The Rules of Reason Do Matter in Journalism
by Gerard Charles Wilson
On reflection, it was not surprising that my two books, The Media of the Republic (1st Ed. 1999) and The Telecard Affair: Diary of a Media Lynching (1st Ed. 2001), were largely ignored by the ‘mainstream’ media. What did I expect? – several like-minded friends commented. The main players in the media are not about to embrace the work of an author intent on kicking the stuffing out of the bloated image they have of themselves.
One exception to the general back-turning of the media on my work was Jack Waterford, the Editor at the time of the Canberra Times but late last year promoted to the position of Editor-in-Chief (‘Media’ supplement, The Australian, 13 December 2001).
Waterford thought it worth his valuable time and the Canberra Times’ valuable space to launch an attack on The Telecard Affair: Diary of a Media Lynching to put straight those erring about the justice dealt out to Peter Reith (‘Who rode in Reith’s Lynch party?’, ‘Addendum’, The Canberra Times, 14 July 2001). In my view, however, Waterford’s attack is representative of the quality of commentary by media figures at his level, and unwittingly provides a demonstration of the main thrust of the book he attempts to ‘critique’.
Opening with a sneer about my being ‘some sort of political philosopher’, Waterford evidently thought he had gone on to disqualify my book from having anything substantial to say in the public debate about the ‘infamy of the media’ (his words).
It is marvellous how media people like Waterford switch positions to suit the occasion. He and his class comrades are ever ready to disqualify the ordinary person who stands up to them as ignorant and uneducated. They don’t know what they are talking about. This is easy. Ordinary down-to-earth people trying to organise themselves and their families are not usually ‘university educated’. But confronted with someone who can match them on the same educational level or even better, and is rash enough to criticise them, then the tactic is to discredit them. In both cases, Waterford and his pals sidestep the challenge to provide a reasoned response to criticism.
So, as I say, far from achieving the aim of disqualification, he has unwittingly confirmed the major theme of the book: that the people of the media (particularly at his level) are for the most part closed in upon themselves, that the media world is like an asylum where the inmates suspend the rules of reason wherever it suits their whim and purpose, and busy themselves in a feverish confrontation with their individual and collective fantasies. The media as an asylum was one of the main images in the book. It was an image that Waterford made no mention of.
He sets up his case by quoting a long passage from the opening chapter of the book, which in summary says that the Telecard Affair was not about Peter Reith or rorting politicians, but about ‘the media as the sharpest corrupting influence in our social and political life’. The substance of Waterford’s case, which he at no time attempts to justify by citing from the text, is found in the paragraph directly following:
That all sounds very promising, but I don’t think he develops his thesis very far, or that the reader will find it anything but a piece of nitpicking advocacy, at every stage of the way, for a person in Reith’s position, based on the assumption that he is a brave and decent man and that he should not be held responsible for the consequences of the errors of judgment that he made. At one stage [Gerard] Charles [Wilson] gets close to arguing that since many ordinary Australians rort their expenses, it’s not such a big deal anyway.
Putting aside the twisted expression and unfortunate punctuation in this passage, I have to own up to the fact that each time I read this paragraph in the drafting of this response, I was momentarily left staring in incomprehension. My thought on the first reading was: ‘He cannot have read the book’. For it seemed not possible that a person of normal intelligence could read the full 75,000 words of the book attentively and make such preposterous claims.
The Telecard Affair is chock-full of detailed argument. Any intelligent fair-minded reader may challenge the arguments, indeed may be satisfied they have ripped them apart, but it is mocking reality to assert that there is nothing substantial in the book to challenge or refute.
Waterford’s commentary raises a serious question not only about the arguments I deploy in the text (and others find and comment on), but about a correct reading of the text itself. A competent critical analysis of a text presupposes that the reader has understood what is actually on the page, and that he has not replaced the text’s meaning with what he imagines is there or not there. Waterford’s piece represents a paradigm case of one of the very problems I am attacking in The Telecard Affair and in my earlier book, The Media of the Republic. Now let me go back to the beginning to justify these claims and deal with Waterford’s main objections.
The uninformed reader may not be sure why the biographical detail about my academic background (found on the back cover) should raise a gratuitous sneer in Waterford. Indeed, Waterford may not be clear about it himself. But such inclinations in journalists like the Editor-in-Chief of The Canberra Times are explicable enough. It has to do with ideology and the media.
My philosophical interests and training are directly relevant to my analysis of media events. For in all commentary that aspires to be a serious analysis of Australia’s social and political scene, there are unavoidable metaphysical and epistemological assumptions. These philosophical issues were the focus of my analysis in The Media of the Republic, and deserve mention here.
It is a great advantage to understand the conscious or (mostly) unconscious philosophical assumptions of journalists, for that will explain their starting position and indicate the tendency of their commentary. In fact, knowing those assumptions will enlighten the reader not only as to what they will most likely say on a particular subject, but what philosophical views they have disqualified. That presents a pretty tricky business.
For what justification, the reader may well ask, do journalists have in accepting certain philosophical claims and rejecting others – without explanation or justification?
And it is not a matter merely of a prior rejection of a particular framework of thought. It is equally importantly a question of the denunciation of that framework of thought, and those that hold it, as pernicious and immoral. But, surely, the intellectual and moral repugnancy comes in passing cavalierly over such assumptions as if they did not exist, or the ‘public debate’ has been settled in favour of journalists’ most cherished political and moral opinions.
Now one often hears about the alleged Marxist tendencies of liberal/left journalists, the public service, the educational sector, the ABC and other such people and institutions. In The Media of the Republic, I argued that Kant, Hegel, Marx and other such philosophers are far too difficult for most people to have the time to read and understand – even for high profile journalists. Far more accessible, far more seductive, and wonderfully combinable are some key propositions of some of the major figures of the Enlightenment. I argued in a deliberately provocative but clear manner (The Media, Chapter 2) that the most important influences in the ‘liberalism’ of the majority of journalists were the works of philosophers David Hume and Thomas Hobbes* – even if they have never read or heard about them.
Out of these works arise the easily comprehended and propagated claims that the ‘real’ is the material (metaphysics), that not only can one not know anything but the material (epistemology), but that there is nothing beyond the material to know. The moral and political conclusions are that we all possess a radical freedom and equality, that there is no moral and political order other than that created by an act of will of a group of persons consenting (consensus) to form a commonwealth.
This is the key to understanding what ‘political correctness’ precisely entails. Political correctness is nothing but the range of dogma generated by a group of people who have consented to set up state and society, and in the end form a like-minded ruling class to promulgate, police and protect that dogma.
I need not discuss here the range of dogma that prevails in our modern society and the manner in which it is linked to those key Enlightenment ideas. It appears daily in the media as the mouthpiece of that ruling class. It is relevant, however, to make one important point about the dogma of the politically correct. Some of their most cherished dogma relate to the issues of the ‘republic’, the aboriginals and white settlement, IVF, refugees and border protection, and the rights of women and homosexuals.
Now it is clear enough that a great many people in the community have views about these matters that deviate sharply from the politically correct position. One form of ‘deviation’ arises out of a philosophical vision which can be viewed as direct opposition to the metaphysical and epistemological assumptions of the politically correct. That vision, known as ‘classical realism’, has a pedigree that goes back to Plato and Aristotle, considered to be among the greatest of philosophers.
It is a testimony to the ignorance and sense of justice (or lack of it) of the politically correct, among whom are journalists in vast numbers, that not only do they not know that another substantial manner of regarding the world exists, but they condemn any deviation from their dogma as corrupt, racist, insensitive, ignorant and selfish. Isolation is the sentence for anyone who rises in any substantial way to challenge the present political hegemony. In this context, talk about free speech is a joke; free speech is an effective right reserved for the media. I suggest that all this is the background to Waterford’s little sneer about my being ‘some sort of political philosopher’.
In The Telecard Affair: Diary of a Media Lynching, such metaphysical and epistemological considerations, although clearly presupposed in the background, were not the focus. Something underwriting these considerations, and fundamental to philosophical inquiry, was involved: the nature of the rules of reason.
A brief reading of a selection of media commentaries on the Telecard Affair should make this plain: Peter Reith was held responsible for the fraud on his government-funded telecard because he gave the card’s PIN to his son, Paul Reith. The issue did not become a philosophical discussion about the nature of responsibility where two opposing moral frameworks (relativist/subjectivist vs. objectivist) loom large, but an investigation of the strength of the arguments that were proposed to demonstrate that Peter Reith was responsible. I looked at the arguments from both the relativist/subjectivist and objectivist positions.
The first three chapters present, among other things, a cumulative examination of the different ways Peter Reith could be held responsible. I suggested that the responsibility could be looked at from the following perspectives: transgression of non-legal rules (the Remuneration Tribunal guide-lines); legal liability (civil negligence); criminal liability (fraud); and moral responsibility. I don’t know what Waterford’s brain was doing while he was turning the pages of those first chapters, but the analysis is there and tightly presented – as other readers freely acknowledge. Of course, I cannot present in a few hundred words what took several chapters to say. Nevertheless, to demonstrate what I mean, I will make two brief points.
In the above quotation from Waterford’s commentary, he says that I come ‘close to arguing that since many ordinary Australians rort their expenses, it’s not such a big deal anyway’. This comment is typical of his failure to understand what he is reading. It is not the case that I ‘get close to arguing’, I actually present a full argument over six pages under the heading, ‘Ripping off the employer: an Australian custom?’
The argument loses something in summary, but the essential point is clear. Most working Australians take advantage of the employer’s property to some extent (I give several appropriate examples). From the relativist’s position, a certain degree of that use can be considered (morally) condoned by custom. If this is so, then the relativist has no complaint about Peter Reith’s actions. Indeed, on this argument the relativist has nothing more to say. To do so would risk ideological inconsistency.
On the other hand, if one holds to an objectivist position, then one has to be careful not to appear hypocritical. This raised the relevant issue, also covered in detailed, of community prejudice and double standards. No mention of this by Waterford.
The major charge, however, directed at Peter Reith and on which the whole media campaign hung, was that of moral responsibility. Again, at the risk of losing some force in the summary, I argued that moral responsibility (assuming the objectivist position) entails two essential ingredients: the moral agent has to be conscious of the moral act he is performing; and secondly, the moral agent has to freely perform that moral act. It is clear that in the actual fraud on his government-funded telecard, Peter Reith does not satisfy these conditions. He didn’t do it, and he didn’t know about it. Other autonomous moral agents were the willing conscious performers of that fraud. It makes no difference to assert that Peter Reith’s actions led to the fraud. There is no moral causal link between Reith’s giving his son the PIN, and the independent actions of other moral agents. We all create a variety of circumstances in which moral agents perform moral actions. Few of us would be ready to take moral responsibility for actions willingly and freely performed by others in those circumstances.
Waterford and others may not agree with these arguments, but even on the above summary you have to question a person’s thinking processes if they assert the arguments are not substantial in the context, and don’t need to be refuted to make the charges against Reith stick.
I employ the same sort of detailed examination in assessing the other categories of responsibility mentioned above. This is hardly what you would call ‘a piece of nitpicking advocacy’ – unless, of course, you did not bother to read the text carefully and were intent on responding to the ever changing episodes of your imagination. But there’s more to this than the arguments I have summarised. It is the question of the strict application of the rules of reason—otherwise known as ‘logic’ to those wishing to engage in serious philosophical discourse.
There seemed to be no end to the arguments generated in the media to demonstrate that the despicable politician, Peter Reith, was guilty of applying double standards, attempting to cover-up, avoiding responsibility, contradicting himself, being inconsistent in his explanations, and so on ad nauseam.
Wherever I could, I examined the logic of these charges, from Dr Simon Longstaff’s article in the Australian on the question of ‘principle’, through the rorts-a-day example, the credit card comparison, the comparison with past examples of pollie rorting, through to the embarrassing nonsense George Megalogenis continually wrote in the Australian under the bemusing rubric of ‘Reality Check’. Again, there is no mention by Waterford of the close examination I undertook of Megalogenis’s pieces (pp. 109-113, 119-122, 196-205).
In all cases, I took the time to point out the fallacious reasoning that was involved. This arose mostly because an analogical argument, which is a form of inductive reasoning, was being treated as giving a necessary conclusion in the manner of a deductive argument. Now this straightforward explanation about the categories of logic may be very boring for people whose concentration span does not extend past 1,000 words, but it does not alter the fact that an analogical argument (as in the comparison of Reith’s giving his PIN to his son, with Reith’s rort-a-day on the waterfront charge) demands a tight similarity in the cases being compared, in order to be valid. I show that the required degree of similarity does not exist in any of the analogical arguments used in the Telecard Affair.
It is utterly astounding that Waterford, after claiming that my case against the media is nitpicking advocacy and based on the assumed good character of Peter Reith, spends more than half his commentary in regurgitating the very charges against Peter Reith that I deal with extensively – and refute. It’s as if this all successively disappears on the page when he sets his gaze upon it.
If I am right about this, then the reader may wonder why the Editor-in-Chief of the Canberra Times was so determined to make a fool of himself. The answer, or at least part of the answer, may be in an admission he makes about a third of the way into his piece:
One reason I was particularly interested was that this was a story originally broken by Emma MacDonald in The Canberra Times – a fact that Gerard Charles [Wilson] mentions in his first sentence. Alas, neither The Canberra Times nor MacDonald rates a subsequent mention as Charles turns immediately to parsing every sentence written or spoken afterwards by the Australian and the Sydney Daily Telegraph, as well as to television commentary [sic] by Laurie Oakes.
Was Waterford too miffed about my ignoring the Canberra Times to read the book carefully and offer a considered response? I suppose responding with feeling to a perceived snub of his newspaper would lessen the degree of incompetence. A rash opinion given in the heat of defending one’s near and dear is likely to mitigate the rashness – provided the reader is aware of such laudable feeling. Be that as it may, there is a good reason why I did not include the Canberra Times in my examination. I explain at the end of the first chapter:
In covering a media event like the Telecard Affair one has to be selective in one’s examination of the reporting. I have merely taken for the most part what I, as a media consumer, was exposed to in my daily life over the three weeks of the frenzy. A brief survey of other media instruments revealed at the time that the media formed an unbroken block in their treatment of Peter Reith’s ‘crime’.
Jack Waterford may not be aware but the Canberra Times, as great a newspaper as it undoubtedly is, comes some way down the media food chain. It seemed more important to me, and consistent with my views about the Murdoch group, to concentrate on those media instruments that were leading the media pack in the frenzy. I was convinced, and still am, that Col Allan, the then Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Telegraph, was leading the pack and that he was providing the feed to the other Murdoch instruments – particularly to the Australian.
Miffed as he might be that his newspaper was being ignored, Waterford attempted to cover his bruised feelings with an explanation as to why such an important newspaper as the Canberra Times was left out of consideration:
Perhaps we [The Canberra Times] were not part of the conspiracy. Or perhaps it would not greatly suit his thesis to show that the range of information, commentary and opinion on the subject was such that it was hardly like to have been coordinated, whether in the Press Gallery or with the evil empire of Rupert Murdoch or elsewhere.
Here we have the stock cop-out stratagem that the media bring out of their box of tricks whenever they are accused of behaving like a mindless pack of barking dogs. The trick is to ridicule the charge by making out that critics (people like me) are claiming that a conspiracy was got up in a dark smoke-filled room by the media’s main players and their stooges. Of course, that’s not what is meant.
What Waterford sneeringly calls ‘parsing’ was a close examination of the sequence of reports coming from a selection of media outlets. Although the concentration was on the Daily Telegraph, the Australian and Lauries Oakes at the Nine Network, I also examined the reports coming from the ABC, and Channel 10. I continually checked other outlets to see if there was any deviation from the general line. There wasn’t.
The first purpose in the close examination of the reporting was to gauge whether the arguments held up; the second was to establish the unbroken block all media outlets formed in their ‘reporting’ of the Telecard Affair. The proof and evidence are in my book and I challenge the Editor-in-Chief of the Canberra Times to show me where my arguments or my evidence break down. If he can show me a selection of sequential reports from the Canberra Times that deviated from the general reporting at the time, I will be only too happy to acknowledge publicly that my book was deficient in that respect. I do not expect to hear from Waterford on that point.
There is so much more in my book than these points of argument, but I think I have said enough at this stage. A shorter unrevised version of this reply was sent to Waterford at the time of his piece. As is common in the media, Waterford exercised the authority of his position and spiked it.
I reread these reviews in preparing the posting on my two media books on my website. Media events in the intervening years, particularly the media assassination of Prime Minister Tony Abbott, have strongly confirmed my case against the mainstream media. I would change nothing in my reply to Jack Waterford except the claim that consciously or unconsciously most journalist subscribe to a materialist philosophy like that of Hume or Hobbes – and not Marxism. A lot has happened in the fifteen years since I wrote The Telecard Affair. There is now a distinct Marxist-Leninist flavour to much political discourse. The Greens, for example, are a thinly disguised Marxist political party. Marxist-Leninist or Alinsky tactics are to be observed in the agitation of some media and union players as well as in such organization as Get-up! Indeed, our liberal-democratic society is coming under severe pressure by people and groups who think the ‘liberal’ era is over.