Is there a growing divergence between television news programs and the profession of journalism? Are the hosts of radio and TV shows, like the shock-jocks of commercial radio, becoming judge and jury, putting aside what should be their professional objectivity to promote their points of view? Are presenters and anchors, especially on the ABC, working actively as journalists or have the more high-profile hosts crossed the line into the realm of broadcasting partisanship and political advocacy?
This is a growing issue for the national broadcaster, the only serious provider of TV and radio news in Australia. In the past several years, ABC presenters have increasingly become a law unto themselves, determining who are the good guys and who are the bad guys and advocating strongly on the side of the angels.
This might make for entertaining TV, but should the presenter of an ABC news program act as Crown Prosecutor, engineering an interview so that the interviewee is judged guilty by the jury of viewers?
This came most starkly to light during the extraordinary interview between Lateline’s Emma Alberici and Wassim Doureihi, mouthpiece for the extremist Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir. Alberici has been widely lauded for her 11-minute cross-examination, where she adamantly refused to tolerate the egregious Doureihi’s obfuscation, evasion and shape-shifting. His refusal to condemn IS for its beheading of innocent reporters in Iraq led to a shouting confrontation. Here’s her first question, much in the vein of ‘Have you stopped beating your wife?’:
‘Do you support the murderous campaign being waged by Islamic State in Iraq?’
Now that’s the sort of question which a prosecutor in a criminal case might put to a defendant, but the fact Alberici began with the term ‘murderous campaign’ guaranteed the ensuing confrontation. Sure, we’ve all seen these murderous fanatics at work, but Alberici wasn’t conducting this as a lounge-room conversation between friends; this was a professional televised interview between a supposedly impartial journalist and her interviewee. Yet like two drunks in a pub, they immediately set about each other, blow for verbal blow.
Riveting television it may have been, but it wasn’t journalism; what Alberici is paid to do. We all know when IS holds up the severed heads of Western journalists and aid workers, there’s no question it’s a murderous and evil fascist organization.
But Alberici’s job was to elicit a greater understanding of Hizb ut-Tahrir’s political and social philosophy; to inform and educate her listeners and elicit information from the group’s spokesman as to his organization’s support or otherwise of IS. It was not her job as a journalist to force him into a public admission and humiliation. That’s the job of a parliamentary commission or a court of law if the group is considered by the police to have broken national security legislation by supporting terrorists. Journalists are supposed to leave it to their viewership to make up their own minds. That’s what journalistic impartiality is all about.
Later in the confrontation, after shouting at each other repeatedly, the spokesman for Hizb ut-Tahrir said:
‘Your job is to ask the question and to canvass my opinions. That’s why I was introduced into this program. If you wanted to dictate my response, if you wanted to dictate terms of acceptability, then take my position. But ask me a question and at least afford me the respect and the opportunity to answer it.’
In this instance, Doureihi was absolutely correct. As a journalist, it was Alberici’s job to be an impartial interlocutor, not a public prosecutor trying to convince a jury of his guilt, nor to set up questions to elicit the answer she wants. She sounded like an Aussie Judge Judy; her interview, regardless of the cheer-squad wanting their prejudices affirmed, was an abuse of journalistic standards.
Another example of the journalist as advocate is Q&A’s Tony Jones. This popular show defines itself as one in which we, the public, ask the questions of an expert panel, leading to lively and partisan debate. It classifies itself as ‘democracy in action’, yet moments after any question is asked, Jones can’t help but interject himself into the conversation; thrusting his particular perspective into the fray.
Much of the audience’s time is taken up listening to Jones’ banter, questions, and opinions. Again, this is not his function. He’s supposed to be the oil that keeps things spinning, not the wheel.
In newspapers, there’s a clear distinction drawn between news and opinion. Opinion pieces are clearly identified as the personal views of the columnist; the news pages identifiably separate, written in a style where the reporting of the story carries both sides of a discussion. That’s how journalism operates; a medium which presents the facts of an argument and allows the readership to make up its own mind.
But as the ABC becomes driven more by personality than presentation, hosts such as 7.30’s Leigh Sales, Radio National’s Fran Kelly and others use these programs as platforms for their opinions.
Compare this to the much younger television and radio stations, ABC News 24 and News Radio. Programs such as those hosted by Virginia Trioli and Michael Rowland are informative, yet apart from gentle banter between themselves, rarely do their personal philosophies come into play, despite Trioli’s tough interviewing style. The same can be said for The Drum and Insiders, where the hosts negotiate between ideologically opposed guests, and steer a moderator’s line.
Perhaps those presenters who have become show ponies could take a refresher course in the role of a journalist, and reconsider whether they’re working for the benefit of their audience, or whether they are advocates or entertainers.
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Alan Gold is a former international journalist. His latest novel ‘Bloodline’ is published by Simon & Schuster.
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