PolitiFact Australia will hold politicians, candidates, lobby groups, parties and other influential figures responsible for what they say. We hope to make them more accountable and keep you, the voter, better informed.
This is a beyond-laudable initiative and something that can only do our political environment some good. How could we not welcome independent journalism aimed directly at fact-checking politicians’ statements. It’s no easy task that they’re undertaking though. The problem with a statement is that it is generally short, sharp and beautifully black and white. “The public sector payroll has grown by 20,000 since 2007.” and “The Coalition’s broadband plan will ‘cost households $5000 to get connected’.”: Those are statements, and in fact two of the ones on Politifact right now. The actual story behind those statements is far more complex and requires several hundred words to unravel.
Having someone prepared to do that research is what makes Politifact so important; although I suspect that many, many people will not look beyond the Truth-O-Meter graphic. And that’s why, honestly, it’s bemusing that they have chosen such a blunt, quasi-medical graphic for the Australian version rather than the beautiful clarity of the original American version. The entire site, and organisation is the transplanted child of the venerable and Pulitzer Prize-winning Politifact.com so it’s hard to understand why they felt a different look was necessary.
Anyway, back to the research. The danger is that in taking the several hundred words necessary to unravel a blunt statement you end up injecting your own editorial opinion – so often a ‘fact’ is open to interpretation. As an example one of the facts checked on the site now revolves around whether you can include soldiers in the public sector payroll when you’re criticising the growth in the numbers of public servants. There are several ways of interpreting the definitions and the breadth of the statement. Politifact Australia certainly seems to have started well with steering through the minefield and makes its sources clear and open so, at least in theory, you can fact-check the fact-checkers.
Obviously the other interpretive danger lies in choosing what statements to check. Thus far there really isn’t the depth to judge that.
Politifact Australia overtly aims to be independent and non-partisan and perhaps the surest guarantee we currently have is its provenance. The American flagship site seems to have attracted criticism from across the political spectrum, with both sides claiming bias. I’m not sure there’s a better test of non-partisanship in the circumstances than annoying both sides of politics equally.
Politifact Australia has obviously displayed perfect timing in launching in a Federal election season; there should be a rich harvest of statements to check. The timing also means there will be a rich field of people watching Politifact’s every move and analysing their every statement – social media is already churning. Something I assume Politifact Australia will welcome.