Image for Opinions, values, journalism and David Hicks

In the final episode of Tony Jones’ Q and A for 2010, well-known journalist Janet Albrechtsen proclaimed a ‘fundamental belief’ that marriage can exist only between a man and a woman. The fact that she strongly held this opinion was enough, in her view, to justify opposition to reform of the Marriage Act. In an earlier paper in the Tasmanian Times ( Here: Is same-sex marriage a moral value? ) I suggested that this kind of fundamentalism is inherently irrational. 

The reason is that her statement does not express a moral position; it does not, that is to say, attempt to explain her opposition in terms of relevant values, in this case values of fairness, respect and human dignity. We know only that she has an aversion to same-sex marriage but not why she feels this way. Nor can she say why the nation’s marriage laws should reflect her views. She cannot, in short, defend her opinion by the only standards available for the purpose. 

In the heat of debate it is easy to forget that social policy is justified by social values, not by the opinions we hold on moral issues, however fundamental. Hence an opinion on whether to recognise same-sex marriagemust rest on an interpretation of values, such as fairness and respect. There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of Albrechten’sfeelings, but sincerity cannot convert a personal preference into a moral position; although willing to support a ‘conscience vote’, she is unable to say why her preference is relevant.

To summarise, while every judgment of values is a personal opinion, not every opinion on a moral issue is a judgment of values. The distinction is blurred in practice, in part because of an implicit and pervasive moral scepticism, a claim I hope to discuss in a subsequent paper.

One way to sharpen a sense of the difference between values and opinions - and to lessen the risks of moral fundamentalism (‘this is what I strongly believe, therefore … ‘ ) is to pause and ask what is the point of opinion journalism - how is it relevant to anyone else that the author has a personal view on some matter of public interest? The answer seems obvious if not trite; if he offers facts or analysis to help clarify matters, members of the public can assess the opinion against their own sense of values.

This is, after all, why the opinions of experts are relevant, even if the issue is one on which experts differ. Astonishing as it now seems, both Tony Blair and John Howard withheld from the public their legal advice on the Iraq war on the pretext of solicitor - client privilege, a truly bizarre claim which was largely unchallenged by the Australian media. It did, however, report widely that 43 leading Australian international law experts believed this advice was wrong.

Likewise on moral and political issues it helps to know what others think, especially those whose judgment we respect. But this is not because we think the fact that they have an opinion on the matter is evidence for their view; it is because the reasons they offer may reveal something we did not notice, or whose importance we did not understand or fully appreciate. But if we have no reason to treat their opinion as evidence, neither do they.

All this is, I believe, relevant to a good deal of the opinion journalism on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. It has particular relevance to Madonna King’s brief and emotionally charged essay on David Hicks in The Drum on October 26,  ( Here: A lesson for Hicks: There are always consequences )  shortly after his book appeared late last year. Her condemnation relies on no evident research or analysis of her own; astonishing as it seems, she sees no need to make a case to support her charge that Hicks was a willing accomplice of terrorists, merely asserting that,

‘He was pursued because of his involvement with Al Qaeda, which involved real and serious terrorist training. To believe otherwise, is to take his book, and his word, over all those independent analysts to his involvement.’

This is the sole basis for her denunciation. We have no idea who these ‘independent analysts’ are or what they found. In particular, we do not know what conclusions they drew from the fact that Hicks had trained in camps run by an extremist Islamic organisation whose defeat is still widely seen as the primary justification for the war in Afghanistan. She does not say who they are, what their reasons were, or on what evidence they relied.

What we do know is that none of the allegations against Hicks has been tested in a court of law. Readers should have been reminded that the case against Hicks is based solely on speculation about his knowledge, actions and motives at the time; this would have made clear that King’s opinion was itself conjecture, since most readers would assume that a senior, award winning journalist would not make such grave charges without careful study of the evidence and a clear sense of how it supported her case.

Clarification of this evidence is important because the issue has been blurred in the public mind by Hicks’ plea of guilty to a charge of ‘providing material support for terrorism’. This offence was a legislative innovation created to establish guilt by association for people, like chauffeurs and cooks, who worked for or assisted bin Laden, but were not accessories to his crimes. It was judged necessary to indict Hicks, who had committed no crime under US law.

Many readers, including journalists who should know better, took his plea as a proof of guilt. It was, of course, nothing of the kind. It was a desperate response to a grim choice, between indefinite incarceration in conditions King herself concedes were inhumane, and the shame and ignominy of having to swallow his pride when he believed himself innocent.

Anyone who thinks this choice was fanciful should read the authoritative Denbeaux Study on Guantanamo by US Law Professor Mark Denbeaux of Seton Hall Law School. We now know from this ground-breaking study, based entirely on US Government sources (much of it extracted under freedom of information laws), that detainees known by their captors to be innocent were, among other things, threatened with indefinite imprisonment if they did not ‘confess’.

We also know, from US Government documents released only months ago under FOI laws, that only 5% of detainees were captured on the battlefield by US troops; the rest were sold to the US by Pakistani and Northern Alliance forces for rewards of up to US$5000. Given the latter had just lost a civil war against Taliban forces and the huge local value of US currency, their motives and claims were highly compromised and always dubious.

So much so that after nine years, of the more than 770 detainees in Guantanamo (described by the Bush Administration as ‘the worst of the worst’ of terrorists) only a handful have been convicted and one pleaded guilty; over 700 have had to be released, quietly and without charge, most after many years of imprisonment including ‘harsh techniques’ of interrogation. What this euphemistic phrase means is explained in the November 2008 report by the US Senate Committee on Armed Services; it means the use of methods,

‘based, in part, on Chinese Communist techniques used during the Korean war to elicit false confessions, include stripping … of their clothing, placing them in stress positions, putting hoods over their heads, disrupting their sleep, treating them like animals, subjecting them to loud music and flashing lights, and exposing them to extreme temperatures. It can also include face and body slaps and until recently, for some who attended the Navy’s SERE school, it included waterboarding.’

King seems unaware that the Law Council of Australia saw the trial as ‘a contrived affair played out for the benefit of the media and the public’. She seems unaware that prominent human rights lawyer and UN war crimes judge Geoffrey Robertson QC has dismissed the pre-trial deal as ‘… an expedient at the request of an Australian Government that needed to shore up votes’ and that ‘no one looks on (it) as a proper judicial procedure at all.’

She seems unaware that Pentagon chief prosecutor Colonel Morris Davis, who resigned over the matter, also thought the trial was flawed and appeared to have been expedited for the political benefit of the Howard government. Davis said of his superiors that ‘there is no question they wanted me to stage show trials that have nothing to do with the centuries-old tradition of military justice in America’. He also stated that in his view the Hick’s case was ‘not serious enough to warrant prosecution’.

I relate these matters because US officials are the major - and so far only ‘authoritative’- source for King’s claim, the truth of which she takes for granted, that Hicks is a terrorist who should learn from his mistakes. To get a sense of how unfair to Hicks her piece is, readers should refer to the informative and reasoned analysis of the case against Hicks by Kellie Tranter and Bruce Haigh, published in The Drum only twelve days earlier.

There is a mystery here because King advocates a co-operative union between media and public to counter the abuse of rights by government. This, according to its publisher, is the central theme of her book Catalyst: The Power of the Media and the Public to Make Change. Although I have not read it (nor have I read Hick’s autobiography), there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of her concern over the abuse of government power, nor her willingness to do something about it. Nor is there any doubt that she is, by every account, a competent and committed journalist.

Given these facts it seems unfair, and is invidious, to single her out when many less professional writers ignored Hick’s plight or simply recycled the views of colleagues. This is, however, a crucial point, because institutional prejudice thrives on the bad habits of good journalists. This is, surely, one of the enduring lessons from the Vietnam War and more recently from the media coverage of the Iraq War which, with rare exceptions, failed to meet challenges posed by the factual complexities and moral issues of this conflict; both the New York Times and Washington Post have since apologised to the public for this failure.

The failure was due in part to an inability (despite examples of official deception - all within memory - revealed by the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, Irangate etc.) to ask questions likely to embarrass and thus earn the enmity of the Bush Administration. In the US this deference has at times been seen as a matter of courtesy within the mainstream media, perhaps nowhere more evident than on the Jim Lehrer News Hour, a US public service program broadcast worldwide. After five years of watching interviews with senior public officials, including the President himself, it is difficult to recall one instance where the host asked a politically awkward question. The contrast with Australian interviewers Tony Jones, Kerry O’ Brien and Fran Kelly is striking.

King’s article exemplifies how easily the power of the media may be abused despite good intentions and professional competence, once opinion writers rely on a conventional wisdom in lieu of their own research and analysis. It would be nice to end with some deeper insight into the nature of politics, morality or the media, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that her essay is just another reminder that we are all vulnerable to prejudice, that the risk is high when we feel strongly about issues, that this is likely with most moral issues, and that Hicks’ case is a notorious example.

First published: 2011-07-04 03:58 AM