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Tuesday 15 September 2015

House of cards

Our political system is unstable

It is but a day after the coup which saw the fourth change of PM in but just over two years, and the third time a PM was replaced within their first term. These are unprecedented events, more akin to a television drama than real life. But alas that is politics today.

Many are coming to terms with the events of the past 24 hours, some readily accept the change others more reluctantly do so. Time will tell how this drama ends.

Like many outside observers I find these blatant 'full frontal' challenges a rather brutal and brutalizing process. It hearkens back to the animal kingdom where the leader of the pride has to maintain leadership by mane to mane combat against all challengers, in a fight sometimes to the end. My preference would be for a more gentlemanly behind-the-scenes arrangement where leaders would be changed from time to time by handshakes-and-nods when the numbers favoured a new nominee. Alas today that seems so naive and idealistic.

Is any of this the media's fault?

While I don't want to go into the specifics of this recent coup I am concerned about the process which uses the media as a tool of the dissatisfied.

As the recently deposed Tony Abbott noted in his concession speech ;

".... a febrile media culture has developed that rewards treachery.
“And if there’s one piece of advice I can give to the media, it’s this – refuse to print self-serving claims, that the person making them won’t put his or her name to. Refuse to connive or dishonour, by acting as the assassin’s knife".
It seems that the recent instability within our political system has come hand in glove with several trends in our modern media, including; -
  • the oft cited 24 hour news cycle requiring ever increasing content
  • the frequency of polling
  • the increasing number of commentators and media sources
  • a social media background that has an ever greater appetite for commentary
For all these reasons any political decision or indecision receives the most detailed scutiny.
Opinions abound and too often the trivial takes precedence over stories of greater import. I guess everyone will have examples but consider the kerfuffle about a 'wink', or  the number of flags on a podium.

As a consequence our media amplifies and extends these sometimes serious, sometimes trivial, issues way beyond what would have been the case but a decade ago. (See my earlier comments on media  Mass media moving masses , Mischievous media magnifies mayhem)

So by its nature the media will amplify dissatisfaction.

But wait there is more...

Add to the ready-to-report, ready-to-amplify media, the treacherous, underhanded, conniving politician, eager to undermine their current leader, whether for venegeance for a past wrong, to gain a more senior role, or some rationalised 'noble' reason. We now have a secret cabal whereby Mr Treachery becomes the anonymous source for leaks to a compliant journalist, or two. The information is thrust into the public arena anonymously to wreak havoc with public opinion and to undermine the leader. This process is not new, we have seen it all too often. Indeed it is now a tactic well proven.

Moreover since it has worked in the past no doubt it will be used in the future.
Reluctantly I accept the reality of human nature; naked ambition, the bitterness of wrongs past, and the ability of otherwise good people to rationalise dishonest behaviour.

My question is about the media. Is the media ethical when publishing anonymous sources?

Is the media's use of anonymous sources ethical?

The very juxtaposition of the two words 'media' and 'ethics' seems to generate a smirk, but I continue.

Media ethics is indeed at the very foundation of media studies and rightly so. Of course anonymous sources are an integral part of the profession.

My, admittedly limited, readings indicate the appropriate use of anonymous sources is not clearly defined. Indeed the Society of Professional Journalists advises care in their use and tellingly advises;

"2. Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises.
The information-gathering business is a give-and-take practice with a lot of public officials. Some are willing to provide information only when it benefits them. When someone asks to provide information off the record, be sure the reason is not to boost her own position by undermining someone else’s, to even the score with a rival, to attack an opponent or to push a personal agenda. Media outlet practices vary, but journalists should not overlook the danger of legal problems and credibility damage from publishing anonymously sourced information that is not confirmed by public records or credible sources. Before journalists allow themselves to be used by an anonymous source they should be sure to question whether the news value warrants whatever the source hopes to accomplish." (my emphasis) http://www.spj.org/ethics-papers-anonymity.asp

It seems SJP is advising not to use anonymous sources if any one of the following apply; -
  1. the motivation behind the anonymous information is for some 'political advantage'
  2. there is a possibility that the information is untrue
  3. the news value does not warrant whaterver the source want to achieve

Looking at the recent white-anting of Tony Abbot, the leaks seem to have broken all of these criteria. Lets look at each in turn.

The motivation behind the anonymous information is for some 'political advantage'

Clearly, the leaks from the cabinet room have been for a political advantage, ie bringing instability into the government in order to initiate a coup. 

Consider these; - 

These headlines speak for themselves.

Most significantly the leak about the planned reshuffle of senior ministers triggered the events of yesterday.

Herald Sun Sep 11,2015 - Cabinet leak is very messy

There is a possibility that the information is untrue

There have been several recent stories which relied on anonymous sources that have proved to be untrue. The one that comes to mind is the story that Mr Abbott had refused to meet with the same sex partner of Australia's ambassador to France. 

SMH May 5,2015 - Ambassador to France offers resignation after bizarre Abbott airport incident

And then proven to be false; -
The Australian May 6,2015 - Abbott had dinner with ambassador in Paris after snub

The news value does not warrant whatever the source want to achieve

Most of the above stories carry no news value other than to show that there is internal division in the cabinet. This is of course news, but it is in fact the very objective the source is trying to achieve. In other words by printing the story the journalist is providing no more information than what the source wants to achieve.
It is clear that, by the criteria outlined by the SJP a professional journalist would not have published these stories. Indeed a professional journalist should never use anonymous sources in these political 'white-anting' situations.

Oh, for a more ethical media

It seems a lonely cry into the ether, but I implore our professional media to look at their role as reporters of truth, without fear or favour. Do not become become the 'assassin's knife', do not accept anonymous leaked stories from treacherous MPs. By doing so you would not be failing your journalistic profession , on the contrary you would be practicing what the Society of Professional Journalists suggest is ethical best practice. 

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