The coverage of Laura Tingle’s comments on racism is a textbook beat-up, but she’s not in the wrong

Striking the balance between journalists’ private free speech rights and the public duty they owe to impartiality and their employer’s reputation is one of the most complex ethical issues confronting the media today.

Author


  • Denis Muller

    Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Advancing Journalism, The University of Melbourne

It is in the spotlight again because of remarks made by Laura Tingle, chief political correspondent for the ABC’s 7.30 program and staff-elected member of the ABC board, at the Sydney Writers’ Festival on the weekend.

The remarks were made on a politics panel chaired by former ABC political correspondent Barrie Cassidy, and consisting also of three other political journalists: Nikki Savva of The Sydney Morning Herald, Amy Remeikis of Guardian Australia, and Bridget Brennan, ABC presenter and former Indigenous Affairs Editor.

It’s an example of how years of social media ubiquity has created new challenges for journalists as they try to navigate the professional and personal spheres ethically.

What’s all the fuss about?

In the context of a discussion about immigration, during which she referred to a previous remark by Savva, Tingle said:

On the night of Peter Dutton’s address-in-reply to the budget, I was sitting there with this terrible chill running through me thinking, okay, we’re back into this territory. I don’t think […] we’ve had the leader of a major political party saying everything that is going wrong in this country is because of migrants.

She continued:

I had this sudden flash of people turning up to try to rent a property or at an auction, and they look a bit different – whatever you define different as – and he has given a licence for them to be abused where people feel they are missing out. We’re a racist country, let’s face it. We always have been and it’s very depressing and a terrible prospect for the next election.

These comments were reported in The Australian, which quoted Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce attacking the ABC as being “mad left-wing”. It also quoted the opposition spokesman on communications, David Coleman, as saying the comments were “extraordinary and completely indefensible”, and Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price describing Tingle as “blatantly partisan”.

This has all the hallmarks of a beat-up, the initial reporting being spiced with adjectives and adverbs – “extraordinary”, “controversial”, “bizarrely” – and followed up by a story, denied by the ABC, that board members have had “emergency discussions” about her remarks.

Were Tingle’s remarks partisan? Of course. They were statements of her opinions, clearly and obviously so.

Do they reflect on her impartiality as a journalist? No. They were made informally as part of a panel discussion in which issues of immigration and race were canvassed. She was not doing journalism. Moreover, Tingle was not there representing the ABC or the 7.30 program. She was there because, like all the other members of the panel, she has expertise in federal politics.

The counterargument is that in her person, she is inseparable from her role as 7.30’s chief political correspondent. That is not reasonable. It would be to deny her an existence outside her job. If she had been there as a representative of the ABC or of the program, it would be different, but that was not the position.

She is entitled to the view that Australia is racist, that Dutton’s approach to immigration bodes ill for the quality of debate at the next election, and that his remarks about the connection between immigration and the housing crisis may lead to people seen as different being abused. Plenty of people would disagree with her, but that does not provide a basis for accusing her of professional misconduct.

Whatever the merits of this analysis, however, her comments have handed the ABC’s enemies in the Coalition and News Corporation a stick with which to beat the organisation.

That does not, of itself, mean she has brought the ABC into disrepute, because the attack is so nakedly political. However, it does highlight not just the tension between a journalist’s free speech rights and their professional duties, but the obligations an employer owes to a journalist under attack.

Journalism in a social media age

There have been three other instances in the past year that illustrate these complexities.

In November 2023, roughly 300 journalists signed an open letter to the news organisations they worked for, the subtext of which was the coverage of the Gaza war was, at that date, pro-Israel. It was not clear exactly under whose auspices the letter was written, but it was clear it had the endorsement of the journalists’ union, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance.

Here, journalists speaking as journalists, not in their private capacity, were becoming participants in the story. It is categorically different from the Tingle case. The Nine newspapers said their people who signed the letter would be taken off the Gaza story.

Then, in December 2023, the ABC removed a stand-in presenter on Sydney radio, Antoinette Lattouf, for alleged misconduct. In the Fair Work Commission where she is challenging her removal, Lattouf alleges she was unfairly dismissed after reposting on Instagram a Human Rights Watch report on the conflict in Israel and Palestine. The ABC is contesting the case.

Before she was removed, a pro-Israel lobby group, Lawyers for Israel, had conducted an intense campaign of WhatsApp messages to the ABC seeking to have her removed.

Social media was at the centre of this.

For years, media organisations encouraged – even demanded – their journalists “engage” on social media. This has created difficulties about where to draw the line between personal free speech and professional obligations.

Social media has also been weaponised against journalists, not just through trolling but through the application of pressure on their employers.

Finally, the Tingle case has echoes of the attacks on the former high-profile ABC presenter Stan Grant, particularly by News Corporation, and including a cascade of abuse on social media.

Grant had appeared on an ABC TV panel as part of the coverage of King Charles III’s coronation in May 2023, during which he made remarks concerning the monarchy’s ties to extermination and theft of land.

The failure of the ABC’s senior management to defend him led to his resigning from the ABC three months later. Grant said his trust was broken.

Separating personal preferences from professional decision-making is a standard ethical expectation in all professions, including journalism. It requires intellectual self-discipline of a kind well-trained professionals are routinely able to exert. It does not require them to be intellectual eunuchs, only that they avoid allowing their personal preferences to taint their professional work.

The Conversation

Denis Muller does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

/Courtesy of The Conversation. View in full here.