30 April 2011

Sing 'em muck

All I can say is, sing 'em muck! It's all [Australians] can understand.

- Nellie Melba to her contemporary Clara Butt, as advice for Butt's tour of Australia

Senior journalists don't think they have to lift the public debate, but their "profession" is vanishing beneath them because lazy journalism doesn't cut it any more.

I haven't read Lindsay Tanner's Sideshow. I want to, and it's on order; but this piece is not a review of that book because I haven't read it yet (call me old-fashioned). When I do, I'll let you know if you call by again.

Barrie Cassidy starts by admitting that a 'sideshow' was placed at centre stage by a media that has no idea what its job is. The fact that all "major" media outlets, from editorial leadership down to on-the-ground hack journalist, had the same collective disinterest in major issues with a vice-like grip on nutcase triviality.

He then introduces a story from the Second World War, a time when real news was actively censored where it was available. There was no network of correspondents throughout Asia like there is now; the Japanese advances through the region over the course of a decade before Pearl Harbour were reported in a piecemeal, almost anecdotal fashion. News mostly came via London and was viewed through the prism of British interests.
The account demonstrates that even with the distraction of a world war, the easily understood personal issue which goes to values, judgments and principles will often cut through when substance and policy will not.

At a time when hard news was hard to come by, at a time when great sacrifice was called for and given, a blatant piece of favouritism undermined popular commitment to matters of substance. Journalists were censored when they reported on hard news - an excuse not open to contemporary journalists.
It's just that the media is so much bigger now, and far more internally competitive.

It's not bigger - it's smaller, less diverse in ownership and more prone to groupthink about "the" story. Cassidy's show Insiders is designed to demonstrate the process by which journalist decide what "the" story of the past week has been and what "the" story of next week will be, with the token right-winger clears his throat and declares what the parallel line will be in rightwing groupthink. Hundreds of press gallery journalists writing the same story, with much the same interpretation, is not a measure of size or competitiveness.
These days consumer interest can be accurately measured through online news services. Site managers can see precisely how many hits each story receives. The sites then reflect that level of interest. That's why online pages are dominated by entertainment and the latest freak shows.

No, it can't. A click on a link is a declaration of faith: 'this article sounds good'. You can only know how good, or how interesting, informative, titillating or whatever an article is after you've read it, not before. Website hits don't measure what viewers think of the article, never mind the ads embedded in it.

There's also the question of what the Australian media is for. If you really want to know what Lindsay Lohan or Katie Price are up to, why would you visit an Australian website or watch an Australian TV show anyway?
It's that sort of stock-taking ability that will encourage commercially driven media outlets to drift further away from the substance.

Commercial media outlets have to show that they get new media, when they clearly don't. That focus on clicks, and other features where a seventeenth century construct (journalism) is shoehorned into a twentyfirst century one (the internet) such as shortened timeframes and multiple reports, is a feature of MSM management in a flat panic.

The internet and social media such as Twitter decouple the link between ads and content that has sustained media organisations for three centuries. It does not do for consultants to tell middle-to-senior management of media organisations that hire them that they are all fools. Instead, they tell them to work the journalists harder; the journalists accept that they are required to do more with less raw information. A press release, or a half-baked consensus, will be all that is needed to base a story on; that, apparently, is good enough for the sorts of people who are stuck with traditional media.
The danger too, is that the politicians, to get any exposure at all, will continue to play along.

You can vote out politicians, Barrie; you can't vote journalists out nearly so easily.

Where you have a class of politicians with no roots in the community at all, where they have been raised to believe that the end (of media exposure) justifies the means (of politics), there is a danger of this. It can only be replaced by politicians - not just MPs and Senators, but a whole party apparatus that preselects such people - who are prepared to take their chances with good policy, and bugger the MSM and their declining audience.
If the internet had been around in the 40s, then maybe Lady Blamey's refusal to return home would have received more hits than daily updates on the looming threat from the north.

If the internet was around in the '40s, wartime censorship would have collapsed and so would the MSM organisations of today that date from that time. There would have been more substantial news from Asia such that the patronising nonsense fed to us from London would have been unsustainable.

Speaking of unsustainable, David Speers has always had the air of a man who has gone a very long way on not much work. In this interview he starts by asking a question that assumes lazy journalism is the norm - so ya gotta love lazy journalism, right?

Speers has gone a long way by playing along with the stuffed-shirt journalism of a time that is passing, and he is miffed that someone who was happy to play the game no longer is. Speers can't do what he does indefinitely and he can't just retire like Barrie Cassidy once he becomes redundant. His mid-life crisis should be a doozy.

God bless him, our old friend PvO thinks Tanner has written the wrong book.
Instead, the media gets the blame for the system's failings far more so than the politicians, even though political leadership should start in parliament. Tanner thinks he has solved the age-old question of "which comes first: the chicken or the egg?", by determining that the media, not politicians' spin, is to blame for the sideshow. A better analysis would have concluded that apportioning blame is an exercise in futility only worthy of sideshow status.

There is a great deal of policy discussion in parliament, Peter, but it doesn't get reported. Journalists will skip a debate on banking reform or mental health funding which they regard as dull in order to cover a "presser" with an "announceable" that doesn't make a damn bit of difference to anyone or anything. If that isn't in Tanner's book it should be.

There is, however, hope in this. It shows that people are seeking out information online that is simply not available in the media (so much for the MSM getting snarky at amateurs online) and overcoming the confusion over politics that journalism does nothing to alleviate. That, Peter van Onselen, is the answer to what you regard as a "chicken and egg" debate - first one to explain to people what they are getting for their taxes wins.

The smart money is on journalism disappearing before politics does. There is an incentive in politics to drop ways of operating that don't work, while in journalism laziness, clich├ęs and dumb ways of operating become "traditions" and "codes of practice" that work to prevent journalism getting over itself.

Update 1 May: Michelle Grattan has spent a lifetime transcribing politicians' output with the aim of explaining how government works. Here she helps prove her own inadequacy:
When you hear, for example, on budget night what the government is doing on mental health, remember Tanner's salutary warning: "It sounds impressive when the responsible minister announces that health spending is to increase by $1 billion dollars over the next four years, and it sounds even better when we're told that it will be at record levels. But there's a fair chance that we're being misled by such claims.

"For example, if the nominated percentage increase is lower than anticipated inflation levels, spending would fall in real terms, and even if it were to increase ahead of inflation, it might still shrink as a proportion of the total economy because of the overall impact of increasing productivity.

"The lesson is simple: whenever a politician cites spending figures to show what a fine job he or she is doing, examine the fine print very carefully." Indeed.

And there you have it: forty budgets that woman has seen come and go, and the extent of her analysis is a single word, "Indeed". There's your indictment of modern journalism right there, a doyenne at work with all the up-and-comers with no choice but to follow in her footsteps. Heaven help us all.


  1. John Bignucolo1/5/11 2:16 pm

    Nice piece Andrew.

    It's been frustrating to watch the MSM deliberately miss the point Lindsay Tanner tried to make in "Sideshow." On the ABC, Leigh Sales and Fran Kelly chose the journalistic tribe over engaging with Tanner's arguments even after he gave them cover for some self-reflection by expressly excluding the ABC from the kind of behaviour he was highlighting. Perhaps they wanted to avoid burning their bridges to News Ltd/Fairfax in case they need a job in the future.

    A similar thing happened during the 2010 federal election campaign when Leigh Sales interviewed Jay Rosen on Lateline on 12 August 2010. Jay Rosen highlighted the MSM's preference for shallow "horse race journalism" when reporting national politics. She wasn't willing to accept his points, but Ms Sales at least had the good grace to look mildly embarrassed on behalf on her profession as his criticisms seemed to hit home.

    Your last point is an important one. One of great things about the internet has been the way it has subverted journalists' traditional role as gatekeepers to information. Now people have direct access to *expert* advice and opinion. Even supposed amateur writings often appear far better informed and perceptive. It makes the material provided by journalists look like very thin gruel indeed.

  2. This weekend's AFR has a fair if short piece by Laura Tingle on Tanner's book and his plaint against the media. The previous article, a two pager alleging that Australia does reform badly/slowly, blames everyone (especially lobby groups and, in a non-sequitur, 'too many politicians'), without once mentioning he media.

  3. 'Follow the money' should be another point being well-made in this debate. It's enthusiastic people like us dumb bloggers, without years of entrenched conditioning in the journosphere, honest toilers in search of a way through the BS that the political Opiniionistas(because they are not really journalists anymore but the entertainers that Tanner pings them as) seek to chuck at us on a daily basis, who are increasingly being listened to as honest brokers. Why? Because the punters realise, and they are not the mugs that the Canberra Press Gallery thinks they are to a woman and a man, that we don't do what we do for money, we do it for love.

  4. I'm waiting for the day when a prominent politician is interviewed by a blogger rather than an MSM journalist ... the sound of thousands of vacuous heads exploding will be music to my ears.

  5. John: so that's why she's blocked me on Twitter!

    Graeme: agreed, a great piece and a woefully patronising piece before it.

    Victoria: it's more a case of consumer backlash. The journosphere can come out with a lot of patronising nonsense about their viewers/listeners/readers, but when we push back they regard us as the Great Unwashed. They love it when people come up to them and give uncritical praise, though.

    Can'tbe: see Turnbull's blog, he does it all.

  6. The MSM is in a period of transition, similar to the change experienced by Movie Theatres during the 1950's when faced with competition from TV.
    It is unlikely that journalists will disappear entirely however many will be forced to make alternate career choices.

  7. Andrew last night I watched Qanda, what was most interesting was the audience of 800. From the questions to the responses of the audience I had the impression, that this electorate was not reflecting what MSM claims is happening in the bush.

  8. Anon: do tell (please don't make me watch it!)