The starstruck broadsheet press

It’s election time, the season of celebrities and worthies adding their names to open letters and political advertising. A range of them have put their names on an ad designed to pressure Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull to change his mind on Gunns’ Tasmanian pulp mill. And why wouldn’t they? When it comes to this kind of thing the Fairfax press especially is as starstruck as Who magazine’s celebrity-obsessed readers, with The Age giving their opinions prominent front page coverage this morning. According to The Age,

Among the signatories are film director Phillip Noyce, actors Bryan Brown and Rebecca Gibney, playwright David Williamson, celebrity chef Kylie Kwong, Fairfax Media deputy chairman Mark Burrows, Rowena Danziger, a member of the Publishing and Broadcasting board, and Leo Schofield, a former director of the Sydney Festival.

But why should we care what any of these people think about this issue, or indeed on anything else except on things related to their narrow area of achievement or expertise (and perhaps not even that)? Would-be serious papers like The Age should show far more scepticism than they do.

The only signed advertisement I have liked appeared in the SMH a month ago. It was a full-page memorial for Ken Dyers, leader of the wacky Kenja cult, who killed himself rather than face (yet more) charges of sexually assaulting under-age girls. No need for too many tears in this case, I expect. But the signatories were, I thought, unwittingly but amusingly subversive of the whole signed ad phenomenon. Take these examples: Simon Winn, qualified carpenter; Linda Beachley, receptionist; Stevana Geurreiro, Dip, Make-up Artistry; Shane Grant, baker; Chloe Pape, hair stylist; David Pilkington, refrigeration tech; Eoin McGettrick, locksmith. All good, if unintentional, satire on the idea that occupations confer authority on opinion.

What is a ‘conflict of interest’?

Twice in recent months I have become involved in blogosphere debates about claimed conflicts of interest. First I disputed James Farrell’s argument that ABC TV news needed to disclose the fact that finance presenter Alan Kohler also operates a financial advice newsletter, which in turn is partly financed by a firm that had links with companies that Kohler reported on for the ABC. Then this week I questioned Andrew Leigh’s suggestion that Westpac CEO Gail Kelly had a conflict of interest when she was reported suggesting that the RBA would not increase interest rates again this year. According to Andrew L:

nowhere does the journalist mention the key commercial conflict: people who expect a rate rise will be less likely to buy a Westpac variable rate mortgage.

The basic problem behind the concept ‘conflict of interest’ is that the different roles people play can have different interests attached to them. There is said to be a ‘conflict of interest’ where a personal interest might be put ahead of the interests of those relying on the person’s words or actions.

The ‘interests’ in conflict often have different definitions. The personal interest seems almost always, as it was in the two blog cases, to be related to financial or material gain, for the individual, or those associated with the individual. Other personal interests don’t seem to classed as potential conflicts, even if they could be seen to be bad for other reasons. If someone offers commentary on interest rates because they like getting their name mentioned in the media, that isn’t going to be seen as a conflict of interest, despite that person’s interest in publicity.

The interests with which the personal financial interest is conflicting are far more varied. Continue reading “What is a ‘conflict of interest’?”

Biased poll respondents on biased journalists

There was more evidence in a Morgan poll earlier this week that ABC bias is perhaps the most lost of the lost conservative causes. In Morgan’s survey of media bias, just 2.5% of respondents could specify the ABC or one of its presenters as being biased to the left.

Overall, the survey suggests that perceptions of media bias are more the result of respondent bias than of specific grievances. While 24% of respondents thought that newspaper journalists were too left-leaning, only 3.5% could name a specific journalist or newspaper as being too left-wing. Similarly, of the 19% of respondents who thought that newspaper journalists were too right-leaning, only 3.5% could name a specific journalist or newspaper. Further, most of the journalists nominated as ‘biased’ to the left or right are columnists, and to say that a columnist is biased isn’t necessarily a criticism.

There is a similar phenomenon at work in attitudes towards politicians, in which politicians in general receive lower ratings for trust than the most well-known politicians (including the Prime Minister, even after years of people accusing him of being ‘tricky’ or a liar). Stereotypes are poor predictors of attitudes to specific members of the class of person being stereotyped.

A rushed report

The Premier even thanked the media, saying he respected the role journalists play. Said state rounds ere among [the] most professional in country. (emphasis added)

But even the most professional reporters can include a typo and miss a word when breaking a big story, the surprise resignation of Victorian Premier Steve Bracks. From The Age online, 10.54am.

Are workers stranded in pre-backflip AWA jobs?

The media will, naturally, find the bad news in every WorkChoices story. On the weekend, both the Fairfax broadsheets began their AWA back-flip stories with the losers that fit the narrative on the story – not employers whose bargaining options had been reduced, but the workers who had already signed AWAs. According to the SMH

HUNDREDS of thousands of workers will be left behind by the reintroduction of the “no disadvantage test” by the Federal Government.

And according to The Age

Tens of thousands of workers will be left stranded on work contracts that strip them of penalty rates, overtime and public holiday pay with no compensation, despite Prime Minister John Howard’s move to soften his controversial WorkChoices laws.

But there is more in this than just the journalist’s sense that the negative aspect is the news and that the seemingly weakest party must be in the right. It reflects the powerful legacy of the old IR system on the way people think about the issue, that the law alone protects wages and conditions. Little consideration is given to the way that employees take things into their own hands to improve their lot.
Continue reading “Are workers stranded in pre-backflip AWA jobs?”

Same story, different headline

Me first, family later, says rich Sydney

Sydney Morning Herald, 27 April 2007, reporting that:

SYDNEY’S most affluent citizens may be the most shallow and selfish people in the Asian region, placing lifestyle and real estate acquisition over family wellbeing in their list of priorities.

You guessed it, Sydney the most selfish, shallow

The Age, 27 April 2007, reporting that:

SYDNEY’S most affluent citizens are the most shallow and selfish people in the Asian region, placing lifestyle and real estate before family wellbeing on their list of priorities.

Why not all the Right is against the ABC

According to Robert Manne in today’s Age

THE right in Australia is greedy. Even though it now dominates political commentary on commercial radio and television and throughout the Murdoch press, for the past decade it has been conducting a concerted campaign to root out the pitiful remnants of left-wing thinking still found inside the ABC. The long campaign has been conducted by Quadrant and The Australian; by think tanks such as the Institute of Public Affairs and the Centre for Independent Studies (emphasis added)

In fact, the CIS has been rather more interested in appearing on the ABC than rooting out the ‘pitiful remnants of left-wing thinking’ still to be found wandering its corridors. When I put ‘ABC bias’ in in the CIS‘s search engine it turned up only three passing references. When I put ‘centre for independent studies’ in the ABC search engine I get 520 documents, and there are more that just refer to the ‘CIS’.

As I explained in a Catallaxy post last year, I’m not a fan of the ‘ABC bias’ argument. It’s not that I think ABC staff don’t lean to the left; left-wing causes do get more coverage there than elsewhere (though this mainly shows in issue selection; they do try to provide balance once they have picked a topic). But I doubt this greatly increases the total of leftist broadcasting in Australia compared to what we would have without the ABC. There’s a market for leftist ideas, as The Age shows in making money out of a soft left broadsheet and book publishers show by making money out of selling books denouncing capitalism, US foreign policy etc etc. So if it wasn’t the ABC it would be some other institution.

I think this makes the preoccupation with ‘ABC bias’ a strategic mistake by the political right. Even if the ABC’s ‘pitiful remnants’ were left to wander the streets of Ultimo and Southbank (and wherever their studios are in other cities) nothing much would change in the overall political complexion of Australian debate. Devoting significant energy to achieving a reform that would make little practical difference is a mistake the CIS has avoided making.

Aside from strategy, the ABC actually has many virtues to go with its few vices – it gives far more time to explain complex ideas than other radio stations, most of the news programmes are pretty good, and best of all it schedules lots of excellent English television. Yes, I know, ‘middle class welfare’, but one of the few federal government services I actually use for all the taxes I pay.

News judgment

Some rather different news judgment in The Weekend Australian compared to The Age:

Howard minister in Burke web

THE Howard Government’s savage attack on Kevin Rudd backfired sensationally last night when Human Services Minister Ian Campbell admitted meeting in his office disgraced former premier turned lobbyist Brian Burke.

lead story, print edition of The Weekend Australian, 3 March 2007.

Burke invitation boasted of Rudd’s presence

[one sentence coverage at paragraph 5]:

Another twist came yesterday with news that federal Liberal minister Ian Campbell met Mr Burke in June last year to discuss a Perth development.

page 6 story, The Age, 3 March 2007.

At 10.15am this morning The Age put on its website the AAP version of the Weekend Australian story.

One sentence on page six is probably close to the inherent news value of the Campbell meets Burke story. But in light of the Coalition beating up the Rudd-Burke meetings this week, the Weekend Australian wasn’t wrong in giving it prominent coverage.

Update: Campbell shot down by friendly fire.

One for the political history buffs: has an Australian Minister ever resigned over a more trivial matter?

Contrasting takes on Lebanese migrant policy in 1976

Crackdown as Lebanese refugee program gets out of hand

THE Fraser cabinet decided to crack down on Lebanese immigration after being advised by officials based in Cyprus that it had become difficult to check the refugee claims and there was a possibility that terrorists and criminals were using the civil war as a cover to enter Australia.

Documents presented to cabinet by immigration minister Michael MacKellar said the Lebanese refugee program had “got out of hand and the department was scraping the bottom of the barrel with regard to quality”.

Notes prepared by the head of the community affairs branch and attached to cabinet submission “860” said: “There are regular reports of deliberate dishonesty and misrepresentation by applicants and their agents.” …

At the time immigration authorities had more than 10,000 applications for residency from Lebanese. With the number of arrivals jumping at the rate of 150 a week, cabinet decided to tighten the conditions for entry, which had been relaxed by the Whitlam government and extended by the Fraser government.

The Age
, 1 January 2007.

Fraser was warned on Lebanese migrants

IMMIGRATION authorities warned the Fraser government in 1976 it was accepting too many Lebanese Muslim refugees without “the required qualities” for successful integration.The Fraser cabinet was also told many of the refugees were unskilled, illiterate and had questionable character and standards of personal hygiene.

Cabinet documents released today by the National Archives under the 30-year rule reveal how Australia’s decision to accept thousands of Lebanese Muslims fleeing Lebanon’s 1976 civil war led to a temporary collapse of normal eligibility standards.

The emergence of the documents raises the question of whether the temporary relaxation might have contributed to contemporary racial tensions in Sydney’s southwest, which exploded a year ago into race-based riots in Cronulla.

In September 1976, as a humanitarian response to the civil war raging at the time between Lebanese Christians and Muslims, cabinet agreed to relax rules requiring immigrants to be healthy, of good character and to have a work qualification.

and at paragraph 27, on a different page of the paper:

Cabinet agreed with Mr MacKellar and authorised him to issue a press release attributing the decision on curbing the intake to concerns about a lack of work opportunities for the migrants.

The Australian, 1 January 2007.

This morning’s papers provide a good example of how differing political agendas between newspapers can lead to very different interpretations of the same story – in this case, the release of the 1976 Cabinet documents. The Australian seems most guilty of spin here – unless you read right to the end of their lead story you would not realise that the Fraser government had realised there was a problem with refugees from Lebanon, and tightened eligibility criteria after an earlier relaxation. Indeed, I did not pick up on this important element of the story until I subsequently read The Age‘s very different take on the Cabinet papers. But The Australian wanted to draw a link with contemporary problems among the Lebanese, and probably have another go at Fraser, and so let the initial relaxtion of migration rules dominate the story. I’m not usually a fan of The Age, but here they have shown the value of media diversity.