11 October 2012

Media regulation: everything will be all right

But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.

- George Orwell Nineteen Eighty-Four
The only hope for the media in Australia lies in innovation and courage. In the absence of those qualities it will almost certainly plump for more regulation rather than less. This is a reversal from their timeless principles of, oh, earlier this year. It will be interesting to see if the regulators oblige.

Last year there was an inquiry into the way the mainstream media handles complaints, chaired by former judge Ray Finkelstein. At the same time was the inception of a different but related inquiry into the way that online media effectively blurs the distinctions between of previously separate domains of print, audio-only radio and audio-visual TV (known as "the Convergence Review"). At the time, the journosphere consensus was that:
  • both would result in greater regulation of the media; and
  • that greater regulation of the media was a Bad Thing, if not a Threat To Democracy And Free Speech; and
  • that even the merest tweak to existing legislation, let alone A Whole Raft (a raft being the collective noun for legislative measures, apparently) would mean Goebbels and gulags and gabble gabble gabble ...
At around the same time there was a bit of coat-trailing to the effect that if the government funds some journalists (at the ABC and SBS), why not keep all journalists and journalism in the manner to which they/it had become accustomed? This came hard on the heels of sizeable government subsidies support incentives donations to the car industry. Tendentious comparisons were made to public funding for utilities or the arts.

Soon afterwards, the government proposed to retain the internet browsing data of all Australians. They imposed Control Orders on some people and locked others up indefinitely without charging them. The MSM were not as alert to threats to the liberties of Australians as you'd hope their experience would have taught them, focused as they were on former union officials misappropriating expenses and a political staffer who seemed, career-wise, attracted to a politician as sordid as himself.

The whole process demonstrated the sheer bankruptcy of the idea that when the MSM campaigns on an issue, the politicians had better watch out because the public will get right behind it and sweep away any governmental inertia or stalemate. If they can't act in their own interests then their periodic campaigns about public transport or crime or anything else will be worthless: have your say, make a comment.

Then came the Alan Jones thing, which has hit commercial radio in Sydney as suddenly and as decisively as September 11. Jones is the most commercially and politically powerful shock-jock in a town that tolerates them more than most. Much is made of Jones' part-ownership of his station, 2GB, but until two weeks ago he largely carried that station financially: to the victor the spoils. It wasn't as though social media campaigns in this country picked off a succession of commercial radio small-fry before taking on the big guys - target number one was the biggest target in the biggest market.

Notwithstanding Mike Carlton's dump, the fact is that Jones has - had - the veneer of class and success that the rest of the station has always lacked, and which it keens for now. That veneer kept the oldies loyal. It is indispensable to conservatism generally and the myth of that station as the place through which you reach a wide and influential audience: going, going ...

Without Jones 2GB is like Kyle Sandilands without the catchy tunes: reporting on politics, but as remote from it as Sandilands' showbiz gossip is from actually influencing events there. The other presenters on that station tend to be grubs, there is no reason to talk or listen to them.

"Without Jones" is a real possibility. No other radio announcer - not even on the ABC - would have kept their job after embarrassing their station and causing it such massive financial damage. Jones is in his early 70s. It is clear that there has been no succession or key-man planning even assuming that their business model hadn't been broken, which it has been. This is the epitome of sloppy management: a failure to plan for contingencies that are eminently foreseeable.

For 2GB to let Jones go would see it fall off a cliff of relevance. It would concede that their entire business model has failed, that its audience was never as valuable as the ad space fees suggested. It would see the whole station do what Jones accused another man of doing: die of shame.

The fact that Jones and 2GB have gone from dominant to doomed within one ratings period explains why the story has gone on and on: it's no longer a political story but a media story, and the media will talk about itself long after more substantial issues have been declared passe and dispensed with.

(Google the headline) Christian Kerr illustrates the problems faced by the MSM in coming to terms with this. Kerr noted the story is entering its second week and, again like September 11, the media can't talk about anything else even though they have nothing new to say.

Kerr came to prominence under an online pseudonym, just like "Xerxes" or "Hairy Maclary", or the anonymous troll with the wetsuit metaphor. As with any white-collar worker, Kerr's indispensable work tool is a keyboard. In an earlier era Gough Whitlam called Billy McMahon "Tiberius with a telephone": a neat alliteration but, as with Kerr, it wrongly emphasises the technology over its political use. Any means of communication can be and is a political tool.

I wonder whether the images of keyboards on smartphones and tablets count as "keyboards", or as something else again. Perhaps Kerr's definition makes Jones a "radio activist"? No wonder he's regarded as toxic.

Like Alan Jones, Mark Textor stands on his dignity with a weak logical case and a fairly tendentious record. He asserts that people who organise campaigns through online media can't be mainstream because, ah, because - look, he just made Christian Kerr feel smart by co-opting him into propping up a bogus distinction. Textor was happy to credit Jones as being synonymous with mainstream Australia when Howard was in power, and the decline of Jones' audience was part of Howard's decline. I have written about Textor's strategic and intellectual laziness and Kerr has him compound it with his own, ah, um, well, words.

People have simply grown tired of Jones, and to be tired of Jones is to threaten an entire, previously comfortable industry. The lazy paradigm which he built and sells no longer applies in the real world. Like most conservatives Textor can't pick a fad from a structural shift. Whether he knows it or not, Textor is in a similarly uncomfortable position to the psychic who cancels a show due to "unforeseen circumstances". He will play a leading role in the Coalition's campaign of 2013 to the co-dependent detriment of them and himself. Textor has been shown up here, not by some radical leftie but by an admirer who took his genius as given.

Talkback radio is the nearest thing the mainstream media has to the "anonymous trolls" of Twitter and Facebook. "Bob from Cranbourne" or "Helen from Carlingford" are no less anonymous and pseudonymous than, say, "Hillary Bray". Commercial radio looks silly complaining about the very methods that saw them wield such disproportionate power for a generation. They will give up "Bob" and "Helen" and everyone else if their future depends on it, which it does.

The mainstream media will assert its credibility by railing against "anonymous trolls", and join their cause to that of increasingly intrusive government. This has started with the Daily Telegraph, which still runs quotes from "senior sources" and trolls like so-called "Piers Akerman". Moves to crack down on "online trolling" and "cyberbullying" will be increasingly and warmly applauded in the MSM. Julian Assange has broken more stories than all the journalists at News Ltd Australia put together, but those rallying to his defence are few and getting fewer.

Having learned their lesson with Grog's Gamut (where the pseudonymous blogger exposed as Greg Jericho became a respected commentator on social media rather than a harried, unemployed wretch cringing before the might of News Ltd), the mainstream media will flex its muscles by going after pathetically powerless individuals, especially teenagers embarrassing themselves like so many latter-day Digby Bamfords. They will make the case for government that online anonymity is not on, and the legislation will probably follow.

In return for publicly but selectively abandoning anonymity, the mainstream media will lobby for legal protection of its privileges. For those who abandoned 2GB, both advertiser and media outlet could launch legal action against Facebook users who had them break their contract, if only the law would allow. Press releases now freely available might be restricted, at least for a while, to help the good old MSM get a head start and showcase their "professionalism", while all those cyberpunks behind Gov2.0 have the choice of being co-opted or vilified.

The Right To Know Coalition has no chance against a Right To Exist Coalition. If government action were necessary to secure that then so be it, purely for the shareholders. Assertive independence is all very well but not when commercial survival, and the appearance of real clout, are at stake.

Don't give me any crap about fearless journos asserting an independence from management that they talk about, but don't really have. Journalists differentiate themselves from and above bloggers by the accumulated public reach, clout and history of their employers, compounded of course by their wisdom in hiring such talent as they. Having bagged bloggers so hard for so long they are generally not keen to join us, even when fate intervenes.

The political class (including MPs, staffers and lobbyists and limpets like Textor) did not get where it is through social media. It got where it is as part of a politico-media complex. It regards the insurgency against Jones as random and unpredictable, not foreseeable and controllable, and it will almost certainly act in order to bask in the adulation of the legacy media.

A political class that can get around the MSM effectively has not yet arisen, and only when it has will the impetus to regulate in favour of mainstream media abate. By lobbying for legislative protection the MSM will be even more co-opted than they are now, and that will truly be the death of them: propaganda is unreliable. Worse, it's dull to read, dull to watch and dull to listen to. Take the consumers/voters out and the logic is more compelling: we'll keep on being gatekeepers if you (re)build the gate, and any flaw in the construct is your fault.

Corporate Australia tends to oligopoly. This is true of banking, retail, telecommunications and many other industries. Large players maintain their positions through lobbying to secure regulatory environments that makes it difficult for all but a small number of competitors to challenge them. Libertarians spend time wondering why "free enterprise" doesn't reciprocate their support, time that might be spent more usefully challenging their own assumptions.

The tendency to oligopoly has been a feature of media too. Radio and TV rely on government licences for broadcasting spectrum, but Fairfax and News Ltd achieved the same in newspapers through accumulated scale and reputation and the ability to defend high-stakes lawsuits. As Jonathan Green points out, these organisations are "simple commercial self-interests that are no longer either a public necessity or holders of a public trust". It beggars belief that big media wouldn't engage corporate lobbyists to secure favourable public policy outcomes.

Media organisations won't be able to lobby themselves into existence forever, just as you can't botox yourself to immortality. Market forces, time and technology are against them - but they will give it a good go for a while yet.

There is some hope for a government that has recently been encouraged to go around the MSM, however tentatively, and engage with social media directly. This is hope compounded rather than dashed by its lack of overarching policy direction. By contrast, the Opposition looks increasingly doomed by sticking by the only media it knows: the "main stream", the quest for which is as futile to 21st century Australia as was "the Inland Sea" to the 19th.


  1. swearyanthony11/10/12 9:38 pm

    Step 1: media ignores and minimises Gillard's speech, explains that Slipper was the Real Story. Hartcher in particular was outstanding in this category. (I ignore Sheehan because, well, you have to)

    Step 2: in the face of a massive "what the fuck?" a number of them take to explaining to the rest of us why they are right and we are wrong (PvO on twitter yesterday was *amazing* - at one point hr resorted to the old "I am being criticized by both left and right, clearly I am right" nonsense)

    Step 3: today - media claims that well they can't be expected to know what real people think (huh - pretty sure that might be a useful skill for a writer on politics). Fairfax journo today claimed "I even speak to taxi drivers" yeah you're a regular Thomas Friedman, you are. Maybe if a polling company tells them what people think they can write it up. The hacks saying "oh its just the social media echo chamber" made me laugh so hard.

    I wonder what tomorrow will bring?

    And remember the only reason there was any pushback was that non-journos were able to see the events themselves. Why on earth should I trust the analysis of these folks when reporting on *anything* I can't confirm? Yes, there are a number of decent journalists in Canberra. And there are far far more of them who make us all dumber with every piece they write.

  2. I've said it before and I'll say it again. The 2013 election will be fought on facebook. The reach and scope of that entity in this country is truly amazing. Many people will know that work, family and recreation is now managed by many Australians through that platform. Indeed, many have found themselves harried on to it by family and friends in order to simply keep in touch with people, especially when the default phone position for many 'busy' people is messagebank.

    In this context Textor is worse than useless as a strategist. I share your implied fear that many of the usual suspects in the ALP will be the same, but the astroturfing during the Your Rights At Work campaign was very real, but only a part of a story that really took off in the wider community and was THE issue that changed government in 2007 - ask Brian Loughnane if you think I am over reaching here.

    In fact if the usual suspects from the union movement had shown a bit of wit they may have done their job and kept the Your Rights At Work groups alive. Unfortunately five years of neoliberal apologism has burnt that little bridge.

    So what we are witnessing is the rise of something a tad more organic than the high functioning Asperger's candidates that populate our political class would like. People power doesn't hold well with control freaks. History from Fra Dolcino and Wat Tyler onwards has taught us that. Such undisciplined forces do not have a great historical track record, but now and again they do spill over the lip and effect no small change.

    In regards to cyberspace we could do worse than remember another new media practitioner from aan earlier age, Milton:

    "At certain revolutions all the damned are brought and feel by turns the bitter exchange of fierce extremes."

  3. "Something is happening here/ But you don't know what it is/ Do you, Mr Jones?"...but Andrew, sweary & #1bag (& a host of other nyms over the last 48hrs) do. 1968 Revisited?

  4. I believe the correct quote is: 'to be tired of Jones is to be tired of shit'.

  5. I've done some online searching and opinion seems divided as to whether Whitlam said MacMahon was "Tiberius with a telephone" or "Tiberius on the telephone". I've always thought it was the latter, Whitlam was insinuating that MacMahon was better at back room intrigues than normal social interactions (MacMahon was partially deaf and preferred to deal with people on the telephone (where he had a booster device), than face to face).

  6. "Libertarians spend time wondering why "free enterprise" doesn't reciprocate their support"
    "... won't be able to lobby themselves into existence forever, just as you can't botox yourself to immortality"

    Just gorgeous.