Volume 10 Number 3
When Should the Media Stir up the Mud?
01 June 1997

An international media forum in Sydney discusses the media's freedom of press versus responsibility to society.

Is the role of the press to reflect, or to change, society? Is it a good sign, or a bad one, that the public distrusts journalists? Is newspaper publishing a business or a service? Is there room for more reporting of 'good news'? And what, while we are about it, is truth?

These questions generated lively discussion at an international media forum co-sponsored by the Australian Press Council and the International Communications Forum in Sydney last March.

Welcoming journalists, editors, publishers and commentators from around Australia and the world, the chairman of the Press Council, Professor David Flint, quoted Mahatma Gandhi: 'An uncontrolled pen serves but to destroy. If control is from without, it proves more poisonous than want of control. It can be profitable only when exercised from within.'

Or, in other words, from Lange Powell, another member of the Press Council: 'The issue is not whether the media should stir up the mud, but at what point does this cease to be useful and become self-indulgent.'

And how to know this point? Sir Zelman Cowan, former Governor-General of Australia and former chairman of the British Press Council, answered in one word: 'Judgement'.

The first sessions of the forum focussed on the media's role in intercommunal relations. Zaki Badawi, chairman of the Imams and Mosques of the UK, attacked the tendency of the British press to play on 'Islamophobia'. He recalled being asked by a radio journalist to suggest a Muslim to comment on the Salman Rushdie controversy, only to have his nominee rejected on the grounds that his views were too balanced.

Indian author and journalist Rajmohan Gandhi gave two incidents where the Indian press had helped to ease intercommunal tensions, and one where a newspaper had inflamed them. 'As a responsible writer,' he said, 'I have a duty not only to present what is being said fairly but also to do something to reduce the hatred and possibilities of violence, at least to promote dialogue.'

Discussion turned to the case of Pauline Hanson, a backbench independent member of the federal parliament whose outspoken prejudices on race and immigration had received considerable coverage, particularly on talk-back radio. Hanson, maintained the deputy chairman of the New South Wales Ethnic Affairs Commission, Ross Tzannes, had been a 'media creation'.

The mainstream press, countered Peter Charlton of Brisbane's Courier-Mail, had taken an ethical and sensible stance in the debate. Ian Hicks, Deputy Editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, described how his paper had published a rare front-page editorial confronting the distortions of Hanson's claims. 'The antiseptic of disclosure was applied to the venomous and noxious nostrums she provoked.'

'The press should be an irritant,' maintained Richard Walsh, a founder of Oz magazine and now Chairman of Australian Consolidated Press International. 'The truth is we don't stir as much as we want to' because of the fear that 'in exploring some issues'- such as the race debate- 'we will arouse prejudice and paint a picture we don't like of ourselves'. He argued that it was better to bring these issues out, confront them and come 'to grips with the rights and wrongs involved'.

Other sessions focussed on the role of the press in Eastern Europe; the responsibilities of newspaper publishers (addressed by John B Fairfax, who has large holdings in Australia's rural and regional press); and the need for balanced reporting.

Jan Pieklo, who covered the Bosnian war for the Polish media, launched a discussion on war-reporting. He criticized foreign correspondents in the Balkans for sensationalism, oversimplification and 'Sarajevo-centredness'. Others spoke of the difficulties they had faced in covering conflicts overseas.

Pamela Bone devoted her column in The Age on 3 April to the forum. 'I believe the media have an obligation to raise people's sights, not lower them,' she wrote. ' "Why should the media be better than society as a whole?" a French journalist, Bernard Margueritte, asked the forum. Because it has the power it has, it should try."
Mike Brown and Mary Lean

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