COMMENTARY: News Corp’s policy on the separation of news and comment contradicts a core Press Council principle

By Denis Muller, University of Melbourne

 

This commentary originally appeared in issue no 1 of volume 45 (2023) in the Australian Journalism Review.

News Corporation (News Corp) is the largest single financer of the Australian Press Council, accounting for nearly two-thirds of the Council’s annual income, yet in one crucial respect its editorial policies flatly contradict the Council’s statement of general principles. Point 1 in that statement says: ‘Ensure that factual material in news reports and elsewhere is accurate and not misleading, and is distinguishable from other material such as opinion’ (The Australian n.d.).

News Corp Australia’s Editorial Professional Conduct Policy says at Point 1.3: ‘Comment, conjecture and opinion are acceptable in reports to provide perspective on an issue, or explain the significance of an issue, or to allow readers to recognise what the publication’s standpoint is on the matter being reported’ (The Australian n.d.). The question naturally arises: how can this contradiction on a cornerstone issue in journalism ethics be allowed to stand without evident challenge from Australia’s only formal agency for newspaper accountability? Which code does the Press Council apply when people complain about journalism in News Corp outlets – the company’s internal code or the Council’s code that the company has agreed to abide by? In an attempt to obtain an answer, on 16 March 2023 the following questions were put to the Press Council:

  1. Is it a condition of membership of the Press Council that a newspaper’s internal code of practice aligns with the Council’s statement of general principles and statement of privacy principles?
  2. If not, why not?
  3. Does the Council accept or not accept that the policy of News Corp Australia concerning the inclusion of commentary in news stories contradicts Point 1 of the Council’s statement of general principles?
  4. If the Council accepts that it does, what, if anything, does the Council propose to do about it?
  5. If the Council does not accept that the contradiction exists, what is the reason for not accepting it?

By close of business on 6 April no reply had been received from the Press Council despite two follow-up requests.

The obvious answer, if cynical, is that the Press Council is in no financial position to challenge its single biggest provider of money on so fundamental a point of principle.

Already it has seen Kerry Stokes’s Seven West Media leave the Council and establish its own accountability mechanism, improbably called the Independent Media Council. The loss of News Corp would be not only a financial body blow to the Press Council but it would leave the newspaper accountability system, such as it is, even weaker and more fragmented than it is now.

News Corp’s policy of allowing news stories to be written in such a way as to promote its newspapers’ own view on an issue is a flagrant abandonment of the principle of impartiality in news reporting. Exactly how and when the company adopted this policy is unclear because it differs diametrically from the code promulgated by the editor-in-chief of The Herald and Weekly Times (HWT), Steve Harris, in 1993 and made applicable to all the papers owned by News Limited, which by then had taken over HWT. Clause 1.2 of the Harris code stated: ‘Clear distinction must be made between fact, conjecture and comment’ (Report of the Independent Inquiry into the Media and Media Regulation 2012). It follows that at some point a conscious decision was taken inside News Corp to abandon this principle but who took it and in what circumstances are unknown. The present code is undated but has certainly been in operation for several years.

This principle of separating news from opinion is of longstanding and received its most eloquent and enduring endorsement from C. P. Scott, editor and later owner of the Manchester Guardian (today’s The Guardian) on the occasion of his newspaper’s centenary in 1921.

In a leading article written to mark the occasion, Scott reflected on the purposes of a newspaper:

It […] has a moral as well as a material existence, and its character is in the main determined by the balance of these two forces. It may make profit or power its first objective, or it may conceive itself as fulfilling a higher and more exacting function. (Scott 2017 [1921]: n.pag.)

He then went on to describe how it might discharge that function:

Its 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. ‘Propaganda’, so called, by this means is hateful. (Scott 2017 [1921]: n.pag.)

The same principle was recognized by another important influence on the development of modern journalism, the United States Commission on the Freedom of the Press. In its report, published in 1947 (Hutchins 1947) and in the companion volume by its intellectual leader, William Ernest Hocking (1947), the separation of news and comment was laid down as a foundational necessity if the press were to live up to its social responsibilities.

Now, it is true that the way these strictures were interpreted and applied by professional journalists over the succeeding decades bred a sterile and uninformative brand of news reporting in which the facts were laid out and readers left to make sense of them as best they could. It led to what has rightly been disparaged as ‘he said she said’ journalism and to a style of reporting not much better than stenography.

This in turn gave rise to a reaction. It took the form of what came to be called the New Journalism, in which a narrative approach was taken to recounting actual events and people, and the journalist’s subjectivity was given freer rein. Whatever the benefits of this approach were, the line between fact and fiction was blurred by some practitioners, with disastrous effects for the public’s trust in journalism. However, responsible news outlets rejected this abandonment of strict accuracy as selling out on the promise to the community that the central task of the news media was to provide the kind of accurate and impartial news coverage promoted by the Commission on the Freedom of the Press. Over time, practitioners and journalism critics worked out a number of rules that married a narrative approach with a commitment to factual accuracy (see e.g. Kovach and Rosenstiel 2001; Ricketson 2014).

These responsible outlets sought an additional, middle course. This consisted of weaving into news coverage an element of analysis, the idea being that audiences would no longer be left to figure out the significance and context of events for themselves because the news coverage would include these ingredients. The test of the impartiality of news coverage shifted from strict factual literalism to an assessment based on the breadth of the perspectives presented and of the fidelity of the analysis to the underlying facts.

Inevitably, of course, the selection of stories for publication, the language in which they are couched and the priority accorded to the various components of the story, are all affected by value judgements. This imposes on journalists the need to exert intellectual discipline to see that these value judgements do not reflect their personal preferences but are defensible by reference to the elements of impartiality: accuracy, fairness, balance, freedom from conflict of interest, open-mindedness and judgement based on news values (Muller 2021).

To guide their staff, most major news organizations include a statement in their editorial policies about the separation of news reportage from comment.

For example, The Age’s code of professional practice states at Point 8: ‘Editorial material should distinguish for the reader between that which is comment, that which is verified fact and that which is speculation’ (ABC 2016: n.pag.). The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) editorial policies state that news should be presented in a way that allows the audience to make up their own minds. At Points 2 and 4 the policies state:

The ABC has a statutory duty to ensure that the gathering and presentation of news and information is accurate according to the recognised standards of objective journalism […]. The ABC has a statutory duty to ensure that the gathering and presentation of news and information is impartial according to the recognised standards of objective journalism. (ABC 2016: n.pag.)

The references to objectivity and impartiality leave no room for doubt that opinion has no place in the gathering and presentation of news.

The first sentence of the New York Times Handbook of Values and Practices for the News and Opinion Departments states: ‘The goal of the New York Times is to cover the news as impartially as possible’ (New York Times n.d.: n.pag.). The fact that the handbook is addressed to separate departments of news and opinion eloquently makes the point about the level to which the newspaper elevates this distinction.

In an age when it is imperative for their survival that serious newspapers rebuild trust in professional mass media after the upheavals created by social media over the past seventeen years or so, it has been recognized anew the critical importance of separating reportage from opinion. It is a vital way in which professional mass media can distinguish themselves from the untested melange of information and opinion swilling around on social media.

Emblematic of this recognition was the decision of the New York Times in 2021 to ditch the jargon term ‘Op Ed’, which it had used for its opinion pages since 1970 and replace it with the unambiguous ‘Opinion’. That label says that what appears on this page is not to be mistaken for news. Media audiences are entitled to this level of transparency.

Failure to maintain this distinction can have real-world consequences.

The report of the Senate Environment and Communications References Committee’s inquiry into media diversity in Australia, published in December 2021, is replete with examples of how this policy of News Corp’s has damaged not just Australia’s political discourse but caused harm to individuals. Two case studies from the report are illustrative.

Perhaps the most egregious example of damage to the nation’s political discourse has been News Corp’s campaign against climate change. On this, according to a submission to the inquiry by the former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, it crippled the national conversation (para. 6.11). A climate scientist from the United States, Dr Michael Mann, who was in Australia during the Black Summer bushfires, told the inquiry (para. 6.21):

As horrifying as it has been to watch these climate-change-wrought disasters play out in Australia, it has been equally horrifying to watch the pernicious efforts by the Murdoch media to sow disinformation about what is happening. I’m talking specifically about efforts by Murdochowned papers like The Australian and the Herald Sun to promote thoroughly discredited myths, blaming the record fires […] on arson or back burning or really anything other than the inconvenient true culprit that must not be named if you are the Murdoch media. (Parliament of Australia 2021: n.pag., original emphasis)

Dr Mann also drew the committee’s attention to the way News Corp treated those who disagreed with it:

vilifying them on the pages of the Murdoch media outlets. It’s a form of intimidation intended to serve as notice for other scientists: ‘If you speak out about climate change […] and the need to do something about climate change, we’re going to come after you’. (Parliament of Australia 2021: n.pag.)

In this context, another former prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, told the inquiry that when the bushfires were at their worst, Matt Kean, as New South Wales (NSW) Minister for Energy and Environment, had given a speech saying the fires demonstrated that the climate was getting hotter with global warming. Turnbull told the inquiry the subsequent attack on Kean in the Sydney Daily Telegraph had been ‘bitter, vicious and personal’ (Parliament of Australia 2021: n.pag.). ‘It was designed to not just punish him but also send the message – and this is how [the Murdoch media] operates like a Mafia gang – that, if you step out of line, you will cop some of this too’ (Parliament of Australia 2021: n.pag.).

Another to tell the inquiry of personal vilification by News Corp in its news pages was Associate Professor Michelle Telfer, a paediatrician and head of the Gender Service team at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne. Her submission contended that she had been personally targeted and vilified by The Australian in 45 articles between August 2019 and July 2020. She considered this an intentional campaign targeted at attacking and discrediting her work with children seeking treatment.

The inquiry noted that in response to a complaint by Professor Telfer, the Press Council had found The Australian to have breached several of its standards, including accuracy, fairness and balance, and that the attacks on Professor Telfer had been personalized. The hospital had told the inquiry that the continued campaign had caused harm to Professor Telfer, the Gender Service team, its patients and the trans community.

This adjudication would appear to partially answer one of the questions posed at the start: which standard does the Press Council apply when dealing with News Corp. In this case it applied its own standards of accuracy, fairness and balance but had nothing to say about the separation of fact from comment. This is surprising, considering it had been part of Professor Telfer’s complaint and considering that the Council’s general principle one, which encompasses this separation, was invoked in the findings concerning accuracy. The conclusion is inescapable that the Council dodged this awkward question.

None of this is to denigrate the concept of campaigning journalism. In 1970 the Sun News-Pictorial in Melbourne, a forerunner of the Herald Sun, campaigned very effectively on road safety, resulting in far-reaching changes to the law, pioneered in Victoria and subsequently followed elsewhere, beginning with the compulsory wearing of seatbelts. Ten years later The Age in Melbourne also campaigned effectively on cleaning up the Yarra River.

The differences between this legitimate form of campaigning journalism and what News Corp does are many. First, these were objectively significant problems to be addressed: a shockingly high road toll; a heavily polluted river. Second, they were not ideological causes to be pursued by one-sided reporting and the vilification of people with a different point of view. Third, they rested not on lies but on facts that were true. Fourth, aside from occasional front-page editorials – clearly identified as such – they kept comment off the news pages in order to maintain the credibility of the campaigns.

Australia saw this approach more recently with ‘Shine the Light’, the campaign by the Newcastle Morning Herald to bring to light the sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy. This work, coupled with that of other media including the ABC, brought about a royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse.

News Corp’s unique accomplishment has been to provoke a demand for a royal commission into itself and its effect on the Australian media landscape. This was initiated by Rudd through a petition that attracted more than half a million signatures, the most ever on any petition to Federal Parliament.

Not surprisingly, the petition has gone nowhere, politicians of both major parties being far too terrified of News Corp to go near it. In this context it should be noted that neither Rudd nor Turnbull – who has now succeeded him as chair of the royal commission campaign – dared do anything to challenge Murdoch while they occupied the office of prime minister. Rudd is now the Australian ambassador to the United States and obviously not in a position to continue leading a political campaign.

CONCLUSION

The evidence is clear and incontrovertible that News Corp’s policy of encouraging its journalists to use its news pages to promote the organization’s views has licensed – even required – its staff to use those pages to prosecute feuds against the corporation’s enemies, intimidate politicians and engage in hyper-partisan campaigning without regard for truth or consequences. It is a serious breach of journalistic ethics, violating core values of honesty, integrity, transparency and fairness. It violates the harm principle which, by convention as well as law, marks the boundary of protected free speech. It violates the principle of toleration by which civilized societies make room for opposing points of view up to the point where intolerance imposes a limit.

In short, Rupert Murdoch has fashioned an instrument of tyranny which has no place in democratic life and this policy is a crucial part of the machinery that makes it work.

As for the Press Council, it is hardly surprising that it has choked on a response. The Council does its best in extremely difficult circumstances to exert some kind of accountability on the newspapers. From its inception in 1976 it has had some good people idealistically committed to its mission. Its founding chair was a retired High Court judge, Sir Frank Kitto. Other chairs have included Hal Wootten, a retired justice of the NSW Supreme Court and Julian Disney, a professor of law at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and a high-profile advocate for social justice.

Also from the start it has run into resistance ranging from passive to aggressive from most of Australia’s main newspaper companies. Sir Warwick Fairfax initially refused to allow his newspapers to join, making the totally baseless assertion that they had a special relationship with their readers into which the Council had no business inserting itself. He eventually relented and the Nine Entertainment Company, which took over the Fairfax papers in 2018, continues their membership. It is the Council’s second-largest funder after News Corp.

The Council has only flourished when the newspaper companies perceive a clear and present danger that the Federal Government will impose some genuine accountability on them. Moves to establish the Council were initiated after the Whitlam Government instituted a Department of the Media, spooking the newspapers into thinking some kind of censorship machinery was in the offing. In 2012, the Council got a much-needed injection of funding from the newspapers in the aftermath of the Independent Inquiry into the Media and Media Regulation, which reported that year and recommended a statutory authority for the job.

However, the essential problem remains: it is hostage to the newspapers it seeks to hold to account and in reality is powerless to make News Corp align its editorial policies with the Council’s statements of principles or to do anything to ameliorate that organization’s malign influence on the Australian polity.

Read the commentary as it initially appeared here.

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