Gordon Campbell on media freedoms

Gordon Campbell adds a clear voice to the issue of Judge Blackie’s strange decision and the strange selfish interests of my detractors.

He is not from my side of the political fence but he is a good writer and journalist…though with Judge Blackie’s ruling could now be considered to be outside the description.

There are good reasons to dislike and despise Slater and his style of journalism – and Judge Blackie seemed thunderstruck that Slater writes and publishes stuff on his computer, all by himself – but the problems only begin to multiply when you start to decree who is or isn’t legitimately within the journalism club. The same Law Commission report had gone on to argue that regardless of any style and balance issues, bloggers do enhance free speech and a free press, and are entitled to media privileges. Slater is relying on the protection of sources’ conditions stated at Section 68 (1) of the Evidence Act. Touchingly, the Evidence Act goes on (at 68:5) to define “a journalist” but does so entirely in passive terms:

A journalist means a person who in the normal course of that person’s work may be given information by an informant in the expectation that the information may be published in a news medium.

Leaving aside the particulars of Slater’s case for a moment…is this really what we would want to call “journalism”? Namely, the printing of stuff that other people give to us? This peculiarly passive image of journalism omits the active, creative news-gathering role – and the conscious selection that every news outlet indulges in as to what items (among all the various bits of information “given by an informant”) that it chooses to print, what prominence it affords them etc. etc. Journalism never has been passive. Largely for “news as entertainment” reasons of commerce, the mainstream media is being remarkably un-passive in how it goes about this business. Increasingly, it is blurring the lines between passive reportage and overt commentary, and most noticeably in its coverage of political news and events. Slater may be no one’s ideal of a journalist – but to assume there is some clear, bright line between him and the rest of the blogging/journalism pack is self-delusory. Readers are adults. They can read around Slater’s agenda just as they can read around the Herald’s “bias.” Or mine. Fairness and balance are aspirational goals, not givens. Some try a bit harder to achieve them, that’s all.  

I’ve never hidden my bias, but the law is clear…there is no mention of bias, whether or not subject descriptors like fairness, balance, good or bad are required…the audience determines that, they are matters of opinion.

The point I’m getting at is that the Evidence Act definition of a journalist is – and never was – an accurate one. To my mind, journalism has always had two dimensions: the gathering of information, and the evaluation of that information. Both are – or should be recognised to be – subjective procedures. What opened the door for blogging in the first place was the pretence that had developed within the mainstream media that its selection of information and its own evaluation was objective – when in reality, it was merely covert. Blogs not only made that process overt, but they widened the debate. Blogs gave voice to a depth of evaluation and a range of opinion ignored (and suppressed) by the mainstream news outlets. In a process that has been almost entirely healthy, blogs have made editorial stances overt and public. Here’s how I put is a while ago:

In reality, there are far more than Two Major Party sides to every story, and the job of journalism should begin – not end – after the views of National and Labour have been sought. By and large it has been the blogosphere that has taken up the evaluative task that the mainstream media has abandoned, or lacked the gumption to pursue. In my view, those tasks of Evaluative Journalism are as essential and as difficult, as anything done in the name of Objective Journalism, which is often a mechanical procedure. And a parasitical one, as often as not – highly dependent on those on whom it feeds, and careful to avoid incurring the displeasure of its hosts.

And here’s where Slater comes in, or should:

No, it does not mean that “anything goes” when it comes to the task of evaluation. The rules of fairness and accuracy still apply and if anything, are more to the fore. It is usually the “objective” journalism that tucks its half truths, deliberate exclusions and ideological premises carefully out of sight, before it comes to the table. By contrast on the blogosphere…you have to put the evidence on the page and make the process of evaluation as transparent as possible, if you’re going to win the readers’ trust. As David Foster Wallace once said, no writer today can any longer legitimately presume the audience-agreement that is really their rhetorical job to earn.

Yes reader’s trust is important. The posts I published at the time, though robust were nonetheless the truth, and in doing so I posted emails in full context so readers could draw their own conclusions. It took me 3 months of research to write the star of the posts. It was heavy research focused on forensically examining some documents, and going through thousands of emails to piece together aspects. As long term readers will no I offered and gave right of reply, I recorded those conversations so there could be no mistaking an offer was made.

Basically, if you regard Evaluative Journalism as being as important – and no more subjective than – Objective Journalism – then you can’t draw differences in kind between Slater and the rest of the journalism tribe, only differences of degree. The difference between Good and Bad Journalism will continue to rest, as it always has done – on a subjective foundation, no matter how many journalism prizes an insecure profession dishes out to try and convince itself (and the public) otherwise. Readers of blogs will judge whether you have made the case adequately, and put the evidence (and the links) on the page. It is telling that even in their online editions the mainstream media rarely links to other evidence. The fiction of objective omniscience dies hard.

Precisely right. Even though David Fisher has won awards he basically prostituted his hard won awards to push an agenda over Dotcom, so much so he even wrote a book about the very subject he was writing new about. There is easily a rather lengthy book hat could be written about the plaintiff in my case, and one day it may well be. Ultimately it is my audience and readers who are the judge in these matters about what was said and done. I am happy to follow the wiso=dom of that crowd.

I’m not advocating a Defamer’s Charter where anything goes. Bloggers can still be sued. My point is that bloggers (and this includes Slater) should have the same right to protect their sources as the mainstream media, given that their role of disseminating and commenting on the news is no different, and given that even their alleged sins (bias, selective interpretation etc) are likewise quite similar. Whistle blowers surely, deserve the same protection on blogs as in the mainstream media. In any case….in the rare instances where libel cases ensue, the identity of sources will not usually be the only means available to bloggers (and to the court) to establish whether due care was taken in formulating and cross-checking the opinions in question.

Neither am I. As I have stated many, many times I am fully happy to discuss and defend all these matters in a court. But I cannot, must not and will not give up my sources.

Slater can be obnoxious, but many obnoxious sins of omission and commission are committed regularly in the name of journalism. His, at least, are overt and his readers should be well aware of his modus operandi by now. To treat him as the bad apple, as someone entirely beyond the pale and undeserving of the law’s protections seems vindictive and somewhat sanctimonious to me. The way to defeat Slater’s kind of journalism is to do the job better – not to rely on a flawed, hopelessly outmoded legal wording to do him in.

How true is that! Go on dare you all…the traffic and visits and uniqu visitors suggests they may have a hard time of it, but I welcome the challenge. I know how hard I work, good luck to anyone wanting to have a crack.


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