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

 

 

 

 

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