16 November 2011

Draconian journalism

Legislation and regulation is an inexact science and in Australia they tend to be light on punishments for their own sake. Penalties are put into certain laws with a view to modifying behaviour for the greater good. Some people don't want their behaviour modified, and they can have their go at changing it but generally it is possible to live and work within this country's laws without necessarily cowering.

An example of this is the carbon price. It is not, despite what some would have you believe, designed to suck as much cash from the economy as possible and funnel it into the great sucking maw of government. It is designed to modify the behaviour of industries that emit carbon pollution into the atmosphere as a by-product of what they do. The price imposes costs upon those producers, giving them an incentive to minimise their carbon emissions. Getting people to minimise carbon emissions is the policy objective.

In reporting the debates leading up to the passage of the carbon price legislation, it is more than fair for journalists such as Murphy to quote opponents of the scheme describing the legislation as 'draconian'. It's a journosphere cliche that unwanted legislation is 'draconian', and lobbyists wanting to draw media attention are best advised to use their cliches so that they can bolt them together and assemble some content.

'Draconian' comes from the Latin word dracon, meaning 'dragon', a mythical creature which inspires fear but which does not actually exist.

There are journalists who are employed to report on legislation passing through Federal Parliament. One of them is Katharine Murphy. Her working life involves watching legislation being formed: the debates among stakeholders, the development of bills for submission to parliament and the lobbying by lobbyists, and the horsetrading by politicians as the bills proceed through both houses of parliament (well, like most press gallery journalists she doesn't come close to covering the full range of her brief, but her editor doesn't push her and press gallery groupthink encourages her to think that whatever she does is sufficient).

Katharine Murphy should have plenty of experience in listening to dire warnings of self-interested lobbyists and rentseekers, warning that this or that measure will be 'draconian' and will have far-reaching and dire effects on the economy and Australia's way of life generally. She should know that few, if any, of those spectres actually come to pass.

In this piece, Murphy acts like just another self-interested rent-seeker and insists that any outcome from the Independent Media Inquiry can only ever be - yes, you guessed it - draconian.

She tried to develop a bit of perspective, with that hand-wringing about how journalists have brought it all on themselves, and maybe she's right to despair of her managers and their peers across the mainstream media to accept that reader interaction is the way things are done now (and that decades of journosphere tradition to the contrary are not only invalid but counterproductive):
If there's intent behind Finkelstein's persistent interrogation on matters such as whether there should be a statutory regulator for newspapers, an automatic right of reply when people are wronged or whether the Press Council's standards need to be strengthened - then the industry is in for a swift kick in the pants.

And the worst of it is we deserve this whole discussion. We've brought it on ourselves. We have soiled what should be an open-and-shut case for self-regulation by abusing the privilege, by arrogantly failing to accept that the freedom of journalism carries with it significant responsibility: to get it right, to be fair, to understand the difference between fact and contention.
Part of the call for openness and feedback that social media makes possible - and necessary - is that the mainstream media should have gotten over itself and adapted to build communities of interest, rather than propping up the walls of legalism and bluster that has maintained those organisations throughout the centuries. Commercial pressures have failed to move them forward, so a kick in the pants may well be their only method of locomotion (yes, 'at some point'; it is possible that Finkelstein's report will be shelved and that the issues he raised will be revisited later). It will certainly be better for the mainstream media than the defensive assumptions they operate under currently.
Because the practice of journalism is not actually about us. It's about you, the readers who rely, still, on the veracity of what we do; and who need someone, institutionally, to stand up and ask questions where there are real abuses of power.
Yes, the practice of journalism really is about those who are employed as journalists, and how well or badly they do their job. Something can be true without being important.

Journalists should of course be alert to abuses of power, but there are three main issues with that:
  1. It is almost impossible that any such abuses will be uncovered within the press gallery at Parliament House.
  2. Given the scare campaign about how any and all restrictions on journalism are and must be 'draconian', are these the people who really can distinguish loud and obvious hype from quiet and obscure truths?
  3. Far-reaching Watergate-style abuses are few and far between, and can't fill up hourly/daily news reporting requirements. Reporting is best served in explaining what policies and legislation is coming at us, explaining the context and the effects of those, and asking: is this what you really wanted?
The most impressive journalism Murphy did was far from Canberra and its stultifying groupthink: here, a real story with real impacts on real people. She could have travelled to the APY lands and to those communities already interventioned against to see what this might mean, or her editors could've done so - but there's no regulation that can weigh against poor follow-through. It's a lie to assume that reporting on what government actually does must be worthy and dull, while writing about trivia (e.g. blow-by-blow accounts of Question Time) is compelling reading and high-quality journalism. It's a cover for sloppy and boring journalism.

Worse than that, it's a lie that makes journalists feel better about themselves inversely to the regard they are held by the society they're supposed to serve. This sustaining lie can be compared to the increasingly rare highs experienced by the addict in the degenerative phase of their addiction. The tragedy of Murphy and others is that they're dimly aware of their problem but cannot snap out of it.
Forgive me sounding furrowed-browed and uncompromising, but I've had the privilege of a long apprenticeship with Michelle Grattan, a person who epitomises a simple journalistic creed - take all the steps you can to get it right, and if you don't know, don't pretend.
To get what right? This idea that you're meant to be impressed with the firmness of the grasp of the stick rather than whether or not you're grasping the wrong end of it (or, indeed, the wrong stick) just makes me laugh.

A prime example of that is this, in which Annabel Crabb portrays Gillard and The Situation locked together in combat like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty tumbling down Reichenbach Falls. It is possible to examine what it is they're arguing over, and what the consequences are of either prevailing, but the Grattan Doctrine is that to describe the conflict in as dull a way as possible is to have the story (with the implicit pox-on-both-houses that comes from any conflict in which you're not engaged).

Another example is where a journalist will accurately quote a politician, business leader or someone else saying something which isn't true, deliberately or otherwise; as though the words should be taken on face value and not related to the facts behind them, or those affected by such crap-talking. This is a failure of journalism and its focus on a false fact/opinion dichotomy means that powerful people are taken at face value.

I'd love to see "an open-and-shut case for self-regulation", or even an example of where it has worked to ensure probity and accountability in any other facet of Australian life. Self-regulation with no legal checks only ever works for insiders against the interests of outsiders. No sly co-option of readers/viewers by journos can change that. I thought Jonathan Holmes would provide it, but I was wrong about that too.

The only acceptable self-regulation of the media is, apparently, Uncle Jonathan squeezed into a spare ten minutes on Monday nights: wagging his finger, raising his eyebrow, with a bemused and indulgent smirk at scallywag young journalists trampling this and tripping over that in pursuit of "the story". Occasionally he gets up on his high horse about Bogan Media (e.g. Today Tonight, A Current Affair, Alan Jones), but either way there's no harm done and nothing really changes.

To paraphrase Holmes up to, but not beyond, the point of parody: journalism is conducted for no purpose beyond the employment of journalists. We journalists only rope in the public to our defence when we feel that inertia - which succeeds in dampening most initiatives - might not defeat a particular initiative. When we're back to our default state of smugness, which is inevitable among mortals who regard themselves as indispensable, we just shunt the public back out into the cold so that they may just consume in silence that which we choose to pump at them. Any issues should be sorted out behind closed doors, because that's what's best for everybody. Nothing to see here, move along now, no need for an Inquiry! We chaps conduct all the inquiry one could possibly want in the front bar of the pub nearest the office. See you there!

Holmes seriously believes that your only acceptable recourse against misreporting is to accost media owners Kerry Stokes, in any of the many avenues where you might have the chance to approach the man at all. Leaving journalists to do what they will ensures their freedom and that of us all, apparently. The preceding paragraph is not nearly as absurd as the core beliefs of an experienced media practitioner. The Holmes model assumes that journalism is simply a conduit for reporting issues raised by others and is not a source of legitimate or substantial issues in itself.

The Holmes model does not work for those of us who are not journalists, and who can't be sure that editors/news directors or senior executives would take our call (the SMH's Readers' Editor and the ABC complaints process are a waste of time, a source of instruction to readers/viewers rather than a channel for feedback by them/us which materially changes the way reporting is conducted). Perhaps it isn't meant to, if you take the approach that the media is journos first and bugger the rest of you; if you take the approach that "the plethora of media platforms" needn't materially change the way journalism is practiced.

The case for regulating journalism is much the same as that for regulating companies: if the regulatory settings are wrong, innovation and economic growth are stifled, but if they are right then it can free economic growth and innovation from market restrictions such as collusion, graft, and abuses of market power such as monopoly, monopsony and oligopoly (these being forms of power vulnerable to abuse to which the Institute for Public Affairs and Centre for Independent Studies are wilfully blind). A balanced approach is, given the evidence of other organisations, possible; to complain that these processes are imperfect is no argument against regulation per se.

The challenge facing the Independent Media Inquiry is to identify a balanced approach to regulation of the media, having identified exactly what is being balanced. It does no-one any favours to pretend that Finkelstein is either a dupe or a some sort of catspaw for dark and sinister forces, particularly when reasonable change has been ignored or dismissed for so long. The idea that the only outcome possible from the Finkelstein Inquiry is a kind of blunt legalistic cudgel that can only stun, maim or even kill journalism in this country, is unworthy of experienced journalists and deserves far less respect than it has so far received. Even less is the idea that the media is already staggering under the burden of regulation besetting it already: this is the very sort of thing you get from lobbyists.

You'd hope that experienced journos would stop and think about parroting the most inane lines of lobbyists. Why be constructive when you can just sit back and shriek about how 'draconian' it all is (or might be)? To do that, they'd have to get over themselves: some can't even do that, but lip service is not the only alternative and nor is it adequate. It's hard to pity a profession so committed to its destruction, and despite what Tim Dunlop thinks, there's no incentive to encourage it in its collective folly but every reason to encourage successful breaks from journalistic groupthink wherever they can be found.


  1. Hi, long time reader, first time commenter. Just a wee note on the word draconian-comes from the Ancient Greek- Draco, a Athenian legal eagle who proscribed harsh punishments for minor crimes-hence the word draconian. My time in Ancient History at Uni was sooooooo worth it.

    Love your page, visit it every day.

  2. To view the reductio ad absurdem of Self Regulation, taken to the level of a fairly large American State, and how that power, devolved by the State to the vested interest group, for a price, can corrupt democracy absolutely, you only have to read Matt Taibbi's gloriously profound exposition of Rick Perry's Texas, in this month's Rolling Stone.
    As for Katharine Murphy. All I need say to paint a word portrait of the woman that says it all about her, is to relate her performance today at The National Press Club, when asking Jean Kitson, our new Women's Ambassador for Menopause(oh well,it's probably a well-paying gig for an aging comedienne). Ms Murphy said, wtte, "Can we now blame Menopause, instead of 'That time of the month', when we lose it and lash out against someone in the family?" Plus, "I don't want to stand when I ask you a question because that would be too intimidating." ???
    Now, I know her body of work is a bit like the Curate's Egg, but what seems disconcerting to me is the way it slips between lucidity and looniness so easily.

  3. Alphabajangodelta16/11/11 11:40 pm

    The mere raising of the 'draconian' flag (a variant of a Godwin in blogging) shows journalists don't have the capacity to reflexively consider their own profession. In any serious profession based not on technical skill but on outlook two questions are usually the most enduring and fundamental: 'what is the nature of what we do' and 'how do we make sure it's any good. The Australian media hasn't been able to resolve what the nature of its contemporary task is, and is floundering badly. On the second, it's lost its ability to assess as a body the quality of its output and to improve it. Serious journalists, who truly really deeply care about what they do and their community of peers would have at least asked these questions, taken them seriously, and likely proposed solutions or ways of advancing beyond the present problems. [Handing out Walkleys on 'social media reporting' is a symptom - a Walkley should be rare and require dedicated effort, not just time serving or profile, to get]. They would ask how the media got to the point where in a robust and relatively free democracy like Australia government government took the highly unusual step of deciding an inquiry was required. One or two would write bombastic incisive analytical books that cub reporters cling to for inspiration years after. Where is the serious critical long-form media engagement with Tanner's (admittedly flawed) Sideshow? Instead we have immature umbrage and foot stamping, shrieking and tantying, or as with Oakes' Olle Lecture an 'ugly but necessary' conservatism. Oh for an Australian Alan Rusbridger who can both critically engage with their profession, while helping navigate it through the changing world and avoiding the mire.

  4. If I were Finkelstein & Ricketson, I'd be wondering 'who the hell is Murphy to pre-empt my recommendation?' Fair enough that journos are paranoid of regulation but it's not even news. The report hasn't been handed down and they've already tried to exonerate themselves from censure.

  5. Good post, Andrew. It's refreshing to hear another person frame the notion of 'regulation' in sensible terms, rather than in unboundingly negative ones. Since you have no email address on your blog, I thought I'd make a few points here that strike me immediately.

    The first is the quantity of cynicism that I sense in your attitude toward journalists. I feel that a decent stint working as one would rectify this deficiency. As a blogger, obviously, you're involved in public discussion, but that's a bit different. There's an upside, tho. Your attitude means you are unlikely to accept the shrill assertions of journalists, and journalism company managers, that emerge when faced with even the faintest possibility of govt regulation. This is good, because those people control the mechanism of diffusion of ideas. In other words, you're calling out the powerful.

    My second point is to do with the relative power of an individual journalist, given that he or she works in a mainstream media company of the likes of Fairfax or News Ltd. In simplest terms, you will not get very far by consistently taking an editorial line that goes against the one being pursued further up the feeding chain. Apart from any specific cases of rewrites of ledes, for example, which would alter the slant of a story, the corporate ethos will mould, unbidden, the junior journo's way of approaching any given story. This is self-censorship, and in the case of News Ltd I believe that it operates ideally in a way that benefits the conservative side of politics in Australia. Fairfax is a bit behind the times, in this regard. Rather than aping the "feral" elements of the Lib-Nat coalition (thanks Laurie Oakes), they're stuck in Malcolm Fraser mode.

    All those industry rent-seekers certainly watch Johno Holmes every Monday night, as do you and I. Why not? It's always great TV. What they might personally think themselves is - even in this socially-mediated world of status updates and tweets - a profound mystery. Like suitably tractable employees everywhere and at all times they're keeping their heads down and leaving public pronouncements up to their betters. Any other approach would be professional suicide. In the current economic climate, they're lucky to have a job.

  6. Anon, I still think history grads should have more power than they do. Thank you for that.

    HS, if you worked with Michelle Grattan who knows what would happen?

    Alpha, I agree with you about the reaction to Sideshow and the lack of perspective (I would have added the absolute active hostility, from CEO to grunt reporter, to any input from outside the 'profession'). I thought Greg Hywood might be that Rusbridger but he's just another drone. The fact that the Walkleys are handed out by the union mitigates against exclusive notions of excellence.

    PK, the more I see pieces like this, the more journos deal themselves out of the self-regulation game.

  7. Matt, you seem to believe that I have to put up with the media the way it is, and you are wrong about that. What you detect as 'cynicism' is a refusal to take people with a large but fragile collective ego on their own terms, and to accept their sillier assumptions as not only valid but somehow unquestionable.

    Let me give you another example of a service industry staffed by skilled and busy professionals who hae the perspective that journalists tend to lack. Journalists refuse to believe their work can be compared to others', but that's part of the problem.

    Some time ago I went to a fancy restaurant. The dish I ordered was cold (and it wasn't one of those dishes that's meant to be served cold). I called the waiter over. What do you think happened next?

    Because the restaurant was staffed by professionals, the waiter apologised, whisked the cold meal away and replaced it with a hot one, which was delicious. My enjoyment of the evening was undiminished.

    Now, here's what would have happened if that restaurant was run by journalists: the waiter would have refused to respond to my call, would have cut me off halfway through my explanation with a smirk and "be grateful we gave you anything at all!". Then, the chef would have stormed out told me how he'd had X years in the business and won a whole lot of [chef equivalent of Walkleys], and followed this by telling me to piss off to McDonalds.

    I understand the self-censorship, I just don't respect it. The industry is run by fools and I've worked with my share outside the media, thanks all the same. The whole industry needs wholesale change and if you're not helping that change then I've no sympathy for you. Be the change you want to see, and some journalism from the press gallery would be nice.

    I haven't watched a full episode of Media Watch in some time - probably dropped in on a dozen episodes in the last 3-4 years.

    "In the current economic climate, they're lucky to have a job" - bullshit, Matt. The country has close to full employment.

    If you want to be a jobsworth who does what he's told and shovels shit instead of news, be it on your own head and don't expect my respect - or my money and time to consume your product.