With the release of the 2018 Federal Budget, there has been great scrutiny of its content from media outlets of all leanings. This is a good thing, because in 2015 the focus was instead on the issue of media objectivity.  On budget night the ABC has extensive budget coverage, culminating with Leigh Sales interviewing the Treasurer and Shadow Treasurer post-budget-delivery. As the budget contains so much, it is ripe for in depth analysis of its impact, but also opportunity for making and breaking political capital. Three years ago the Budget Night interviews were the subject of high scrutiny. Accusations flew around that labelled Sales’ interview of then Treasurer Joe Hockey as “one-sided”, with The Australian’s Marie Hogg calling the interview “acrimonious and awkward”. This performance was in comparison to her later interview with Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen, who was said to be given a relatively “easier” time.

In recent times, scrutiny of the media has divulged into a two sided debate into the intentions behind lines of questioning and how interviews are conducted, both in print and electronic media. For example, in Barrie Cassidy’s recent infamous interview of Kelly O’Dwyer, his line of questioning was the perfect example of a rigorous interview in order to draw out answers to tough questions about the Royal Commission in the banking sector, so that the government could be held accountable. For others, Cassidy and the ABC’s editorial staff held an obvious bias and wanted to portray the Government and the Liberal Party in a negative light in the hopes that they could contribute to an electoral defeat, or at least continued unpopularity. What these views come down to is seeing a piece of reporting, whether it be an interview or an article, as objective or subjective reporting.

We hold the concept of objective reporting as the pinnacle in journalism, because it provides us with the facts and truth without any attached spin or agenda. However there is a difference between objectivity and neutrality. Neutrality is to explain both sides and conclude they both have valid points. The evidence speaks for itself because in theory people are smart enough to decide what the information put before them means. This is despite the fact that one point of view could be flat out wrong. Objective reporting is looking at the facts and questioning those involved about the facts. Bad objective journalism is when information is only selectively reported, or accompanied by ideological analysis. This is where a piece of journalism becomes biased and subjective, where you put forward your own assumptions and interpretations instead of conclusive evidence to support yourself. The quality of this reporting then becomes dependent on who you ask, and if they agree with these viewpoints or not. This is why typically people on the political Left disregard Andrew Bolt and those on the political Right tend to criticise Clementine Ford, because these commentators put forward subjective analysis which opposes the typical viewpoints of both sides.

Confusion over the meanings of neutrality and objectivity is extremely important in quite a divisive debate over how the media portrays stories. To go back to the ABC and another budget interview, Colleen Ryan, a former editor of the Australian Financial Review, was commissioned to audit the ABC’s 2014 Budget coverage. Within her report was an assessment of Sarah Ferguson’s interview of Joe Hockey as breaching the ABC’s impartiality guidelines in certain parts of the interview. As the ABC is a body created by statute and funded by public money, it is held to a higher standard of reporting than all other media organisations through its code of ethics, including these impartiality guidelines. Ryan’s final verdict was that some viewers could have interpreted the tone of the interview as biased. Whilst there was no shortage of supporters of this finding (namely Andrew Bolt and the Daily Telegraph) a larger proportion of the media community, both from traditionally left and right leaning platforms (The Sydney Morning Herald and Laurie Oakes), criticised this finding of the report. Notably, Ryan also commented that Ferguson, who also gave a tough interview to Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen on the same night, “treats both sides of politics in the same manner and gives no sense of where her own political views may lie.”

A perception of bias is quite different to actual bias itself. A perception of bias typically comes from the view that a report is not neutral in that it supports or critiques both sides equally. Intention to support one side over another is what actually creates bias. Aggressive questioning to find an answer is different from this intention. But it is important to note that information and facts are inherently biased themselves and will reflect either badly or well on the parties involved according to what they truly represent. If it is a true fact that not enough oversight by the Labor Government led to deaths in its Insulation Scheme, then that is something that they cannot hide from. Similarly, if the Coalition broke promises that were part of the platform that they were elected on, then that is something that must be established. Therefore one cannot cry bias just because the raw facts don’t portray their belief in the best of lights.

What neutral reporting actually represents is a free pass for government, opposition, and any other big stakeholders involved in a large community issue. Through choosing not to give context to a set of information and not passing individual analysis on it, falsehoods can be left to stand, decisions cannot be held properly accountable and the effects on different groups of people in society are left unheard. The bottom line is that governments and parties and various interests groups spend vast fortunes finding ways to manipulate information and public opinion. By striving to be neutral in reporting, you create bias towards those releasing the information. This is not a healthy proposition for Australia as a democracy.  The media is one of the key tools of accountability in a democracy, as it not only is there to gather the facts about decisions but to also discover the reasoning behind them.

The path that the Australian media seems to be heading towards is one where sensationalism and partisanship seems to dominate, with the two sides drawn up in Fairfax and News Corporation. Whilst this is most certainly related to drastic falls in readership and profits, and the industry’s efforts to adjust to this, the situation does not encourage good journalism. The ABC is certainly not a perfect organisation by any respect (see other parts of Colleen Ryan’s report), and neither is SBS. However, the fact that the ABC and SBS must and do abide by strict guidelines and opens itself up to independent review demonstrates that they at least make solid attempts at objective journalism.  Similar processes should be widely applied across the whole media sector in order to improve the standard of debate about policy in all aspects of Australian life. If the amount of Walkley Awards that the ABC and SBS win doesn’t indicate the quality of journalism that would be created if media organisations adopted and operated under similar guidelines and independent processes, then nothing will.

Thomas Coltrona