Department of Corrections: Politifact

Justin Pen explores the ‘politi’ in Politifact

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The mainstream media embroiled itself in Labor’s War of Roses, and our elected officials could seemingly get away with murder. As stories on the spill became the reportage de rigour, scant attention was paid to politicians’ slipups and fibs. Addressing this gap is now Politifact, a fact-checking project imported from America. The organisation bills itself as a “non-partisan, independent journalistic venture”. We thought this was in desperate in need of a fact-check.

In a piece assessing Greens Senator Scott Ludlam’s claim that “Australia is 71st per capita in the world in terms of refugees hosted”, reporter Chris Pash revised his rating of ‘Mostly False’ to ‘Half True’ following a torrent of social media criticism. In an edited decision, Politifact shied away from admitting that it had strayed from an objective assessment of Ludlam’s original statement.

Pash asserted the Greens Senator had “cherry picked” a statistic that supported his agenda. He then contended that “had Ludlam chosen to compare Australia’s intake record with the world”, Australia’s standing would have been more favourable – essentially arguing that Ludlam had lied about a figure he had never conveyed, but ought to have. Though Pash admitted Ludlam’s statement was “literally correct,” it was allegedly so “contextually irrelevant and misleading,” that a finding of ‘True’ had to be rejected.

An effective, partisan fact-check can neutralise a political narrative. Attacking Ludlam’s statement and implying that Australia’s current attitude on asylum seekers is both proportionate and in line with UN standards, panders to the Right – and further obfuscates the issue. Intentional or otherwise, the fact-checker veered from objectivity, and created a context in which Ludlam could be stung.

Of its five other “asylum seekers” articles, Politifact canvassed the economic cost, status, amount and legality of boat arrivals, and the alleged destruction of processing papers. Consistent with its assessment of Ludlam, Politifact’s investigations fit the conservative, bipartisan narrative held by the Labor and Liberal party. None of the listed fact-checks radically challenge either party on the humanity of off-shore processing or the efficacy of intensifying border protection – rather, they add further credence to the orthodox framing of asylum seekers as an economic, and not a humanitarian, issue.

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Politifact’s obsession with the budget, which boasts fifteen fact-checks, further connotes a conservative bias. Spotlighting the budget – a red herring in the nation’s broader economic story – serves the pervasive, neoliberal agenda that prioritises surplus fetishism and austerity over environmental sustainability, economic equality and higher education among others. Accordingly, the next-most scrutinised types of statement regarded the “Carbon Tax” (11); followed by “Education” (7), “Industrial Relations” (7), “Worker’s Rights” (6) and the “Environment” (5).

Politifact reporter and former editor of the Honi Soit, Michael Koziol, described fact-selection as a “group process,” one sparked by the question “is that true?” While Koziol noted that Politifact “make[s] judgments about what is checkable, newsworthy and accessible to the audience,” he contends such decisions “aren’t related to the political spectrum.”

But it’s a difficult premise to hold. In a piece for the Guardian, Antony Lowenstein polemicized that journalists should declare who they vote for: “How we frame stories matters and readers know it,” he argues. ABC managing director, Mark Scott echoed these sentiments in a recent Senate estimates hearing. He acknowledged that “Journalists have views; journalists vote. The test is not what their views are. The test is how they do their job.”

It’s unclear how fact-checkers will impact upon the upcoming Federal election. Politifact’s partnerships with Channel 7 and Fairfax will grant it further exposure in television and print, but for now fact-checking appears to be ancillary, rather than central, to the broader news cycle.

With two competing fact-checkers entering the ring, one spearheaded by The Conversation and an as-of-yet unnamed outfit from the ABC, we may soon see a world where a statement can be rated concurrently true and false. Perhaps then we can acknowledge that fact-checking can be as partisan a business as any other form of journalism.

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