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Is it really acceptable for the media to be so effing rude?

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Tough-Question

Watching ABC’s breakfast program this morning, when I saw a couple of Labor pollies being bailed up in separate incidents by an ABC reporter, on the subject of Labor’s leadership, which may or may not be decided today. The first pollie, a male, on encountering this reporter and being questioned, stopped and made it emphatically clear that he would be answering no questions on this subject. However, the reporter completely ignored this and asked much the same question, perhaps slightly reworded. The man  again made it clear that he wasn’t going to answer, but the reporter again completely ignored him and asked another question, following him as he made his way to his workplace.  Now, if I’d seen such an incident on the street, with one person badgering an unwilling other for an answer, and the other clearly trying to escape the situation, I’d be tempted to intervene, to say, ‘excuse me, can you leave the guy alone – I distinctly heard him say he wasn’t going to answer your questions, so why are you being so rude?’ And indeed that’s just how I felt on watching this TV scene. And when the reporter asked her questions for the third or fourth time, I completely identified with the victim’s frustration in responding in an entirely appropriate ‘what part of no don’t you understand?’ sort of way. In fact, I went further in trying to think of better responses, such as ‘How long have you been suffering this hearing loss? Do you have mental health problems? Would you like me to recommend a doctor?’  Not the wittiest, but surely an attempt to ridicule the offender into reflecting on her behaviour would be better than a punch on the nose.

But, some would argue, context is everything. This was a reporter simply doing her job, trying to squeeze info out of a pollie, essentially a public servant, who has a duty to deal with the public, and its representatives in the media, in an open and honest way. If a politician says ‘no comment’, it’s the media’s duty to force him to comment. This seems to be the argument of Michael Rowland, one of the anchors of ABC breakfast, and it’s a pretty standard line. The second politician, a female, that the same reporter sought to question, maintained an awkward and difficult silence throughout the ambush. Rowland’s response in the studio was that she had always been forthcoming for the media in the past so… However, he reserved his greatest criticism and mockery for the male politician who had the apparent effrontery to question the reporter’s behaviour in ignoring his ‘no comment’ statements. Rowland also heaped praise on the reporter for her persistence in asking the necessary questions.

I usually have no problems with Rowland, who’s generally affable and likeable, but what he was engaging in here was ‘group-think’, an uncritical identification with the practices of one’s own profession, often accompanied by ‘the ends justify the means’ fallacious reasoning. The fact is – or I should say, my position is – that it’s always and everywhere rude and offensive for one human being to completely ignore the clear and emphatic statement of another human being that they don’t wish to or will not speak about a particular subject. This is regardless of that human being’s role in society – though there are exceptions, as always. The case under question is clearly not one of those exceptions, though.

I say it’s my position, but it’s generally accepted, in all cultures and societies, that it’s a transgression to go on badgering or hounding someone when they’ve made their intentions and wishes so crystal clear. Yet this kind of ethically transgressive behaviour is fast becoming par for the course in the modern media – and considering how blurred media boundaries are becoming, this is a disturbing trend.

There are many problems with this kind of transgressive behaviour. The term often used is ‘hounding’, and it’s worth thinking about that. More literally, hounding involves pack animals chasing down and cornering their prey, which may range from foxes to lions to even bigger beasties. The prey will try to get away or beat off its adversaries, by ducking for cover or trying to outstrip them, or making itself a small target, or lashing out, or any other tactic or combination of tactics. In the case of our two pollies, the female used the tactic of silence and heading in a straight, but more or less dignified, line for cover. To deny the yapping hound a reaction might momentarily confuse her, allowing the prey to make her getaway. The male pollie chose a more mixed tactic of heading for cover but occasionally stopping to lash out (though with perfectly reasonable language, it seemed to me) in the hope that his attack (in the name of reason) would stop the hound in her tracks. Eventually both pollies made it safely to their workplace, but not without a few wounds, to their dignity at least. The hound didn’t get what she wanted, but perhaps only because she was alone – if the other hounds in the pack had been present, they might have carried away the prize.

And what was the prize? Presumably some scoop about how these pollies would have voted in the upcoming election for the Labor leadership. Hardly much of a scoop considering that, at the time, only one person had nominated. But of course there might have been another prize – all this hounding might just have revealed a less civil and savoury side to one or other of these pollies, and that in itself would have been newsworthy. This is how the media often makes news out of its own behaviour.

Members of the media will counter, as Rowland did, with the point that many pollies are ‘media junkies’ who take every advantage they can of the press. That may be true but I think it’s irrelevant to the simple ethical point that if someone makes it crystal clear that they will not be making a statement about x, it is unethical to then try to harass that person into making a statement about x.

The pro-media might counter with two related points. First, that the pollie, as a public servant, has no right to keep secret his or her view of a matter of such public interest as the Labor leadership, and second, even if it’s conceded that the pollie does have that right, it’s the reporter’s job to pressure the pollie into giving up that right, as a matter of public interest.

To the first point I’d answer that, as far as I’m aware, the ballot for the leadership will be secret (I’ve tried unsuccessfully to confirm this online, but these things usually are), which knocks that claim on the head, and it also fatally weakens the second point. It suggests that the media’s role, or part of it, is to disregard political process when it feels that it’s in the public interest to do so. It’s a bit like the police bending the rules of fair play in what they see as the public interest in catching criminals. Both sectors will often argue for the public interest in this way, but fail to see that the processes set in place (whether clearly specified or not) have a real, tried-and-true function. In the case of the media, this function is simply civility. The reporter hasn’t broken any law, but she has trashed a well-known, albeit unwritten code of conduct. It is rude to hector and harass someone with questions after they’ve made it infinitely clear that they will not respond to questions. The roles of the respective characters are irrelevant – except in some exceptional cases, such as a court of law in which a person is obliged to answer questions, or a case in which keeping information secret presents a danger to life or limb. Our present scenario isn’t such an exceptional case, and the fact that the media trash this code of conduct more and more, thus coming close to normalising this sort of behaviour, doesn’t make it right or ethical.

So, Michael Rowland, I’m sorry to say – epic fail.

And wouldn’t it be great if more journalists engaged in reflection and analysis instead of chasing people around for trivial soundbite stories. Sounds very passé, doesn’t it.

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Written by stewart henderson

September 14, 2013 at 8:53 am

Posted in argument

Tagged with , , , ,

2 Responses

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  1. In america the news media are very polite and accommodating (to the politician’s face) and it allows them to get away with monstrous lies and complex fictions and all manner of BS.

    Maybe the press should give politicians a back rub while asking them what they want their story to be about. Maybe they should let them write it for them.

    agnophilo

    September 14, 2013 at 9:29 am

  2. Yes I agree with you and I’m often angry myself that reporters don’t ask tough enough questions and aren’t always sharp and savvy enough to get on top of and expose political spin, but that’s quite a separate issue from what I’m writing about here.

    luigifun

    September 15, 2013 at 10:41 am


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