Friday, December 14, 2012

Send in the Clowns

"What we will witness over the next 18 months or more is a Great Unhinging, an orgy of hysterics. The goalposts of what constitutes government legitimacy will be moved from the constitutional to the convenient, from the reality of the parliamentary majority to  concocted nostrums about mandates to govern. It will not just be a campaign against the government, but one rolling, frenzied campaign after another, where each new contrived outrage will assume a greater level of mania than the last."

Uncanny, isn't it? That prediction was made just over three years ago by blogger, econometrician and polling analyst Scott Steel (AKA Possum Comitatus). Perhaps, it's his distance from Canberra. Perhaps, it's because he doesn't scribble about politics for a living. And perhaps, it's because he doesn't have to try to say something new every day. But Possum's piece on the Great Unhinging is still the most chillingly accurate portrayal of the media-politics dynamic served up in recent years.

If anything, he undercooked it in predicting that "one side of politics and one wing of the media will do its best to turn it all into a complete and utter circus". As circuses go, this has been a three-ring Cirque du Soleil - an everybody-in, all-moving-and-dancing, technicolour, widescreen spectacle of the ridiculous in which the clowns have all taken turns seeking to upstage each other.

It began with hysterical coverage of The Great Australia Day Restaurant Getaway. Parliament House camera crews, whose biggest thrill is normally walking down a hallway backwards after a leadership spill, got to shoot the PM and Opposition Leader being "bundled" by police out of a Canberra restaurant during a protest by members of the Aboriginal tent embassy.  It was "mob violence", said the Herald Sun. On tabloid TV, it was a "Major Security Scare".  But footage from the protestors themselves painted a somewhat different picture. And it increasingly became evident that a combination of over-exuberance by federal police and over-excitement by the press pack had given the public an erroneous impression of the scale of the disruption.  As usual, the world's best news organisation Reuters got it right with "Australian PM Loses Shoe in Fracas".

In February, it was 24-7-Kevin month as a year of media speculation about a Rudd comeback (based on whispering from the always anonymous sources) finally bore fruit.  But this came after interminable and sometimes bizarre thumb-sucking by the press gallery crew, including a piece by Rudd booster Peter Hartcher comparing St Kevin to a Chinese Monkey God.  Business, meanwhile, did its usual thing of pleading for "certainty", saying the wheels of capitalism would stop turning if the nation didn't resolve the Julia vs Kevin show. But after all the exciting trailers (with the best lines flagged), the main feature was always going to be a letdown. And so it was. Kevin zipped.

In March, the narrative was all about how the evil totalitarian Gillard government planned to control and silence the media. Indeed, coverage of the considered and thoughtful Finkelstein report into the media takes the 2012 prize for the reporting which bore the least resemblance to reality. Suddenly every newspaper editor worth his or her salt was quoting Mill and Voltaire (whom they previously most likely would have mistaken for horse trainers). "I may not agree with your picks, but I'll defend your barrier draw to the death or something..."

Stinking out the middle of the year was THE CARBON TAX.  A week ahead of "C Day" and amid warnings of entire towns being wiped off the map, News Ltd economic columnist Terry McCrann published an open letter pleading to Julia Gillard: "Dear Julia, It's still not too late to abandon your carbon tax madness. Your tax promises to be the single most destructive thing that any government in Australian history has ever done."  Oh, the humanity. 

But with the economy and government refusing to fall over, the News Ltd tabloids in July started banging their other favourite drum; ASYLUM SEEKER CRISIS.  We were told that Gillard had now "seen seen more boat arrivals than any other PM" and that hostile detainees - "some from the Palestinian authority" - were being released into the community. The "crisis" was also going to destroy the budget (ironically because the government had been forced into an auction to satisfy the Terror and the Hun). By the end of the year, the Tele was telling us that while Gillard was struggling for votes at home, she had plenty of fans in Java. I would say that you couldn't make that up, except for the fact that they did.

But enemies of the state were not just found in refugee centres or the CSIRO. The internet was infested by millions of nasty trolls who were prepared to do and say anything to push their agendas and DESTROY OUR AUSTRALIAN WAY OF LIFE! So The Daily Tele, the people's champion, launched its own Twitter campaign to STOP THE TROLLS! The intent was to silence amoral individuals who "mercilessly attack not just celebrities and sports stars but other everyday users simply for the thrill." That this is the standard KPI for Murdoch hacks seemed to be lost in the noise.

Undoubtedly the biggest media fail of the year was the misreading of the significance of Gillard's misogyny speech to parliament in October. Most of us who watched or listened to the speech in real-time felt it broke the mould of what had  become a tired and predictable political contest. Irrespective of your party allegiance, it felt like a watershedBut not to the gallery, who as ever, were caught up in the day-today political 'tactics' at the expense of the big, big picture. My own post on this scored the biggest hits of anything I've written this year.

What IS clear is that the media no longer owns the narrative. People have always had their own responses to and interpretations of political events. But they can now express those directly and they don't need the media to tell them what it means. Of course, the gallery lectured everyone in that episode about how you needed to understand "the context". What they fail to understand is that that is THEIR context; that they are living in a bubble of their own making and that political meaning goes beyond the he said-she said and the daily horse race of Canberra.

The big picture, the unreported crisis of 2012 is the crisis in our institutions. Parliamentary democracy, as we practise it, increasingly looks like a circus with unpopular leaders staging ridiculous stunts to attract an audience that long ago stopped listening. The traditional media, its own audience drifting away and its business model busted, focuses on colour and movement at the expense of the substance. It increasingly depends on hyperbole or manufactured scandal to stay relevant. And any attempt to lift its standards  is met with panicked claims of censorship.

Some in the media get the existential crisis they face. Most don't. In the meantime, there are fewer and fewer jobs in traditional old media journalism. And that was the biggest story within the industry this year - the loss of thousands of positions and the scaling down of newsrooms.  The irony is the fewer jobs for journalists and the more time people spend on social media, the more noise the old media has to make to be heard and the less people it has to do it. This makes for a commonality of interest with the side of politics deprived of government by a single seat and wanting to send the message that the whole world is about to end.

So the restaurant 'riot', the Julia-v-Kevin saga, media regulation, the carbon tax, the Ashby-Slipper affair, the AWU 'scandal'  - every story is beaten up to within an inch of its life to attract straying eyeballs and every Opposition press release is treated as headline news without an inch of scrutiny. And it's not just the Death Star (News Ltd) doing this. The ABC is among the worst culprits, treating as news the most self-serving spin from the party machine.

Social media can't replace journalism as we knew it. But journalism as we knew it can't exist anymore because there isn't a business model to support  it. That means journalists have to get smarter and work with the new communications technologies not against them. And that means more collaboration and curation and less of the assumption that they are the voice of god. It means they are going to have fall out of love with the idea of One or Two Big Narratives (Left vs Right) and realise there are millions of them. Finally, they are going to have stop trying to force every event into a prestructured view of the world that suits the ideological and commercial interests of their publisher.

The Great Unhinging that Possum predicted partly reflects the desperation of the conservatives in a situation of minority government. But it also reflects the desperation of the media. This won't change even if Abbott, as the polls currently suggest, leads the conservative parties to a landslide win in 2013. That's because there isn't one story anymore. There are many. 

This show can't go on.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Who Protects Us From Stupid?

It was a bit of fun that flouted the rules, says Jonathon Holmes. The outrage is another example of nanny statism by meddling lefties, says Tim Blair. Yes, yes.  But has anyone considered that the now infamous hoax call to Kate Middleton merely confirmed (yet again)  the utter stupidity of our media and the people who mindlessly consume it?

Clearly, there has always been a substantial commercial market for juvenile stunts at the expense of others. And when those stunts are directed at the high-flown and privileged, it's hard to argue they are any more than harmless fun. What green-blooded republican Australian doesn't get a kick from poking fun at an anachronistic class structure built on the notion that some flesh and blood individuals walk on a different planet to the rest of us?

But there has to be a line with these things. Kate Middleton may have married into The Firm, but she was still just a woman in hospital being treated for complications related to her pregnancy. Yes, of course, it was probably just morning sickness. But with the sacred seraphim within three or four arms' length of the throne, no risks are taken either with patient or privacy. And that might help explain the sort of pressures the nurse felt.

In those circumstances, an astute producer/program director should have decided that the proper decision was not to seek to breach the sacred vow of confidentiality between patient and medical practitioner.  Yes, the idea of the Royal Family is ridiculous and invites adolescent colonial tomfoolery, but there are other avenues to do that. And in any case, who needs the aggravation?

Others have pointed out that ethical considerations (beyond the law) almost certainly were not take into account in deciding to put this stunt to air. That is because the DJs are not journalists (and supposedly subject to a code of ethics), but entertainers.  And to me, this gets to the crux of it. What price does the public put on its own entertainment? Is it anything within the law? Or should we be thinking about what this sort of pushing-the-envelope pranksterism (typified at its worst by Kyle Sandilands on the same station) says about us and the society we live in? Dennis Muller of Melbourne University sums it up:
 "It is entirely foreseeable that bad behaviour will have bad consequences, and it is here that 2DAY FM, its licence-holder Southern Cross Austereo, its management and its board of directors are culpable.They have created a culture of reckless indifference to the welfare of others and contempt for norms of decency.
"There is nothing more personal or private than information about a person’s health. It sits at the very core of what the concept of personal privacy means.

"To obtain private information about a person’s health without that person’s consent is itself a serious breach of ethics. To obtain it by deception makes it worse, and to then broadcast it publicly over the radio makes it beyond all civilised standards of behaviour.

"How these two broadcasters thought any of this was acceptable beggars belief. However, the real culprits here are their managers and employers. It is they who create the climate in which such conduct is even conceivable. It is they who, in the final analysis, are responsible for the material going to air."
So where were the adults in the room at 2DAYFM? Are there any? Or have we reached the point where everyone's life issues, however private and sensitive, are just fodder for the gladiatorial entertainment confected for audiences by cynical broadcast licensees?
It seems those questions will have to be left for later. For we have now reached the backlash to the backlash. So that means the correct thing to do is feel awfully for the DJs and protect them from the mob (who are indistinguishable from the audience). And sure enough, "Michael and Mel" have done their ritual penance, but only in front of the cameras of Nine and Seven mind you - ostensibly because those are the ones who can best fund their own and the Southern Cross Austereo legal bill. No money is to be had out of cash-strapped Channel Ten and the publicly funded ABC. Even contrition in the Australian media is a business opportunity.

So far the script is playing out to pattern. After this period of ritualised outrage on social media and sponsorship withdrawal and sobbing on camera, normal transmission slowly will be returned. Half the population will go back to listening to angry old right-wing geezers venting about refugees and other half will tune into 20-something bimbos playing phone pranks on the unsuspecting.

All for our entertainment.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Scraping the Barrel

The more irrelevant newspapers become, the greater their resort to spin, deceit and wilful manipulation in the service of pandering to their readers' deepest fears and prejudices. Come on down The Daily Telegraph.