“Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” I am sure you have heard that old saying more than once. It’s a tongue-in-cheek criticism of those who would seek to ignore the truth all together or, as is often the case in the media, report the truth in such a way that it actually communicates a mistruth. In the old days we called those lies and we hear many every time we tune into the news. Only this week I saw this deception at work in a news story on a major television network. I sat in disbelief as the report said, and I quote, “Australia’s hotel quarantine system is in shambles and needs an urgent review.” Then they lined up one person after another who criticised the current system and painted the most negative picture possible by focussing only on the small number of breaches which have occurred.
Thankfully, this time the report went on to show the comments from our Prime Minister who simply stated the facts. At the time of this report almost a quarter of a million people have now gone through hotel quarantine in our country. That is a huge number of people and a gigantic logistical exercise, given the risks involved. 99.9% of those people have emerged from quarantine without incident and without contracting Covid-19. In anybody’s estimation that is an amazing success story. How many government initiatives and programs could you say have been 99.9% successful in meeting their objectives? I can’t think of any. Our Government has also been upfront about the risk of infection within the quarantine system and there have been a small number of breaches in various locations. Every one of those has been contained by the swift action of our world-class contact-tracing teams. However each outbreak is front page news and the overall impression given is that the whole system has failed. Of course the facts tell a radically different story. For each of those people who contracted Covid-19 whilst in quarantine, many thousands did not – but those facts don’t produce good headlines.
In fact, most ‘good news’ stories never make it to page 1 or to the top of the evening news bulletin and this will continue to happen because there is no policing of the media in terms of fact-checking and it is getting worse by the day. President Donald Trump, whilst holding the highest office in his nation, had his Twitter and Facebook accounts cancelled because he was not speaking the truth – and yet a thousand times a day there are major media outlets twisting the truth and leading millions of people astray – and they do so without consequence.
Let me give you another example: climate change. Just the mere mention of those two words will divide any audience, and I assume mine as well. Everyone knows that the climate is changing in this current chapter of our human existence. That is not disputed – but the climate is always changing – a fact which seems to get lost in the politics of the current debate. The problem emerges when anyone is brave enough to ask two questions. (1) Is mankind responsible for the current change in our climate and (2) is this an unprecedented change in our climate or just a cycle which has occurred in the past and perhaps many times over? Now I am not going to dive into this issue too deeply in this post. I merely want to point out how the truth can be crafted or twisted in such a way that it suits a pre-determined narrative. Take, for instance, the reporting of weather events. How many times have you heard someone say that this was our hottest day at this time of the year for over 30 years (or some other number)? This is usually said in the context of ‘global warming’ so we think that this hot day has been caused by the activity of mankind and that we need to do something to stop the planet ‘warming.’ It seems incredulous that nobody points out that 30 years ago it was just as hot as it is now and nobody is asking what caused that temperature then? And I am sure it was that hot at other times in the past also.
One report which really made me shake my head was when someone told us that we had experienced our hottest March day since 1895 and that this was further proof of global warming and man-made climate change. The facts were once again buried in the political rhetoric! What they were saying was that 126 years ago – decades before the industrial revolution and the reported surge in carbon emissions – it was as hot as it is today. So what caused the temperature to be so high on that day? It most certainly wasn’t human-induced activity! Hello? Anyone awake out there?
Dare I suggest another incredibly controversial issue? Same-sex marriage has occupied an enormous amount of media time in recent years following the change of legislation to redefine marriage in our nation. At the peak of that debate we were being told the ‘facts’ about the level of support in our nation for re-defining marriage. Over and over again we were told about polls which were being taken confirming the vast majority of people in Australia supported same-sex marriage and the proposed change in legislation. How did they arrive at such numbers? Most people never asked and never investigated these polls. I am not most people and what I discovered in my enquiries was outrageous.
Many of the polls taken involved only a handful of people. Some as low as 1,000. The results of those polls were published but the number of people surveyed was not released. Also, it was virtually impossible with many of those polls to find out where the people were – what demographic – what region in Australia etc. Also, we are not told what question was asked. Pollsters with a pre-determined outcome in mind simply have to re-word a question to make it easier to produce the numbers they want. For example, I know some people were asked, “Do you object to same-sex marriage.” If you answered ‘no’ then your opinion was translated to supporting same-sex marriage. But you were not asked if you supported same-sex marriage – there is a difference. Worse still, with such an emotive issue, many people refused to offer an opinion at all for fear of being labelled by others and so they had no comment in the poll surveys. I had at least two polling companies admit to me that a ‘no comment’ was put into the supportive column. It seems that unless you came out and said you were opposed to same-sex marriage, you immediately became a supporter for purposes of the poll results. Given how many Australians were reluctant to be drawn into a debate about this issue at that time, it’s no surprise that the published poll results were so positive. The fact that they lacked all integrity was rarely talked about.
We will never know the true opinion of all Australians because a proper plebiscite (where all those of voting age are required to vote at a polling station) was not conducted. We only had a voluntary postal survey and the results of that survey were celebrated as a ‘landslide’ and interpreted as ‘overwhelming support’ when in actual fact only 62% of those who voted support a change in legislation. In our own State, the largest in the nation, only 58% of those who responded supported a change in the law. In Parramatta, one of Sydney’s largest suburbs, the vote was only 38% in favour! If you move up into the Blue Mountains and some regional areas, that vote was as low as 26%. But the media was celebrating the fact that “the Australian people have spoken!”
So where does this leave us as we switch on the news this evening? I’m not sure. I really don’t want to become a sceptic who doubts everything I am told. Those people are not much fun to be around. But I am afraid a degree of scepticism is probably required today as we navigate the news media and a much larger degree is required if we venture into the crazy world of social media! Long before we had Facebook and Instagram, the master of mystery and the macabre Edgar Allan Poe is credited with saying, “Believe half of what you see and nothing of what you hear.” That may have been a little harsh back when he wrote those words. However, his warning may find far more favour now, given how the truth is handled in today’s world.