26 July 2011

Leaves of astroturf

"Astroturfing" is the process by which companies create PR campaigns that look like the work of grassroots communities, but which are really designed to suit the aims of the companies that create them without looking like naked self-interest on their part. Tabloid newspapers are suckers for astroturfing campaigns because they engage in astroturfing themselves. It is no tragedy when tabloids are closed down because disposability and deniability is in the nature of astroturfing campaigns. People (whether senior executives or 'umble 'acks) who do consistently poor work are not redeemed by occasional brilliance, nor by the Nuremberg defence.

First to Peter Lewis: "We are all tabloid", he says. Really? If such a preposterous statement could have meaning, what would that mean?
It would not be stretching it to argue that News Ltd has changed the Australian media landscape but also, arguably, the way we look at our world: in bold words, with strong opinions, with a demand for action.

In short, I would argue that we are becoming a nation of tabloid consumers.
Yes, it would be stretching it, particularly given Lewis' own examples about the low trust that exists with newspapers (and broadsheets would have higher trust ratings than tabloids). Lewis is seriously attributing a human and Australian characteristic - strongly held opinions boldly expressed - as an attribute of a commercial product that we can only get through consuming it. This is so ridiculous that every utterance from Essential Media Communications must from now on be taken with a grain of salt.

People like Peter Lewis probably start with a genuine desire to analyse the media, but honest analysis requires fearlessness and a preparedness to ruffle powerful egos; people who establish a niche and wish to continue in that business can end up pulling their punches so much that their every utterance becomes the kind of pap you see in Lewis' article.

Then to Ros Wynne-Jones' defence of the indefensible, veering between good points well made and missed points served up with lashings of class hatred or mawkishness.

I don't think this was too bad an idea:
Twitter is already calling for Rebekah's Law, the right to know when a News International operative is living near you.
There was a time when journalists could crack funny like that. Until very recently none of them, except probably some lefty broadsheet/public broadcaster who wouldn't work for Murdoch in a fit, would come up with something like that. Only tweeps have both the perspective and the intimacy necessary to craft such a telling jibe, it seems.
It is ironic, of course, but wasn't tabloid media always?
No. The tabloid media regards itself as having a great sense of humour but this tends to evaporate when it comes to themselves. You might think that the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader are four-square liars, that the managers of once-mighty businesses like David Jones or Fairfax are clowns, but does this also apply to Harto or (gasp!) James Murdoch? Perish the very thought.
Long before Hackgate, tabloid journalists were surveyed as less popular than second-hand car salesmen. Can we really complain now that we are held in lower esteem even than MPs? Finally, the industry's critics have the ammunition they have been waiting years for. We knew we despised you for something!
People always despised people who'd say anything, do anything in the name of their job: that's how tabloid journos started in such low esteem and have only sunk deeper into it. The worst stereotype about the least trusted professions - politicians, dodgy financial planners, used car salesmen - is that they will lie, cheat and steal in order to meet their objectives. Tabloid journalists do the same, and are therefore held in the same regard. Whatever satisfactions may come of such a way of operating, part of the penalty is that nobody will lift a finger to help when you find yourself in a difficult position. Some people will like you and some won't, but it is never smart to give people reasonable grounds to attack and despise you.
But watch them give up the bits of the Evil Empire they find a little more conducive to their own tastes.
Yes, let's watch Murdoch close down The Sunday Times and see if there is the sort of rioting in the streets we've seen with the closure of News of the World - i.e. none.

This really is the point that denizens of the journosphere cannot face: the biggest-selling publication in the English-speaking world disappeared and nobody (except those who worked drew income from there) missed it. That is the difference between a genuinely popular and authentic piece of communal life, and the easy-come-easy-go approach to the withdrawal of any other sort of discontinued product line.

Wynne-Jones is trying a class-war thing, trying to make middle-class people feel uncomfortable about sneering at tabloids. She is trying to make tabloids authentic representatives of working people. She is trying to deny a moral case against tabloids by accusing the accusers of hypocrisy: the whole notion that, because you're not perfect, you're in the shit with us and we can get away with murder. It doesn't work because tabloids aren't authentic, they aren't missed when they go, and nobody ought to feel uncomfortable about consuming legitimate issues.
As pundits push for greater press regulation, don't think the corporate wrongdoers won't be rubbing their hands with glee ... the News of the World told us about corruption at the heart of Fifa and Pakistani cricket in the same breath it told us about Max Mosley's indiscretions.
Andrew Jennings in The Independent did the heavy lifting on Fifa, and the broadsheets and television have done plenty on corruption at every level in Pakistan; Max Mosley was trivia, another quirky fruit from a seriously weird tree. The work
Tightening press regulation will suit the bad guys immeasurably well. The ordinary folks – who are also the tabloid's readership – get to lose out twice over. Last time I looked, the broadsheets weren't campaigning heavily on the mundane issues that deeply affect working class people – the holiday rip-offs, the loan-shark thugs, the tawdry parasitical underclass that prey on the poor and elderly.
That's what television is for: see, newspapers are not a world unto themselves. Those who apparently target working-class people as described above are people without political power, people unlikely to accost Rupert Murdoch at a black-tie function or sue him in open court. Shove your class war back up your arse, Ros.
... campaigning is one of the things that tabloids do best.
Sure it is: there just isn't anything authentic or community-based about it.
... John Pilger revealed the cold truth of Cambodia's Killing Fields in the Daily Mirror
Yes he did: do you think he'd have worked for a Murdoch paper? Do you think he'd have worked for a paper that tapped people's phones for fun and profit? Me neither.
... the stream of revelations that showed the hypocrisy of John Major's "back to basics" cabinet.
Hmmm - time for a re-examination as to how those stories came about?
I've been thinking a lot this week about an event that happened in the mid-Nineties ...
Why do you have to go back decades to find evidence that tabloids did a few good things, while you only have to go back days or weeks to find measureless fathoms of tabloid ordure? In a pathetic attempt to foster sympathy for tabloid journalism, what we need are some desperate, starving, war-torn people to associate with for the sake of cloying tugs at the heartstrings and another lunge for the moral high ground:
Like many other tabloid journalists, I have felt deep shame at some of the revelations of the past weeks. Now freelance, I watched the phone hacking scandal take its latest toxic twists from the capital of South Sudan, where I was writing a series on the challenges facing the new country for the Daily Mirror. Some broadsheet readers may be interested to know that there is still room for this kind of journalism in a modern tabloid.
Many, many honourable colleagues I know lost their jobs that week because of the actions of a few.
No, they were all in on the culture of bullying and illegality at News, but only some were caught. Fuck them all. They must never be employed as journalists again.

Since the 1980s Australia and other countries have undergone far-reaching economic reforms which have led to the closure of workplaces that provided many people with an income, a sense of purpose, a skill set and a community. Many of these closures have been reported in the media. For some reason, when a newspaper closes it is considered to be more tragic than the closure of mines, factories, abattoirs etc that employ people other than journalists.
Their crimes are no greater than anyone working in news or entertainment.
They haven't ruined people's lives ... Of all the people I know who have lost their jobs, not one would even remotely consider an action as grim, heartless and incomprehensible as intercepting the mobile telephone messages of a murder or terrorism victim.
In the eight years between the disappearance of Milly Dowler and these actions coming to light, none of these supposedly honourable people stood against those who did the wrong thing.
Meanwhile – breaking news – many tabloid journalists welcome the idea of an ethical broom sweeping through the industry.
Yeah, they welcome the idea - just not the reality. Everyone's corrupt, right Ros?
There has been feigned shock that investigators have been used by Fleet Street, but investigation is at the heart of good journalism.
Yes it is - when done by the journalist themselves. Outsourcing investigation is used for deniability on the proprietor's part, and to cover basic skill deficiencies for the journalist.
There are arguably papers at least as pernicious than the departed News of the World trundling on with their bile on a daily basis.
And which might they be, o fearless truth-teller?
Mass readership naturally accrued political power to the tabloid patrons.
Naturally - not the mass readership themselves.
Meanwhile, tabloid readers are consistently underestimated, particularly those of the red-tops. They may have less time to peruse lengthy articles – many work in manual jobs with very small commutes and short breaks, or are at home looking after kids. They want bite-sized information about the world around them, entertainment and silliness to cheer up their day.
The "may have" reveals a modesty about in-depth knowledge about working people that is most unbecoming of a tabloid journalist. They are meant to assume vox media vox populi and swat away pointy-headed assertions to the contrary. Wynne-Jones should also explore the possibility that the longer an article is, the more questions it begs and covers up; it can be hard work unpacking all that crap.
Maintaining a benign interest in celebrity (as opposed to say chess, gardening or cryptic crosswords) is not a crime. Television, music, film and sport regularly sell their products on the basis of the personalities behind them. Broadsheets devoted acres of coverage to the death of Jade Goody, dressed up as social commentary. Is Cheryl Cole's hairstyle really less relevant than which wine has had a bloody good year in Burgundy?
This isn't an argument for good journalism, it's more class war bullshit. In order to have "a bloody good year in Burgundy" it is not necessary to commit subterfuge against, say, the wines of the Barossa (note the alliteration there?).
... tabloid readers are both ardent campaigners against injustice and generous donors ...
If only management and journos were as good as their readers, eh Ros? Stop hiding behind them. They won't miss you when you go.
Most hacks also possess a naturally deep disdain for authority, establishment and big business.
Except those that employ them.

Wynne-Jones touches on a central problem with the defence of tabloids, but if anyone's going galumphing straight through the middle of it then it has to be Toby Young:
the reason tabloid hacks sometimes cross the line into illegality is not because they’re dishonest or corrupt or lack a moral compass. It’s because they have until 5.30pm that evening to nail the story and they know that if they don’t some other bast**d will.
It's the Nuremberg defence: anything can be justified in the name of following orders, doing one's job.
Without the unscrupulous, appalling, “shocking” behaviour of red-top reporters, we probably wouldn’t know about Cecil Parkinson’s infidelity or John Prescott’s affair with his secretary.
Cecil Parkinson also had an "affair with his secretary", so it is unclear why different language is used for each man. Parkinson was a Conservative (if not, in his sex life, authentically conservative) so Young's use of "infidelity" looks like some sort of technical breach in describing Parkinson. It took a broadsheet to point out Parkinson's deeper crime: the child born to him and his mistress, Sara Keays, was disabled and requires expenses in excess of those of most children. Parkinson has refused to see Keays or the child, and there is some he-said-she-said back-and-forth as to whether Parkinson is meeting his obligations on even the most niggardly financial level. It takes that depth of analysis to establish that man's lack of fitness for high office; tabloid fare like "oo, 'e 'ad a bi' of nookie, innee?" and Young's euphemisms don't cut it as analysis or as any sort of explanation of that issue.
Yes, the ink-stained wretches regularly desecrate the graves of dead girls, but they also speak truth to power and they do it more often – and with more impact – than the broadsheets.
They very rarely speak "truth to power". A footballer exposed in extramarital sex isn't a figure of any genuine power: the story steals media attention away from figures of real power. The people providing money to and threats against Pakistani cricketers were not exposed at all, just a bunch of frightened rabbits bedecked with logos of organisations which they were not really representing.

Secondly, a murdered girl and those rendered vulnerable in hoping for her return are not collateral damage in the hope that one day, on the off-chance, a tabloid journalist might do something worthwhile.
But how do you shield them without also shielding wrongdoers?
In all my years of never having worked in the media, I can't answer that question. Start sending a few editors and journos for a spell in prison and you'd come up with some answers. Oscar Wilde came up with some very interesting ideas on the nature of love and justice during and after his time in Reading Gaol, and one can only imagine how much more perceptive Toby Young might get faced with such a prospect.
Alan Rusbridger’s line is that you can regulate the tabloids without clipping their wings. They’ll still be able to go after corrupt sports officials, just not the grieving parents of dead girls. They can be forced to behave more responsibly and still speak truth to power.

But is that feasible? Can you have the good without the bad? I’m not so sure.
Rusbridger is an editor and you're not, Toby. Editors and other senior managers have to deal with subtleties and compliance issues all the time, and when they don't journalists go after them and ask them why. The feeble mind cannot handle complexity, let alone explain it, and starts jabbering on about slippery slopes or anti-French tubthumping and the like - sometimes you just have to get out of the way and let the professionals do their work.

US journalist Tim Redmond confuses tabloid journalism with journalism generally:
So what do you "regulate"? Voicemail hacking? It's already illegal. Snooping into bank accounts? Likewise.
Redmond said he "liked" that quote but didn't say why. What you regulate is the sort of structure that made authorities too frightened to enforce those laws.
The Pentagon Papers were stolen property, received by the New York Times.
Yes, and The New York Times did proper, non-tabloid analysis of those documents and what they meant. They did not just crow about the fact that they had the documents or use them to run mawkish stories about dead soldiers in Vietnam, which is what would have happened if the Papers had ended up with tabloids.
Wikileaks puts out illegally obtained information all the time.
It does. Under the editorship of Bill Keller, however, The New York Times does less fact-based investigation and more bitchy takedowns of the guy who dropped all that juicy material into their laps. This means that The New York Times is pissing away its basic value proposition; professional and brand suicide on its part is neither here nor there when it comes to tabloids.
I guess I'm biased by the fact that I've never believed a lot of what I read, so I don't take this stuff too seriously -- and I worry about the people who do. But the world of journalism is a little smaller and a little less colorful after the death of News of the World.
So: investigative fact-based journalism matters and tabloids don't. Couldn't agree more, but it is no defence of tabloids.

When it comes to Australia, the same people warning ominously against changes to media regulations are the same people who didn't get Lindsay Tanner's Sideshow. With the Murdoch press, though, there is added spice. First, the bastards are fighting across a number of fronts and want to shut down any instability in what is for them a small but vital market. Second, they think that their campaigns are all one-way traffic: for Julia Gillard and Bob Brown not to just cop News Ltd jihads against them (including accusations of cowardice and deceit), but to stand up and dish it back, is clearly discombobulating. For a start, News Ltd people like Michael Stutchbury (not to be confused with Mike Stutchbery) did not simply dismiss Gillard or Brown as liars, or blithely claim that any investigation they did conduct would be an expensive stuff-up: these people are seriously worried, in the same way that tobacco companies are over removal of branding.

As part of his campaign to move far and fast from any sort of reputation for upholding the rights of free individuals in a free society against government and corporate interests, George Brandis is wrong when he says:
Julia Gillard attempted to divert national attention away from her failing carbon tax campaign [sic] by opening a new front on the issue of press freedom, she relied upon two [pretexts]: the News of the World scandal, and the 2008 report of the Australian Law Reform Commission into privacy.

The first of those pretexts was immediately seen for the dodge that it was.
No it wasn't: even now it rocks this country's dominant media organisation to its core, bringing home all too acutely what they had tried to brush off as a far-off scandal. Previously persuasive company advocates like John Hartigan have no purchase with the current government; News Ltd do their worst day after day to the incumbents and they are still standing, making a mockery of old notions of media-mogul power. Brandis looks foolish in standing by an outfit which is doing no real favours for the Liberal Party, and will be less able to deliver over time.

As Shadow Attorney General and a QC, he looks even more foolish with this:
... where was the evidence to suggest that similar practices [to illegal operations in News Ltd operations overseas] were engaged in by any Australian media organisation?
I don't know, George: let's have an investigation and find out. The ALRC is not, as you know, an investigative organisation. You're not scared of an investigation are you? Michael Stutchbury said it would be a lawyer's picnic: sounds like your scene, surely. He talks about the "government's enthusiasm to control the media", when all they really want to do is rattle it - well, one particularly hostile part of it anyway.
The government was given the ALRC report in May 2008.
Yes it was: three years before the toxic culture of News became apparent. The prospect of an inquiry into the Australian media and its relationship with that ALRC report is about the same as, say, the link between the report Little Children Are Sacred and the reality of the Northern Territory intervention.

If Murdoch has to divest some or all of his media interests in Australia, Gina Reinhart will buy them and run them in the same private-interest, patronising/crusading way that Murdoch did. The more cowardly Australian journalists will find mogul-based employment enormously attractive, and thus what we might consider the contemporary style of Australian tabloid media has more of a future than might be apparent to the more timid dish-it-out-but-can't-cop-it types in that profession industry.

That said, to hell with tabloid journalism and its patronising attitude to its readers. To hell with "devil's advocates" who stand up for them at a time when they are clearly revealed as having failed (the devil is not short of advocates). To hell with their half-witted "campaigns" and their bloody astroturfing, which shows that if the mainstream media really want to survive then the tabloid approach is not the way to greater market share and profits: it is the way to loss of credibility, and thus oblivion. We are all tabloid? Not all of us mate.


  1. Darryl Snow26/7/11 9:50 pm

    I need another phrase than nailed it. Too tired to find it. Highest praise will have to do.

  2. Hillbilly Skeleton27/7/11 8:42 am

    The best perspective that was given wrt tabloids in the light of the Murdoch imbroglio was the reiteration of the quote that the tabloids were invented by the Press Barons in order to make the working class and lower middle class, Labo(u)r's traditional constituency, feel comfortable about voting Tory.

    Also, and particularly considering the popularity of the tabloids with the reading public, I would wager that a large portion of their popularity is simply down to the fact of the convenience with which people are able to read them, as opposed to the broadsheets. So, the proprietors suck people in on a very basic comfort of consumption level, a bit like the difference between buying a Big Mac and waiting the extra time for a cafe to make you one, then they start pushing the proprietor's line at you. After that it just becomes a habit that people are unwilling or unable to break, unless you put a fair amount of energy into it, and most don't, they just go with the tabloid flow.
    So, as I have always believed, the broadsheets should just throw in the towel on size and fight the tabloids on their own sized turf and fight them with quality.

  3. I hadn't come across that quote before, Hillbilly Skeleton - excellent, thank you (and as always thanks Andrew for your usual scathingly rigorous analysis).

  4. Thanks Darryl.

    HS comes through with the goods, Fiona.

  5. The hilarious thing is that News Ltd continually moans about the loose oligarchy of the banks and the duopoly of Coles and Woolworths, while at the same time hysterically shrieking whenever someone points out their 70% domination of the newspaper market.

  6. Hullo Andrew - A few comments.

    If you look at the history of modern journalism, then you can summarise the characteristics of newspaper proprietors (and editors) as (i) wealthy, (ii) opinionated (iii) control freaks and bullies. Almost all have double dose of the narcisstics and presumably this permits them to sustain the belief that they are pushing interests of the little people while in reality doing precisely the opposite. Astroturfing as you say.

    What is also obvious though is that traditional newspaper journalism is dying. Newspapers have been closing in Australia since the 1950s and this predates the internet. You can postulate a lot of reasons. One of which is that the little people arent quite as silly as the Harmsworths, Aitkens, Hearst's, Packers and Murdoch's etc seem to think. The rise of the internet certainly might be the nail in the coffin though because it screws the advertising revenue (and thus the business model) and partly because a little person can for example find what Germaine Greer actually said rather than what The Australian claims she said.

    Your comment that Murdoch closed the NOTW is very interesting. But dont ignore the fact that when the going got rough, News closed the paper. I think that's what a few News journalists are in denial about. Think about it: News journalists are dispensible objects. Which is not what they thought they were.

  7. I thought about it, I wrote about it Matt.

    The whole point of journalism is to present complex matters in a way that is simple and engaging: if it conveys some of that complexity in a simple way then that is a hallmark of particularly good journalism. Paid journalists think they can get away with skating past complex subjects, or finding intricacies in trivia (e.g. Annabel Crabb), and now that model has failed they can't flick the switch to serious journalism.

    I disagree that journalism is dying - fragmented, yes; but not dying. There wouldn't be five journalists in the country who can present economic issues in as straightforward a way as Grog's Gamut.

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