Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Defending what’s true against what’s fair

The problem with regulating journalism is that it will mostly protect the wrong people – because the biggest failings with journalism happen when it decides to be too “fair” to people, and unfair to the truth, or to the reader.

Neither today’s Press Council system, nor what is proposed by the government, will do a damn thing to – as Twetter and blogger Mr Denmore puts it – protect the public.

To quote him fairly: “Just as the bill for banks' risk-taking is left with taxpayers, damage from lousy media standards is felt by the public they claim to defend”

This is perfectly true. Unfortunately, the main ways in which the public can be protected aren’t touched by media regulation.

I give you two examples, one hypothetical, the other real.

The Hypothetical

Imagine that a new “faith healer” arises somewhere near, say, Byron Bay. Possible media responses include ignoring him; denouncing him; hailing him; or “playing it straight” – giving the faith healer a platform with a handful of experts to offer “balance”.

The only sane options – the ones that don’t put your readers at risk of dying of cancer, for example – are to ignore the quack, or denounce him. Denunciation will almost certainly bring down the wrath of a regulator charged with upholding the nebulous values of “fairness” and “balance” rather than truth.

Meanwhile, a journalist who hails the quack as a savior will never suffer the wrath of a regulator; nor will a “balanced” journalist – but both of these will write the kinds of stories that will one day kill people.

The Real 

When Tim Johnstone of FirePower fame first claimed to have a pill that would give you 100 miles-per-gallon performance (just add it to your petrol tank!), there was only one simple piece of research that any journalist needed: find a university chemist and ask him.

Nobody did. Until the whole thing came crashing down, there was no interest in debunking – or, equally effective in the presence of a quack, ignoring – the story. Instead, a host of “business” journalists (which all too often means “stenographer to CEOs”) wrote about Johnstone’s deals, and sports journalists (which nearly always means “off in the dumb kids’ ghetto”) documented his sports sponsorships.

The deals and sponsorships were build on shit: there was no technology, merely a lame attempt to build a Ponzi scheme on the back of brain-donor investors and AusTrade money.

As with quack medicine: journalist could have refused to publicize the scam; they could have (and did) hailed it; they could have denounced it; they could have (and did) try to “play it straight”.

Nobody ignored the story – once there’s “a story”, it doesn’t get ignored, because the editors (all of whom need to be emasculated for their willingness to publicize FirePower before the fall) can just assign the story to some other sucker*.

(*When the story comes with champagne, air travel, celebrity brush-with-fame and glad-handing, few journalists let it be assigned to someone else.)

Some hailed it; some “played it fair”; both varieties were responsible for helping suck investor dollars into a lie.

Until Gerard Ryle, nobody went for the jugular. Nobody denounced Johnstone outright. Nobody denounced the non-science behind his claims.

Until FirePower’s collapse, as far as I can tell, neither the existing nor the proposed media “regulation” regimes would have defended the public. Johnstone would have had a better chance at arguing he’d been treated “unfairly” than a journalist at defending “truth”.

And: neither the existing nor the proposed media regulation environments give a member of the public a comeback against damage caused by a publisher peddling utter shit in the pursuit of clicks.

Any close reading of the Press Council’s decisions will hint that the Tim Johntones of the world can play “fair” as a trump card over “true”. Politicians can bluff the council four hands out of five. Neither is a good argument for any kind of media regulation beyond the laws of defamation.

Anybody can get an outright lie up in the mainstream press, and get it a good hearing, and wrap the Emporer’s cloak of “fairness” as an unvulnerable defense. Who defends the truth?

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