The impossibility of media balance

Australian readers will probably have come across the story of Angus Taylor and the dodgy travel expenditure figures. Christopher Warren covered it in Crikey on Monday, as did Paul Barry on Media Watch.

Briefly, Taylor, the anti-science federal energy minister, accused Sydney’s lord mayor Clover Moore of hypocrisy over climate change, quoting a faked set of figures for the city council’s travel expenses, which were wrong by several orders of magnitude. It’s not clear whether the minister’s office faked the document or were themselves taken in.

The letter was also supplied to the equally anti-science Daily Telegraph, which ran the story. It also quoted the council’s indignant rebuttal, but failed to adjudicate on the claims or even apparently to notice that the fake figures were utterly unbelievable.

It’s a nice parable on the failings of “he-said she-said” journalism. The Telegraph maintains that it did nothing wrong, saying “The dispute was accurately reported.” But recall what Nick Davies pointed out back in 2009 (as reported in the Economist):

Mr Davies does a bit of teaching, and he has his students imagine that they are asked to write a report on what the weather will be like tomorrow. They interview a woman in one room who says it will be sunny. Then they interview a man in another room who says it’s going to rain. Your job, as a journalist, is not to simply write up what you have been told, he says. Your job is to look out the window.

“Balance” is often praiseworthy, but it should never be allowed to take priority over the search for truth. And the times we live in are making it increasingly difficult to reconcile the two, as two other stories this week demonstrate.

The first is from the New Republic, where Alan Shephard dissects the latest pundit hired by America’s CNN, former Republican congressman Sean Duffy. Duffy is supposed to provide “balance” on what is generally a fairly liberal network, but he turns out to be a conspiracy theorist and all-round loon.

Shephard draws a more general moral:

Ever since Trump’s election, mainstream news outlets have sought … a figure who is both pro-Trump and intellectually honest—someone who can speak to the concerns of the president’s supporters without falling into his bigotry, vulgarity, incoherence, paranoia, and mendaciousness.

These outlets have failed to find these people because they don’t exist.

When one side of politics has adopted blatant falsehoods as its guiding principles, it becomes impossible to give that side what would normally be thought of as a fair hearing without compromising on truthfulness. To present the deeply abnormal as routine is to mislead the viewers.

But that lesson hasn’t been fully learned by Roy Greenslade, writing in the Guardian to defend the BBC from accusations of bias over its Brexit coverage – criticism that partly stems, he says, from “the intense polarisation of each side” of the debate.

Having settled himself in the “both sides do it” narrative, he has to follow it through, even though his own examples show the claims made by the Brexiters to be considerably more intemperate than those of their opponents.

One side is pushing a conspiracy theory that poses the BBC as the enemy – “pump[ing] out hysterical anti-Brexit propaganda,” as Paul Dacre is quoted saying. The other side is making reasoned criticisms (whether justified or not) of the detail of the BBC’s coverage. Any equivalence between the two is bogus.

Maintaining “balance” over Brexit is not as problematic as it is over Trump, but some of the same strains are present. First in the US and then in Britain (and Australia), what was once the mainstream centre-right has over the last twenty years become untethered from reality and now largely inhabits its own fantasy world.

That makes it intrinsically difficult to present its claims in a balanced fashion while keeping up a commitment to journalistic values.

The answer, it seems to me, is not for media to become explicitly partisan, but for them to not let the fear of partisanship lead them into sidelining the importance of truth. If one side of a question consists of ordinary flawed politicians, and the other of fabulists and gangsters, the media’s obligation is to inform the public of that fact.

And we should stop according the honorific of “journalist” to those who refuse to accept that obligation and peddle lies as truth.


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