The health of Australia’s democracy rests on restoring public trust in media.

We live in an age where there has never been greater access to information, nor greater doubt about its accuracy. An information explosion risks blowing apart the foundational workings of our democracy. Where we source our information from, who we listen to, who we trust, has changed.

You just have to look at your social media coverage of COVID-19 to understand the problem: warnings issued to followers that drinking bleach was not a medically sound treatment.

Institutions like government, universities and the media were society’s bulwark against crazy theories and flat-out lies.

In the past, before the term ‘Google it’ was invented, elected officials informed themselves to understand issues and represent voters in making decisions.

The information they relied on was highly curated. Expertise was largely supplied through university academics, accessed by the public through libraries as primary source material, or through the education of graduates who worked across society.

News was reported from a relatively small number of recognised media outlets that synthesised information from politicians and experts into a relatively homogenous understanding of the world that people received maybe once per day. It wasn’t perfect — but it was, by and large, trustworthy.

“An environment where invention and hard fact can sit indistinguishably side by side, one as credible as the other, is paralysing our democracy.”

Professor Brian P Schmidt, ANU Vice-Chancellor

Today we have a 24-hour news cycle that covers every moment and every decision across a dazzling array of providers with paralysing efficiency. It is fed by a quasi-infinite sea of information on the internet, catering to almost any preconceived notion on any subject — where everyone is an expert. And the genuine experts compete for airtime with the keyboard warriors, the armchair generals and the graduates of Trump University.

Amid this chaos are stores of analyses and repositories of information that are the best that humanity has ever seen. But each citizen now gets to choose their own information sources, where content providers preferentially feed people things that they like and believe, leading to a deeply fragmented view of the world.

Citizens, with an array of information and misinformation on anything and everything, can use their democratic power without accessing the guiding expertise.

You could argue that is their right—this is a free country. But I would argue that democracy cannot function effectively without evidence and knowledge. An environment where invention and hard fact can sit indistinguishably side by side, one as credible as the other, is paralysing our democracy. It means people in power can survive by avoiding the wicked problems and instead making decisions on eight-second soundbites rather than proven facts.

Universities and news organisations have had privileged roles in democracies — through the principles of ‘university autonomy’, ‘academic freedom’ and ‘freedom of the press’ — because our information curation roles have to be trusted by the citizenry.

We are the institutions responsible for holding our elected politicians to account and keeping citizens informed.

Amongst university leaders, I am not alone in worrying about our social license to operate given the rise of alternative facts, and political leaders (thankfully not in Australia) saying things like, “the people of this country have had enough of experts”. I am therefore extremely grateful to see the new Australian Research Council reforms being put in place by Minister Clare to ensure we don’t have political interference in our research system.

At ANU, we work to arm the public service with the evidence and expertise needed to inform the sensible development of public policy. A reasonable definition of populism is a political approach that bypasses input from institutions like the public service and universities and appeals directly to the private instincts of individual members of the public.

Universities work to arm the public service with the evidence and expertise needed to inform the sensible development of public policy. Photo: Tracey Nearmy/ANU

Whether it be the harms of tobacco, DDT, hydrocarbons or human-induced climate change — merchants of doubt have become expert at circumventing evidence and getting the public to ‘just say no to change’ by deliberately setting out to confuse them.

The confusion is understandable. It stems from a large fraction of society having a fundamental misconception that the world is ruled by facts that are absolutely true and accepted by all experts.

It isn’t. As a scientist — I live in a world full of observations that I try to understand through a series of theories. Facts are short hand for things that we believe to be true or are usually true. But the world is not nearly as black or white as people want it to be.

On almost any subject, we will find an expert who disagrees with the consensus or observations that don’t fit the prevailing theory. Most of the time the outlier is wrong, whether it be the expert or the observation. But occasionally they are right, more observations come to light and science self-corrects. That is the way science and expertise work.

It is the enshrinement of academic freedom that enables experts to persist in their disagreement with the status quo and is integral to the self-correcting nature of academia. So, when asked what I would do if I could change one thing about the way people are educated, my response is we need to teach people from a very early age about uncertainty. You cannot understand the world unless you understand the shades of grey that come along with every piece of information.

This is why it is so corrosive to undermine trust in our academic institutions. We are not flawless. But we pursue the truth without a political agenda or a paymaster. We follow the evidence and are transparent in our methods and outcomes. There has to be space in a functioning democracy for experts to debate — those places are called universities.

“Nothing less than the health of our democracy rests on restoring public trust in their news providers, and in maintaining it in our universities.”

Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt

To do this, we must maintain our autonomy and the privilege of academic freedom. Universities are required to self-accredit against a set of standards with the help of TEQSA: a painful exercise, but a worthwhile one. Despite continual financial pressure and massive change in our sector, universities are proud to uphold these standards.

And it shows. In a series of ANUPoll surveys done over the past several years, universities remain some of the most trusted institutions in Australia at approximately a 70 per cent level of trust. This is just behind the police, but ahead of the public service, primary and secondary schools, the health system and all levels of government.

But for the media — the story is not so positive. The ANUPoll on the Voice referendum found trust in the mainstream media was below 50 per cent, and well below both that of government and parliament. Trust in our democracy also requires trusted media institutions.

Mainstream media’s business model has been severely disrupted by our new digital world. Not surprisingly, this has caused challenges. But I am surprised that, as a country, we are not talking more about an urgent need to reform media so that it can once again be a highly trusted institution within our democracy that informs the public and helps it hold all of society’s institutions to account.

In the same way that universities are required to self-accredit against a set of standards to be a university, would something similar make sense for the media? For universities, this does not mean the government regulates our specific actions. Rather, it ensures that all universities are required to behave like a university.

How about if, in order to be an official media organisation, and be given specific rights and protections, you have to accredit against a series of standards? I realise that I am being courageous suggesting this at the National Press Club, but I believe we need the media sector to think deeply about its role in society, and be open to reform.

Nothing less than the health of our democracy rests on restoring public trust in their news providers, and in maintaining it in our universities.

This is an excerpt from Professor Brian P Schmidt’s speech to the National Press Club in Canberra on Tuesday 5 December 2023. Watch the full speech on YouTube.

Top image: Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian P. Schmidt. Photo: Tracey Nearmy/ANU

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