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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?

Semper Floreat – The Hand That Feeds It

Using ‘Independent’ media as a political tool

By James Jessup

Semper Floreat articles are generally irrelevant in the discourse of student politics at UQ, but its independence still remains a key policy for nearly every running party. Campaigning for its independence may seem like a minor political gimmick, but it is actually a very clever sleight utilised by both major parties.

 Let’s be honest, Semper articles are rarely a UQU election maker. At least, no more than a campaign promise of free beer printed on a scrap of coloured paper being nibbled by an ibis. Or by a group of turkeys (shout outs to college students).

 The students that run the magazine rarely use it to overtly push a local political agenda, and quite often we see that they try their hardest to definitely not do that. Because Semper is ‘independent’.

 This desire to be seen as ‘independent’ has the unfortunate effect of meaning that we rarely see commentary on student politics in it at all – left, or centre, or right, or wrong. It’s a pity that the one place that should be a consistent platform for discussion of student politics is kept from being that by virtue of it being spawned of student politics and owned by the UQU.

 Every year, every party promises to ‘make Semper independent’, or ‘keep Semper independent’, as if this magazine has any political clout that could be abused. If a magazine isn’t writing on local politics, does it even need to be independent?

 You see, this claim of ‘independence’ by Reform, Thrive, Fresh, Pulse, whatever – it is a sleight. A sleight not on voters, nor on readers, but on the candidates.

 About the only thing ‘independent’ about Semper is its editors. I don’t doubt their capacity for independence, evidenced by their general unwillingness to write on student politics, presumably out of fear that it would be misinterpreted as being partisan. Even the most well-intentioned commentary would be easily spun, and therefore low-hanging fruit for a competing party to criticise come the next election.

 And yet, this mentality is exactly what precludes Semper from ever being truly independent. It is nearly impossible for Semper to exercise editorial freedom, and therefore independence, under the current system.

 It is difficult for the editors to write what they want, or how they want, for fear that it will be criticised in the next election. And, if it is criticised, it is a criticism of the whole party in charge of the UQU and not just of the Semper editors. No matter what, aspiring Semper editors will campaign for ‘independence’ and they will criticise the other tickets for not being independent.

 The independence of this publication has all of a sudden become a key issue, regardless of substance, truth or effect, purely by virtue of its editors being elected on the platforms of major UQU tickets.

 So if this is the case, why not just cut Semper from the main political race? If it isn’t politically persuasive and leads to inevitable criticism no matter how it is managed, why do the parties still care about it?

 Because Semper is an extremely useful campaigning tool.

 Every party tends to run politically neutral(ish) Semper candidates, who are often really cool, come from journalistic backgrounds, and are crowd pleasers. This adds to the charade that the rest of the party is ‘apolitical’, or if they aren’t, at least the media arm is ‘neutral’. It’s an excellent campaign strategy for the greater party because all of a sudden you have independent a-political minds (Semper) who are campaigning for line-toeing, partisan minds (the rest of the party… Usually hacks… Like, real student politicians).

 The effect is that, although Semper Editors run on a platform of independence, they are required to campaign for the benefit the rest of the party. This means that for at least two weeks every year, no matter what they say, Semper editors are completely partisan, as they need to agree with the promises of their party – or at least wear their shirt and tell people to vote for them. That is part of the parcel of running as a ticket.

 When Semper editors promise independence while campaigning, they are actually promising to avoid controversy for their party. Cleverly, they are luring students to vote for a party which is otherwise not at all independent. A move that easily slips under the radar of many voters. A move that some candidates might not even realise they are pulling.

 So long as the editors run on the same platform, with the same shirts, and the same slogans as candidates for other (partisan) portfolios, Semper will never have the flexibility to be a check on power within UQ and it will never be a trusted source of local political commentary. Unfortunately, it will continue to be used as a political chip. This isn’t entirely the fault of the editors, but a design of the UQU that neither major party wishes to dismantle. Yet.