Telegraph story on research funding does nothing to advance Australian journalism

The Conversation

Ben Eltham, Deakin University

The Daily Telegraph breached its own code of conduct in its coverage of the Australian Research Council (ARC) this week.

On Monday, the News Corp Australia tabloid splashed with a story by Natasha Bita entitled:

Taxpayer dollars wasted on ‘absurd’ studies that do nothing to advance Australian research

The article was highly critical of a number of research projects funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC) in recent rounds. It began:

Millions of taxpayer dollars destined for vital research have been handed to arty academics for social engineering projects ranging from Tibetan philosophy to office gossip and warfare in ancient Tonga.

The Daily Telegraph did not approach many of the researchers whose projects it ridiculed for comment. And while Bita approached and received comment from the ARC for her story, she did not run its comments in her report. The ARC’s chief executive, Professor Aiden Byrne, wrote in an email:

The ARC was contacted by Natasha Bita about The Daily Telegraph article prior to publishing. The ARC provided a response to Natasha, but this was not used in the article.

Daily Telegraph front page, August 22.
News Corp Australia

The Daily Telegraph’s code of conduct clearly says “facts must be reported impartially, accurately and with integrity”, and reports should “try always to tell all sides of the story in any kind of dispute. Every effort must be made to contact all relevant parties.”

However, despite gathering comment from the ARC, The Daily Telegraph elected not to tell the ARC’s side of the story. The deliberate decision to refuse the ARC and academic researchers a right of reply appears to be a straightforward breach of the News Corp Australia code of conduct and, more broadly, of basic journalistic principles of balance and accuracy.

In a public statement, Byrne defended research in the humanities. He wrote:

It is misleading to judge the short titles or brief descriptions of research projects and infer that they are not useful research without looking at the detail of the project, which is extensively considered by the ARC expert assessors in determining its worthiness for funding.

Ridiculed researchers not contacted

The Conversation has contacted all the chief investigators of the projects mentioned in Bita’s article. None of the researchers we have spoken to were contacted by The Daily Telegraph before the article was published.

Professor John Powers, of the Australian National University, is a co-chief investigator on the research project about Tibetan philosophy ridiculed by Ray Hadley on 2GB, who read about it in Bita’s article. “No, no-one contacted me about the article,” he told me in an email, adding that Buddhist studies were important for Australia’s relationship with Asia.

He continued:

There are hundreds of millions of Buddhists in Asia and around the world. Better understanding of their worldviews helps in many intangible ways, and if our leaders and policymakers had better insight into these things they’d probably be more effective in their diplomacy and in their interactions with Asian counterparts.

Associate Professor Hannah Lewi, of the University of Melbourne, is a co-chief investigator on a project examining post-war Australian universities, also attacked in Bita’s article. She confirmed The Daily Telegraph had not contacted the researchers. “No, no-one consulted us before these articles,” she wrote in an email.

We are, I guess, used to the annual research-bashing articles that come out in the press about politicians calling out waste-of-money ARC-funded research. It feels like whacking day for the humanities.

Monash University’s Andrew Benjamin shares an ARC Discovery Award with Jeffrey Malpas which “proposes a new philosophical vision of what it means to be human”. Benjamin told me bluntly:

I was not contacted, and that I think is a betrayal of journalistic standards.

Like many other academics that I spoke to, Benjamin was profoundly disappointed that The Daily Telegraph had not even bothered to let him explain the merit of the project for which he had received funding. He found the article especially frustrating, he told me, as he argues that “it’s the job of philosophy to provide criteria for social judgment”.

Monash University scholar Shane Homan’s project on Australian contemporary music also featured in the article. “I can confirm that I was not contacted by anyone from News Corp about the article,” he said.

The article ignores the precepts of good journalism. Good analysis ensures that the reader has context – to let rip simply on the basis of grant abstracts is lazy, Homer Simpson journalism.

I reached Discovery Early Career Researcher Award recipient Lucas Ihlein on the road, as he travelled to Queensland to research his project on the social engagement of art in the complex environmental dilemma of the Great Barrier Reef. He said:

No-one got in touch with me. The first I heard about it [was when] the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research at Wollongong Uni sent me a message to say ‘we’re very sorry about it and we hope you’re okay’. There was no attempt [to contact me] whatsoever.

Ihlein argued his research would benefit the farming communities of central Queensland. He wrote in a Facebook post:

The desire to make changes is coming from within the farming community itself, which has begun to recognise that traditional farming methods using chemical fertilisers and pesticides are no longer financially viable, nor are they environmentally responsible.

Instead of contacting academics, or running the comment she gathered from the ARC, Bita went shopping for an expert to buttress her report. Her article cites Michael Potter at the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS), a neoliberal think-tank, as its only expert source.

The CIS did not put out a publication or media release about ARC funding results, and Potter is not an economist known for his work in research policy. His publications for the CIS have all been about tax and superannuation. The Conversation understands the CIS did not pitch any remarks about research policy, but rather that Bita contacted the CIS seeking comment for her story.

The CIS refused an interview with Potter on Thursday and Friday, claiming he was “unavailable”. A spokesperson would not comment on questions about Potter’s scholarly credentials in research policy or higher education, instead issuing a statement from Potter reiterating his remarks. “I stand by my comments,” he wrote.

I contacted a number of leading economists with research profiles in research policy and innovation. None would endorse Potter as a scholar with any record in research policy.

The University of Queensland’s highly cited innovation scholar Mark Dogdson told me:

I’ve never heard of Michael Potter, but he appears not to know that societies advance more when knowledge is pursued for its own sake, rather than for instrumental reasons, and no-one can ever predict what knowledge will be useful.

University of Queensland economist John Quiggin, author of Zombie Economics, lamented the decline of the CIS as a serious think-tank:

In the 1980s and 1990s, the CIS was at the forefront of policy debate, pushing an intellectually bold and coherent argument for free-market policies. But I haven’t seen a new idea from them in years. This tired rehash of a theme that was done to death by the late US senator William Proxmire 40 years ago, and by his Australian imitators under the Howard government, is sad evidence of this.

In a phone interview, Professor Susan Dodds, president of the Council of Deans of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, attacked the journalistic ethics of Bita and The Daily Telegraph. She said:

To simply pluck things from the ARC website and to question whether that’s a valid use of taxpayers’ resources without contacting the researchers is just a distortion. It’s a cheap move, a populist move, and it smacks of a certain type of anti-intellectualism.

The Queensland University of Technology’s Stuart Cunningham has written extensively on research and innovation policy. “As a fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, I endorse the Academy President Professor John Fitzgerald’s response to The Daily Telegraph attack,” he wrote in an email. He continued:

Science and technology can’t go it alone. Tackling today’s global challenges requires deep knowledge of people, societies and cultures that underpin, fuel or react to these challenges.

Perhaps the most revealing aspect of the ARC controversy is that no media outlet has mentioned the federal government’s latest Review of Research Policy and Funding Arrangements, handed down last November. Carried out by Ian Watt, a former secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, the report was largely supportive of the quality of federally funded academic research. Its very first line reads:

The overall quality of the Australian research sector is high by OECD standards.

Political ripples

Bita’s Daily Telegraph article was politically significant. It was taken up by radio host Ray Hadley, who lampooned many of the projects cited in the article on his 2GB show that day.

Hadley directly attacked the ARC, claiming its funding was “piddling up against the wall”, and used his weekly interview with Treasurer Scott Morrison to call for a “pub test” for federal research funding.

After a lukewarm defence of ARC-funded work on snail infestations, Morrison agreed with Hadley about the need for ARC decisions to enjoy “public support”. He said:

It’s a fair point, Ray, and I think it shouldn’t be lost on those who make these decisions, and it’s certainly not lost on us, and we expect them to take into account public support for these types of activities.

Those who make those decisions, whether they’re bureaucrats or ultimately politicians, you need to be mindful of that.

Morrison’s comments were then widely and shared on social media and reported by other media outlets, including an article by Jared Owens in The Australian.

Scott Morrison later discussed the research funding story with 2GB’s Ray Hadley. AAP/Sam Mooy

I made repeated efforts to contact The Daily Telegraph about this article. I emailed, tweeted and called journalist Bita – a Walkley Award winner – and The Daily Telegraph’s editor, Chris Dore, putting a series of questions to them in regard to this story.

In particular, I asked them whether the researchers working on the projects mentioned in the article had been contacted, whether the ARC had been contacted, and whether the article represented a breach of The Daily Telegraph’s code of conduct.

At the time of writing, no response had been received.

The ConversationBen Eltham, Research Fellow, Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

 

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