When journalism crosses a line

Cheryl McGrath / August 12, 2013 03:33 PM

When does journalism cross a line?

This is a question coming to mind for anyone who read the now famous “Kick This Mob Out” cover of the Daily Telegraph.

And it didn't stop at the cover, with clear anti-Rudd preference dotted throughout News Corp's slew of publications.

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Whether the hit-you-in-the-face bias was part of Rupert Murdoch’s attempt to protect Foxtel commercially, or just personal politics, remains unclear. But while plenty has been written about The Daily Telegraph’s motives, I don’t think that is what is at the heart of the issue. 

What really seemed to be under fire was the question of where the line is between objective journalism and serving the public good. What really offends here is the bias, rather than the message itself. When is it okay to voice an opinion, and when is it better to simply report?

In an ideal world, journalists are supposed to be impartial, knowing their goal is to inform. In a democracy like Australia, balance is key. Of course, there are nuances when it comes to dissent, personal opinion and speaking out against authority. And to be able to speak out against authority is – of course – a very good thing. For an editor to ridicule a party, even down to comparing Kevin Rudd to Colonel Klink from Hogan’s Heroes, is their right in a free country.

What really stood out about this, though, is how transparent the bias was.  Sentiments like the ones on the front of The Daily Telegraph tend to be kept in editorials and cartoons, and newspapers in Australia tend to at least package their bias as “even-handedness and understatement”. The fact that The Daily Telegraph disregarded this was a huge risk to its credibility and that of other News Corp papers, as well as a bold move in an unstable media environment.

Instead of letting the news speak for itself, The Daily Telegraph – and by extension, Col Allan and Rupert Murdoch – has been criticized for misusing its own authority by throwing mud on Rudd’s. Whether it is Fairfax or News Corp doing it is not the issue. The problem is not the opinion – it’s the platform and the packaging.

As one writer has said: “Does accusatory, one-sided phrasing really belong in a print publication, inherently designed to inform, provide balanced opinions and a trustworthy sense of impartiality?”

It’s a good question.


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