Speech to journalism students at Charles Sturt University, Bathurst

August 2019 

A few weeks ago, I gave a speech in London at the inaugural Global Media Freedom Conference.

It was organised jointly by the UK and the Canadian Governments to defend media freedom.

Now what THEY had in mind for the conference was to call out those Governments around the world that threaten journalists, bully journalists, harass and imprison journalists and even murder journalists just because they are doing their job.

This is an important campaign and I wouldn’t want to discourage it for a moment. I have colleagues who have been jailed overseas for simply doing good journalism and I know of journalists who have been killed for doing their job. Even a comfortable, safe and well protected journalist like me knows what it’s like to be covering stories in places like Fiji during a coup or East Timor under Indonesian rule and have gunshots or tear gas fired in your direction to encourage you to go away and stop reporting.

So by all means let’s applaud any efforts to call this out and defend journalists under attack in totalitarian regimes.

But in my speech to that conference, I also tried to remind the Governments in places like the UK and Canada and, of course, here in Australia, that calling out the behaviour of other less enlightened regimes is not enough: they need to look to their own behaviour and the behaviour of other leading democracies.

Here’s a small part of what I said, and keep in mind that the main reason I was there as the former Editorial Director of the ABC was to represent independent public broadcasters around the world:

Before we all lean back and bask in the glow of the good work we seek to do, safe in the knowledge that journalists in our countries have freedom and rights, I want to take the conversation in a different direction. Bashings, arrests and murders are cruel, bloody and undemocratic ways of bullying and silencing journalism, but they are by no means the only ways…

There is clear evidence that public broadcasters around the world are under unprecedented pressure. In some cases it threatens their very existence. In other cases it exposes them to the death of a thousand cuts – loss of funding, loss of independence and relentless pressure to get on board and support the powers that be…

Independent, powerful journalism is under threat, but instead of valuing what we have, instead of championing the importance of public broadcasting, ensuring its independence is fiercely protected and it is adequately funded, it is being squeezed and cajoled and pressured and threatened as never before, by legal actions and funding cuts and political interference.

I strongly believe that it is time for Governments to step up to the plate, to recognise the message that is being delivered not just by public broadcasters but by their own citizens – that they value independent public interest journalism done without fear or favour, they trust it and they want it preserved.

Now that was without even mentioning Donald Trump and his relentless attacks on the media, but you get the idea. It was a plea for governments to back off, stop trying to get the media to barrack for them, and accept that strong independent journalism is a public good that needs to be supported and protected. Not killing us is not really enough.

So that was my message in London. I don’t think it had too much impact, not sure Jeremy Hunt or the other Foreign Ministers even noticed it and importantly I didn’t get to meet Amal Clooney, who was also at the conference. I think they probably DID pay attention to her speech.

But today’s a different speech and a different audience, and so the point I want to make here is that my comments in London are only half of the story. It’s all very well to demand rights, to demand that Governments stop interfering and undermining our independence and that they recognise the public good that journalism represents. But as we all know, with rights come responsibilities. If journalists want to be recognised, valued and protected for the work we do, then we have to clearly state and uphold the principles of good journalism. We have to do the job properly. That’s our side of the bargain, and right now as you all contemplate a future in this great profession of ours, I worry that we might be at risk of failing to uphold our side of the bargain, and forgetting those fundamental and vital principles that make journalism great.


Now I spent a lot of time as a television reporter doing news and current affairs, but I spent the last ten years of my career in journalism working on editorial standards – thinking about them, writing them, training people in them, answering complaints about them, and going to Senate Estimates and arguing with Eric Abetz about them.

During that time, two things have worried me the most and they are related to some extent.

The first is the idea, very fashionable in some circles, that objective journalism is a naïve and old-fashioned myth, a thing of the past; that everyone is subjective and so the best thing a journalist can do these days is declare what their perspective is rather than pretend they have no views at all. Transparency is new objectivity, or so the theory goes.

The second development, which has been partly enabled by that first view, is that as the business models for journalism have collapsed and the rivers of gold from advertising have dried up, media companies need to survive by understanding their specific niche audiences and delivering the content those audiences want to hear. So instead of being all things to all people, conservatives can read The Australian and watch Sky After Dark, progressives can buy the SMH or the Guardian and watch the ABC, and everyone is happy.

Now everyone is entitled to their own opinion and I’m not here to judge, but to be clear: both of these are really dumb ideas.

We are going to have plenty of time for questions and discussion later on where you can disagree with me, so for now let me spell out why they are really dumb ideas.


Let’s start with the idea that you can’t really be objective.

Now before I start, let me say that when I talk about objective journalism I am not talking about opinion columnists, restaurant reviewers or theatre critics. And I am not talking about the thundering editorials that newspapers can use to express their opinions and world views. There is a long and honourable tradition of opinion journalism and provided it’s labelled as such, that’s all fine.

What I’m talking about is the way journalists cover the important events and issues in the communities they serve – the way they report the news.

There is a rule that runs right through modern journalism that says a reporter will report without fear or favour. They will gather and examine the facts accurately and comprehensively, dispassionately considering all of the evidence, weighing the evidence and reporting on that basis.

There are a few things I like to point to when I talk about being impartial and objective.

The first, for those who like to suggest that impartiality was some kind of temporary fad invented by American newspaper proprietors in the 20th century, is to quote from the 1884 Reporter’s Handbook, published in England, which advised young reporters starting out in the business that the reporter should always bear in mind that his mission is to reproduce facts and arguments…and that he is not required, save upon exceptional occasions, to express either his own opinions or those of his journal…Hence the importance of cultivating a strictly judicial habit of mind.”

Now that last phrase I particularly like, because critics of impartiality will often say that it leads to a kind of he said/she said false balance, where reporters feel obliged to follow every statement about the impact of climate change with a balancing statement that some people argue climate change isn’t real. That is and always has been complete nonsense. That’s not impartial journalism, it’s just bad journalism. There is nothing judicial about reciting a set of facts, giving everyone an equal say and then ending your story. A judicial process involves weighing up the facts and making judgements – in the case of journalism they are editorial judgements based on the weight of evidence, not conclusions based on what you personally or someone else happens to favour.

This leads to the next thing I like to quote when I talk about impartiality, and not surprisingly it comes from the ABC’s own editorial standards, which you can find online and I thoroughly recommend you check them out if you haven’t already. In the guidance note on Impartiality, the ABC says this:

“We all have opinions, shaped by instinct, belief and experience, and it may be very difficult to transcend these in the face of the stories you will work on. You have to work hard to be objective, and curiosity is one of the best qualities you can
bring to bear on this.”

Now that guidance note has a lot more to say about impartiality and how to achieve it and I really recommend you reading it. It a classic of its genre and if you haven’t already guessed by now, I personally wrote bits of it. But this particular excerpt reinforces the one thing I like to remind people of the most. Impartiality or objectivity is not a state of being, like sainthood or being in love. It is not some kind of impossible state of perfection. Impartiality is a discipline; it’s a thing that you do. There’s nothing magical about it, it simply requires conscious effort. The “curiosity” comes in when you are genuinely interested in what other perspectives and other views might be, and when you actively seek out all of the available facts, even if they expose your own blind spots and don’t fit the narrative you have in your own mind.

At the end of the day, we expect all sorts of professionals – doctors, policemen, teachers, building inspectors and yes, judges – to go about their duties in a fair and impartial manner. So why on earth wouldn’t we expect the same of journalists?

Now the last thing I am going to say on the subject of impartiality is something I just heard a few weeks ago. It relates to the tricky issue of providing a diversity of perspectives in your reporting.

You’ve got a great story. You’ve uncovered, for example, serious wrongdoing by a company or a government or a union or an individual. You’ve looked at all the evidence, it’s compelling, and now you have to get a response from the ‘guilty party’.  The temptation too often is to give that response short shrift, often because you simply don’t find it convincing or compelling. You may be right, but providing a fair opportunity to respond is an important part of investigative journalism, and rather than weaken a story it makes it stronger for your audience to hear that response in sufficient detail to form the view for themselves that it is, in fact, unconvincing.

A few weeks ago I heard this great quote from the head of editorial standards at CNN in the US. He’d heard it from a previous editorial adviser, and it had stuck with him for 30 years, so now I’m passing it on to you. When it comes to including a proper, adequate response from someone accused of something, this adviser said “Let the fella make his case.

Simple, pithy, and really helpful. Don’t undermine a brilliant story by letting someone justifiably complain that they never had a chance to make their case in response.

So my philosophy on all of this is pretty simple. If you’re the kind of journalist who thinks it’s impossible to be objective, you’re missing the point. Objectivity is about your intentions and the amount of effort you put in. If you want to fight for a cause or promote something you believe in, become an activist. Otherwise, you’re in the profession because what you believe in is journalism – telling the truth, calling a spade a spade. You just have to make really sure it is a spade. Journalism is hard, methodical and painstaking work but it’s honourable work – going out into the world, finding out what is happening, and letting people know about it. Without fear, and without favour.


Now that brings me to the second thing that worries me, and that is the increasing trend of news media around the world to become more polarised, to take sides in some kind of ideological battle.

It’s almost as if, now that we now objectivity doesn’t exist and we are all just pushing our own opinions and world views either consciously or subconsciously, then we might as well just admit it and organise ourselves into teams.

That way, we will attract audiences who share our world view and that will help sustain a decent business model in the face of Google and Facebook and YouTube and all those other massive anonymous aggregators who are siphoning all the revenue out of the system.

If you go back 20 years, the only real difference in most of our news media was whether they tended to be tabloid or broadsheet. Whether they took a serious approach to serious news, or instead focussed on car crashes and royal scandals and celebrities and sport. Of course some newspapers took a conservative or a progressive line in their editorials and who they backed at election time, but for the most part their actual journalism was journalism; a good story was a good story.

Now it seems to me that everyone is under pressure to take a position and they are judged on it. Are you calling President Trump a racist or aren’t you? Is offshore detention a good thing or a bad thing? Is climate change the biggest risk to our future or some international hoax designed to bring down capitalism? Your whole news organisation is judged and categorised by which team you are on, and this is meant to define the way you cover stories. These decisions are often meant to drive commercial outcomes, to result in growing your own niche audience to sustain you through subscriptions or increased online clicks.

Just as an aside, I have always thought the ABC program Insiders provides a neat example of this. When it first began in 2001, it had a simple brief – assemble a rotating panel of some of Australia’s leading political journalists to discuss the week’s political events. There was no need to think about a balanced panel – they were all just journalists.

Eighteen years later, it’s much much harder because every journalist on the program is assessed by others, rightly or wrongly, according to their perceived political positions. If you’re from News Corp you’re going to be right wing, if you’re from the Guardian you’re going to be left wing, let’s make sure the two teams are balanced, etc… Even if it is not true, that is often the perception. Journalists are no longer seekers of impartial truth; they are foot soldiers in the culture wars.

But here’s the thing that I am more and more convinced of. This is not what people want.

If you go and read any of the authoritative sources on the loss of public trust in the news media – Knight Foundation, Columbia Journalism Review, the Edelman Trust Barometer, the Reuters Institute research – there is consistent evidence on why people don’t trust us anymore.

I think it was very well expressed by some local qualitative research done here in Australia.

The Centre for Media Transition at UTS carried out a number of interviews to find out why people had lost trust in the news media and what they were looking for.

And guess what – nobody is looking for a more biased and opinionated media. Nobody wants a news media that tells us what they think we want to hear or reinforces our comfortable prejudices.

The heading the UTS report chose for its executive summary was “Don’t Be My Friend”.

In other words, the demand was for the news to report what we need to know, and to report it straightforwardly and honestly.

The three things most people expected from the media, in order of importance, were to be accurate, to be objective and to report in the public interest.

So instead of filling the news with hot takes, partisan judgements and thundering opinion pieces, the under-met demand from the public is for good old fashioned reporting – focussing on the facts, being as objective as possible, and covering the issues and events that really matter.

To quote from some of the people interviewed for the report: “If I want to know the answer I would ask someone who was an expert in the field. I wouldn’t be asking someone like my friend. My friends tend to tell me gossip, rumours, and all sorts of little amusing stories, but that doesn’t mean that I would respect them and hold them as an authority in a field. I would have more respect for somebody who’s distant to me, and doesn’t care, to a certain degree, whether I like them or not”…The authors of the report added at this stage that  “This response turned out to be typical, which surprised us. We had thought that users might prefer a peer-to-peer model of news media. We had thought that maybe they wanted friend-like sources. But another interviewee agreed, saying: “I’d rather they focus on objective reporting rather than try to be my friend.”

Now I don’t believe that means we should go back to telling news audiences that they don’t matter, that they should just shut up and listen. I happen to think that increased interaction with the community you serve is vital to modern journalism, and journalism is more powerful and more effective if it shows its workings,  engages with audiences, learns from them and makes them part of the process. But the process should be rooted in the things that have always made journalism great – a commitment to discipline, fairness, accuracy and following the facts wherever they lead.


That’s all I really wanted to say today before opening up for discussion and questions, but I always think it’s good to finish up with a concrete example of the kind of things I have been talking out.

And in terms of examples, there is nothing more controversial and explosive than a little story the ABC did 18 months ago about corporate tax cuts, and whether or not they would promote more jobs and higher wages. It was a story that, some of you may recall, was one of the threads in a controversy that ultimately led to the sacking of the ABC Managing Director and the resignation of the ABC Chairman, one of the biggest crises to hit the public broadcaster in decades.

At the heart of it was a piece of strong and important reporting and analysis by an ABC reporter on the Government’s claims that if it cut corporate taxes there would be more jobs and higher wages as a result. This is, at best, an arguable claim and at worst one not strongly supported at all by available evidence. The ABC story made that point, but as soon as it was published my editorial policy team got involved over concerns that parts of the reporting didn’t meet the ABC’s impartiality standards. We quickly formed the view that there was indeed a problem. It certainly wasn’t that the reporter didn’t do a fine job overall or that the facts in the story were substantially wrong or that the lack of evidence that company tax cuts lift wages wasn’t carefully and accurately pointed out. In my view, though, it was that the coverage needed a little more information rather than a little less. If you remember that axiom I mentioned earlier – let the fella make his case – there were moments in the analysis where it was important to acknowledge and properly tease out the range of views on the issue and ensure that readers were given a fair and accurate picture of the matter. In due course, the normal editorial processes played out, the stories were adjusted and added to and they remain on the ABC website to this day – fine pieces of work.

But what should have been a fairly simple and routine piece of editorial review and clarification – something any responsible news organisation would do happily and transparently – quickly spiralled into an episode in the culture wars. The ABC and the reporter and producers at the heart of it became pawns in a much bigger war as conservative and progressive forces, including other journalists, lined up to join the battle. The original story, they argued, was proof that the ABC was just a bunch of left wing trouble makers, or alternatively the corrections that were made were proof that the ABC was kow-towing to a conservative government so as not to offend it. The battle quickly spread into allegations that the ABC were either keen to sack the journalist to appease the Government or recalcitrant and biased for keeping the revised stories online at all.

I had a couple of days in front of Senate Estimates that I would rather forget and then the top table of the ABC fell apart in acrimony. Meanwhile, public reaction and the opinion polls made only one thing crystal clear, which was that the Australian public has no time for anyone who is seen to be interfering with or undermining the independence of the public broadcaster. That was at least some good news.

I am closing with that example because I think it encapsulates many of the things I came here to say.

First of all, strong traditional journalism is a tough discipline. It requires dedication, commitment and transparency, as well as a willingness to publicly acknowledge when things are wrong or could be improved.

Secondly, journalism is at risk when it gets drawn into partisanship and a demand that we take sides and declare who we are barracking for – it’s a demand that must be resisted.

And finally, at the end of the day, people want from their news media what they have always wanted – to be kept informed about the things that matter in their community and given the information they need to know and understand their world.


Alan Sunderland

Bathurst    7 August 2019