The Other Side of the Rope

Posted on Posted in Craft Standards, New Media, Profession

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Journalists traditionally pride themselves on being outsiders. They’re not corporate types, they’re not joiners, they’re square pegs. So why are they suddenly dictating the terms in which everyone else can express their displeasure with the government?

The most divisive, contentious federal budget in decades – one that even former Liberal Party leader John Hewson says “screams inequity” – has drawn students into the streets in numbers not seen since the Vietnam war, before the fog of 80s consumerism snuffed out any principle other than the shallowest acquisitive materialism.

Yet the former outsiders of the media, despite their own craft being in peril, are lining up to identify with the power elite. So we see Annabel Crabb beumused that the students are favouring ‘outdated’ Soviet-style protests over other means of expressing their views – presumably, in her case, having cosy afternoon teas with their  mates.

Over on the ABC, Q and A host Tony Jones, on his $350,000-a-year salary, goes out of his way to side with the establishment, telling students who disrupted a recent program

“That is not what we want to happen on this program. That is not what democracy is all about. And those students should understand that.”

On a subsequent program, in which a beleaguered Joe Hockey sought to defend the budget against a hostile crowd, Jones was no less a supplicant to the powerful, telling a rowdy audience they were there to listen and essentially shut up.

And, of course, we are talking here about moderate, supposedly centrist media figures. If you take into account the hysterical reactions to protests by the likes of Alan Jones and Miranda Devine and the legions of Murdoch serfs that call themselves journalists, you find an Australian media which sees its interests as identical to those of the politically powerful.

Partly driving this ingratiating behaviour on the part of media figures is clearly outright partisanship (or doing what Rupert requires), but part of it reflects a desperate and pathetic attempt by journalists (fearing the loss of jobs) to position themselves as ‘balanced’ and outside the political debate.  As Tim Dunlop observed:

It is not just that there is a right wing media that dominates and is biased. It is that the opposite of right wing media isn’t left-wing media, it is sensible journalism.

Sensible journalism is what you get when media organisations or individual journalists try self-consciously to be neither of the right nor the left. They try instead to be “balanced” or “objective”. They see this as being professional. But what they end up doing is simply discounting left wing positions and arguments and thus by default give credence to right wing ones.

We saw this same panicky, existential attempt by the media to frame the debate in conventional, ‘objective’ terms quite starkly in the attempts earlier this year to downplay or completely ignore the significance of the March in March protests.  Any political expression that comes from outside the narrow Canberra-defined world of ‘politics’ is discounted as naive or wrong-headed or a throwback to a quaint 60s idealism.

It’s hard to escape the view that with the public losing faith in institutions, including the media itself, journalists are subconsciously fighting a rearguard action to seize back control of the narrative and cast it in a comfortable framework that suits them and the political classes they report on. In this, they are betraying the principles of their craft – representing the powerful to the public rather than the other way around.  Worse for them, they’re also missing the bigger story.

It’s why social media is now where the conversation has moved. The media has been disintermediated. It is talking to itself and the powerful. It is on the other side of the rope, like the favoured head prefect who takes tea with headmaster and then finds on returning to the dorm that no-one takes them seriously anymore.

And the longer they stay there, the less able they are to do their real job – to ask the right question, to be provocative, to make the powerful squirm, to represent the public and to take nothing for granted.

That’s what journalists do.

(See also: Mark Bahnisch: ‘Post-Budget: What Happens Now?‘)

18 thoughts on “The Other Side of the Rope

  1. It’s what the media ‘did’, but not now. Now our media treat clowns as savants, bloviators as experts, businessmen as clairvoyants, and voters as stupid.

  2. As an ardent follower of this and other like minded blogs I despair at the way the Noalition are dragging this country and its principles into the gutter. Unfortunately not enough people are screaming about it yet but when they do it may be just too late.
    The saddest part is our own abc(still not worth capitals) is egging them on. Oh for an “Edward R Morrow” on our airwaves. At one time I had high hopes of Andrew Denton but he has gone invisible.

  3. Do you remember the days of “Nation Review”? Papers like that saw it as their DUTY to tear whoever was in power a new arse-hole on a weekly basis. Maybe there were more jobs around for journos, but even so, they were being published in what seemed to me, was an even more conservative time than we are currently going through. It is just so dispiriting to see Amanda Vanstone today using as her closing paragraph, the oldest conservative response in the world [talking about “student protests”] – “If you don’t like it, why don’t you try living in a country where you are not allowed to protest”. Really? Is that the best you can come up with? Fail, try harder.

    1. We’ll see about Sarah – in half an hour – she has Scott Morrison on.
      I’m hopeful cos she’s clearly been a level above the rest lately.

  4. Indeed, Mr Denmore. Jay Rosen has been banging on about this “view from nowhere” for ages.

    It think it’s nowhere more apparent than climate change coverage – a literally existential threat to humankind that’s generally given the same kind of treatment that a small legislative change to agricultural policy gets.

    1. Gotta agree with that.

      And why oh why must everything be ‘balanced’ by those well-coiffed talking heads from the Institute of Public Affairs, without disclosure of their funding.

  5. Mr D

    I have read several articles about the standard of journalism, etc but sometimes I can’t help but think that they are barking up the wrong tree. In theory, I agree that journalist should respect the privilege that society bestows upon them and live up to what they put in their codes. However, the reality is that they are simply following consumerism 101 which is fitness for purpose and Australian apathy is the market they are catering for. And that is where I believe the problem lies. Even John Elliot back in the 90’s was aware of it when he tried to say (before he was taken out of context by A Current Affair) that Australian’s are stupid because they don’t take an interest in politics. Survey after survey shows that we don’t trust or respect journalists and politicians in equal measure, it’s just that we couldn’t be bothered to get off our lazy arse to change anything. The media companies have worked out that the rubbish that they serve up is what most people want and that’s good enough for the editors whose main goal is to make money. Look at News Ltd site today and the top story is about how Kylie tried to save someone on the Voice. No use putting on stories about budget analysis if no one is going to read it.

    Tony Abbott worked out that 3 word slogans was all he needed and he was right, it worked. Australians, rightly or wrongly, don’t care about needs based funding models, they just want someone to tell them that they needed to “Kick This Mob Out.” – The End. I think George Megalogenis prediction that Australian’s will flip out Governments on a regular basis won’t be far off the mark. The problem which you alluded to is that Canberra is full of people (politicians and journalist) who have grown up in the same pig pen all their lives. They have no life experience, they know nothing else. So when one group of power hungry egomaniac’s lies are found out, we will just elect another group of power hungry egomaniacs who has lied to get their snouts into the trough. The dumbing down of news and society as a whole isn’t being done for fun. There are powerful people with vested interest making a lot of money out of it and Australian’s are letting it happen because of their apathy. In true divide and conquer style, media have now taken advantage of Australian’s apathy by creating a right/left construct which distracts from the real problem which is political environment and the players that operate and benefit from it. Personally I think Australian’s should be rioting on the streets demanding change based on what is coming out of ICAC, which has uncovered a cesspool of dodgy deals and corruption which doesn’t discriminate. But what do Australian’s do? We just do a bit of tut tutting, maybe an angry bang on our keyboard to a story online about looking forward to voting them out at the next election and then go back to arguing who is going to win on The Voice. So journalists are just like any other Australians, they have to put a roof over their head and food on the table so they need to create what people and it’s clear that they don’t want that much. Whose fault is that? Do you think that journalists should produce stuff that they know their audience doesn’t want just because some wonks think they know what’s good for them? That’s not how capitalism works. So until someone has the guts to stand up and tell Australians that you get what you deserve and if they want it to change then THEY are going to have to do something about it, then everything else is merely pissing in the wind.

  6. Hello there,

    Speaking of Tony Jones, (who I suppose has a format he needs to keep control over for practical reasons), I felt a littlle aggrieved Monday night watching Q & A when Jean Kittson, re student protests, asked “can’t they do it on social media?” Presumably, like Annabel Crabbe, Kittson considers live protests too sweatily disruptive and passe when we have a technological wonderland at our disposal.

    Well of course they are doing it on social media, in spades, but must absolutely everything be reduced to a twitter feed? I think theses critics bypass the point of a living, pulsating movement on the streets, where real-life humans rub shoulders in a kind of purposeful camaraderie that propells a common cause forward- even if there is some unseemly jostling of expensively clothed politicians who might get their hair mussed. It’s a breathing entity that just can’t be felt as powerfully when it comes via keyboard protestors typing alone from the bedroom, no matter how passionately they hit those keys. “Protest by all means…but don’t leave the house.”? How depressing.

    I wonder too, about some of these smug. comfortable baby boomers who, having done very well from the good years, seem so willing to to pull up the drawbridge behind them. “Yes but who’s going to pay” lamented Kittson on the students demands for affordable education, while at the same time admitting she had no such qualms when, in her own youth, she enjoyed a free ride in that department.

      1. I agree David – out on the streets, week after month, but it did make a difference!
        Social media is invisible to many of those in power, and the bulk of the population at large – it’s just background noise they can easily ignore – let them get jostled, harrassed, discomforted – a bit of real life result to the arsehole laws and regulations being propounded, and ally it with cutting, criticising, informed debate. Then, perhaps, something may impinge on their tiny brains!
        I must admit I was proud of one of my sons who was involved in a university office occupation, re increases in fees, some years ago (Massey, in NZ, not here) and got himself arrested for his troubles. It’s good to see some youngsters haven’t given in totally to scrabbling for an education to get a job at the expense of social disinvolvement.
        My wife and I couldn’t believe Kittson – ye gods – no wonder baby boomers get a bad rap amongst the young. She was cringeworthy!

      2. On Q&A Kitson was asked a question from the floor along the lines of “Blazing Saddles” would never be made in todays “nanny state, pc correct world”.

        “A Million Ways to Die in the West” shows that question to be wrong.

      3. “Boomer hatred” – the last respectable form of hate speech.
        Every time you blame an entire generation for whatever ails you, another neoliberal gets its wings. They love it. While the Xs andYs and millenials squabble about Teh Evil Boomers, their attention is distracted from neoliberalism, racism, sexism, corporatocracy, creeping fundamentalism, and Liberal governments. And that’s just the way they like it.

  7. Forgot to add, it was so refreshing to read your article. You managed to articulate some vague disquiet that’s been swimming around in my head for a while now.

  8. Many journalists cannot often see things on their side of the rope either.

    With regard to the Victorian situation, the journalists are questioning whether Geoff Shaw should be expelled for something which is not a criminal offence and which some in the LNP apparently think is a trivial public offence. That’s not the point. At the moment, the Victorian parliament is unworkable because Geoff Shaw says that he will support the Government one minute and the next moment, if he is not getting everything his way or for some other nebulous reason, he then says that he will not support the Government.

    The Victorian State Government cannot operate effectively, let alone efficiently, under current conditions, but many journalists and commentators seem to be ignoring that issue all together.

  9. Two things.. the less brutal posting system is deeply welcomed and should encourage more use of good site.

    Secondly the rap on the knuckles for Jones, a joy to behold.
    The only thing you can say in defence of the ABC presenters is that Scott’s straight jacketing of broadsheet there is probably behind the timidity of so much of ABC news and current affairs.

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