Media dead last in ethics stakes

The seventh Governance Institute of Australia’s Ethics Index scores the media dead last in its survey of perceptions of ethical behaviour in various sectors of the economy.

21% rank the media as very unethical and 25% rank it as somewhat unethical. Only 12% rank it as very ethical and 23% say it is neither unethical nor ethical.

When the research looked at media platforms the ABC topped the list with a net ethical rating of 52% and 22% saying it was very or somewhat unethical. Troubling, however, for the ABC is a 30% drop in its net score from 2021 to 2022.

The ABC was followed in order by Free TV, Linkedin, Radio, Streaming services such as Netflix and YouTube, podcasts, Pay TV, magazines, journalists, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and TikTok. Twitter, Facebook and Tik Top had net unethical ratings of 45%, 51% and 54% respectively. Twitter’s net ethical score did actually improve in its 2021 ranking marginally but what 2023 will show after Elon Musk and possible bankruptcy is another matter.

Newspapers have a 32% rating as being very or somewhat unethical and the journalists who write them are even more damned with 41% of the sample thinking they were somewhat or very unethical.

Sadly, the research doesn’t deconstruct why these rankings are what they are but it’s fairly easy to come up with reasons for the mainstream media performance.

Too much of it is in the format of he said, she said, they said in style while leaving out lots of other voices.

Too much is also not about news so much as speculation pondering with various degrees of inaccuracy what might happen.

For instance, in the 2019 political reporters totally underestimated how much Shorten was distrusted and his policies were feared by voters. They came to believe that Morrison was a miracle marketer who exploited it all for an amazing victory.

Roll around 2022 and the Morrison miracle story was so deeply imbedded that political commentators kept underestimating the chances of a Labor success. They ignored research which showed Morrison to be the most distrusted politician in Australia and the toxic relationship with women which created the lowest level of support among women in Liberal Party history.

The focus on gotcha moments which Adam Bandt killed off partly might have been a form of media self-gratifying public masturbation but it was meaningless to the vast majority of the voting public. The fact that the very young AFR journalist who asked the question of Bandt had to read the question, which he probably didn’t understand himself, indicated that he had been sent there by an editor with a special aim in mind which had nothing to do with furthering the policy debate.

The media was full of Teals coverage but few were suggesting success. After the success they thrashed around trying to find reasons – missing one of the most important. In every Teal seat victory the Labor vote was close to their lowest in history because many Labor voters voted tactically. Instead of picking up this point they talked about Labor’s low primary vote as if this diminished the victory.

Now, months after the 2022 election Peter Hartcher and James Massalo have a three part Age series on how Scott Morrison wrecked the Liberal Party. Pity they hadn’t told us earlier – perhaps the miracle marketer myth had blinded them.

In the last few weeks of the current Victorian election campaign the Herald-Sun has been publishing front page propaganda and innuendo about Andrews and dredging up conspiracy theories.

…..and this is just the media covering politics. When you turn to other areas there are many other examples. Why are strikes always selfish attacks on the public while business leaders and bankers mouth platitudes about the economy which are treated like sermons handed down from the mount?

Why are wages always driving inflation up with there is little or no mention of profiteering, price gouging and oligopolist realities?

Admittedly, in contrast, The Age and Four Corners have done some superb investigative journalism as has Kate McClymont of the SMH. The Age’s Adele Ferguson almost singlehandedly forced the banking Royal Commission.

In contrast though, there has been little coverage about how Morrison and Josh Frydenberg wound back the reforms which followed the Royal Commission.

On foreign policy Peter Hartcher and a host of Murdoch journalists have been in the forefront of urgent warnings about the China ‘threat’ reliably acting as stenographic recorders of Australian and overseas China hawks in what Geoff Raby has called the China Threat Industry. Although it’s not only the  Murdoch media in the lobby as the ABC’s Stan Grant is a sort of member as well.

Hartcher’s latest contribution (19 November) is to quote a US official Kurt Campbell, as saying China’s intimidation campaign against Australia has failed because of “strong, purposeful diplomacy”. More probably Xi just decided to take the opportunity to speak to the new Australian PM for some reason of his own but without making any promises.

Peter Dutton is also now calling for ‘open and honest dialogue in matters relating to the safety, security and prosperity of our region,”  but it took a scoop by Paul Bongiorno (The Saturday Paper 19 November) that the Chinese Embassy had blown his cover by reporting his meeting with the Chinese Ambassador Xiao Qian. Apparently, it is no longer treasonous appeasement to talk to the Chinese.

Although Bongiorno speculates that the backlash in the last election from Chinese voters in Bennelong may have had more impact than any sudden Dutton strategic rethink.

The stenographic record is epitomised by reporting on the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. 62% of ASPI’s funding comes from the Federal Government and 18% from foreign government agencies. Much of its work is about the “China threat” and how important the US is to Australia – despite the US dragging us into Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan and precipitating destructive impacts.

All in all some serious reflection, more unbiased analysis and less stenography might change the attitudes of those surveyed about the ethics of some sections of the media. But while the Mudoch media is still here significant change is unlikely.

More coming next week on what the Index says about others.