Editor of the Guardian, Lenore Taylor, has written a superb piece on the craft of journalism1, part of which I have quoted elsewhere on this blog2. This quote in part encapsulates her thesis, that journalists should be most concerned about facts and that when politicians make a statement, journalists should assess those claims and not simply transcribe them; i.e. not be a stenographer2. Something similar has been stated previously, often as a quote attributed to journalism professor Jonathan Foster, formerly of The Independent and lecturer in journalism at the University of Sheffield3: “If someone says it’s raining and another person says it’s dry, it’s not your job to quote them both. Your job is to look out the fucking window and find out which is true”4. I don’t completely agree with this. I would suggest it is better that after the journalist has stuck their head out the window to see if it is raining, quote them both, then call the person whose statement was incorrect, an idiot or a liar.
Unfortunately, checking the veracity of a claim by a politician is occasionally only done by referring that claim to the fact checking system5. That is all very well and can show that the politician is either lying or at best telling a half-truth. However, on complex issues, that fact checking is always done much later, so the lack of veracity of the original statement is lost in the dust of the news media’s move to the latest distraction, and with it the fact checking analysis. In addition to this, there is the shortening of the news cycle. Up until the last few decades, the nightly television news and the following day’s newspapers were the prime source of news, such that an event which happened in the morning didn’t get to people until it was on television that evening6. However, the internet has put the news at almost everyone’s fingertips and the ‘news cycle’ is shorter than it’s ever been. If something happens locally at 9:00 am, many people will already know about it a few minutes later. If something happens internationally, it is also at everyone’s fingertips in a matter of minutes.
This rapid transmission of news, both local and international, has led to people being bombarded by more ‘news’ than they ever have been. They therefore tend not to spend as much time on any particular item as they would have done previously. As a consequence of this, many people simply read the headlines, the subheading and perhaps the first paragraph of any particular online or print news story to get what they think is the gist of the story. The Murdoch media have twigged to this and as a consequence they often have headlines, subheadings and initial paragraphs which do not reflect the complete content of a story. One of the worst examples of this is from a couple of years ago where the headline stated that then Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten dumped a dinner with Defence Force staff to go shopping without telling anyone. It was only later in the article that you find out he was accompanied by Liberal Senator Scott Ryan. Nowhere in the article do you find that neither Shorten nor Ryan were informed about the proposed dinner7. In addition to often having dishonest headlines, this is the other common practice of Murdoch ‘ruperters’; lying8. But I digress.
This rapid turnaround and rapid fading of news items has not gone unnoticed by politicians. They have twigged that they can get away with bald-faced lying. I used to think that Tony Abbott was the worst liar I had seen in Australian politics; that was until Scott Morrison became prime minister. He has taken it up a notch further, and while Abbott used to lie about what he was going to do, Morrison lies about everything, even what has actually been done. When pulled up on this, he either obfuscates (‘I do not agree with the premise of your question’; ‘I don’t respond to gossip’; ‘I have answered that’….) or piles another lie on top of his original lie. A prime example of this is his refusal to admit that he decreased funding to aged care when he was treasurer, telling the well prepared Rick Morton that it was a lie. It wasn’t. In saying it was a lie, Morrison was simply lying, and Morton knew it and had the budget figures to prove it10. The fact that all the other journalists allowed Morrison to get away with this, speaks volumes of how many lazy journalists, or stenographers, there are in the Australian media. In addition, that fact checkers are able to determine what is true and what is not, means that such an avenue is open to journalists to do so beforehand. That they do not, reflects badly on them.
How do we overcome this? Preparation, that’s how. If purported journalists, particularly the talking heads on television, know they are going to interrogate a politician, one presumes they would bone up on the topic to be discussed. However, in many cases, this does not seem to be the case. Too often they seem to fall back on the lazy option of ‘he said, she said’ and give the indication that they have not even bothered to ‘look out the fucking window’. Too often, when faced with a patent untruth, the talking heads take the soft option and allow a lie to go unchallenged, or at best say something along the lines of ‘that is not correct’ or ‘that is not quite true’. What they should do is ask the politician ‘if they know that is a lie’.
In the case of a press conference, all journalists (at least all non-Murdoch types) should, as a matter of course, ask the same question as the previous real journalist, if that question has not been answered by the politician. The only option for the politician is then to answer the question or to run away, as Morrison has done on occasion11. In the latter eventuality, the journalists should ask of the receding politician; ‘why are you running away?’ Whether this could work is debatable, as the Murdoch media are quite happy to accept lies as long as they support the Liberal and National parties, and no doubt they would run interference for any such lying politician.
It is correctly said that a free media is a cornerstone of a democracy, and so it is, provided it is a competent one.