Competency, not truth, will decide this election

Guardian Australia’s political editor Lenore Taylor wrote that we’re heading to a post-truth election.

This might have come as a surprise to the many political observers who consider truth to be a quaint artefact from a golden age of politics that may not have actually existed. Truth, or its absence, has not been a deciding factor in politics for a very long time. Nor will it play a definitive role in the 2013 federal election.

The result will, however, pivot on the questions of trust and competency.

Taylor cites as evidence of the post-truth paradigm the Opposition’s current strategy of dismissing Government undertakings as lies or broken promises-in-waiting, while the Government paints its opponent as a bogeyman with manifold hidden agendas.

While “Politicians have always tried to paint their opponents in an unflattering way and cast doubt upon their promises and credibility,” says Taylor, these days “the story politicians tell about themselves and their opponents bears scant relationship to the actual policies on offer.”

But it has ever been thus.

As Laurie Oakes wrote last year “Let’s not beat about the bush. Tony Abbott tells lies. So what? Is there anything surprising about that? After all, he’s a politician”.

This view is supported in the opinion polls. Fourteen per cent of Coalition voters believe Tony Abbott won’t actually scrap the carbon and mining taxes. Twenty-eight per cent believe he’ll bring back WorkChoices. And yet they say they will vote for him.

The sad truth is that we expect politicians to lie: it is simply part of what they do. While we denounce the lies of politicians we’d never vote for, we forgive the untruths of those we support.

This ‘compact of deceit’ saw Prime Minister John Howard re-elected in 2004 even though voters believed he’d lied about the children overboard affair. Newspoll found the proportion of voters who perceived Howard to be trustworthy dipped from 57% in July to 51% in September that year. Nevertheless, Howard defeated Mark Latham just a month later at the October 2004 federal election even though Latham’s trustworthiness rating at the time was 61%.

That’s because voters considered Howard a competent Prime Minister and the trust they vested in him was to run a strong economy and make the right decisions for the nation. (Granted, there was no discussion of the structural deficit Howard ended up bequeathing to the nation’s future economy.)

So while Lenore Taylor picked the right examples of election strategy at play, she misinterpreted their intent. Both sides joust using the language of untruth, but in reality they’re evoking another thing altogether: the equally emotionally-vested concept of promises broken and expectations dashed through foolishness and incompetency.

Howard campaigned against Latham in 2004 with a strong economic track record allowing him to make a claim for trust and competency. Gillard finds herself unable to communicate a similar advantage over Abbott despite shepherding Australia’s economy through the GFC. Her backflip on the carbon tax, followed by the watered down mining tax and the missteps in dealing with asylum seekers, compounded by the people’s convention on climate change and the littany of strategically dumb decisions like announcing the election date early, has etched the PM’s reputation in voters’ minds as not only an oath-breaker, but a foolish and incompetent one at that.

While 27 per cent of voters currently say the Government is unpopular because people don’t trust Julia Gillard (followed by 19 per cent saying it is because the Government is divided and can’t govern properly), a staggering 71 per cent said the Labor Government will promise anything to win votes. Admittedly only four per cent less think the Liberal Party would do the same.

However it is in the competency stakes that the Liberals have the important edge: they’re seen as being better than Labor in having a vision for the future, understanding Australia’s problems, being in touch with ordinary people, having good leaders and keeping their promises.

Labor may think they’re tapping into voter unease about Tony Abbott by playing the truth card. But truth isn’t the same as trust, and as Mark Latham discovered to his detriment in 2004, even trust is a two-edged sword (see video below). Without competency, neither truth nor trust will win the federal election.

Truth, opinion and Australian journalism

My life has always involved words: I was a bookish adolescent, a competitive high school public speaker, did an English double major at uni, worked as a public relations consultant, a media adviser, a lobbyist, and now a professional writer and amateur blogger.

I’d always assumed journalists were equally driven by words, but now I realise it’s truth, not words, that motivates and defines them.

It’s embarrassingly obvious if you think about it. The greatest glories are held for investigative journalists: those who uncover the crime, corruption and evil intent that exists behind shiny corporate edifices, unimpeachable governments, celebrity personages and everyday joes. Even though the world has access through digital platforms to more beautifully written words, fine phrases and compelling stories than ever before, we seem more inclined to celebrate and commemorate those written in the name of truth.

Even so, it wasn’t until recently that I realised journalists see their profession as being custodians of the truth. While many of us interpret journalists’ indignant defense of their craft as an unwillingness to accept change, I can see now that they believe they’re fighting to protect something much more fundamental than their next pay cheque. They believe the loss of conventional journalism will leave no-one to protect the public’s right to know.

Renowned editor of the UK’s Guardian newspaper, CP Scott, enunciated journalism’s commitment to truth in a 1921 article celebrating the paper’s 100th anniversary and his 50th as editor:

[A newspaper’s] primary office is the gathering of news. At the peril of its soul it must see that the supply is not tainted. Neither in what it gives, nor in what it does not give, nor in the mode of presentation must the unclouded face of truth suffer wrong. Comment is free, but facts are sacred. (my emphasis)

I was reminded of Scott’s words during a recent Twitter conversation with two journalists, both of whom I respect for their integrity and objectivity.

I was exploring my thesis that news media organisations should use a centralised news-gathering function like AAP or Reuters because it is duplicative and wasteful for one set of facts to be reported by numerous commercial sources. This is even more the case now that anyone with a smart phone can gather and instantaneously deliver information directly to news consumers.

My theory is built on the premise that news consumers will pay for quality analysis but not news because facts are so easily obtainable and freely distributed. I’ve speculated that an alternative news media business model would invest in a stable of quality journalists, not to report but to value-add by providing analysis of the news. In short, to explain what consequence the facts have for an individual, a community, the nation or the world.

But I realise now that my proposed business model fails in the eyes of news media organisations because it places more import on analysis than on facts. And in the eyes of many journalists analysis is akin to opinion, which is highly subjective and can sometimes have only a fleeting relationship with facts.

Here’s an excerpt of the Twitter conversation. You will notice Marcus Priest makes a comment eerily reminiscent of CP Scott:





So here’s the disconnect: with the plethora of information now available online, news consumers don’t readily distinguish between facts and information. We don’t value those who gather and report facts because we think we can do it ourselves.

What we do value, however, are the “experts” who help us make sense of the overflowing news buffet.

As Bernard Keane recently observed:

… it pays (although, perhaps not very well) to remember that users don’t just want one type of expensive content. In addition to investigative journalism that meets the traditional criteria of being stuff powerful people don’t want you to know, they do want commentary — that’s why there’s now so much of it not just out in the blogosphere but in the MSM itself. They also want analysis that acts as a filter for the unimaginable amount of information that is now publicly available but needs not merely to be accessed but made sense of. They want real-time coverage of events, something the MSM runs a poor second to social media on. And they want the opportunity to discuss it with the authors and with other users, discussion that will vary, rather like people themselves do, from thoughtful, intelligent and original opinions to bile and stupidity.

Keane’s commentary is borne out in the behaviour of contemporary news consumers. While the organs that predominantly report the facts – newspapers – continue their decline, viewers maintain their interest in investigate reporting by watching programs such as Four Corners and readers continue to support long-form political analysis by purchasing The Monthly, the Quarterly Essay* and books by highly regarded journalists.

Notice the important distinction that Keane makes between analysis and commentary/opinion. In contrast, Jonathan Holmes wrote (admittedly several years ago), “the border between [analysis and opinion] can’t be patrolled, without parsing the life out of both.” Holmes is demonstrating a blind spot that seems particularly endemic within the journalistic profession.

To me, the distinction is clear:

facts = what it is

analysis = what it means

opinion = what I think about it

I get journalists’ determination to protect their reporting role in the name of truth and the community’s right to know. What I don’t accept is the related view that analysis is just a higher form of opinion, and less worthy than reporting of facts.

To illustrate:

 



I find it troubling that at least two highly esteemed and principled journalists can’t/won’t see the importance of separating analysis from opinion. The standard for objectivity is not that complex – if I can determine from a piece what the writer thinks about the subject then it’s opinion, not analysis. They are not inter-changeable.

Like most other engaged citizens, I enjoy talking about the future of the Australian news media and exploring the many facets of this challenge. I realise the conversations I have and the posts I write merely pick at random threads in a huge tapestry that no-one yet has determined how to stop unravelling.

I’m not an expert, but I do have an informed opinion. It’s occurred to me that the two factors that I discussed with Marcus Priest and others on Twitter over that couple of days are in essence the two that have most eroded the media’s integrity in the eyes of the public.

While journalists may consider themselves to be custodians of the truth, their current propensity to rebirth press releases and sensationalise superficial dramas leaves the citizenry to wonder how many truths are lying undetected for want of a journalist prepared to put in the effort to unearth them.

Equally, the offering of journalistic opinion as news and analysis undermines our perception of journalists as the objective reporters and experts we rely upon to convey and explain the facts to us.

In some ways, the future of conventional journalism is in the hands of those who practice it.

I can’t imagine anyone disagreeing with journalists wanting to defend the truth and the public’s right to know. That is a noble cause and one worth protecting.

But if journalists want the public to support them in this role, they need to reaffirm and demonstrate the primacy of truth in the work that they do – by giving us more journalism, less churnalism, and more analysis than opinion.

Post script: GrogsGamut – What do we need? What do we trust?

*Yes, I mistakenly named The Quarterly Essay in my tweet. Thank you for noticing.