What is competence? Media Inquiry Report

Various libertarian types have fired up their organs of liberty and laboured forth on the Finkelstein Media Inquiry report. Rather than ‘free speech’, I see ‘public competence’ as a much bigger problem at the current historical juncture than any threat to free speech.

Does the public have a problem expressing or accessing the views, opinions or whatever of others? In Australia, to a large extent, no. There are those in various communities without ‘voice’ of course, but this is not a problem with the actual concrete mechanisms and practices by which people participate in ‘free speech’. The current situation has been hard won through various battles in different jurisdictions over the last couple of centuries. I can understand why drawing on debates from the 17th and 18th centuries might be attractive for libertarians unwilling to face the differences plainly evident in the current situation. What are the differences? One key concept is ‘the press’. What was ‘the press’ then? What is ‘the press’ now? They are certainly not the same thing. What about ‘government’? Does ‘government’ operate as a monarchy now?

Rather than limits on ‘speech’ at the moment, we have an excess of channels and opportunities for many people from many different walks of life to have their say. We certainly do not have an abundance of competence. What do I mean by ‘competence’? The first competence is the capacity to assess whether ‘you’ are competent to assess your own competence. We often discuss this in terms of feelings of confidence. We also send people to school and perhaps university or some other post-secondary education to develop such capacities.

The abject character of this column by Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella, and the comments, is utterly sickening to me. I am dismayed that someone who is meant to be an MP and perhaps one day could possibly be running part of the government can read the Finkelstein report in terms of ‘political correctness’. Mirabella is participating in the pure aestheticisation of politics. Using others’ sound bites to ventriloquise moral indignation, the Finkelstein report becomes a tool to whip up and harness the stunted fury in the responses of others who have also not read the report.

Finkelstein is critically analysing the news-based media industry in terms of the measures of competence that the industry sets for itself. The example of Mirabella’s piece goes to the heart of the report’s main point. She does not seem to understand that when you write in a journalistic capacity for media outlets that have set a standard of ethics and regulated practice, then you are already writing under the constraint of a series of rules. One of the main rules of journalism, in whatever form, is to be accurate. Journalists do not deliberately lie. They attempt to be as accurate as possible. Accuracy is a question of competence. Either you are accurate in your representations and aspire for such accuracy or you are not.

She raises the example of how a piece of her writing was changed to fit with a Press Council ruling:

It was explained to me that it had to be done due to a Press Council ruling which found that the word “illegal” “may be considered inaccurate and unfair” in relation to those who enter our country by other than legal means. Go figure. Therefore journalists have been instructed to use the term “asylum seekers”, rather than “illegal entrants”. Even more insidiously, the Press Council ruled that “even opinion pieces and commentary” had to be held to this apparently new standard.
[…]
Without getting into the argument of whether it’s “unfair” to describe someone who has entered our country illegally as an “illegal entrant”, exactly who has made the ruling that my opinion is now so very offensive that it must be censored?

Unfair or not, the problem is that the term ‘illegal entrant’ is inaccurate. There is nothing illegal about seeking asylum. Using ‘illegal entrant’ in a journalistic capacity is strictly incompetent. It is nothing about being ‘offensive’. Change the laws to make seeking asylum illegal, then you can write journalism using the term ‘illegal entrants’ all day long.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Can anyone else see how this is a monumental problem for Australian democracy?

Maybe it is just me.

10 thoughts on “What is competence? Media Inquiry Report”

  1. Well said. In fact, you inspired me to do a bit of digging.

    The relevant APC Guideline (#288) states that: ‘The descriptor “illegal(s)” is very often inaccurate and typically connotes criminality.’ The only mention of fairness is in connection with the term “asylum seeker” (which the APC characterises as “fair and sufficiently accurate”). Although, I suppose one could argue that the Guideline impliedly compares “asylum seeker” to “illegal”, such that by characterising “asylum seeker” as “fair”, the APC impliedly characterises “illegal” as “unfair”.

    Ambiguity also plagues APC Adjudication (#1498), which is the decision that Mirabella (to her credit) provides a link to. It states: ‘Guideline (No. 288) notes that the descriptor “illegal(s)” is very often inaccurate and, because it typically connotes criminality, it is unfair.’ The inclusion of “it” after the last comma (and/or the absence of “that” before the penultimate comma) means that it is unclear whether (in the APC’s view) Guideline #288 noted that “illegal(s)” is “unfair” “because it typically connotes criminality”, or whether (in the APC’s view) Guideline #288 merely noted that ‘”illegal(s)” is very often inaccurate’. The latter interpretation would mean that the notion that “illegal(s)” is “unfair” “because it typically connotes criminality” was being articulated by the APC for the first time in Adjudication #1498.

    (Given all this sloppiness, I find it very hard to believe that either the Guideline or the Adjudication were written by an experienced lawyer…)

    So when Mirabella writes ‘a Press Council ruling … found that the word “illegal” “may be considered inaccurate and unfair”‘, who is she quoting?

    (If you parse her words, it actually seems possible to me that she’s quoting the words of the Punch employee who “explained to [her] that [the term “illegal entrants”] had to be [changed to “irregular entrants”]’. If so, she’s arguing against a pretty absurd straw-man. A Punch employee’s inability to accurately paraphrase the APC’s rulings is a pretty strange threat to freedom of speech for Mirabella to be complaining about.)

    In any event, for all their ambiguity, the relevant APC Guideline and Adjudication do make it pretty clear that the term “illegal(s)” is considered by the APC to be “unfair” solely because, and to the extent that, it connotes criminality. Mirabella’s failure to refer to the connotation of criminality is thus very misleading.

    Furthermore, Mirabella writes that the Punch “crew” explained to her that the APC’s ruling applied to the use of the term “illegal(s)” to refer to “those who enter our country by other than legal means”. Compare this to Guideline #288, which states that it applies to the use of the term “illegal(s)” to refer to “people who arrive in Australia through means other than regulated immigration and visa transit processes”. There is a clear and important difference between the two categories of people.

    Mirabella doubles down on this inaccuracy by characterising the relevant argument as being: ‘whether it’s “unfair” to describe someone who has entered our country illegally as an “illegal entrant”‘. Yet anyone who consults the APC’s guideline and adjudication will see that the relevant argument is in fact: whether it’s “unfair” to describe someone who has MAYBE BUT PROBABLY NOT entered our country illegally, as an “illegal entrant”.

    All these misrepresentations are only apparent once you read the APC source documents. But the reduction of “inaccurate and unfair” to simply “unfair” is such an obvious rhetorical slight-of-hand that I would have thought even a lazy editor would have picked up on it. It hit me smack in the face when I first read Mirabella’s article. We can’t be the only ones to notice it. Are you the only one to write about it? Where is the SMH or ABC report headlined: “Shadow Federal Minister Grossly Mischaracterises Press Council Ruling”?

    And I wonder if anyone has lodged a complaint with the APC regarding Mirabella’s article yet…

  2. I didn’t even mention the nonsensical headline “Politically correct jeopardise our freedom of speech” because I thought it was so obviously a typo/omitted word that it would soon get corrected. Amusingly, it has yet to be changed.

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