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Saturday, 6 October 2012

Speech should be free. (And free of spin.)

Public speech is fraught with risk, even
in a liberal democracy like Australia.
I think most people reading this in places like Australia are content to be living in a liberal democracy. It's regrettable that words like "democracy" and "freedom" have been pretty thoroughly quarantined for exclusive use by a certain sector of the looney Right, because they are important. One of the things they have come to enable is freedom of speech. Words can be powerful, as we saw last year in the Arab world. In Egypt social media - a vehicle for words - served to galvanise millions who took to the streets and demanded, and got, the right to choose their government. Mohamad Morsi, the first Egyptian president, was recently in New York talking to a journalist from the NY Times during a break from carrying out his duties as head of state. It was a highly significant moment for me. American politicians can often be heard demanding more freedom of speech for the citizens of other countries. China, anyone? But the reality at home is not always perfectly rosy. Leaving aside the tremendously polarising matter of WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, the relationship between a nation's people and its government is highly fraught. The public sphere is a strongly contested arena.

Without spending too much time talking about the US Constitution and the freedom of speech that is enshrined in it, it's clear to many that journalists in the US get better access to representatives of their government, than we do here in Australia. In this country freedom of political speech is only guaranteed because of a bit of dainty work by the High Court dating back to 1997. It's worth pausing a bit to look at this closer. The logic of the "implied freedom" doctrine goes this way. The Constitution says there has to be "effective government". So the High Court ruled that IN ORDER FOR government to be effective there must be an informed electorate and IN ORDER FOR the electorate to be informed there has to be freedom of speech. It's a round about way of getting round the hassle (and risk) of changing the wording of the Constitution.

So the upshot of the doctrine is that effective government can only exist where the electorate is adequately informed. Without a proper degree of information the electorate is unable to carry out its democratic duty, which is to select the government's legislature and executive. Hence the importance of the media, an institution that has predated the advent of democracy in every country that employs democracy as its mechanism of self rule (with the possible exception of England, but that can be argued at length). The media is critical for the functioning of democracy. Frustrated trolls unable to participate in the public sphere without bad spelling and inflammatory remarks should be wary of slamming the media whenever it publishes something they disagree with. Their disagreement is probably not with the journalist writing or the company publishing the news, it's probably because the guy living down the street disagrees with their values. We live in a community. There is a diversity of opinion on any subject, debate or event that attains prominence in the public sphere.

We rely on our journalists to tell us the truth. Journalists are pretty cool people. They know a lot, they're articulate, and they can argue a point effectively. But again the picture is not perfectly rosy. Some say that the manufacture of news should take place in private, like the manufacture of sausages. It's not always pretty or edifying. It's also not easy to keep your job. The quantum of journalistic effort is decreasing as the quantum of public relations increases, ie there are fewer and fewer journalists every year and more and more PR flaks. And then there's the issue of access to sources.

The NY Times recently announced that it would not tolerate its journalists allowing sources to check quotes before they are published in stories. Reuters already had a rule like this in place. Some opined that the move would lead to more sources pulling out of stories they might otherwise participate in. Most people reading about the case would just be shocked to hear that the practice of quote checking was ever tolerated at all. "Outrageous," they might say. "It's all spin!" And so again the journalist gets the blame but people go on reading the news anyway. Troll heaven for a day or so. But I think a lot of people would be shocked to learn how hard it is to get quotes from sources, especially from government departments. In Australia government departments possibly without exception refuse to allow a journalist to talk directly on the phone with a source within the department, and so be able to record the conversation for use in his or her story. Questions have to be emailed to the department's media liaison office from where they are passed to the (one or more) sources before being redirected back to the media office, and then sent on to the journalist. Governments are not the same thing as politicians, who are elected representatives and live or die by the amount of time they secure on air or in print. The government is mainly made up of people who are employed under some form of contract, and who are obliged to adhere to a code of conduct. That departmental policy can include a gag clause that prevents departmental employees from talking to the media.

Journalists love quotes. They add colour and interest to a story and can very often drive the story's narrative forward. Editors are alive to the dynamic too. "Great quote from the salesman," an editor might say, "can you pull that up higher and then move your lede further down?" But emails sent from government departments are usually dry, placid, and dull. Yet it's all you've got to go with, so you use what they contain in your story and just hope your readers won't nod off in the middle. Another thing that journalist love (and readers, too: trolls stay quiet for a minute) is conflict. Sources don't, they hate it. A government department has a media office for a reason: to put the most positive spin possible on an issue that concerns it. The PR flaks employed therein have a simple raison d'etre: to control the message to the greatest extent possible so that it can achieve the aims of (usually) the minister responsible for the portfolio.

This fear of becoming embroiled in conflict can lead to quite ridiculous things happening. I once had a story about a new product development that involved a government department. Initially I wanted to just tell that story, but after doing the first interview, the big interview with the government scientist who had led the development effort, I changed my mind. Now I wanted to give readers more, and include the opinions of other players in the industry, some of who don't at all like the big corporation the government department had worked with to develop the new crop variety that was my main subject. So I talked to those outliers and then, in good faith, told the government department what I was now planning to do. Not only did the media flak ask me to kill the story, she also got a senior executive to personally call me trying to have the whole story, on which I had already spent a considerable amount of time, killed. Of course I refused. The process was intriguing, frustrating, and a bit laughable to be quite frank. But the public sphere is fraught even in liberal democracies.

There have been reports about the quantity of PR feed present in the daily news, up to 83 percent in some cases. Police reports in the news are especially leaden and uninformative because they are carefully worded missives received from the department and run entire with little or no subsequent work by a journalist. The police willingly release information to the media only when they want the media to help them to locate new information that can help the investigation. At other times they stay mum. Departmental policy in NSW completely prevents anyone in a local area command from talking with the media with the exception of the senior officer. 

There are many sources of frustration for Australian journalists so it's little surprise that the journalist's union granted a Walkley Award to Julian Assange last year. It's got nothing to do with personally liking Assange or not, and everything to do with one guy successfully securing access to information sources that a regular working journalist can only dream of. The biggest scoop since Watergate, a scoop in the nature of the Pentagon Papers. Legendary stuff. So journos applaud Assange and  wish him the best. Maybe readers can spare a thought for the lengths journalists often go to, to locate the sources they require to assemble the stories that readers rely on to stay informed. The future of democracy depends on them.

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