What has happened to news journalism’s traditional commitment to objectivity? No one expects there to be much of it in what once was known as the yellow press, or on commercial radio and TV. But now even “respectable” media (broadsheet, television and radio) will present statements as hard fact without so much as a “said” or “claimed” to indicate that this is unsubstantiated information and not yet verified.
It is a trend that must that must delight politicians, business and the now largely commercialised world of scientific endeavour.
The trend is especially evident in headline writing: even in so-called quality media, headlines frequently appear that are not supported by the small print. A headline will shout “fact” when the story says only that a claim has been made.
Attributions have been on the outer for some time. A few years back, I heard a layout sub-editor utter words to the effect that “attributions make headings look ugly, and so do quotes in headlines - so don’t use them”.
Last year, on radio, I heard that President Vladimir Putin’s security troops had killed Russia’s “most wanted man”. No ifs or buts - this unnamed most wanted man was dead. The item, based entirely on the utterances of Putin’s spin machine, offered no evidence that this was the truth. The implication of the item was that we had to believe this was true because Putin’s spokesman had said so.
Not surprisingly, Putin’s alleged coup in destroying this Chechnya “terrorist” was on the eve of Russia’s hosting of the G-8 meeting. And, equally unsurprisingly, this “most wanted man” had been planning an attack on the G-8 talkfest. I still don’t know if the story was ever verified, but I continue to be uncomfortably aware that, almost as if with magic wand, national leaders are increasingly pulling rabbits out of hats at times most convenient to them.
Deceitful media massage has become much more common in recent years - especially since September 11, 2001. It turns up at times when governments want to draw attention to how clever they have been in thwarting some crisis (even those planned by hapless “illegals” in leaky boats) that would damage national security; or corporations want to draw our focus away from events that are damaging to their reputations? Spin is king and the media either intentionally promotes it or, for the sake of a good story, doesn’t bother to expose the deceit in it.
The red herring has become a useful device of political leaders, especially when they are in electoral trouble. After his disastrous first year as PM, when he performed like a buffoon, John Howard twigged that the way to remain secure in office is to con the public all of the time and to make a virtue of deception delivered with statesmanlike dignity. Few draw red herrings with greater skill than Howard. And even though several in recent months have tended to backfire on him, he’s still likely to dish them out by the shoal in the election campaign.
Siev X, children in the water, weapons of mass destruction, terrorist bomb attacks that “could happen”: these Howard Government red herrings come quickly to mind without resort to files to track down other untruths, including Howard’s 1983 assurance, as Malcolm Fraser’s treasurer, that there was no deficit (as I recall, Bob Hawke found a deficit of about $4 billion, a huge sum by those days’ standards). All of these deceits came to us as largely unquestioned fact.
Why should we, the listening and viewing public, have to put up with such meekly accepting reporting? Has it anything to do with our loss of the sense of a need for truth or accuracy? Is it because our leaders know we are innately gullible? Or that they know anything will distract a public that has an ever-diminishing attention span.
An example of how the media has lost touch with objectivity was the submissive way in which it accepted Bush’s declaration of “war on terror”, and totally failed to comprehend that even the concept of a war on terror is a nonsense. A “campaign” against terror perhaps; even a “battle” against terror in the sense of a person fighting an illness (one never hears of someone dying after a long war on cancer).
Promotion of a war on terror - at first accepted, almost without exception by prominent, widely read commentators and “statesmen” who should have known better - was a ploy by a propaganda machine that had the dubious job of promoting the image of a man who, if he was not the leader of the world’s only superpower, would be regarded as being a lot of cents short of a dollar. Even if it were possible to have a “war on terror”, it would be a war without end, because terror, as it always has been, will always be with us, inside and outside the law.