In the late 1980s the backbench of this newspaper was run by Piers Akerman, then deputy to editor in chief Les Hollings, and included Col Allan, Peter Blunden, Alan Howe and me.
We all went on to run our own newspapers, Col famously as editor in chief of The New York Post for 15 years. Col had a habit of asking the news desk and young reporters a question more news executives should ask: “Why is that a story?”
The rise of single issue lobby groups and their increasing influence on politics and the media makes this question more important now than ever. When the media privileges the views of such groups we invite the judgement of our readers and viewers.
Are we publishing these views because we personally support them and think they might improve the lives of our readers and listeners? Or are we just too lazy to generate our own news stories?
Anyone who listens to ABC radio weekend hourly news bulletins would suspect the latter. Often with a skeleton staff of young reporters and producers whose morning email inboxes will be full of press releases, too many Saturday and Sunday bulletins include stories about protests in favour of gay marriage, environmental causes and asylum seekers.
Think about animal rights activists who want to stop the greyhound racing industry. In the modern world, media consumers can Google the formal positions of Animals Australia or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. These groups have agendas beyond the humane treatment of animals. Some want to stop all horse racing and the eating of animal or fish products. PETA opposes the use of guide dogs for the blind, believing that giving an animal worth only for what it can do for humans is immoral.
Are these positions that would appeal to mainstream readers, viewers and listeners? Are they even morally defensible positions? Obviously thoughtful people do not support cruelty to greyhounds or, indeed, to Australian cattle in abattoirs in Indonesia. And of course it is the role of journalists to shine a light on improper, cruel or criminal behaviour.
But it is also important for journalists to ask why something advocated by an activist group is a genuine mainstream story.
Journalists should also ask another question, one some senior reporters at the ABC have been asking in private internal staff meetings. What if exposure of, say, cruelty to animals involves the publication of dubiously obtained secret footage? How can reporters be certain of footage provided by activists rather than shot by real journalists?
This newspaper sought to track down the supposed abattoir workers at the centre of the Indonesian live cattle export story in 2011. We spent many weeks on the story but the men in the Four Corners footage fled. We lost track of them in Aceh but they seem to have been known to the operators of a Jakarta-based animal activist website.
What does our own industry’s code of ethics say about secretly obtained interviews and covert footage? It provides that journalists “use fair, responsible and honest means to obtain material”.
Four Corners would argue footage provided by Lyn White, of Animals Australia, was not shot by ABC journalists so the code does not apply and there was public interest in showing it. This seems to me an ethically ambiguous position for a network that ran hard on phone hacking by News Corp in the UK.
When our leading publicly funded current affairs program opens itself to secretly obtained footage of cruelty — no matter how compelling the footage — there are potential unintended consequences?
Think of the deaths of a million head of cattle in northern Australian drought conditions during the suspension of the live cattle trade. Think of the potential euthanasing of tens of thousands of greyhounds when the industry shuts in NSW next year. And what of the loss of livelihoods of people in the cattle and greyhound businesses? The progressive media was once more concerned with disadvantaged people than animals and the Left’s agenda was unambiguously about material welfare for the working classes.
Are some animal rights campaigns any more than vain moral posturing if the net effect is Australian cattle simply being replaced in Indonesian abattoirs by beasts raised in countries with lesser animal welfare standards?
Just in case readers think I am focusing too much on animal rights groups, it is just that greyhounds have been in the news. Let me describe my Friday news consumption on the NSW mid-north coast where I am without Foxtel.
All afternoon on ABC News 24 the Archibald Prize was discussed through the prism of gender equality. Same on radio, where the fact the finalists were half women was more important that the quality of the painting.
ABC 7.30 started, appropriately, with a report about the Nice terror attack. Item two concerned transgender schoolchildren in Shepparton. Item three was a piece about South Sudanese refugee basketballers in Brisbane. Lateline closed with a poll that showed 82 per cent of a self-selecting audience supported the end of the greyhound industry.
Lateline, like all ABC TV and radio programs I heard that day, was concerned to point out the Nice attacks had not been confirmed as terrorism. As if a truck full of weapons regularly mows down pedestrians along a two-kilometre stretch in Nice and drivers often die in police shootouts.
While on the terror question, why are ethnic community groups regularly given space or air time to spruik their views about the Islamophobia of Australian society? So while you are most likely to read stories about individuals radicalised by al-Qa’ida or ISIS in this newspaper, you are most likely to have heard such journalism described as Islamophobia on the national broadcaster or at Fairfax.
Why would such accusations be a story, as Col Allan might ask? Ordinary Australians know who is behind international terrorism. No wonder so many media consumers no longer trust journalists.