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)