Robert Haupt, “Oblique News: The need for media bias,”
The Age Monthly Review, August 1987, p. 10.

When the cry went up over “media bias” during the recent election campaign it set off an event unusual in Australian public affairs: a useful debate. Not that the debate was in any way resolved — even though victory was their ostensible goal, the debaters knew, significantly, that they could never achieve it. No, their actual achievement was something to which they remained insensible: to have shown by living example the essential (and paradoxical) nature of our media problem. It was a signal contribution to our understanding of the inner rules that govern and restrict discourse in Australia, and so has — characteristically — lain unnoticed by the practitioners of that discourse.

The cry was raised by people on the fringes of the Opposition camp, not by its leader, and those who did so were immediately condemned for having made this kind of complaint before, for having themselves committed the sins of which they were now complaining of — more simply — for “playing politics”. I say “raised” as if the bias thesis were a battle standard sent proudly to fly aloft, or one of Mr Bond’s advertising zeppelins, or even a cogent argument, concisely and courageously put, like Tom Paine’s on the American colonies. But as argument and squib alike, it was damp from the start.

Familiarly so: the soggy thesis, unconvincing, orphan to its natural father, left to be raised by minions like Mr Michael Baume or rusticated warriors like Mr Doug Anthony, then the shrill antithesis, as crude as a harlot’s cry, an ad hominem blast which, when it approaches the argument at all, addresses it in the words Miss Rice-Davies used: “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?”; the synthesis stillborn, leaving the debate to hang, abandoned, like a suit of clothes on a hook, as the argument within disappears into the limbo-land of terminal boredom, whence no word has ever returned — all these are the hallmarks, or water marks, of Australian debate.

If it is done so badly, you might ask, why is it done at all? The futility of all hope of victory I have already noted: it is one of the chief characteristics of the way we handle public questions. In other countries, questions may be settled through debate; in Australia, debate ceases when the audience, not the issues, are exhausted. Those questions we count as settled were first settled abroad; the verdicts are merely imports. When Whitlam visited China, he sparked a national debate that was not settled until Nixon went there; our Vietnam debate raged in tandem with America’s, became settled with it and now is stirring again in precisely coincidental revisionism; so has debate swung between the Darwinians and the Creationists. An Australian enters into public debate the way he learnt to explore his continent: with a whistle on his lips, but a sinking heart, hoping not so much to make discoveries as to avoid becoming lost. The idea that he might prevail through the persuasive use of logic strikes him as about an even chance with discovering the inland sea.

All this is known — or, rather, felt — by the practitioners in the debate. It is why the Opposition Leader doesn’t himself complain of bias in the media, but leaves it to minor figures to do so. It’s not just that such a complaint has here, as it does abroad, the ring of death to it, the rattle of the defeated politician that the prudent leader chooses to avoid. It is, in Australia, also a matter of hopelessness. Would such a complain be heard? Considered? Answered on its own terms? Hardly. It is made as a gesture, a shot across the bow, an attempt to intimidate.

By the heart of the indignation these bias allegations caused, you could tell that a great injury has been done to a collective pride. Indeed, you got the feeling that hardly a more heinous offence could have been suggested against our political journalists, so wounded was their armour propre. Another serious allegation often made against our national political press — that it hunts in a pack; that it caucuses; that it shuns unacceptable opinions and isolates those who might write them; that it is, in a nutshell, intellectually incestuous — draws no such response from political journalists; what else, one is invited to say, would you expect, in the impossibly crowded and remote world of the Canberra press gallery? No wounded pride there.

So why the outrage over bias? Because bias means “not straight”. Whether used of a ball on a bowling green or the cut of a cloth, bias means curved, elliptical, oblique; straight, on the other hand, connotes truth, honesty, fairness, the attributes an Australian political journalist feels he must see in himself if he is to sleep well at nights. Hence the haste to condemn the criers of bias as themselves biased: as with the negatives, it seems, biases cancel themselves out with multiplication. No one bothered to consider whether bias might not be inevitable, necessary, or even good.

“Morality,” wrote Locke, “influences men’s lives, and gives a bias to all their actions.” Other writers of the time — Pope, Addison — picked up this handy French word and used it approvingly to describe a cast of mind, bias then meaning not prejudice but reason. This is not, I’ll grant you, today’s usage — Mr Baume and Mr Anthony meant mere partisanship — but there is a useful echo of sense in this etymology, and a comfort for those of us who believe that something so difficult to avoid can hardly be such a sin. If we say that bias is a predisposition to certain lines of thought, who can get upset about it?

The problem in Australian political journalism, as I see it, isn’t that there is bias, but that it is all pretty much the same bias. It is the predisposition Orwell noted in his 1946 essay on James Burnham’s Managerial Revolution, to which my class, the “small-bore intellectuals”, is peculiarly susceptible: having identified underlying causes for the events of the day, to extrapolate from those causes and make forecasts as if they would prevail unchanged. It is a mistake smarter people don’t make, nor dumber.

There is among our mainstream political writers (and virtually all who write intelligibly on politics are in the mainstream) a demonstrated incapacity to imagine things other than as they are. Is the dollar floating? Good, then float it must. Are the authorities fiddling with the float, to “correct” the market? Why, then correction is just what is needed. Do we really need a national identity card? Absolutely, can’t do without it. Should the budget deficit be higher than it is? That way lies disaster. Well, then, why not have it lower? Impossible. As Orwell noted, this predisposition has many of the characteristics of power-worship.

And it is not just a question of concurrence in what is being done; there is also the matter of what is left off “the agenda”, the absent “issues”. Our national failings are plain enough, from the welfare of Aborigines to the recruitment and training of scientists, but they are seldom admitted to the political debate. They are timeless wrongs (those extrapolated causes again), their intractability rendering them, in a peculiarly Australian way, extra-political. Why is this so Australian? Because to a far greater extent than in countries like the United States, Britain and France, political analysis in Australia restricts itself to this question: does the phenomenon under discussion add to or detract from the chances of Party A winning the next election? Things that do so are triumphs, those that don’t disasters, or vice-versa. (It is another singular characteristic of Australian political debate that events are viewed apocalyptically: defeats are “crushing”, decisions “vital” and ideas “seminal”, and we are forever straining to see whether the party which is returned with 50.6 per cent of the vote has become “the natural party of government”. This striving for significance on the part of our political writers may be associated with the narrowness of the range they cover.)

The need in Australian political debate is not for less bias, but for more biases; more writing, that is, from a frankly acknowledged point of view, more oblique minds, more slants. Were we being well served by our political media, a radical proposal such as Mr Howard’s to cut spending and taxes deeply would have brought forth a range of considered arguments, from one saying that it would be an unbridled national disaster to another hailing it as the embodiment of far-sighted good sense. Instead, we were quickly given the mainstream view — that it couldn’t be done and shouldn’t be done — before the debate returned to the traditional question, would the policy add to or detract from, etc? and its companion — always a key issue in this nation of gamblers — who was going to win, anyway?

Can we have more biases, without more agencies through which they might be expressed? I eschew the term “media outlets” because of its suggestion that there is a kind of reservoir of journalism stored up somewhere which newspapers or television and radio programs only need to tap; the truth is exactly to the contrary, it being the agencies which call forth the journalism. It is my guess that the further concentration of media ownership will squeeze the range of views — those worthwhile biases — for a while. What happens after that is difficult to predict, but a reaction is possible now that technology has so drastically cut the cost of publication. The big barrier to new publications now is the oligopoly which controls distribution.

This is why the debate, such as it was, over bias was a useful thing: it raised the possibility that the media might be getting it all wrong, and showed how sensitive are political journalists to the suggestion. What a shame none of them felt able to acknowledge that he wrote from a particular point of view, embodying certain assumptions, and to state what it, and they, were.