Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Review: 'Inside Story'


 On holiday, I've been reading 'Inside Story' - ABC foreign correspondent Peter Lloyd's honest and compelling tale of his humiliating arrest and imprisonment in Singapore in 2008 for drug possession (a trafficking charge was later dropped).

Lloyd was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder at the time of his arrest, a personal legacy of his work over the previous six years covering a succession of disasters - including the Bali bombing, the Boxing Day tsunami and the carnage around Bhutto's return to Pakistan and her subsequent assassination.

The book segues back and forth from Lloyd's day-by-day account of his experience with the police, the judiciary and the penal authorities in Singapore and his remembrances of his professional life in the preceding years - doing standups amid the stench of rotting corpses in Bali or slipping and sliding amid the blood and gore in a makeshift mortuary after the first attack on Bhutto.

No doubt to protect his estranged wife and children, he says little about the influence on his psychological condition of the undoubtedly wrenching decision during those years to admit to his homosexuality - though he reveals that the split was amicable and that he remains friends with his former partner.

Lloyd touches on - and the book might have benefited from more of this - the increasing demands on foreign correspondents in a time of multiplication of outlets and real-time media. In one segment, he rues how he found himself rooted to Phuket during the tsunami aftermath, doing constant pieces to camera to deal with the requests from multiple editors.  As a result, little effort was made to report the far greater carnage elsewhere.

"We played safe in order to feed the beast of hourly deadlines," he recalls. "But there are times when the broadcasting beast holds us back from doing our job - it is moments like this when you realise that the more we report, the less we are reporting."

One hopes the editors of ABC News 24 will heed this message, but I doubt it. The trend, if anything, is for even more of this nonsensical "John Smith joins us live now from the scene...." type reporting where the information is less important than the particular outlet showing it has a reporter on the spot. Inevitably, the journo is so committed to live stand-ups, they end up echoing wire service reports fed to them by the editors back at headquarters in Sydney or London or New York.

Also instructive for those looking for an inside view of how the media operates is Lloyd's experiences going back and forth to court in Singapore, running the inevitable door-stops erected by the sort of media scrums of which he was once a part. At one point, he finds himself coaching his friends and relatives on negotiating the gauntlet of cameras and microphones with him.

"I understand better than most how the media operates," he counsels. " It is a beast and, like all beasts, it needs to be fed. If you starve it, the beast is less powerful. On a day like this, taming the beast simply requires silence. Don't respond to it. Don't let it provoke you. Keep your head up and your mouth closed. This is how to survive a walk for the cameras." 

The last third of Lloyd's book is a detailed "insider's" account of his seven or eight months in Tanah Merah prison, one of Singapore's many penal institutions. This period of monkish captivity marks his recovery from his stress disorder and a sort of redemption from the personal horrors of his years reporting Asia. What comes through here is his passionate (and understandable) loathing of the one-party state of Singapore and the Chinese majority's inhumane treatment of ethnic Malays and Indians. One imagines, after his repeated diatribes against Lee Kuan Yew, that he doesn't plan a return visit anytime soon to the city state.

Missing from his observations is an awareness of how Australia fits into the south-east Asian political dynamic. There is a brief episode when he his quizzed by locals about Pauline Hanson. But he seems unreflective beyond his personal story of how his Australian background colours what he reports

For all that, 'Inside Story' is still a good read. It brings home the real unedited horror of many of stories that have filled the ABC's nightly news bulletins in recent years and it tells them vividly through the experiences of an individual who showed remarkable strength  in the face of  great personal and professional upheaval.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Newsspeak

A bizarre year in journalism ends with our dominant media company's flagship newspaper, an outlet that long ago gave up any pretence of objectivity, declaring war on the press gallery, the blogosphere, the twitterverse and just about anyone that wasn't a Murdoch lackey sitting in front of a terminal in Holt Street.

The Australian is becoming a case-study in wagon-circling institutional paranoia, knee-jerk hyper-sensitivity, stupefying arrogance and an unending Orwellian capacity for declaring that black is white. Christopher Joye puts its increasingly unhinged behaviour down to insecurity, noting that the paper spends "more time defending its own actions in pushing specific agendas and ideological narratives than any other serious media forum on earth".

This was a newspaper that dedicated almost an entire supplement last weekend to defending its brand of  journalism, accusing the press gallery of missing the implosion of the Rudd prime ministership and of failing to hold the government to account. Given that the Murdoch empire controls 70 percent of Australia's metropolitan newspaper market, half of the national news agency AAP, 80 percent of the Sunday newspaper market, 62 per cent of suburban newspapers, and chunks of Sky News and dominant pay TV provider Foxtel,  it seems this alleged failure of journalism must be remarkably quarantined.

Of course, The Australian loves being in a bunker of its making - fighting the good fight for vigilant journalism and greater suburbia against the tertiary educated out-of-touch-with-real-people leftish inner city elites that now infest the profession.  Once again, this is strange - firstly because every journalist this blogger is acquainted with at The Australian is as tertiary-educated, inner-city living, latte-drinking small 'l' liberal as their counterparts at Fairfax and the ABC.  And a few of them are privately embarrassed by the deranged and quixotic behaviour of their editorial overlords.

The other irony in News Ltd's claims to being the torch carrier for the interests of the common folk is that this particular newspaper is THE voice of the uber-capitalist establishment - the miners, the bankers and the blinkered neo-libertarian ideologues who would still have it that the GFC was a consequence of over-regulation and who bullied Rudd into backdowns on the ETS and a rational attempt to avoid Australia succumbing to the Dutch Disease.

The Australian would have it that "most" of the media (ie: the other 30 percent) failed to pursue the Rudd government over its mismanagement. The reality, of course, is that Rudd was destroyed because he listened to people who spout the same line as The Australian's editorial writers - that the 'ordinary' people weren't interested in action on climate change, weren't interested in 'productivity' gains that merely lined the pockets of bankers and mining conglomerates, and weren't keen on 'reform' that was a euphemism for stripping away whatever rights they had left. So Labor lost its nerve. And it then compounded it by doing an atrocious job in communicating its achievements in getting the economy through the GFC.

That Gillard is now faltering as well is not because she is failing to pursue the "reform" agenda of The Australian's microscopic and septugenarian cheer squad but because she is still hostage to the Sussex Street gang who spend their lives trying to appease a mythical outer suburban belt - the very same unsophisticated battlers The Australian claims to be alone in championing.

Positively Orwellian.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

So You Want to be a Journalist?

Oh, how familiar:

Communications Graduate: "I want to be a journalist for the New York Times, interviewing the president, living in a Greenwich Village apartment and eating out at cool restaurants."
Wizened Old Journalist: "How about a job writing about pork belly futures for a trade magazine in Kansas?"

And the punch line is not to be missed. Just click on the square below. (Hat-tip to "BrooklynLee" and xtranormal):

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Branded Journalism


Australians don't know who reports the news they consume and don't care. At least that's the conclusion of new research from Essential Media Communications, which found that outside the household names of Laurie Oakes, Michelle Grattan and Andrew Bolt,readers and viewers struggle to nominate a single journalist.

To anyone raised in journalism over the last few decades, this is not really a surprise. The cult of the byline is really only a recent phenomenon. In days gone by - and not that long ago - journos got their names on their stories only in special instances. A byline was a reward for a particularly large effort on a story, usually involving a lot of independent reporting, or it was the reserve of columnists - people who had built up such a level of expertise in their "rounds" that their observations were sufficiently authoritative to cast off their anonymity as mere reporters. Not even war correspondents were guaranteed the recognition of a byline.

These days, bylines are ritually attached to four paragraph stories cut and paste from wire services that in turn are cut and paste from PR handouts. Public relations professionals stand around in bars swapping stories of how the copy they wrote has appeared under half a dozen different bylines around the country. Occasionally, individual journos will attempt to add some value to the raw copy - like getting a ritual "no comment" from an opposing source or providing a local angle. But generally, the presence of bylines no longer has any relation to the effort put into the copy.

Indeed, as Peter Lewis of Essential Media suggests, there is almost an inverse correlation between the commodification of news and the efforts of media companies to "brand' themselves through celebrity journalists. Instead of the journalists earning our trust through the gradual acquisition of their craft, we are asked to trust them on some kind of likeability and visibility principle. We buy them as personalities firstly, which makes their craft almost incidental. Hence, the trend of  TV anchors who spend most of their lives in a studio and then get airlifted into the fringes of natural disasters to do stand-ups in flak jackets.

This should not be read as a denial that there are journalists out there who have earned their bylines through years of grafting as reporters (Laura Tingle of the AFR springs to mind), but there was a day when certain publications had such credibility that their journalists were never bylined. The Economist still does it to this day, although in that case there is such a house style that every story appears to be written by the same person. Even the columnists - Buttonwood for instance - use pseudonyms.

This raises questions about media companies' strategy of trying to build their business strategy around celebrity journalists. From this perspective, they are coming at it from the wrong way around. It all starts with the quality of the journalism and the establishment and maintenance of trust between the organisations and their readership. Perhaps we are living with the consequences of marketing departments these past 20 years having too much sway in the business of journalism.

Whatever it is, something has been lost. 

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Waiting for Poddo

The union representing Australian journalists has released a report on the state of the profession. 'Life in the Clickstream II: The Future of Journalism' is the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance's second such survey, updating an inaugural effort two years ago.

For anyone familiar with the plight of the media in recent years, the findings are depressingly familiar. These  boil down to the perpetual search for a new business model in the online world, excitement over the possibilities offered by new technology marred by a lack of investment in skills and training, journalists being asked to do more with less, the axing of jobs (700 in two years), the centralisation of production, the increasing pooling of resources, the deterioration in quality and the loss of younger audiences in particular.

Perhaps not surprisingly for a union-led study, the underlying expectation in the study is that the solution to many of these problems (which have been around for at least 10 years) will come from inside the mainstream media industry, the decaying 20th century information factories that employ most journalists.

Much appears to be hanging on the success of the iPad applications, although an Essential Media study of the public would appear to undercut this. Asked whether they would be prepared to pay for online news content, 91 percent of respondents said 'no'. This would not suggest a positive outcome for News Corp as it contemplates extending its paywall experiment to Australia.

There is also very little discussion in the report about the role that expert blogs could pay in the long hoped for renaissance in the industry. It is remarkable that there is absolutely no mention of the Grogs Gamut episode and what this might suggest for the mainstream media industry. And the role of Possum in providing much needed deep analysis and balance to public issues in the past year also goes unremarked. Perhaps the MEAA does not consider the work of these bloggers to be journalism. I would disagree.

And that's really what's missing from the report, which purports to be about the future of journalism but is really about the future of the industry where most journalists are currently employed. That's a separate issue, as important as are the future livelihoods of many of my friends and former colleagues.

The future of journalism is a subject that needs to be tackled a little more widely than that. And it may yield better answers than are found in this particular industrial survey.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Things Fall Apart

Untitled Implosion
©Jim Kazanjian
A deluge of hitherto secret diplomatic cables is one thing; telling the public what they mean and why they should care is another. Clearly, this is proving a challenge for the Australian media, who in comparison to their US and UK counterparts, are struggling for one reason or another to supply context and analysis around Wikileaks for their audiences.

In fact, one could almost hear the sighs of relief today from news editors when Australia finally got mentioned in one of the cables. This recalled the old wire service rule that 300 Indonesians dying in a ferry boat accident is a news brief; 299 Indonesians and one young Australian backpacker dying is an alert.

Aside from the predictable local follow-ups, there has been little of the quality analysis seen on the New York Times or Guardian websites. The best of the Australian coverage has come from Guy Rundle on Crikey, who wrote an insightful analysis on how, aside from the diplomatic embarrassments caused by the leaks, the Wikileaks phenomenon had changed something fundamental in politics and media.

"The ‘cablegate’ releases go a step further, moving forward a historical shift that has long been obvious – once information is no longer paper-bound, there is a categorical and qualitative change in its character and the relationship of power to information," Rundle said. "When the diplomatic correspondence of an entire nation can be loaded onto a memory stick, then security is only as good as the least ‘dependable’ individual in the whole chain."

This hints at the reason for the difficulty the bulk of the media is experiencing in covering this story. Not only is it extremely fast-moving (there are thousands of cables), it is diffuse and cannot be reported with any degree of insight by relying on traditional sources and conventional narrative structures.  It also requires a level of expertise in foreign policy that is rarely found in Australian media. The best we can normally expect is a credulous recounting of an "off-the-record briefing" from a DFAT source that merely reflects the official line.

In some ways, this story is reminiscent of how our media struggled to report with any distinctive authority on the global financial crisis. Admittedly, the big banking problems were in London and New York, but there were opportunities early on to provide a contrast on how Australian banks had dodged the bullet. Then, as now, conventional structures, sourcing and ways of seeing the world were breaking down. In this more anarchistic climate, falling back on knee-jerk news templates ('The Federal Opposition has condemned...') just reinforces the view that our media has become irrelevant through either fundamental laziness, being under-skilled and under-resourced after waves of restructuring or just lacking the imagination to reinvent itself.

That lack of imagination, by the way, also explains the sudden departure of Brian McCarthy as chief executive officer of Fairfax Media. As Stephen Bartholomeusz points out on Business Spectator, McCarthy was skilled at cutting costs, but appeared to lack the ability to grow, or even maintain, revenues at a time when the value of traditional newspaper mastheads is imploding. The answer is for newspapers and other mainstream media outlets to stop the endless "restructuring" and think about WHY journalism exists in the first place (not, as McCarthy's one-step removed predecessor Fred Hilmer described as being "content provision for advertising platforms). Hopefully, the respected Greg Hywood, a highly experienced and thoughtful journalist, will stop the rot at Fairfax in the role of acting CEO.

Hywood is not wanting for a story to build his new business models around. As we have seen, there is no lack of news and data and raw information out there, all raising serious questions about the rapidly evolving world we find ourselves living in. In fact, there are good arguments that the entire post-Cold War financial and political edifice is falling apart at this moment. We just need journalists - with the help of data analysts and experts from outside the usual rent-a-quote circles - to tell us what it means. THAT's where the value lies.

  • Tim Dunlop reports on a "deathbed" conversion by The Australian Scott Burchill is appalled at journalists cuddling up to the state over wilileaks

Friday, December 3, 2010

Slow Business

If politics is show business for ugly people, television journalism is politics for stupid people.

At least that's the conclusion one might reach after watching current affairs shows on the commercial channels. The performers huff and puff and the producers manufacture outrage, so that there is inevitably an inverse relationship between the heat generated and the light shed on major (or usually minor) issues.

Who can forget Mike Moore in Frontline, a show that while almost two decades old, is as relevant (if not more so) today. In fact, I recall thinking that some of the situations on this show were a little exaggerated. They now look positively tame in comparison to what we see today.

Perhaps someone should consider updating and remaking this show. The setting could be shifted to the newsroom of a Very Serious broadsheet newspaper where only a selected few are chosen to stem the barbarian social media tide that threatens to erode the foundations of good journalism...

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Write Stuff


What qualifies people to describe themselves as journalists? Two major stories in the past week - Wikileaks in the global context and the #twitdef saga here in Australia - have given new impetus to a question that is being asked increasingly in both the mainstream media and digital media space.

Broadly, there are two camps. Representing one view is ABC managing director Mark Scott, who in a recent speech  observed that new digital tools allow anyone to perform the functions of a journalist - in sifting through multiple sources of information on matters of public interest and drawing their readers' attention to the salient points, while providing historical context and commentary.

"In this new world, there are two newsrooms - the traditional one that exists now, and the virtual one that has emerged as one of the most significant features of digital life," Scott said. "What interests me is how many people are willing to engage, to contribute, to be part of a media experience - and for whom the psychic payoff comes not from getting paid, but from taking part."

Representing the contrarian view is Caroline Overington, who in The Australian's Media Diary (the relevant version of which is no longer online) stated that the only people who can claim to be journalists are those who were trained as such and who now work in the newsrooms of the nation.

"It is actually offensive for Scott to argue that anyone can practise journalism," Overington said. "It's insulting to people actually trained to do it. Whatever Scott may think, journalism isn't easy."

And who said it was? Good journalism - writing a rough first draft of breaking news events that accurately informs people, while capturing nuance, keeping the reader's attention AND adding value through analysis and informed commentary - is exceedingly difficult.

But Overington's patronising caricature and blanket condemnation of content in the non-MSM as "absolute dross" speaks volumes for the protectionist, paranoid, clannish and closed shop mentality developing in some parts of the traditional media, most noticeably in an increasingly unhinged Murdoch empire.

There is dross and idiocy online, certainly. But there is just as much low-rent fodder in the mainstream media. The difference, of course, is that the bloggers and twitterati do it for nothing - happy just to take part in a conversation that sheds light on issues of public interest. They do not do it because they are climbing some political totem pole inside a viper-ridden news company. And they do not do it because they have some clubbish and vain assumptions that only THEY are qualified to call themselves writers.

Arguably, the most valuable journalists now are not those employed by corporate media who churn out predictable "he said-she said" cut-and-paste copy and whose primary role is serving the interests of advertisers or pushing the ideological agenda of their proprietors. The most valuable ones are those who work outside the MSM. Think of Nicholas Gruen and Ken Parish on Club Troppo who provide analysis of economic and policy issues from a centrist perspective.  And think of Scott Steel, AKA blogger Possum Comitatus, who has completely lifted the lid on running stories story through old fashioned techniques like uncovering evidence and assembling data that challenge pre-fabricated media narratives. This type of journalism requires a level of expertise that is often lacking in newsrooms, which often struggle to meet the basic standards of numeracy (what's a spreadsheet?) and knowledge of history ("the perpetual present").

The more expert bloggers are journalists in my book because they sift through and point their readers to information that sheds light on issues of public interest, report accurately and supply context and meaning to those issues. Better still, they have no obvious axes to grind. And if they do, they will soon be found out and the marketplace will make its own judgement on their work. Whether they are paid as journalists or not, they are still "doing" journalism. And we are better for it.

In this light, perhaps it is time for the mainstream media critics - who often early in their careers trumpet the need for greater transparency and the challenging of authority - to drop their defensive attitude and embrace new media voices, recognise that journalism is changing and evolving and thank their stars for those who donate their own time and insights to improve our understanding of a complex world.