Hostile media

Your precise opinion on this probably depends on what you already think of Tony Abbott, but no matter how you slice it he had a tough time on 7.30 last night. It's worth watching the interview, or at least reading the transcript (which is what I did).

I don't get The Australian and of course it's all behind a paywall now so I can't check online, but I strongly suspect that today or in the next few days we'll get a new round of commentary on the ABC's groupthink and left-wing bias. The predictability of this does not make it wrong, only amusing.

In my opinion this interview and the response to it speak to a problem with the way we think about independence, balance and bias in the media.

I'm not very interested in slicing and dicing with definitions to determine whether Leigh Sales was showing bias in that interview. The real question should be slightly different. We can probably all agree that Sales was quite aggressive and unrelenting in the course of interviewing Abbott. In the spirit of my post earlier this week, the important thing is not to figure out whether those characteristics qualify to be called bias - it's to decide whether they are reasonable, merited and/or ultimately useful.

In this light, we should look at the political media as a whole and see whether the interviewing tactics people are using are helpful to its overall purpose. This is actually a much more meaningful way of looking at the question of whether the media is skewing political debate one way or the other. After all, you can look at the media and note that people from one side of politics are aggressively interrupted and corrected more often than people from the other side. That's not necessarily a problem if people from one side of politics blatantly dodge questions or tell lies more often than people from the other side. (Not to say that this is the case in Australia, which I don't really believe.)

So: was Leigh Sales' aggressive approach helpful to providing a balanced public debate? Not 'was it balanced in-itself', which is pretty meaningless, but how does it affect the debate as a whole. Looked at this way, I think it's hard to say that forcing Tony Abbott to confront a view other than his own, explain its flaws and why his own position is better or more accurate, is a net loss for political discourse.

And yes, that's owning up and calling it "a view other than his own" rather than "facts". I'm happy with that. Facts, unfortunately, are very often far too disputed to be a helpful test. It's a good thing that Tony Abbott has to face someone else's views. It's also a good thing when Julia Gillard has to face other people's views. The more they do this in public media, the better.

Compare it to the alternative. When Tony Abbott says "the mining and carbon taxes caused BHP to abandon ODX", we get Leigh Sales questioning the truth of that. I can't see anything Michelle Grattan has written about it, but if she were in typical form she'd probably write an 'analysis'. She would explain how making this claim was in line with Abbott's strategy on the taxes, how public opinion is strongly against both taxes, and how the Gillard government is struggling under that pressure.

Net contribution to the public debate? None. That kind of journalism ignores the fact that the way Abbott's strategy relates to public opinion and to the state of the government is not independent of what journalists write. Maybe it was, once, though not during my life, but it certainly isn't now. So journalists can't sit back and report technical ins-and-outs about the strategy of governments and oppositions, because the reality is that the success or failure of those strategies is significantly determined by whether or not journalists question them and test them out.

I think media should be hostile. Hostile media holds politicians to account, and forces them to deal with inconvenient arguments, facts, quasi-facts and points of view in ways that they don't have to directly do very often. Of course hostile media outlets only raise the quality of public debate if they're relatively evenly spread. That reinforces my view, expressed before, that the most important thing in a media landscape is not any ill-defined idea of objectivity or balance, but real plurality.