“Why the Greens can’t be trusted.” Apparently, that’s gonna be one of the campaign themes this year. And when I say apparently, I mean a Labour insider told me recently. Certainly, many of the other parties have been practising their Green scaremongering rhetoric: from New Zealand First (who deride our commitment to only enter government with Labour), the Progressives (who prefer grimy, coal-fuelled “socialism” to the clean, green kind), and United Future (whose moral puritanicalism finds our liberal social values deeply threatening). National and Act may also join in too, deciding that Labour is easier to attack by-proxy than head-on.
But how’ll the media report such scaremongering?. The Australian Press Council recently released a damning finding (reported here, here, and here) about a piece printed by Australia’s “biggest-selling daily newspaper”, the Herald Sun, during last year’s election campaign. Headlined, “Greens back illegal drugs”, the article claimed the Australian Greens had policies (e.g. raising company tax to at least 49 percent; trying to reduce the population by 2 million) they simply didn’t. The article was partly sourced from smears made in a Liberal Party publication.
This after-the-fact ruling will be cold comfort for a political party whose public standing was damaged by a journalistic beat-up. It’s what’s said in the heat of battle that matters, not what’s said six months after votes have been cast. Just like with people wrongly accused of paedophilia, mud thrown always leaves you looking and smelling a little dirty.
So, here’s my challenge to journalists for Election 2005. He said, she said journalism is not enough. The job of a journalist is to distinguish between truth and untruth, printing the former and ignoring or maligning the latter. When a political party makes allegations and/or spreads misinformation about another (whether in on-the-record comments or in an off-the-record steer to reporters), don’t print them unless you think they’re true. If you’re unsure, do some research. If an allegation seems shaky, challenge those making it to provide evidence. If they can’t, don’t print it. It’s not enough to give the maligned the right of reply: once you’ve aired the allegation in the first place, the damage has been done.
And if you feel you’d be doing your readers a disservice if you didn’t air allegations you know to be false, then expose them for what they are: call the politicians spreading misinformation liars, and be done with it.