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

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

Yada Yada Yada

 

Depressed by Australian politics? Take a trip to the US and witness the media conversation there. This is the original recipe for our post-modern show about nothing, featuring professional partisans rattling off practised punchlines like Jerry versus Newman.

On a sleepy Sunday at Dallas-Fort Worth, an airport the size of a small Australian city, chino-wearing business travellers hunch over laptops at fast-food joints lit by hundreds of screens showing the talking heads sparring over Obamacare or the debt ceiling or fracking or whatever else might raise a temperature. Continue reading

Under the Dome

News Corp didn’t win the 2013 election for the Coalition. The Labor Party’s dysfunctional internal politics had more to do with that. But that doesn’t mean the calculated propaganda which Murdoch’s papers call news is not an issue for anyone concerned about the health of this democracy.

The influence of the Murdoch papers on the public debate is more long-term and diffuse than can be read from a single election outcome, a point that veteran Media Watch host and now Age journalist Jonathan Holmes made in an appearance on ABC Radio National’s post-election wash-up. Continue reading

Moving Forward


This is either the most well timed book on politics of recent times or the worst. In her meticulously detailed volume of the caustic three years of Julia Gillard’s prime ministership,  Kerry-Anne Walsh ends the narrative tantalisingly short of the final scene – the long-canvassed ‘Ruddstoration’.

It seems churlish to fail the book on events overtaking it, but this is always the danger with seeking to tell history on the run. Indeed, one wonders, after reading it, whether Walsh’s punchy news diary-style treatment might have worked better as a live blog than as a paperback. Continue reading

That’s the Way It Wasn’t

At a Reuters editorial management course in Singapore around 1997, the attendees were being reminded about the principle of objectivity in journalism. To play his or her stated role in a global news organisation, the journalist had to be a perennial outsider with no affiliation.

At that point, the trainer theatrically looked over his shoulder as if to see that no-one else was listening and leaned in toward the class, sotto voce: “Actually, that’s not really true. We aren’t objective at all. Implicit in everything we write is an acceptance of the Washington Consensus.” Continue reading

The God Complex

Once upon a time in politics – not that long ago, at least in human years – the mainstream media audience sat respectfully in the grandstands watching the game. Journalists, on the  other hand, were on first name terms with players and coaches and had a cosy, inside view of the action.

Now, as is increasingly evident, the audience is invading the pitch. The old insiders’ game is breaking up. And the former participants and stenographers are clearly ruing the loss of clubby exclusivity. On Twitter, they can be seen pompously blowing their whistles and citing rules that no longer apply. Continue reading

Talk is Cheap

Our public broadcaster is our most trusted source of news. So why does it spend so much time and money chasing cheap and predictable opinions from a small group of people who have plenty of other places to bang their tin drums?

Continue reading

Groundhog News

News is what’s new. At least that’s the traditional definition. But in the case of a heavily concentrated Australian mainstream media, news is defined by the same half-dozen issues constantly rehashed as vehicles for faked-up conflict and partisan opinion mongering.

So at the start of every week, it is a fair bet that The Australian Financial Review (formerly a pro-market paper, now a pro-business lobby rag) will spin as “exclusives” a handful of front page beat-ups on productivity and the Fair Work Act, along with a couple of hatchet jobs on the NBN.

Continue reading