an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Posts Tagged ‘media

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

with 2 comments


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.

Written by stewart henderson

September 14, 2013 at 8:53 am

Posted in argument

Tagged with , , , ,

blogging, truth and getting back to the fountain

leave a comment »


Hello, let me take this opportunity to remind people, or to educate people who seem to have little knowledge of these things, about what a blog actually is, and what it can be.

Clearly a blog such as this one reflects the personal views of its author. There are thousands of such blogs of course, of very varying standards, and written for very varying purposes. My own blog has its own variety of purposes, including self-education, the promotion of particular values such as skepticism and critical thinking, and, in an elaborate way, the pleasures of self-development and worldly exploration, a la Montaigne,  ‘inventor’ of the essay, who once claimed that he wrote not to discover his thoughts but to invent them – or some such thing.

Sometimes in this blog I may focus on others – their views, their activities or whatever. Those others may not like what I write about them, but that of course would not give them the right to shut me down, any more than, say, a politician would have the right to shut down a blogger who violently disagrees with her policies. Of course, if the politician feels that the blogger has ‘overstepped the mark’, and feels personally abused or offended by the blogger’s remarks, there are various options open to her.

She could, for example, take advantage of the interactive nature of blogging, and leave a critical comment on the blog, thus possibly initiating a conversation with the blogger or, in more popular blogs than mine, with the blogger’s other readers and commentators. This is often a very fruitful exercise, as it helps to clarify opposing positions and to deepen and enrich the debate.

However the politician may feel it beneath her to dignify the blogger with a response – this is often the case with public figures. Of course it may be that the blogger’s writings are so malicious as to be unworthy of attention. Such writings are often self-defeating, and the mainstream blogosphere deals with them by ignoring them, thus relegating them to their own little busy corner of looniness.

However, let’s imagine that the blogger in my example is articulate and knowledgeable, and presents cogent arguments, or tells a plausible story. This, of course, presents a danger to the politician. She can’t easily take legal action against the blogger, even though he is accusing her of corruption, say. In US law, malicious intent would also have to be proven, and it’s likely much the same in Australia. Of course the law, as it relates to blogs and online content generally, is varied, weak and behind-hand throughout the western world. In such a situation the blogger is more protected than otherwise. Virtually any case brought against a blogger would be precedent-setting, and courts tend to be very conservative about that sort of thing. As it happens, the blogosphere is also a pretty powerful force for preserving its own interests and freedoms, and there is currently a website, the electronic frontier foundation, dedicated to developing legal protection for bloggers and online users, and advocating for them. This includes important successes in having bloggers treated as journalists, with all the rights and protections that accrue.

Even if the politician or public figure were to take legal action, the blogger – the actual writer of the offending article(s) – could be the only target of that action. Imagine the case that the blogger is a member of an organisation which he is defending on his blog against forces – individual or organisational – that he believes are maligning or damaging it. Clearly his views are his own, and he’s not representing the organisation in any official capacity (imagine he makes a clear and unequivocal statement about this on his blog). He has taken upon himself sole responsibility for his writings, and any consequences that might derive from them.

Of course, with blogs there are confidentiality and security issues, and this is a messy area, but certainly not an impossible one to negotiate. Some have suggested, for example, that it might be wrong to place on your blog a photo of a public figure you wish to criticise or draw attention to. From a legal perspective, this is untrue. Data-sharing of this kind occurs a million times a day on blogs, web-sites, online news sites and so forth. Occasionally the photo might be under copywrite, in which case you will need to get permission, but otherwise it’s pretty well open slather, especially if the photos are already out in the public sphere. Of course, if you use the photo to vilify someone, or if you distort the image in a malicious way, that may be another matter, but of course this also occurs on a regular basis and the law is generally powerless to do much about it, except perhaps in extreme cases.

It’s a similar situation with the actual naming of a person on a blog. Of course this happens all the time, but people may have legitimate reasons for not wishing to be named. However, unless the person is the subject of in-train legal investigation, with court suppression orders out against his or her name, this is not a legal matter, and the naming of people will be up to the discretion of the blogger. For example, the named person may approach the blogger, perhaps via blog comment or email, and ask for his or her name to be removed, presumably providing reasons for the blogger’s consideration (remember, we’re imagining here a ‘good’ blogger, who is motivated by truth-telling as he sees it, not by malice or spite). The blogger will then have to weigh the ethics of naming v suppression in this case.

It’s inevitable that, if the blogger is telling a story about the organisation he’s defending, and about the characters in that organisation, those characters will be recognised by some readers – even if their names are suppressed – due to their role within the organisation, their activities, their history and so forth. Again this isn’t a legal issue, except in exceptional circumstances. The best way forward here would again be negotiation. Imagine a character in the organisation doesn’t want her or his activities to be written about, not because of having something to hide, but because she or he doesn’t believe the blogger  will present a sufficiently accurate or nuanced picture. The blogger may choose to go on in spite of protestations, while welcoming any corrections, by way of comment, to the portrait he offers, either by the person portrayed, or by third parties. Or the blogger may choose to omit all references to the person and his or her activities, thereby presenting only a partial or distorted version of the organisation, the degree of distortion depending on the centrality or otherwise of the omitted person’s role in the organisation.

I’ve focused here on some of the difficulties and the possible negotiations involved when an individual writes about an organisation which many individuals feel an allegiance to or part-ownership of, but there is a much more positive side to this, which is inherent in the interactive nature of the blog – or its potentially interactive nature.

We find this interactivity operating at a high level on the best of blogs. A blogger might, for example, post something on the latest research in integrated information theory [the most prevalent theory of consciousness]. This might attract an opponent of the theory, who leaves a comment on some supposedly dubious aspects of the research. Then one of the people actually involved in the research leaps into the fray, defending it and adding valuable detail. Along comes a veteran of thirty years’ experience in consciousness research, making informed comments to put the research into a broader perspective. And so on and so forth – with along the way commentators sniping about the failings of materialism and the hubris of science, all helping to give a complex account of expert and lay opinion on the subject.

But to return to our imagined, impugned organisation. A blog, properly handled, could be just about the best way to get its story, its honest story, out to the broader public. New media is becoming more powerful as a way of shedding full light on a situation or organisation precisely because of its multi-facetedness and interactivity. The old media usually has its one fixed perspective, and its one basic story to tell, with a beginning middle and end – maybe with a follow-up six months later, if it’s worth the candle. The new media can tell an open-ended, multifarious story, with nuance upon nuance, making it far less cut and dried and far more human. It can also provide a more coherent truth, vouched for many times over, by different tellers with their different angles, yet all converging to create something real, not perfect but human, and thoroughly authentic.

To me, there’s nothing worse, when you’re defending your organisation, than going in the opposite direction and presenting it with a mind-numbing gloss that’s as relevant to the reality as a sales brochure. It will convince nobody, and it insults the intelligence of the reader, who above all, is looking for a measure of truth. Sure, by admitting no errors or imperfections you’ll deny your enemies the chance to attack you further, but you’ll also remove from your potential friends and allies the motivation to support and defend you as real, believable people, doing their level best against a series of bizarre situations and a small set of impossible people, and a system that seems stacked against them.

I’ve written elsewhere against adversarial systems. I prefer co-operation to combativeness. I don’t want to win, I want to arrive at the truth – which in my view is a slippery, changeable thing, but always worth chasing – and to encourage others to arrive at it too, and to value it and respect it. That’s why I write, and why I read and watch and listen.

Having said all that, I feel a bit tired of people and their squabbles right now. My current mood chimes with that of Marcus Aurelius, philosopher and Roman Emperor, when he wrote this – and forgive me for being prétentieux:

In the life of a man, his time is but a moment, his being an incessant flux, his senses a dim rushlight, his body a prey of worms, his soul an unquiet eddy, his fortune dark, and his fame doubtful. In short, all that is of the body is as coursing waters, all that is of the soul as dreams and vapours; life a warfare, a brief sojourning in an alien land; and after repute, oblivion. Where, then, can man find the power to guide and guard his steps? In one thing and one thing alone: the love of knowledge.

So, it’s back to fountains of good stuff!


Written by stewart henderson

December 24, 2012 at 9:05 pm