Media Analysis

News Corp’s blurring of news and views damaging society

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Rupert Murdoch's News Corp is toxic to democracy and a fair society (Image by Dan Jensen)

Failing to distinguish journalism from commentary and opinion is making News Corp a danger to our society, writes Dr Victoria Fielding.

*Also listen to the audio version of this article on Spotify HERE.

IN NOVEMBER 2020, former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull berated The Australian’s editor-at-large, Paul Kelly, for the newspaper’s record of promoting climate denial.

Despite Rupert Murdoch having previously denied his news outlets deny climate science and action, Kelly implied his newspaper did hold an opinion on climate change when he responded:

“We have many publications that are dedicated to promoting the cause of climate change and radical action on climate change, so that's okay, is it? It's okay to be a propagandist for one side, but if one is a critic or sceptic about some of these issues, that's not okay.”

Kelly admitted that News Corp presents news about issues like climate change in a style that more closely resembles commentary and opinion rather than factual analysis.

When journalists become commentators and commentators call themselves journalists, the public loses trust in the authority of real journalists to tell it what is happening in the world. News Corp’s melding of facts with opinion is not only degrading the cultural authority and strength of the news media industry but is also degrading Australian democracy.

The media’s differentiation between facts and opinion used to be like a wall between church and state. Printed newspapers made clear where the news pages ended and where the opinion pages began so that readers knew when the writer was supposably presenting facts, versus views.

On the internet, however, it’s not just news outlets who publish opinions — it’s anyone with an internet connection. Rather than diluting the need for news, this flood of opinions has made quality news more important than ever.

Digital newspapers have responded to the rise of online opinion by producing more of it themselves to compete against the fire hydrant of commentary content. Nevertheless, quality news publishers like The Guardian, the ABC and, to an extent, Nine newspapers keep the wall up by making it clear when someone is writing “opinion”, or when they are doing journalism.

Although this delineation is not always as clear-cut as it could be, the point is most outlets are ethically transparent about at least aiming to distinguish between journalism versus commentary and opinion to give their audience the opportunity to appraise the information from this crucial context.

This is not to say, however, that demand for news and the value of news has diminished. In this digital opinion-rich media environment, news – grounded in facts obtained from legitimate and credible sources – has never been more vital to a healthy democracy. Since the internet means every man, woman and her dog has a right to an opinion, facts are becoming harder to access and decipher.

This conundrum should make the news institution stronger and more powerful. Despite no longer having monopolistic control over news publishing, journalists still – for the most part – have monopolistic control over access to newsworthy information.

Not discounting the small number of citizen journalists who gather important and useful factual information on a range of topics, often uncovering facts that journalists haven’t bothered to pay attention to – Robodebt is a great example – journalists are usually the only ones who can go behind the scenes of government, society, business and culture locally, nationally and internationally, to connect with reliable sources, gather facts, and then report them faithfully to audiences.

This access to information, coupled with ownership of publishing platforms, is the source of the media’s economic, political and cultural power and authority. Journalists get to tell the public what is happening “out there” because the audience cannot do that for themselves.

Without access to transparently verified and attributed facts, the audience would struggle to know who and what to believe, and which information was useful to them or not. Facts are the glue that holds society together and for the most part, mainstream society is reliant on journalists to deliver them.

The centrality of quality, factual information to a healthy society and to a sustainable news industry is apparently being ignored at Australia’s largest and most powerful news organisation — News Corp. This is not just evident in Paul Kelly’s retort to Turnbull. It is evident in its editorial policies.

In a scathing piece written by distinguished media academic, Dr Denis Muller, for Australia’s prestigious journalism journal, Australian Journalism Review, he reveals News Corp Australia’s Editorial Professional Conduct Policy has a clause that reads:

‘Comment, conjecture and opinion are acceptable in reports to provide perspective on an issue, or explain the significance of an issue, or to allow readers to recognise what the publication’s standpoint is on the matter being reported.’

Muller says it is not clear how long this clause has been in the policy, but that he suspects it has been operating for several years. He calls on the Press Council – who coincidentally is majority funded by News Corp – to explain how the regulator can let this stand.

Since this clause allows writers to meld subjective commentary with opinion and for the newspaper to take positions, Muller makes the point that News Corp is contradicting a ‘cornerstone issue in journalism ethics’ — the expectation that journalists present news objectively without inserting their subjective opinions.

Using evidence from climate scientist Dr Michael Mann, Muller describes how this policy has allowed journalists on news pages to “sow disinformation” about climate science.

In a cutting – and in my view, entirely justified – judgement, Muller concludes the piece saying:

The evidence is clear and incontrovertible that News Corp’s policy of encouraging its journalists to use its news pages to promote the organisation’s views has licensed – even required – its staff to use those pages to prosecute feuds against the corporation’s enemies, intimidate politicians and engage in hyper-partisan campaigning without regard for truth or consequences.

 

In short, Rupert Murdoch has fashioned an instrument of tyranny which has no place in democratic life and this policy is a crucial part of the machinery that makes it work.

Whether the issue is the misrepresentation of climate science, the increasingly toxic Voice referendum, ideological smears and attacks on Labor Party policies and politicians, or News Corp’s failure to hold Right-wing governments to account, Murdoch journalists have been given permission to replace objectively, accurately and honestly gathered facts from credible sources with the views and opinions of their entirely Right-wing staff.  

We already knew this was happening, but Muller’s exposure of a specific policy that enables this shows just how overtly and arrogantly News Corp works to undermine journalistic integrity. In turn, it harms the public’s faith in news, undermines the wider Australian news institution and damages society.

*This article is also available on audio here:

Dr Victoria Fielding is an Independent Australia columnist. You can follow Victoria on Twitter @DrVicFielding.

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