Sunday, January 30, 2011

Instant Controversy

 Anyone notice how the media dubbed the proposed flood levy the "controversial" flood levy almost immediately as it was announced? Given a controversial issue is normally defined as a public matter in which there are strongly entrenched opposing opinions, the instant nature of this controversy raises suspicion.

A clue was given in in the AFR this weekend, where Geoff  Kitney quoted a senior government minister as saying the initial "partisan noise" over the levy did not reflect true public opinion. Kitney noted a surprisingly hostile initial reaction, as measured by calls to talkback radio and "conversation on the internet".

Anecdotally, there was also evidence of orchestrated blowback over the announcement. A work colleague, not known for being politically engaged, complained of a deluge of Facebook posts from "friends" calling for organised opposition to the levy.

Why this issue should raise such instant passion is not entirely clear, particularly given the modest nature of the imposition, the public sympathy for the flood victims and the previous government's frequent recourse to levies to deal with large and sudden calls on the budget (Timor, guns, Ansett etc;).

There was a rational argument against the levy from some economists, who said the resulting squeeze on household budgets might not be what the economy needs with consumers already struggling with increased energy bills, rising education and mortgage costs and soaring fresh food prices. However, at $1.8 billion (about 0.2 percent of GDP), and imposed progressively (with low income earners absolved from paying it), this is hardly the most onerous tax ever applied.

The better argument is that the government should just junk its promise to return the budget to surplus within three years. The bond market frankly does not care and no rational economist thinks this makes any sense given the minuscule nature of our public liabilities. It is purely a political millstone the government have chosen to sling around their own necks to make an unnecessary point about their fiscal rectitude - when the numbers being talked about are not significant.

But these arguments are not those being cited by the shrill opponents on talkback radio. There, we are hearing boilerplate accusations against the Gillard government of not being worthy of the people's trust in spending the funds raised or, more incredulously, using the dead hand of the nanny state to asphyxiate the free market-driven spirit of Aussie mateship.

One is forced to conclude that the impetus for this "controversy" is an alliance of convenience between the Liberal Party noise machine - staffed by the frantically facebooking and twittering haters of the Young Liberal fraternity - and popular talkback radio. The demi-gods of that medium, with their audiences of angry oldies who have never voted Labor in their lives, live for moments like this - an excuse to paint the progressive side of politics as social engineers and wasters; in other words, to continue the narrative of 2010  - the lazy narrative of pink batts, school halls etc;

Indeed, the speed with which the "bitter" opposition to the flood levy appeared - and the amost immediate and aggressive media response - has all the hallmarks of "astro-turfing" - the US-derived propaganda method in which minority groups (sometimes funded by corporate interests) use digital technology to create the illusion for gullible media people and politicians that they are a broad-based grassroots movement.

Essentially, what is happening is that the noise of the partisan few, channeled through the echo chamber of talkback radio and current affairs TV, is feeding back on itself. The government suddenly finds itself referred to in ABC headlines as being "forced to defend" the levy (there goes that passive voice thing again). The prime minister has the "fight of her political life", we are told, purely because that self-aggrandising over-paid self-appointed pooh-bah of Melbourne talkback Neil Mitchell says so.

A few questions arise out of all this. Firstly, why do Gillard and Swan  and other key ministers bother granting interviews to Neil Mitchell or Alan Jones or any of the other shock jocks? The audiences of these people are overwhelmingly Liberal voters - perennially angry, asset rich and over-funded old people who have lived their lives on the public tit - particularly under Howard - and who now hypocritically rant about public waste.  There is nothing to be gained by talking to these people; they'll never vote for you anyway. This was Howard's constituency - people who spend their lives hiding behind the hydrangeas with their fridge magnets.

Secondly, why does the government continue to make such a fetish out of the surplus? We know they fear they will be trashed in the media as economic vandals if they dump the promise. But exactly what do they think is happening now? It seems they are damned if they do, damned if they don't. My advice would be 'do what's right; do what's sensible and damn the media reaction'.

Thirdly, stop buying into manufactured controversies. What happens over and over again is that this government assumes the validity of a talking point generated by the opposition and its agents in the early days of an issue being aired and before the vast majority of people have had a chance to absorb it. It thus steers the issue straight into the direction the oppose-everything opposition wants to take it.

Piping Shrike, in his post today, nails what's going on here: "The problem is that Labor continually understands that problem of authority in whatever terms Abbott and the Coalition choose to describe it. So if Abbott and The Australian say that there is “furore” or “backlash” over the schools program or the flood levy, Labor power brokers will immediately go out and poll western Sydney to find it."

Instead of jumping at media shadows, the government should speak less, say more. Get the facts out there early. Ignore the noise. Tell people they are getting on with the business of governing and are not interested in playing word games or filling newspapers with material to keep the ads apart or to stroke the egos of steam radio dinosaurs. Simply don't engage with the opposition or their opportunistic media mouthpieces. Stand fast and get on with the job.

Oh, and sack your media advisers. They're hopeless.

(Postscript: Gillard's chief of staff Amanda Lampe has quit).

See Also:

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Spoon Fed

 In the olden days, journalists used to be taught to always write in the active voice. Oops. Let me say that again. In the olden days, journalism educators told their students to always write in their active voice. Whatever happened to that edict?

The problem with writing in active voice is that you have to introduce at the top of the sentence the source of the action being reported upon. And if you write it that way, it can simply ruin a good story. Here are two leads for a news story. Which do you think is sexier?
  1. The federal government has been issued a challenge to account for a billion dollar hole in its budget.
  2. The federal opposition has issued a challenge to the federal government to account for an alleged billion dollar hole in its budget.
Version one is the juicier lead, isn't it? The billion dollar hole is introduced as a fact. And the government is immediately on the moral defensive, having to deal with a "challenge", albeit from an unspecified source. In the second version, the story loses a lot of its heft, simply because the first words we hear is that 'the federal opposition has challenged'. So we know from the get-go that we are in the territory of 'he said-she said' journalism. In this version, too, the facts of the story are in dispute because the billion dollar hole in the budget has become an "alleged" hole.

But in the world of real-time publishing, where journalists are constantly seeking to 'refresh' stories hour-to-hour or minute-to-minute and make them entertaining, these issues around who said something become rather inconvenient. Instead, the more important thing is WHAT was said, irrespective of the source. The problem with revealing too early in the piece the source of the claim is that it robs the piece of its news value and leads to inconvenient observations such as "Well, they WOULD say that, wouldn't they?"

Which brings me to the theme of this post, which is the storm in the twitterverse over the last week about the Bligh government in Queensland "bowing to pressure", according to News Ltd, over calls for a Royal Commission into the floods disaster. Typically, the source of the "pressure" in this case was not revealed. The implication, as always, was that "the pressure" was from the general community, as expressed in the editorial pages of The Australian. In fact, there was no "pressure". The government in Queensland was always going to hold an inquiry into one of the worst natural disasters in Australia's history. And the notion that this action stemmed from the fearless journalism of Murdoch's hacks was so typically self-serving.

But it isn't just the Murdoch media that excel in passive voiced news without an obvious source. The ABC specialises in it, particularly since it went online. It is now de rigeur for the ABC to run unsourced claims in headlined quotes - NBN Will be 'No Nirvana' for Cheap Broadband - because to run the source in the headline would rob the item of its newsworthiness. Sure enough, the source of that last quoted headline was none other than Malcolm Turnbull, which rather depowers the story. Where is the old chief of staff telling the reporter "well, what did you expect him to say?"  And spiking the story.

It is simply NOT NEWS to say "Gillard is Under Pressure" when the alleged source of that pressure is an Opposition spokesman sticking out a press release on a quiet Sunday night. Once again, under-resourced newsrooms having to update stories once or twice an hour are desperate for fresh leads. The spin doctors know their predicament, so they spoon feed them half-baked press releases with 'throw forward' intros that fit a neat hole in the schedule. This is why you so often hear: "The federal government is expected to come under renewed pressure this week..."

Expected by WHOM? Where is the pressure coming from? Who says it is 'pressure'? In the olden days, we used to call the people who asked those questions 'journalists'.  These days, though, so many of the guardians of our democracy are mere typists.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Enclosing the Digital Commons

The great showdown between Rupert Murdoch's global media interests and public broadcasters looks set to intensify as the News empire joins forces with Apple in launching the world's first iPad newspaper.

The $30 million tablet-only publication The Daily, whose launch has been postponed a few days from the scheduled date of January 19 while subscription software details are sorted, is being sold as the possible saviour of mainstream media journalism after more than a decade of decline.

The final pricing model has yet to be confirmed. Some reports say Murdoch will charge $1 a week for a downloadable app. Others say the plan is to charge a $1 a day after a two-week trial period. Whatever the final pricing model, there is much scepticism about whether this venture will pay for itself.

Once again, the big questions is why, beyond the area of specialist financial information, anyone would pay $300 a year or more for content that is freely available elsewhere. And bear in mind that this content, in addition to the subscription prices, will be surrounded by advertising.

While much is being made of the calibre of the 150 or so staff people being hired - from The New Yorker, New York Times and The Atlantic (the exact ratio of editorial to non-editorial staff is not clear) - it still is arguable whether general news opinion and fancy graphics will be enough to swing it for enough consumers to make this a viable proposition. One sceptic says The Daily would have to generate more than 10 times the subscription of the most popular magazine on Apple's app store to get close to making a profit.

Consider, also, other disincentives of a tablet-only paper. By all accounts, there will be no hyperlinks in The Daily, which will severely limit its interactivity and usability to a generation of people who use the news as a stepping off point to source material, blogs and other online discussions. But it will also curtail the capacity of The Daily to be linked to, which means it will be largely invisible other than to its paid subscribers.

Of course, Murdoch and Jobs are counting on something else. They are hoping that after years of giving content away for little or no return, other publishers will follow the News-Apple lead and move their own content away from web browsers and onto tablets. This is akin to what has happened with digital music over the past decade, with the peer-to-peer providers (Napster, Morpheus, Limewire) gradually litigated out of existence and leaving the paid Apple enclosure as the only reliable way of getting music online.

But even if the likes of The New York Times and The Guardian and, here in Australia, Fairfax's metropolitan newspapers became tablet-only publications, there are still the public broadcasters like the BBC and ABC offering free digital content. And this is why we can expect the Murdoch empire to step up its rhetoric against the "state subsidy"  of public broadcasting.

The argument will go that governments are unnecessarily regulating the media by allowing public broadcasters to compete with commercial media enterprises and that it should be left to "the market" to decide. The notion of a public sphere independent of commercial imperatives will be completely overlooked, of course.

The next step will be for governments to cut the budgets of public broadcasters under the umbrella of the new fiscal rectitude being urged upon western governments in the wake of the global financial crisis. This should keep Murdoch happy and accelerate the development of the enclosure of the digital commons.

UPDATE: See 'The Newsonomics of Mr Murdoch's The Daily' - from Neiman Journalism Lab

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Squeezing Every Last Drop

Like any disaster covered by television news networks, the Queensland floods bring together stories of drama and heartbreak and courage and strange twists of fate. For journalists, there's not much to do, other than show what is happening and get out of the way.

But that's not enough for our networks. After all, the story isn't really about the floods. The story is about Kochie at the floods or Mel at the floods. The awful events are merely a backdrop for the stars, as they roll up their Country Road chinos and stand in the sludge for 10-minutes for their piece to camera before jumping in the helicopter back to Palm Beach.

The showbiz element of commercial television might be acceptable if these professional poseurs had some worthwhile observations to make. But as always, nearly everything that comes out of their mouths is a either a pious platitude, a statement of the bleeding obvious or a banal and condescending paen to all things Aussie Aussie Aussie.

Journalism used to be about the story, not about the journalist. Instead, as has become depressingly obvious, these momentous news stories are merely another branding exercise. Are you are watching the floods on Seven or Nine or ABC24? And just to prove that our coverage is the best, we'll put together a heart-rending little tele-movie promo, with slow-mo footage, an echoing narration, a pleading piano soundtrack and stick our logo all over the top of it.

Surely, it can't be long till they hire Kennedy Miller, or the modern equivalent, to begin pre-production on 'Deluge', a three-part mini-series with Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman. Oh, Australia.

See Also: 'Addicted to Disaster P*rn' - Michael Mullins (Eureka Street)

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Here's that Rainy Day

What is it with the Australian parliamentary press gallery and its obsession with budget deficits? It seems every government initiative is met with questions about what it means for the Labor government's election campaign pledge (extracted under pressure) to restore the budget to surplus within three years - as if this means anything.

To be fair, successive governments have brought this on themselves by making a fetish of having the budget in surplus and instilling an irrational fear among the population of the 'D' word to the point that individual political leaders do anything to avoid mentioning that very possibility.

Nevertheless, there is no reason for informed journalists to play along with the myth. Indeed, the nadir of this book-keeping mentality among the nation's elite political reporters came when the first question at a prime ministerial press conference to announce initiatives on one of the worst natural disasters in the country's modern history was what it meant for the surplus promise; this at a time when scores of people were either dead or missing and when the disaster was still unfolding.

If any further proof were needed of the lazy pack mentality of the press gallery, here it was. While the normally astute Bernard Keane of Crikey moved to defend his colleagues' questioning as legitimate, the general response on Twitter was that the deficit-related questioning was inappropriate at this time.

Of course, media scrutiny of government finances is entirely appropriate. But this would be easier to take seriously if it were not suspected that the questioning was purely a tactical ruse aimed at extracting a "gotcha" quote from Gillard - in effect getting her to admit, even in the slightest way, that the surplus goal might be compromised by the size of the demand on government from a disaster of this magnitude. The headlines at The Australian - 'Deficit Looms as PM Loses Grip on Budget' - will be ready to roll for the slightest trip, which is why Gillard chose her words carefully.

As to complaints from Keane that this criticism is unfair on the press gallery, one wonders whether journalists would have the temerity to ask Gillard, during a press conference to announce the death of another Australian soldier in Afghanistan, as to what the escalating financial cost of this war meant for her surplus projections.

The big lie about Australian government finances, as informed journalists like Ross Gittins have repeatedly shown, is that the public sector is drowning in debt or that we are running an unsustainable deficit. That is simply not true. Yet not matter how many times this is pointed out, the press gallery continue to play the 'debt and deficit' card - simply because it suits their purposes to play word games with politicians to keep themselves entertained and to avoid having to ask themselves tougher questions; like how political journalism became a type of ersatz accounting (except in this case the practitioners can't add up).

Here is a chart from the OECD. It shows that Australia is extremely well positioned relative to most developed economies in terms of net government liabilities (how much the government owes after assets are taken into account).  Japan has net liabilities of more than 100 per cent of GDP, the US nearly 70 per cent, the Euro area 59 per cent and the total OECD 58 per cent. Australia has net liabilities of 0.4 per cent of GDP - negligible.

Is it too much to ask the press gallery to get a sense of proportion over this and point it out to the Australian public that we are not up to our eyeballs in debt and that our public finances are the envy of the rest of the developed world? And is it too much to ask political journos to consider for just a moment that the very reason governments run surpluses in good times is so the budget can play its role as a shock absorber in  bad?  Remember the rainy day we're saving for? It's here.

One final observation: Notice from the chart above that oil-rich Norway has the best public finances in the world? Psst. They run a resource rent tax.

See Also:

Monday, January 10, 2011

Itchy Triggers

 The possibility of instant global publication, the growth of social media and the commodification of facts are accelerating the media's drive to offer 'analysis' around news events. More ominously, and knowing reporters are looking for a point of differentiation, agents of power now routinely use social media to manipulate the official record in their favour before the facts are clear.

Of course, the problem with this is there is little evidence that asking 'why' before the traditional questions of 'what', 'where', 'who', 'when' and 'how' are answered is a recipe for good journalism. But commercial pressures, such as they are, encourage reporters to explain before they describe. And there are  plenty of voices out there feeding them lines to help them meet those pressures, while generating more heat than light.

The latest example of the exploitation of the need for instant analysis is coverage of the attempted assassination of Arizona Democratic congresswoman Gabrelle Giffords, alongside the killing of six people and wounding of 14 others by an apparently psychotic gunman outside a Tucson supermarket.

Almost immediately, the coverage focused on the reasons for the shootings and, more particularly, the degree to which the event was driven by the extremely polarised nature of American politics. To some extent, this acceleration of the usual news cycle overrode the media's job of getting the facts straight - such as early reports suggesting the congresswoman was dead.

On the surface, all sides of politics in this case offered only condolences and a request that normal investigative processes be allowed to be played out. But as The New York Times observes, the official straight bat offered to the mainstream media from political sources cloaked an intense jockeying for position on social media such as Twitter and through online forums, to influence the debate.

For Progressives, the focus was on the extent to which the inflammatory "put-the-liberals-in-your-gun sights" language of Sarah Palin and her crew contributed to the toxic climate that leads to such crimes. For the Right, the focus was purely on the mentality of the individual shooter, who they claimed was a "leftist lunatic". Over on the website of UK left-leaning newspaper The Guardian, there appeared to be a coordinated effort by right-wingers to blitz the paper's forums with the (far-fetched) gunman-as-a-leftist theory. Others of the more deranged variety fell for Facebook hoaxes so desperate were they to finger the assailant as a "liberal".

As wonderful as social media is, one wonders about the influence of all this inflamed rhetoric and orchestrated misinformation on journalism, if nothing else than it forces journalists to spend more and more time chasing fires started by provocateurs seeking to draw the public's attention elsewhere. In the meantime, the real questions that require digging (the availability of guns to disturbed young people, the scrutiny of inflammatory election advertising in this case) don't get asked - because it becomes easier or merely convenient for the media just to report the flame wars between the entrenched rival camps and watch the page impressions soar.

To provide a local example, Andrew Bolt's incendiary pre-Christmas blog entry accusing the Gillard government of having "blood on its hands" over the Christmas Island asylum seeker drownings (as the bodies were still in the water) served his clear purpose of driving hits to the Herald Sun website and making himself the story. Twitter went nuts and a dozen other blogs lit up. This was all as the facts of the case were still being established. So the media coverage became about the extremities of the various positions in the debate rather than the reality of the events and the issues at the centre.

From this grizzled old journalist's perspective, it seems the tail is wagging the dog. One wonders whether 'The News' just becomes a hook to play out well-worn cultural and political rivalries. And the explosion of social media channels just provides multiple stages for the various protagonists to spar.

See Also: Media Too Trigger Happy Over Arizona Shootings (Alex Slater, The Guardian)