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:

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.

 

 

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

‘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

Storm in a Tea Hat

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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.

Continue reading

Graffiti Crimes

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“Graffiti crimes shall be written upon your walls.
Well I shall spray them so bold and so tall.
Just you wait ’til you read this one.”

– Misex, 1979

What distinguishes “electronic graffiti”, as a besieged prime minister characterised social media, from the “real” journalism of the mainstream? That’s easy. One is full of uninformed opinion, unsourced speculation and lazy trolling. The other is to be found on Twitter.

Unfair, I know. But it’s becoming increasingly hard to see why the “official” media should continue to hold any special place in the national conversation when so much of its content does not hold a torch to the best analysis of the “amateurs” online.

Continue reading

Body of the Host

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It often takes a crisis for a society to reflect meaningfully on its institutions – their value, purpose, strengths and weaknesses. Do those institutions serve us or do they primarily serve themselves?

The global financial crisis, for instance, exposed how a large swathe of the international banking system had been corrupted by reckless risk-taking and had internalised the view that it could simultaneously privatise its profits and socialise its losses. Continue reading

Be Afraid, Please

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The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed – and hence clamorous to be led to safety – by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”– H.L. Mencken

In a world in which everyone is constantly distracted, arguably the most valued currency is your attention. Politicians know it. Journalists know it. As Big Idea professions trying to survive in a post-modernist age, they’re drowning in indifference. Terrorists know it, too. Continue reading

Blurred Lines

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.