On Bullshit

Bullshit. It’s so pervasive right now in our politics and media that we are losing respect for the truth. Disturbed by this barrage of bluff, a Princeton professor of philosophy Harry Frankfurt wrote a book about the phenomenon.

In ‘On Bullshit’, Frankfurt makes a neat distinction between lies (the deliberate and conscious utterances of untruths) with the humbug of pseudo-experts, dilettantes and pretenders who loosely assemble facts to support a pre-made proposition.

“When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all…except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.”

Does this sound familiar? Surely it resonates for anyone who puts themselves through the torture of watching politicians and culture warriors on “Q&A” each week, each of them “winging it” through the same series of “controversial” issues with prepared talking points that fit their predisposition.

Perhaps this preponderance of bluff and off-the-cuff commentary (‘The Uhlmann Effect?‘) is just another consequence of the combination of a constant media cycle and the death of the craft of journalism, where being seen to “take a position” is considered the more valuable skill than representing reality. Or as Frankfurt puts it:

“Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic.”

But the bullshit phenomenon is about more than just a growing tendency for public figures to wing it in response to pressure to have an opinion on everything. It’s also about being seen to be “authentic” or true to oneself (or, god help us, one’s “story’), irrespective of reality. In this, no one person’s view has any more validity than another’s.

“Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself. Convinced that reality has no inherent nature, which he might hope to identify as the truth about things, he devotes himself to being true to his own nature.”

Perhaps it’s too much to ask public figures and media commentators to say once in a while “I don’t know enough about this subject to offer an informed view” or “It is too early to be making conclusions” or “of course everyone has the right to an opinion, but you don’t have the right to your own facts”.

In the meantime, I commend the book to all readers of this blog and suggest you watch this interview with Frankfurt in the context of recent events.

The Public Blackout

screen-shot-2016-10-09-at-12-52-19-pmQuality journalism is expensive for media companies. But the cost to society of the absence of quality journalism is infinitely greater. No more is this loss more evident than in the slow eradication from the media of specialist reporters.

Usually the oldest (and most expensive) members of the newsroom, the specialists were the ones with the fattest contact books, the deepest understanding of the areas they covered and the most astute perception of who was pushing which barrow.

If they could combine those news-gathering skills and judgement with a flair for writing about complex issues in a way that engaged and educated the public on difficult areas of policy the specialists were worth their weight in gold.

Of course, these days media don’t have the luxury of employing people who cover one subject in depth. It’s more efficient to hire generalists who can skim the surface of issues and quickly churn out copy to meet the insatiable appetite of the 24/7 news cycle.

Among the most valued skills now are the ability to write click-bait headlines, rewrite and rejig wire copy in the house organ’s style, be adept across platforms and, most of all, exploit the heat around trending issues by whipping up “hot takes” of commentary.

This is a happy hunting ground for self-publicising dilettantes and instant experts who are parachuted into an insanely complicated policy brawls with orders to emerge with a point of view bound to rile up at least half the population while informing no-one.

In an era of hyper-partisanship, every tangled, contentious issue – climate change, alternative energy, health, education funding, debt, infrastructure, superannuation, same-sex marriage, immigration – gets chucked into the thermomix to be rearranged into a left-right slab of news meat.

In other words, every story is treated primarily as a ‘political’ story so that the red team and blue team have picked their sides and the attendant media have rehearsed the respective arguments before the public have even had a chance to hear from the real experts directly.

So It was with the recent South Australian storm and subsequent blackout, which within hours had churned through the news processor to become another front in the tiresome battle pitching the failing, but still powerful, fossil fuel industry against renewables.

The ABC’s “political editor” Chris Uhlmann, characteristically parroting the line of Barnaby Joyce and the other denialists in the federal government, almost instantly decided the problem was due to South Australia being over-reliant on wind turbines.

Never mind that that AGL, the biggest coal power generator, said otherwise or that academic experts (with no commercial axe to grind) said it was too early to tell, the idea that wind power was to blame was just too tempting an angle for Uhlmann who could exploit all sorts of divisions across and within parties.

Of course, he’s entitled to his view (which he has now shared with us on several occasions), even doubling down after a social media backlash with the quip that it would “keep the pitchfork crowd busy for days”. 

But as much as Mr Uhlmann appears to be enjoying his notoriety (you can tell, because he’s adopted his print counterpart Bolt’s martyr pose), his editorial bosses at the ABC might reflect on whether the public would be better informed on this issue if an actual energy journalist had been assigned to it (assuming they have one, of course).

One such specialist is Giles Parkinson*, a former deputy editor of the AFR and someone who has been reporting on resource issues for three decades. On his website Renew Economy, Parkinson expressed astonishment at Uhlmann’s layman confidence:

“The ABC is supposed to have a ban on advertising. But even if it was allowed, money couldn’t buy the sort of advocacy the fossil fuel industry and incumbent energy interests are receiving this week from the network’s chief political correspondent,” Parkinson wrote.

“(His view) plays right into the hands of the coal and gas lobby, and their defenders, the Coalition government and other right-wing politicians who want to slow down or even stop the deployment of wind and solar, and who want to prevent individual states from adding more renewable energy.”

Much as it’s tempting to write off Uhlmann as a shill for the fossil fuel industry, the ABC’s real problem is that it is so intent on appearing to be “balanced” that it overcompensates by shoehorning a technical, scientific story into a framework that suits the warring factions in the Liberal Party. In this way, every story becomes a proxy for something else and the vested interests behind it. He said-she said. Easy.

As another example, the enormously complex issues around retirement income and superannuation – which affect every Australian – become just another excuse for the populist right to agitate against a back-pedalling centre. Or arguments over private-public educating funding invite journalists to push the button marked “hit-list”.

The actual issues are almost always far more complex and nuanced than the ideological/cultural warriors like to think. But it suits them and a resource-constrained media to fight every issue on the same old battlefield. Indeed, it often seems as if issues such as climate change, education, healthcare and refugees exist only to further the ambitions of career politicians and to keep “Q and A” on air.

In the meantime, the lights of informed commentary are slowly going out.

*Disclosure: I worked with Giles at AAP and the AFR

 

 

 

 

Fenced In

old rusty barbed wire with hand on the dark background

“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

Storm in a Tea Hat

mallah

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

Savvy women only_5_small

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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Enclosing the Commons

iStock_000017089639_LargeThe existential attack on the ABC in Australia is just the latest extension of creeping libertarianism, imported wholesale from the US and promulgated by the Murdoch press and the now dominant right-wing fringe of the Liberal Party.

For these people, there is no legitimate public space, no community, there is only the market. And anything not given a dollar value by the market must, by definition, have no intrinsic value. Continue reading

Reframing Freedom

“Members of the Gillard government think the `top legislative priority’ should be to overhaul media laws, Attempts to control how news is reported and analysed will undermine freedom of speech by restricting the freedom of the media. This is a dangerous step to take as often it is the media that is the public’s advocate for the right to know and its guardian against abuses of power.” – The Australian, Feb 27, 2013

“The ABC has now reached the point where it is prepared to believe the word of asylum seekers, who have every motivation to exaggerate and manufacture claims of mistreatment in order to secure Australian relocation, over the word of our navy and government. Rather than being evidence of navy brutality, these latest claims are evidence that the ABC is out of control.” – The Daily Telegraph, Jan 23, 2014

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Drama in Pyjamas

The enemy are inside the gate and they’re wearing PJs.  At the ABC, they are shamelessly promoting a seditious left-wing agenda, spreading traitorous leaks and, worst of all, giving free publicity to  Twitter. that decadent online lounge of the latte-loving elites.

It must be a huge story because The Australian, Rupert Murdoch’s loss-making broadsheet, has devoted acres of space to it in recent weeks. All the big gun columnists have been rolled out to deliver a patent leather kick up the polyester-clad behinds of the public service broadcasters. Continue reading

Freedom: A Moving Feast

‘Freedom’ is getting a real workout in the Australian media nowadays. It’s a peculiarly American view  of freedom, though – the Platonic, chiseled-into-granite view of the word. Hands instinctively go on hearts at its very mention.

Take the taste test and it is revealed as the Rupert/IPA flavour of freedom. In other words, it’s supposed stark and uncompromising nobility is in stark contrast to its ideological contingency.  How else do you explain the shifting views of Murdoch’s loyal footservants? Continue reading

Of Human Bondage


An increasingly unhinged Australian mainstream media, with a few honourable exceptions, has been revving up the scary-o-meter in recent days about this country facing a future of debt, deficits and public penury for as far as the eye can see.
 
“A decade of deficits spells a bleak future for Australians,” was the headline on the increasingly tabloid ABC television news, warning of a crisis bigger than the one where Bates went to jail in Downton Abbey.  I spluttered over my warmed up risotto (my lovely wife was out at the movies) and quickly checked my Bloomberg terminal.

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