Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Damned Lies and Journalism

'The nation is drowning in debt. The federal government has lost control of public finances. The NBN is a disaster. Business is struggling because union thugs are destroying productivity growth. We are being overwhelmed with illegal boat arrivals. Refugees are living on welfare and bleeding us dry.'

If your main sources of news are the mass market Murdoch tabloids and the commercial radio shock jocks, it is a fair bet that the above statements might significantly reflect your view of the world. And it is fair bet that those beliefs will play a major role in how you vote in the federal election in September.

That's a pity, because those statements, which are ritually presented as "news" (not  opinion) by the likes of the Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun, are not true. They are misrepresentations, they are distortions and, in some cases, they are outright lies manufactured by a media magnate seeking to deliver an election outcome which suits his commercial and ideological imperatives.

The sheer volume of this muck prompts one to ask where journalists stand. For instance, we constantly see  deceitful scare stories about public debt, devoid of context. In the case of this boogeyman, the News Ltd scribblers conveniently leave out that to ensure a liquid bond market, gross debt will rise if government  issuance is kept at a set ratio to the economy (as requested by  APRA, the RBA and other key institutions). They ignore that our net debt is among the lowest in the OECD, and they will ritually overlook that, in the eyes of bodies like the IMF, our debt is of no concern at all. These are facts. They are not 'left-wing' facts. They are facts.

The Murdoch press runs hysterical campaigns that this country is heavily taxed, that public spending is out of control or that the current government has increased the impost on consumers and business, when the truth is the Howard and Costello government was the highest taxing and spending in Australian history. But don't take Ross Gittins' word for it, ask the IMF.

On the national broadband network, the biggest public infrastructure project in Australia since the Snowy Mountains irrigation scheme, it is right and quite proper for the media to exercise scrutiny of any mismanagement or cost over-runs. That's their job. But anyone reading the daily beat-ups in the Murdoch press campaigning against  the NBN could be forgiven for concluding that News Corp has a vested commercial interest in seeing it fail.  On that score, the fact that Abbott and Turnbull chose Murdoch's Foxtel studio as the venue to unveil their alternative broadband scheme tells you everything you need to know about why the nation's most powerful media group is running such a hard line on this story.

The business press, meanwhile, manufactures "exclusives" which parrot CEOs warning of a productivity "crisis" in the economy, despite hard evidence that productivity has actually been improving in recent quarters. As the one or two sane voices remaining in the mainstream press have pointed out, these sort of pesky facts don't suit the preferred narrative of ruin and incompetence under Labor.

Debt and economy scaremongering one can live with. But it is the slanted and mischievous  coverage of boat arrivals, more than any other issue, that condemns  the state of mainstream tabloid journalism in this country. If you hadn't already noticed, no opportunity to push the buttons of fear and prejudice is wasted. If a fact can be bent sufficiently out of shape to stoke fears of an alien invasion, it will be done.

The irony is the facts about boat arrivals are freely available. As the prominent barrister, QC and human rights advocate Julian Burnside points out, it is NOT  illegal to seek asylum here. There is no queue for them to join. The number of refugees is  extremely small (1 for every 1000 Australians), most arrivals are by plane and asylum seeker numbers here are a fraction of those in other developed economies. We have about 4 million authorised arrivals a year. Boat people make up 0.2% of that. Yet we don't hear this. Why?

We don't hear this because a big chunk of the mainstream media has decided its job is to pander to ignorance, to push people's buttons, to recycle myths so as to generate emotional reactions and manufacture outrage that generates page impressions so the public looks at their paid ads.

But that's the media's problem. The media is not journalism. The media's business model is busted and it's searching for a way to bring back eyeballs to keep its declining advertising base happy. That has nothing to do with the professional obligations of journalists, which have not changed at all.

For those unfamiliar with quaint notions of professional standards, journalists are obliged by their code of ethics to "report and interpret honestly" and to strive "for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts".  They must not suppress relevant facts or give distorting emphasis and they must do their utmost to give a fair opportunity for reply.

So ask yourself: When did journalism become defined by an ability to just make stuff up so long as it attracts sufficient eyeballs? When did success in journalism become defined as a capacity for creating click-bait that panders to prejudice, ignorance and the ambitions of flaky political carpetbaggers?

When did business journalism become about supplying unpaid PR spin for rent-seeking lobbies seeking to pass off their own commercial interests as the public interest? At what point did economic journalists decide that the facts were just too inconvenient to fit a prevailing political narrative?

Finally, when did we sit back in Australia and decide to let a US citizen who presides over an organisation that hacks phones, promotes illegal wars and trashes corporate governance to promote regime change and run our democracy by remote?

And, ladies and gentlemen, Mr Murdoch does all of this in the name of freedom .

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The God Complex

Once upon a time in politics - not that long ago, at least in human years - the mainstream media audience sat respectfully in the grandstands watching the game. Journalists, on the  other hand, were on first name terms with players and coaches and had a cosy, inside view of the action.

Now, as is increasingly evident, the audience is invading the pitch. The old insiders' game is breaking up. And the former participants and stenographers are clearly ruing the loss of clubby exclusivity. On Twitter, they can be seen pompously blowing their whistles and citing rules that no longer apply.

There are a handful of these former mainstream media referees in social media, cutely patronising everyone with an opinion as "partisan" and arrogantly casting themselves as Mr and Mrs Reasonable. Worse, they seem incapable of seeing the pathology of their own supposed "non-partisanship".

The concepts of 'the view from nowhere' and 'false equivalence' are well documented by US academic Jay Rosen. But many Australian MSM journalists seem to be having difficulties getting their heads around the concepts, preferring instead to hide behind the shield of fake objectivity.

For those who aren't familiar with these terms, the 'view from nowhere' is the reflexive position taken by journalists in which they place themselves at the comfortable and non-controversial centre between polarised extremes. Because they are neither "that" nor "this", they get to call themselves “impartial.”  As Rosen describes it, the view from nowhere particularly suits a two-party system because it posits there are only two views about any issue; this leaves them comfortably inside a beige demilitarized zone in the middle where Truth as Defined by Public Polling reigns.
"(The view from nowhere) is an attempt to secure a kind of universal legitimacy that is implicitly denied to those who stake out positions or betray a point of view. Journalists have almost a lust for the View from Nowhere because they think it has more authority than any other possible stance."
False equivalence is part of the same strand of thinking that announces itself as fair and even-handed but that is really about escaping the responsibility of judgement. It's the "on the one hand, on the other" school of reporting that grants equivalence to cranks against established and well researched fact. Think of the mealy mouthed news stories that talk about the "vaccination debate" (whose side are you on?) or climate change. It frankly suits the media to turn every issue into a bipolar circus even if "the other side" is occupied exclusively by nutjobs, cranks and conspiracy theorists.

In this world, journalists act as boundary riders, policing what is and isn't admissable in any debate and establishing the terms of our discourse. They proudly project themselves as virtual ciphers interested only in the Truth, while declaring that everybody else is playing grubby politics or crude partisanship. It's a neat trick and serves to control the rules of the game in a way that suits journalists and their corporate masters.

But as Rosen has described it, the view from nowhere really only dates from about the mid-20th century when the media sought out mass audiences and found it commercially useful to position its editorials as a kind of "Voice of God", an omniscient referee in the sky with no stake in the game. Prior to this, however, the press was nakedly partisan and would frequently publish outright falsehoods to push the case of the political or business class its publications represented. Rightly or wrongly, we now seem to be returning to that world, which is why individual journalists who cling to the romantic notion of themselves as above it all are having such a hard time adjusting.

If journalists are to succeed in a dis-intermediated world, they are going to have to stop seeing themselves as boundary riders, referees and disembodied voices of a superior being and get in amongst it with everyone else. That doesn't mean, by the way, that they can't be fair and balanced and accurate. But the notion of absolute objectivity or the journalist as outsider needs to be retired.

After all, there is nothing unique about their views. For the most part, they have no information that is not available to everyone else. Much as they might imagine otherwise, they do not dictate the terms of the debate. They are not 'in charge' and above it all. And even in their most studied 'objectivity', they can be as partisan as anyone.