Monday, November 29, 2010

The Bunker Mentality

They love a stoush at News Ltd - particularly if it lines them up against those pinko latte-sipping elites who loiter around on social media sites pretending to be journalists.

That's one way to read the latest flare-up of hostilities between Rupert Murdoch's hirelings and a broad cross section of the community who thinks Australia's most powerful media group  systemically ranks reporting the truth a distant second to pushing its various ratbag, ideological barrows.

The last episode - the spiteful unmasking of popular political blogger Grogs Gamut - brought out the vindictive worst in The Australian, a newspaper that these days is almost a parody of itself so little attention does it pay to the normal journalistic principles of balance, accuracy and fairness.

Incidentally, ABC managing director Mark Scott - who originally drew the wider public's attention to Grog's criticism of the media's federal election coverage - made the astute observation in a speech last week that The Australian seemed to be objecting more to Grog's authority than his anonymity

"It was symbolic of a larger unwillingness by The Australian to cede to a civilian journalist the ability to shape the agenda - a role The Australian, and some other mainstream news organisations, have long had to themselves. Grog's Gamut, like so many citizen blogs before it, had sidestepped the gatekeeper," Scott said.

Now, the Murdoch flagship is at it again with editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell saying he will sue journalism academic Julie Posetti for defamation for tweeting reported comments at a conference by a former reporter of the newspaper saying she had been told by Mitchell what to write in the lead-up to the election.

That the powerful editor of a national newspaper should be so thin skinned as to threaten a little known academic and micro-blogger in this way just beggars belief. It goes so much against the essence of good journalism in fostering openness, independence of mind and public debate. And it suggests Mark Scott was right. The Australian, like any bully, is seeking to intimidate its victims into isolation and silence.

As it turned out, Mitchell ended up looking silly when a sound recording of the speech upon which Posetti's tweets were based revealed her reporting to be accurate. This, together with the fact that she was covering a public meeting (which attracts qualified privilege), would seem to undermine Mitchell's case somewhat.

But aside from his bullying behaviour, this case also showed News Ltd's tendency to circle the wagons and use its news pages to push its agenda, even in nominally 'straight' news reports. So, today, we saw the paper have reporter Sally Jackson cobble together a story saying the defamation case was 'unremarkable'.

Jackson finished off her report by giving her boss a free hit at Posetti, quoting Mitchell as saying that it was "very worrying as a parent of university students and a journalist of 37 years that a journalism lecturer and academic does not understand the laws of defamation".

How much more worrying, then, that the editor of our only national broadsheet should have so tenuous a grasp on media law and so low a respect for the standards of his profession? And how much more worrying that a newspaper nominally dedicated to revealing the truth of things should so brazenly seek to silence its critics, suppress dissent and quieten new media voices?

See also:

Friday, November 26, 2010

Journalism at the Movies: Great Scenes

When the Sidney Lumet-directed satire 'Network' was released in 1976, the premise of the film - murderously cynical television producers exploit an emotionally unstable former news anchor and create reality television out of urban terrorism for cheap ratings - seemed like over-reach.

Now, it looks uncannily prescient. In this, one of the best scenes in the movie, top-rating current affairs show host and on-air "mad as hell" everyman Howard Beale (Australian posthumous Oscar winner Peter Finch) pushes the envelope too far when he uses his show to criticise the proposed takeover by a Saudi conglomerate of the corporation that owns the US network that employs him .

Beale is dragged into the boardroom by the current network owner's CEO Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty), who delivers a biblical tirade about the true nature of democracy and the role of the media....and this was nearly 35 years ago....

Thursday, November 25, 2010

'Vigorous' Journalism?

Photo: B.J. West
In a speech in London recently, Rupert Murdoch - responding to the phone-tapping skullduggery of the News of the World - defended his organisation's "uniquely vigorous" journalism in the UK.

Anyone who has subbed a UK tabloid journalist's copy will know that Fleet Street has always operated under slightly different ethical standards (as in none) than the rest of the journalistic world. Quotes are routinely manufactured, stories are beaten up to within an inch of their lives and reporters will misrepresent themselves at the drop of a hat if there's a sniff of a front page in it.

It seems now, though, that ethics-free journalism is building a beach-head hereEmailing MPs under an assumed names, reporters at the Herald Sun in Melbourne sought to entrap candidates in the Victorian election over campaign donations and mandatory sentencing.

There have been no denials from the Murdoch camp and Crikey's report on the scandal suggests the attempted entrapment was methodical.

By the way, those outside the industry may be interested to know that there is indeed a formal code of ethics in Australian journalism. This particular writer might be jaded after so many years in the industry, but I would wager that at least 70 per cent of journalists would not know what the code contained and a goodly portion would not even know that it exists.

With respect to the News Ltd hacks' behaviour, it's worth pointing to clause 8: "Use fair, responsible and honest means to obtain material.  Identify yourself and your employer before obtaining any interview for publication or broadcast.  Never exploit a person’s vulnerability or ignorance of media practice."

Oh well.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Death of Diversity

Media Monopoly, by Wiretap Studios (Flickr)
One ironic consequence of the new media age is that as the digital revolution threatens to splinter mainstream media businesses, the pressure for "consolidation" (read: concentration) grows around the world.

It was a subject touched on by Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, in his 2010 Andrew Olle media lecture, 'The Splintering of the Fourth Estate', delivered on Friday, November 19. Rusbridger spent much of the address musing on the consequences for journalism of the change in media from one-way transmission to multi-sided communication.

But he also devoted some time analysing the push from the corporate media and conservative politicians to silence or curb the online growth of public broadcasters, whilst campaigning through the legislature for a relaxation of ownership laws protecting media diversity.

"It is a sign of the current turmoil that one should have to argue a case that, at any other time in history, would have seemed too obvious to make: Too great a concentration of ownership in the media has always been considered a bad idea, whether you were on the right or the left," Rusbridger said.

The Guardian editor cited the current furore in Britain over attempts by News Corp to buy the 61 percent of satellite broadcaster BSkyB that it does not already own. Success in this bid would give Murdoch's empire control of nearly 40 per cent of Britain's press as well as a broadcaster with nearly £6 billion ($A9.7 billion)  in revenues compared with the £3.5bn licence fee of the BBC.

The proposed further concentration of an already heavily concentrated UK media led to a special debate in the House of Lords this month, led by British film producer and sitting member Lord Puttnam.

"The level of media dominance that would result from News Corp's ownership of 100 per cent of BSkyB, along with four national newspapers and a variety of other media assets, is one that would simply not be tolerated in almost any other developed democracy – certainly not in the United States," Puttnam said.

Well, actually, the disturbing fact is that the level of concentration in the Australia media is even greater and that a similar trend is evident in the US. News Corp controls nearly 70 per cent of our capital city and national newspaper market, 80 percent of the Sunday newspaper market and 62 per cent of suburban newspapers. It has newspaper monopolies in Adelaide and Brisbane, operates Sky News with Nine and Seven, owns a quarter of the dominant pay television provider Foxtel and owns half of the national wire agency, AAP. Its voice speaks louder than any other, including Fairfax, and its ability to shape the news agenda is formidable.

As this parliamentary issues paper from 2006 details, while Canberra can impose restrictions on broadcasters through the license arrangements policed under the Broadcasting Services Act of 1992, its legislative reach on the newspaper market is limited to general competition law and foreign ownership provisions. Attempts to break News' dominance and prompt discussion of its impact on media diversity have generally been muted by the fact of its omnipresence. Politicians see only downside in raising the issue and are easily swayed by powerful media lobbies. No-one is there to speak for the rights of civil society - for citizens (as distinct from consumers who express their preferences in the market).

As Bernard Keane noted in Crikey recently, media in Australia is currently becoming even more concentrated with the joint Lachlan Murdoch-James Packer raid on the Ten Network. Murdoch the younger sits on the News Ltd board and already controls 9 percent of regional television broadcaster Prime and 50 percent of radio network DMG.

Yet there are no signs of a local parliamentary debate on media concentration in Australia and one would be advised not to hold one's breath anticipating such a move when politicians live in such fear of the media moguls and their power to make and break political careers.

As for the giant US market, the Federal Trade Commission has been considering exemptions from anti-trust  laws to provide a lifeline to a dying newspaper market. One proposal is to allow news organisations there to collaborate in erecting pay walls that would require consumers to pay for online content.

As one would expect, the idea has been fiercely opposed by aggregators such as Google who argue the newspapers are trying to mask a business problem as a legal problem. And in any case, the 4 billion clicks that Google sends to the MSM newspapers each month would be imperilled by pay walls.

In a recent academic paper, Maurice Stuck from the University of Tennessee's College of Law argued the case strongly for no further watering down of US anti-trust laws, saying the health of democracy depends on greater competition among traditional media.

Alongside the proposed protections for newspapers from competition law, the House Republicans in the US are seeking to force a vote next week on cutting public funding to National Public Radio, and conveniently kill one of the few non-corporate media voices remaining in the land of the free.

For a local perspective on some of these issues, I recommend watching the recent debate, sponsored by Melbourne University Publishing, on 'The Future of the Australian Media'. The debate features former Murdoch editor Bruce Guthrie , current Murdoch media writer Caroline Overington, Crikey publisher Eric Beecher and Media Watch host and Packer biographer Paul Barry.

Again, much of this debate is about the economics of digital publishing and the future of the traditional print business model, but the more interesting and more widely relevant - to my mind - angle (explored at the end of part one and into part two here) is what diminishing media diversity means for democracy. (By the way, I found it telling that in this debate Overington did not represent herself as a professional journalist but as a kind of PR spokeswoman for the Murdoch empire.)

The great irony in all of this is that the corporate media - partly in the name of protecting itself against amateur bloggers, aggregators and public broadcasters - is pushing regulators and politicians in Australia, in the UK and in the US to make its life easier by allowing it to become even more concentrated than it already is.

Only the bravest politician would stand in its way.

See also Bernard Keane: It's Time to Revisit Media Diversity Laws

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Made You a Moron

One big story this past week exposed the media's love of pre-fabricated templates that save them having to ask uncomfortable questions or to think outside of cosy and familiar narrative frames.

While Groundhog Day for many of us, these type of "stories" nevertheless are seized upon by a media that loves nothing more than ready-to- consume fodder to pull in the punters and keep the advertisers happy.

This week's boilerplate was the announcement of the engagement of Prince William and Kate Middleton - an event that generated the most predictable - almost robotic - coverage in the sense you could look at it with the sound turned down or flip the pages without reading the words and know exactly what was being said. It was 1981 all over again. Chuck and Di: The Next Generation.

There were Kate and Bill holding hands on the Chesterfield sofa and telling the world about their "fairytale" engagement, the first of several setpieces that surely will extend to intimate explorations of Kate's former love life and lower middle class background with parents in the service industry. ('My Fare Lady: Kate's Downstairs and Will's Upstairs') and the braindead riffing of the Australian media on either the constitutional consequences or what  it means for the perpetual tabloid soap opera (Princess Mary vs Princess Kate: Who's Our Dinky Di Royal?").

As for the media itself, you can almost hear every jaded and overworked news editor in the Anglo-Saxon world salivating over a story that isn't about either collateralised debt obligations, quantitative easing, sovereign default or man-made climate change.  What a treasure trove of pre-fab, pre-digested tabloid fodder for bored proles. Woman's Day just was delivered a franchise that should keep it in front covers for another 20 years.

Here, fully formed, is a story that involves asking no hard questions, that has two pretty people at its centre and that saves the front pages from more turgid musing on our crisis of democratic legitimacy, our broken financial system and our imperilled planet. And most of it comes from the wires or the English tabloids (where facts are an after-thought). Joy.

Locally, the press gallery can riff off monarchist Tony versus republican Julia or New Idea can run stories for the six months on what Kate will wear and who'll do the catering (Shock Horror: Kate Shuns Harrods). High-Brow Lateline, meanwhile, can double team David Flint and Malcolm Turnbull in top hats.

What a perfect opportunity to go beige for six months or so. Where's Johnny Rotten when you need him?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Talk is Cheap

While the news media globally is cutting back on its facility for covering international news, it is channelling increasing resources into opinion. The economic and cultural causes of this shift are well documented, including on this blog. But what is not often canvassed are the possible consequences - not just for the media but for politics - of the now routine branding of opinion as news.

Making some valuable insights on this issue recently was Ted Koppel, one of the icons of the classic era of American television journalism from the 1960s and 70s. Koppel spent four decades at the US network ABC and was most widely known for his coverage of the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979 and his long-term anchor role with the late evening news program Newsnight. Now 70, Koppel retired from ABC in 2005 and these days provides occasional analysis for the BBC (he's British-born) and National Public Radio.

In a a guest column this week in The Washington Post, Koppel muses on the irony of outspoken MSNBC commentator Keith Olbermann (a sort of left-wing bizarro world Bill O'Reilly) being suspended by that network for making political donations to favoured Democratic candidates. As Koppel says, one could have imagined the outrage if, back in the 1960s, Walter Kronkite had been caught writing cheques for the Republicans. But in an age when journalists are encouraged to share their political opinions with us before they even learn to be reporters, this controversy seems rather, well, quaint.

But Koppel's bigger point is to muse on the effects of the shift in the sense of news from the old ideal of a public service aimed at a mass audience to, now, a corporate profit machine targeting niche markets with versions of opinionated "reality" that are tailored to their own particular world views.

"The commercial success of both Fox News and MSNBC is a source of nonpartisan sadness for me," Koppel writes "While I can appreciate the financial logic of drowning television viewers in a flood of opinions designed to confirm their own biases, the trend is not good for the republic. It is, though, the natural outcome of a growing sense of national entitlement. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's oft-quoted observation that 'everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts' seems almost quaint in an environment that flaunts opinions as though they were facts."

Of course, there is a counter argument to this that the post-war, optimistic, cosmopolitan liberalism that foreign correspondents like Koppel, his colleague Peter Jennings and our own George Negus represented was always an ideal embraced by a small elite disconnected from the cares of the "ordinary" folk. And, as is depressingly familiar, the likes of Fox and, here in Australia, Murdoch's local mouthpieces such as Janet Albrechtson gleefully exploit the notion that the "liberal elite" is out of step with the majority. (Janet's paper says of her in her bio that says she is "roundly disliked by judicial activists, the human rights industry, old-style feminists and assorted rent-seekers. None of that troubles her.").

But away from the mischief-making of professional contrarians and hit-seeking online columnists, the media's wholesale closures of foreign news bureaux and the reporting of international news through reliance on wire pictures and local, poorly paid stringers does have real world effects. And those effects relate to our ability to come to grips with the deeply complex international issues now confronting us - irreversible climate change, a fragile financial system, a retreat to nationalism and protectionism and the global movement of people. (Strange, isn't it, that the Right proclaims with missionary zeal the right of capital to cross borders, but turns xenophobic when people attempt to do the same thing?)

As Koppel says, as the media becomes ever more willing to sell its niche audiences a version of the truth that suits their own prejudices, the need for facts and context (the old currency of journalism - however unfashionable it might be) becomes ever greater.  In the absence of that need being met, one shudders at the consequences for this world.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Sermons on De'Mountables

"The Kevin Rudd era has begun. It is expected to last a long time. Rudd offers a new brand of leadership for Australia that breaks not just from John Howard but from Labor's past.
Rudd enjoys a big majority, an unqualified mandate, a growth economy, a Labor Party invigorated by a surge of fresh talent and a demoralised Liberal Party that will take many years to recover."
-- Paul Kelly, The Australian, Nov 26, 2007
"Federal Labor appears weak, unconvincing and hostage to many dilemmas. The Gillard government, deft at tactics, is losing its policy authority in the nation and facing a relentless hemorrhage in political support with repeated exposures of its inability to shape events or outcomes. Labor is in serious difficulty, a fact more apparent the greater the distance from Canberra. The government looks out of its depth, weak and devoid of strategic purpose. So overwhelming are these early signs they demand an urgent rethink of Labor's policy and messages.
-- Paul Kelly, The Australian, Nov 6, 2010

 There is never any room for doubt when Rupert Murdoch's in-house Australian Polonious opines on the state of politics. Imperious, self-important and grandiloquent, Paul Kelly has made a long journalistic career out of appearing to be plugged into the Zeitgeist and sounding very sure about it. And no doubt he did at one stage in the mid-to-late-1980s, but not much since.

Kelly's latest theory is that the Rudd/Gillard governments have failed to live up to their rhetoric by being demonstrably unable to formulate effective policy - either in foreign affairs, climate change or dealing with the terms of trade shock resulting from the mining boom.
"These are now on full display: an epoch-defining resources boom that imposes serious capacity constraints, interest rate pressures and new infrastructure needs," Kelly says.
"Labor's policy response is weak, from its misconceived super resources tax to its hostility towards supply side reforms." 
All of which one could share some sympathy with, but for the fact that Kelly's newspaper, owned by the world's most interventionist media proprietor, has effectively white-anted every attempted reform of the Rudd/Gillard era through an orchestrated blitzkrieg of misinformation, slurs and outright lies.

Kelly would have us believe there is some great unrealised supply-side economic "reform" that Labor is too timid to pursue, despite the fact the electorate itself appears to have no stomach for it and that his publisher's favoured Liberal-National coalition is now pursuing populist, nativist solutions that make Labor look positively libertarian. And Kelly never seems able to say exactly what this "reform" is. (It's very similar to the way Murdoch's Fox in the US persuades the lower-to-middle-class to vote against its own interests by appealing to nationalism, xenophobia and ignorance).

It would be easier to take the pontificating of Murdoch's outlets had they not spent the Howard years making allowances for that government's spending of billions on middle-class welfare and making catastrophic foreign policy errors by cosying up to the Bush administration's neo-cons.

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that there's another more personal agenda here. It's the boss' agenda, of course. It has nothing to do with Australia's interests and everything to do with making this country the 51st state of the USA. Quite simply, Rupert wants another Delaware in the South Pacific, a place where he can make loads of money and pay hardly any tax at all.

The job of the News Ltd minions is to dress up their boss' tawdry, ideological and commercial ambitions in an unspecified "reform" agenda that no Labor government, however diligent, could ever live up to. In the meantime, our own democracy is laid to waste by a man who controls 65 percent of our print media and who lives somewhere else. One wonders when people will wake up to this ruse.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A World of Their Own

"We'll build a world of our own that no one else can share. All our sorrows we'll leave far behind us there.
And I know you will find there'll be peace of mind
when we live in a world of our own."
   -- The Seekers

When Julia Gillard recently embarked on her first major trip abroad as prime minister, to the East Asia summit in Vietnam, the ABC's Lateline ran the item at number two in their bulletin - behind a report about an Opposition caucus committee meeting on tax reform.

Here we had our head of government engaging with our key trading partners at a time of enormous economic and political upheaval. Aside from the big picture global concerns of climate change and the still unsettled international economic environment, there were immediate and pressing regional issues in people smuggling and the proposed, contentious merger between the Singapore and Australian stock exchanges.

Why the ABC, two months after a federal election, would consider a story about an Opposition tax proposal a more newsworthy item than a regional meeting featuring our prime minister at a meeting of the dominant economic powers in the world speaks volumes for the myopia of the Canberra press corps.

It also highlights the increasing irrelevance of local media at a time when our most pressing problems are global in origin. As other critics have noted, with increasing frequency, the Canberra press gallery spends its life focusing on inconsequential short-term noise with little regard for the global context and connections.

Take for instance, the current row over bank competition.  Lost in all the hysteria is the fact that much of the world's financial architecture remains extremely fragile. The IMF, as recently as last month, said the financial system was still in a period of "significant uncertainty". Nearly 140 banks have closed in the US this year, while Europe was saved from a major default crisis only through emergency funding from the ECB. The wholesale funding markets are in a state that does make it harder for banks to roll over arrangements struck before the GFC. That means they are having to rely more on deposits and that means they have to compete by offering tempting deposit rates well above cash (the untold flipside of the "more pain for home loan borrowers" story is "a better deal for self-funded retirees").

Yet every economic story in Australia, particularly on the ABC, is told through the prism of he said-she said Canberra politics. Look at Lateline's item on this week's surprise rate rise by the RBA. It was all about Swan versus Hockey, passive and ignorant reporting about fiscal policy contributing to higher rates and nothing about what the central bank actually said. And what it said was that the Australian economy is dealing with a terms of trade shock - from a boom in commodity prices - that is outstripping its capacity to deal with the resulting higher demand. There is little Canberra can do about this. Well, actually, there IS something Canberra can do about it. But the media, in its hysterical and ill-informed reporting of the resource profits tax, precluded the possibility of serious policy action.

This is why the Fourth Estate, living in a manufactured world of its own, is failing us. It is parochial. It is lazy. It is focused on conflict as an end in itself rather than the substantial issues behind the conflict and it fails to supply its audience with the global context that might provide them with a wider frame of reference in judging the actions of the politicians.