September 06, 2013

Horse 1539 - When It Is Not News

ABC's Media Watch has pretty well much been Australia's only really serious media analysis television program... well... ever. It is frequently accused of being biased, being written by a bunch of "ratbags" and for promoting the ABC's opinions. Media Watch even says of itself that "everyone loves it until they're on it".

The week before last, it ran a piece which looked at News Corp's and specifically The Daily Telegraph's bias in the run up to the 2013 Federal Election:
In the last two weeks the result is even clearer. 
Out of 107 stories:
59 in our opinion are quite clearly Anti Labor. While just four are anti the Coalition. Only three of the 
Tele’s stories are pro Labor, while 19 are pro the Coalition. And the rest are neutral.
- ABC Media Watch, 26th August 2013

These sorts of stories being as they are will often attract supporters and detractors on both sides of the political divide; in many respects politics is the same as the Celtic vs Rangers Old Firm matches, the difference being that after shouting at each other for 90 minutes, the supporters go home.

One comment however drew my attention and so I've decided to copy it in full:
You know as sure as God made little apples that the ABC has voted for Labor and your recent expose on Rudd's rudeness showed that. There was no need for the item about the make-up artist at all. It was hardly worth more than a moment. As for the Tele's bias the ABC's is as bad or worse. But then you must co-operate of be out of a job, eh? I liked your books. They are your strength but campaigning for the ABC and Labor is beneath you. Further your research and experience must show you that in any election News Corp or Fairfax or the like choose whom they will support. News Corp favoured Rudd in 2007. They are not as committed to balance as the public broadcaster should be but these days seems to have lost that characteristic.
- RH, 28 Aug 2013 5:55:33pm

This of course raises a very interesting point. It's all very very to accuse News Corp of bias but unless you actually look at the data, it's meaningless. I initially thought that maybe this may have been evidence of something called an "illusory correlation". That is, that we only tend to complain about things when they affect us for the worse. This also helps to explain why "the other lane always moves faster".
Is this merely a case of an illusory correlation which has been caused by a distorted influence of our memory on our judgments? Really the only way to properly answer that would be to collect empirical data.

I thought I'd have a look at the two final and therefore most heavily fought weeks of the 2007 election campaign.
From the 10th of November 2007 to 23rd November 2007, the Daily Telegraph ran 137 stories which could be described as political in nature. In my opinion, 48 were anti Labor, 9 were anti Coalition. 12 are pro Labor whilst 29 are pro Coalition. Curiously, 3 are sort of apologetic, perhaps lamenting the fact that Kevin Rudd would swing to power inevitably.
Of course even I could be accused of bias in collating the data and I'm sorry that I can't provide links because I was looking at these newspapers on microfilm at the State Library of NSW but I still thinks it illustrates the point.

It probably should have been obvious that The Daily Telegraph would show a degree of bias: every single writer who has ever existed displays bias. Because it is a commercially driven publication; living in a broadly rightist media group, of course it's going to act according to the business wishes of its owners. They even admit on their website that:
Our political clout stretches from MacQuarie St to The Hill in Canberra thanks to a team of dedicated journalists who work round the clock. We are dedicated to listening to what our readers feel most passionate about. We don't just publish transport woes, we offer solutions.
- Daily Telegraph website "About Us"

The newspaper doesn't pretend to be a newspaper of record; why should it? I even support the right of the paper and its owners to push any political views that they may have because the right to free speech is one of the fundamental cornerstones of an active democracy. What is at issue though is the use or power that flows from having only a few major sources of news and drivers of political thought.

The question which the ABC is asking; which the Daily Telegraph doesn't answer and to which the general public are I think for the most part too dim to understand, is one of fairness, and the truth is that both the ABC and the Daily Telegraph are politically motivated in answering that question.

It's worth at this point revisiting the words of Benjamin Disraeli, who I think spoke eloquently on this very subject:
It is the initial letters of the four points of the compass that make the word "news," and he must understand that news is that which collies from the North, East, West and South, and if it comes from only one point of the compass, then it is a class publication, and not news.
- British PM Benjamin Disraeli, speech in the House of Commons, 26 March 1855

Just how much of the "news" is actual news and which is mere opinion and therefore not news? How much of published opinion do you need to change the political views of a nation; to persuade dullards and the illiterati to vote in a particular way?
Moreover, is the Daily Telegraph brazen enough to run with the headline on Sunday when Tony Abbott is Prime Minister "It's The Tele Wot Won It"?... maybe.

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