02 May 2009

Journalist wakes up, rolls over, goes back to sleep

This article shows dangerous signs of understanding by a journalist as to what is really happening with her profession. Chuck her out of the MEAA at once! Off with her head!
Sent to one of the British Prime Minister's most trusted advisers, the text message arrived with a chilling portent: "What is best in life? To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, to hear the lamentations of their women?"

Three days later its recipient, Damien McBride, was forced to fall on his sword, his political career ended by a dirty tricks email scandal leaked to the text's sender, Guido Fawkes, an incendiary political blogger.

This construction makes McBride look like the innocent victim of a set-up. The quote is only "chilling" if you don't know where it comes from: it is a famous scene from the famously bad Conan the Barbarian, a pop-culture cliche. In this context, it shows a couple of gutless wankers who thought they were tough guys, a myth that journalists should do more to puncture in covering politics. While Totaro explains it eventually, she tries to draw her reader into a feeling of sharing insider knowledge rather than judging this behaviour against normal (non-insider) standards.

Recent coverage of the "Swinging Dicks" in the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party showed the appropriate level of derision - Totaro, in setting up the vile McBride as more-sinned-against, is practicing old-school insider journalism at its worst. It's an appalling lead-in to the real import of this article, which is just how badly her profession has failed.
Totaro's contempt for bloggers is obvious:
... Fawkes and a couple of his most influential colleagues, including the Tory blogger and author Iain Dale, were briefly coaxed away from their computers to chat about the ever-expanding online universe. Ensconced at a table in the shabby elegance of London's Foreign Press Association, they looked like suburban bankers: smug, chubby faces framed by neat hair and pressed white collars ... Guido Fawkes, the nom de plume of 42-year-old Paul Staines, is an internet cowboy ... a "convicted criminal, one-time national video-games champion, former acid-house party organiser ... turned blogger after declaring bankruptcy after a disastrous stint as a hedge fund trader.

As though journalists don't spend their time at computers, rewording press releases and taking phone calls from people like McBride. As though journalists aren't smug, chubby or neat, aren't cowboys or failures at other occupations. Totaro should have had the decency to explain Fawkes' alias, rather than leaving it hanging and going the smear.
But behind the benign English facade bubbled an unapologetic disdain for politicians and media, and a warning the blogosphere is hell-bent on forcing a political revolution. And first on the list to go are the so called "lobby rules" - the conventions that govern the authorised media's Westminster coverage.

First, this nebulous term "blogosphere". A sphere has a surface equally distant from a fixed point; nothing could be further from an apt description for political bloggers. Is "hell-bent" an appropriate expression here?

What exactly is the "authorised media"? Authorised by whom, for what purpose? Definitions of terms like "Smeargate"?

And yes, fuck the "lobby rules". This is a convenience for people too lazy to get off their backsides and get out of the lobby to hunt down real stories that affect people, their wishes for reform and their accommodations with what gets dished out from government.
[Fawkes/Staines] argues self-censorship is the greatest scourge of fearless political reporting, but that it is endemic in Westminster and other Western democracies. McBride's history of bullying and vicious texting, for example, had been well known, he said, but nobody dared expose it until the Smeargate emails were leaked and McBride stepped down.

"That is my big hobby horse, self-censorship. If you upset a talking head, a minister, then you won't get access to them. If you upset party leaders, they will deny you interviews, deny you stories and exclusives … This game has been going on forever and it has become industrialised [sic] now." (When Kevin Rudd's angry outburst to an airline hostess was published last month, marring the Prime Minister's trip to the London G20 summit, there was grumbling among travelling Australian parliamentary journalists who had heard the bad temper stories but hadn't checked or reported them.)

No explanation of why the "[sic]" was inserted - it's not a grammatical error, are you disputing the word "industrialised" Paola? You were a flack for Bob Carr and have no excuse for being so lacking in self-reflection that you can't bear to consider whether or not it is so, and why.

Why is the Australian experience in parentheses, like it's irrelevant? Just because you're a European correspondent does not make issues affecting we provincials somehow by-the-by. It is the function of foreign correspondents to explain what is happening elsewhere to Australians, not to condescend to your readers as though Westminster tittle-tattle is more important than the behaviour of Australia's Prime Minister toward those less powerful than he.
Staines is adamant that politics is best reported from the outside in.

Yep, there's something in that Paola, if only you'd think about it. You don't have to be a video-games champion to point this out. Politicians are meant to be representatives of the society they govern, yet most political journalism - in Australia, the UK and elsewhere - reads like it is the society that reacts to political initiatives, or that insider gossip is more interesting and relevant than it really is.
Dale says the power of the blogger is his status as an outsider: "He will go after anyone, Labour or Conservatives … It doesn't matter."

Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's legendary media adviser, is more sceptical. A diarist-blogger too, he pooh-poohs claims of cosy relations between Labour and the press gallery but is candid about the recent email scoop: "Any journalist worth their salt would have jumped at running what was a great story … but [Fawkes] still had to put it into newspapers for maximum impact."

The fact that Alastair Campbell can be taken at face value for such a claim is outrageously poor journalism on Totaro's part. Campbell is guilty of many of the crimes and misdemeanours ascribed to Staines.

Firstly, Paola, it was Campbell's job to build those cosy relations (he wouldn't be "legendary" without them). Secondly, things have changed since Campbell's day. There were hardly any blogs in 1997, and it is understandable that the relationship today might not be as cosy as it was after a dozen turbulent years. Thirdly, "any journalist worth their salt" who ran frank and fearless stories against Blair got rocketed by Campbell and shut out of the profession in the manner described by Staines above - in the manner that you did to NSW press gallery journalists who wouldn't swallow Bob Carr whole and on his terms.
he is also cautious about the real import of the political blogger: "I think they are running away from themselves. They are still all about positioning themselves, getting on TV or radio and trying to become alternative news channels. But my feeling is that they are still tiny in terms of reach. I think the jury is still out on the blogosphere's long-term future or its real impact."

It is Campbell who is running away from himself, playing at blogging while keening for attention from the mainstream media. Campbell, a self-confessed alcoholic and marathon-addict, has a long history of running away from himself. I hope he doesn't consider himself part of a jury that is determining his future and impact.

This blog is "tiny" in terms of reach, just like most stories on Radio National, or all those stories that darling! Simply everyone! was writing about burning issues like Howard-Costello or who'd get what under a Crean Government, or other examples of insider tattle that failed to resonate outside the journosphere.

As for this blogger, I've been doing this for three years and have been contacted by four mainstream media journalists, all at their initiative. I'm not looking for mainstream media exposure because I don't respect the groupthink and the redundant conventions that make Australian media consumers so poorly served by those who would identify events of the day and interpret it to them. I've got a real job and a real life and I do this in my spare time, working out just why exactly I think the Australian media sucks so hard as it does. Restaurant critics can critique restaurants without being opposed to all food, but the only critiques of Australian media apart from this blog are:

  • Crusty old Mark Day, who insists that old-fashioned tabloid muck is all we need;

  • The ABC's Media Watch, which is only fronted by journalists and which largely penalises transgressions by non-journalists like Alan Jones, and does nothing to examine or explain why mainstream media plays a decreasing role in the lives of Australians;

  • Occasional pieces in Crikey;

  • Richard Glover (on ABC 702 Sydney) who rhetorically asks "is the media to blame?", which is always resolved in the negative;
  • Lame undergraduate debates; and

  • Nope, that's pretty much it.

I'm not keeping the media bastards honest, but I am showing why they're incompetent bastards.
Criticism of the relationship between parliamentary journalists and governments is not new.

Maybe not, Paola, but the question for you in an opinion piece is: is it valid?
Nick Jones, a former BBC political editor and author of Sultans Of Spin, was ostracised and dismissed as a maverick when he published his critique of Blair, the media and New Labour.

Including your mate Campbell, however much he might "pooh-pooh" it.
Now this veteran reporter, too, has turned blogger. Says Dale: "When people like Nick blow the whistle on systems that are effectively corrupt that is what happens: they are dismissed, not taken seriously."

This is why it's so hard being a whistleblower: if you've got hot docs to inject into the public domain, are you going to go to a press gallery journalist who wants to be/is sleeping with a press sec, or are you going to post it to Wikileaks?
The [British] Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, must find accusations of cosy relationships between Labour and journalists galling. He has received unrelenting bad press for more than a year.

And unrelenting good press, thanks to your mate Campbell and dullards like the prelapsarian Jones, for more than a decade before that. It's that culture that created the vacuum that blogging is trying to fill. Criticism of the relationship between parliamentary journalists and governments is not new, but blogging represents an example of what might/should fill that void if the journosphere huddles against it.
[Brown's] government - struggling and fighting the leaks of the end of an electoral cycle - appears to have sparked a national ennui with the political class.

The fact that Brown is struggling against leaks, rather than more substantial issues of governing Britain, is part of its problem. If Totaro had bothered to explain the origin of Fawkes' blogname, she might have discovered that this "ennui" is hardly novel.
Australia may be half a world away but it, too, has Westminster-style parliaments and a similar media, albeit much smaller and less pluralist. Chances are that an equally spirited - perhaps even dangerous - political blogosphere isn't too far away.

Less pluralist and more cowed by latter-day Campbells, Paola. Australia already has plenty of spirited political blogs, a pity that you're too lazy to access them from your Euro-eyrie. Fairfax is dying, Paola, and so are the "lobby rules"; could you make it as a content provider, or even an intelligent commentator, on your own observations in a society that didn't revolve around insider tittle-tattle? Could you bear to live a life in a community which shaped, and was shaped, by decisions of government and which judged those decisions by its own standards rather than "lobby rules" or hysterical self-abandoning frauds like Alistair Campbell? Take a step outside the journosphere, Paola.

As to whether blogs are "dangerous" - dangerous to what? Dangerous to whom?

Paola Totaro is bewildered by the world in which most of us live, which is why her attempt to take "Smeargate" and turn it into something we can all use is so ridiculous. The fact that Fairfax has canned its graduate program looks like less of a tragedy once you realise that Lady Paola's idle ponderings about the possibility of an Australian blogosphere represent a standard to which journalists are supposed to aspire, rather than transcend.

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