Beyond Dualism: Reporting Conflicts in the Post-Electoral Mediascape

TMS PEACE JOURNALISM, 11 October 2010

by Jake Lynch – TRANSCEND Media Service

“On the one hand… on the other hand… in the end, only time will tell”. The formula we imbibed with our morning coffee at BBC World, where I presented over a thousand half-hour television bulletins, was seen as the secret of a successful career.

To ‘hear both sides’ is, of course, the surest way to avoid allegations of bias – but it elevates, to the status of convention, a way of reporting that divides the world around us into dyads: home and abroad (‘boat people’); humanity against nature (Pakistan floods); us and them (‘the Taliban’); Left against Right.

The last of these intersects with another journalistic staple, the primacy of official sources. These conventions are artefacts of the historic transformation of news into a marketing proposition in consumer societies. The political pressure on public broadcasters, to offer journalism as all-things-to-all-people, is a close cousin of the imperative in commercial media, to avoid putting off potential consumers of all political views and none.

If the news leads with, say, a statement by the Treasurer on the economy, it’s a choice; but one that comes with a built-in alibi. There is only one Treasurer, after all, and, from the paper’s or program’s point of view, it’s not ‘our fault’ that s/he is the incumbent of that office. To choose, instead, to foreground the words or deeds of a trade union, think-tank or Professor, would immediately invite the objection: why this one, not that one?

These conventions combine into a brand of reporting, here in Australia as elsewhere, that sometimes feels stultifying and is now at risk of dropping off the pace. Duels in the Canberra parliament feed off, and into, the dualistic template. The notoriously petty quality of the exchanges (‘he flicked me the finger!’; ‘he used a rude word, Mr Speaker!’) are part of the same paradigm. Up to now, there has been an obvious ‘objective correlative’ for the he-said, she-said journalistic narrative: viewers (as voters) are all corralled, by virtue of Australia’s electoral system, into supporting either one side, or the other.

Or are they? At this year’s federal election, the proportion of voters who followed former Labor leader Mark Latham’s advice to post an ‘informal’ or spoilt ballot is reckoned to have nearly doubled, and minor parties are suddenly poised to wield a major influence, with the Greens, buoyed by a record 13% of the popular vote, now holding the balance of power in the Senate.

It should be an opportunity for Australian journalism to take a new, sidelong view of what Pierre Bourdieu – one of the most influential thinkers in the social sciences – called the ‘doxa’: the set of assumptions and beliefs that remain, generally, unarticulated and (therefore) uncontested in public discourse.

Journalism in mainstream media tends to be one of the chief props of this state of affairs, as issues that the front benches of the two main political parties find inconvenient to discuss simply slide off the edge of the news agenda.

Recently, however, the strains have become more visible. The loss of Australian servicemen in Afghanistan tends to be met with solemn statements, by Ministers and their shadows, about the need to ‘stay the course’ until ‘the mission is accomplished’. At least now we are a little more likely to hear questions raised, about what ‘the mission’ consists of, and how likely it is that particular aspirations will be met. That narrows the gap between political opinion and public opinion, which has long since concluded, according to polling evidence, that what we might call the ‘missionary position’ – inscribed in official pronouncements – is at odds with the reality.

The ‘doxic space’ conceals paradoxes, including other important questions about Australia’s security, and place in the world, that were notable by their absence from coverage of the election. The country is advancing, surreptitiously but remorselessly, up the global league table of arms spenders towards the ‘top ten’, despite having no real military enemies – unless you count China, which is also our major trading partner and the biggest source of new Australian citizens. Perhaps the ultimate taboo subject is any fundamental discussion of our military alliance with the United States, where a struggle is now underway between the Pentagon and an incumbent President riding a wave of war-weariness that jeopardises future combat operations which, in turn, nourish the Military-Industrial Complex.

Then there is the curious conspiracy of silence over the growing inequalities in Australian society, and a Labor party that seems content to connive in them: siphoning public funds into private schools and trimming tax rates for the well-off, while means-testing breaks and benefits to the detriment of middle incomes. Don’t they know about the abundant research evidence showing more unequal societies to be less hospitable and more hostile places – more likely, surely, to vote on fear and greed, than hope and solidarity? Perhaps journalists should tell them.

“The media”, Michael Schudson said, “are formally disconnected from other ruling agencies because they must attend as much to their own legitimation as to the legitimation of the capitalist system as a whole”. In plain language, newspapers and news programs cannot afford to appear less well-informed, or more credulous, than their readers and audiences.

So, Australia’s electoral earthquake, puny as it was, could be a cue for a shake-up in the dreary dualism of reporting on public affairs. There is a premium on creativity to open up the doxa and find ways to focus on substantive questions, exemplified by the Sydney Morning Herald’s influential Earth Hour campaign: in its time, a way to raise to the agenda a subject of close concern to readers – namely, anthropogenic climate change – that the government of the day preferred to avoid.

Of course, the opportunities for individual reporters, even editors, are circumscribed by a host of other factors beyond their control. In considering the possibilities for changing the way journalists report, we have to balance the scope for individual agency against the constraints imposed by the structures – practical, political, economic – within which they work.

The new dispensation foregrounds the need for structural reform, too. We could begin by trying to make the public service provisions we already have, work properly. In common with other public broadcasters elsewhere, the influential Australian Broadcasting Corporation is sworn, in its Editorial Policies, to “present principal relevant views on matters of importance”, but this is trumped by a set of “news values”, drawn up by managers to exempt them from inconvenient obligations to look beyond Minister Tweedle-dee and his shadow, Tweedle-dum:

  • “Prominence: Status, power of the information source, or of the individuals or institutions involved in the event;
  • Personification:   Involvement of famous people even when what happens to them is commonplace”.

It’s a legacy of the political bullying the Corporation endured under the previous Liberal/National Coalition government of John Howard, in particular, but any conception of public interest should lead us to insist that the order of priorities be reversed: it cannot be right that principal relevant views be confined to the powerful and famous, and it clearly risks excluding substantial sections of the voting and viewing public.

Then we could connect with the concerns of news managers in commercial sectors, over how to fund labour-intensive investigative journalism on shrinking budgets as ad revenues decline. If good journalism can no longer be sustained by market mechanisms, there is a case for sustaining it by extra-market mechanisms – public money, foundation money, donated money.

But let no-one tell you nothing could be done differently. In London, my old Westminster beat, where I worked as a Pol Corr for Sky News, is adjusting to the new reality of coalition politics, and, judging from impressions, is becoming at least a bit more emboldened, to decide the questions and the agenda for itself.

It’s a well-worn observation that any British government goes through stages with the media alternately at its feet and at its throat. Up to now, David Cameron, the new Prime Minister, has enjoyed a generally good press. But that has not prevented some really rigorous engagement with some important  but awkward questions.

In the process, journalists have been reaching out for headlines beyond the ‘charmed circle’ of official sources. A study by a think-tank, showing the new Budget bearing hardest on the poor; a leaked report indicating that the Afghan National Army is never going to be in a position to ‘take over’ security on present terms, in flat contradiction of the Downing Street line; an opinion poll, commissioned by a university, showing most Britons would rather pay down the UK’s budget deficit through a wealth tax on the rich, than by cuts in public services. All have been prominent stories of late, and all indicate a ‘fourth estate’ in renewed health.

Journalism has become decentred, in the age of the blogosphere, and it is in danger of becoming devalued. If professional editors and reporters are to earn their keep, they cannot afford to remain boxed in the doxa. Come out, boys and girls, and don’t be afraid to play.

_________________________

Associate Professor Jake Lynch is Director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney. His new book, Reporting Conflict: new directions in peace journalism, co-authored with Johan Galtung, is published by University of Queensland Press.

A version of this article appears on the website of The Walkley, published by Australia’s journalists’ trade union, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA).

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