Jessup | Medium – Fact Check for a Fat Cheque
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Medium – Fact Check for a Fat Cheque

Was cutting ABC Fact Check a political move by the ABC itself?

ABC fact check presenter John Barron. Photo: screenshot of SMH screenshot of ABC website.

Australia has finally discovered exactly how much it costs to fact check politicians. Or rather, they’ve found exactly how much it can save by not doing that.

Apparently, it’s in the ballpark of $6.5 million.

As somebody who is studying journalism, I have been led to believe that a journalist should be checking the claims of politicians for factual inconsistency as a matter of course, regardless of political leaning.

Given this, I have been wondering why Australia would need a fact checking program at all. Was this an admission that other ABC articles weren’t necessarily #FactChecking politicians? Are there not enough political journalists doing their job properly?

The problem seems to be the modern perception (and possible reality) that a journalist’s job is not only to check the facts of politicians, but to choose which facts their audience would prefer to swallow.

These days, a journalist’s job appears to be: appease the reader’s preconceptions, lest the reader decides to get news from anywhere else on the internet that agrees with them. For commercial news, not giving the readers what they want would result in decreased distribution, and an advertising revenue loss.

Even ABC editorial falls into this trap — it has to retain an audience too.

True independent journalism that attacks (holds to account? — no, attacks) all sides of politics (continually) just isn’t marketable. As Chris Kenny has pointed out, Politifact Australia, a commercial venture into independent fact checking, folded after six months for lack of economic viability.

There are suggestions it folded because of the introduction of ABC Fact Check, but the #fact that the ABC’s department has also folded indicates that something more is at play than just market dominance.

It appears that ‘impartial’ journalism just isn’t sexy.

In the Sydney Morning Herald, Michael Lallo wrote an opinion piecesuggesting that the axing of ABC Fact Check was anticipated by the government when they cut the budget. It seems that he is suggesting that the budget cut was vindication for facts being checked and determined as… not-facts.

He even went so far as to publish the lead image as Malcolm Turnbull.
(Am I the only one who chuckled at seeing that the piece was in the ‘Entertainment’ section?)

The reality is that, although the government withdrew $6.5m of funding, it was entirely up to the management of the ABC, and in particular its new Managing Director, Michelle Guthrie, what to cut.

The #fact is, management chose Fact Check.

Maybe Fact Check was underperforming in terms of readership or net value, or maybe there were other internal reasons to cut the program. We might not know for some time — or ever.

We also don’t know if the cutting was the result of political motive — but what we do know is that it might as well have been.

I don’t mean political motive on behalf of a government unhappy with an independent department, but on behalf of the ABC. It cannot be that the cutting was to appease the government — the government is surely not appeased by suggestions that it killed #FactChecking, as this carries with it the implication that it has a hand in controlling state media.

If the cutting was for any political reason at all, it was to generate debate about ABC funding and political influence over it. It was to make the ABC and its funding an election issue — potentially it was to coax a promise similar to one we were gifted with in 2013:

“No cuts to the ABC or SBS.”

Judging by the media fanfare and general commentary, this seems to at least be the effect.

But, if a promise is to be made before the election, who will keep track of it like the last one?

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