Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Hardy v Pyne public opinion saga: celebrating hot air over hard facts

[Note: I'm loathe to publish essays on my blog, but I feel this subject matter could be hotly debated and is certainly a product of the current dynamics between politicians and the media. Also excuse the in-text referencing. I wasn't completely lazy, though, I added hyperlinks.]

Celebrating hot air over hard facts: the Hardy v Pyne public opinion saga and what it means for democracy
When ABC columnist Marieke Hardy stated in an opinion piece for The Drum that Federal MP Christopher Pyne was the most hated man in Australia and that she hoped he’d “get attacked by a large and libidinous dog,” public opinion was divided (Hardy 2010). A number applauded the accuracy and humour of the assertion while others were dismayed that public money was funding such “childish” opinions (Crikey 2010; Green 2010b). Four days later when The Drum’s editor Jonathon Green removed Hardy’s piece and apologised to Pyne for “the attack” and its “deeply personal nature,” readers were divided further still (Green 2010b). Catch cries of “democracy,” “free speech” and “satire” were mixed among labels of “personal vilification,” “patronisation,” and “shallowness” (Green 2010b). The vast number of opinions on both Hardy’s piece and Green’s decision to remove it reflect the messy, diverse and complex ethical principles that inform opinion pieces and their reception in Australian society. It will be argued that the significant freedoms Australian journalists enjoy to express (and inadvertently influence and shape) public opinion should not be at the expense of fulfilling their primary role in society to inform, educate and entertain through careful, considered and ethically sound opinion.    

Coverage of the Hardy v Pyne incident in isolation can be understood in simple terms as an instance of bad editorial judgement. On 1 October 2010, four days after publication of Marieke Hardy’s column “The Pyne Experiments” on ABC’s The Drum, editor Jonathan Green acknowledged he was “wrong” to approve the piece because it “failed to meet the standards for argument and well-thought opinion” upheld by the ABC (Green 2010b). To briefly explain the argument Hardy composed[1] before measuring it against ABC’s standards as outlined in their Editorial Policies; Hardy based her judgement that Pyne is the most hated man in Australia predominantly on his appearance on interactive political talk show, Q and A. There, she recalls, he “bleated…in his shrill voice” about the injustice of being cut off mid-sentence by host Tony Jones (Hardy 2010). She drew “evidence” to support her Australia-wide claim of dislike for Pyne from her father who “despise[s]” Pyne’s “crinkly hair,” her friend who says watching “parseltongue[2] on television gives [him] the creeps” and Twitter user Abe Frellman who says he “taste[s] a little vomit in [his] mouth” when Pyne says ‘Kumbaya.’ After these “fact-finding conversations,” Hardy compared Australia’s hatred for Pyne against their dislike for other public figures in an attempt to somewhat scientifically prove her ‘thesis’ via the process of elimination. Articulated in her own words, Pyne is hated more than Kyle Sandilands (the “fat-headed bearded man on the radio”), India (“the brown people [who] ruined our special sporting event”), “disgraced footballer” Brendan Fevola, and is hated equally as much as Chris Brown (a “douchebag” who in 2009 pleaded guilty to a highly publicised felony assault of his girlfriend).

Because this essay’s focus is not on the possible legal ramifications of Hardy’s piece but on the ethical principles it calls into question, the defamatory nature of these “opinions” will not be discussed at great length. However, it is important to note that Hardy’s piece would most likely fail possible defenses of fair comment and honest opinion as outlined in S.30 of the Defamation Act 2005[3] should Pyne take legal action[4]. Of equal importance is judgement of Hardy’s piece in relation to the ethical standards Green references in his letter of apology. These standards, as outlined in ABC’s Editorial Policies, specify that journalistic opinions should be conveyed accurately[5] (2.1), that intrusion into a person’s private life without consent “must be justified in the public interest[6]” (6.1) and that content likely to cause harm or offense “must be justified by the editorial context[7] (7.1) (ABC 2011a: 11).

In light of these standards, it can be argued that Green’s revised assessment of the piece is more suitable in that many of the sweeping statements Hardy makes are highly defamatory and do not meet ABC’s regulatory standards. First and foremost, Hardy herself cynically acknowledges her “watertight and wholly structured journalistic argument” is exactly the opposite and that her ‘facts’ are mostly baseless and defamatory in and of themselves (Hardy 2010). Secondly, her piece is that of a personal attack on Pyne’s character unrelated to his political function and thus, it can be argued, is not in the “public interest” as it is defined in journalistic codes (as referenced above). Finally, although Pyne later stated in an interview he was “not worried” and didn’t take Hardy’s piece personally, he has also noted he is “serious about defending himself and his family from statements that are vicious, and/or false” and therefore acknowledges there is cause for offence (Media Diary 2011).

Despite these reasons as to why Hardy’s piece is ethically dubious, many people, including journalists, felt Hardy’s piece shouldn’t have been censored from public opinion (Green 2010b). Interestingly, Green himself seemed to imply he wasn’t wholly satisfied in the decision to take down Hardy’s piece as he tweeted theafternoon of the removal, "I'm beginning to think I have rather quaint ideas about news value[8]" (Green in Wright 2010). A closer examination of reasons for these reactions (as predominantly sourced from comments on Green’s retraction letter) offer keen insight into how journalists and the public see their role in society and the ethical principles that inform them.

A common response to the retraction of Hardy’s piece was the insistence that Australia is a “free speech democracy” where “everyone, especially politicians, are open to criticism and attacks,” and therefore Christopher Pyne somewhat “deserved” the criticism (Green 2010b). This notion that democracy is exclusively tied to the freedom of expression[9] is a long-standing idea that can be traced back to John Milton’s notion of the “marketplace of ideas” and Kant’s duty ethics. In brief, these libertariantheories believe that anyone with something to say is morally bound to say it because such ‘freedom’ enables ideas to compete with one another until truth eventually wins over falsehood (Peterson 1963: 97). The media, particularly comment sites like The Drum, play a key role in providing such a platform for the “marketplace of ideas” because of their wide access to national audiences and their reasonably open avenues for contribution. Under this notion, therefore, it seems natural that Hardy’s piece, as an expression of her opinion, had a right to be voiced in the same way the public had the right to agree or disagree with it.

The problem, however, comes when by utilising her right to speak freely, Hardy impinged upon Pyne’s equally democratic individual right to privacy and reputation (Peterson 1963: 97). As a political figure, Pyne’s right to privacy is strongly contested. It is believed he is especially prone to scrutiny because he is constantly in the public arena as a political representative (Green 2010b). Yet, the line between what is and isn’t of public interest is largely unclear. To use Hodges’ metaphor, the media’s role in society is like that of a marriage; there are laws and regulation in place as an estimation of contemporary social and moral values, but the relationship between the two is ultimately worked out informally on a continual basis (Hodges 1986: 19). A recent study conducted by Andrew Kenyon examining the chilling effects faced by news media in Australia found that one third of opinion pieces (out of a sample of 112) contained defamatory allegations, and within that, 47.1 per cent were directed towards government officials (Keynon 2010: 451-453). These statistics alone suggest that Australian media often flirt with the seemingly grey line of defamation and fair comment in opinion pieces, and politicians are often on the receiving end.

Unclear notions of what is in the public interest when discussing politics has seen the Australian media recently come under fire by politicians, journalists and academics who argue that political debate is being “dumbed down” by the rise of “personality politics” (Gallop 2011; Hyland & Gordon 2011; Carney 2011). Hardy’s piece is an apt example of opinion about a politician being (albeit temporarily) passed off as a form of political analysis. Beyond the use of Pyne, a politician, as the piece’s subject, Hardy makes no reference to his ability to develop policy or represent his electorate (as would be in the public interest as a matter capable of affecting the people at large). This was particularly a missed opportunity considering Hardy placed her discussion of Pyne within the context of his appearance on Q and A where he discussed a number of political issues in depth. Instead, Hardy focused predominantly on his voice and overall persona; which arguably contributed nothing to policy debate[10].

Nonetheless, Hardy’s piece is representative of the marked shift towards an opinion cycle as opposed to a news cycle in Australian media; or as Stephen Rosenfeld (2000: 7) calls it, “celebrating hot air over hard facts” (Burman 2006). This movement towards “instant opinion” supplanting “legitimate investigation and scholarship” most often presents itself in the form of character analysis taking place of political analysis[11] (Rosenfeld 2000; Gallop 2011).  Former Australian minister for finance, Lindsay Tanner’s book, Sideshow: Dumbing Down Democracy, acutely documents the Australian media’s apparent retreat from their traditional role of reporting serious political issues towards coverage focused on trivia, gimmicks, and personalities (Tanner 2011). Perhaps most interestingly, Tanner feels modern politics, which has been equally criticised for the unsavory use of spin, 'announceables', slogans, and stunts, is a direct result of these changing media dynamics (Tanner 2011). These dual developments have led critics like Carmen Lawrence (in Hyland & Gordon 2011) to suggest media and politicians are partaking in a “dance of mutual destruction” that is slowly removing the policy from the politics.

Criticisms such as these have large impact on analysis of current professional media ethics and bring into question whether the Australian media’s license to express their opinion within current regulatory framework is being abused largely due to their seemingly mistaken understanding of what is in the public interest. The wealth of stories focusing on Julia Gillard’s appearance, Tony Abbot’s athleticism, Pyne’s ‘unlikeableness’ and even David Campbell’s sexuality suggest, ironically to use Jonathan Green’s own words, “the media mistakes public interest for public amusement” (Green 2010a). It then follows to more critically ask whether such habits have the ability to significantly impact upon the health of Australian democracy. Indeed it is harder for voters to form informed judgments about major issues when the media as the key mediators between the government and the voting public do not consistently fulfill all three of their primary functions to inform, educate and entertain (ABCa 2011: 11). The extent to which they do not on a larger scale is beyond the scope of this essay but a topic of considerable interest and import.

It should briefly be noted that an obvious point unaddressed in this essay is the fact that Hardy’s piece was satirical, and thus not to be taken in all seriousness[12]. Those in favour of satire encouraged other readers to ‘lighten up’ and appreciate the humour for what it was (Green 2010b). Yet, as this essay has explored, whether politicians have thick skin when it comes to attacks of a personal nature is mostly beside the point. The issue at hand is that, as written in defamation law and regulatory media frameworks, a politician’s privacy should be protected when it isn’t in the public interest.

Everyone has an opinion, but that is not to say all opinions are equally relevant. Celebrating hot air over hard facts as is exemplified in Marieke Hardy’s opinion piece not only poses potential legal problems for journalists but also importantly puts into question the media’s professional ethical standards and primary function in society. Hardy’s missed opportunity to engage in pertinent political debate and analysis regarding Christopher Pyne consequently reflected poorly not only on her own ethical judgement but on the wider media trend of unbalanced emphasis on “personality politics” in the news cycle. This has altogether raised questions over the negative effect such pieces can have on the health of Australian democracy.

      ABC (2011a). Editorial Policies: Principles and Standards, ABC, 11 April 2011. <> [Accessed: 18 April 2011].

      ABC (2011b). "Guidance Note: Differentiating Analysis," Editorial Policies, 11 April 2011. <> [Accessed: 18 April 2011].

      AFR (2010). “Election 2010 Results,” Australian Financial Review, 23 August 2010. <> [Accessed: 18 April 2011].

      Burman, Tony (2006). "News, opinion and a fuzzy shifting line," CBC, 25 September 2006. <> [Accessed: 18 April 2011].

      Carney, Shaun (2011). “We get what we deserve from politicians on both sides,” The Age, 15 March 2011. <> [Accessed: 18 April 2011].

      Crikey (2011). "A landmark legal test case?" Crikey, 16 February 2011. <> [Accessed: 18 April 2011].

      Gallop, Geoff (2011). "What price an ethical media?" The Age, 28 March 2011. <> [Accessed: 18 April 2011].

      Green, Jonathan (2010a). "Public amusement not equal to public interest," The Drum, 21 May 2010. <> [Accessed: 18 April 2011].

      Green, Jonathan (2010b). "Editor's note: The Pyne experiments," The Drum, 1 October 2010. <> [Accessed: 18 April 2011].

      Hardy, Marieke (2010). "The Pyne Experiments," The Drum, 27 September 2010 (republished on Slack Bastard, 4 October 2010). <> [Accessed: 18 April 2011].

      Hariman, Robert (2008). “Political Parody and Public Culture,” Quarterly Journal of Speech, 94: 3. Pp. 247-272.

      Harry Potter Wiki (2011). “Parseltongue,” Wikia. <> [Accessed: 18 April 2011].

      Hodges, Louis (1986), “Defining press responsibility: A functional approach,” in Deni Elliot (ed.), Responsible Journalism. Beverly Hills: Sage. Pp. 13-31.

      Holmes, Jonathan (2009). "You say opinion, I say analysis," The Drum, 8 December 2009. <> [Accessed: 18 April 2011].

      Hyland, Tom & Gordon, Josh (2011). “Dumb and dumber: why Australian politics is broken,” The Age, 20 February 2011.  <> [Accessed: 18 April 2011].

      Keynon, Andrew (2010). “Investigating Chilling Effects: News Media and Public Speech in Malaysia, Singapore, and Australia,” International Journal of Communication. Iss. 4. Pp. 440–467.

      Longstaff, Simon (1992). "Politics, ethics and the role of the media," Living Ethics, Iss. 6 Summer. <> [Accessed: 18 April 2011].

      Maiden, Samantha (2010). "Pyne's just asking for the naughty corner," The Australian, 1 October 2010. <> [Accessed: 18 April 2011].

      Media Diary (2011). "Marieke Hardy, Christopher Pyne," The Australian, 16 February 2011. <> [Accessed: 18 April 2011].

      Pearson, Mark and Polden, Mark (2010). The Journalist's Guide to Media Law, 4th ed. Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin.

      Peterson, Theodore (1963). “The social responsibility theory of the press,” in Siebert, Fred, Peterson, Theodore and Schramm, Wilbur, Four Theories of the Press. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. Pp. 73-103.

      Rosenfeld, Stephen (2000). "The Op-Ed Page: A Step to a Better Democracy," The Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, 5.3, pp.7-11.

      Tanner, Lindsay (2011). Sideshow: Dumbing Down Democracy. Carlton: Scribe Publications. Book blurb: <> [Accessed: 18 April 2011].

      Tartnell, Paul (2010). "ABC apologises and pulls Pyne-hate article," Sydney Morning Herald, 1 October 2010. <> [Accessed: 18 April 2011].

      Wright, Maryann (2010). "Pyne and Hardy and Green. Oh my!" Waxing Lyrical and Philosophical, 1 October 2010. <> [Accessed: 18 April 2011].

[1] It should be noted that quoting potentially defamatory material also opens myself up to such offences. In defense, however, discussion of the contents of Hardy’s opinion piece is undertaken in this essay for academic purposes of critical reflection, not gossip.
[2] Parseltongue refers to the language of serpents, assumed to have a negative connotation, in the Harry Potter novels (Harry Potter Wiki 2011). 
[3] Honest opinion and fair comment are what Pearson and Polden (2010: 234) call the “bread and butter defenses” of comment pieces. In Australian defamation law, for opinion to be taken as fair comment it must be a matter of “public interest” and based on provable facts “adequately referred to” (Pearson & Polden 2010: 234).
[4] At the time of writing this essay, Pyne has not taken legal action against the ABC but has threatened to sue on two occasions, one as recently as March this year (Media Diary 2011; Crikey 2011).
[5] The ABC’s accuracy standard (2.1) notes that an opinion, “being a value judgement or conclusion, cannot be found to be accurate or inaccurate in the way facts can” but must still be conveyed accurately “in the sense that quotes should be accurate and any editing should not distort the meaning of the opinion expressed (ABC 2011a: 4).
[6] Public interest is defined by the Australian Press Council in its Statement of Principles as “involving a matter capable of affecting the people at large so they might be legitimately interested in, or concerned about, what is going on.” (in Pearson & Polden 2010: 453)
[7] The increasingly blurry line between fact and opinion and how this potentially effects The Drum’s editorial decisions and thus the “editorial context” of opinion pieces such as Hardy’s, is outlined in Jonathan Holmes’ opinion piece, “You say opinion, I say analysis” (Holmes 2009).
[8] Green’s tweet occurs within the context of numerous other tweets, news stories and opinion columns on news sites that questioned the credibility of The Drum as a site for “analysis” on “issues of the day” in light of the editorial judgement to run Hardy’s piece and leave it up for four days (Wright 2010; Maiden 2010; Tartnell 2010).
[9] It should be noted that the freedom to express oneself in Australia is not an inherent right but an implied constitutional freedom (Pearson & Polden 2010: 31).
[10] The timing of the attack was particularly interesting considering only two months earlier Pyne was re-elected into the House of Representatives with a 2.5% two-party preferred swing (AFR 2010), suggesting the personalised angle Hardy chose was quite inconsequential to the voting public.
[11] This is not to say there are never times when the character of a politician is an issue at hand, but more often than not, particularly in the case of Hardy, this was not one of them.
[12] The genre of satire works in great part by exceeding tacit limits of expression and stepping outside the norms of deliberation, civility and “good taste” (Hariman 2008: 247-251). Therefore, because satire constantly pushes the limits of what is acceptable, it is difficult to draw the line between when humour becomes tasteless and unnecessary; and this was seen in responses to the Hardy case.