Objectivity can be subjective

Kerry O’Brien said he had robustly grilled Paul Keating when he was in office but took a different style when interviewing him for his biography. Photo: Nic WalkerAt the recent Melbourne Press Club launch of Kerry O’Brien’s biography of Paul Keating an audience member accused me of being “political” and “not a journalist”.

In question time I had put it to Kerry that he had gone soft on Keating in his interview series broadcast on the ABC and asked if the press gallery had become a cheer squad for Keating.

Kerry quite rightly pointed out that in conducting many hours of interviews with Keating for the biography he had to adopt a different style to one he would have employed on the ABC’s 7.30 Report. He pointed out that when Keating was in office he had robustly grilled him in interviews.

I have no doubt this is true. Kerry O’Brien is a first rate professional interviewer.

But many old hands from the press gallery of the 1980s and 1990s have lauded Keating over the years.

I am not one of them.

Clearly my question annoyed the audience member.

But does it make me any less objective than others?

I would argue that every journalist – indeed everyone – comes at the news from his or her own subjective position.

This is well illustrated by an insightful article by Annabel Crabb published in the Fairfax media last week.

Like Annabel Crabb I began my journalist career covering police rounds, illegally eavesdropping on the police scanners for the Sydney Morning Herald. Crabb listened in at the Adelaide Advertiser.

I didn’t think critically about our instructions. They seemed obvious. You kept an ear for murder and mayhem, big fires and serious road accidents.

Crabb recalls the police incident codes — a 302 (Robbery), or a 201 (Vehicle Accident, No Injury), a 503 (Homicide), a 601 (High Speed Pursuit), or an 801 (Police in Trouble).But, she points out, there was one code we never raced to attend – the 106 (Domestic Violence).

It was treated like the nuisance offences such as 101 (Disturbance), 102 (Intoxicated Person), 109 (Standby Breach of Peace) deemed too minor to attend.

But domestic violence then was every bit as violent as it is today.

Women and children died. But that was not news.

Journalists were not alone in treating this sort of violence differently. That was the community standard. Many people did not call police when they heard a husband and wife fighting, thinking that such things should be sorted out in the home.

Thankfully times have changed. Destroy the Joint’s Counting Dead Women website has drawn attention to the number of murders in Australia, the police are encouraged to actively pursue domestic violence and the mass media is reporting it.

Journalists make choices at every turn in their assignments.

This is not to say that there are no facts. Who, what, when and where still matters.

But reporters can’t be everywhere and must rely on sources. And the facts can be viewed from different perspectives.

Take, for example, the way the war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq is being reported.

Australian reports tend to say things like “Russia claims to be focusing on the Islamic State but the evidence is that it is not. Moscow has been bombing Turkmen rebel groups in the far north-west, right up near the Turkish border.”

European media are more sympathetic to the Russian bombing and critical of Turkey’s role, reporting, “Turkey is allowing fighters and arms shipments to pass through its territory to join the anti-Assad campaign, including fighters intending to join ISIS. Turkey is bombing Kurds opposed to ISIS and ISIS is getting much of its funds from oil smuggled into Turkey.”

The Russian media reports Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov saying that Turkey is assisting ISIS’s illegal trade in oil, with the fuel being transported through the area where the Russian plane was recently shot down. Russian media claims terrorist infrastructure, arms and munitions depots and control centres are located in the region it is bombing, and quotes French General Dominique Trinquand saying “Turkey is either not fighting ISIL at all or very little, and does not interfere with different types of smuggling that take place on its border, be it oil, phosphate, cotton or people.”

European media also reports that in the non-border regions the Russians are bombing ISIS fellow travellers such as Jabhat al-Nusra, which is in effect al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch. They report Syrian government and Russian successes, announcing that Assad forces backed by the Russian airstrikes have reclaimed military assets from the jihadists, breaking the siege on the Kweiris airbase on November 11 and ending an impasse that had lasted for two years.

For investigative journalists there is more to this than what angle or emphasis to take.

Two Turkish journalists working for an opposition newspaper, Cumhuriyet, have just been jailed for reporting that Turkey’s secret service has sent arms to Islamist rebels in Syria.

Can Dundar, the editor-in-chief, and Erdem Gul, the paper’s Ankara bureau chief, are accused of spying and “divulging state secrets”.

According to their report in January 2014, local authorities intercepted a convoy of trucks near the Syrian border and discovered boxes of weapons and ammunition destined for rebels opposed to the Assad Syrian government. The trucks were said to be linked to the Turkish national intelligence organisation (MIT).

Turkish President Recep Tayyi Erdogan personally filed the criminal complaint against the journalists.

Sunni Turkey, with a significant Kurdish minority, does not want to see a Kurdish state established in Syria on the Turkish border and at the very least is sympathetic to Sunnis in Syria.

Erdogan denies aiding Sunni Islamist rebels in Syria, although he wants to see Assad toppled.

But if the reporters did in fact “divulge state secrets” as the government alleges, then is it not confirmation that arms were being shipped?

Initially the Turkish government said the trucks were carrying “aid” for Turkmen, but later Erdogan admitted they were carrying arms saying “So what if the MİT trucks were filled with weapons?”

Russian media is now reporting that two Turkish generals and a colonel have been detained for intercepting the trucks and that the trucks weren’t going to Turkmen regions but to an area populated by radical groups.

How you see all this depends on where you stand.

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