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Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Denis Muller, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Advancing Journalism, The University of Melbourne

Lukas Coch/AAP

For much of the past two decades, polarisation and hyper-partisanship have weakened Western democracies, most notably in the United States and Britain. Australia has not escaped, although the consequences here have been nothing as compared with Brexit or the insurrection in Washington on January 6, 2021.

Social media has been the primary agent of this democratic dysfunction, but parts of the professional mass media have also contributed.

Impartial news reporting is an antidote to polarisation. The Voice referendum, with its impassioned arguments on both sides, presents the Australian media with an opportunity to show their capacity for truth-telling and impartiality.

While the overall performance so far is patchy, there does seem to be a lessening in the polarisation that was such a significant feature of federal political reporting between the overthrow of Kevin Rudd by Julia Gillard in 2010 and the defeat of the Morrison government 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 coverage of the referendum. While supportive of the referendum’s critics, he made an appeal to both sides to respect the other.

It was an important point. As the Harvard political scholars Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have argued in their book How Democracies Die, it is lack of respect for the opposing side that has been so corrosive of democracy, especially in the US, over the past two decades.

There are other signs the Australian media are approaching the task of covering the referendum in a way that serves the public interest. Many platforms, for example the Canberra Times and the ABC, have published factual and straightforward “explainers” setting out the basics of the referendum.

This is one way in which the media are doing their essential job of providing the public with a bedrock of reliable information. Another is by tracking public opinion through polls, and these have been reported at frequent intervals, revealing a slow but steady increase in support for the Voice proposal.

The latest YouGov poll is particularly informative because it shows results state-by-state as well as nationally. On those data, the “yes” side has majority support nationally and in four of the six states, which meets the double-majority requirement for a referendum to succeed.

So far so good in terms of coverage. But achieving impartiality in news is also challenging the media to abandon some bad old habits, and not everyone so far is up to the task.

There are plentiful examples where journalists have succumbed to the temptation to fall back on the simplest, safest yet professionally inadequate way to achieve impartiality: by simply reporting what someone says and then finding someone else to oppose it.

It is tempting because it saves time and does not demand independent evaluative thinking. It is professionally inadequate because it is journalism as stenography, rightly dismissed nowadays as “he said, she said” journalism.

The result is that absurd or far-fetched propositions go unchallenged other than by an opposing political voice. When this happens, journalism’s evaluative element goes missing, leaving the audience to figure out the rights and wrongs for themselves.

Maintaining impartiality does not require the media to publish nonsense, and certainly does not require them to publish nonsense without drawing attention to the facts or contrary evidence.

The starkest examples come from stories about the scope and power of the proposed Voice.

There is plenty of material against which to test what people say about this:

  • the final report of the Indigenous Voice Co-design group, which is the basis for the government’s approach

  • submissions to the parliamentary select committee inquiring into the matter from constitutional experts

  • the opinion of Commonwealth Solicitor-General Stephen Donaghue, contained in his submission to that inquiry

  • the exact wording of the proposed constitutional amendment.

The best of the reporting so far 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 approach of Anzac Day to say the Voice could seek to alter Australia’s national public holidays.

The worst of the reporting does not impose these tests. An example was a front-page story in The Australian, amplified by Sky News, in which Opposition Leader Peter Dutton said the Voice could offer advice on interest rates.

Attempts like this to panic the population have their parallels in the scaremongering over native title 30 years ago.

Read more:
Australian politics explainer: the Mabo decision and native title

Then, the likes of Jeff Kennett, as Liberal premier of Victoria, promoted the populist furphy – which he later repudiated – that native title represented a threat to people’s backyard.

The proposed new section 129 of the Constitution, which would establish the Voice, states the function of the Voice in these terms:

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice may make representations to the Commonwealth Parliament and the Executive Government of the Commonwealth on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The key word is “representations”. As various legal opinions make clear, this word was carefully chosen in preference to “advice” because it has less forceful connotations.

Read more:
What happens if the government goes against the advice of the Voice to Parliament?

A second argument against the Voice – that its representations would lead to a cascade of litigation – can be tested against the opinions of Professor Emerita Anne Twomey, Donaghue and other constitutional law experts, who say this would not happen.

A third argument is that the Voice is a mechanism to enshrine racial difference as a feature of the Constitution.

The final report of the co-design group argues Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are, in practice, the only racial groups in Australia for whom laws are made exclusively. The implication is that racial difference is already part of the basis for law-making in certain circumstances, and that fairness dictates those 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 of the documentation raise legitimate questions, and it is also legitimate to question why the executive government has been included alongside the parliament as an institution to which the Voice can make representations.

However, impartiality requires that where answers to these questions exist, they should be reported, not left hanging in the air for the audience to make of it what they will. With an issue as ripe for polarisation as the Voice, that is not good enough.

The Conversation

Denis Muller does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

ref. Journalists reporting on the Voice to Parliament do voters a disservice with ‘he said, she said’ approach –