February 28th 2004

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Don't torch the sugar industry!

CANBERRA OBSERVED: New tactics needed to handle Latham challenge

TRADE: Where does new free trade pact leave us?

NCC holds successful 2004 National Conference

DRUGS: Sweden turns off teenage drug tap

STRAWS IN THE WIND : Alabama's got the bomb / Swords into ploughshares / Closed minds

Free trade and sugar (letter)

Rethink US-Australia FTA (letter)

A Cuban's view of Fidel Castro (letter)

Political correctness in schools (letter)

Superannuation a tax on families (letter)

FAMILY: Marriage under attack

TAIWAN: Cliffhanger election will affect China relations

MEDIA: Confronting sloppy journalism

HISTORY: The continuing legacy of the 1960s

COMMENT: Getting history wrong - Ross Fitzgerald's 'The Pope's Battalions'

BOOKS: The Electronic Whorehouse, by Paul Sheehan

Books promotion page

Confronting sloppy journalism

by Tim Wallace

News Weekly, February 28, 2004
Reading newspaper reports on the trade deal between Australia and the United States, this journalist couldn't but be struck by the tenacity with which most reporters continued to insist on describing the outcome as a "free trade agreement".

Given the standards of accuracy the quality media, at least, purports to uphold, some modification might have been in order. Doesn't "free trade" imply, well, free trade? Even if the Australian negotiators had achieved every single one of their demands, this still would have been, at best, a freer trade deal, though a more accurate description would be "bilateral" or "preferential" trade agreement.

We have, of course, become used to the glib spin that emanates from the corridors of ostensibly open and accountable government, as if calling as spade a "semi-autonomous earth removal device" makes it easier for the public to handle.

Managing Behaviour

On the day before the news of the trade deal broke, by way of example, The Australian carried a wonderful story about a Perth school that had been "managing" the behaviour of an intellectually disabled 12-year-old by locking him in an outdoor caged enclosure on an almost daily basis - sometimes several times a day. Notes made by the boy's teacher suggested that even calling it a "quiet garden" didn't make him like it any more.

Perhaps the school should have, in addition to the wooden bench it thoughtfully provided for his sojourns of up to 80 minutes at a time, added a potted fern and a sprinkler and called it a "tropical garden with water views".

In any event, the state education department's district director defended the cage as a "withdrawal facility", which she said was common in schools (though she couldn't think of any others made out of cyclone fencing).

Perhaps this is the angle the NSW Department of Corrective Services should have taken eight months ago to allay convicted inside-trader Rene Rivkin's peace of mind and persuade him that weekend detention wasn't something he needed to fight tooth, nail and brain tumour: don't think of it as a jail but a "time-out facility", and it's not prison sentence but an "individual behaviour management plan".

It's easy enough to see through the glaring holes of a cyclone fence, and the media, armed with damning photographs, were having none of the debasement of the English language being propagated by WA's education authorities. When it comes to less tangible matters like trade agreements, however, the media has a decidedly harder time picking the holes in the terminology. If only you could take a snapshot of an import barrier.

For all the effort - and despite what critics might think, it is considerable - that news organisations expend on getting trivial facts right, it seems strange that so many allow important concepts in to be described in false and misleading language.

One of the most glaring examples is the insistence by journalists who wouldn't know their Incarnation from their Immaculate Conception to play amateur theologian and describe orthodox or conservative Catholics as "fundamentalist". This isn't helpful. Think what you will about the merits of the believing in papal infallibility on matter of faith and morals, but if you want to conflate those ideas with some fundamentalists who believe the Catholic Church is the Whore of Babylon, Mother of Harlots and Abomination of Earth, then you need to acquaint yourself with the doctrinal disputes that led to the Reformation.

Another even more common example of sloppy journalistic practice is the description of the monthly unemployment figures compiled by the Australian Bureau of Statistics as "the unemployment rate". If you were to believe what you read, saw or heard from most media outlets, you might well be under the impression that Australia indeed has a 5.6 per cent unemployment rate.

In fact what we have is an official unemployment rate of 5.6 per cent. That's a crucial difference, one as important as the finicky details of grammar and punctuation to which so much back-room journalistic energy is devoted. But rarely in a newspaper (let alone commercial television or radio news) do you see such a distinction made, and in even fewer instances do you see a qualification of the official figure with the caveat that even the ABS itself admits its headline measures do not reflect the true rate of unemployment.

Back to the trade agreement, which continues to be described by those who should know better as "free". How the public interest is served by the use of inaccurate language I do not know. Perhaps I am too sensitive, but one only has to look at history to see where double-speak leads us: those who begin with murdering language rarely stop just there. The Nazis liked to emblazon the gates leading to their death camps with the slogan Arbeit Macht Frei - Work Makes One Free.

When our own political leaders start attaching the word "free" to their designs, journalists have a duty to puncture the pretension and tell it like it is, unless they themselves wish to be the whores of babbling on.

  • Tim Wallace is a freelance journalist - twallace@pacific.net.au

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