Wednesday, April 10, 2024

My speech at Sydney University's Great Hall

I’m too old to suffer from impostor syndrome, but the thought has occurred to me that, had the University of Sydney’s officials taken a look at my academic transcript at Newcastle University, and seen how much trouble I had persuading that uni to give me a pass degree, we’d be holding this gathering down at Ralph’s cafe in the women’s gym.

The truth is that I had a lot of trouble passing a subject called economics, which I couldn’t make any sense of – perhaps because it didn’t interest me greatly. I failed a subject called international economics but, since it was the last subject I had to go, my lecturer was prevailed upon to give me a conceded pass.

So I have to tell you I’m a bit bemused by a university, of all institutions, making such a fuss about me and my job. I’ve spent much of my time urging the people I’ve helped to hire and train as economic journalists not to write like an academic. Keep it simple, I’d say. Don’t try to impress people with big words. Try to be understood, not to mystify. Now, obviously, that’s not the right advice to be giving an academic.

In my job, I’m paid to have an opinion on everything. And I’m paid to give free advice to everyone, from the prime minister down. And I’m now so much older than my boss I’m allowed to give him – and sometimes her – free advice. She or he, of course, is paid to pretend she greatly values that advice.

So while I’m here in this hallowed hall of learning, let me give the academics two bits of free advice. Some years ago, the federal government’s chief scientist paid good money to get one of those now-infamous four firms of accountants-turned-consultants to fudge up a dollar figure for the value of science to the economy. One of my proteges, filling in for me while I was on holidays, Gareth Hutchens, these days a columnist at the ABC, wrote a piece saying the chief scientist had to be kidding. Anyone who wasn’t smart enough to know that our material prosperity was built on technological advance, and that technological advance rested on a bed of pure science, wasn’t someone who’d be impressed by any magic number. Gareth was right, of course.

The point is, academics should never yield to intimidation by those who can see no further than immediate income. Academics must never be ashamed to proclaim their belief in the value of knowledge for its own sake. Knowledge doesn’t have to have a monetary value to be of value. Humans are an inquisitive species. We’d like to know whether the universe is expanding for no better reason than that we’d like to know. And thanks to the material prosperity science has brought us, we can afford to pay some scientist to find out for us.

My second bit of free advice is that universities should never be ashamed of their preoccupation with theory rather than practice. Every profession needs its theory. We develop theories to help us make some order, some meaning, out of the seeming chaos we see around us.

If you look at what I write about the economy, I think you’ll find I write about economic theory a lot more than other economic commentators do. Why? Because I think theory is important. Academic economists will complain that I’m often very critical of economic theory. Why? Because I think theory is important. The great sin in academic economics is to stop seeking the truth because you think you’ve already found it.

I want to talk now about the little-discussed paradox of the commercial news media. On one hand, most news outlets are in the business of selling their news to make a profit, just like all businesses. On the other, the commercial news media play a vital role in our democracy, informing citizens about the actions of governments and holding governments to account. We rarely think about this paradox, but the truth is, it was ever thus. We had newspapers before we had democracy.

Today we talk about public-interest journalism, but I like to think of it as the commercial media’s “higher purpose”. Making enough profit to keep our shareholders happy is the obvious part, but we must keep our eyes focused on the more important part, our self-appointed duty to ensure our readers are kept fully informed about all the things our governments are doing – and not doing.

There’s an old saying in journalism: news is anything somebody somewhere doesn’t want you to know about. Governments have a lot of things they do want the public to know about what they’re doing. And their spin doctors are always trying to induce the news media to help them get the good news out to the voters. Governments have a near monopoly on news about their own doings. When they want something known, they can just put out a press release. Or, maybe a better idea would be for me to leak it to you exclusively – provided you give it a lot of prominence, and provided you run it uncritically. Why would the media agree to such a restriction on their freedom to fully inform their readers? Because if I play along today, you might give me another leak tomorrow. And that will make me look a lot more successful than my competitors.

Small problem: what about the reader? Is this the way to keep them fully informed and ensure they’re never misinformed? What if I’m so busy trying to be the best at extracting from the government news the government wants our readers to know about that I neglect my duty to dig out all the news the government doesn’t want our readers to know about?

Now, let me be clear. In saying this critical stuff, I don’t want you thinking I’m having a go at my own masthead. I’m giving my free advice to all mastheads. The mastheads formerly known as Fairfax aren’t perfect. No one knows that better than I do. But there are other outlets that have strayed a lot further from perfection than we have. Naturally, I won’t name those other Australian news outlets.

The digital revolution has hugely changed the news media. Once I’m retired, I’ll give in to the thought that it was all much better in my day. But while my day is still the present day, I can see the things that are better than they were. These days, the mastheads our envious competitors like to dismiss as “the Nine newspapers” devote more resources to investigative journalism than we ever have. Maybe because of the digital world we now inhabit, generating your own news makes more commercial sense. What I’d add is that we need to make all our ordinary news more investigative. More questioning of all the messages some interest group or another wants us to pass on to our readers.

Another thing that’s better than it used to be – one close to my heart – is much greater emphasis on explanatory journalism. The internet has hugely increased the blizzard of news that we must fight our way through each day. Our readers don’t need more news, they need more help figuring out what on earth it all means. This, of course, is a big part of what I’ve always seen as my role.

With the advent of the internet, social media, the greater scope for the spread of misinformation and disinformation, and now AI, it’s easy see all this as a huge threat to what’s now called the MSM – the mainstream media, of which the SMH is a prime example. We live in a media world where people are finding it harder and harder to know whose news to believe. Who to trust.

What I want to say is that, for the mainstream media, and the quality end of the MSM, all the extra doubt and uncertainty about who to believe is playing into our hands. We are still more trusted by our customers than other, less reputable sources of information. Provided we retain our readers’ trust, work to regain what trust we have lost, and make retaining the trust of our readers our highest priority, I think we’ll survive – maybe even prosper – in a world teeming with misinformation.

We must never knowingly mislead our readers. We must see quickly correcting any errors we’ve made inadvertently, not as an admission of failure, but as badge of honour. Proof that we can be trusted. It means no more “I’m not sure it’s true, but it’s a great yarn and the punters will love it” stories. No more dubious stories published to oblige a powerful source – usually a government – and keep it supplying us with exclusives. It means telling our readers what they need to know, not what they want to hear. It means being a good read the hard way, not the easy way.

I’m confident that, if we get the trust right, enough money will follow. I’m hoping to stay around doing my bit for a few years yet.

This is an edited version of the speech Ross Gittins gave at the event honouring his 50th anniversary at The Sydney Morning Herald. Held in the Great Hall of the University of Sydney and staged in partnership with the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.