July 23, 2014
Neutrality’s dead, stupid!
Media-monitoring programmes on public television, like Channel 7’s 6,7,8, highlight journalism in transition.
“A succession of leftist or left-of-centre presenters who use the public broadcaster as a pulpit from which they lay down the law on journalistic standards,” was how one columnist described it. “A greater plurality of views can be heard on Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News channel in the US,” he claimed. The television programme was “all bark, no bite and very few facts,” he added. And the presenter? Well, he “failed miserably to meet the journalistic standards he requires of others.”
Since claims of bias, a lack of self-criticism, and thus their inappropriate use of taxpayers’ money, are common criticisms of public broadcasters the world over, columnist Gerard Henderson’s barrage on February 22 could have quite easily been read about any of the public broadcasters in the US (National Public Radio), New Zealand (Radio NZ National), Qatar (Al Jazeera) or Argentina (Channel 7) that run media-monitoring programmes supposedly aimed at keeping journalists and their employers honest and accountable, or at the very least, on their toes.
Anderson was actually taking aim at Media Watch on the public Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and was writing for The Australian, the country’s symbolic conservative daily that’s decided to take on the public broadcaster over allegations its media-monitoring programme unfairly attacks the paper’s owner, News Corp Australia.
If that sounds familiar, 6,7,8 on Argentina’s public television channel, Canal 7, uses a similar format to criticize the media, and is also occasionally a favourite foe of the country’s large private media companies, which now thanks to 6,7,8 have over the past few years had their wings clipped slightly with society now seemingly willing to jump in on the act of second guessing what these companies print, publish and profess. (A more severe clipping has come now with the Audiovisual Communication Services Law that’s now forcing companies like Grupo Clarín to disinvest into more reasonably-sized companies.)
Since its early days in 2008, a lot has been said about 6,7,8 as a publicly funded programme that allegedly lacks good old journalist traits like impartiality and neutrality and which too often blindly sides with the government.
But it’s not alone. That same angle is taken by a range of critics of Media Watch and the ABC in Australia (only usually when the government is “leftist or left-of-centre”) and in the US against Al Jazeera, which two Tuesdays ago launched its “America” service on US pay television to an outcry from the likes of Fox News, who allege the channel has an “anti-American” bias and is supposedly taking orders from the oil-giant, Qatar, that funds it.
The assumption generally put forth is that these programmes — and broadcasters in the case of Al Jazeera — are supposed to be performing some type of public service with — as the term “public” might demand — a broad range of voices and visions, neutrality, impartiality and so on.
National University of Quilmes media expert Santiago Marino suggests that this is not necessarily too much to ask of a state-run broadcaster like Argentina’s Channel 7, which, he says, “should be public, not governmental.”
In Argentina, “never has the editorial line on public television — neither on the most political programmes, or debates or news broadcasts — stopped being pro-government. It’s a problem, an error, and I’m very critical of it,” he told the Herald, noting that in no way was this to say he thought neutrality and independence were possible.
He also cautioned that “this is not an invention of the Kirchner era” that gave breath to a show like 6,7,8.
“A pro-government editorial line is a historical characteristic of the content of this country’s public television,” he says. “It’s is the badge it’s always worn.”
On the other side of the equation, the people behind 6,7,8 claim the programme acts as a sort of counterbalance against large media groups that act in their own interests when handling and delivering information to the public. And you can forget traditional expectations of journalism, as well.
“Of course, no media analyst believes that neutrality and independence exist in journalism,” said 6,7,8 panellist Cynthia García, who claims there’s a double standard in media that profess to play that game.
“The same people who know these things don’t exist are the ones pushing forth the fallacy of independence and neutrality in the media,” she told the Herald. “TN (Clarín’s 24 hour television news channel) tells you ‘We’ve got the truth,’ and you sit there watching as if the revelation was about to happen.”
The show’s producer, Diego Gvirtz, took a similar line when speaking to the Herald: “What the programme does is demonstrate a certain handling, a certain distortion of information carried out by some media.”
Up against the big boys
But 6,7,8 is not the only programme in the world with a media-monitoring format to generate criticism, nor is it the only one to function in a media environment where large corporations have concentrated access to multiple media platforms through massive amounts of capital and fairly unrestrictive legislation surrounding ownership. This, not to mention a lack of enforcement by watchdogs of the best practice that some media allege is lacking in the public sphere.
For its part, News Corp enjoys the greatest concentration of any one medium in the world, as the handler of 70 percent of Australia’s print media. It also has interests in pay television and online media, of which it’s a pioneer of paywalls, at least in the Australian market. Grupo Clarín, you say? Worldwide, News Corporation owns media like BSkyB, The Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Post, The Sun and Fox Broadcasting company.
This year News Corp’s conservative masthead has made an acute target out of the feather-ruffling Media Watch programme, amid an ongoing debate about the performance of the taxpayer funded ABC radio and television broadcaster that both produces and broadcasts the programme.
“A big orange warning light should have been set flashing by the publication last year of his book on Murdoch and his media empire, Breaking News: Sex, Lies and the Murdoch Succession,” wrote Terry McCrann for The Australian on March 29, in reference to host Paul Barry. “Instead, it was clearly seen inside the ABC as a recommendation for the job — a pointer to the broader and even more disturbing culture and biases of the organization.”
In the months prior, The Australian ran at least a dozen articles criticizing the programme and Barry, including information about his income, and accusations similar to McCrann’s, that he is “obsessed, utterly obsessed, with Rupert Murdoch” and News Corp’s alleged journalistic failures.
“As a consequence of his obsession, he is fundamentally compromised as the public face of Media Watch in its purported, self-ordained role as a disinterested observer of the Australian media and objective arbiter of what it claims to be journalistic high crimes and misdemeanours,” McCrann wrote.
It’s a showdown that’s not necessarily unusual for News Corp (and perhaps only slightly for The Australian, which compared to some of the company’s other publications generally tends to be less sensationalist.)
In fact, News Corp has a record of openly engaging in political campaigning, especially through its tabloids.
In the lead up to last year’s federal election, The Courier Mail in Brisbane, ran on its front page: “Does this guy ever shut up?” in reference to then prime minister Kevin Rudd, while two weeks earlier on Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph it had been: “Now you finally have the chance to… kick this mob out,” again referencing the Rudd administration.
The result of that election was a change in government to conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott and the Liberal Party, whose current Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull recently indicated that he was sympathetic to calls to deregulate some aspects of media ownership including audience “reach rules” that, if loosened, could allow a company like News Corp to simultaneously own stakes in free-to-air television network, print and pay television. (This is contrast to the previous Labor governments, which had proposed an overhaul of media law, including starting up an independent watchdog and rules to prevent media concentration, proposals that were intensely criticized by many private media owners.)
At an event at the University of Melbourne last week, the ABC’s managing director, Mark Scott, shed a little light on his thoughts about News Corp’s recent coverage of the ABC, taking into account the company’s papers which have also honed in on competitor Fairfax, which some observers suspect could be close to downsizing.
“The reason it (News Corp) feels like the media battle is being waged as though it’s winner-takes-all is because that’s exactly what it is,” he said. “There are plenty of voices, but there will not be plenty of newspapers with different people controlling them.”
What’s more, Scott alluded to the prospect of the Australian media becoming more partisan.
“As Fox News has shown in the US, it’s a way to make very significant money while others around are struggling,” he told the audience.
Neutrality’s dead, stupid!
Perhaps one of the virtues of a programme like 6,7,8 is that its production team and panellists make no pretence that the programme isn’t somehow run on an editorial line that regularly favours the government. Neutrality and independence are not humanly possible, they say.
Gvirtz indicates there’s an argument to be made in that 6,7,8 simply defends the government by default, since the current Cristina Fernández de Kirchner administration, like the results or not, has made a clarion call out of social justice and the re-nationalization of state assets, in other words, “what’s public.”
“I believe this government has to defend what’s public, which in other governments doesn’t happen,” he says. “It defends what’s public honestly, with errors and it does have its errors, many of them. In the case of 6,7,8, our interests are therefore generally aligned.”
However, it’s precicely for this reason that the show has developed a reputation, which — right or wrong — Santiago Marino says, has made it “exclusionary” in audience terms.
“It’s proven that what the audience does is flee and return, or change channels,” he said, of the programme’s scheduling between the prime-time soccer matches of Fútbol Para Todos.
It’s just one of the many challenges the show faces.
Another is maintaining credible adherence to an editorial line that regularly defends what the government says and does for the public when the government itself might not necessarily be coherent in what it’s saying and doing for the public. What’s more, if in fact it aims to underscore some of the inconsistencies and manipulations within the media like other similar programmes in the world, 6,7,8 and its team are realizing that the show could also benefit on a number of fronts by having critics both participate in and watch the programme.