Crying Bias A Tired ‘Old Media’ Story

Bias is in the eye of the beholder. Journalists are accustomed to being called both a “mad lefty” AND “right wing apologist”, all within 24 hours.

This is why regulation is required, to maintain appropriate objectivity.

However, when this restricts an interviewer from extracting an answer, it’s nothing less than an attack on democracy.

This is what happened in the review of Sarah Ferguson’s interview with Treasurer Joe Hockey on ABC TV’s 7.30, upon the release of last year’s budget.

Ms Ferguson used a common technique: asking the toughest question first. The aim is to knock the interviewee off balance, eliciting an honest response.

“Now, you’ve just delivered that Budget. It’s a Budget with a new tax, with levies, with co-payments. Is it liberating for a politician to decide election promises don’t matter?” Ms Ferguson asked. (If Gogglebox was on air, we would have heard whoops and hollers from lounges across the land…)

An ABC-commissioned editorial review, by former AFR editor Colleen Ryan, has found, “the factual basis of the question was correct… the positioning was reasonable” but “it was the tone… that resulted in the Treasurer appearing to be under attack”.

“Specifically,” she writes, “the language in Ms Ferguson’s first question was emotive. I also believe that the average viewer would consider that the Treasurer was not treated with sufficient respect by the interviewer”.

(And here I was, thinking respect must be earned. How silly of me.)

Increasingly sophisticated training techniques are turning out leaders adept at avoiding the truth. Journalists have a responsibility to cut to the kernel, as Ms Ferguson did: “I don’t need to teach you, Treasurer, what a tax is. You know that a co-payment, a levy and a tax are all taxes by any other name. Am I correct?”

“I can’t see in any way how that interview breached the Code of Ethics,” says CEO of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, Paul Murphy.

But Colleen Ryan goes further, making the absurd observation that Hockey’s poor performance had an impact on perceptions of Ms Ferguson’s tone.

Apparently, Ms Ferguson made more interruptions in an interview with Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen, but he “performed extremely well in the interview – as opposed to Hockey who appeared tired and rattled. The composure of the interviewee can affect perceptions of bias” Ryan concluded.

So, let me get this straight: If an interviewee crumbles under pressure, a journalist can be sanctioned for bias? My, how Orwellian.

Fortunately, the findings have been rejected by ABC News director, Kate Torney. But it raises questions about the relevance of old media structures in the age of disruption.

Consumers are turning away from the MSM (mainstream media), frustrated by the cosy relationship between members of the second and fourth estates. They feel disenfranchised by the ruling elite; this decision does not disabuse them of this notion.

I remember interviewing then Prime Minister John Howard about the children overboard affair. A couple of minutes before the interview, the senior political reporter at the network handed me a list of Dorothy Dixers.

“Thanks anyway, but I have my own questions,” I said.

“Well, you’ve got to understand that I’m in the Gallery,” he said. “The PM can make life difficult for me if we go too tough on him.”

“But, isn’t it our job to ask the hard questions?” I replied.

Modern media is breaking down these old hierarchies: perhaps it’s the politicians who should be showing more respect?

During my three decades as a journalist, countless pollies have hung up on, stormed away from, and verbally abused me. My first interview, straight out of university, was with then Queensland Premier, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen. When the questions got too much he mumbled something about “feeding the chooks” and slammed down the phone.

This is what journalists contend with every day. Sometimes, you have to fight fire with fire.

At the end of her report, Colleen Ryan concludes that Ms Ferguson “is an aggressive interviewer who treats both sides of politics in the same manner and gives no sense of where her own political views may lay”.

So, is there a problem with the ABC’s Impartiality Guidance Notes, or the reviewer’s interpretation of them? I would say, both.

Much is written about modern politics being more combative: so, too, must modern journalism. Otherwise, the third estate will remain beholden to vested interests.

What do you think? Was Ferguson fair? How well are you being served by the old media?