06 March 2013

The narrow sliver

A number of un(der)employed journalists and the Managing Director of the ABC popped up on Twitter yesterday to distribute this link, and muse whether or not something similar might apply here: that those who use Twitter to discuss politics might not be representative of the community at large.

It was silly, of course; Twitter users are far more representative, and often more knowledgeable, about Australian politics than are those who remain within the broadcast media. The goading relies upon the laughable MSM newsroom conceit that those who work in such places have a special relationship with the Australian people, a conceit that defies any evidence or sense. It also ignores the increasing ability and the willingness of social media users to outskirt the enfeebled Australian broadcasters, and what it means for them (no, not what it means for Democracy. Democracy does not depend on the broadcasters; it never did).

A few weeks ago, Martin McKenzie-Murray (hereafter: M3), a broadcast media fringe-dweller, made the following observations:
... it’s worth pointing out that Twitter’s a shonky barometer of public sentiment. Estimates suggest 1.8 to 2 million active Australian accounts — impressive, but not representative.
And how representative are you, dear reader? Here's a cut-out-and-keep guide as to whether you're in a position to decide who and what might be considered representative:

Twitter users in Australia
Broadcast media in Australia
1.8m-2m, about the same as the population of WesternSydney™ or Brisbane
A few thousand, shrinking fast, including many who wouldn’t be hired today; selected by corporate HR people and editors who haven’t been sacked yet, looking for younger versions of themselves (hence the lack of gender and other diversity in Australian newsrooms), etc.

M3, of course, considers sees himself as both, and in some sort of neo-Camusian sense, as neither.
Which is why Peter Brent’s tweet interested me. Today he wrote: “Much bagging of ‘MSM’ by countless self-appointed online critics in essence boils down to: does journo writes nice things about Julia?”
Brent, like M3, is in the broadcast media but not necessarily of it. It's an ambiguous statement, which is probably why it appeals to M3 so much: you could read that as saying that Twitter users want "MSM" journalists to cover Gillard in a more flattering light, or that they do so too much already. Yep, the PM sure is a polarising figure among people who discuss Australian politics.

Brent's comment is not quite the crystalline insight that M3 thinks it is. The "self-appointed" thing is silly, as if you need a licence (or a gig in the broadcast media) to discuss public affairs. It's old wine in new bottles: the old journosphere trope that if you're copping it from all sides you must be doing something right - or completely wrong, who cares anyway and it's your shout mate.

There is a large overlap between people aged under 50 who take an interest in Australian politics, and those who take to Twitter to express that interest. A very, very large overlap. If I were in the broadcasting-about-Australian-politics business to the extent that Fairfax (who pay M3's rent) and News Ltd (Brent's) are, I'd be doing more to cultivate Twitter users than they, and others in that business, are.

Journalists fancy themselves to be in the business of seeking out facts, from documents and from talking to people, and then reporting on their findings in an engaging manner. The fact is that pretty much anyone in professional work does this - teachers, lawyers, IT workers - all do that sort of thing every day. Journalists have tragically convinced themselves that:
  • their craft is ineffably mysterious to those who have not worked in their industry (it isn't);
  • the fact that fewer people understand or consume their product is not due to any product decline on their part but stupidity on the consumers' (wrong on both counts);
  • the redundancy of some journalists is a vast national tragedy far beyond, say, the mere closure of a food processing plant or another failed get-rich-quick scheme that ensnared elderly investors (nope); and
  • journalism as a craft deserves some sort of reverence (oh, come on).
One thing that journalists should do, and that lawyers and other professionals are required to do, is to define terms. 'MSM' stands for 'mainstream media'. It's a useful term, not to be quibbled away by those who find it inconvenient - or by those more accustomed to doing the pigeonholing than being pigeonholed. In Australia, we might define it as the following organisations and their employees*:
  • In television: the ABC, SBS, 7, 9, 10, and Foxtel;
  • In radio: any station with an audience larger than or equal to Radio National;
  • In newspapers: News, Fairfax, APN, and The West Australian; and
  • The online presences of the above and of those corporations that own them - including The Punch and The Drum but not Crikey or Delimiter.
Having said that, I think the term 'broadcast media' is more useful; people who talk at you rather than with you, which is what happens on social media: a general distinction, but broadly useful and more robust than some other 'clear' distinctions. MSM is a valid descriptor too and not to be diminished by those who resent, for whatever reason, having it applied to them like M3:
I also have some thoughts on the casual use of that acronym. This shorthand can’t meaningfully signify a landscape that’s home to Four Corners and ABC24; Ross Gittins and Michael Stuchtbury [sic]; Laura Tingle and Andrew Bolt.
The broadcast media, like other industries in Australia, tends to oligopoly. The broadcast media, unlike other industries, resents being compared to other industries and considers itself so sui generis that it has nothing to learn from other industries.

In retail, there is a duopoly between Woolworths and Wesfarmers. Thankfully, nobody with any credibility would leap atop a soapbox to proclaim that the organisations responsible for Dick Smith and K-mart, Bunnings and Thomas Dux, could not possibly be labelled quickly and conveniently, that they have more in common than differences, and that they are so diverse that they defy any and all easy categorisation.

If there's one thing worse than the MSM, it's MSM exceptionalism.
Michelle Grattan, doyen of the press gallery.
It's doyenne, actually. Most of M3's post deals with Grattan, and I wrote a post about Grattan too, to which M3 owes more than he dares acknowledge - except, of course, the bits where he's wrong.
Grattan’s slot on Radio National’s Breakfast was a focal point of muted rage and boredom. Each morning another solemn and perfunctory reiteration of “he said, she said”. Each morning a cursory mud-map of the banal agitations on the Hill. Each morning more dreary calculus of “X was leaked, which makes Y look bad.” It was often obvious, often useless and always colourless. There was no wit, no daring, no depth. No eloquence. Worse, there was no sense that anyone outside our invented capital should give a fuck. Grattan’s spot gave the impression of losing the forest for the ring-barked trees, analysis hermetically sealed off from The People that this whole game is ostensibly about.

But for me, the gravest sin was that it was dull. This isn’t a superficial concern. My boredom won’t be undone with gossip or innuendo. I don’t need hyper-articulate, gin-soaked raconteurs to liven things up. I don’t need the jangled rhythms of a gonzo freak. Rather, my boredom might be staved off with substantive and curious examinations of policy. I want things ripened with illumination, humour and eloquence. I want things to be conjoined thoughtfully to all of the people lucky enough not to live in Canberra. A dependence on “the drip” or on polls might provide objective copy, but it can quickly become a substitute for meaning, muscularity, discernment and flair.
That's a fair summary of my blog on the subject (though I wouldn't go so far as to describe something I find disagreeable a 'sin'), and of those by others who have never undergone induction into the journosphere. For those who have, of course, this is nothing short of heresy. Before the advent of social media it was not possible to have a frame of reference about Australian journalism that did not place Grattan at the centre of it, like the queen bee in a hive. M3 is not enough of a broadcast media outsider to have developed this position on his own. Having realised that he has gone out on a limb like, well, me, he starts scurrying back to received journo wisdom as fast as his Mac will carry him:
Now let me complicate things.
It's your blog. You shouldn't need permission, but clearly you feel you do.
First, Grattan’s sobriety is impressive. Her copy was shorn of hyperbole, soldered by corroboration.
Rubbish. Every inconvenience faced by any minister, any leader, was a crisis, a disaster. She talked about policy detail as "lead in the saddlebags" of ambitious politicians, without realising that only the top performers are handicapped in that way (another failure of the horserace journalism to which she was devoted). What M3 calls "corroboration" is merely groupthink. Her prose was never the kind of sinewy, Hemingway-style, no-nonsense pieces of M3's fantasy.

She explained when Keating fell and when he rose, same with Howard; but she lacked the human insight to understand, let alone explain, why and how: what kept those men going and what brought them undone, and how others fared too in the ebbs and flows of politics.

I don't know why she bothers. I worked hard not to refer to her in the past tense, whereas M3 - like other MSMers, has written a eulogy. You can see why showbiz reporters love the tat and the glitz of their rounds, and why sport reporters love the roars and collisions of theirs; Grattan's goldfish-like devotion to the ups and downs of the moment, with no background at all but plenty of hype, is just a mystery.

For someone who edited a book on Australia's first 25 Prime Ministers, and who saw the 26th at close quarters too, the fact that she treats the 27th with such disdain and exults in her every reversal - real and imagined - is simply a collapse in professional standards on her part.
But that’s just half the story. Grattan never leveraged her stature into things of interest, pieces that might endure. Grattan’s name may echo, but few of her pieces of the last few years will.
Not just the last few years; it's only in the last few years that it has been possible even to critique Grattan's work. If Francis Fukuyama had been right and history had ended in 1992 then Grattan would deserve, and would still be getting in pure form, all the encomia that have been showered upon her for decades.

Part of the outpouring of grief for Peter Harvey was for a journalist who could perceive political spin and detect - and report on - the degree to which it matched observable reality. Grattan doesn't do reality. She does polls, she does personal impressions, but actual voters have always been infra dig. It is why she, like most journalists, thinks that Twitter is a broadcast medium rather than a social one.
I agree here with Andrew Elder ...
Dawww, it's a name-check! Oh, wait ...
... even though I felt his piece ungenerous, snide, top-heavy.
It was a corrective to the gushy work from the MSM. I took Grattan for granted rather than being ungenerous, necessarily. Snide? No, I backed up my criticisms, and my tone was hardly Simkinesque (i.e. someone who can only understand politics when it is puerile). As for "top-heavy", what does that even mean (except when talking about physical objects rather than prose)? How can I address a descriptor that really is as meaningless as M3 wishes MSM was?
Second, and more generally, there are plenty of “mainstream” journalists doing terrific work, whether it be economic analysis, investigations or intelligent sports. It’s an unexciting observation, but it’s important to underscore the uselessness of the acronym “MSM” if your media criticism is comprised solely of its flippant use.
This is just a callout to those engaged in the MSM circle-jerk of praising Grattan in the hope of basking in reflected glory. There are plenty of shop-assistants doing great work too, some working for Woolies and Wesfarmers, others not. M3 is wrestling with smoke here: his defence makes no more sense than the attacks, real and imagined, to which he responds.
Final complication: sometimes buried amongst the petty plotting, the planted stories and strategic leaks are the outlines of a genuinely Big Story — Labor’s leadership vote last February, for instance, that was initially dismissed by some bloggers and independent journalists as a beat-up.
Let's be clear about what the beat-up was.

In June 2010, Kevin Rudd declared vacant his position as ALP leader. Julia Gillard nominated, Rudd did not, hence there was no ballot. Two months later the caucus reconvened after the election: Gillard nominated, Rudd did not, hence there was no ballot. In February 2012 there was, finally, a ballot: Gillard 71, Rudd 31 (conventional wisdom holds that the loser is within striking distance of victory if no more than 12 votes have to change).

The beat-up was not that there might be a challenge. The beat-up was that if there was one, Rudd would win it. The beat-up continues. Every leader has their discontents and those who urged Rudd to fight in 2010 and 2012 are at it again. Grattan, and others in the MSM, are wrong to portray Gillard as any more besieged than any other leader.

Maybe the reason why Grattan "never leveraged her stature", as M3 clumsily put it, and as overexuberant merchant bankers never learnt: is because only things of substance can actually be leveraged.
A useful example of the contingencies and priorities that shape journalism comes, I think, in the story of Watergate ... Maybe — and it’s just a loose hunch — maybe something similar can apply to Obeid’s long and odious influence in NSW. A thought, and only that.
A fine one: I'll end with that note of agreement as the rest of M3's post trails off into drivel.

Think about the biggest story of recent years in Australian politics: Gillard's challenge to Rudd. Chris Uhlmann tweeted that a good 10-15 minutes before going to air with it on the ABC news, where "the narrow sliver" dealt with it better than those who made the decisions on Rudd's and Gillard's fate. Think about the Four Corners story into Indonesian abattoirs, with its equally swift response by government. Neither makes sense as a purely MSM play, nor as an exclusively social media phenomenon.

The "narrow sliver" is less narrow than the MSM, but not so wide as the continent - nobody said it was, and the taunt from the MSM has less basis than they might have hoped. The "narrow sliver" is where political reporting lives and breathes, and the sooner the MSM realise that - and adjust to their designation - the better off they'll be. The MSM needs the "narrow sliver" more than we need them.

I'm not doing well with this blog hiatus thing, am I. Thanks to Lyn Calcutt for the ability to retrieve this blog from the vicissitudes of Blogger's mobile app.

* Being an "employee" can be a loose construct these days. M3's work appears in Fairfax publications and he is an enthusiastic sculler of the company Kool-Aid, so without prying into their private contractual arrangements let us consider M3 a Fairfax employee.

Update 7 March: I did not mean to imply that M3 had plagiarised my post, and if you read the section of his post that I quoted it's clear he has arrived at a similar opinion under his own steam. Having mostly agreed with much of my post, he then sought to dismiss all but a small part of it with three adjectives (one of them meaningless). If you read his blog you can see that he places a high premium on generosity, and I simply assumed that people who accuse others of being 'ungenerous' would avoid being so themselves.


  1. You say the MSM conceit defies evidence or sense. If they believe themselves to be any more representative than Twitter users (could a descriptor be any less meaningful than "Twitter users"?) I submit their view of themselves is born, not out of their capacity to interpret public sentiment, but their collective capacity to *influence* sentiment.

    You'd know the circulation numbers much better then I, but I'm sure Andrew Bolt's audience is in the scores of thousands, while an agitator like Jim Parker or Scott Steel can reach only a tiny handful. There are influential Tweeps but only within the confines of their community (which is more echo chamber than community) and their influence on the national stage is small compared to Bolt, Shannahan, and Gratten and minuscule compared to the combined voice of their colleagues. While they and their ilk continue to own public discourse I expect they will always have a grandiose sense of their worth. It would require a rare kind of collective humility for it to be any different.

    Theirs is a misplaced conceit, no doubt, but they own the medium. It reminds me of my time working in a boutique consumer electronics business - Harvey Norman own the airwaves and competing with their voice in advertising is futile. Like Harvey Norman, Big Media will out-reach boutique media and continue to control the agenda for many years to come.

    I'm stopping here before this develops into a blog post :-)

    1. So now you've shifted the goalposts to 'out-reach'. Ok.

      I think the idea that the media own public discourse is something that media companies sought to cultivate in order to sell their product(s). It was a given in the days when the various outlets were less homogenised than they are.

      If the Gillard government is re-elected I suggest that the circulation figures which you find so daunting will count for little. In a former job I can still remember walking past unwrapped pallets of newspapers in the rain, knowing that they had been counted as sold and read for circulation purposes.

    2. I didn't wish to shift the goalposts, rather to suggest MSM conceit is understandable (though galling) because of the size of their audience.

      Perhaps my position on this is more different to yours than I first thought.

      The political class (how elite does that sound??) make voting decisions from a considered position, informed by their own investigation of the facts. But they are surely a small section of the voting public. Don't the vast majority make voting choices based on what they're fed by mainstream editors and newsrooms?

      I think we're a long way from the point where the influence of a dwindling number of broadcast journalists is matched by the new media, despite the rainsoaked unsold newspapers.

    3. "Don't the vast majority make voting choices based on what they're fed by mainstream editors and newsrooms?"

      I don't think so. What happens is that people live their lives and get a sense for how well the economy is going, and compare that against the news. If there's a disconnect (economy's great/government's inept or vice versa), there's 'turmoil' because people have to work it out for themselves.

      The 'turmoil' doesn't just affect politics - anything could happen, a hung parliament, a government that will actually make us all worse off than we are now - but also the idea that the broadcast media can help us make sense of what's going on. If they can't or won't help us in that regard then don't cavil before them, stuff 'em.

  2. hi andrew the first thing i laughed at and there was few laughs, was the thought that we , yes we have a special relationship with the faces on the media, years ago as a child the news theme would be bellowed around the house a father wanting to wake all to the theme of the ABC and the 7 am news, or was it earlier,
    Yes years ago the abc words meant something to this house hold, but now the abc is a no go zone for us.
    was this a romantic notion of a childhood past
    we just did not have other areas to go to then, now i never listen watch or read the abc, may be since the days of Mr Hill who i still remember , showing my age now,
    i am not intersted in their comments,dont need them
    i want an abc that reads the news, and tells me facts and figues and policies .
    as for newespaper, ive forgotten what they look like,

  3. I'm visiting the in-laws in Adelaide.
    Yesterday my bro-in-law brought back a freebie copy of "The Advertiser" from the supermarket [they're givng them away] and looking at I was reminded why I gave up reading it about 7 years ago. I did read the comics and footy pages [they even managed to turn the footy news into ads ad for Renault and Toyota], at least the comics are intentionally funny.


  4. What all the gallery pundits continually forget when they attack social media is that I can get a variety of views from Twitter that they simply no longer offer. I can select to follow a wide range of sensible bloggers across all areas of the political spectrum. As a one-time regular reader of The Australian why on earth would I pay money to read the same openly biased, articles day after day?

    Same with the ABC. I know how Mark Simpkin will report, how Chris Uhlmann will interview, that Peter Reith and various IPA representatives are presented as an independent commentators. Why bother watching? Criticise and you are acused of viewing coverage through a prism of bias. There appears to be no comprehension at all that the majority of readers and viewers just want straightforward reporting, not blowhards presenting their opinions as news or interviewers and hosts who think they are the stars of the show.

    For organisations that rely so much on research companies for stories it amazes me they do not appear to do market research on themselves.

  5. "Simkinesque" that's going straight into the phrase book - no need for a definition, it's so self describing

  6. I don't watch it listen to the ABC much anymore either and the 7.45am national radio news was once almost a religious experience. I have been dismayed by so many things, bias, lack of professionalism, dumbing down Radio National breakfast and Triple J. Last year I caught ABC Breakfast presenters smirking at each other and the camera after an interview with Christine Assange, the interview was woeful and Christine Assange clearly frustrated by the lack of depth. Then the sign off and the smug bastards started smirking. They shld have been sacked on the spot.

    1. I recall an I.p.a staffer being high for all the wrong reasons and having to cover for them on air ......

      Akward and stupid to say the least...

      Homocon go home...

      Community radio is often neglected and another source if intelligent media

  7. Peter Brent? Bah humbug!

  8. Mia Freedman

    International Womens Day on the abc

    Dr Leslie Cannold to name a few would suffice...

    Abc gone to hell#

  9. I only joined twitter within the past year and am now more engaged in political views then I ever was able with newspapers or TV programs. In fact my participation with twitter coincided with my final hope that The Drum may provide a panel drawn from the diversity which is our society today. The Drum never had to so I figured it never will. What I love about twitter is the links to issues that affect people in our communities local, national or international.
    And best of all through a tweet i read that you had another blog article. cheers

  10. Lachlan Ridge8/3/13 9:09 pm

    I knew you wouldn't be able to help yourself! Thanks for continuing to battle The Stupid Andrew.