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Bulldust

The importance of calling out rubbish

Peter Fray, former editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, told the Senate media inquiry today that politicians should refrain from using the phrase “fake news” for stories they don’t like. A more succinct option was available to them: “bullshit”, or “bulldust”.

Fray is right. We might distrust politicians and therefore apply an automatic discount to the value of pretty much everything they say, but they still possess the tallest soapboxes and the largest loudspeakers, and their words have an impact. “Fake news” has taken on a very specific meaning, namely stories that have been maliciously concocted to spread false facts. Every time a politician calls a legitimate – but contestable – story “fake news” they cheapen the news media and its value, and make it that much harder for the truth to take hold.

With that in mind, I can’t go past a small part of the testimony to the same media inquiry of Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood, who today said, “You don’t necessarily have to have a multitude of publications to have scrutiny of those institutions. It’s not so much who owns the organisation, as long as you’ve got at-scale journalism in your community you’re going to get decent scrutiny.”

This isn’t a lie. Nor is it “fake news”. It is, however, bulldust. Ownership matters enormously. Anyone not think a Rupert Murdoch–owned publication bears Murdoch’s influence? Anyone think the Washington Post hasn’t improved under Jeff Bezos? More practically, lack of diversity in ownership has a massive impact. It is not usually a long jump from media outlets being owned by the same media companies to those media outlets sharing content. As soon as those media outlets share content, there are fewer journalists needed to provide that content. That means fewer people looking into institutions, into politicians, into what the facts actually are. It’s basic probability: there is less chance the truth will come out. (To be fair, Hywood backed the principle of media diversity.)

Sometimes this isn’t even a question of investigative journalism, though. It can be a matter of there being a sufficient number of journalists, with different backgrounds, working for different editors beholden to different owners, to ensure the right questions are being asked.

A small example should suffice.

Last Friday the treasurer, arguing against Labor’s proposed top personal marginal tax rate of 49.5%, said, “You’re basically saying, ‘Slog your guts out. Build a company like this and at the end of the day your great reward is you’ve got to work one day for the government and work one day for themselves.’”

This “work one day for the government and one day for yourself” argument was widely quoted. As far as I can tell, it wasn’t really challenged, except by Eryk Bagshaw, a journalist at – wait for it – Fairfax. (I concede it’s possible I’ve missed it somewhere, but certainly most outlets let it stand.)

Bagshaw didn’t only contest the statement, he explained to his readers in some detail what the facts actually were.

While the Treasurer’s comments suggest a 49.5 per cent permanent tax rate would mean half a person’s pay could go to the government and half towards the family budget, the Australian Tax Office’s own figures show that at the current temporary rate of 49 per cent, someone earning $190,000 is taxed at 31 cents for every dollar, while even the wealthiest 0.1 per cent of Australians earning more than $1 million a year are taxed at 42 cents.

This type of reporting is important. Our politicians say false things all the time, and will do so unless they are called out on it. Or even, in fact, when they are. This, however, is not an argument for not calling them out. On the contrary: it’s an argument for a diverse media, in which there are enough individual journalists willing to hold their ground that eventually the politician is forced to stop.

Morrison was so pleased with his line that he repeated it – twice – at a press conference on Saturday. On Sunday, he tried again, but this time Insiders host Barrie Cassidy called him out on it, finally forcing him to add the caveat “every extra dollar you earn” to the beginning of his formulation.

You might think I’m being precious, given that Morrison’s statement would be correct with that caveat added. But compare it to Paul Keating’s very clear argument of the same point, put in under ten words: you’re “confiscating almost half of people’s income over $180,000”. Keating’s formulation is correct. Morrison’s is, quite clearly, deliberately misleading.

It’s not “fake news”, mind you. It’s just wrong. But without a diversity of journalists, from a diversity of outlets, pushing that point, Morrison would have just kept on his merry way.

This particular point, about a tax rate proposed by the Opposition, might not matter that much in the grand scheme of things. But don’t forget that Donald Trump – perhaps the world’s greatest beneficiary of actual fake news – is today in strife of historic proportions, partly because he keeps saying things that aren’t actually true, and because the media keeps calling him out on it. He’s been lying about things for a long time and been allowed to get away with a lot of it. These things are best caught early. There’s never any guarantee of a well-functioning democracy, but a diverse media, backed by owners who care about journalism, stacked with journalists willing to call bulldust, is as good a place to start as any.

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About the author Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly was an adviser to prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. He is the Monthly’s politics editor.

@mrseankelly
 
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