, reporting on The Guardian’s website that the decisions did not affect Morrison because he is not an elected PM. Yet a number of ABC TV journalists, including political editor Andrew Probyn, didn’t think the question to be worthy of comment, preferring stenography, comparisons with Labor’s policy, recent history etc.

    No doubt Laura Tingle and others were working behind the scenes to get the political dynamics, but the studio people could surely have 1. realised what the here and now question is, and 2. divined from the press conference what the answer was and told us. But they didn’t, although this did not require an opinionated or critical perspective. Why couldn’t they see the wood for the trees?

    • Kevin Bain says:

      Since you’ve joined the discussion Alan, perhaps you can respond to my points about the discursive commentary on ABC Late News of 10.40 pm Monday night (from iview.)

  2. Simon Warriner says:

    Kim, I agree with you. However, a couple of times I have raised the issue of conflicted interest and the role it plays in the abysmal performance of our party politicians in comments responding to your columns. You respond to other commenters but do not engage with the points that I have made about the role independent politicians can play in improving the standard of our political discourse.

    With reference to this from above :”Good commentary is deliberating not just on the politics of an issue but focus on the ideas, policies and possible solutions.” , I am interested to know why you are failing to respond to the possible solutions I am putting forward.

    Cheers

    Simon Warriner

    • Kim Wingerei says:

      My apologies Simon, always happy to engage. I did respond to comments on my post of last week, albeit a few days late in that instance. You can also contact me on my Facebook page or on Twitter. And I do indeed agree that the future is with the independents and a lessening of the influence of the parties.

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