30 November 2010

Jackson Blues

To set the scene:

  • Julie Posetti is a journalist/academic who used Twitter to quote a former News Ltd journalist about what it was like to work for that company, particularly under Chris Mitchell;

  • Mitchell claimed Posetti defamed him but hasn't actually issued any writs, or done what you need to do to launch legal action in Australia other than (apparently) have discussions with lawyers; and

  • Sally Jackson is employed by News Ltd to write about Twitter and other online media. She appears to be the nearest that company has to a social media expert.

Jackson wrote about the Mitchell-Posetti thing here. It's a strange article, talking in generalities about a case which has not been made let alone tested in court; and stranger still is her responses to criticism.

It's strange to write an article about something that's "unremarkable". All sorts of unremarkable things happen and they don't make it into the mainstream media. There are eleven paragraphs about defamation generally; the sort of bland generalities you get from lawyers when they're not being paid, like when you talk to them at parties. You have to scroll down to the twelfth and thirteenth paragraphs of her article before you get to the nub of it: Asa Wahlquists's former boss, and Sally Jackson's current boss, is using Jackson to write an article that he should have (but couldn't or wouldn't) write himself.

Jackson left out the fact that the ABC broadcast a recording of what Wahlquist actually said, which makes a nonsense not only of the crucial thirteenth paragraph, but the whole article. It reflects poorly on Mitchell, hiding behind his underlings to soften up his would-be defendant. Naturally, Mitchell gets the final word.

After Watergate, we know that any attempt to cover up can be worse than the crime itself, and so it is here. Jackson's responses to tweets challenging her to respond to the Wahlquist audio are astonishingly inept for a social media expert. She won't participate in a debate that she can't frame. Criticism that addresses the issue is lumped in with ad-hominem attacks, so that any criticism of her article is a personal attack upon her. That's why reasonable challenges are met with shrieks like "nasty", "troll" etc. Jackson's responses remind me of people who flap their arms wildly when set upon by flying insects: this doesn't actually repel the insects or even discourage them much, it only gets the person upset, diminishes their dignity and makes further attacks more likely rather than less.

To be fair to Jackson, she would be reluctant to make a comment that might interfere with any Mitchell-Posetti action, particularly if it counted against the would-be plaintiff. She's done in this article what most journalists do: get a coupla quotes, slap them together, let the subbies sort it all out and move on, to the next story or the pub or whatever.

The idea of being held to account for a story one has written goes against the whole idea of journalism, apparently. The fast pace of journalism these days makes careful consideration of what one writes almost impossible. In any organisation you can explain that you're only doing what the boss told you to do, but journalists jeer at people who use that defence (known as the "Nuremberg defence" if you want to take it to extremes), so Jackson can't explain that she's put her own name atop an article that Mitchell should've had the courage to write himself. Jackson obviously resents having to answer for an article over which she had so little understanding and less control. Her shrieky all-about-me responses, the idea that all criticism can be reduced to the lowest common denominator and easily dispatched, shows that patriotism isn't necessarily the last refuge of people like Jackson and Mitchell.

Jackson's failure to engage in Twitter about her article (well, the article under her byline) have the smell of fin-de-siecle, let-them-eat-cake about it. It shows that the "fourth estate" is no more accountable than the other three, despite accountability being its purported reason for existence. It shows that a social media expert can fail to understand their round, making the kind of category error like a court reporter failing to understand that someone doesn't go to prison just because they've been charged by police.

Speaking of legal issues, I'm prepared to bet that Mitchell won't actually issue a writ against Posetti. You need a writ to commence legal action in Australia (a bland generality in keeping with Jackson's article), an announcement that you've been chatting with lawyers isn't good enough. Imagine Mitchell talking with News Ltd lawyers, each using the conversation to justify their own existence, like something too sad or pointless for Pinter or Beckett. Only journalists are impressed by announcements. That kind of announcement only serves to intimidate someone like Posetti and limit her criticisms of your organisation, or to give your unremarkable paper the shot of publicity that supposedly leads to those elusive goals of increased sales and market clout.

If they did, then News Ltd lawyers are the kind you'd want to come after you. They, not the players or the fans, put SuperLeague Australia where it is today. They took on Bruce Guthrie and were evaluated by the judge who found in Guthrie's favour. I notice that there hasn't been a lot of action against the execs responsible for Melbourne Storm breaching the salary cap: that bunch have caused News Ltd far more grief than Posetti, Wahlquist and Grog's Gamut put together, and if there was anything there you'd expect the mighty News Ltd legal team to perp-walk them to maximum advantage. For all News Ltd's size and reputation, I can't think of a single occasion where they've really nailed someone on any aspect of law. Civil libertarians laugh at heavy-handed secrecy provisions of government, and in the same way those on the receiving end from News Ltd's lawyers might fancy their chances more than they probably do - assuming there is anything of substance to be received.

And this is how empires end: News Ltd has seen off challenge after challenge, sweeping before them corporate titans, big unions and leading politicians. Empires don't end by being smashed: if John Malone or Tiny Rowland had beaten Murdoch in some corporate power-play, News Ltd and its operations like The Australian wouldn't be fundamentally different to what they are today (except that a proprietor not born here would probably have shut down The Australian and offloaded Mitchell, Jackson et al). Empires end up nibbled to death, like the once-mighty Roman army chasing various bands of Goths in ever-decreasing circles. For News Ltd, hiring Tim Dunlop and mucking his blog about so that it became a dithering parody of itself, and lately going after Grog's Gamut and now Posetti, is less fearful than it might have been. It's almost pathetic: the kind of pathos reserved for the anorexic or drunk who can't even face up to their problems, let alone act on them.

Sally Jackson has been blasted on Twitter by some. In the same forum the journosphere has closed ranks with their all-critics-are-trolls thing (if politics is showbiz for ugly people, what does that make journalism?), bullshit as comfort food for the ego. Jackson must stand on her own dignity because it's all she can rely upon: her employer and her 'profession' have let her, and others like her, down. People are right to expect more and better from the mainstream media, and are right to use whatever media they can and whatever targets are within range to express that.

It's true to say that Jackson did her best, she may even get a Walkley for it (accurately quoting your boss may well constitute "excellence in journalism"); yet, those of us who decry her article as piss-poor have a point. Someone in Sally Jackson's position could play a crucial role in helping her employer deal with changing circumstances but it's clear that, like almost all journalists, Jackson lacks both the heft and the wit to do this. Keep this in mind if you would hold Sally Jackson accountable for what appears under her byline.


  1. It seems the MSM either doesn't get it, or it gets it and is shitting its pants.

    Another incisive piece. This blog is now on my "must read" list.

  2. I agree Sally Jackson should be condemned - for her lack of psychic skills alone. Given her piece was filed for Monday's newspaper (presumably on Sunday night at the latest) it is unacceptable she was not aware of the Posetti audio tape that did not surface until Tuesday afternoon - nearly 48 hours AFTER her article went to the printers. SHAME. And good on Elder for pointing this out. One throw on the ouja board should have delivered her the audio.

  3. Thank you Benny.

    Anonymous, stuff your sarcasm. Jackson was obliged to get a quote from Posetti, Wahlquist, or even someone else who attended that conference. The idea that there was no way of independently verifying Posetti's tweet is crap.

    What's also crap is your imputation that I was referring to Jackson's article, when I was referring to her high-handed tweets after (note, no need for allcaps) the audio was published.

    First the article, then the audio, then the tweets. Jackson failed as a journalist, as a social media expert, but let's hope there's plenty for her as Mitchell's beard.

  4. Wrong again. The twitter attacks on her tweets started on Monday - before the audio came out - on Tuesday. Opinion is great - but why dontcha lace some facts into the stew.

  5. Not wrong - the tweets following the audio release are the ones I saw when I started looking into this. It's a fact that Jackson failed as a journalist for not going beyond her boss - and if you're a journalist then you've failed too, failed to identify yourself. Keep smiling!

  6. And that comment would likey have been that she couldn't comment much for legal reasons.

    Posetti said that over and over on twitter.

    Also, what confounds me is that posetti bought this fight to mitchell's door as an infuential academic with the same sort of behaviour for which you now condemn Jackson. i.e. There was no chance for Mitchell to reply at all.

    So if you don't expect that standard of behaviour from your media academic then why expect it of the paper? With such a serious allegation should posetti have not been using her journalistic judgement also? Or can journalism academics now use such tactics to drag public figures into chaotic courts of opinion like itwitter to further their profiles and personal agendas?

    If that doesnt satisfy you this attack is poorly thought-out consider this. You've seen how this organisation behaves: Look at the prime accusation under-pinning this whole issue. Does that not put a slightly different hue on the situation? Does she deserve to be pilloried for simply being dragged into this storm? She's not some omnipotent force.

    As for all this crap about failing to respond on twitter... Who sets alll these new press accountability rules? The medium is something that requires journalists to engage in it as private persons as a sort of form of good will. What on earth makes you think that they are there as some public facility for new media evangs and their backyard (schoolyard really) press councils to run inquiries. What on earth gives the tweeters out there to form these mob-like commissions of inquiry and descend on a journalists so rudely. Don't kid yourselves that you come off like eloquent barristers conducting your business before the bench. You are in a public social space like a pub and you don't have a right to walk up to any Journo and throw a drink in their face because you don't like something that was published by the paper which they penned.

    In the better civic community it would appear you subscribe to, would you have academics forced to keep their doors open all night so the public can wander in and demand accountability for parts of their academic papers that may be deemed objectionable?

    Good luck getting the ivory tower dwellers to agree to that.

    And while you're there grow up.

  7. Hi Sally, welcome back.

    Wahlquist made her comments at a well-attended conference. Posetti was not the only person to hear them, and if you'd been an investigative journalist you'd have sounded them out. In politics, it's possible for two MPs to attend the same meeting and have different responses to it, and I'd be very surprised if the same wasn't true of journalists.

    It's stupid to equate Mitchell with Posetti. Mitchell is the editor-in-chief of a national newspaper and far more "influential" than Posetti is or will ever be. Mitchell has one of the world's major corporations behind him and Posetti doesn't. Posetti is allowed to criticise influential people such as Mitchell, and entitled to rely on Wahlquist's reported experience.

    It's wrong to claim that Mitchell has no right of reply. There have been a number of articles in national newspapers supporting Mitchell. Mitchell has the same access to Twitter as any of us: he may regard it as infra dig, but that's different to saying it isn't open to him. If it's an important enough medium on which to base legal action, it's important enough for him to participate in (not just broadcast, but engage with people too).

    "Who sets alll [sic] these new press accountability rules?". Great question. First, the media have political power. Second, the notion of a "fourth estate" implies that they are answerable to the people. Third, with news packaged as consumables for a consumer society, the consumer is king. The media is accountable to the people and always has been. With a decline in media consumption, discerning readers have become more powerful by virtue of sticking by media. Discerning readers could be ignored by wombat-headed editors forming their own obtuse opinions about "the punters", but those days have gone. Using online media to express opinions that only recently were limited in their impact, but are now raw and immediate, is a new development and one that many can't handle. This development will cause some to review their future in an industry that used to cultivate and protect people who can dish it out but can't cop it.

    "What on earth gives the tweeters out there to form these mob-like commissions of inquiry and descend on a journalists so rudely". Must all criticism of journalists be rude, Sally? Is even the mildest criticism like a rink thrown in the face? Really?

    Thank goodness I don't come across like a lawyer or a journalist! Thanks so much for that, it isn't like I was trying. I've never met Posetti, you're wrong to regard her as "mine" in the way that Chris Mitchell is your boss.

    Academics are subject to online criticism. Uni students have online forums for sharing information and feelings, and academic papers are critiqued online. It's a major weakness of your self-pitying approach that you can't see that.

    You're whiny, short-sighted and self-obsessed, and in no position to tell me or anyone else to grow up. If you were as good at your job as I am at mine (which includes an ability to bear criticism and use what's constructive from it), you'd be better off, your boss would be better off, and your 'profession' would be better off too.

    Speaking of professionalism, journalist codes of practice require you to identify yourself. Sally Jackson from The Australian, the fact that I can identify you, and that you can't and won't identify yourself, makes you unable to sustain the high dudgeon you have so far displayed and puts you at a disadvantage in dealing with me, and other aspects of the online world. Given that you are paid on the basis of your effective understanding of that world, this should give you cause for concern.

  8. Andrew,

    Now that News Ltd has vacated the field of actual journalism, all they have left is brinkmanship.
    They counter these pesky bloggers with their facts and their logical thought with words like "lawsuit" and "libel".
    Rather than remedy the situation by applying some care and effort to their profession to attempt to restore its former glory, they are descending in an ever tightening spiral and will soon disappear up their own fundament..if we are lucky.

  9. God help those people when Papa Rupert dies (hopefully not in some kinky brothel somewhere)!

  10. Great blog, great post. News Ltd won 1999 defamation action brought by Vic Premier Jeff Kennett against The Australian:


  11. Sure, but Kennett had to initiate the action. News won't even do that.