God is Dead

An old man with long grey hair and a long grey beard standing in front of a dramatic dark sky. He is wearing a white toga and holding a wooden bar. His arm is stretched out for giving a sign or for blessing and he is looking up to the sky.

“Did the media get the election wrong?” asks Fairfax journalist Matthew Knott in an attempt to turn the spotlight fleetingly on he and his colleagues in the press gallery.

“The consensus, speaking to colleagues in the Canberra press gallery, is a reluctant yes. Some insist they got it spot on. But many admit they expected a more decisive Coalition victory than occurred. And they concede this influenced the way the media covered the campaign.”

While Knott’s moment of professional introspection is rare and commendable, he’s really asking the wrong question. The assumption buried in his gallery quick quiz is that the media’s primary role is not so much to report the news, as to predict it. But it that’s your measure of success as a journalist, you’re playing a loser’s game.

As this blog and others have tirelessly (OK, tiresomely) argued over the years, the focus of political reporting is too much on who’s winning the horse race and not on the substance. That is partly a consequence of the professionalisation of politics, the loss of specialist reporters and the commodification of straight news. Everyone knows what’s happened and is remarking on it via social media, so that encourages journalists to play up their “insider” credentials, deciphering the multiple layers of spin. They become professional pundits rather than reporters.

Peter Hartcher is one of the exemplars of this trend, often casting himself as a kind of diviner of what drives individual political leaders and connecting them to the zeitgeist in a way that can come across as toadying in pursuit of favourable scoops. Remember how he wrote up the now infamous 2014 budget?

“While Abbott was a cheap populist in opposition, he now reveals himself to be a purposeful prime minister. He’s not looking for popularity but respect. His budget is a bold political bet that people will not punish him for breaking promises but reward him for being tough and responsible.”

This isn’t to say all political reporting has to be just a bland recitation of the facts. Context and analysis are even more important now when political parties just routinely make stuff up and sections of the popular media meekly run with it. As Tim Dunlop has argued, political reporting comes alive and adds real value when it positions the noise within a wider signal.  But it achieves that not by journalists assuming the status of omniscient beings, but by admitting to their limited view and inviting others to fill in the picture.

“The new-media environment of engagement with the audience makes it easier than ever for journalists to take readers into their confidence and explain the reasoning behind a given article. Or to defend it, if necessary. In other words, engagement with the audience is the new objectivity, and any decent journalist should cultivate that approach.

On that score, I’m a big fan of the insights of Laura Tingle in her weekly chat with Phillip Adams on Radio National. What I like about Tingle is that unlike many other insiders, she doesn’t position herself as a sort of aloof Canberra Kremlinologist, deciphering the patterns in the plumes of smoke emitted from the ministerial wing. On the contrary, she often sounds worn down and just exhausted by the whole circus. It’s notable that one of the most telling images of the marathon election campaign was of Tingle on the panel during the second TV leaders’ debate, clearly exasperated by the umpteenth recitation of theatrical talking points that told voters nothing.

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The Guardian’s Katherine Murphy is also a journalist who has done more than most to break down the imaginary fourth wall that isolates press gallery members from the public they are supposedly a proxy for.  Her daily coverage is presented in diary format, exposing the often incomplete and haphazard information upon which reporters are required  to squeeze into tidy narratives. She recognises, indeed luxuriates in the fact, that she doesn’t know everything, can’t know everything and will never know everything. In so doing, she exposes the pre-spun nature of so much for what passes as “political news”, all wrapped up neatly every day and presented to the public as fact.

As an aside, it’s significant that we’re having this election post-mortem alongside the release of the damning report by former civil servant John Chilcot following his seven-year inquiry into the circumstances that led to Britain entering the Iraq war 13 years ago. While most of the focus on that debacle has been on deficiencies in intelligence, foreign policy nous and political judgement, the media’s failure to ask tough questions and their increasing tendency to identify with the spin doctors has also come under scrutiny.

“So much of the current public distrust in the media and its incestuous relationship with the political establishment can be traced back to its failures in covering the Iraq war,” writes Ian Burrell in The Independent. “Where once its access to Westminster corridors was its most valuable currency, that cosy relationship means it is now too often seen as a mere mouthpiece for the ruling elite.”

There’s a lesson for Australian media here. Journalists need to stop seeing themselves as players. Their job is to represent the public to decision-makers, not the other way around.  We don’t want them to make forecasts; we want to them to demand answers to simple questions. We want them, beyond rare exceptions, to stop reporting self-serving anonymous scuttlebutt and to insist that people go on the record. We would prefer that instead of guessing and surmising and speculating, they just said “I really don’t know what will happen next. But here are the facts.”  And we would prefer their editors to stop asking them to issue “hot takes” on every little brain fart in Canberra and leave them to get their teeth into a story once in a while.

As Russell Marks writes in The Monthly, in perhaps the best analysis of the media’s failures this election, journalists can do us all a big favour by giving up the pretence that they are god-like electoral analysts or judges of spin. Stop the second-hand running commentary on how the management of issues will ‘play’ in the electorate, turn your bullshit detectors up to 10 and start testing the “perceptions” against the facts.

“While intelligent journalists are running themselves ragged acting as unglorified public relations assistants for politicians, they’re not testing statements and checking claims,” Marks writes. “News reportage becomes quite literally a matter of ‘Turnbull said A, while Shorten said B’, which is close to entirely useless without context. In the end, we are told, the voters get it right. But that expression of faith in the democratic process depends on faith in the fourth estate to present political realities so that voters can make sensible choices.”

Journalism is a tough job, even tougher when your resources are constantly being cut, the bosses are asking you to file constantly and social media is bagging you. But journalists can make it a lot easier for themselves by giving up the pretence that they are all-seeing political sages and focus instead on asking good questions, reporting facts, placing those facts in context and admitting that neither they, nor anyone, has any idea about what happens next.

In journalism at least, god is dead.

See also:

The Certainty Myth

 

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“The uncertain election result is the worst possible outcome and the major parties and crossbenchers must act quickly to form a government, business leaders say.”

– AAP, July 3, 2016

Since when did the primary role of government become providing “certainty” to the business community? In fact, it’s hard to read a newspaper or turn on the TV these days without some rent-seeking plutocrat whining about the democratic process getting in the way of the grubby business of making money.

Of course, business leaders have a legitimate stake in the political debate and have a right to express an opinion. But their current tendency to drag out the “we’ll be rooned” rhetoric at the first sign that policy might diverge from their desired “reform” agenda speaks volumes for the degree the state has been captured by powerful lobbies.

We saw it six years ago when multi-national miners, fearful of an international precedent being set, ran a deceitful advertising campaign against the then Labor government’s attempt to earn a fairer share for the common wealth from our publicly owned resources. Labor, under a new PM, rolled over and neutered the tax.

We saw it again a year later in the almost effortless whiteanting by licensed clubs of the government’s modest proposal to limit the life-destroying excesses of poker machines.

One of the Abbott government’s first initiatives in 2013 was to sneak through new measures just before Christmas to water down hard-fought protections for consumers against salesmen masquerading as financial advisers. The attempt was later defeated in the Senate by a vigilant opposition working with crossbenchers.

And, of course, there was the utterly dishonest campaign against carbon pricing, fuelled by claims of $100 lamb roasts and entire towns being wiped off the map.

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In every case, rent-seeking industries attempted to mask their own grubby interests as the public interest. In every case, they pleaded that was is all about jobs and investment and the need for “certainty”. In every case, they were aided by the wilful distortions of the Murdoch media which seeks to persuade its readers to vote against their own interests.

The democratic process, in the eyes of some in the business community, has become bothersome sand in the wheels of commerce, Governments’ role, in this view of the world, should be to underwrite business profits and socialise losses.  Worker protections must be sacrificed to the great god productivity and safety nets must be minimalised. Making a profit must be separated from taking a risk.

In short, “certainty” must be denied everyone but the wealthiest and most powerful members of the community. The rest of us, through three decades of neoliberalism, have gradually been stripped of our life protectors and told to sink or swim. Our work is insecure, our healthcare can no longer be guaranteed, our kids’ education is increasingly determined by the size of our bank accounts and our retirement is at the mercy of the roulette wheel of the equity markets.

We are told that we are our on our own, that government guarantees are gone, that “the economy” trumps society. If you want to get ahead, gear yourself into half a dozen investment properties and claim the losses against your income. Honest work is not enough anymore. It’s death or the spiv economy.

Now, with another indecisive election outcome, the business cassandras are out in force again, blitzing the media with doom-laden press releases – each of them faithfully recycled by a media that has come to accept uncritically the message that business interest and the public interest are one and the same.

The rebellion against elites that is so remarked on in the media right now is in fact a fight to reclaim society from “the economy”. It is a delayed response to the financial crisis of 2008 which challenged the underpinnings of neoliberalism and the notion of “the market” as the arbiter of every aspect of our lives. People are waking up to the hegemony of a business class whose voice is automatically accorded primacy in any clash with the public interest.

According to the US economic philosopher Philip Mirowski, in his magisterial book ‘Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Crisis’  the long-term project of the neoliberals is not to depower the state but to capture it and own it.

“One way to exert power in restraint of democracy is to bend the state to a market logic, pretending one can replace ‘citizens’ with ‘customers’ ,” Mirowski writes. “Consequently, the neoliberals seek to restructure the state with numerous audit devices (under the sign of ‘accountability’ or the ‘audit society’) or impose rationalization through introduction of the ‘new public management’; or, better yet, convert state services to private provision on a contractual basis.”

The business call for “certainty”, if it continues to hold sway, will mark democracy’s final capitulation to a form of capitalism that destroys any remaining social fabric, that wipes out any possibility of solidarity, and that cripples the possibility of a human community governed by any other value than money.

Further Reading, Viewing and Listening:

Talking to Themselves

Screen Shot 2016-06-28 at 9.58.36 pmOne of the tropes of media election coverage is when ‘jaded’ seen-it-all ‘insiders’ proclaim to the wet-behind-the-ears public that it’s all over. The ‘people’ have already decided. Call off the election. The conservatives have it in the bag.

These stories are invariably based on opinion polls and written by telephone journalists, who having forsaken the campaign bus, spend their lives talking to other insiders who are reading the same polls and not connecting with anyone outside the bubble.

US journalism academic Jay Rosen calls this cramped perspective “the cult of the savvy”. This is the practice of journalists reporting from inside the system to others like them. The viewpoint and mindset are that of political operatives, judging each day’s developments in terms of who won and who lost the news cycle.

“Promoting journalists as insiders in front of the outsiders, the viewers, the electorate…. this is a clue to what’s broken about political coverage in the US and Australia,” Rosen has written. “Things are out of alignment. Journalists are identifying with the wrong people. Therefore the kind of work they are doing is not as useful as we need it to be.”

Journalists have become inward looking and disconnected from the electorate for a few reasons. One is economic. Thanks to newsroom cutbacks due to declining media revenues, there are few specialists anymore. Where formerly there might have been a health reporter, whose job it was to track health policy, or a technology reporter, who was across broadband issues, there are now only generalists. Few newsrooms have the resources to look at issues as they might affect voters, so the focus becomes the race itself, politics as a process.

The second reason, and one well canvassed, is the rise of social media, the continuous news cycle and the appropriation of new communication technologies by politicians and their staffers. Stories that might formerly have developed over two or three days now can be born, live and die within two or three hours. Journalists try to keep up, but the more they chase the noise, the less time they have to find the signal.

And when the media does try to stand back from the daily circus to identify the malaise with politics, they often end up interviewing people just like themselves or the usual paid apparatchiks like the IPA “fellows” who are as much players in the game as anyone. Rehearsed talking points are intoned in such a predictable way that you find yourself anticipating what each contributor is going to say before they open their mouths.

Everyone talks condescendingly about what the “ordinary voters” are thinking, or worse, “the punters”. No-one ever asks them directly. We hear constantly about how political parties have become scientific about picking up phrases uttered in focus groups and then cynically layering them into their communication as if this is somehow admirable.

It’s this insider mentality, this culture of a narrow group of elite opinion makers talking among themselves, that was so dramatically given the middle finger by Britons in their recent referendum on whether to stay in the European Union, irrespective of the rights and wrongs of the Brexit.

If you recall, the late polls in that case were suggesting a reasonably comfortable victory for the remain camp. Indeed, even as the counting began, the exit camp was ready to concede defeat. Then, as the trend reversed, the talking heads had to change their prepared scripts.

Few people appreciate that political journalists don’t really have any special insights to the public mind. They’re guessing as much as anyone, just as financial journalists tend to talk about what has already happened in the market as if it is a guide to what happens next.

Events can occur. Polls can change. The public mood is not singular or simple. People’s appreciation of issues as they affect them is often much keener and deeper than many journalists give them credit for. But reporting depth and nuance and complexity is hard. It’s much easier to host a half-hour of thumb-sucking “analysis” of the latest Newspoll.

Keep that in mind next time you hear some smartarse on TV telling you it’s all over.

 

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.

Continue reading

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