Bias and the Fourth Estate
The division between the Left and Right in politics is one of the most acrimonious in contemporary discourse. The terms originated during the French Revolution, like much else in our modern political discourse. The Left were those members of the États Généraux who supported the Glorious Revolution and espoused the ideas of republicanism and secularism. The slogan of the French Revolution; liberté, égalité, fraternité; essentially sums up the values of sensible left wing citizens today. The Right were those in favour of maintaining the Ancien Régime; it seems even 250 years ago the Right was associated with resisting social change. It is appropriate to set a discussion about media bias against the background of the French Revolution, seeing as the Fourth Estate is an expression appropriated from the French class system of the time. The tension between the Left (Fairfax) and the Right (News Limited) has made it inevitable that media from both sides of politics often engage in bitter editorial duels. These exchanges frequently result in both sides calling the other biased in one respect or another. As we will see, this term is often used but rarely understood, much like whenever the term racism is discussed in the Australian press. We will also see that a news outlet being biased isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In order to understand why perceived biases exist, it is essential to understand the origins of each company and the forces that shaped them.
Fairfax: A Glorious Tradition
Before there was Fairfax Media Limited, there was John Fairfax, an Englishman born in Warwick in 1804. He wrote for and owned various newspapers in Warwickshire before moving to Australia after successfully defending a libel case but being unable to pay costs. John Fairfax acquired the then Sydney Herald and changed it to the Sydney Morning Herald in 1842. He had strong religious convictions but demonstrated a tolerance of competing religious views that was uncommon for the time. The paper expanded its reach under John’s son, James, and grandson, Oswald. Oswald became director of John Fairfax & Sons in 1916 and was influential in establishing the Empire Press Union, of which he was the Australian chairman from 1925 until 1928. Continuing his grandfather’s interest in helping those less fortunate Oswald became the “foundation chairman of the [NSW] division of the British Red Cross Society”. This became his predominant focus during the First World War. Taking the activities so far, the Right might be forgiven for thinking that Fairfax has a history of ‘bleeding-heart’ liberalism, however, in 1951, the company founded the Australian Financial Review (AFR). The AFR is recognised as one of the least partisan publications in the country and is highly respected for its dissection of business issues affecting Australia. Fairfax also acquired Rural Press through a merger in 2006 and the Macquarie Radio Network in 2007. These acquisitions are relevant because they not only increased the influence of the company, but also because they brought many conservative news outlets under Fairfax’s control. It would be fair to say that over the past decade, Fairfax has suffered from the decline in popularity of print journalism, which leaves the company in a precarious position in 2015. The contrast with News Corp could barely be starker.
News of the World and Other Assorted Scandals
The ubiquity of Rupert Murdoch’s name in Australia is a testament to his success as a businessman and his influence over the Australian political and media scenes. James Davidson founded News Corp as News Limited in 1923. The Murdoch family became involved when Sir Keith Murdoch acquired an interest in the company in 1949. Rupert inherited this share in 1952 upon the death of his father. 1964 proved a pivotal year when Murdoch launched The Australian, which is currently one of two major national publications. The company that we are familiar with today has only existed since 1979. It was created to service Murdoch’s ambition to expand in Australia and overseas. Today, News Corp Australia’s assets include 18 metropolitan newspapers, 14 national magazines, various websites, the Brisbane Broncos NRL club and Foxtel. This cross media presence has allowed Murdoch, who is currently the CEO and Chairman of the Board of News Corp, to have a wide-reaching influence over Australian political and social discourse. Whilst many will contend that this influence has been used in a biased fashion, this accusation has a meaning worth unpacking before labels are applied.
The Right’s Problem with Love
‘Bias’ is defined as “an inclination or prejudice for or against one person or a group, especially in a way considered to be unfair.” In the context of Australian politics, the term is usually used when one paper consistently endorses a particular position that is perceived to be political. A salient example would be the current debate about same-sex marriage. An article posted by The Age considered the philosophical arguments for and against legalising same-sex marriage. A professor at Deakin University wrote the article, and he is clearly in favour of the proposition. Should this be construed as an instance of left-wing bias from The Age? If you read beyond the headline; “Same-sex marriage: why the case against it is so weak”; the article actually provides a good summary of the arguments and seeks to counter them, not through dismissal and liberal group-think, but through a rational discussion of the facts and their consequences on society. An article on the same topic written by the Editor-at-Large of The Australian seems to give the same impression, but from the other side. Paul Kelly never explicitly states his view, but it can be discerned from his final paragraph that he is against the movement. His article tackles the ‘problem’ of judicial activism and how it might affect the religious liberties of Australians. The problem with Kelly’s article is that it never even mentions that the other side might have a point. The whole piece is riddled with language that betrays Kelly’s opinion that same-sex marriage is an unfortunate inevitability that needs to be analysed and discussed before being begrudgingly accepted. In this comparison, the bias lies with The Australian because Kelly argues from a position of unchangeable conviction. The Age article at least canvassed the opposition arguments before clearly refuting them in a precise and logical way. But the roles can be reversed in many instances.
The Rabid Political Left
The Bronwyn “Helicopter” Bishop scandal that has engulfed the media cycle last year prompted a much more level-headed reaction from the Right. Andrew Bolt, hardly the last word on impartial opinions, wrote a logically consistent and well-reasoned article on why the Speaker should resign. Bolt pointed out that if Bishop cannot adequately explain why she claimed the cost of a trip to a Liberal Party fundraiser as ‘Parliamentary Business’, then she should resign, lest she cast doubt on the government’s respect for public funds. The corresponding argument from The Age was far less compelling. While it vaguely expresses the same sentiment as Bolt’s, it smacks of the bandwagon mentality that occasionally pervades the Left. At no point does the article clearly spell out exactly why it was wrong to write off the cost as a parliamentary expense. It seems to rely solely on readers already agreeing with the author, with his rhetoric dedicated to sarcastic remarks rather than substantive argument. So it is clear that on any given issue, there will be biases on display from both sides of politics. The question now becomes whether this is an intrinsically bad thing, or simply the product of a free press and a healthy democracy.
A Question of Reason
At this juncture, an important distinction must me made: bias is not the taking of a side in a debate. Bias is being unwilling to countenance other views in your consideration of a particular topic. This second definition is the kind that should not be tolerated in Australian political discourse. But when taken as a whole, this kind of prejudice is rarely on display. In the majority of cases, publications are willing to consider other views in the coverage of an issue. This is often by necessity as the reporting of a story is difficult to editorialise without losing the informative nature of the content. Where a particular view is pressed, it is usually titled appropriately; The Australian, The Herald Sun, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald all have ‘Opinion’ sections where such biases are given a place to be aired. It is inevitable that in a liberal democracy where dissenting opinions are no longer considered treasonous, there will be controversial and unpopular expressions of views, but this should not be considered a bad thing. Anyone is free to hold an opinion, but respect of that opinion is measured by its willingness to be tested against counter-arguments and its resistance to refutation. While bias may exist in an undesirable form, it will always be rooted out and excoriated by social commentators and news institutions. The solution is not legislation, but aspiration. Media institutions should see values of balance and impartiality as ideals worth incorporating into their work regardless of any legislative requirement. While many will not accept this liberal solution to the problem of a biased media, the direct approach often proves to be unpalatable.
The Folly of Legislation
A direct approach, through government legislation, is fraught with danger. If bias is the problem, then the solution is to compel media companies to be more balanced. This method is obviously hamstrung by the ephemeral nature of what balanced would mean in any given instance. Take vaccines as a poignant example. If an Australian newspaper continually reported on the scientific validity of vaccines and constantly discounted the link to autism, would that provide a balanced view of the subject? Yes, because in this example, an overwhelming body of scientific evidence supports the statements. While a competing newspaper should be able to advocate for the banning of vaccines, the pro-science paper should be entitled to provide unwavering support for a scientifically verifiable fact. It is doubtful whether any legislature would be able to word an act precisely enough to accommodate this diversity of views and still advocate for balance. Ultimately, values such as fairness and balance should be aspirational, and not imposed by an inelegant administration.
Bias and the Future of Impartiality
Calls of biased editorialising are likely to continue as long as people voice opinions that others don’t like. This is a good thing. As long as Fairfax and News Corp are prepared to give a full account of opposing views and argue logically as to why their own views are correct, then the Australian public has nothing to fear. In reality, a much greater threat is posed to their wellbeing by any attempt by governments to legislate for a fair press. Laws already exist, and are frequently used, to stop people defaming others. In a liberal democracy, this is exactly how far the legislature should be able to go in censuring freedom of speech.
 Wikipedia, Left-wing politics (17 July 2015) <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Left-wing_politics#History>.
 David Holmes, News Corp: it’s not a conspiracy … it’s just business (5 September 2013) <http://theconversation.com/news-corp-its-not-a-conspiracy-its-just-business-17867>.
 John Fairfax, Fairfax, John (1804-1877) (1972) <http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fairfax-john-3493>.
 Caroline Sampson, Fairfax, Sir James Reading (1834-1919) (1981) <http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fairfax-sir-james-reading-6133>.
 Margaret Simons, Crikey Bias-o-meter: The newspapers (26 June 2007) <http://www.crikey.com.au/2007/06/26/crikey-bias-o-meter-the-newspapers/>.
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 Andrea Carson, Billions lost, boards to blame: Colleen Ryan on the rise and fall of Fairfax (1 July 2013) <http://theconversation.com/billions-lost-boards-to-blame-colleen-ryan-on-the-rise-and-fall-of-fairfax-15288>.
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 Wikipedia, The Australian (23 June 2015) <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Australian#History>.
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 Patrick Stokes, Same-sex marriage: why the case against it is so weak (2 June 2015) <http://www.theage.com.au/comment/samesex-marriage-why-the-case-against-it-is-weak-20150602-ghes7v.html>.
 Paul Kelly, The same-sex marriage debate and the right to religious belief (11 July 2015) <http://www.theaustralian.com.au/opinion/columnists/the-same-sex-marriage-debate-and-the-right-to-religious-belief/story-e6frg74x-1227437429587>.
 Andrew Bolt, Why set a different standard for the speaker? If Bronwyn Bishop can’t explain flight she must resign (18 July 2015) <http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/why-set-a-different-standard-for-the-speaker-if-bronwyn-bishop-cant-explain-flight-she-must-resign/story-e6frg6n6-1227446460820>.
 Adam Gartrell, Bishop’s press conference is more evidence she’s unfit for the Speaker’s chair (19 July 2015) <http://www.theage.com.au/federal-politics/political-opinion/bishops-press-conference-is-more-evidence-shes-unfit-for-the-speakers-chair-20150718-gifd36.html>.