Tick Tick Tick

Screen Shot 2016-04-19 at 10.42.30 pmWatching the scandal over 60 Minutes’ apparent complicity in a violent child abduction in Lebanon, I’m struck by two things – the cynicism of Channel Nine in using a child custody dispute for ratings and the complete ignorance of journalistic ethics among its defenders.

It’s depressing that professionals need to be reminded of this, but journalists are supposed to be witnesses to the news, not creators of it. They are supposed to cover the story, not be the story.

It’s true that tabloid television “current affairs” shows like 60 Minutes have always put the theatrical possibilities of the medium ahead of the journalistic imperatives to the extent that the “stories” are as much about the glamorous reporters as they are about their subjects.

But the calculated fakery, carefully constructed set-ups and sing-songy pieces to camera were easier to accept when they merely involved Liz Hayes making moon eyes at (gay) Ricky Martin or Jim Whaley doing jowl-trembling stand-ups in a flak jacket (with price tags still on) from the rooftop bar of a central African Hilton, having been flown in that afternoon.

The news-as-entertainment thing we get. But bankrolling a desperate mother in a bitter custody dispute to fly to the Middle East, hire a gang of thugs to snatch the children away from their own grandmother on the way home from school takes the participatory news thing just a tad far.

In recent days, Nine’s PR machine has been rolling out its “personalities” to somehow characterise the effluent coming out of this broken down old relic of a TV station as somehow related to actual journalism. Here’s Karl Stefanovic, who after a quick Google search on the definition of journalism, told us that Tara Brown and her producers had the most noble of motives.

“Journalism – by definition is the work of collecting writing and publishing news stories and articles. Who, what, when, where, why are the cornerstones of journalism. It’s brilliant in its simplicity and it’s so easy to remember. Armed with those tools we go out into the wide world and ask away. At its most basic, we inform. At its best, it’s powerful. We can expose the wrongs. We can make a difference. It all though starts with a question.”

Well, here’s a few questions for you, Karl. What financial role did Nine play in facilitating the kidnap in Lebanon? Is it true that the network paid a dodgy London-based child abduction recovery service $115K to snatch the kids in the street? If Nine’s first concern was the poor mother, why didn’t you advise her to go through the Australian government?

But Nine doesn’t want to answer those questions because Nine and its heavily hairsprayed stars still live in an ancient Goanna time when the public could be expected to remain complicit in their own manipulation by “journalists” whose first responsibility is to their prime-time advertisers.

It is also very, very hard not to see the racial undertones in this case. A blonde Australian woman denied her custody rights by a swarthy man of Middle Eastern appearance. It just ticks every box of the low-to-middle brow demographic Nine targets with 60 Minutes, a show whose format hasn’t changed in 35 years.

Dollars-to-donuts that when Tara Brown and the crew are let out, we’ll be treated to Midnight Express-style “Tara’s Torment” stories for months both from Nine and the limpet-like, dimwitted magazines which act as its publicity arm.

In the meantime,  I find it incredible that defenders of Brown and her crew cannot see the ethics breaches in this case. The children were exploited, mistreated and terrorised, the “money shot” of the abduction was clearly set up by Nine, the mother was manipulated and the racial component was played up.

Oh, and in case you missed it, they broke the law.

 

 

Do Keep Up

Man-with-megaphone-000080450985_LargeFor millions of Australians forced to save for their own retirement, ‘finance’ is Alan Kohler on the news every night telling them what happened to the Baltic Dry index that day or explaining why Stock A’s share price went up when their earnings went down.

The truth is that what happened in the global and domestic financial markets on any one day is hardly relevant to the vast majority of people  whose investment horizon is measured in years, if not decades. The day-to-day stuff is meaningless noise, of interest to day traders or speculators or financial journalists, but not to the rest of us.

Political journalism works the same way. What matters for the overwhelming majority of the voting population in relation to politics are longer-term outcomes. Politics is significant insofar as we feel the debate is about ensuring the society we live in is fair and decent and one that puts humans before the needs of the system itself.

Are our children getting an adequate education? Are they choosing the right degrees? Assuming they graduate, will there be jobs for them? How will they afford a home? Is the system fair? How are “insiders” treated in comparison to “outsiders”? What happens when we age and no longer can look ourselves? Will climate change make our grandkids world unliveable? Is our destiny in our own hands anymore?

These are tough questions, but you won’t hear political journalists talking about them to any great extent. Like their financial counterparts, they are too busy watching the daily horse race. Who won the week in parliament? Does Scott hate Malcolm? Is Malcolm “cutting through with the punters”? Will Bill’s makeover work for him in the polls?

The commentators or race callers, because that’s what they are, see their job as providing a real-time form guide for those people who view politics as an end itself, an occupation for a class of people who have never really known any other line of work. They’re not really that interested in what the wider public actually thinks, beyond the occasional condescending reference to “pub tests” or how it plays in “struggle street”. They’re more intent on representing the powerful to the rest of us, rather than the other way around.

Peter Hartcher in the SMH exemplifies this, seeing himself as a kind of unofficial chronicler or real-time biographer of whomever the great political poohbah of the moment seems to be. Perhaps there’s an element of self-interest in this, because if you sufficiently ingratiate yourself with your subject you’ll be put on the drip for “exclusives”. But whatever the motivation, this week-to-week attempt to represent noise as signal leads to the scenario where each column can completely contradict the one before.

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Like the politicians they cover, political journalists are mostly on the inside looking out. And there’s your problem. There are simply not enough people who are as plugged into or who care enough about who said what five minutes ago to offer meaningful comment. So inevitably they all end up talking to each other and reading the entrails of opinion polls, starting with the narrow window they look through every day and attempting to pan out from there. Try it. It doesn’t work.

The ABC’s Jonathan Green admirably tried to get around this issue by convening a weekly ‘Outsiders’ radio show featuring ostensibly the “unusual” suspects of the commentariat. But the underlying requirement that the show be about “the week in news” meant his talent pool was a shallow one,  inevitably including the token IPA “research fellow” or a member of the voiceless Murdoch press to keep the ABC’s balance Nazis off his back.

To be fair, political media is broken because politics is broken – or at least what we call politics – the charade that takes place in Canberra or any other world capital each day featuring people and parties who don’t really believe in anything anymore, but making sure they posture and pontificate in a way that suggests they do. And the media, having so much invested in the semblance of a left-right, blue-red, coke-pepsi contest, is forced to play along with the whole silly game.

The rest of the population senses the breakdown. And not just in Australia. This is a global phenomenon, reflecting the end of a 35-year era in which neoliberal capitalism looked to have destroyed all other contenders. Politicians of the nominal left and right swallowed the consensus whole, leaving them to fight ridiculous and infantile ‘culture wars’ to justify their own sorry existence.

But ironically “the market knows best” people don’t seem to have figured that the wider population understands the issue better than the insiders do. The big problems we face are global in nature – climate change, people movements, adequacy of resources, the impotency of central banks, the dislocations wrought by “free” trade, the rise in the power of stateless corporations at the expense of people, the encroachment of “markets” into every aspect of our lives and the power of well-funded lobbies that sell private interest as public interest and destroy the possibility of people-oriented change.

THAT’S why politics is broken. And THAT’s why the media does not appear to have a clue about what’s going on right now. Oddly enough, this is a much, much bigger story than whether Malcolm loves Scott.

Do keep up now.

(On what’s really ailing us, have a listen to Philip Adams’ excellent recent panel session ‘Advance Australia Where?’ with Bob Brown, Kerry O’Brien and Julian Burnside or for a global view, check out Paul Mason on the Guardian)

 

Last Ones Standing

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Photo by Nick Ryan, Fairfax

The slow-motion death of newspapers as a vehicle for quality journalism rolls on, with periodic announcements of new waves of redundancies prompting anger, soul-searching and recrimination.

For those of us who escaped the industry years ago, there are feelings of both relief that we got out when we did and sympathy for journalists laid off by companies who still appear clueless about how to make the business work in a digital age.

But while the journalists’ mass walkouts and calls for public solidarity are completely understandable, the market realities facing the industry that has sheltered them for long can’t be ignored.

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Click Go the Fears

HiResJournalism isn’t really a profession, much as some of its practitioners proclaim it to be. It’s much closer to being a trade or a craft. And like all crafts, success in journalism is usually achieved by getting not just one thing, but a number of small but critical things right.

These small things include spelling people’s names correctly, accurately reporting what people said, answering all the key questions like who, what, where, when and how, and, most of all, repeatedly asking ‘why’.

It’s the ‘why’ thing that’s falling down most right now. Continue reading

Fenced In

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“Our job is not to step in, our job is just to reflect, it’s just to report on what happens.”

That’s a quote from the ABC’s head of current affairs, Bruce Belsham, in the transcript published by New Matilda of his conversation in 2013 with the public broadcaster’s then technology editor Nick Ross about the National Broadband Network. Continue reading

‘Fourth Estate’ Documentary

Following a nine-month international screening run, the independent UK documentary ‘The Fourth Estate’ is now online for all to view, download, and share for free.

During 2015, filmmakers Elizabeth Mizon and Lee Salter hosted numerous sold-out screenings and Q&A sessions throughout the UK. They want their take on the monopolisation of the global mainstream media industry to be seen and heard far and wide, and thus they are now making their film free for all to see and screen.

Though the ‘official’ screening run is now over, anyone can still host a screening of the film, anywhere. See the official site to contact the filmmakers and organise a screening in your city. To read about the zero-budget, two-year production process of The Fourth Estate, and the filmmakers’ take on radical filmmaking, read their article in Film International.

In the meantime, watch the full film here.

Recycling the News

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Why does the media routinely “commemorate” the anniversary of major news events like the Lindt Cafe siege with blanket over-the-top coverage? Is it out of respect for the victims? Or is it about money and ratings?

The news presenters put on their grave faces for these anniversaries and roll out the boilerplate emoting. “It changed our lives forever….a day imprinted in our memories”, Producers with lots of time on their hands roll out the slow-mo and Barber’s adagio. Continue reading

The Business of Anger

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A perennial tension in journalism arises from balancing the professional requirement to accurately inform the public and the commercial one to actively engage them.

The destruction of media business models, where classified advertising subsidised across a Chinese wall the quality journalism that attracted the eyeballs, has gradually swung that balance from the professional to the commercial imperatives. Continue reading

Storm in a Tea Hat

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Are you over Zaky Mallah yet? If incomprehensible men in funny hats appearing live on our television screens were such a crime against humanity, as this episode seems to be viewed, how did Australia survive Molly Meldrum for so long?

Assailed by the manufactured outrage over this beat-up in the last fortnight, one could see the government desperately lapping up every opportunity to connect this opponent of ISIS and advocate for Australia with the murderous thugs painting Iraq and Syria red.

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Insided Out

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It’s now four years since the US journalism academic Jay Rosen decried at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival about the “cult of savvy” in political journalism and the treatment of politics as a game for insiders. What’s changed since?

Not much, going by the hysterical coverage of the leadership change in the Australian Greens.  In what may simply have been a case of a party leader deciding to quit politics because 25 years was enough, the hacks fell over each other looking for the cute angle.

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