Media in liberal democracies like Australia are bound by a solemn obligation toward ‘balance’ – the nebulous notion that truly objective news should pay equal attention to both sides of contentious debates.
In a perfect world, where every argument has as much weight and validity as any other, this would be reasonable, even necessary. To a country brought up on a diet of high school debating competitions and current affairs programs, it makes sense.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work that way.
Our political landscape is littered with debates imbued with catastrophic inequality of argument. In my opinion, only a dedicated contingent of wing nuts honestly distrust vaccination (Rastas‘ views on vaccination in I am a Conscientious Objector drew a massive reply from both sides of the debate), for example, and there is scant scientific justification for their position. Regardless, the media insists on giving them a soapbox on which to rant, spit and rave – all toward the goal of building a shaky non-partisan image. Arguments without any merit are amplified and accepted scientific orthodoxy is de-emphasised. It’s a feeble pre-emptive attempt to hand-wave away accusations of bias. For the casual observer, it would seem as if the anti-vaccination crusade is more than a conspiracy theory. This is dangerous.
A few months ago, U.S. based fact-checking organisation Politifact expanded its operations to our golden shores. It promised a broad, non-partisan effort to pick apart the public statements of the politically influential. In theory, it’s a beautiful idea. An extra layer of accountability for politicians? Sign me up. But, much like its U.S. counterpart, Politifact is eager to avoid treading on any toes. Take a look at the website: it’s a careful one-to-one split between statements by the Liberal Party and the Labor Party. The organisation doesn’t want to imply that one party is more likely to distort the truth than the other, whether or not it might be true. Even our fact-checkers are beholden to how sacrosanct ‘balance’ is. On June 3, Politifact issued its first decree on the truthfulness of the Liberal Party’s rhetoric on asylum seekers. Their verdict? Half-true. That means nothing. It’s middle-of-the-road bullshit – a barely concealed attempt to give credibility to both sides of the debate.
Balance in media is a fool’s crusade. The endless pursuit of this myth has led to the erroneous christening of the ‘climate change debate’. This is a misnomer of some magnitude. Debates about climate change take place in pubs, not in laboratories. The science is beyond settled. Your conservative uncle may have made a compelling counter-argument at last year’s Boxing Day barbecue, but there are few scientists who would agree with him. Even if he does cook a mean marinated lamb shoulder.
Most of the blame for climate change denial tends to be directed at rich and powerful lobbyists – the Gina Rineharts and Clive Palmers of the world. This finger-pointing is somewhat misguided. There’s a structural problem here: a media obsessed with turning every issue into a clear-cut ‘us vs. them’ narrative. In the continuing media discourse around climate change, scientists are not ‘experts’ any more than the CEOs of coal mining companies. Instead, they’re merely participants in an un-winnable debate. The intellectual rigour of scientific inquiry is stripped from the discussion, and the resulting sludge is passed off as a football match. Pick a side – it’s anyone’s game.
Media in a liberal democracy does its best not to pick sides in contentious ethical and scientific debates. The motivations behind this goal are, despite some obvious misgivings, egalitarian and admirable. The danger we face is in allowing the media to distort settled science and transform objective fact into something subjective and debatable. Gina Rinehart controls the discourse on climate change in middle Australia.
But only because our media gives her a platform upon which to do it.