There are some astute observations in this brief video on the increasingly blurry distinction between “old” and “new” media. I especially like the line from one journalist about it all coming down to trust. Ultimately, trust is the currency of good journalism. And without trust, you really are reduced to being a ‘content producer for an advertising platform’ (to quote former Fairfax CEO Fred Hilmer’s notoriously reductionist definition of a journalist) The video comes from the Aspen festival of ideas and is courtesy of The Atlantic.
One consequence of the death of the mainstream media’s business model and the commodification of news is a corresponding increased reliance on provocative commentary that generates page impressions.
News Corp’s Andrew Bolt is the poster child for the success of professional trollery as a revenue generator and brand differentiator. He has clear targets, strong opinions and he succinctly expresses them. He has a fiercely loyal audience and equally fierce enemies who despise him with similar force. Bolt is now parlaying this approach of calculated outrage on commercial television. And good luck to him.
The simple truth is that in a hollowed-out media confronted by a myriad of other distractions, sane and sensible, measured and thoughtful, and sober and reflective are not desirable traits for successful journalists. To survive commercially in a disintermediated world, one must generate a response – good or bad, it doesn’t matter.
Most of the successful provocateurs and templars of intemperance crowd the right of the political spectrum, which may partly reflect the utter dominance of News Corp and its proprietor’s radical right-wing views in the Australian media landscape.
On the left, Mike Carlton has been one of the few counterparts whose copy is not blighted by the exceedingly hand-wringing reasonableness that blights so much ‘progressive’ opinionating. Carlton speaks plainly, hates openly and hits a few targets in the process. Like Bolt, he understands his job is to entertain as much as inform.
Expressing the views of many, including a good deal of Jewish people, Carlton wrote a column recently that strongly criticised the state of Israel for its actions in bombing civilians in Gaza. The column attracted a huge response, which Carlton noted – some people supportive, others highly critical but reasonably so and others just completely intemperate, accusing him of outright anti-Semitism and worse.
Then News Corp piled in. The story ticked all the boxes for its own professional trolls. It offered another front in the manufactured rolling ‘culture wars’. It provided an opportunity to bash Islam and tar any criticism of Israel, however reasoned and even-handed, as anti-Semitic. And it was a chance to kick the “leftist” Fairfax.
The ostensible issue that forced Carlton’s eventual resignation from Fairfax was not the column itself, but his intemperate emailed and Tweeted responses to the some of the apparently coordinated abuse he received for the original piece. Some of these emails mysteriously were delivered to his arch enemy Bolt.
There are a few observations to make about this.
Firstly, while not seeking to defend Carlton’s abuse of readers, one can understand how he might have felt unfairly attacked for a column which was merely expressing what many world leaders, including Obama, were saying about Israel’s actions.
Oddly, some supporters of Fairfax’s action say no company would condone an employee talking to ‘customers’ that way. But this wrongly assumes that a commercial media outlet’s customers are its readers. On the contrary, its readers are the product it sells to its real customers – the advertisers. And what advertisers value is eyeballs, which is why trollumnists and provocateurs are now the bread and butter of the dying media business.
In any case, Carlton did not make those comments in his official column. He did so on Twitter and email after highly personal attacks on him. And anyone who has followed him in social media knows that he uses colourful language and expresses himself directly. This is not a surprise.
Secondly, Carlton might also feel rightly aggrieved at the gutlessness of the Fairfax management in the face of what appeared a coordinated campaign of intimidation by powerful interests in Australia and elsewhere seeking to shut down debate. Traditionally, one of the first duties of an editor is to defend his staff and paid contributors, however unpopular their views, against efforts to shut them up.
In this case, though, a rather inexperienced editor, who came to journalism relatively late and was promoted quickly, backed the corporate line against editorial independence, which is really where a newspaper’s brand value resides. So Fairfax, having already lost quality writers like David Marr, Richard Ackland and Paddy Manning, just shot another large hole in its foot.
Thirdly, one is struck by the total lack of awareness of the irony of Carlton being silenced after years of pious speechifying about press freedom and free speech by the Murdoch press to stymie efforts to introduced better accountability for shoddy journalism. It seems ‘freedom’ in their world equates to the right of their side of politics to express their views unfettered and to silence those with whom they disagree.
Fourthly, is the irony of this happening straight after the 18C saga. We have just witnessed an entire government and media apparatus spending significant time and effort trying to change the law to accommodate one News Corp columnist’s sloppy journalism in attacking Aborigines. The difference is that individual is lauded by the government as a freedom fighter, gets his own TV show and receives cosy phone calls from the prime minister advising him that “we just couldn’t get it through this time, mate”.
If the issue here was about intolerance for intemperate and tribal attacks on people, much of the media (particularly the News Corp media) would cease to exist. No, the issue here is clearly about who was on the receiving end.
The hypocrisy of it all is gobsmacking. Indeed, it is hard not to conclude that though a revenue-deprived media is becoming ever more reliant on eyeball-grabbing, hard-talking provocateurs to generate page impressions, they require their professional haters to restrict their calculated outrage to the approved targets list.
(Recommend also this analysis by Mark Day in The Australian)
“What is happening is…a revolution in the way young people are accessing news. They don’t want to rely on the morning paper for their up-to-date information. They don’t want to rely on a God-like figure from above to tell them what’s important. And to carry the religion analogy a bit further, they certainly don’t want news presented as gospel.”
When Rupert Murdoch delivered that speech to the American Society of Newspaper editors in Washington a decade ago, he was seen by some as a Martin Luther figure, challenging centralised authority and nailing his 95 theses to the digital wall.
Print journalism was dying and a new generation of “digital natives” was seeking out news on demand in formats and narratives that suited them. Newspaper editors, having distractedly plastered their content on the web less than 10 years before only to see sales and advertising continue to decline, were at the point of despair.
But Murdoch, having overcome great odds so many times in his career, was having none of that. Figuratively lifting the luddite editors by the lapels, Rupert said his company had challenged media orthodoxes over the years and could do so again with the web. “Today, the newspaper is just a paper,” he said. “Tomorrow, it can be a destination.”
Well, actually, more of a point of departure really, because nine years on, Murdoch’s vision looks more like a hopelessly naive misunderstanding of what the media reformation is all about. In retrospect, his rallying call to editors was more a rearguard action, a heroic attempt to reassert the authority of established media at a time of extraordinary technological and cultural change.
To his credit, Murdoch threw the dice and experimented with digital applications, the tablet-oriented The Daily representing a noble attempt to monetise traditional journalism on the web. It failed, reaching only 100,000 paid subscribers when it needed at least 500,000 to break even. Like so many attempts to launch subscription media on the web, the content was simply not distinctive enough to tempt people to pay for it.
With his real-world efforts falling short of the vision of his digital proseltysing and his traditional dead-trees journalism fighting off scandal, Murdoch has regrouped around his legacy media brands and is fighting for tradition. His loyal lieutenants regularly declare war on Twitter, popular bloggers, public broadcasting and digital upstarts generally. Chris Kenny, who recently successfully sued the ABC, over a silly satirical joke at his expense by The Chaser, believes the digital revolution in relation to journalism has gone a tad too far.
There is a case to be made that digital journalism is distracting from substantive reporting and even distorting mainstream coverage. Digital-first publication has lowered the entry barrier for commentary, which was once the preserve of experienced hands. Young journalists knew their sole job was to report news, until much later in their careers when age and experience deemed them sufficiently worthy to offer analysis or comment.”
Kenny has a valid point about the speed of social media leaving little room for sound analysis and he’s right about the tendency for young reporters to be pushed into commenting on news before they’ve learnt to report it straight. But his pitch is a bit rich coming from a representative of a company that regularly puts its “straight news” coverage through the spinmaster to serve its political and commercial interests. And it blankly assumes that anyone not earning a living as a journalist in dead tree media is not qualified to comment on politics or anything else.
Witness the insane circling of the wagons by The Australian recently after it was found to have been blatantly spinning for Big Tobacco industry by printing incorrect claims that cigarette sales had increased since plain packaging laws began. Every characteristic Murdoch said the digital revolution had overturned – ex-cathedra pronouncements in contravention of the facts, a pompous presumption to being the final authority and a condescension toward other voices – was on display. Add to this its characteristically vicious personal attacks on those who dared question its dishonest ‘journalism’ and you have a case study in old media digging a deeper hole for its remaining credibility.
The alternative explanation for the sudden antagonism toward alternative media in the established outlets is that this is a commercial strategy. By engaging in skirmishes on Twitter and elsewhere with new voices not part of the mainstream media, the dead trees brigade muscle in on the upstarts’ small, but growing, audiences. In effect, the long-time party hosts are miffed that the guests and the advertisers have moved on elsewhere, so they’re crashing the joint. In the process, basic journalistic principles of fairness, accuracy and a respect for the truth are being trampled in the dirt.
A decade after Murdoch’s ‘digital natives’ speech, it appears the media reformation is giving way to a counter-reformation. In this, Murdoch is revealed not so much as an iconoclastic Martin Luther nailing his theses to the wall, but as a Pope Paul III, ordering an inquisition against the new media heretics.
The digital revolution will not be televised. And it’s not in the newspapers either. In fact, media companies don’t seem to get the revolution at all.
A decade and half since newspapers started distractedly plastering their content all over the internet (mistaking the web as just another publishing platform), the media owners are getting whacked anew.
The revolution has now gone mobile. Users are spending more time accessing and sharing news on their phones than they are on traditional desktops or tablets. And having spent fortunes designing funky iPad editions, the media finds that that the people formerly known as the audience have moved on, again.
Two recent reports –from the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard and the Reuters Institute at Oxford – have identified this second wave of a revolution that threatens to upend newsrooms only just getting back to their feet after the first.
“Aren’t phones just web browsers with smaller screens?” says Nieman. “Not really. Smartphones are personal, social machines, optimised for communication and entertainment. The tap-and-scroll interface works beautifully with social networks like Facebook and Twitter — less so with old-fashioned news presentation. And an interface built around apps and icons can make it a challenge for any single news source to earn a prominent spot on someone’s home screen.”
In its third annual ‘Digital News’ report, the Reuters Institute says the speed of change in digital innovation and consumption patterns around news is such that media companies frequently find themselves two or three steps behind.
Covering 10 countries (the USA, UK, Germany, France, Denmark, Finland, Spain, Italy, Brazil and Japan), the Reuters report found rapid growth in mobile and tablet use for news, with 37% of the sample accessing news from a smartphone each week and 20% from a tablet. While Australia was left out of the Reuters sample, digital trends here are similar.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Reuters found younger people (18-35) increasingly have little loyalty to any mainstream media brand and tend to rely on social sources like Facebook and Twitter to discover news stories.
And, again, there is still little sign that more people are willing to pay for news. In the UK, the proportion who said they had paid for digital news in the past year was just 7%. The authors suggested this may be due to the “abundant supply of quality free news from the BBC, Sky, Mail Online, and the Guardian”. (This partly explains why News Corp spends so much of its time fighting media civil wars).
The usual response of journalists to these sorts of numbers is to rail at the audience (“What’s wrong with you people! Pay up!”), though the truth is the cost of good journalism has never been covered by subscriptions, even in the analog days. The vast bulk of media revenues (80% or more) have traditionally come from advertising.
What is starting to dawn on traditional media executives now is that digital advertising dollars are shrinking both in absolute and relative terms. The advertisers won’t pay print rates for digital. But not only that – the money being spent on digital ads is overwhelmingly going to Google and Facebook, not the old intermediaries.
The fact is the “audience” is not passively consuming the SMH or The Australian as it once did. Instead, they are on their phones, actively engaging with Twitter or Facebook feeds and sharing and riffing on what they see. And, naturally enough, the advertisers will go where the audiences are.
Stepping back from it all, media companies for 15 years have mistaken the information revolution as purely a technological change. We were switching platforms, so that just meant shifting the journalism from print to desktop to tablet.
But this revolution is as much a cultural one. The media has been disintermediated, which means a journalist’s role shifts from institutionalised “Voice of God” handing down tablets of stone to freelance curator and explainer, working with the community to do what journalism has always done – to get to the truth of things.
The mistake people make out of all this is to conclude that the destruction of the media’s business model destroys journalism. In fact, it merely destroys an institutionalised and industrialised concept of journalism formed in the 20th century.
Quite understandably, working journalists will respond to this notion with “that’s all well and good, but how do I get paid for what I do?” On that score, the Reuters report cites a number of strategies for media companies, including soft and hard paywalls.
We’ll see how that plays out. But for now, the more interesting development is the rise of entrepreneurial journalism. With the cost of distribution now nil and scarcity no longer a driver of price, individual journalists can separate from the institutions that once cossetted them and become their own media “brand”.
In the US, there has been a mini-boom in analytical “wonk” journalism, led by writers like Ezra Klein and Nate Silver, who have tapped a growing need for someone to make sense of the sheer volume of data and information coming at us.
Here in Australia, we have in that role someone like Greg Jericho, who has worked backwards from popular blogger to mainstream media figure.
Of course, this is all happening at the edges. And none of it will bring back the heavily staffed newsrooms of the 20th century. But changing technology and changing news consumption patterns in the mobile age will nevertheless require a level of fleet-footedness and entrepreneurship on the part of journalists.
One astute observer of these trends is Professor George Brock, head of journalism at the City University, London. In a recent presentation, Brock urged journalists to stop trying to prescribe their predicament before they diagnose. They need to accept that their dominant position in the information chain has been lost, he said. The next step was finding out what value they can add in a world where anyone with a smartphone can summon up information instantaneously.
“What we used to call ‘news’ was once prepared like a conjuring trick or play behind a curtain and revealed at a fixed time,” Brock said. “Now, new information flows in a liquid torrent down many routes, propelled by the partnership of the internet and mobile phones. In this context, any ‘newsroom’ has to be completely clear about what value it adds to a story. Valuable information is discovered, published, aggregated and given extra value by individuals and organisations who aren’t interested in whether they’re ‘journalists’ or not.”
The instant availability of more and more information heightens the importance of verification, of the need to structure information so that it makes sense and of the need to provide explanations that resonate with people’s lived experience.
Journalists have the skills to do all of that, but they need to back to the first principles, experiment and see what works.
In the meantime, last word to His Bobness…
Journalists traditionally pride themselves on being outsiders. They’re not corporate types, they’re not joiners, they’re square pegs. So why are they suddenly dictating the terms in which everyone else can express their displeasure with the government?
The most divisive, contentious federal budget in decades – one that even former Liberal Party leader John Hewson says “screams inequity” – has drawn students into the streets in numbers not seen since the Vietnam war, before the fog of 80s consumerism snuffed out any principle other than the shallowest acquisitive materialism.
Yet the former outsiders of the media, despite their own craft being in peril, are lining up to identify with the power elite. So we see Annabel Crabb beumused that the students are favouring ‘outdated’ Soviet-style protests over other means of expressing their views – presumably, in her case, having cosy afternoon teas with their mates.
Over on the ABC, Q and A host Tony Jones, on his $350,000-a-year salary, goes out of his way to side with the establishment, telling students who disrupted a recent program
“That is not what we want to happen on this program. That is not what democracy is all about. And those students should understand that.”
On a subsequent program, in which a beleaguered Joe Hockey sought to defend the budget against a hostile crowd, Jones was no less a supplicant to the powerful, telling a rowdy audience they were there to listen and essentially shut up.
And, of course, we are talking here about moderate, supposedly centrist media figures. If you take into account the hysterical reactions to protests by the likes of Alan Jones and Miranda Devine and the legions of Murdoch serfs that call themselves journalists, you find an Australian media which sees its interests as identical to those of the politically powerful.
Partly driving this ingratiating behaviour on the part of media figures is clearly outright partisanship (or doing what Rupert requires), but part of it reflects a desperate and pathetic attempt by journalists (fearing the loss of jobs) to position themselves as ‘balanced’ and outside the political debate. As Tim Dunlop observed:
It is not just that there is a right wing media that dominates and is biased. It is that the opposite of right wing media isn’t left-wing media, it is sensible journalism.
Sensible journalism is what you get when media organisations or individual journalists try self-consciously to be neither of the right nor the left. They try instead to be “balanced” or “objective”. They see this as being professional. But what they end up doing is simply discounting left wing positions and arguments and thus by default give credence to right wing ones.
We saw this same panicky, existential attempt by the media to frame the debate in conventional, ‘objective’ terms quite starkly in the attempts earlier this year to downplay or completely ignore the significance of the March in March protests. Any political expression that comes from outside the narrow Canberra-defined world of ‘politics’ is discounted as naive or wrong-headed or a throwback to a quaint 60s idealism.
It’s hard to escape the view that with the public losing faith in institutions, including the media itself, journalists are subconsciously fighting a rearguard action to seize back control of the narrative and cast it in a comfortable framework that suits them and the political classes they report on. In this, they are betraying the principles of their craft – representing the powerful to the public rather than the other way around. Worse for them, they’re also missing the bigger story.
It’s why social media is now where the conversation has moved. The media has been disintermediated. It is talking to itself and the powerful. It is on the other side of the rope, like the favoured head prefect who takes tea with headmaster and then finds on returning to the dorm that no-one takes them seriously anymore.
And the longer they stay there, the less able they are to do their real job – to ask the right question, to be provocative, to make the powerful squirm, to represent the public and to take nothing for granted.
That’s what journalists do.
(See also: Mark Bahnisch: ‘Post-Budget: What Happens Now?‘)
A common defence of Rupert Murdoch’s overwhelming dominance of the Australian media is that it reflects market forces. His papers account for 60%-70% of newspaper sales because they are popular, goes this line.
A second defence is that the multiplicity of new platforms for news and information and the proliferation of blogs make Murdoch’s stranglehold over traditional media, particularly newspapers, less of an issue for democracy.
These arguments are now well rehearsed among Murdoch’s loyal foot soldiers and were ritually recited on a recent Q and A on ABC Television by Sarrah Le Marquand, opinion editor of The Daily Telegraph.
“When people are talking about this much-touted 70% and who controls it, well I’ll tell you who controls it – the news-buying public. So if you have any issues with that, you need to take it up with them,” Le Marquand trumpeted.
The News Corp editor’s comment was made in response to a question from an audience member about the determinedly partisan stance of the Murdoch press in last year’s federal election. This coverage included deliberate distortions in supposedly straight news reports and the manipulation of photos to depict the prime minister as a Nazi.
The sophistry of Le Marquand’s response (‘the people buy it, so it must be right’) was repeated by another audience member (apparently one of the Sydney University Young Libs bused into the studio):
“The fact is people bought the papers, people wanted to vote that way. There’s nothing stopping someone starting another newspaper and selling that. It’s not so much that that the (Daily Tele) dictates the views, but they’re mainstream people’s views.”
Under this argument, journalism is merely another commercial enterprise. You start your newspaper (an industry with massive barriers to entry), hang your shingle out, hire a willing (and desperate) editorial team and begin manufacturing a view of the world that suits your proprietor’s commercial and ideological imperatives.
If people don’t like your brand of journalism, they can buy one that fits their prejudices more neatly. And if they can’t find one, they go off to the bank manager and build one from scratch. If they can’t do that, they start a blog and broadcast to the world what they think.
The Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, also on the Q and A panel, is a disciple of this view – that the multiplicity of voices in the digital space makes Murdoch’s traditional media dominance less of an issue and, in any case, his power and influence is over-rated. If people don’t like Murdoch’s editorial line, they can DIY.
This all sounds extremely reasonable, apart from a few small points. One of them is that news is not a product and the Fourth Estate is not purely a commercial enterprise. Call me old fashioned, but journalists have civic responsibilities beyond their obligations to their employers.
And just as the news is not a product, readers are not merely consumers. They do not “buy” the news but rely on it to help them make decisions as citizens. Yes, sales departments will seek to maximise audiences to sell to their customers (the advertisers). But the priority (and obligation) of journalists is to put the public interest first. If you’re not doing that, you’re not a journalist.
Putting the public interest first means employing the standards and principles of the profession – exercising an obligation to accurately report the truth, being primarily loyal to citizens (not consumers), being an independent monitor of power and giving a fair hearing to all.
The currency of journalism is not sales or page impressions or television ratings. The currency of journalism is TRUST. And the reason we are having the discussion about Murdoch and his newspapers is the erosion of trust, the perversion of news values by the market and the loss of journalistic independence.
As to the other point, that the proliferation of blogs and Twitter feeds make up for the dominance of the News Corp tabloids and shock jocks, when was the last time a leading political figure gave an interview to, say, Crikey or Independent Australia or even The Guardian?
The News Corp tabloids, along with commercial television and radio, continue to set the news agenda in Australia. You don’t see Tony Abbott or Bill Shorten knocking on Bernard Keane’s door.
This humble blog, for instance, gets about 35 thousand impressions a month. The Daily Telegraph receives about 54 million a month. I’m sure Crikey receives a couple of million a month, but its audience remains too small and narrow to justify much attention from politicians.
So it is not just the number of voices, but the comparative clout. Any analysis of media that overlooks relative power in terms of scale, influence and reach is disingenuous at best and dishonest at worst.
But don’t take my word for it. Also on the Q and A panel was the veteran British journalist and broadcaster Andrew Neil, himself a former editor of Murdoch’s Sunday Times and one who well knows the capacity for his former employer to accumulate power to an unhealthy degree.
“You’ve allowed big organisations to get too big in controlling the news,” Neil said. “When you allow companies to get too big, to be owning television stations and newspapers and radio stations, it is anti-democratic because then they start to control the politicians and they start to control the police and before you know it they are controlling the government as well.”
In the final analysis, the traditional media’s business model may be busted, but the accountability structures still reflect the old world. That may be changing, but digital media advocates should not kid themselves.
There may be a multiplicity of voices. But some voices still speak much, much more loudly than others.
It’s not widely understood by the reading and viewing public, but a big chunk of what are purported to be ‘news events’ really are stage-managed set-pieces, minutely choreographed by the public relations industry.
The supinely lame local coverage of the recent triumphant “free trade” deal announcement between the Australian and Japanese governments provides a perfect case study in how “news” is engineered, with national leaders positioned as virtual lego figurines in a carefully constructed tableaux.
In this case, journalists junket off to Tokyo with a planeload of CEOs, lobbyists and hangers-on. A favoured journalist writes a preview, saying the Australian PM will meet his Japanese counterpart in “a last-ditch bid to break the deadlock” in seven-year-long negotiations.
Happy snaps are released to the press pack showing the two PMs completing the deal over sashimi. And, hey presto, out of this cosy tete-a-tete comes “historic breakthrough”. Cheap Camry heaven!
Did any of the journalists stop to ask whether the big chunk of corporate Australia would have flown to Tokyo if there had been a real possibility that a deal wouldn’t be concluded? Surely, this was always going to happen. It was only a question of how badly Australia wanted the deal.
Trade agreements like the one announced between Canberra and Tokyo are political events, not economic ones, but they are almost always reported as if they are economically significant.
In this case, the spin doctors paint as a triumph what was a concession the Japanese were always going to make under the right circumstances, but still stops way short of what can be described as “free trade” (cutting tariffs on Australian beef from 38.5% to 19.5% over 15 years). Even then, there are other ways of slowing the entry of Australia food products, such as imposing byzantine quarantine arrangements.
As well, there are strong economic arguments that bilateral trade deals (favoured by the Howard and Abbott governments over multi-lateral initiatives such as the Doha round) lack transparency and tend to vastly over-rate the benefits to the general public.
The Productivity Commission, in a report released in 2010 five years after the Australia-US bilateral pact, noted that “free trade” deals are more appropriately described as “preferential” trade agreements, as they usually stop far short of a free market.
“While bilateral and regional trade agreements can reduce trade barriers and help meet other objectives, their potential impact is limited and other options often may be more cost-effective,” the commission said. “Current processes for assessing and prioritising (these agreements) lack transparency and tend to oversell the likely benefits. “
There are a range of more philosophical economic objections to bilateral agreements, notably that it can lead to one country being locked into trade arrangements with relatively inefficient producers of the trade partner when better and cheaper deals are available elsewhere.
So why didn’t any of the triumphal media coverage of the Japan deal not include these questions? Instead, we saw the ABC’s television correspondent, in his piece to camera in Tokyo, mouthing what sounded like a cut-and-paste from a government press office statement.
The problem here is the dominance of “access” journalism in political coverage, as opposed to “accountability” journalism. This theme is explored in relation to pre-GFC business coverage in a recent book by ex-WSJ reporter Dean Starkman (“The Watchdog that Didn’t Bark”).
In business journalism, news becomes “a guide to investing, more concerned with explaining business strategies and tactics to consumers than with examining broader political or social issues to citizens”.
Likewise, in political journalism, news becomes about framing every issue in terms of what it means for the tactical nous of the incumbents and their opponents. So the angle on the trade deal is “triumph for Tony Abbott”, as the journos see their role as representing the political class to the public, not representing the interests of the public to the political class.
Under the accountability model, journalists stand further away from the political actors. But what they lose in access and short-term “scoops”, they gain in a wider point of reference, an understanding of context beyond the daily noise and a greater readiness to ask tough questions.
The growth of digital media and the ability of the audience to talk back expose the lazy manipulations and spin that old journalism regurgitate in return for access.
The best journalists become part of the conversation and work with the audience to find the truth.
The rest belong in Legoland.
(See also: Bernard Keane: ‘Sorry, But Free Trade Agreements are Duds’)
“The freedom had two sides to it. Sometimes a heavy, reptile hostility came off the sombre land, something gruesome & infinitely repulsive.”
- DH Lawrence, ‘Kangaroo’
At what point did Australia’s light on the hill become a rising stink from the basement?
Of course, there’s always been a whiff of bigotry and intolerance here. No country is immune from that. And few of us can claim to have never prejudged another on the basis of race. But recent events are genuinely disquieting for many people, particularly those from minority ethnic groups.
The more reptilian tone of public discourse marks a break from the recent past. In the quarter century from the 1973 final end of the White Australia policy, Australia transformed into an extraordinarily tolerant, welcoming and diverse society. This was not the American-style half-embrace of multi-culturalism (where the immigrant experience is slyly subordinated to the capitalist dream), but a genuinely social democratic and egalitarian acceptance of difference.
My own experience as a migrant (albeit as a Kiwi cousin from a broadly similar culture across the Tasman) was to be struck by the relatively outgoing nature of Australian society, the in-built sense of confidence among many people and the readiness to live and let live. It was why I liked Australia and why I was always ready to defend this country against those who argued it was otherwise here.
But now I’m not so sure. The rise of Pauline Hanson in the 90s appeared to indicate disquiet among some mainly Anglo Australians about immigration, although there is a legitimate view that this movement was more an expression of understandable exhaustion with neo-liberal economic change than with cultural diversity.
Whatever it was, it was around that time that the formerly bipartisan consensus among politicians about exploiting race and immigration issues for political advantage was abandoned. This began with the dog whistle under Howard, evolved into more tacit acceptance (see the official response to the Cronulla riots) and is now is less dog whistle than promotional foghorn.
Cheered on by talkback radio provocateurs and the windbags of the media outrage industry, it is clear that the current government has been progressively lowering the bar on the issue of tolerance. Tolerance, in their definition, is almost wholly about giving free rein to the bigotry of the Andrew Bolts and others who already have substantial platforms for their views. Indeed, one gets the sense that with their proposed changes to the racial discrimination act, the floodgates for hatred are about to be opened.
It is remarkable that nowhere do we see our political leaders arguing for the rights of the powerless and the oppressed, the marginalised and the voiceless. Efforts to encourage respect and decency are increasingly seen as “nanny state” meddling. Freedom is discussed in isolation and in the naive libertarian abstract, never in the context of relative power. And race and ethnicity are now easy fodder for political point-scoring, with both major parties competing to see who can be the cruelest to asylum seekers.
There’s a disquiet among many people from a broad spectrum in Australia about the recent course of events, a disquiet that came through in the recent March in March across the country. This was an event passed off by an arrogant, lazy, cynical and unreflective media as a “leftist” love-in, but which gave notice of a substantial reorientation in Australian politics.
It’s time to the put the reptile back in its cage.
When people talk about media bias, they inevitably are referring to the house leanings of particular publishers. What’s often overlooked, though, is the bias generated by the necessity of journalists choosing certain frames and narratives to shape what’s known as “news”.
The March-in-March protests around Australia provide an object lesson in how journalists can be captured by those tired frames and by the tired institutions they report on. While there was some straight accounts of the marches, the general media response was a mixture of sniffy condescension, lazy cynicism or a blank refusal to even recognise this as a story.
The problem for journalists with these community-based movements is they are tough to report on. They require a little imagination, some wide reading and some hard work. One cannot construct a quick and dirty 500 word account by cutting and pasting from a handout. Neither does the event involve established institutions with ready-made sound-bites. And worst of all the big name actors are not in starring roles.
With prefabricated “he said-she said” templates not available, the press resorts to mocking the political naivety of it all, jeers at its hippy-dippy “kumbaya” pointlessness or, when most desperate, actively seeks out examples of vile language so it can exercise a good old bit of false equivalence.
Of course, it was predictable that the media, captured as it is by the institutional circus in Canberra, would write this whole event off as a ragtag bunch of lefty malcontents spitting the dummy at an election outcome that didn’t go their way. But there are a couple of problems with that analysis.
Firstly, the election was six months ago. This protest was about the actions the government has taken since then, many of which (like the nobbling of education and financial advice reforms, the defunding of environmental programs and increasing secrecy) were not raised during the election campaign.
Yes, the public was clearly over the ALP leadership circus, but, no, it is not clear the public voted for the policies of denial and obstruction and pandering to well-heeled interests we have seen since. Perhaps people were naive to think otherwise, but there clearly is a backlash building.
Secondly, we hear so much from the established media about their sacred ‘freedoms’. But as soon as significant numbers of people feel significantly aggrieved as to express their dissent in street protests, the move is on to accuse them of failing to accept the decision of the umpire. The message is you get one vote every three years and you need to just shut up in between.
Thirdly, the media is constantly telling us about how politics is broken and the aging institutions of the two-party system are not reflecting the diversity of views in the community. But when that diversity springs to the surface, it is rejected as pointless and unfocused.
What the public essentially is being told in the underwhelming media response to March in March is that “we will decide what politics is, we will decide where politics happens and we will decide how the story is framed. Unless you can express your views through the institutions that both you and we have decided are bankrupt, we will cast you as naifs tilting at windmills”.
There were other ways for the media to cover this story. One would have involved looking at the international context. The disquiet with institutionalised politics and the attendant media is NOT just an Australian phenomenon. Neither is the unease at the increasing capture of policy processes and outcomes by extremely wealthy and non-democratic groups.
There is a story to be told about the breakdown of democracy in the developed world and how Australia fits into that context. Lest this be considered some tinfoil hat theory, no less a publication than The Economist recently made this the subject of a special edition.
So instead of sitting around and poking fun at people’s banners or chanting “ew, you called Tony a rude word!” perhaps the Fourth Estate might like to provide some analysis that reaches beyond their cosy and simplistic left-right, party political view of the world?
‘Will You Miss Us When We’re Gone?’ – John Birmingham, Brisbane Times
‘The Birth of a New Kind of Activism’ – Van Badham, The Guardian
‘Why I Supported March in March’ – Wendy Bacon, New Matilda
‘To All March-in-March Deniers’ – Peter Barnes, infinite8horizon
Proponents for the dismantling of media ownership laws rightly make the point that in age where everyone can publish across multiple platforms it is anachronistic to maintain regulations designed for a different age. But if we are going to deregulate, why not go the whole hog?
Discussion about Communication Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s proposals to dismantle specific laws for specific media platforms overlook another consequence of new technology: While consumers are plugging into a global media market, current laws still are mainly designed to protect local media. And those tired and clueless oligopolies will only get more powerful with the inevitable consolidation that Turnbull’s changes will spark.
Take Foxtel, the monopoly pay television provider in Australia and the only really profitable part of the new News Corporation’s Australian business interests. It costs this consumer about $50 a month for Foxtel and I am forced to get TV on cable because I am in an area where aerial reception is poor. And all this for the basic service of free-to-airs, cooking shows and endless repeats of Cheers.
The alternative, as many Australians are now doing, is to bypass regional blocking by using virtual private networks or other avenues to access (and legitimately pay for) much richer US pay television services like Netflix or Hulu for about $8 a month.
And why wouldn’t you do that? The alternative is to have Foxtel gouge you senseless to watch Game of Thrones or House of Cards or for the local free-to-air networks to treat you like a complete sucker, changing schedules half way through a season or showing programs out of order.
Of course, News Corp and local TV networks – who sing the virtues of a free market when it suits them – are aghast at this prospect and instantly turn into protectionists of the worst order.
The irresistible conclusion is that Turnbull is dismantling media regulation, not to serve consumers, but to serve the interests of a mediocre media establishment in a market that already is one of the most concentrated in the developed world.
And just to confirm that suspicion, as Crikey’s Bernard Keane has observed, Turnbull’s ministerial colleagues Paul Fletcher and George Brandis are at the same time seeking to ramp up regulation of online media through futile attempts to stop file sharing and “cyber bullying”.
Anyone who has followed the history of Australian media regulation knows that laws are changed to suit the interests of the incumbents. No-one ever asks consumer what we actually want.
Which is why if you’re going to deregulate, deregulate completely and let us get on with it. The Australian media is buggered. We can see that. It’s a global market now, not an Australian market. Time to recognise that fact.