The 'No' campaign is distorting the truth on the Voice to Parliament and operating in bad faith, writes Dr Victoria Fielding.
DURING THE Global Financial Crisis, governments decided big banks were too big to fail, so they were bailed out with billions of dollars of public money. This is the same dilemma Australian news media seem to be having when it comes to calling out misinformation amongst the 'No' campaign advocating against a Voice to Parliament.
The 'No' campaign’s lies have become too big to fact-check because the entire campaign would fall apart if the misinformation was scrutinised, called out and corrected.
Much has already been said about Peta Credlin’s ridiculous claims that the Uluru Statement from the Heart has over 20 secret pages. Credlin continues to use this misinformation on Sky News and in News Corp newspapers as part of a politically inspired scare campaign about the Voice. Credlin says these pages prove the Albanese Government is misleading voters about the true intentions and consequences of the constitutional change.
This demonstrably false claim was responsibly and accurately fact-checked by RMIT ABC Fact Check. Fact-checking is a key function of watchdog media and an important element of media accountability.
In response, Sky News attacked these fact-checkers in their characteristic way of bullying anyone who scrutinises them. In the same piece, Sky News similarly attacked me and the Murdoch Referendum Accountability Project, accusing us of using media monitoring to “silence” their news coverage.
You would think when Sky News is attacking fact checkers, ABC’s Media Watch might stand up for the facts. However, inexplicably, Media Watch chose to legitimise Credlin’s misinformation. Host Paul Barry claimed: “there may be some point in what Credlin is saying”. Rather than call this information “false”, he said it should have been labelled “disputed”.
Media Watch’s legitimisation of Credlin’s misinformation, akin to suggesting it is fair to dispute whether the sky is indeed blue, was met with much glee at Sky News. Barry’s endorsement, alongside Sky News and a Liberal politician’s pressure, led Meta to suspend RMIT ABC Fact Check as an arbitrator of truth on Facebook. The spreaders of misinformation have been endorsed by the ABC to go on their merry way undermining the referendum.
The thing is, Credlin’s conspiracy theory of misinformation about the length of the Uluru Statement is just the tip of a much bigger iceberg of misinformation being used by the 'No' campaign, and their News Corp media cheer squad, to undermine the Voice referendum. Indeed, the entire 'No' campaign is premised on what Albanese calls “catastrophising and contradictions”.
There is more misinformation being spread about the Voice than it would be possible to fit in one article. As per expert fact-checking by constitutional law experts in The Conversation, the Referendum pamphlets sent to voters are full of “misleading” information from the 'No' camp, where the 'Yes' pamphlet was found to be accurate.
If all the misleading elements of the 'No' campaign were to be adequately called out, it would require a media outlet brave enough to point to a hugely powerful deceiving elephant in the room. There are some voices willing to say it, including commendably at Sky News and The Australian, but for the most part, even the ABC have failed to hold the 'No' campaign accountable for the biggest and most influential lies being used to undermine the Voice.
As part of the Murdoch Referendum Accountability Project, funded by Australians for a Murdoch Royal Commission, my team and I are measuring which 'No' arguments are being platformed by News Corp, and how misinformation underpins the 'No' campaign narrative.
Across the first five weeks of coverage in 618 articles or videos published by The Australian, Daily Telegraph, Herald Sun and Sky News between 17 July to 20 August, we have found 71% of words that represent either a 'Yes' or 'No' Voice argument are 'No' arguments. Sky News is the most one-sided in favour of 'No' — 80% of its argument content advocates 'No'.
Key pieces of misinformation platformed as part of this 'No' campaign effort include the accusation that the Referendum puts race into the Constitution, when in fact race is already present. The 1967 Referendum granted the Federal Government the right to make policies on behalf of Indigenous people.
From this misinformation, springs other misrepresentations. For example, claims the Voice segregates Australians and gives Indigenous people special privileges. 'No' advocates, in concert with News Corp voices, also argue the Voice does not represent grassroots Indigenous people, but is only representative of "Aboriginal elites". This is false. Representative members of the Voice advisory group would be elected by Indigenous people from every part of Australia.
Another key piece of misinformation underpins the slogan of the 'No' campaign, which is 'If you don’t know, vote no'. This mantra is premised on the constant claim put forward by News Corp that there are no details about the Voice. Related to this misrepresentation are increasingly shrill accusations that Albanese is hiding information about the Referendum. Barely ever does News Corp inform its audience that the Voice details must be worked through by Parliament once the Voice is constitutionally enshrined, and only then can the full details of the way the Voice works be legislated.
Another crucial piece of information missing from News Corp reporting, representing misinformation through omission, is the fact that the vast majority (83% in one poll) of Indigenous people support a Voice. Instead, they platform 'No' voices like Warren Mundine claiming these polls are incorrect.
These pieces of misinformation are bad enough, but there are still more lies at the heart of the 'No' campaign; the deep, murky base of the misinformation iceberg. The biggest lie is the false claim that a constitutionally enshrined Voice has more power than a legislated Voice. This is simply not true. The only power a constitutionally enshrined Voice has that a legislated one does not have is that the Voice must exist. That’s it.
By fact-checking and calling out this gigantic monster of a lie, the 'No' campaign’s contradictory scaremongering and, in turn, the entire premise of the 'No' campaign’s opposition to a Voice to Parliament, implodes.
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has said that the Liberals support constitutional recognition of Indigenous people, so much so that if the Voice Referendum fails, he commits the Liberals to holding a referendum to enshrine Indigenous recognition in the Constitution.
Dutton also says he supports legislating regional Voices. He is never pushed on how such regional voices would be different from a national voice. Neither is 'No' campaigner Warren Mundine who supports this proposal.
Since a legislated Voice is, in practical terms, no different from a constitutionally enshrined one, and the Parliament ultimately decides how a constitutionally enshrined voice will work legislatively, this contradiction is justified by the 'No' camp through a giant, apparently too big to fact-check, piece of misinformation: the claim that a constitutionally enshrined Voice has power over Parliament, power that a legislated Voice does not have. This is a lie. It is demonstrably false.
This lie is apparently so big, that outlets like the ABC who should be calling it out, aren’t. And more powerful outlets like News Corp, instead of calling it out, are using this misinformation to support the 'No' campaign.
For example, Sharri Markson said on Sky News:
“Many Australians as the polls show are worried about the power the Voice could have to legally challenge laws set by Parliament.”
Such claims are made constantly at News Corp. Expert, fact-checked information that contradicts this lie, is excluded. This lie is the beating heart of the 'No' campaign.
The Voice is an advisory body. It cannot challenge laws set by Parliament. The suggestion that it can is so ridiculous that no well-meaning person would say it was so, unless they were willing to lie. Yet, this key foundational piece of misinformation is being used to convince Australians that the Voice is a legally risky scenario that gives Indigenous people rights to challenge laws set by Parliament, rights that do not exist.
The fact that this lie is allowed to be told so many times that it becomes people’s truth is an indictment of Australian media’s failure to collectively call it out. In turn, it demonstrates that Australian democracy cannot rely on responsible, quality, truthful and accurate news media to present a healthy democratic debate about the referendum.
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