Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Sanity Break

As the Dream of the Ruddstoration fades, we can begin to imagine other ways of reporting the perpetual political circus of Canberra. This police reporter's newscast from Ireland's RTE has the tone about right, I think:

Monday, March 18, 2013

Free Media VS Free Market

Much of the opposition to the federal government's tame media reforms stems from a now ritual assumption among journalists and others that "free markets" are synonymous with "free media". Nothing could be further from the truth.

Following the now infamous photoshopped front pages in the Murdoch tabloids, comparing Communications Minister Stephen Conroy to mass murdering dictators like Stalin, came this screeching meltdown by News Ltd columnist Piers Akerman on the ABC Insiders program.

The hysterical view of Akerman and others, mainly in the News Ltd stable, is that by insisting on a public interest test for media mergers and requiring self-regulating newspapers to live up to their own standards, Conroy is starting the process of "putting back the bricks back into the Berlin Wall".

The Australian people need to understand that this Randian vision of a free press being synonymous with unfettered free markets has been pushed by News Corp across a range of constituencies, most hilariously by Glenn Beck (who showed the way in comparing Obama to Mao and Stalin).

In the UK, following the report of the Leveson inquiry into press corruption, bullying and bribery,  hyperbolic claims by the Murdoch media and others about the consequence of more effective regulation has had the predictable effect of politicians turning to water.

For a media trumpeting the public interest and acting in self-interest, it is easy to make mischief by conflating attempts to improve press accountability with a threat to free market capitalism.  But they are two different things, a point made by philosopher Gary Sauer-Thompson:
"One implication of the Australian media's very hostile reaction...is the notion that democracies must conform to markets," Sauer-Thompson writes. "This market democracy, which is contrasted with political democracy in which the economy is fundamentally subject to democratic authority, has become increasingly ingrained amongst right wing politicians and the media. The further implication is that capitalistic institutions are the best way not only to respect political and economic liberties, but also to achieve a just society."
Thus, the idea of "freedom" has been co-opted by the Right as inseparable from the free market. No freedom can exist, by this definition, within the social institutions of democracy - because governments and regulation on this view of the world are anathema to freedom.  It is the language of the unhinged Tea Party Right and it is now firm established as a middle-of-the-road view here.

What's striking to this writer, as a former journalist, is how younger colleagues in the media industry have begun to assume this correlation. They no longer work for the public, they work for the media institutions that employ them. And their primary role, as they see it, is not to reveal the truth, but to package a version of events in such a way as to help their employers maximise profit. So their job is  serving up what "the public" (in actuality, "the market") demands. And accountability is achieved by and through the market. This is the "if-you-don't-like it-don't-buy-it" defence of lousy journalism.
"The language we use has conflated free markets and free media," writes Dr Cherian George, a research associate of the Asia Research Centre at Murdoch University. "The 'marketplace' analogy has had a powerful influence, encouraging us to equate the sharing of human ideas and experiences with the commercial transaction of goods and services for profit.  When we forget that it is a mere metaphor, it is a short step to believing that any obstacle to the profit motive is a violation of the god-given right to free expression."
 This gets to the underlying truth of the media's exaggerated reactions to the Conroy reform bill. The real issue is not freedom of the press, but the ability of profit-making enterprises to use the privileges of the Fourth Estate to continue to dominate markets (and dictate public policy). In the case of News Corporation, it is clear it's main focus is not on the defence of the dying technology of print media of today, but on the potential to monetise and dominate the broadband future.

Anything, or anyone, that stands in its way risks being demonised as a relic of the Cold War.

See also:
"The Freedom to Make Things Up" - Mike Seccombe, The Global Mail

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Real Despots

The front pages of Rupert Murdoch's tabloids in Australia on Wednesday tell you everything you needed to know about the case for media reform in this country.

A modest, some would say timid, response by Communications Minister Stephen Conroy to the Convergence Review and the independent media review of Ray Finkelstein was met with an hysterical, deceitful and typically self-serving response by the press.

Western suburbs commuters could be forgiven for expecting a morning raid from the secret police after being confronted by the Daily Telegraph's front page comparing Conroy to Stalin, Mao, Mugabe, Castro and every other go-to despot bar Hitler.

In the Herald Sun, Conroy was photo-shopped as a KGB colonel alongside the headline 'Gillard's Henchman Attacks Our Freedom'.

All this over a report which recommends continued self-regulation of the press, supplemented by a public interest test to ensure diversity in media market which is already the most concentrated in the developed world.

No mention of the fact that Conroy outright rejected Finkelstein's recommendation of a statutory News Media Council, replacing the toothless Press Council and incorporating the functions of the current broadcast regulator ACMA.

It was the release of the Finkelstein report early last year which sparked an equally hysterical spray of headline headless chookery. And there has been constant squawking ever sense from an industry that is expert at masking its own interests as the public interest.

Australians should be aware that this calculated misrepresentation of the government's recommendations mirrors closely what happened in the UK late last year after the release there of the report of the Leveson inquiry sparked by the phone-hacking scandal.

 Leveson recommended the appointment of an independent, self regulatory body for the press, and a system of arbitration that allows people who have been victims of media wrongdoing to seek redress without having to go through the courts.

Just as in Australia, the release of the report unleashed a tide of ranting, hysteria from sections of the tabloid press with claims of impending totalitarianism and the ritual locking up of journalists.

Ever the voice of reason, former Murdoch editor Harold Evans eventually stepped in, accusing his former colleagues of cynicism and arrogance and declaring he was appalled by the deliberate misrepresentation of the report's findings.

Would only there such sane voices in Australia, where a poisonous media and political climate makes it virtually impossible to have a rational discussion about media regulation and when even the most modest proposal is met with 7-on-the-richter-scale OUTRAGE.

Lost in the noise that a good deal of the media - the broadcasters - are already subject to statutory regulation, that we have independent courts and a dozens of statutory bodies that operate without government interference. ACMA is one.

No-one is considering the possibility that the true despot is not the state, but a growing plutocracy that destroys the possibility of reform and poisons democracy.

Newspapers are businesses  like any other. Why are they special? And why should newspaper editors, as Leveson said, be allowed to mark their own homework?  Why should they be able to get away with the twisting of facts and outright lies?  Who polices them? How can we expect journalists to be true to their own code of ethics when a single employer controls 70% of the industry? If the media protects the public, who protects the public from the media?

When I studied journalism 30 years ago, my lecturer told us two things that have stuck with me. As a journalist, you have a special responsibility to the public - to be fair, to be balanced, and, most of all, to be truthful. Without truth, there can be no trust. And without trust of the public, you cannot expect to maintain the privileges of a journalist.

In that case, The Fourth Estate becomes The Failed Estate. Welcome to the Murdochcracy.

(See also:)

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Shrink Wrapped

"Buy a slice of history!' The Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age flooded the streets with old fashioned paper boys and girls recently to exploit the novelty of these long established broadsheets making the transition to tabloid ('compact' in Fairfax-speak).

"The compact print edition launch is a significant moment in the history of Fairfax Media, enabling readers to engage with both mastheads in a more user-friendly print format," the company quaintly trumpeted in a news release which hailed a "new era" in newspaper publishing.

Pardon my cynicism, but flogging a shrunken newspaper as a great innovation in an age of global digital real-time information networks is rather like someone back in 1982 trying to sell you eight-track cartridges just as compact discs were first becoming available.

Being a retired hack, I was naturally asked by friends and colleagues what I thought of this startling innovation by Fairfax. To be frank, I find it hard to have a strong opinion. It is like asking me whether I prefer to drink beer out of a bottle or a can. It's just a container after all. The important stuff is what's inside.

Of course, the transition to tabloid is just one part of Fairfax's reinvention. It's also made a huge effort in developing its masthead websites, mobile sites and tablet editions. As someone who no longer buys newspapers, I believe it's here where their money is best invested (even if the profit margins are still better in print). I'm not sure how they'll monetise it, but I wish them well.

Like a lot of people, I don't have any  allegiance to a particular newspaper. Instead, I gravitate to certain writers whom I trust - either in dead tree media or new media - like Laura Tingle at the AFR, Nicholas Gruen at Club Troppo, John Quiggin at his blog, and Peter Martin and Ross Gittins at the SMH/Age (interestingly, in his first two tabloid pieces, Ross came over all Akermanish).

A lot of other good writers have left the industry or gone out on their own - like David Marr and Melissa Sweet (Australia's best health writer) and, most recently, Adele Horin, who has a new blog called Coming of Age, which tackles the distinctly unfashionable (but distinctly relevant) issues around getting older.What matters ultimately are the ideas, not the delivery mechanism.

For me, local metro newspapers' role as a filter is redundant. RSS and Twitter feeds give me the best of the world from The Atlantic, The Guardian, The Economist. Twitter lets me know if there is anything on the local radar worth looking into. And Facebook keeps me up to date on the lives of friends around the world.

Like many people, I'm overwhelmed with information and news. I know what is happening. What's often missing is good explanation and background and context and analysis that is something more than a quick call around the usual suspects for quotes an hour before deadline. That sort of perspective takes experience and judgement and an eye for something other than a quick splash.

In that context, whether the Herald is broadsheet or tabloid is irrelevant. It's yesterday's news served up on dead trees.