08 May 2009

Calling shenanigans on Media Waste

Media Watch has always been a funny show, an attempt to demonstrate that a bunch of people similarly employed are actually a profession, rather than a trade, a craft or even a rabble. It is not designed for "the little people" (and stuff Littlemore and Jackson for even using that term), it is a show trial without any teeth. The only members of the public engaged in this solipsistic activity are those genuinely outraged when the local TV presenter in Launceston splits an infinitive or when a headline in the Northern Territory News gets single-entendre rather than double.
Fortunately, nowhere did we get a sense of the uncomfortable fit of having journalists or ex-journalists televisually transformed into moral guardians of the entire craft. And they didn't even need to get a special licence to do it.

Why have journalists sit in judgment on it, then? In every other field (except, perhaps, Ackland's other profession - the law) the quality of output is judged by consumers. If you buy a pie and there's something in it which shouldn't be, you don't write to Bakery Watch and have some supercilious baker raise and eyebrow at someone they used to work/drink/sleep/spar with back in the day.

This is why Richard Ackland can underestimate the dire state of his part-time occupation with a snide description like this:
... miles of tasteless, corrupt, venal, nasty media shenanigans ...

Groupthink, rehashing proven failures, proven gutlessness and other examples of professional failure are not "shenanigans", Richard. Media Watch doesn't go after real examples of professional failure. It dare not. Nor, however, does it go after issues so trivial that journosphere insiders like Ackland or Richard Glover could just brush it off.
The market for intrusive and shoddy journalism has never been better ... The commercial TV current affairs shows keep dishing up the same old malarky.

In the 20 years since Media Watch went on air, Australian consumption of mainstream news media has plummeted. This is because what fascinates journalists (i.e. news producers) and what fascinates news consumers are not the same thing. If Media Watch is an inside job, then one bit of malarky is just as good/bad as another and see you at the pub Richard.
Maybe there was a temporary clean-up of the payola and plugola that corrupted journalism, and/or "entertainment", but I wonder whether the edge might be wearing off and in more troubled times journalists are not as fussed about subsidies from undisclosed sponsors. The naming and the shaming will have to go on for centuries before there is a real change.

Either that, or what the journosphere is up against here is doing professional standards in a half-arsed way. Anyone can be a journalist, and any recorded output by someone employed by a journalist is journalism. The assumption there is that all journalism is fit for consumption merely by virtue of it having been produced. The idea that journalistic standards would be developed and enforced by the addition of a token disclosure thing before, after or during some obtuse news story is to miss the point.
In the end the market will have a bigger say in determining the tone and shape of journalism than Media Watch.

If you're ready to accept that self-regulation has failed in banking, you can accept that it has failed in journalism too. For all his world-weary cynicism, Richard Ackland is the last journalist in Australia who is still in thrall to The Market as the source of all wisdom (well, other than Terry McCrann).

That said, Ackland does have a point when he hints at consumers and the extent to which they are informed and entertained by news media. Like Paola Totaro, I expect this will be short-lived and that Ackland will slip back into judging journalism solely by the standards of those who produce it, in the echo-chamber of the journosphere.
Where else can they turn for protection against Channels Nine and Seven poking cameras into their messy lives?

If you turn to those channels, Richard, you can see that some people quite like having cameras poked into their messy lives. At least the various incarceration systems in this country don't compound prisoners' humiliation by making one's every word and deed the subject of water-cooler discussion, like Big Brother did. Indeed, if you go to other sites on this here interweb you'll see some very messy pictures indeed emanating from people's messy lives. It is no more a "reality" to protect "the little people" (or force them/us into a corner) than it is a reality to shove a camera in someone's face to prove nothing other than Heisenberg was right.

It's interesting that there appears to be a news/current affairs apartheid, to which Ackland, Media Watch and other "professionals appear wilfully blind. For example:

  • Highbrow media will interview, say, the Treasurer about unemployment rising/falling, whether welfare benefits will increase, homelessness or housing prices.

  • Lowbrow media will investigate welfare recipients abusing the conditions of their payments, or tenants who trash their accommodation.

Neither make a connection: it is a legitimate public policy question as to what to do with tenants who don't respect property or recipients who breach a public trust while at the same time having no other means of support. Ask the Treasurer about welfare bludgers or the Housing Minister about unruly tenants - that's the real reason why these shows are exploitative, they run the same old stories and nothing gets done, simply because they want to run the same old stories.

As ratings plummet and their impact dissipates, they console themselves that they run the same old stories. What consoles the media is not the same as what informs people.
The editor-in-chief of The Australian, Chris Mitchell, is of another view. He thinks Media Watch is composed of left-wing journalists who "hate the poor".

Can the team that puts this show out simultaneously hate the very people they are protecting?

If indeed they are protecting them, Richard. It is possible that someone's stated aims differ from the consequences of their actions. It is possible that Chris Mitchell's staff consist of the only people in Australia who are dumber than he is. It is also possible how easy it is to brush off a hackneyed insider game like Media Watch when you stand up and say: I don't want to play any more.

News Ltd and the ABC have strong internal cultures which protect insiders against the herd mentality of the Australian media. A journalist who occasionally comes up with a story that goes against the received wisdom of the journosphere can (but not always does) find support within those organisations to build a case that proves a long-standing assumption no longer applies, and indicate what the new reality might be - which is the essence of quality journalism. They don't always do it, but quality journalism is possible from within those organisations. The same is true about SBS to a lesser extent, because it is more fragile and more interesting for that. This used to be the case with Fairfax and Channel Nine, but no more. It has never been true about Seven or Ten.
... humour is a more powerful weapon in exposing media double standards than all the tub-thumping and sonorous lectures put together.

Yeah, but all that happened was that Ray Martin was replaced and that the same old crap continued. Laughter is the best medicine only if you regard the role of medicine as palliative rather than curative. Could it be that "tub-thumping and sonorous lectures put together" - a summary of the running sheet for every episode of Media Watch - was selected precisely because it was designed to change nothing of any significance?
Last night's show ended with the current Media Watch executive producer, Jo Puccini, saying the program has concentrated more of its energies on examining online journalism. She added that the future of journalism is in a state of flux.

This is like saying that she's going to investigate TV rather than radio - it's not the medium, nor (at the risk of scotching another media cliche) the message either. The issue is whether or not the journalism has missed the point, the extent to which it has used the information available and presented it in such a way that the consumer is better informed about whatever it is they/we care about.

If you wanted to leak something today, why would you contact a journalist, explain to them the background and context of what it is you're leaking, and then hand it over so that they can top-and-tail it, possibly finger you for the sake of their worthless "contacts" and get a Walkley (the mirror-image of Media Watch)? Just put it up online, say on Wikileaks, and hope that someone finds it before a ministerial staffer does.
At the moment newspapers are dropping like flies in the US ...

Live and vigorous flies don't just drop, Richard, only dead and dying ones do that. The question is to examine why they're dropping.
There is a US Senate committee under John Kerry looking at the future of newspapers. Evidence is being taken from, among others, Marissa Mayer, the vice-president of Google, David Simon, creator of The Wire and formerly of The Baltimore Sun, and Arianna Huffington, co-founder of The Huffington Post, one of the fastest-growing online news and commentary sites.

Kerry is trying to work out why the flies are dropping and all he's doing is interviewing people holding cans of insecticide. He's not going to the heart of the issue, Kerry is just celebrity-fucking. No wonder the guy could not even beat George W. Bush.
The Sage of Omaha, Warren Buffett, says he would never sink more money into newspapers because "they have the possibility of nearly unending losses".

It isn't Huffington, Mayer or Kerry who decide that newspapers have had their day, nor is it people like Buffett who decide the phenomenon he is describing. It is consumers: I buy 3-4 newspapers a week but I read several each day online. The business challenge for Australian newspapers is to get people like me to buy more newspapers, while insisting on producing the same old crap.

Incidentally, some of the newspapers I cited above as having bought were actually picked up for free at various places around Sydney where piles of papers are dumped. If newspapers insist on counting those dumped copies in their circulation figures then they can also count the $0.00 that I pay for them.
The ideas of salvation twittering around on the net are also endless: newspapers can survive with fewer journalists if they get rid of the cheese reviews; newspapers are niche products anyway so they can easily increase their cover prices; charitable trusts or non-profit foundations should take over the publication of quality papers; democracy does not depend on newspapers so why care if they go to the wall?

We're almost at the end of the article, so Ackland had decided finally to confront the beast that is devouring his beloved medium. Just a quick whip-round mind you, a melange (if not a melee?) of unexamined, unevaluated, unvalued ideas. There's an article, if not a thesis (or even 20 years of Media Watch) just on those ideas.
Not for an instant do I think newspapers will go to the wall. Rather, in the lifetime of those young enough to be looking at Media Watch without a hearing aid, newspapers will still be part of the mix of ways of publishing information. And journalism in all its awful and great manifestations will thrive.

The blogosphere opens up reporting to citizens as well as professionals. Journalism itself is not particularly expensive. What is expensive is the production of newspapers.

How to make journalism relevant and profitable without inking up as many pulped trees is what should keep Media Watch preoccupied for another 20 years.

OK, so according to Ackland:

  • Journalism is cheap but newspapers are expensive, yet they will still thrive even though fewer and fewer people want to read them.

  • Newspapers carry stories about how environmentally unsustainable wood pulp is, and about increasing regulation (and, yes, market pressure) to stop unsustainable practices. Yet, people like Ackland and John B. Fairfax haven't twigged to the idea that this represents a fundamental threat to a key material underpinning their business.

  • Blogs are as good as journalism and thus, also because it isn't expensive, journalism should conform to whatever standards it feels like.

  • "Inking up pulped trees" is key to the survival of newspapers, or not. Whatever.

For all Richard Ackland's acuity over the various professions involved in law & order, he is hopeless on journalism. Anything that journalists do is good enough, no point trying to change it or hope for something better.

This sort of hopelessness reminds me of that old joke about the distillery worker who's drowning in a vat of whiskey, his workmates try and save him but he fights them off bravely. Ackland has no idea what the future of Media Watch is, let alone what it is that Media Watch watches. Mind you, nobody does, and to that extent Ackland can be forgiven for going along with the herd.

You'd hope Ackland would have something to say about quality and the degree to which the Australian media is and will be worth consuming, but that seems to be too much to ask. It's all the more surprising given his clear grasp that the justice system is not a make-work scheme for police, judges or lawyers. You'd be surprised how many blogs would disappear if the quality of journalism improved, in ways that practitioners of journalism are trained not to imagine.

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