Respect for a differing opinion

23:08, Dec 11 2012

I recently had what might be termed a clash of professional opinion with some of my fellow journalists. It was touched off by a newspaper editorial that took a whack at "enthusiastic amateurs" sounding off on such issues as climate change, vaccinations and fluoridation.

Everyone was entitled to their opinion, the editorial writer loftily pronounced, but not all views should be accorded equal weight. The views of people with years of study and experience behind them were worth more than those of non-experts.

A member of an internet journalism discussion group to which I belong applauded the editorial, saying she couldn't agree more. "These amateur know-it-alls are a menace," she declared.

I thought this a peculiar position for a journalist to take. I mean, aren't we supposed to believe in freedom of speech?

Another member chimed in that the Sensible Sentencing Trust's Garth McVicar should be added to the "list of nutters". Then someone else suggested a couple of other names for what was shaping up as a blacklist: David Round and Lindsay Mitchell.

Mr Round is a University of Canterbury law lecturer who has written extensively over many years about Treaty of Waitangi issues. He dismisses the Treaty settlement process as a rort and a gravy train.


Ms Mitchell is a Wellington researcher who, in her own words, sets out to debunk the myths surrounding the welfare state, which she describes as economically, socially and morally unsustainable. Her voice is a courageous and lonely one, challenging the vast body of agencies, bureaucrats and academics with a common interest in propping up an unwieldy and seriously flawed welfare system.

What was immediately noticeable was the individuals dismissed by some of my fellow journalists as not deserving any publicity were, loosely speaking, all Right of centre.

Interestingly, no-one suggested that the ubiquitous Left-wing activist John Minto gets far too much attention from the media. Yet over time, Minto has been on our television screens and in the news columns of our newspapers far more often than the three people mentioned previously.

Minto irritates me, but I wouldn't suggest for a moment that he should be silenced. Yet here were journalists arguing, in effect, that the media pays far too far much attention to activists from the other side of the political divide.

I concluded that among journalists who belong to the group, or at least those who take part in the online discussions, there was a pronounced bias against the Right.

But the individual political leanings of journalists are not so important in this context.

What matters is that they should be committed to freedom of expression, regardless of whether they agree with the opinion being expressed.

That's fundamental to journalism in a democracy and I found it highly ironic - and said so - that people who called themselves journalists appeared to be arguing that certain views, Right-wing views, shouldn't be given the time of day.

In any case, let's examine this question of "expert" versus "non-expert" a little more closely.

It was clear from the discussion that the word "expert" is generally equated with a university degree. In the climate change debate, you're not considered credible unless you have a relevant academic qualification.

But in more than 40 years in journalism, I've come across any number of highly qualified "experts" whose opinions seemed to owe more to ideology than to academic credibility. Many academics are moralists by nature, always ready to lecture us on what they see as the world's failings.

Whatever the subject - whether climate change or alcohol law reform, to choose two topical examples - they are inclined to cherry-pick the theories that suit their political leanings.

Let's take this further. Why should we bow to academic experts anyway, when they are notorious for getting things wrong?

Political scientists are hopeless at predicting election outcomes. Seismologists and meteorologists are often wise only after the event. Historians differ wildly in their interpretation of events and the study of economics is famously inexact.

Journalists, of all people, should know to treat "experts" with a healthy degree of scepticism.

Besides, there are other ways, apart from a university education, to acquire knowledge and expertise.

A diligent, intelligent and enthusiastic amateur can acquire a body of knowledge to rival that of any academic. For that reason it's dangerously elitist to dismiss a group such as the Sensible Sentencing Trust, as having nothing of value to contribute to the debate on crime and punishment.

Amateur pressure groups play a crucial role in a participatory democracy. Confine public debate to "experts" and you risk excluding legitimate and often highly knowledgeable participants.

Take Lindsay Mitchell, for example. She is an assiduous researcher who frequently exposes flaws in the arguments of welfare "experts". Such individuals should be treasured in a free and open democracy - yet here were journalists, of all people, arguing that they should be disregarded.

Should we be worried by this? You bet.

Manawatu Standard