Uni rejects false ‘far-right’ report
Victoria University has rejected claims its academics found News Corp publications had fuelled farright sentiment, amid concerns its research is in danger of being distorted.
The university rejected as inaccurate a front-page claim by Morry Schwartz’s The Saturday Paper that News Corp journalists had intensified far-right recruitment. “At no point does the (academics’) research report claim that News publications fuelled far-right sentiment,’’ a university spokeswoman said.
“The report does, however, argue that mainstream media content was used extensively by far-right groups.’’
The statement, responding to questions from The Australian, also raised concerns about the univesity’s research being skewed before it was made public through peer-reviewed channels.
“The researchers are concerned about having their research taken out of context,’’ a spokeswoman said.
The Saturday Paper splashed its edition last weekend with the false claims about the work of VU academics on the impact of media on race hate, and continues to make them in its online edition.
The article was written by Rick Morton, a former journalist at The Australian whose employment with News Corp ended in May. The Saturday Paper’s report, focused on the work of The Australian and a subsequent podcast produced by the newspaper, wrongly claimed that the Safe Schools program had been abolished. It is still active in Victoria.
Morton’s article implied that The Australian’s coverage of African crime had helped fuel farright interest but The Australian’s series appeared almost entirely after the university research was actually conducted.
The university said “the systematic collection of quantitative social media data” began in 2015 and ended on December 31, 2017.
The Australian’s reporting under the banner “State of Disorder’’ began in late December 2017. The Saturday Paper wrongly referred to The Australian’s series as “State of Fear’’.
A VU spokeswoman played down suggestions The Australian featured heavily in the research.
“The Australian is only referred to in the research report
when listing the most commonly used external news sources of shared content on Facebook across all the 12 far-right groups included in the study,’’ she said.
“As has been already made public, The Daily Mail was the most common online source of content posted by far-right groups under analysis, followed by Nine News, YouTube and The Australian. The report does not make any assumptions as to why certain news outlets have been shared more than others.’’
Despite The Australian being fourth in the research list, The Saturday Paper published the article under the headline “Murdoch media fuels far-right recruitment”.
The research referred to by The Saturday Paper was conducted by Debra Smith, a senior research fellow, and colleagues.
The Saturday Paper article drew a link between what media published and hate crimes, including the recent El Paso and Christchurch massacres.
Dr Smith and her colleagues analysed Facebook pages for 12 right-wing groups, seeking to track what they were posting.
The university will not release a copy of the research until it has passed through the relevant channels of authority but aspects of its work have been published in book form.
The Saturday Paper report was also based in part on work from a new book on the far right in Australia. The chapter written by the three Melbourne academics does not refer to The Australian.
VU is explicit that the new research did not find News publications fuelled far-right sentiment. However, Morton wrote: “No one is arguing these media outlets directed any of these horrific attacks. But according to new research, they did incubate an environment in which hate speech could flourish.
“In the end, those ‘respectable’ debates provided fuel and gave permission.’’
The Saturday Paper’s editorin-chief, Erik Jensen, said yesterday: “The research shows that articles from The Australian rate highly among those shared on far-right Facebook groups. Given the paper’s paywall, the sharing is disproportionate. This material is used to recruit and embolden farright activists — which the research shows. We stand by our reporting.’’
The report drew on The Australian’s publication of a series of articles on African crime gangs as well as reporting on the Safe Schools anti-bullying campaign.
On the Safe Schools campaign and referring to 2015 to 2017, The Saturday Paper wrote: “During the same period, the researchers found that use of the word ‘transgender’ soared by 1635 per cent … perfectly capturing the period during which The Australian ran its anti-Safe Schools campaign.’’
What the article didn’t say was the fact that the increase was off an extremely low base of two mentions of “transgender’’ in 2015 to 201 mentions in 2017.
The Saturday Paper wrote that the university study showed inflammatory media reports on race and Safe Schools had acted as a “dog whistle’’ for extremists.
The book chapter written by the academics is believed to contain some of the research. The book, titled The Far Right in Contemporary Australia, notes that there has been a consistent decrease in the prevalence of anti-Islam messaging between 2015 and 2017. “This is also attributed to the way in which many far-right groups strategically respond to new discursive opportunities, afforded to them by heightened public discourses, for example, on same-sex marriage or alleged ‘gang crimes’ in Victoria,’’ the academics wrote.
“Australia has experienced an unprecedented wave of far-right activism, both online and on the streets, in recent years.’’
‘The report does not make any assumptions as to why certain news outlets have been shared more than others’ VICTORIA UNIVERSITY