The recent dispute between Antoinette Lattouf and the ABC has brought into focus the need to address some fundamental questions about the role of journalism, in general, and professional journalists, in particular.

In my opinion, journalism is (or at least should be) practiced as a profession. This is not to ignore the fact that journalists work within an intensely commercial environment. But so do those lawyers, accountants, engineers, doctors and others who are employed by the private sector. For members of these professions, the fact that they work for, say, ‘industry’ in no way reduces the scope or depth of their professional obligations.

What marks out a profession is first, that its members are obliged to subordinate self-interest in the service of a public good. For example, as Officers of the Court, lawyers are bound by a paramount duty to assist in the administration of justice. This obligation comes before any duty to the client, to the profession or to oneself. Second, each profession exists in relation to its own ‘defining good’. Doctors and nurses work to secure the public good of ‘health’. Members of the profession of arms are supposed to secure the defining good of ‘peace’. Engineers aim for safety, etc. Two professions are oriented towards the good of ‘truth’ – accounting and journalism.

In both cases, the value of ‘truth’ is not in any sense vague or abstract. The preparation of accounts that are ‘true and fair’ is essential to the operation of free markets in which participants make informed decisions. As Adam Smith understood so well, markets can never be ‘free’ if participants lie, cheat, or use power oppressively. Yet, Smith also knew that merchants were always liable to employ such tactics in pursuit of self-interest. Thus, the need for the profession of accounting – made up of people who freely choose to abandon the pursuit of self-interest in service of the public interest and a higher ‘good’.

The role that accountants play in markets is mirrored by the role that journalists play in politics – and especially in democracies. The legitimacy of liberal democracies rests entirely on the consent of the governed. The only consent that counts is that which is free, prior and informed. And consent can never be informed if it is based on lies. That is why those politicians who resort to falsehood in the pursuit of power do so much damage to our democracy.

Unfortunately, just as some merchants can be relied upon to resort to deception in the pursuit of profits, so can some politicians be relied upon to do the same in the pursuit of victory. Professional journalists are supposed to help protect society from that risk – which is why they are so often lauded as the ‘fourth estate’.

I realise that there are some people who claim the title of ‘journalist’ while playing their own part in publishing or broadcasting falsehood, or who lack the ‘disinterested gaze’ that should be demanded of members of this profession. Yet, the fact that some (or even many) fail to uphold professional standards does not mean that the standard is either wrong or pointless.

Now, one might hope that those in charge of the ABC would champion the ideal of professional journalism as outlined above. If so, then you might also hope that they understood what is entailed by commitment to such an ideal. Finally, one might hope that the ABC would have discerned that a core commitment to the truth is fundamentally incompatible with the avoidance of controversy. Put simply, the truth is often controversial – especially when it challenges conventional belief or confronts power (which can reside in ‘settled’ ideas and prejudice as much as in the hands of individuals and institutions).

The truth is often controversial – especially when it challenges conventional belief or confronts power.

That is where I think the ABC ran off the rails. The moment it elevated the ‘avoidance of controversy’ as an end in itself, it set a standard that it is simply impossible for any professional journalist to uphold.

The noted German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, argued that “ought implies can”. That is, one is not morally obliged to do that which is impossible. This clearly applies in cases of actual impossibility (e.g. flying to Mars on the back of a bandicoot). However, I think the maxim also extends to cases where something is ‘impossible’ to do without violating the dictates of a well-informed (and well-formed) conscience. It is in this sense that professional journalists are placed in an impossible position if required to seek and publish the truth without ever courting controversy.

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