Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Lego Journalism

It's not widely understood by the reading and viewing public, but a big chunk of what are purported to be 'news events' really are stage-managed set-pieces, minutely choreographed by the public relations industry.

The supinely lame local coverage of the recent triumphant "free trade" deal announcement between the Australian and Japanese governments provides a perfect case study in how "news" is engineered, with national leaders positioned as virtual lego figurines in a carefully constructed tableaux.

In this case, journalists junket off to Tokyo with a planeload of CEOs, lobbyists and hangers-on.  A favoured journalist writes a preview, saying the Australian PM will meet his Japanese counterpart in "a last-ditch bid to break the deadlock" in seven-year-long negotiations.

Happy snaps are released to the press pack showing the two PMs completing the deal over sashimi. And, hey presto, out of this cosy tete-a-tete comes "historic breakthrough". Cheap Camry heaven!

Did any of the journalists stop to ask whether the big chunk of corporate Australia would have flown to Tokyo if there had been a real possibility that a deal wouldn't be concluded? Surely, this was always going to happen. It was only a question of how badly Australia wanted the deal.

Trade agreements like the one announced between Canberra and Tokyo are political events, not economic ones, but they are almost always reported as if they are economically significant.

In this case,  the spin doctors paint as a triumph what was a concession the Japanese were always going to make under the right circumstances, but still stops way short of what can be described as "free trade" (cutting tariffs on Australian beef from 38.5% to 19.5% over 15 years). Even then, there are other ways of slowing the entry of Australia food products, such as imposing byzantine quarantine arrangements.

As well, there are strong economic arguments that bilateral trade deals (favoured by the Howard and Abbott governments over multi-lateral initiatives such as the Doha round) lack transparency and tend to vastly over-rate the benefits to the general public.

The Productivity Commission, in a report released in 2010 five years after the Australia-US bilateral pact, noted that "free trade" deals are more appropriately described as "preferential" trade agreements, as they usually stop far short of a free market.
"While bilateral and regional trade agreements can reduce trade barriers and help meet other objectives, their potential impact is limited and other options often may be more cost-effective," the commission said. "Current processes for assessing and prioritising (these agreements) lack transparency and tend to oversell the likely benefits. "
There are a range of more philosophical economic objections to bilateral agreements, notably that it can lead to one country being locked into trade arrangements with relatively inefficient producers of the trade partner when better and cheaper deals are available elsewhere.

So why didn't any of the triumphal media coverage of the Japan deal not include these questions? Instead, we saw the ABC's television correspondent, in his piece to camera in Tokyo, mouthing what sounded like a cut-and-paste from a government press office statement.

The problem here is the dominance of "access" journalism in political coverage, as opposed to "accountability" journalism. This theme is explored in relation to pre-GFC business coverage in a recent book by ex-WSJ reporter Dean Starkman ("The Watchdog that Didn't Bark").

In business journalism, news becomes "a guide to investing, more concerned with explaining business strategies and tactics to consumers than with examining broader political or social issues to citizens".

Likewise, in political journalism, news becomes about framing every issue in terms of what it means for the tactical nous of the incumbents and their opponents. So the angle on the trade deal is "triumph for Tony Abbott", as the journos see their role as representing the political class to the public, not representing the interests of the public to the political class.

Under the accountability model, journalists stand further away from the political actors. But what they lose in access and short-term "scoops", they gain in a wider point of reference, an understanding of context beyond the daily noise and a greater readiness to ask tough questions.

The growth of digital media and the ability of the audience to talk back expose the lazy manipulations and spin that old journalism regurgitate in return for access.

The best journalists become part of the conversation and work with the audience to find the truth.

The rest belong in Legoland.

(See also: Bernard Keane:  'Sorry, But Free Trade Agreements are Duds')

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Unleashing the Reptile

"The freedom had two sides to it. Sometimes a heavy, reptile hostility came off the sombre land, something gruesome & infinitely repulsive."
- DH Lawrence, 'Kangaroo'

At what point did Australia's light on the hill become a rising stink from the basement?

Of course, there's always been a whiff of bigotry and intolerance here. No country is immune from that. And few of us can claim to have never prejudged another on the basis of race. But recent events are genuinely disquieting for many people, particularly those from minority ethnic groups.

The more reptilian tone of public discourse marks a break from the recent past. In the quarter century from the 1973 final end of the White Australia policy, Australia transformed into an extraordinarily  tolerant, welcoming and diverse society. This was not the American-style half-embrace of multi-culturalism (where the immigrant experience is slyly subordinated to the capitalist dream), but a genuinely social democratic and egalitarian acceptance of difference.

My own experience as a migrant (albeit as a Kiwi cousin from a broadly similar culture across the Tasman) was to be struck by the relatively outgoing nature of Australian society, the in-built sense of confidence among many people and the readiness to live and let live.  It was why I liked Australia and why I was always ready to defend this country against those who argued it was otherwise here.

But now I'm not so sure. The rise of Pauline Hanson in the 90s appeared to indicate disquiet among some mainly Anglo Australians about immigration, although there is a legitimate view that this movement was more an expression of understandable exhaustion with neo-liberal economic change than with cultural diversity.

Whatever it was, it was around that time that the formerly bipartisan consensus among politicians about exploiting race and immigration issues for political advantage was abandoned. This began with the dog whistle under Howard, evolved into more tacit acceptance (see the official response to the Cronulla riots) and is now is less dog whistle than promotional foghorn.

Cheered on by talkback radio provocateurs and the windbags of the media outrage industry, it is clear that the current government has been progressively lowering the bar on the issue of tolerance. Tolerance, in their definition, is almost wholly about giving free rein to the bigotry of the Andrew Bolts and others who already have substantial platforms for their views. Indeed, one gets the sense that with their proposed changes to the racial discrimination act, the floodgates for hatred are about to be opened.

It is remarkable that nowhere do we see our political leaders arguing for the rights of the powerless and the oppressed, the marginalised and the voiceless. Efforts to encourage respect and decency are increasingly seen as "nanny state" meddling.  Freedom is discussed in isolation and in the naive libertarian abstract, never in the context of relative power. And race and ethnicity are now easy fodder for political point-scoring, with both major parties competing to see who can be the cruelest to asylum seekers.

There's a disquiet among many people from a broad spectrum in Australia about the recent course of events, a disquiet that came through in the recent March in March across the country. This was an event passed off by an arrogant, lazy, cynical and unreflective media as a "leftist" love-in, but which gave notice of a substantial reorientation in Australian politics.

It's time to the put the reptile back in its cage.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Left Right Out

When people talk about media bias, they inevitably are referring to the house leanings of particular publishers. What's often overlooked, though, is the bias generated by the necessity of journalists choosing certain frames and narratives to shape what's known as "news".

The March-in-March protests around Australia provide an object lesson in how journalists can be captured by those tired frames and by the tired institutions they report on.  While there was some straight accounts of the marches, the general media response was a mixture of sniffy condescension, lazy cynicism or a blank refusal to even recognise this as a story.

The problem for journalists with these community-based movements is they are tough to report on. They require a little imagination, some wide reading and some hard work. One cannot construct a quick and dirty 500 word account by cutting and pasting from a handout. Neither does the event involve established institutions with ready-made sound-bites. And worst of all the big name actors are not in starring roles.

With prefabricated "he said-she said" templates not available, the press resorts to mocking the political naivety of it all,  jeers at its hippy-dippy "kumbaya" pointlessness or, when most desperate, actively seeks out examples of vile language so it can exercise a good old bit of false equivalence.

Of course, it was predictable that the media, captured as it is by the institutional circus in Canberra, would write this whole event off as a ragtag bunch of lefty malcontents spitting the dummy at an election outcome that didn't go their way. But there are a couple of problems with that analysis.

Firstly, the election was six months ago. This protest was about the actions the government has taken since then, many of which (like the nobbling of education and financial advice reforms, the defunding of environmental programs and increasing secrecy) were not raised during the election campaign.

Yes, the public was clearly over the ALP leadership circus, but, no, it is not clear the public voted for the policies of denial and obstruction and pandering to well-heeled interests we have seen since. Perhaps people were naive to think otherwise, but there clearly is a backlash building.

Secondly, we hear so much from the established media about their sacred 'freedoms'. But as soon as significant numbers of people feel significantly aggrieved as to express their dissent in street protests, the move is on to accuse them of failing to accept the decision of the umpire. The message is you get one vote every three years and you need to just shut up in between.

Thirdly, the media is constantly telling us about how politics is broken and the aging institutions of the two-party system are not reflecting the diversity of views in the community. But when that diversity springs to the surface, it is rejected as pointless and unfocused.

What the public essentially is being told in the underwhelming media response to March in March is that "we will decide what politics is, we will decide where politics happens and we will decide how the story is framed. Unless you can express your views through the institutions that both you and we have decided are bankrupt, we will cast you as naifs tilting at windmills".

There were other ways for the media to cover this story. One would have involved looking at the international context. The disquiet with institutionalised politics and the attendant media is NOT just an Australian phenomenon. Neither is the unease at the increasing capture of policy processes and outcomes by extremely wealthy and non-democratic groups.

There is a story to be told about the breakdown of democracy in the developed world and how Australia fits into that context. Lest this be considered some tinfoil hat theory, no less a publication than The Economist recently made this the subject of a special edition.

So instead of sitting around and poking fun at people's banners or chanting "ew, you called Tony a rude word!" perhaps the Fourth Estate might like to provide some analysis that reaches beyond their cosy and simplistic left-right, party political view of the world?

See also: 
'Will You Miss Us When We're Gone?' - John Birmingham, Brisbane Times
'The Birth of a New Kind of Activism' - Van Badham, The Guardian
'Why I Supported March in March' - Wendy Bacon, New Matilda 
'To All March-in-March Deniers' - Peter Barnes, infinite8horizon

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

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 Communication 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.

Take Foxtel, the monopoly pay television provider in Australia and the only really profitable part of the new News Corporation's Australian business interests. It costs this consumer about $50 a month for Foxtel and I am forced to get TV on cable because I am in an area where aerial reception is poor. And all this for the basic service of free-to-airs, cooking shows and endless repeats of Cheers.

The alternative, as many Australians are now doing, is to bypass regional blocking by using virtual private networks or other avenues to access (and legitimately pay for) much richer US pay television services like Netflix or Hulu for about $8 a month.

And why wouldn't you do that? The alternative is to have Foxtel gouge you senseless to watch Game of Thrones or House of Cards or for the local free-to-air networks to treat you like a complete sucker, changing schedules half way through a season or showing programs out of order.

Of course, News Corp and local TV networks  - who sing the virtues of a free market when it suits them - are aghast at this prospect and instantly turn into protectionists of the worst order.

The irresistible conclusion is that Turnbull is dismantling media regulation, not to serve consumers, but to serve the interests of a mediocre media establishment in a market that already is one of the most concentrated in the developed world.

And just to confirm that suspicion, as Crikey's Bernard Keane has observed, Turnbull's ministerial  colleagues Paul Fletcher and  George Brandis are at the same time seeking to ramp up regulation of online media through futile attempts to stop file sharing and "cyber bullying".

Anyone who has followed the history of Australian media regulation knows that laws are changed to suit the interests of the incumbents. No-one ever asks consumer what we actually want.

Which is why if you're going to deregulate, deregulate completely and let us get on with it. The Australian media is buggered. We can see that. It's a global market now, not an Australian market. Time to recognise that fact.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Duty to Whom?

The debate about rolling back reforms aimed at ensuring financial advisers put clients first raises questions of how the notion of fiduciary responsibility applies to other professionals, like journalists for instance.

Do journalists have a duty of care to their readers and viewers? Or is their first responsibility to their employers? Of course, these responsibilities are not mutually exclusive. But anyone who pays attention to some of the more 'colourful' output of the tabloid press, radio and commercial television in Australia might conclude where loyalties primarily lie.

Of course, many journalists take their duty to readers very seriously. Others, though, while piously proclaiming "freedom", are really more focused on serving the commercial and ideological ends of their employer. And to that end, they will distort, omit and even manufacture "facts".

While defenders of aggressively partisan journalism argue they are merely giving audiences want they want (the Fox News model), this can have severe consequences in a country where nearly 70% of the metropolitan media is controlled by the chief purveyor of this stuff.

With the contest for eyeballs intensifying and straight news a commodity, a big chunk of the radical right-wing media has decided it is in the trolling business. So it digitally enhances the "news" to pander to the prejudices of its core audience, manufacture outrage among its enemies and conjure the political outcomes that suit its proprietor's interests.

It works up to a point. But only if you think the real issue here is the commercial survival of traditional media. Much as it pains many of us to see good journalists out of work, it's worth asking whether journalism is worth saving if so much of it is just churning noise and making stuff up.

Asking the big existential questions won't come from journalists. Many of them are part of the circus and are too busy dancing to the organ grinder's tune to think about what their real role should be.  But it is interesting to listen to an astute outsider like the British film producer and peer David Putnam, who in a recent Ted Talk, spoke about journalists' duty of care in a democracy.

Honesty, accuracy and impartiality are not just quaint notions, he says. They are central to maintaining the trust of the public in journalists and the health of the democracy...

Thursday, February 6, 2014

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.

Too harsh? How else to explain the AFR's bland and uncritical reporting of the federal government's gutting of the future of financial advice (FOFA) reforms enacted by the former government to protect the public against shonks and salesmen masquerading as advisers.

Thank goodness for Crikey's Bernard Keane, who is one of the few journalists to see the unwinding of FOFA for what it is - a cynical move (sneaked out just before Christmas) by a government putting the interests of its traditional constituency ahead of the general public.

The changes essentially water down reforms that enshrined a duty by advisers to put their clients' interests first. They also canned a requirement that clients opt-in to the charging of ongoing fees and trails that can leak from their accounts for years. Apparently, this was all too hard. (Can you imagine any other industry or profession continuing to charge its customers without seeking their assent?)

Even many professional and independent advisers untied to the banks are aghast at the changes, seeing them as setting the industry back just as it was adopting professional standards and ridding itself of the conflicts of interest that had reduced advice to a product flog. (Disclosure: in my professional role, I work with non-aligned advisers).  This is how Simon Hoyle, editor of Professional Planner magazine described the undoing of the reforms:
"The industry hasn’t just shot itself in the foot, it may have shot itself in the head. It was given a chance to look the public in the eye and say: 'We are professionals; we deserve your trust and respect; we’ll place your well being above all else; and you don’t even have to take our word for it, it’s what the law says we must do. You know, like other professions do. It had that chance and, frankly,  it squibbed it. It looked at the hard yards that it would take to transform the public’s perception and it said, no, sorry, that’s not for us. It’s too hard. We’d rather  look after ourselves. We’d rather be regarded as fund management distributors and salespeople than as professional service providers."
Hoyle's editorial was a rare voice for the consumer in all the fawning trade press coverage of the FOFA unwind, much of which was singing from the industry's songbook.

But this isn't about "restoring the balance" or "improving efficiency" or "cutting red tape" or any of the other euphemisms which serve to hide the selective preservation of the "entitlement culture" the federal government claims to want to eradicate.

This is about putting the interests of the thousands of Australians, many elderly and of limited means, second to the banks and retail funds. These Australians were fleeced in a series of scandals in the past decade, most notoriously by Storm Financial , a Townsville planning firm that, in concert with the banks, leveraged up unsophisticated elderly investors into hugely risky investments and charged them big fees for doing so.

The victims of that scandal later made a documentary about their experiences. Have a look at this and ask yourself "who is looking after these people in Canberra?" And which of the big media publishers  (who so proudly claim to represent the 'battlers') will ensure their interests are protected as the hard fought reforms of recent years are undone?

Thursday, January 30, 2014

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
What a difference a year, and a change of government, makes to the over-cooked freedom rhetoric. Those two quotes from the News Ltd stable tell you everything you need to know about how contingent the support for journalistic independence is at the most dominant media company in the country.

A year ago, it was outrage at "the Gillard government" stamping its jackboot of oppression into the freedom-loving faces of the Australian people. Now the outrage is directed at journalists of the publicly funded ABC daring to question "our government" over alleged mistreatment of asylum seekers. It's that familiar cocktail of cant and affected piety disguising commercial self-interest that seems endemic to News Corp globally.

And we know the origin of self-interest in this case. Just as his son James did in the UK with the BBC, accusing it of a "land grab", Murdoch sees the public broadcaster in Australia as camping on his lawn in the fiercely contested, fast-growing, but still low-yielding digital space that eventually will replace his loss-making Australian newspapers. Yes, folks, this isn't about Voltaire or JS Mill or Thomas Jefferson. It's about moolah. As usual. Murdoch wants not to just dominate the Australian media market, he wants to own it completely. And he's prepared to invest big to secure that end.

It's why his newspapers gave their fawning and nakedly partisan support to the Coalition in last year's election campaign, photo-shopping Rudd as a Nazi (imagine the ABC doing that to, say, George Brandis?), printing ritual distortions and outright lies and running as a virtual PR agency for the challenger, stopping just short of polishing his shoes.

But having sunk so much (or so little) remaining editorial credibility into engineering a change of government, Murdoch is now calling in the bill. So we see the PM dutifully castigating the ABC for doing what it is supposed to do - being an independent check on power and asking tough, but necessary, questions. He specifically accused the broadcaster of "poor judgement" over joining The Guardian in publishing the leaks from whistleblower Edward Snowden about Australia spying on the Indonesian president and his wife. Now he has accused the ABC of being unpatriotic in its coverage of asylum seekers. (One wonders how The Australian would have responded had the Rudd government castigated its editorial writers for not helping to fight Australia's corner at the Copenhagen climate talks.)

In the wake of that appearance on talkback radio, out come the ritual leaks about imminent cuts to the ABC's budget (including canning the Asian broadcast contract that News Corp has long coveted)  and a renewed round of the now familiar complaints about perceived "leftist bias" by the broadcaster. Oddly, the critics of the ABC never seem able to provide actual examples of this raging leftism. Indeed, to this former journalist, the public broadcaster would appear to bend over backwards, with a pike, in its determination to be seen to walking the middle of the road. And, of course, for all the whinging by the culture warriors about a discredited and unprofessional ABC, survey after survey show the national broadcaster is the nation's most trusted media outlet, clearly ahead of commercial television, radio and, running last, the Murdoch tabloids.

Lest I be accused of being an ABC-lefty-luvvie, it is completely defensible for the government to ensure taxpayers are getting value for money out of the national broadcaster. And for its part, the ABC has a responsibility to ensure the highest possible editorial standards, including a commitment to airing a wide range of views ( which is why the smarmy army of the IPA are part of the furniture at Harris St) But you don't have to be a conspiracy theorist to see the broadcaster's critics, led by the Murdoch press, are out to kick away Aunty's walking stick without waiting around for the inquiry.

In this debate, you can bet the Murdoch boosters and the IPA will run the line that News Corp is a commercial organisation accountable to the market, unlike the publicly funded ABC. But this ignores the long and shameful record of Australian governments of both political persuasions doing anything to appease Murdoch or to at least keep him off their backs (think Keating and the Herald and Weekly Times deal in the mid-80s). And it ignores that as judged by the market, Murdoch's Australian print properties are an utter failure, loss-making institutions that are among the worst performing assets in his global empire. By comparison, the ABC gives very good value for money.

This all wouldn't matter so much if we were talking about a battle over the breakfast cereals market. But this is about information. It's about the right of people in a democracy to truthful, tough reporting, a multiplicity of views and voices and of the right of the Fourth Estate to hold the powerful to account independent of the vicissitudes of the commercial market.

Ultimately, it is not the job of any media organisation, publicly or privately owned, to be a cheerleader for the government, any government - left or right. But don't let me get all JS Mill on you....

'A Patriotic State-Owned ABC Would Not Serve Australia's Best Interests' - Margaret Simons
Clarke and Dawe