Monday 17th of May 2021

Margo and SMH Ethics Code ()

NHJ! Reviewer Paul Stack has a query about this book and website and MK's obligations under the SMH ethics code. Paul writes:

'Now that her extreme whinings have a home on the web other than the woeful Webdiary, when will Margo quit the SMH, as she seems unable to follow the SMH code of ethics. (Quote): IMPARTIALITY - Staff will not allow personal interest, or any belief or commitment, to undermine their accuracy, fairness or independence. PUBLIC ACTIVITIES - Herald staff shall avoid any prominent activity in partisan public causes that compromises, or appears to compromise, the journalist or the newspaper.

NHJ! readers can find the full SMH Code of Ethics here.

Hmmm, always with the awkward questions. Other bloggy types have made similar observations/accusations, albeit in slightly less eloquent prose. MK'll respond in depth next week - she really is flat-out at the moment. But she certainly rejects that the book represents a contravention of the SMH Code. Just for starters, Paul makes no attempt to point out where and how exactly he reckons MK's '...accuracy, fairness or independence...' has been undermined by NHJ!

So for what my interim amateur observations are worth: to me that phrase and this one - '...that compromises, or appears to compromise, the journalist or the newspaper...' hold the key to the SMH Code sections he cites. Any journalist (or newspaper) simply having and expressing a partisan political position does surely not necessarily mean either of those phrases must automatically result. Put it this way: certain of Rupert Murdoch's boys have been gunning incredibly hard for Latham on Iraq - must that then mean that Greg Sheridan is professionally 'compromised' no matter how wonderfully even-handed he is as a journo more generally? Or that Andrew Bolt and Piers Akerman are helplessly undermined on non-Latham issues, doomed forever to be seen as something less than bright shining paragons of journalistic impartiality? Dear me, such a tragic and unfair waste of media talent, etc etc!

Closer to home and less smart-alecky, the SMH itself editorialised against invading Iraq - a partisan position if ever there was one in these times. So...should the entire SMH edit shed resign on account of having breached their own Code - 'undermined' or 'compromised' their newspaper? Of course not. In fact, every single journalist and editor IS politically partisan, in the sense they'll all have to vote in the next election (and if, as some do, they always vote informal as a matter of professional choice, then it's hardly a great 'ethical' example to set, huh). So all Margo Kingston has done with this book is declare publicly which way she'll vote - along with a comprehensive argument as to why. As I said, Paul Stack makes no attempt to argue where and how she blew her 'accuracy, fairness or independence' while doing so; he seems to think that simply expressing a political view automatically = a breach of the SMH code. Hmmm. Maybe they could turn the Op Ed page over to daily poetic riffs on the weather? (Oops, nope, that'd be likely to lead to stuff on global warming...)

Imho the fact that MK has declared her political 'partisanship' - such as it is in a book criticising a current Liberal PM based on her deep and declared admiration for a past Liberal PM (Menzies) - works to HELP ensure she has compromised/undermined neither herself nor the SMH as a result.

To me, it's always been the undeclared 'partisanship' that hurts the integrity of the (necessary) political/media/public interface. A Paul Stack is free to factor in MK's explicit political views every time he reads MK's work. But what about Paul Kelly's far more influential and wide-ranging political journalism, Paul? Any real idea where exactly HE is writing it from? Any real sense of how HIS partisan views will subtly undermine/compromise the true impartiality of Kelly's powerful byline? Nope. So who is really performing more 'ethically' in the information delivery game? Paul Kelly WILL end up voting for someone, no less than MK will. Thus, he IS no less partisan than MK, no matter how much he may kid himself otherwise.

For me, all this hand-wringing and point-scoring about so-called 'objectivity' versus 'subjectivity' is one of the great Baby Boomer Journo Cons of all time. (Now how does it go again, boys and girls...ABC 'bias' versus Murdochian 'objectivity', or was it the other way around...? Answer: 42. And 'yawn'.)

Surely what matters more - and is more meaningful and achievable - when it comes to 'partisanship' must be journalistic transparency, honesty and good faith. MK cannot be faulted on any of these, imho. And just by the way, all you 'more professional' journalists out there who so like to tut-tut about MK's brand of participatory tradecraft - and just speaking as both NHJ! Meeja Watcher and political information consumer here for a tic - when I see said Paul Kelly, along with Laurie Oakes, Kerry O'Brien, Alan Ramsey, Ray Martin and Michelle Grattan (say) all prefacing every political opinion column they churn out with an admission of who THEY voted for last election, then I might start to pay attention to their earnest prattlings about partisanship. Political journos - and editors - seem to be about the only Citizens in Australia these days who have the 'right' to keep such information private without 'compromising' their supposed 'impartiality'. Yet such unelected, influential heavyweights have been at the very public heart of shaping Australian politics for decades now. So come on, all you 'ethical' political hacks out there! Instead of fretting endlessly about MK's 'partisanship', how's about you each come clean on your OWN for a change?

However, as I said, these are all my personal views on journalistic ethics, not MK's (and certainly not the Herald's). She'll respond to Paul Stack's challenge herself next week when her feet touch the ground. Meanwhile, thanks for the useful query, Paul, and other NHJ! readers feel free to email us your own thoughts about journalistic ethics, transparency and political 'objectivity'. Aveagoodweekend...and as you're watching Barrie and the lads chatter away on the Insiders couch this Sunday - or the Sunday crew go after 'Boofhead' Latham - just ask yourself this: who are YOU lot planning to vote for this time around then...