Other politics

The noble profession of journalism – the Andrew Olle Media Lecture

There are two themes in this year’s Andrew Olle Media Lecture, delivered by Leigh Sales. One is about the way the public is losing interest in the stories journalists are telling, and are avoiding tuning into news reports – a trend confirmed by the University of Canberra’s Digital News Report. Her other theme is about the professional standards that should guide journalists. Although the ABC is the most trusted of all media, the media as a whole is not highly trusted.


She links the themes by suggesting that the public’s trust in the media can be restored if journalists are more diligent in abiding by professional standards. She recalls how Andrew Olle held the public’s trust, recalling him as “a tenacious interviewer, polite but firm in holding powerbrokers to account”. “He paid meticulous attention to facts and was scrupulously fair.” “You can sum up his journalism with two words: integrity and independence”. “Even his friends weren’t sure how he voted.” (For that matter, could anyone guess Leigh Sales’ political inclinations?)

She stresses that the professional journalist is not an activist or crusader. “Journalists must forfeit the citizen’s right to activism”, she states.

It would be hard to disagree with Leigh Sales’ enthusiastic endorsement of those ideals, but surely they are under strain.

Andrew Olle died in 1995. The last federal election he covered was in 1993, when Opposition Leader John Hewson could challenge the government with a carefully-argued policy platform, based on political principles. Political campaigns were rough and dirty – politicians have always used spin and sophistry – but journalists could cut through all of that and force politicians to articulate their policies.

In Olle’s time the nihilistic world of postmodernism was still confined to the fringes of university politics. It was still a decade before the right would herald in the “post-truth” era and embrace the postmodernist tactics of “alternative facts”, “fake news” and “misinformation”, and with the help of psychological research refine their skills in sophistry. Donald Trump was still a property developer, Boris Johnson was still a political columnist, Peter Dutton was still a Queensland cop. (All professions that, at times, have had a difficult relationship with the truth.)

In the current political era, shaped by those with little regard for the values of truth, logic or evidence, the journalist who holds to those values is surely making a personal decision to become an advocate for such values. The decision to reject moral relativism is, in itself, a decision based on one’s normative values.

It shouldn’t be so. Journalists and politicians should be able to assume that those values are accepted by those who claim to have a voice in the public domain. But with the help of social media, and blatantly partisan traditional media, the right has swept those values aside.

In her presentation Leigh Sales says that journalists themselves should not take a “position” on any matter. She rightly criticizes the way the political discourse tries to force everyone with a public voice into a position on so many issues. As she recalls from her professional experience, people were either for or against Covid-19 lockdowns, either with or opposed to the 9/11 terrorists.

Now, from different directions, the Liberal Party and the Greens are trying to force Australians into a positionon the Israel-Palestine conflict. In their Manichean world view, if one side is wrong the other side must be right, and they are both condemning the government for not having taken a “position” in a recent UN vote.

And did not the ABC management itself take a “position” in the Voice referendum? It assiduously avoided taking a “yes” or “no” position, but in treating the referendum as a contest with two opposing sides, it was effectively taking a position to endorse moral relativism. Rather than confining its cover of the “no” campaign to those who had reasonable arguments against the proposal, in the name of “balance” they sought out “no” supporters no matter how much their cases were based on misunderstanding, bullshit, ignorance or blatant lies. Almost entirely absent from the ABC’s selection of commentators on its news reports were those who could understand and explain both the “yes” and “no” cases.

Leigh Sales’ lecture is available in three formats. There is a full transcript, an edited version, and a full 46 minute version on iview, which includes Ita Buttrose’s supportive response. I recommend the iview version, because Sales is such an engaging and energetic speaker.

The right’s war against science

Think of a hazard that has killed 200 000 Americans over a couple of years.

Gun deaths probably come to mind, but they account for only around 50 000 deaths a year.

That 200 000 is a reasonably robust estimate of the number of Americans who deliberately refused vaccination and have subsequently died of Covid-19.

In an 18-minute interview on the ABC, Peter Hotez of the Baylor College of Medicine describes the anti-science sentiment that has motivated people to refuse vaccination, leading to those deaths: The deadly rise of anti-science.

Anti-science has become a partisan movement. It’s a hallmark of the political parties that were once centre-right and have now drifted to the extremity, such as America’s Republican Party.

Hotez describes the rise of “anti-science aggression”, and how those on the far right deliberately twist science for political gain. He notes how these voices are amplified by channels such as Fox News, and how they have resonated among those with low educational attendance.

Although the phenomenon has been most prominent in America, particularly since the political rise of Donald Trump, it has spread to other countries such as Hungary.

The interview does not get on to Australia, but here too we have our share of climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers. It is notable that in the Voice campaign Peter Dutton and other prominent anti-Voice campaigners repeatedly and deliberately used the scientifically discredited and debunked notion of “race” as a key plank of their scare campaign.

Hotez is author of The deadly rise of anti-science: a scientist’s warning.


Julian Assange

We celebrate the return of Chen Lei to Australia after three years of detention in China. Julian Assange has been held in England’s Belmarsh Prison for four years – a prison designated for terrorists. That’s on top of five years confinement in the Ecuador Embassy in London.

Keeping us reminded of his persecution, his brother, Gabriel Shipton, is interviewed on ABC Breakfast (10 minutes), and The Guardian’s Daniel Hurst has an article covering recent attempts to persuade the Americans to drop the charges against him. Most recently Albanese raised the issue with Biden during his Washington visit, and this was preceded in September by a cross-party delegation that travelled to Washington to plead for his release.

Although the US president has strong powers relating to federal prosecutions and convictions, Biden is understandably reluctant to interfere with the Department of Justice at a time when the Department is pursuing criminal charges against Trump, which Trump’s supporters in the Republican Party have labelled a political witch-hunt.

Eleven asylum seekers on Nauru

In June this year the government was able to announce that the last asylum-seekers on Nauru had been brought to Australia. But the detention centre didn’t stay empty for long: last month a new group of Tamil asylum-seekers were taken to the island, reminding us that the Rudd-Morrison policy on boat arrivals is still in force.

The shameful story of our treatment of asylum-seekers held in Nauru is presented by the ABC’s Paul Farrell and Maddison Connaughton, who recount the work of a whistleblower “Simone”. At great risk she collected and downloaded 2116 incident reports involving asylum-seekers, many involving deliberate cruel treatment of inmates. In 2016 she gave them to The Guardian, who published them as “The Nauru Files”.

Farrell’s and Connaughton’s post on the ABC site – The woman behind the files – describes not only “Simone’s” bravery and the mistreatment of asylum-seekers, but also the length to which the Department of Home Affairs and the Nauru government went to keep the whole operation secret. (Even Stalin’s gulags didn’t have the additional benefit of an isolated island.) They also have a 36-minute Background Briefing session The whistleblower who exposed Australia’s secretive offshore detention system, in which you can hear “Simone’s” disguised voice describing her work.

We wait to hear from “Home Affairs” Minister Claire O’Neil whether the current government will maintain the shroud of secrecy over the way asylum-seekers are treated on Nauru, and if they are doing anything to stop the abuses of asylum-seekers.

A country for old men?

When we look around the world, from Denmark to Afghanistan, we see huge differences in the lives of women.

The 2023 Women Peace and Security Index, produced by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, ranks 177 countries on conditions for women. As usual, in such indices, the Nordic countries occupy most of the top places. Surprisingly Switzerland comes in at #2, which is not what one would expect from a country that was so tardy (1960) in women’s franchise. African countries, and countries with largely Muslim populations, generally score poorly.

Australia comes in at #11, just behind New Zealand. We show up reasonably well in comparison with other “developed” countries. Out of their 13 criteria we come out comparatively poorly on “women’s perception of community safety”, however. Our strongest progress over the last six years has been in “women’s share of parliament seats”.