For much of the past two decades, polarization and hyperpartisanship have weakened Western democracies, particularly in the United States and Britain. Australia has not escaped it, although the consequences here are nothing compared to Brexit or the uprising in Washington on January 6, 2021.
Social media has been the main cause of this democratic dysfunction, but parts of the professional mass media have also contributed.
Impartial reporting is an antidote to polarization. The Voice referendum, with its impassioned arguments on both sides, is an opportunity for the Australian media to demonstrate their capacity for truth-seeking and impartiality.
While overall performance has been patchy so far, there appears to be a decline in the polarization that has been such a key feature of federal political coverage between Julia Gillard’s 2010 overthrow of Kevin Rudd and the defeat of the Morison administration in 2021.
A straw in the wind was a column by Chris Mitchell, the former editor-in-chief of The Australian, in a recent commentary on the referendum coverage. While he supported the referendum’s critics, he called on both parties to respect each other.
It was an important point. As Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have argued in their book How democracies dieis the lack of respect for the opposing side that has so undermined democracy over the past two decades, especially in the US.
There are other signs that the Australian media is approaching the task of reporting on the referendum in a way that serves the public interest. Many platforms, for example the Canberra Times and the ABChave published factual and straightforward “explainers” outlining the basic principles of the referendum.
This is one way the media does their essential job of providing reliable information to the public. Another is by monitoring public opinion through polls, and these have been reported at regular intervals, showing a slow but steady increase in support for the Voice proposal.
The latest YouGov survey is particularly informative as it shows results by state as well as nationally. Based on that data, the “yes” side has majority support nationally and in four of the six states, meeting the requirement of a double majority for a referendum to pass.
So far so good in terms of coverage. But achieving impartiality in the news also challenges the media to let go of some bad old habits, and so far not everyone has been up to the task.
There are plenty of examples of journalists who have succumbed to the temptation to fall back on the simplest, safest but professionally inadequate way to achieve impartiality: simply reporting what someone says and then finding someone else to oppose it.
It’s tempting because it saves time and doesn’t require independent evaluative thinking. It is professionally deficient because it is shorthand journalism, rightly dismissed these days as “he said, she said” journalism.
As a result, absurd or far-fetched proposals are challenged only by an opposing political voice. When this happens, the evaluative element of journalism is lost, leaving the public to figure out the rights and wrongs for themselves.
Maintaining impartiality does not require the media to publish nonsense, and certainly not to publish nonsense without drawing attention to the facts or evidence to the contrary.
The strongest examples come from stories about the scope and power of the proposed Voice.
There is enough material to test what people say about this:
the final report of the Indigenous Voice Co-design group, which forms the basis for the government’s approach
submissions to the parliamentary select committee examining the matter by constitutional experts
the opinion of Stephen Donaghue, Solicitor General of the Commonwealth, contained in his submission to that research
the exact wording of the proposed constitutional amendment.
The best reporting to date imposes these tests. A good example was the challenge on Melbourne commercial radio 3AW by Tony Jones to Sussan Ley, deputy leader of the Liberal Party, who opportunistically seized on the arrival of Anzac Day to say that The Voice could try to change Australia’s national holidays. modify.
The worst coverage does not impose these tests. One example was a front-page story in The Australian, amplified by Sky News, featuring opposition leader Peter Dutton said the Voice can advise on interest rates.
Attempts like this to panic the populace have their parallels in the native title scare 30 years ago.
Read more: Australian politics explained: the Mabo decision and native title
Then people like Jeff Kennett, as Victoria’s Liberal Prime Minister, promoted the populist furphy – that one he later rejected — that native title was a threat to people’s backyards.
The proposed new section 129 of the constitution, which would establish the vote, states the function of the vote as follows:
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice can make representations to the Commonwealth Parliament and the Commonwealth Executive Government on matters pertaining to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
The keyword is “representations”. As several legal opinions make clear, this word was carefully chosen instead of “advice” because it has a less powerful connotation.
Read more: What happens if the government goes against the advice of the Vote to the House of Representatives?
A second argument against The Voice — that its statements would trigger a cascading lawsuit — can be tested against the view of Professor Emerita Anne Twomey, Donaghue, and other constitutional law experts who say it wouldn’t.
a third argument is that the vote is a mechanism for enshrining racial differences as a feature of the constitution.
The co-design group’s final report states that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are, in practice, the only racial groups in Australia for whom laws are made exclusive. The implication is that racial differences are already part of the basis for legislation in certain circumstances, and that equity dictates that the people directly affected by such laws should have a say in their formulation.
People who put forward arguments against the Voice deserve a fair hearing. Inconsistencies in the wording of some documentation raise legitimate questions, and it is also legitimate to wonder why the executive government is included alongside parliament as an institution to which the Voice can lodge protests.
However, impartiality requires that where answers to these questions exist, they should be reported and not left up in the air for the public to make what they want of it. With an issue as ripe for polarization as the vote, that’s not good enough.