Sunday, February 27, 2011

Easy Meat

The concept of "churnalism" - the idea that newspapers and broadcast media are increasingly dominated by PR-originated content - has gained a high profile in the UK in recent years. Given the same practices are evident in the Australian media, why aren't we seeing a similar debate here?

Churnalism, the term itself is credited to a BBC reporter, gained currency as an idea after a publication of a book in 2008 by UK journalist Nick Davies called Flat Earth News. Davies came out to Australia two and a half years ago to promote the book and spoke to Kerry O'Brien on the 7.30 Report. The guts of his thesis is that corporate 'ethics' (such as they are) have overtaken journalistic ethics in recent years to the point where newsrooms have been transformed into dark satanic information mills, focused on producing more and more with less and less and in a shorter and shorter time frame.
"You take away time from reporters, you are taking away their most important working asset. So they can't do their jobs properly any more," Davies said. "So in this commercialised world, you have journalists who instead of being active gatherers of news - going out and finding stories and making contacts and doing funny old-fashioned things like checking facts, they've become instead passive processors of second-hand information."
Anyone who has spent any time working in Australian newsroom in the past two decades knows the power of the PR industry, a sector staffed by former journalists who are better paid than they ever were when working as mere hacks for Fairfax or News Ltd. Such is the power of spin that over-worked and under-paid journos spend much of their time reprocessing pre-cooked information generated by flaks, as the ABC's Media Watch discovers week after week in its exposes of the lazy regurgitation of PR stunts as news.

But what people don't appreciate is that this lack of editorial discretion in news selection now ritually extends beyond the 'and finally' throway sweet stories at the end of the bulletin to the meat-and-potatoes news at the top. It's how 'weapons-of-mass-destruction' was so easily swallowed by the global media as the pre-text for the Iraq war. And it's how, locally, our media rolled over and meekly accepted a transparently self-interesting advertising campaign by the mining industry against a super profits tax which for a $22 million outlay by resource companies won concessions costing this country at least $60 billion.

Now in 2011, watch the media once again meekly take the bait from a well-resourced fossil fuel industry - and its political agents - in white-anting the Gillard minority government's extremely modest framework for a carbon tax.  Sold slickly orchestrated lies and distortion, an electorate tranquilised by gizmos and lifestyle news almost certainly will be persuaded to vote against its own interests by swallowing manufactured stories over the consequences for electricity bills of attempts to spare the planet from extinction.

How did it come to this? How did the fourth estate so meekly stick out the do-not-disturb sign? Because the corporations who run our media long ago gave up any pretence of upholding editorial standards. Instead, they have run down newsroom resources and deskilled journalists to the point that reporters are easily outgunned by a slick spin doctoring industry whose messages resonate nicely with the business interests of the media owners. Nick Davies sums up the loss of journalistic backbone:
"In the old black and white films there's that classic image of the media at work, which is the printing presses. And tomorrow's newspaper comes swirling out of it. Well that's not the sound of newspapers any more. The sound of newspapers nowadays is this - "baa baa"... the sound of sheep. While these new corporate owners have been cutting editorial staffs, those journalists who have lost their job have crossed the bridge over to the other side and joined the PR industry"
That's who's editing your media these days folks; the former journalists now earning big bucks in PR and creating pre-fabricated copy that just slides through the sub-editorial process into your news pages without the slightest oversight. It's just so convenient for the capitalists who run the media. And it's just so tragic for anyone with an interest in the future of democracy beyond the convenience of being able to buy household electrical goods cheaply. Baaaaa....

Thursday, February 24, 2011

That's Entertainment?

Sometimes, even in journalism, words are superfluous. Simple images and the unmediated experiences of those at the centre of newsworthy events are all that is required to communicate to viewers and readers the magnitude of those events.
So why does Australian commercial television continue to ignore this principle? Instead of simply showing what has happened - in a flood, in a cyclone, in an earthquake - we are told what we can see for ourselves on screen.
Even worse, the accompanying commentary in voiceover and pieces to camera consists of the most wretched, mindless cliché; a cut-and-paste no-brand and no-brain string of pat phrases that reveal nothing beyond the insensitivity and incompetence of the blow-dried “personalities” delivering them.
Victims, positioned as extras in a moveable backdrop for the flown-in presenters’ monstrous egos, are both insulted and patronised with vapid questions about how they are feeling.  It is proforma television that drains the most profound and human events of meaning and exploits tragedy for cheap rating points.
Within hours of the Christchurch earthquake, Channel Nine was running the now familiar promos that treat real and concurrent events as trailers for disaster movies; slow-mo montages overlaid by adagios and cheesy voiceovers that in seeking to dramatise real events merely serve to commoditise and cheapen them.
Over at Channel Seven, meanwhile, the story wasn’t about the earthquake, the story was about ‘Kochie’ at the earthquake. Christchurch was merely the back lot for another ‘story of drama and heartache and heroism’ brought to you by whomever.
By contrast, ABC24 sensibly left the telling of the story to the Kiwis themselves. And the no-nonsense coverage from New Zealand’s state-owned One Network showed up the glib and slick superficiality of Australian commercial television.
The New Zealand journalists – uncorrupted by the idea that THEY were the story – quietly let those at the centre of the carnage simply recount what had happened. There were no hyperbolic voiceovers about ‘heroism’ or attempts to fit some fake pre-constructed ‘noble’ narrative from network central.
The focus instead was on the efficient relaying of information. The pain and the anxiety and the humanity were clear enough to anyone with eyes. There was no need to embellish it with the now standard Walkley-seeking emoting we see in Australian television journalism..
For a properly trained journalist, this is all simple stuff. You get out of the way as much as you can and let your readers see what is there to be seen. You add explanation and context where necessary. You eschew adjectives for verbs. And you never presume to know how anyone is feeling.
Most of all, you speak out against the cynical, low-life show business wankers who seek to exploit real-life tragedy by turning it into cheap entertainment.
See also:
·         Jonathon Green
·         Jonathan Powles:

Post-script: I saw Jonathon Green on the Drum defending his article against accusations from Latika Bourke that he was tarring all journalists with the same brush. He made the point, which I agree with, that individual journos tend to be overly sensitive about these things and (understandably) fail to grasp this as an industry problem.

Journalists don't like to reflect on the fact that the media is a business. In the commercial world, it serves to look after the needs of its shareholders and advertisers. There is nothing sinister about this. That's the way capitalism works. Rival commercial networks use disaster news to position their "brand". So it's Karl vs Kochie in Christchurch,  the city's pain a backdrop for their "show". But journos, quaintly and naively thinking they offer a social service, often don't connect the dots with their craft and the business in which they work. 

It's only when you get out of the industry, as I did, that you appreciate this. As nobel and as sensitive as individual reporters are, the industry that employs them is at base a voracious and amoral beast that is about delivering the eyeballs of its readers and viewers to the advertisers it serves. And disasters do that for them in spades.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The In Crowd

Sydney's Sun-Herald this weekend runs a piece featuring former politicians of all colours decrying the rotten state of our politics - from the relentless dumbing down of issues, to the fake polarisation of views to create opportunities for adversarialism, to the rehearsed spin, to the chronic inability to undertake real reform and, as we are seeing now, to the blatant trolling of emotive issues about race and religion to garner cheap votes.

These are all observations with which many sensible people would agree. But the wonder of these periodic analyses in the nation's media is the failure of journalists to shine a light on the role of their own industry in debasing the political environment. This debasement comes via their focus on trivia, their relentless hunt for 'gotcha' moments, their eternal vigilance for gaffes and backflips and their obsession with opinion polls and judging the winners of the 24/7 news cycle. Overwhelmingly and conveniently for these people, the obsession is with process over outcomes.

Most disconcertingly, there seems a total inability in the media to comprehend that they are central players in this ever diminishing cycle. The politicians say nothing of consequence simply because the media, so focused on politics at the expense of policy, will turn any utterance of real substance into a supposed "gaffe" that then drives the news cycle for 48 hours until the next imagined stumble. Any politician brave enough to tell the truth is denounced as naive or tactically inferior. The biggest plaudits from the pundits go to the slippery sophists who can wriggle through policy minefields without triggering a tripwire.

This focus on tactics as an end in itself allows well- funded interest groups like the multi-national miners to brazenly derail worthwhile political reform at the expense of the taxpayer and destroy a prime ministership. Meanwhile,journalists sit by and focus on the prime minister's earlobes or lack of handbag or living arrangements. Notice, for instance, how all the commentariat are now coming out and saying the nation was dudded over the backdown over the RSPT?  The story is the government panicked over the mining industry's misinformation campaign. Well, where were these 'good-policy-comes-first' hard heads last year? Playing up the threat of capital strikes and singing from the miners' songbook for the most part.

Fellow blogger Tim Dunlop calls the symbiotic relationship between journo and pollie the politics-media death spiral: "Simultaneously, the media, their markets shrinking, their authority under challenge, their business models imploding, turn inwards and cultivate an insider mentality that replaces connection with a mass audience with the desire to influence an elite one. Having abandoned their role as explainers, as reporters, they reduce political issues to a sporting competition, a beauty contest, or a game of gotcha."

Nowhere is this vision of the media as "players" more evident than on Insiders, the ABC's Sunday morning High Church celebration of the notion of journalists as participants in the political process, as savvy and world weary insiders who know how the game works and who sneer at those who don't play by their made-up rules.  Overlooked is the fact that there is as an equally (more?) well-informed constituency on Twitter aware of the artifice and role-playing in their smug round-table discussions and questioning their capacity for offering any insight that is not self-serving or part of the continuous loop that joins the press with the politicians. 

The greatest irony is that all this (the lazy clubbish navel-gazing) is happening at a time of momentous change in the wider world of politics and economics. This is complex change that defies conventional narratives and requires insights honed from experiences that extend beyond writing from the hall of mirrors in which the supposed "insiders" live. Again, this why our Fourth Estate has become a Failed Estate. It no longer serves its function as an explainer or a contextualiser, reminding people of how local events are influenced by a bigger picture. Instead, these people are trapped in an ever-narrowing frame, talking to a smaller and smaller audience composed of people similar to them; hollow words resounding in an echo chamber of nothingness.

See also: Tim Dunlop (The Drum): How to Argue with a Journalist

Thursday, February 17, 2011

This is Australia?

I don't recognise this Australia. From where did it hail?

The Australia I have come to admire is one of the world's wealthiest nations; rich in spirit and resources; a country that takes almost childish pride in its generosity of spirit, its good humour, its open-heartedness and its willingness to look after the underdog. It is the Australia that is always willing to extend a hand to the desperate and the needy. As the second verse of that song they sing at football matches goes, it's the Australia that says "for those who come across the seas, we've boundless plains to share".

But I don't hear that Australia on the radio anymore. I don't hear that Australia in the carefully chosen and calculated phrases of the politicians or in the sophistry of the newspaper editorialists. Instead, that hedged, constricted and concocted language reveals a fearful country turning in on itself and shrinking from the world, losing the very qualities that for more than two centuries made it a magnet for those seeking better lives - including the families of our political leaders Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard.

This is the still half-formed and  insecure Australia of the little recited fifth verse of that anthem, the one that pumps out its puny adolescent chest and proclaims: "Should foreign foe e'er sight our coast,or dare a foot to land, we'll rouse to arms like sires of yore to guard our native strand".
This is the Old Testament punitive Australia, small and scared and spiteful and unforgiving; an Australia that would quibble over the $300,000 cost of a funeral for people whose desperation was such they lost their lives seeking refuge here.

I don't like this Australia much and I don't think its crude representation by ingratiating politicians and radio talkback hosts and ranting journalists - and all the other clever second guessers who presume to know the national soul - is a fair reflection of the reality.

The real Australia has a big heart and an open mind. It is a New Testament country, where there is always enough to go around.  Whether you are a literal believer or not, the parable of Jesus feeding thousands of people with a handful of loaves and fish tells us about the self-regenerating power of spiritual sustenance and inclusiveness.  Our riches grow and our souls expand by sharing our land and welcoming the dispossessed and grieving and orphaned.

I believe our politics are debased and corrupted, that our national politicians have forgotten how to lead. Overwhelmingly and with few exceptions, they are glory-seeking careerists, believing in nothing and mouthing phrases aimed at appeasing the worst in us, as expressed in inwardly-looking 'focus' groups and the spleen-venting anonymity of talkback radio. This is a place where it is all about what we want and not about what we can give.

I think we can cleanse a poisoned atmosphere by each donating $5 toward the cost of this funeral and taking it out of the hands of the politicians and a camp-following media that refuses to call a spade a spade. At that price, it would take take only 60,000 people - about half of one percent of the working population - to raise the requisite $300,000.

Yes, it is a symbolic gesture. And it won't cost a lot. But it feels to me like a simple and powerful way of signalling that we are bigger and nobler than the small and fearful Australia now being reflected back to us through a distorted media mirror.

(As a practical first step, can I suggest someone set up a bank account under a registered charity?)

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Ballad of a Thin Man

On the day the nation's federal and state leaders met in Canberra to thrash out a new deal on health reform, the ABC's website ran with this headline: 'Desperate' Gillard Set to Push Health Reform. Once again, our national broadcaster chooses as its preferred angle the Opposition's interpretation of the story rather than the facts of the proposed reforms themselves, a baffling tendency this blog has explored before here.

One might have thought a smart editor at the ABC - without one eye on the balance nazis with stopwatches - could have chosen to add some value for readers with, perhaps, a timeline graphic of the attempted reforms to date, a selection of views from health economists on issues and trade-offs involved, a case study of the funding pressures in a state hospital, a breakdown of the health budget and where the money goes; in fact anything but the lazy, knee-jerk recycling of an Opposition press release.

For journalists working on Sundays, it's just too easy to run a tape over 'Insiders' or 'Meet the Press' or whatever other political interview program is filling the airwaves on our traditional day of rest. Then you just wrap the same facts around a new set of cut-and-paste quotes and recast the story under a fresh lead, usually involving a totally non-contested claim from an Opposition attack dog. You're not going to win any Walkley awards that way, but no-one's going to complain either.

But this is lazy nothing-at-stake Sunday template journalism - a bland commentary on a predictable tennis match between opponents on left and right. And it is journalism of a kind that is fuelling mass disenchantment with the mainstream media and in turn bolstering  the relative standing of social media or community journalism where people still believe in the actual truth, not the version formed by "official sources".

These days part of a cosy establishment, much of the media too often has nothing to add of substance on public issues, so it confines itself merely to doing what one defender of Julian Assange described as "state stenography - merely taking down what cynical and malign power tells it". This could be laziness. It could be  a lack of imagination. It could be plain timidity and fear of standing out. It could just be a failure to see how the world is changing. Or it could be a combination of all of the above.

Whatever it is, it is failing the public. The world currently faces a series of earth-shaking issues - the catastrophic consequences of a global financial crisis that threaten Francis Fukuyama's assumptions made 20 years ago about the end of history, an acceleration in extreme weather events brought about by man-made climate change, rapidly depleting natural resources and escalating food prices, a social media-driven revolution in the Middle East. These events are stretching the media's capacity to understand and report on change in ways that move beyond a facile  reliance on he said-she said journalism - a point made by Huffington Post's business editor Peter Goodman in an excellent article recently:

"For far too long, the public has suffered under the tyranny of dueling narratives served up by one or another interest group seeking self-serving shortcuts around nuanced truths, all the while shortchanging the clarity of important debates about the biggest issues of the day," Goodman said. "Journalists have too often perpetuated the false notion that seemingly any issue can be cleanly divided into right and left, conservative and liberal, because these labels make our work simpler, supplying us with a handy structure we can impose at will on typically uncooperative facts."

That's it, the handy structure - "the Opposition says", the bland reporting of claim and counter-claim without any independent attempt to get at the truth. From this perspective and in light of the fundamental changes our world is undergoing, it does not seem too much of a stretch to say that the media currently finds itself in the unfamiliar territory of Bob Dylan's Ballad of a Thin Man: "Something is happening here, and you don't know what it is, do you Mr Jones?"

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Beaten, Not Stirred

It was legendary US newscaster Walter Cronkite who is reported to have said of the media in Australia: "too many reporters, not enough news".
That quote came to mind when an excited Seven News wet its pants over Opposition leader Tony Abbott using the phrase "shit happens" when discussing with a US commander in Afghanistan a firefight in which an Australian soldier died.

On first hearing of the incident on twitter (the dangers of not having all the facts), the temptation was to conclude that this was typically insensitive of Abbott and that he had some explaining to do. But on seeing the clip the facts were clearer. This was a classic Seven beat-up and that's saying something for the network that produced that creative piece of current affairs, 'Barcelona Tonight'.

To this former journalist, Abbott was clearly taken out of context, as he himself complained to the reporter in an interview in which he appeared to be struck dumb by the implication that he had made light out an Australian fatality. To any sensible person and whatever their opinion of the Opposition leader, it was clear the offending words were used in relation to the awful circumstances of the battle itself. He might have chosen a more appropriate phrase, but it was certainly not evident that he was in any way downplaying the loss of the soldier.

Of course, that doesn't matter now. The outrage machine has been cranked up and we will have a couple of days of wall-to-wall blather about an issue that really is no issue at all (and when there are plenty of real ones to go around).  In the meantime, surprise surprise, we are told that Abbott has been "forced to defend"... Yes, it's that passive media voice of God again.

Incidentally, there's a view about that Abbott's more troubling behaviour was his mute and seemingly malevolent stare-off with Seven reporter Mark Riley when confronted with the footage. Of course, one could conclude from this that Abbott, a former journalist himself, knew he was being reeled into a "gotcha" moment, and  his long silence was a sign he was struggling to find the right words to explain the context of the original comment without digging himself in deeper. He might have been advised to have just said "my comments were not about the soldier, but about the circumstances of war. You're clearly interested in making more of it than that, but I've said all I have to say." And walked away.

Also entering the monstrous media mixmaster is mischievious and idle musing about whether Prime Minister Julia Gillard was shedding crocodile tears when she broke down in parliament about the loss of lives in the Queensland floods. A visit to the Herald Sun's comments section reveals a segment of the Australian electorate (admittedly many of them Liberal trolls) are depressingly cynical about what surely to most rational observers was a genuine display of emotion.

But rest assured, the usual media suspects will seek to analyse this display of humanity by the PM as confected or an attempt at dealing with criticisms of her public demeanour as cold or wooden. Already, the expertly duplicitous Andrew Bolt has managed, in his infinitely twisted way, to somehow suggest there was something wrong with Gillard's response:

"I do not say Julia Gillard’s tears....were anything but genuine," Bolt says to avert accusations of cynicism. "But I do say the tears follow much damaging criticism about Gillard being 'wooden' in responding to the disasters. I do fear that to suddenly go from one extreme to the other will jar with many."
"Fear", Andrew? Or do you mean "hope"?

These episodes suggest Cronkite was half right. Too many of the WRONG reporters. Too little REAL news.
Recommended reading on this issue:

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Punch and Judy Journalism

The Twitterverse, fingers poised on keyboards and 140 characters at the ready, has been excitedly awaiting the resumption of the ABC's hit current affairs panel show, Q and A. The usual suspects are being primed to play their customary roles on either side of compere Tony Jones, the constable in this televisual Punch and Judy.

Q and A began as an earnest attempt at 1960s round-table public affairs, but it seems to have morphed into something that the ABC never envisioned - a post-modernist circus in which the participants perform their verbal acrobatics on the issues of the day, largely unaware that a large part of the audience is deriving its entertainment from anything but the pre-digested arguments on screen.

Indeed, like the aforementioned puppet show, both the live audience and the virtual one are part of the show; the asides on twitter are sharper and more absorbing than the rehearsed guffe expressed by the glove puppets on stage. We know for instance that Gerard Henderson, the pious judge of this panto, is going to nasally opine about Robert Manne getting a fact wrong in an essay at Melbourne University in 1967, which gives us room to sit back on our laptops and smartphones riffing on his Gerard-of-the-sixth-form nerdiness.

Likewise, we can surmise that Janet Albrechtson, the Vaucluse-dwelling crocodile with an investment banker husband, is going to snap at the liberal educated, latte-quaffing "elites" who sneer at the real Australians of the western suburbs, which leaves us to speculate on twitter on whether she could play Lucrezia Borgia in a film adaptation of the Renaissance papacy.

And it seems so predictable that Julie Bishop, the evil-eyed roller pin-wielding Judy, is going to pound poor Punch (Peter Garrett) on his naked noggin. Sitting in the stalls in our loungerooms, wee can see it coming; we can shout a warning ("she's behind you!"), but it is always too late.

So this is what our participatory politics has become - watching live mannequins mouth prepared and predictable talking points from either side of their self-constructed ideological ditch.

So why was this prefab partisanship produced in the first place? Because for the ABC, this is perfect television; it's cheap to produce, it absolves the public broadcaster from having to look any deeper into issues and it spares it the accusations from the trainspotting Hendersons of the world about bias."See, Gerard, we've got two from the red team and two from the blue team".

Occasionally, though, the Q and A mould is broken by the appearance of someone who hasn't been sent over by ideological central casting and who actually manages to say something that cuts through the boilerplate cant - like Craig Reucassel of the Chaser whose impassioned outburst on the morality of using refugees as political pawns had Christopher Pyne pursing his lips and clenching his buttocks even more tightly than normal.

But this is a rare event. And soon, we are back on our laptops, looking for ways to send up the tewwibly  cwoss Gerard or the mincing Christopher or, that harradin of harpiedom, Sophie Mirrabella. Q and A quite simply is a cartoon, a freak show, a pageant of publicity-seeking trolls and opinionators who very rarely have anything of substance to add to our public discourse. The fun is in making fun of it all.

At the peak of the popularity of Punch and Judy in the 19th century, Charles Dickens was asked about what he saw as the source of its appeal:

"In my opinion, the street Punch is one of those extravagant reliefs from the realities of life which would lose its hold upon the people if it were made moral and instructive. I regard it as quite harmless in its influence, and as an outrageous joke which no one in existence would think of regarding as an incentive to any kind of action or as a model for any kind of conduct. It is possible, I think, that one secret source of pleasure very generally derived from this performance… is the satisfaction the spectator feels in the circumstances that likenesses of men and women can be so knocked about without any pain or suffering... "

Think about that quote when the ABC ringmasters bring the circus back to town this week.

See also Larvatus Prodeo: 'Four Propositions About Q and A'