March 2000
Informed judgement?

The need for informed judgement?

To make a good judgement, we need sound information and that means we need to know the standpoint of the person or organisation providing that information but also something about their character. In the case of some organisations we know almost any statement is PR guff but what about those with better reputations/ And even then what about the grey areas? We ask this because of the momentous decisions which could be taken affecting radio at the World Radio Congress when it meets in Istanbul in May ( see RNW March 25th). We also ask it because of the response to date in Australia from the presenters at the heart of the cash-for-comment question ( see RNW March 29 )) Both are important for different reasons.
WRC Issues?
The issues for the WRC are more important as they are global in nature and it is therefore even more important that the debate be informed. Spectrum is becoming worth massive amounts ( RNW April 1 re UK mobile bids) (link is mobile1) and this means there is equally large motivation to grab it. From our point of view, we'd hate to see any encroachment into existing radio and TV broadcasting bands but from a more specialised point of view some literally life-or-death decisions are involved. This is at the heart of the concerns expressed by the International Air Travellers Association (IATA) lest spectrum currently reserved for aircraft use should be affected. One could say "let the market rule" but only on the basis of the cost of any deaths that do ensue are then in some way chargeable against those who benefited from the changes that led to the tragedy. And even that's not simple since where an accident occurred could have a massive bearing on the monies involved ( can you imagine the cost of the Bhopal chemical plant tragedy if it had taken place in the US instead of India??) but would be of no concern whatsoever for the dead and injured and their families. Which brings us on to the need for sources of soundly-based neutrally presented scientific information.

Who should provide scientific information?
At one time there would have been no real question that governmental bodies would have been expected in advances countries to be funded so as to provide independent scientific advice but as historical records have become available it is clear that even there the message was tainted at times with the need to avoid embarrassment rather than preserve a necessary secrecy? Academia? The universities long ago seem to have got into the habit of taking funds from industry which may well taint their ability to be unbiased. Those involved? Well look at the Low Power FM exchanged between the Federal Communications Commmission (FCC) and the National Association of Broadcasters. One would have thought proper test fairly simple in this case; it wouldn't have been that expensive for NAB and the FCC to have agreed on some 'typical' locations and then set up test LPFM broadcasts to check real interference a 100watt minnow causes to a 35000watt giant and others in between. Instead we seem to have had the NAB producing simulations and comparisons of existing commercial station interference. Presumably the idea was that their 'CD-demonstrations' would have more impact than scientific evidence and they seem to have gained some of their way; to this reader they made the FCC more credible on the basis of material as presented and the less-to-gain-by- misleading principle. It still leaves a need for some proper debate on setting up bodies to give scientific information, even if it won't be in time for this year's WRC and we may thus suffer the consequences of having ducked the issue in the past.

And the broadcasters?
And even if that information is available, would you really trust broadcasters to present it fairly? Most of them do not have a science background which of itself might make it difficult to sort out evidence from public relations. Even if they did how many would fight their employer if the scientific evidence went against a station owner's views. And for the third time lucky what if the presenter has sponsorship of large amounts from an interested party? Say a mobile phone company in Australia. The public there might not give a damn for cash-for-comment but at least they ought to be aware of the amount of funding the presenter is getting from the company when a related issue is being debated. And that's something the latest Australian Broadcasting Authority conditions don't require.
This writer is reminded of a comment made by one of the scientists working on the Manhattan project for the atomic bomb. He commented that, as a refugee he had no problem with idea that in a democracy the views of one ignoramus were counted as equal to his. The problem was when he knew the science and the views of two ignoramuses were taken as superior. That comment still has meaning and the best answer is better information..
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