23 October 2010

Taking journalism seriously

I think Mark Colvin is one of Australia's best journalists. I read a piece that he wrote and thought it was poor, and told him so via twitter. He attempted to brush me off, then called me a troll: a bit sad, but not of great consequence in itself. Mind you, many portentous and pretentious articles have been based on small and feeble instances such as this.

The piece itself

Colvin's piece is here. He said himself that the key to this article is the fifth paragraph:
The Games are these days the most visible expression of the Commonwealth itself - an organisation which aims to promote democracy, human rights, good governance, the rule of law, individual liberty, egalitarianism, free trade, multilateralism and world peace.
See, I just think that's tendentious. The Commonwealth as an organisation, and the Commonwealth Games Association within it, doesn't really big-note itself on all those counts. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) does, the UN does, even the United States does; but no such claims can be or are made, by or for the Commonwealth Games.

The Commonwealth has had its major successes in southern Africa. It was the Commonwealth that applied pressure over a generation to the apartheid regime in South Africa and its fellow travellers in what used to be known as Rhodesia. The Commonwealth Games had little to do with that, though. The 1962 Empire Games (as it was known then) was the first to be held without South Africa, who would not be readmitted until Kuala Lumpur 1994. The 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane was the first to feature athletes from independent Zimbabwe. These games followed, rather than led, broader political developments.

Colvin draws attention to his own groundbreaking work in Uganda during the early 1980s. Wisely, he draws no link from eastern Africa to the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane because there really is no link to draw. By contrast, that period (between the 1980 Olympics in Moscow and the 1984 Games in Los Angeles) saw the then President of the International Olympic Committee, Juan Antonio Samaranch, confuse himself with a significant international statesman in seeking to broker a settlement between what were then global superpowers.

The IOC takes itself terribly seriously, as observed by Andrew Jennings and other journalists, and IOC officials such as Kevan Gosper are on the record in propounding that organisation's achievements on democracy, human rights and a host of other global ills. Much of that is nonsense, and undermined by the IOC's own backroom compromises. It isn't fair to tar the Commonwealth Games with the same brush.

It isn't eve fair to tar the Commonwealth Games with the same brush as that you'd use on the Commonwealth. There's also the question about whether nations like Britain, Canada or Australia, who go on about human rights, are necessarily in a position to lecture others about it. If you're throwing a javelin at the Commonwealth Games, then you should be judged on your performance in that sport rather than your progress on, say, detention without trial.

Colvin claims that the Commonwealth generally, and the Commonwealth Games in particular, has failed a set of standards it never really claimed for itself. If you want to write an article about the Commonwealth, or the Games, fine - just don't hang it on a tendentious claim and then thrash it for the unsustainability of that claim.

It ain't the crime, it's the cover-up

Not to labour the point here, but Mark Colvin would be revered as a journalist were he in Britain or the US for the work he and a few other Australian journalists (including the late Tony Joyce) did in southern and eastern Africa during that time; he would even be forgiven the odd poorly written article.

When I said on Twitter that his article wasn't up to scratch, he told me to read it (like I'd crit an article I hadn't read. Who do you think you are, Piers Akerman?). Then he pointed out the fifth paragraph, which was the very problem. Then, he called me a troll.

I recognise that Twitter isn't the place for in-depth discussions about the role of sport in geopolitics. I recognise that I called him out before he had to go on air for PM, where Colvin's role is as a DJ for audio clips interspersed with one or two conversations with journalists. That said, I'd hoped for better than a brush-off or abuse.

The journosphere against the blogosphere

Journalists, broadly speaking, are employed to research stories and write them. Bloggers, equally broadly, analyse how well or badly they have done this: these people used to be known as 'discerning readers'. The difference now is that journalists cannot operate in isolation from discerning readers.

A journalist is selected for their role by the HR department of a media organisation. A blogger chooses to work their opinions out in public, rather than fulminating in private. Journalists claim they like, even need discerning readers - soon after calling me a troll Colvin said he enjoyed dealing with the public, which made me laugh!

Media organisations' news and current affairs services have declined in readers and listeners over recent years because discerning readers (including, but not limited to, bloggers) feel that they are talking past them. Articles that are poorly written or full of crap are no different to other commercial products and public policy outcomes of similar quality, and feedback is offered in the hope of improving quality over time.

When journalists talk about a story, they talk about whatever the hell they feel like writing about. When journalists talk about the story, what they mean is a consensus about what they and their peers want to write about. There is occasionally a mystical communion with the soul of what readers (known as "the punters") want or need to read, but this is usually self-serving crap.
There's a line in a Neil Young song, something about trying not to read what the papers say, and this seems a worthy goal at moments like this; time perhaps to uncouple from a global media machine that just serves out this pap with no discrimination or deep thought as to consequence.

- Jonathan Green, Colvin's editor, quoted here.
Mark Colvin, usually an excellent journalist, wrote a poor story and would neither defend nor concede. He behaved poorly toward discerning readers and so you can never really tell whether or not a Colvin piece will be gold or dross.

An analogy

Last year I went to one of Sydney's finest restaurants. I was served a meal, and a few mouthfuls in I found a tube of red plastic, less than a centimetre long, which looked like the sort of coating you find around electrical wire. Discreetly, I called a waiter and explained the situation.

What happened next is what should have happened: the waiter apologised and supplied me with a replacement meal. It was a great meal and handled so well that I didn't mind.

Had it been run by someone like Mark Colvin, I would have been berated that the chef was the cheffiest chef that ever there was, and why didn't I piss off to McDonalds?

Journalism and the Fourth Estate

The media, particularly those of its more self-important members, have a view of their profession known as the Fourth Estate. A useful explanation of this is here - except I assumed it always referred to the three chambers of the French Estates-Generale rather than the British system. Certainly, the crusading French journalist Georges Clemenceau translated press power into political power as his country's Prime Minister before and during World War I on the basis of this self-proclaimed notion of a Fourth Estate.

The basis of power in modern society is that it is answerable to those over whom the power is exercised. Politicians know this; journalists proclaim it but don't practice it themselves. Someone like Glenn Beck might get away with disavowing responsibility from his positions when challenged, but you'd hope Mark Colvin is apparently made from sterner stuff.

Half-baked, tendentious articles: good enough for the likes of you.

Journalists are way too busy to respond to every half-baked tweet and blog that gets flung at them

Journalists have invented a notion called "the 24 hour news cycle" to explain how busy-busy they are, and to explain away any errors of fact or perspective. This is bullshit, of course: so long as you can "hide" a news story on a busy day, or by "releasing" it after about 3pm (especially on a Friday before a long weekend), and so long as all non-sport stories are imported straight from foreign news sources for at least half of the "24 hours" concerned, you can't invent a phantom concept and then hang all of your shortcomings on "the 24 hour news cycle".

Mark Colvin wrote a poor article: his intellect couldn't defend it, his ego couldn't let it go, and his journalistic hubris meant that he couldn't engage with discerning readers. Sad really.

Haven't you just written a long-winded, whiny and tendentious piece?

Sure, if it's good enough for Mark Colvin. I still think he's one of Australia's best journalists.


  1. My sad conclusion after years of blogging (including professionally) is that Colvin's reaction is the norm rather than the exception. In fact, I can say that not once has a journalist responded positively to any sort of criticism (though I must say, a few editors have been willing to publish my criticisms of their journalists).

    The idea that Twitter might've been a venue for a discussion amongst equals, readers with journalists, is pretty much dead too, just it has been for a long time in the blogosphere.

    Increasingly, it is a venue where they piss in each other's pockets and give short shrift to the opinions of their customers, unless what those customers are offering is undiluted praise.

    Despite all this, it disappoints me to read that this is how Colvin reacted to you. From him I expected better. Live and learn, I guess...

  2. No, no, no, as the kids say - ur doin it wrong. Here are some examples, for your benefit, of how to properly and improperly engage with journalists on twitter.
    Example 1:

    @Journalist: My new article is up "How Wayne Swan is kind of like a swan." http://bit.ly/ass1n1e

    @awelder: @Journalist Your article's premise is tenuous at best and contains no serious insight or analysis.

    @Journalist: Thanks, @brownnose, I'm glad you liked it.

    Failed to engage.

    Example 2:

    @Journalist: My new recipe for profiteroles worked wonderfully!

    @awelder: @Journalist I love profiteroles with creme fraiche and blueberries.

    @Journalist: @awelder How gourmet!

    Successful engagement with media.

  3. The thing is, if a pollie attempted to slide by in that fashion, your intrepid journo would be all over them. Suspect the entire journosphere might be in breach of What's Sauce For The Goose Is Sauce For The Gander Act.