Sunday, July 31, 2011

Fair is Foul and Foul is Fair

As the US and European economies slowly sink into a quicksand of indebtedness, the world is watching with increasing incredulity the doom-laden discourse of lucky Australia . Here is an economy enjoying fundamentals that other developed nations would donate their first born for, yet our parochial media has decided to slavishly sing along with Tony Abbott's one-note death march of the saints.

How has it come to this? Our unemployment rate is half that of the US and much of Western Europe, our public debt is among the lowest in the world, our terms of trade are delivering a boost to national incomes unseen in at least 50 years, our banks are among the highest rated financial institutions anywhere and we were the only major developed economy to avoid recession during the global financial crisis.

Yet the witches chorus of Murdoch hacks, talkback quacks and business lobby flaks has convinced a blissfully ignorant and disengaged Australian population that the economy is descending into a fiery hell of the Gillard government's own making. Every initiative is quickly woven into a bogus, manufactured and hysterical narrative about policy incompetence that virtually everyone in the MSM (and the government itself much of the time) tacitly accepts as the truth.

For those who pay more than a modicum of attention to what is going on outside the echo chamber that constitutes the Murdoch press, commercial television and radio and parts of the ABC - and all you need to do that are Google alerts and a couple of RSS feeds - much of the developed world economy is in the crapper. Washington has run out of IOUs and the political experiment that was the single European currency is coming apart under the pressure of economic reality. Yet Australia is thriving. Insofar has we have problems - a suddenly savings conscious consumer and an overly strong currency - these are only so in comparison with the extraordinary period of leverage-driven consumption that went before.

So amid this endlessly echoing cacophony, hearing voices of reason from outside our own self-generated din provides refreshing reassurance that one is not insane.  Among them in recent weeks was a bewildered sounding editorial in that pillar of the globalist neo-liberal establishment The Economist which asked how a country so magnificently endowed could conceivably blow it by descending into the sort of partisan-for-the-sake-of-it carping and negativity that has brought Washington to a standstill . This noise is amplified by a cynical media whose he-said-she said parroting of deceitful scaremongering - usually for the sake of ratings points and ad dollars -  just reinforces the ignorance of their readership.
"Many Australians do not seem to appreciate that they live in an unusually successful country," The Economist said. "Accustomed to unbroken economic expansion—many are too young to remember recession—they are inclined to complain about house prices, 5% unemployment or the problems that a high exchange rate causes manufacturing and several other industries. Some Australians talk big but actually think small, and politicians may be the worst offenders. They are often reluctant to get out in front in policymaking—on climate change, for instance—preferring to follow what bigger countries do."
The Economist reserved special condemnation for Tony Abbott's importation of the Tea Party's tactics of wilful obstructionism and contrarianism. While Abbott's media cheerleaders say this has always been the role of the Opposition, his tactics aren't about providing an alternative viewpoint but mindless wrecking for the sake of making government impossible. And his results are impressive, with a public debate now at the point where detestable shockjocks ritually urge violence against our elected representatives. And no-one bats an eyelid. No-one, of course, apart from people watching from overseas and wondering how a country with such good fortune and so much potential could sink into such a stinking morass of its own making; people such as the influential Bloomberg business news columnist William Pesek:
"The politics of pessimism is a tried-and-true formula," Pesek writes. "Blame those in power for every conceivable ill, employing plenty of hyperbole and lots of volume. It's a sure way to dominate the news cycle. As 2011 unfolds, though, something feels different, more apocalyptic. Politicians, radio shock jocks, TV pundits and editorialists are tripping over themselves to call Julia Gillard the worst prime minister Australia has ever seen, today's economic climate the most dismal and tomorrow's outlook the most disheartening in history."
Pesek notes that Australia does have some challenges - like needing to invest more in infrastructure and education and working out what to do with the squillions from the mining boom. But, as he says, these are good problems to have at a time when much of Europe is heading for default and political paralysis in Washington is threatening a total shutdown of the government. While Australia has a rolled gold opportunity to use its prosperity to build a sustainable future, the country's politicians - living in fear of a media that does not look beyond the next deadline - are prisoners of a negative news cycle.
 "Australia's obstacles are far less dire, though you wouldn't know it," Pesek writes. "The country needs an honest and transparent debate about harnessing the mining boom, but it's getting a petty brawl between Gillard and Abbott. Anything Gillard proposes, Abbott derides as economic suicide. (Meanwhile, having successfully killed the resource super profits tax), Australia's business community figures it can dump Gillard. Her sin is making an effort to lead. She is pushing something that's inevitable globally as temperatures and sea levels rise: a tax on carbon emissions. The knives are out and the punditocracy is telling Australians they will be homeless if Gillard gets her way. It would be silly if it weren't so pernicious."
Pesek has it right. The media and public discourse in this country has reached a point where people are not being trusted with the truth. Indeed, the media for the most part is not interested in pursuing the truth because manufactured conflict is proving a good business model.

Ultimately, journalism at its best is built on three pillars - trust, truth and objectivity. The latter attribute is the one that is least understood.  It doesn't mean employing fake equivalence or 'balance' - as in ensuring every argument from every vested interest is given equal weight. It does mean providing context for readers, testing the veracity of politicians' claims  (what are the chances of the coal industry shutting down overnight?) and providing points of comparison and contrast with what is happening elsewhere. It means supplying perspective.

And couldn't we do with some of that right now?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Agenda Benders

What's the key difference between good and bad journalism? In the former, the facts always come first, assumptions are to be avoided and the simple questions 'who, what, where, when, how and why' are the tools of the trade. For the latter, the facts are just a convenient hook on which to hang a specific agenda. The tragic events in Norway provide a prime example of how this works.

The best journalists this blogger ever worked with were in the wire services. They were trained to work under the pressure of constant deadlines and they had the skills to deliver clear, concise, accurate and  properly sourced copy in real-time on breaking news events. When the facts were incomplete or unclear, wire journos say so. It wasn't just pride in their craft that made them this way. It was good business. Agencies like Reuters or The Associated Press - who traditionally were wholesalers of news to retail media - know that the business they are in is fundamentally about trust. When you lose that, your product  becomes worthless.

While social media and the ability for anyone to publish in real-time to a global audience have changed the dynamics of breaking news reporting, the major agencies are thriving in new ways by being trusted sources to an unmediated audience. Most newspapers, though, are struggling. Unable to compete on speed - primarily because they have never properly adapted to real-time news - some newspapers have decided their digital future is in instant punditry. In other words, their online business model consists of telling you what something means or what they think about it before the facts are known. And when the facts prove unhelpful, they often torture them to suit their pre-cooked agenda. Think of it as a gigantic trolling machine.

In Australia, the masters of this 'fit-the-world-into-a-pre-made-ideological-template' are, of course, the News Ltd tabloid attack columnists like Tim Blair and Andrew Bolt. So we saw these two fire up their blogs on Saturday morning as soon as the news came out of Norway - obviously seeing in those events a prime opportunity to push the instant hate buttons of their unhinged yet hopelessly devoted readerships. Imagine their disappointment, then, when the troublesome facts (lone gunman, white, right-wing and clearly delusional) did not fit the chosen template. Bolt's first line in his coverage of the story was:
"Once the identity of the attackers becomes known, the consequences for Norway’s immigration policies could be profound."
Yes, Bolt did update his blog to correct those initial  impressions and provided accurate, real-time cut-and-paste updates from the wires. But he quickly lost interest in the story when it didn't fit the single narrative his readers constantly look to him to deliver - like small children wanting a parent to read them the same story over and over again. You see, people don't read Andrew Bolt for news. They go to him to have their prejudices confirmed.  In other words, the agenda he pursues with almost religious fervour is more important than the facts, which are just there to be adjusted to his world view - one in which hard-working, white, conservative, Christian people are under attack from the brown, bludging, Muslim hordes and meddling bleeding heart "leftists". In fact, it's a world view eerily in sync with that of the gunman in Norway.

For a busted mainstream media, this get-your-prejudices-confirmed-here approach delivers page impressions, no doubt. It's successful, to be sure; if, of course, your idea of success is twisting and distorting real-world events to fit an agenda that panders to ignorance, bigotry and xenophobia. There's ALWAYS been a market for that.  I'm not sure I would call it journalism, though. Not in my book.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

If the Crap Fits...

What recourse have the public when the nation's major media company wilfully misrepresents a public policy reform? What safeguards are there against blatantly dishonest journalism that presents opinion as fact and a partisan agenda as straight news?

Take a look at the two front covers above - from the nation's two biggest selling newspapers and ask yourself, as the ABC's Annabel Crabb has contended, whether this is merely "aggressive" reporting and that the government's response to it is paranoid and misguided.

How can the media be said to be doing its job when it scrutinises only one side of politics and, even then, uses distortion, manipulation and outright deceit to misinform readers in support of a corporate agenda? (See Jonathon Holmes' dissection on Media Watch of The Daily Telegraph's dishonest coverage of the carbon tax.) It is quite clear to anyone with eyes that Rupert Murdoch's News Ltd is intent on regime change in Australia. Yet it blandly maintains, as seen in the comments by CEO John Hartigan on 730 last week, that all it is doing is "taking the fight" up to the government:
LEIGH SALES: In the UK, some of the focus now is on the relationships between the media and politicians and whether or not the Murdoch press bully and intimidate them and abuse their power by running stories with an obvious agenda. Do your newspapers in Australia bully politicians or officials in that manner?

JOHN HARTIGAN: Look, I think we take them to their official capacity and responsibilities. I don't believe that we ever overstep. Yes, it's a love-hate relationship and sometimes it's loving and sometimes it's very hateful, but I don't think, generally speaking, that we exceed our authority.
A vigorous, questioning press is indeed an asset to a functioning democracy. But only if it employs that vigour against all sides in politics. News Limited does not do this on even the most charitable measure. Instead, it has run a nakedly partisan anti-government line on the NBN, the fiscal stimulus, asylum seekers and any number of issues with the clear intent of breaking down a minority government it has never accepted as legitimate and in which a major part is played by a party it has openly vowed to destroy. What's more, it has done this with little respect for the facts.

Now this would not matter so much if News did not control 70 per cent of the metropolitan print market and did not hold a monopoly in a number of cities around Australia. For many people, the News Limited coverage is the only coverage they get apart from what they hear on the ABC (which is increasingly an echo chamber of the Murdoch press in any case). But the answer to this misuse of monopoly power is not another inquiry, which would only tell us what we already know. Neither is it more regulation, which inevitably has unintended consequences. The answer is increased diversity. The question is how that can be achieved.

For a while now, we have been assuming massive technological change would lead to more diversity. In the middle of the last decade, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chairman Graeme Samuel spoke approvingly of an "exciting new era"  in media as a younger generation embraced digital technology. Samuel, as many did at that time, spoke approvingly of Rupert Murdoch's own landmark speech to the American Society of Newspaper editors, in which he spoke of a "revolution in the way young people are accessing news". The hope was that new technology would lead to new players and new voices.

Six years later, there certainly has been a revolution. But the search for a working business model in the digital space goes on, most people still get their news from the mainstream outlets and those same outlets employ the vast bulk of journalists.  Yet, we still hear from regulators about some wonderful imagined new media diversity  that will change our lives. It's this utopian idea that's the subject of the government's current convergence review, which is looking into the appropriate regulatory framework for a world in which the old separations between print and radio and television are no longer relevant.

That's all very well. And it's true that convergence is happening. But this trend affect mainly affects  the technology, distribution systems and user experience, not the ownership structure, which remains as concentrated as ever. The fact is whatever happens, the established players tend to get stronger. Foxtel, in which News Corp holds a 25 per cent share, is in the process of bidding for rival Austar, which would give it a monopoly in pay television. Irrespective of the stench around News Corp in the UK, there is a strong case on competition grounds that this bid should not be allowed to proceed. In the end, politicians will have to act to force greater diversity, but as Bernard Keane argues, they do not appear to have the nerve for it.

The case against more diversity, put by Alan Kohler, is that adding more players is no guarantee of higher quality.  Kohler uses the lowest-common denominator muckracking of the UK tabloids as evidence that additional competition can actually end up lowering standards rather than raising them. In this view of the world, while Julia Gillard may plead with journalists not to write "crap", the sad fact is that crap sells and adding more players will just accelerate the race to the bottom. As for public disgust, the News of the World was the best selling newspaper in Britain because of the gutter journalism it employed. Readers were quite happy to look the other way until the methods driving that paper's sewer-standard newsgathering were exposed. Likewise, the bitter competition on commercial television here between Today Tonight on the Seven Network and A Current Affair on Nine has not netted any increase in quality; indeed quite the reverse.

There are a couple of responses to the 'crap sells and people love it' argument. The first - as we are hearing now from News Corp's legions of ventriloquising in-house defenders - is that this 'crap' is really just robust, honest, rough-and-tumble, democratic journalism loved by the masses of people and loathed by the effete elites. It's a pose that the billionaire Murdoch has been successfully striking for 50 years - even now (hilariously) characterising himself as the upstart outsider cocking his nose at a stuffy establishment with straight-talking, unpretentious truth telling.

Of course, this view would be easier to accept if News Corp did not consistently and conveniently find a common cause between the elite corporate and geopolitical interests it champions (mining conglomerates, tobacco companies, the gambling industry) and the humble battlers it purports to represent. Not to sound too cynical or anything, but commercial media organisations ritually beat their collective chests and claim to stand for truth and justice when their aims are in fact quite venal. And News Corp speaks out of both sides of its mouth better than anyone.

The second answer to the problem of "crap selling" is that strong, robust journalism and quality journalism are not incompatible concepts and there IS a market for it. One struggles to think of a better example of patient, meticulous, brave news-gathering than that they employed by The Guardian and reporter Nick Davies in pursuit of the phone hacking controversy in the UK.  Murdoch journalists, of course, would say that their pursuit of the Rudd and Gillard governments fits in the same bucket, and, yes, it is quite legitimate for the press to ask tough questions of government. But the media also has a responsibility to get its facts straight and provide honest reporting of primary information before it starts opining on it. It should also separate out straight reporting from analysis and opinion. This is not the way of the Murdoch titles, which revel in openly partisan journalism. And while fearless scrutiny is wonderful, it needs to be applied to everyone - including Tony Abbott.  "Accuracy, balance and fairness" were the three principles rammed down the throats of journalism students when I went into the trade and they still should be the bedrock upon which everything is built.

Finally, as I continue to argue on this blog, quality journalism has a social utility irrespective of its commercial viability. So we should pressure our democratic representatives to champion policies that encourage greater diversity and depth in media. That can be done by legislating limits on the control of the print media (Murdoch controls 70 per cent in Australia; compared to 40 per cent in Britain, the source of his troubles). It can also be achieved by ensuring an independent public broadcaster with a strong, non-partisan board and proper funding of news and current affairs services. Most of all, it requires a Press Council with actual teeth (not a puppet of the press barons as it is now) and an Australian Communications and Media Authority (the regulator of commercial broadcasting) that actually enforces its own existing standards. This is all achievable, but will need a much more vocal public pressure on politicians to show some backbone against a Murdoch press and talkback radio fraternity that is beyond the pale.

Further reading:
Daily Telegraph's GST Coverage from the '90s - Andrew Crook (Crikey)
Why we need media reform - Wendy Bacon (New Matilda)
News Ltd Journalism and Political Propaganda - Geoffrey Barker (Inside Story)
Carbon Tax Facts - a new website that strips away the misinformation and gives you the FACTS about the scheme to price carbon. Be sure to pass it onto your friends and relatives.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Strings Attached

 Business institutions so large and powerful that they distort the democratic process; frightened politicians in the pockets of large monopolistic companies; a corrupted and constricted public debate and an ever increasing separation between the actions of those large institutions and the generally agreed standards of public decency: The grim pathology of the global financial crisis comes to mind when watching the beginning of the end of Rupert Murdoch's malignant global media empire.

By common consent, Murdoch is the single most powerful media figure in the English-speaking world. From humble beginnings in Adelaide in 1952, he slowly has built a global vertically integrated media and entertainment conglomerate that ritually makes and breaks democratic governments and shapes our public space more than any other single entity.

Whether in America, donating $1 million to the Republicans, in the UK summoning would-be prime ministers across the world to his private court or in Australia vowing to destroy the Greens as a political entity, News Corp long ago crossed the line that separates news companies as observers of the political process from the direct players.

So any claim - and there inevitably will be in the weeks ahead - that action to curb Murdoch's power equates to a curb on the freedom of the press needs to be taken with a large grain of salt.  Throughout the phone-tapping controversy in the UK, News Corp's management have sought to portray this behaviour as isolated and completely out of step with its professed ethics as a news organisation. But there is enough evidence from those who have worked inside the Murdoch empire that this sort of behaviour was a natural expression  of the "whatever it takes" ethos that drives its journalism - not just in the UK but around the world.

The fact is News Corporation - like Merrill Lynch and Lehman Brothers in investment banking - is just too big and its tentacles are entangled too closely with our democratic institutions to believe that the public good is served by it continuing to exist in its present form. This is a company that professes a love for free markets, but which acts ruthlessly to stamp out would-be competitors. This is a company that uses its power primarily to further the commercial and ideological interests of its proprietor.  And this is a company whose poisonous culture is a pox on journalism. It is the Failed Estate writ large.

The phone hacking case in the UK is the equivalent of the sub-prime mortgages blamed for the GFC - a symptom of the problem, not the underlying cause. In the case of the financial crisis, bankers gave up on their former humble yet honest roles as intermediaries to become players instead - using their balance sheets and an implied public guarantee to leverage up and take risks that would have made their soberly pinstriped ancestors spin in their graves.  So big were the subsequent obligations and so potentially ruinous to the financial system, that governments had no choice but to bail out the banks. And taxpayers are now footing the bill. In this media crisis, News Corp has given up any pretence that it is a mere news company that acts in the public interest and now acts purely in its own interest. Like the Wall St banks, it has become so big and so influential that it virtually lives outside the law. And like the banks, if the laws don't suit, it gets them changed.

In Australia, the fact that one company owns 70 per cent of our metropolitan print media goes a long way to explaining the dire nature of our public discourse. News Corp now routinely uses its papers to pursue a policy agenda that suits its commercial and ideological interests - whether it be campaigning against the National Broadband Network, promoting industry-funded climate change denialism as mainstream "science" or fighting its silly culture wars.

In the UK, it has taken the public outrage over the discovery that agents of the tabloids were hacking into the phones of the relatives of a murdered teenage girl (and perhaps also relatives of British soldiers and terrorism victims) to prompt a rare show of defiance by politicians against a nasty, malignant corporate bully whose time must surely be up and whose publications are a blight on our democracy. Who will have the guts in Australia to take Murdoch on?

A series of inquiries into the financial crisis concluded that we must stop banks becoming so big and so interconnected with the financial markets that they are deemed 'too big to fail'. In the immortal words of Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi, Goldman Sachs had become a "great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money". Well, News Corp is the media equivalent.  The sheer ferocity of its own blood lust is there now for us all to see. We have a chance now to rip this parasite from the face of our democracy before it sucks us completely dry.

FURTHER READING:
  • Live updates on the #NOTW phone hacking investigation on the Guardian's news blog here.
  • 'Murdoch's Watergate?' by Carl Bernstein in Newsweek here.
  • 'News would do well not to keep it in the family' by Michael Woolf in the Guardian here 
  • 'Scandal Reverberates Beyond Murdoch Empire' by David McKnight in The Conversation here.
  • 'What to do about the power of the corporate media?' by George Monbiot here.

Parallel Lies

Top of my hit parade:

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Precooked: Carbon Tax Coverage

 The details of the carbon tax are announced this Sunday.  All the media are planning special wraparounds and editions. But here's something we prepared earlier.

THE AUSTRALIAN:  PAGE 1 SPLASH: Green Gamble - The Gillard government, in one last desperate throw of the dice to avoid electoral annihilation, is gambling its fortunes on a tax on carbon that attacks the very foundations of the resource boom and puts Australia in a lonely position ahead of the global pack.
The long-awaited announcement of the so-called multi-party agreement on the carbon tax was seized upon by the Opposition and industry groups as an ill-timed drag on the economy's last remaining engine and by community groups (get Pell/Jensen or another churchman on record) as a blow to working families.
A spot Newspoll, carried out on Sunday as the details were just emerging (just read it out to them over the phone), suggested the government was likely to be disappointed in its hopes for a poll bounce out of a tax which has sparked talk of capital strikes by global fund managers (Terry McCrann will give you a quote).

PAGE 1: Coal Comfort (Paul Kelly analysis) - Let there be no mistake. In a profound and irreversible shift in Australian politics whose reverberations will be felt for generations, a fringe group of radicals has seized the national political agenda and left the reforming spirit of the Hawke/Keating/Howard years in tatters.

PAGE 3: Warming? What Warming? (Monckton Op-Ed) - Adolf Hitler was a great believer in climate change and built bunkers below his Bavarian hideaway to deal with the inevitable melting of the ice-caps. And like today's climate charlatans, the Fuhrer knew scientists could be bought.

PAGE 3: The Forgotten People (Case Study) - For hard-working Matt and Nicky Spencer of Mt Druitt, the carbon tax is the final straw that will drive this hard-working couple from their home.  Already struggling with their $600,000 mortgage and payments on their three investment properties, Matt and Nicky must now find the extra $1.20 they will pay in electricity bills a year ($1.15 of which will be rebated).   

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THE HERALD SUN/DAILY TELEGRAPH: Editor's Note: Pictures and illustrations are going to sell this one. I don't want to see any boring tables or graphics and if you're going to run a temperatures chart, run it upside down this time.

PAGE 1: Cate's Rates - It's 6am at Blacktown station, bitterly cold and Murray Johnson is worrying how he'll pay the 500 per cent increase in train fares caused by a carbon tax pushed by Hollywood star Cate Blanchett sitting comfortably at home in her Hunter's Hill mansion. (Photo collage of Blanchett as Queen Liz the First chopping off a battler's head).

BACK PAGE: Footy in the Dark - Australia's great sporting stadiums may have to sacrifice flood-lit football (take the groundsman to the pub, he'll tell you) as the carbon tax sends power bills spiralling and deprives battlers of one of the last remaining pleasures of life.

BUSINESS: Green Grab - Insert Terry McCrann rant. (Just make sure his batteries are charged) 


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TODAY TONIGHT: The Copenhagen Connection - Australia's carbon tax was sealed in this shady lane way in Copenhagen by Kevin Rudd during the aborted summit at the end of 2009 (We can film this in Fitzroy if we do it at the right time of day; get a couple of cops on bicycles to chase you).

A CURRENT AFFAIR:  The Carbon Diet - Scientists have warned the federal government's new carbon tax threatens cutting edge research that suggests carbon-based diets could be the secret to sustained weight loss. (Shoot Tracey having burnt toast for breakfast).

ABC NEWS RADIO:  Carbon Crash/Taxing Times/Temperatures Rising (We just need a cute two word headline, it doesn't really matter what; just make sure it starts with 'The Opposition has slammed...' and don't worry about running this before the policy is announced)

ABC 7.30: Analysis: Leigh Sales interviews Chris Uhlmann who interviews Peter Hartcher and Samantha Riley about what the carbon tax might mean for the next Neilsen and Newspoll.

60 MINUTES: Hot for Teacher:  The world isn't the only thing that's warming.  Feel the room getting h-o-t-t-e-r as Liz Hayes interviews Greg Combet about all that 'alternative' energy.

2GB: Alan Jones: (Just ensure the spittoon is on hand and keep Al's physician on standby.)