It Matters Who You Are, and Where You Come From

Should arguments stand or fall on their merit? Or is it critical that media consumers get full, accurate and relevant information about who is providing facts, or offering opinion, about matters of public interest?.

It may be nice to think the quality of ideas – not those who promulgate them determines their persuasiveness, but the reality is more complicated. A pro- nuclear argument made by a mining magnate will be evaluated differently to the exact same one made by an environmental activist, professor of nuclear physics, or the CEO of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.

And rightly so. The credentials of individuals and organsisations provide us with important clues about the expertise and motives of those seeking to influence us. They give us the chance to evaluate for ourselves whether an individual or organisation’s contribution is influenced by memberships, affiliations or sources of funding and, if we believe it is, to adjust the weight we give to those views accordingly.

Motivations are complex and hidden. Political parties regularly discount the possibility that corporate donors purchase influence over party policies. Thinktanks poo-poo the idea that their spiritual or financial relationships with religious, political or corporate donors influence their views on matters of public interest, insisting that instead donors simply give to those who share their views.

But unless full, accurate and relevant information on these relationships are disclosed, how can we make up our own minds?

We can’t. And the truth is that some who seek to influence us believe that some ways of identifying themselves increase the credibility of their message. Regrettably, on the basis of this belief, some provide credentials and make disclosures that are at incomplete, misleading or irrelevant.

Editorial space is preferred over advertising space by those who want to get their message across, as was clearly revealed by the Cash for Comment saga. The reason is simple. The views of journalists, academics, scientists and doctors are presumed to be the consequence of sustained and dispassionate analysis, not prior commitments, loyalties or the hope of financial advantage. This impartiality gives credibility to their views unavailable to those with known religious, corporate or political commitments, or who stand to make money from opinion being shaped one way instead of another.

This may explain why some organizations choose scholarly sounding names like “centres”, “institutes” and “think-tanks, The reality, however, is that unlike academics, the staff of such organizations will not be required to have advanced degrees, nor adhere to the rigorous standards for quality research required to publish in academic journals.

Many think-tanks are reticent about disclosing who funds them, and their employees can be slack in ensuring past political affiliations are a consistent feature of their bios. We do know that Philip Morris and BAT donated to the Institute of Public Affairs, which takes the view that passive smoking is not based on science. Director of the Sydney Institute, Gerard Henderson does not always disclose, when he opines about the Australian political scene, that he spent two years as John Howard’s chief of staff.

Academic gloss is not the only quality sought by those seeking influence. A connection with the “little guy” – community-based or grass-roots activists – also lends credibility to messages the big end of town (corporate Australia, political parties or the churches) want us to hear.

According to Sourcewatch, The Institute of Public Affairs contributed to the establishment of a number of front groups, including the Australian Environment Foundation, which campaigns for weaker environmental laws and Independent Contractors of Australia, which campaigns for an end to workplace safety laws and the deregulation of the labour market.

Such “astroturfing” (the creation or nurture of individuals or groups that falsely inflate “public” opinion) may be behind the newfound popularity amongst longstanding pro-life organizations and activists of re-badging themselves for every campaign they undertake against abortion and embryonic stem cell research. Well-known anti-choice activists and several women with links to Opus Dei recently became directors of Women’s Forum Australia, which asserts feminist grounds for opposing the drug regulator’s control over RU486, transparent advertising requirements for pregnancy counselling organizations and stem cell research. The Coalition Against the Decriminalisation of Abortion seems like a new pro-life grass roots organisation, but shares a mailing address with Catch the Fire Ministries. In its first year of operation, Cadoa found around $34,000 to fund anti-decriminalisation newspaper ads.

What can be done? The code of ethics binding journalists requires them to be honest, to refrain from suppressing or distorting relevant facts, to refuse to allow personal interest, or any belief, commitment, payment, gift or benefit to undermine their independence and to disclose conflicts of interest that affect – or could be seen to affect – their independence.

Perhaps the time has come for other media participants to be asked to conform to similar ethical standards. Anyone who really wishes to conduct their dealings transparently shouldn’t find it too hard to work out what disclosures are required.

Beyond this, the best the public and decision-makers can do is to approach the credentials and disclosures offered by media players with skepticism. They may be complete, accurate and relevant. Then again, they may not.

Publication history

The Spin Up Against the Reality  The Age
The Spin Up Against the Reality  Sydney Morning Herald