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

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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

Media House of Cards

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 Communications 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. Continue reading

Storm Damage

Who does the financial media represent? You, the investing public. Right?

Wrong. The financial media tends to serve the interests of the banks, brokers and intermediaries whose job it is to stick you into investments where neither the risks nor extortionate fees are ever explained in plain language. 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

Continue reading

Did You Vote For This Man?

There are two upcoming power battles in Australia. One pits Kevin Rudd against Tony Abbott. The second positions Rupert Murdoch and his newspapers against our democracy. The outcome of the first battle may depend on the second, yet we only get to vote in one of them.

That Murdoch wants a change of government in Australia is evident. He has said so himself, tweeting that the Australian public are “totally disgusted with the Labor Party wrecking the country with its sordid intrigues. Now for a quick election”. Continue reading

Freedom for Whom?


Freedom! Is there any word more abused than this in the debate about politics and media standards? From Rupert Murdoch, his editors and commentators and the ubiquitous IPA, the rhetoric of ‘freedom’ is now ritually used to forestall any examination of media power.

This American style hand-on-heart eulogising of freedom reached a crescendo recently with the failure of the Gillard government’s media reforms. Having gone as far as sending its own representative to make a submission at the Senate hearing into the legislation, the IPA predictably released a statement  welcoming the ditching of the reforms as a “victory for freedom of speech in Australia”. Continue reading

Free Media VS Free Market

Much of the opposition to the federal government’s tame media reforms stems from a now ritual assumption among journalists and others that “free markets” are synonymous with “free media”. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Following the now infamous photoshopped front pages in the Murdoch tabloids, comparing Communications Minister Stephen Conroy to mass murdering dictators like Stalin, came this screeching meltdown by News Ltd columnist Piers Akerman on the ABC Insiders program.

The hysterical view of Akerman and others, mainly in the News Ltd stable, is that by insisting on a public interest test for media mergers and requiring self-regulating newspapers to live up to their own standards, Conroy is starting the process of “putting back the bricks back into the Berlin Wall”. Continue reading