18 March 2009

How would you know?

For the average, lazy journalist, quoting a spokesperson and not questioning what they say is all that's necessary to support a MSM story. This unquestioning quotation is called "reportage" and even now, in the face of all the evidence, journalists still regard this as the core of their job - if they have one.

Here is an example of why the whole value of the spokesperson has to be questioned. An employee of Telstra embarrasses the Federal Communications Minister. It would have been perfectly understandable for Telstra to take some sort of action against an employee who did this - David Quilty has shown admirable restraint in not wringing Nassar's neck, regardless of formal reporting lines within that organisation. Yet, a spokesman strained any credibility he may have by denying any sort of admonition had taken place.

Nobody believed the spokesman anyway, but the question has to be asked: how would you know? How would you know if this employee had been disciplined? If he had not been, would you say so?

Good on Leslie Nassar for throwing the spokesperson under the bus: however, he deserves to be condemned for being photographed with that child under these circumstances. Imagine if Telstra or Conroy had dragged Nassar's child into the controversy, would this not be gratuitous and awful? Similarly, Nassar should have scheduled some daddy-time outside his media commitments and not used this little girl as some sort of PR prop. Who does he think he is, a politician?

Spokespeople have a nasty habit of going to ground in the middle of (to use a Prime Ministerial expression) a shitstorm, which must surely reduce their value to journalists: a spokesperson who won't speak when there is a great need for them to be heard from is a useless creature indeed, and their value in the normal course of events must be vastly diminished as a result. Still, lazy journalists keep going back to unreliable spokespeople, who feed them pap which they then pass onto consumers, who shun MSM as a result.

Spokespeople will only ever be good for generating pap, which may keep journalists busy but is of no value to consumers, which has an effect on the financial results of media organisations that produce nothing else.

This is the kind of thing you get from a spokesperson: all transmit, no capacity to receive let alone reflect and adjust behaviour that has no value to the consumer. The sheer hilarity of the first paragraph sets the tone for this piece:
Australians consume politics like we consume sports: as spectators, and usually from the comfort of the couch. Our aversion to joining the game has led to a reliance on government that is unhealthy, dangerous to our democracy, and costly to the economy.

To be fair to Andrew Maiden, he has been saying that sort of thing for as long as I've known him. To be fair to Maiden and everyone else, the only proof that he believes this is having heard or read him saying so, no other proof exists in word or deed of him following through on cultivating and articulating any sort of broad-based movement. This is someone who learnt to cultivate and transmit messages, and to shun any message he had not actively sought, and to only seek messages which fitted his preconceptions anyway.
… good public policy depends on competition between governments, business and community groups in the marketplace for ideas.

Yes, indeed it does - but Telstra's competition in the marketplace of ideas failed because it did not know where to start in courting community opinion, except by taking the sort of "catch the vision or catch the bus" tone it adopted with employees, until it got to the point where anyone opposing Telstra was favourite to win any public debate in which Telstra participated.
Experiments repeatedly show that groups of regular citizens, each looking after their own interests, on average produce outcomes that are superior to the judgements of experts.

The same can be said for spokespeople, really, except they offer less of the expertise that makes experts reliable commentators about their field of expertise - and such convenient scapegoats for spokespeople.
The late William Buckley once said: “If I had a choice between being governed by the Harvard faculty or the first 100 names in the Boston phone book, I would take the phone book”. He said that because history is replete with examples of experts and technocrats getting it wrong.

Buckley said that because the old populist fancied his chances in pulling the wool over the eyes of random strangers as opposed to people with access to information and trained in critical thought.
... the founder of telephone company AT&T, Theodore Vail, predicted that one day there would be a market for “fifty calls a day between New York and Chicago”.

Yeah, those dills who run telcos eh!

Vail's words weren't proven wrong, despite being wrenched out of context and flung into our faces like that. Presumably there was a time when the number of calls was less than fifty, when Vail would have made that statement (and let's assume he did), and now that call volumes exceed this it ill behoves us to be too clever after the event. Vail hadn't said that the number of calls should be capped at fifty, or that if the government was offering free money to increase call capacity then the very effort should be resisted and scorned. Vail is probably dead by now, which is why it takes a spokesperson to hold him up to ridicule.

Much more pertinent to Maiden's case (insofar as there is one) would be Bill Gates' oft-quoted statement from the early '70s that nobody would need more than 637KB of memory in a personal computer. Let's leave aside the Telstra-Microsoft relationship, you wouldn't need a Fake Bill Gates as the real one actually admits having said that. Gates has clearly modified his position - not because he's competing with government, citizens or anyone else in the marketplace for ideas. Because he's not a Telstra executive, Gates is clearly open to the idea that his own opinions might not be the most important ones, and that there is profit in adapting to people's wishes rather than talking past them.

What neither Vail, Gates, Preece nor any other "expert" has not done is put text in bold to emphasise the points you want to make or even random phrases, like they did in Mad Magazine to let you know when a punchline was approaching.
Imagine if powerful governments, relying on expert opinion and unconcerned with the free market, had regulated on the basis that Preece and Vaile [sic] were right.

As opposed to powerless governments relying on polls of badly-informed citizens, perhaps.

It is an ongoing fantasy of Telstra's that it is a free market organisation. Its market position and almost all of its infrastructure was funded by taxpayers and built by public servants. Its business depends utterly on government regulation and upon smooth relationships with government. When Telstra does well, it is due to effective lobbying; when Telstra does badly (over broadband, for example), it is because of ineffective lobbying, such as that practiced by national punchline Dr Phil Burgess. When it comes to PR and government relations, you could say that Burgess - and even Maiden - are experts.

You reflexively add an "e" to the surname "Vail" if you've focused more on public-sector Mark rather than private-sector Theodore.
Yet in Australia, decisions about technology investments have too often made this way rather than by free markets.

The implication here is that Australian government policy - presumably including both Labor and Coalition policy - are dedicated to limiting the growth of broadband speeds. There is no proof of this. The government offered some money to increase broadband speeds, and Telstra didn't want it. This complaint implies that the government is restricting Telstra's efforts to introduce new and better technologies: no such restrictions exist, no such efforts exist, and you won't catch me claiming that new and better ICT technologies than those currently available in Australia can't and won't exist.
For instance the decision about how to construct Australia’s national broadband network is in the hands of experts, not the free market, even though the delay is costing our economy $200 million each month we wait.

Despite the cost to our nation, few companies aside from Telstra (and few executives aside from Telstra’s outgoing public policy chief, Dr Phil Burgess) have been willing to engage citizens in public debates that affect their economic interests. They have been concerned about upsetting governments, or deterred by the unwillingness of Australians to join the game.

I love the "we" who wait, as though you and I are partly culpable for not whacking up a national broadband network in our spare time so that Telstra could have a good old natter.

Why doesn't Telstra show those amateurs sucking on the government teat how a proper broadband network should be done? At the rate the NBN is going, with all that red tape and nobody certain about who's Stephen Conroy and who isn't, Telstra should have a broadband network up and running before contracts are signed. Why hasn't that happened? It isn't because the government wants to cap broadband speeds, or because it is limiting Telstra's capacity to compete with NBN. Telstra could render the NBN redundant; it should have been using its size and power - and yes, its expertise - to do so once the previous government started with its ultimately pointless OpEl malarkey.
This is why Telstra has attempted to transform the debate over our broadband future by inviting citizens to join the conversation. In fact everything we have done has been intended, one way or another, to mobilise the civic sector and empower civic leaders to take a greater role in debates affecting their vital interests.

Rugged free-enterprise types will tell you that infrastructure gets built with money, expertise and equipment, not debates. William Buckley, yes the very same William Buckley, knew that and wrote about it eloquently and extensively. What is shaped by debate is government policy, and Telstra should have learnt the perils of relying on government policy.

All of Telstra's vigorous activity in the government relations/PR space has yielded it much the same benefit had it joined the rest of us upon the couch, and far less than it would have gained by actually producing the sort of super broadband network that makes those in Korea and Japan run like Preece's messenger boys.
They are essentially about transforming debate in our sector from a passive spectator sport, into an active participant sport.

No, coming through with a fast and reliable network without any help from government would have demonstrated the kind of credibility Telstra so desperately lacks. In telecommunications, as in sport, action can be inspiring to team-mates and spectators and dispiriting to competitors and nay-sayers. It certainly speaks louder than words, even bold words, or words in bold.
It’s time to get active, a little sweaty and definitely out of breath.

Depends on what you're hoping to achieve, other than the sound of your own voice or other self-pleasuring activities. I always found Maiden's handshakes to be clammy, and now I understand why.

If you're out of breath you can't talk, and if you can't talk you can't participate in debates: which is all Maiden and everyone else in Telstra could hope for. Like his employer, Maiden can't participate in a debate which he hasn't framed, which limits his ability to complain that the debate is taking place without him. William Buckley wasn't afraid to wade into debates he hadn't framed - including many at Harvard, and on couches - where he built the respect of many whether or not they agreed with his views on particular issues, or in general.

Kill the spokesperson! The way to do that is to question their epistemology - you could restore media organisations to robust good health (including, but not only, financially) and have all spokespersons sacked with the simple deployment of that phrase, "how would you know?". Journalists who do not have a Communications degree can use the following examples:
Spokesperson: Telstra has taken no action against Fake Stephen Conroy.
Journalist: How would you know? If it had, would you say so?

Spokesperson: The government's policies are economically responsible.
Journalist: How would you know? If they weren't, would you say so?

Spokesperson: These shares are an excellent investment.
Journalist: How would you know? If they weren't, would you say so?

Spokesperson: The Liberal Party is united behind its leader.
Journalist: How would you know? If it wasn't, would you say so?

Spokesperson: [Celebrity A] is getting active and a little sweaty with [Celebrity B].
Journalist: How would you know? What if the opposite were true?

Spokesperson: [Random Footballer] is not guilty and will play on Saturday.
Journalist: How would you know?

Spokesperson: I think the Australian media does an excellent job in calling people to account.
Journalist: How would you know?


Media organisations lose credibility, and thereby their market, because they transmit low-credibility pap - it is time they insisted on providing their consumers with better-quality information and increased the quality of information provided. It would encourage journalists to go after substantial information and therefore have a more secure basis for opinion and analysis on how the actions of government and other organisations affect us as consumers - on the couch or anywhere else.

Andrew Elder is an official spokesperson for Politically Homeless and definitely no expert, and thanks you for wading through such a long post.

Update 3/4: Andrew Maiden did a search for me on LinkedIn. Wonder what he learned, if anything.

1 comment:

  1. Andrew Maiden7/4/09 2:13 pm

    Hi Andrew,

    As it happens, I didn't do a search for you on LinkedIn. Never have.

    Andrew Maiden