Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Mining the Truth

The standards of journalism in Australia have come in for severe scrutiny on this blog and elsewhere recently, to the point where practitioners of the trade could be excused for feeling under siege.

Among the long list of shortcomings that 'The Failed Estate'; has documented:
  • Fake 'balance' that involves reporting polarised opinion and overlooking complexity and nuance
  • He said-she said journalism or the bland and unreflective reporting of opposing positions
  • A lack of context in reporting and the institutionalised mistaking of noise for signal
  • A lack of respect for the truth, particularly in ratings-chasing talkback radio
  • The manufacturing of outrage, again in talkback radio and commercial current affairs television
  • The pursuit of trivia and entertainment 'news' at the expense of serious reporting
  • An increasing focus on speed at the expense of perspective
  • An ever growing emphasis on the fight itself rather than on the underlying issues
  • The perversion of news judgement by the need to generate online hits
  • Endemic parochialism in which reporters fail to frame global issues in a global context
  • The growth of opinion and 'attitude' journalism at the expense of old fashioning digging
It's a depressing list, which is why it is so heartening to come across a rare example of how Australian journalism should be: Taking an issue of current public importance (in this case, the carbon tax) and putting it in a longer term and global context; adding useful background; using multiple sources; explaining difficult concepts in clear and simple terms and having a point of view (while representing all sides of the story).

We often hear about what journalism should NOT be, but we don't often ask ourselves what it SHOULD be. There are plenty of versions of an ideal manifesto for the trade out on the web, but few have summed it up better for me than a list that emerged from a US research project by the Pew Research Center for Excellence in Journalism. The Principles of Journalism sets out nine core principles for working journalists - starting with the idea that a journalist's first obligations are always to the truth and to citizens - not to editors or shareholders to advertisers or other journalists at the pub. Other key principles include the discipline of verification and the independent monitoring of power.

With that in mind, I'd urge all followers of this blog to listen to a recent documentary on Radio National's Background Briefing on the ABC. The reporter, Stan Correy, puts the current controversy over a carbon tax in the context of last year's row over the resources profits tax and the wider efforts around the world to extract for the citizens of mineral-rich nations a fairer share of the natural resources they own.

What's particularly welcome about Coorey's report is that he highlights the role of the media in reporting the RSPT, more specifically its failure to communicate to readers and viewers what the tax was about. An interview with AFR political editor Laura Tingle, one of Australia's best journalists, is particularly illuminating. Tingle tells how reporting of the RSPT became a classic case of he said-she said, with the focus quickly turning to the political fight itself rather than the issues when the media clearly decided these were too complex to bore people with. No-one was representing the public interest.

The result of all this, of course, is that the nation has diddled itself out of $60 billion in revenue by allowing itself to be bullied by multi-national miners who threatened capital strikes and spooked a government into ultimately dumping a prime minister.

It is a compelling story of great public interest and it is impossible to imagine this being told by News Ltd (an organisation that seeks to represent the interests of tax minimising multi-nationals as that of the Australian public) or Fairfax Media (a permanently cash-strapped enterprise focused on cafe journalism for real estate obsessed inner city yuppies). Only the ABC, in our current media climate, could tell this story. And plaudits to them for doing so in the way they have.

You can listen to 'Taxing Mines' by Stan Correy on Radio National's Background Briefing here.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Rupert's Top Ten

Message to The Australian subs' desk: Have the week off guys and plug these into the paper over the coming few days. The production instructions are in brackets next to the headlines. Pick up wires from there:

 1. Labor Loses the Mothership (SPLASH)
A humiliated Labor Party was left surveying the wreckage at the weekend as the party's birthplace in New South Wales was claimed by a resurgent Liberal-National coalition riding a national wave of anger at the proposed carbon tax.

2. Gillard Goes to Ground (SIDEBAR)
Prime Minister Julia Gillard has gone to ground to disassociate herself from an angry backlash from Labor votes in the nation's biggest state and to prepare for an almighty assault in federal parliament against her contentious carbon tax.

3. Heartland Attack (ANALYSIS)
Tony Abbott's Liberal-National Coalition, plugging into the real concerns of working people, took back Labor's industrial heartland at the weekend and threw down the gauntlet to a shamed federal minority Labor government ruing its decision to propose a carbon tax.

4. Voice of the People (COLOUR STORY)
Australia's blue-collar birthplace defied its political heritage at the weekend, turfing out a Labor state government and signalling to Julia Gillard's teetering federal regime that the patience of the battlers will not countenance a carbon tax. Joe O'Reilly is a heavily tattooed building contractor in Penrith....

5. Opinion: Paul Kelly (SPELL CHECK ONLY)
Let there be no mistake. This is a profound seachange in Australian politics. Freed from the shackles of the old class wars, Tony Abbott has made his own imprimatur on a Liberal Party that has reinvented itself as a classless and populist expression of the national soul.

6. Opinion: Miranda Devine (USE THE SMIRK PICTURE)
So much for the bicycling premier. Most NSW voters don't have the luxury of cycling to work to make them feel good about making a carbon impression that is meaningless in the scheme of things. So at last, we can drive our cars and chop down our neighbours' trees with impunity once more. And doesn't it feel good!!

7. Opinion: Janet Albrechtson (LOOKING OVER HER GLASSES)
In relative terms, the NSW Labor Party will say it won the election. Well, at least that is what their agents in the NSW Teachers' Union will be telling your children this week. You see, there are no 'losers' in our schools any more. So there can be no losers in politics either.

8. Opinion: Andrew Bolt (NEXT TO SPORTS)
The defeat of the Keneally government is a mortal blow to those who would claim that immigrants to this country make a positive contribution. Would they have only have stopped the boats when that woman crawled into port 15 years ago.

9. Business: Terry McCrann (HIT UP RIO FOR AD)
Now business can breathe easier again. Tax and spend interventionist government has been given a red card by a community more interested in pursuing profit than killing initiative. The NSW election ends further attempts to tax mining and extract unfair rents from a bleeding fossil fuel industry.

10. Media: Caroline Overington (ADD 'WALKLEY-WINNING')
The power of the fourth estate, led by the probing efforts of News Ltd, has given new power to Australia's proud democracy by exposing the short-comings of a Labor Party on its last legs and undermining the case for standalone action on alleged climate change.

(THE REAL EDITOR'S NOTE: Yes, NSW Labor was rotten and deserved to be tossed out. I didn't vote for them either. But don't underestimate the power of the News Ltd machine to turn this into something else).

Friday, March 25, 2011

Nowhere Man

Chris Uhlmann wants you to know he's a non-partisan, straight down the middle journalist. One of the stars of the reinvented post-Kerry O'Brien current affairs show "7.30" (apparently 'Report' is superfluous now), Uhlmann represents the new, bland, board-approved face of the public broadcaster's current affairs coverage - as in whatever you do, don't upset the Tories because they might be back in government one day and cut our funding.

Covering a public rally, clumsily organised as a marketing tool by right-wing talkback radio shockjocks seeking to import the US Tea Party 'movement' to Australia, Mr Uhlmann decided bizarrely that the news angle was the unfair branding of the protesters as extremists, nutters and easily manipulated illiterates.

Wandering among the crowd, Uhlmann sought to render as morally equivalent this artificially orchestrated protest against the Gillard government's chosen means of dealing with a problem that threatens life on earth with a hundreds of thousands-strong demonstration eight years ago against the then Howard government for joining Australia to an illegal war fought on a false premise in defiance of the United Nations.

But Chris is more sophisticated than that. He covers his tracks by saying how hard it is to tread a sane, sensible middle path between the liberal, tertiary educated, middle class and, oh, the League of Rights and One Nation and the National Civic Council (who were all represented at the Canberra protest).
"According to them I, and the rest of my colleagues, are captured by the Left and don't even attempt to understand the grievances of that kind of crowd," Uhlmann wrote. "They believe that we dismiss them as aging nutters, unworthy of our attention, except when we want to sketch a caricature. They believed that we would not report the event, or that we would ridicule it."
But of course, Chris was not there to ridicule the protesters. He represents the new John Howard-reinvented  ABC, which seeks to legitimise the most fringe right-wing elements of the country as somehow representing the real, salt-of-the-earth "forgotten" Australians who are overlooked in a media crowded by bleeding hearts and cafe-lurking urban sophisticates who know nothing of the concerns of "ordinary people".

So we see lots of verbal gymnastics from Uhlmann in which he notes that the "vast weight" of scientific opinion is against the protesters, before giving a kind of lawyer's credence to their incoherent views by saying some in the crowd made "better arguments" by saying the science was "chock full of uncertainties". Llike the theory of evolution and its disputation by creationists? Or like the tobacco industry's long campaign to discredit evidence of a link between smoking and lung cancer any conservative attempt to forestall change by insisting on a fake certainty principle?

In Mr Uhlmann's world, all arguments are valid and his job  as a reporter is to provide an apolitical assessment of it all in a way that in the end merely plays into the hands of the most conservative and reactionary elements of society. It is just another back-and-forth, like a tennis match, and his job is to blandly call the score.
Was there ever a more blatant example in Australia of what New York journalism academic Jay Rosen describes as "the view from nowhere" - the idea of the journalist not as someone who informs people, but as a tightrope walker who seeks to walk a middle way between polar extremes, tiptoeing above politics in a way that tells us nothing except the fact of conflict:
"Journalists position themselves as being above the conflict as the neutral arbiter between the poles," Rosen says. " If you want to be in the news, you play the poles. The 'Real' is opposed often to the 'Fake'. So in the case of climate change, the fake is still given legitimacy. So this view of the world as being all about conflict, much of it illegitimate, and all about the extremes on either side of the conflict informs our political process. So our media and our politics tend toward entropy and ritualized conflict."
So well done Chris. You've got all the bases covered. Tony Abbott is happy. And you've been invited up to Maurice Newman's office on Monday for tea and biscuits. How courageous of you.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Last Commons

Five hundred years ago, English capitalist farmers began a process known as "enclosure of the commons", the forced and wholesale appropriation of public land - formerly used by villagers for arable farming.  Now corporate forces, led by Rupert Murdoch, and agents of the political Right are attempting a similar manoeuvre on public broadcasting - the broadcast commons. The ultimate price is our democracy.

There are few remaining really globally trusted brands in journalism - Reuters, The New York Times and the BBC spring to mind. Here in Australia, there really is only one news brand left that the nation turns to in a crisis - the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. But as we shall see in a moment, even dear old auntie is on a slippery slope as - like a reluctant middle-aged stripper - she desperately seeks the approval of a vengeful Right that hates the very fact of her existence.

The attack on public broadcasting is not just an Australian phenomenon. In the US in the past week, House Republicans, citing left-wing bias, voted to cut federal funding to National Public Radio, all $5 million of it - a number that Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank noted represented one ten thousands of one per cent of the federal budget. The Republicans' ammunition, such as it was, included a recent orchestrated sting of an NPR fund-raising executive who was secretly filmed bagging the Tea Party.

The attempt to silence the last non-corporate, independent media voice in America comes despite an extraordinary increase in listenership for public radio.  According to the recently released annual Pew Centre Project for Excellence in Journalism, NPR's listening audience increased 3 percent in 2010, to 27.2 million members weekly, up 58 percent overall since 2000. The fact is public radio is one of the last, if not THE last, bastions of serious, sober, accurate and trusted news - a field vacated by a commercial media increasingly obsessed with gadgets, vapid celebrity and the vein-popping screeching of polarised talkshow politics.

In the UK, meanwhile, Murdoch - who appears set to get his way yet again in moving to full ownership of satellite broadcasting behemoth BSkyB - has been seeking - through anointed heir James - to cut the legs out from under the BBC, which he believes operates unfairly with a public subsidy. A poll shows 60 per cent of Britons believe that Murdoch is already far too powerful. But politicians, wary of the reach of his platforms, are reluctant to curtail the spread of his ownership.

In a recent address to the London School of Economics, available on podcast, Michael Lyons - the outgoing chairman of the BBC's governing body - mused that the perfect environment for an attack on public broadcasting by commercial media was one of recession and declining advertising revenues - exactly what the UK has been experiencing for the past two years. Murdoch resents the public subsidy that the BBC operates under, particularly now that it competes with his newspapers for eyeballs in the online space.

Here in Australia, where the market is even more dominated by Murdoch, it now seems clear that the state broadcaster is seeking to appease the forces of the corporate and cultural Right by allowing their already very visible agents free access to air time to spread their gospel even further. The Andrew Bolts and Janet Albrechtsons and Piers Akermans regularly appear on ABC political talkshows like Insiders and QandA to tell us that climate change is a con, that the Greens are fascists and that a powerful, non-elected, leftist cultural elite is forcing its views on the rest of the population.

Now, no-one is saying that a range of voices should not be heard on a publicly funded broadcaster. But it seems fair to ask why Andrew Bolt, a journalist who already has a platform to expound his views in the biggest selling newspaper in Australia, need any further publicity. What gives him special status? Why is his opinion so keenly sought? In short, why is the ABC - a public broadcaster with a charter to air a wide range of voices - so seemingly desperate to court the approval of paid columnists of a magnate who already controls 70 per cent of the metropolitan print media in Australia?

There was an interesting discussion of these questions recently on the Pure Poison blog run by Jeremy Seer and Dave Gaukroger. The discussion focused on the fact that while conservatives hate (and always have hated) the ABC as a nest of basket-weaving lefties, even progressives now are despairing of the broadcaster's attempts to win favour with the Right by routinely running Murdoch paper talking points, routinely featuring his columnists and generally trying very, very hard to be seen to be batting for one side. Poster 'Castidhe' summed it up:
The Right hate the ABC for existing and denigrate it in the hope of getting it to the point where they can sell it to Murdoch and not have to worry about it any more. The Left are learning to hate it because it’s started pandering obsequiously to the Right in the desperate (and futile) hope of avoiding the fate of (1) thereby.
What seems very clear to independent observers is that public broadcasting is under a sustained attack by forces that would deny its right to exist and who insist that in the meantime it be yet another platform for the conservative viewpoints already crowding the editorial pages of the rest of the commercial media. Seeking the quiet life, the ABC has clearly decided that there is an asymmetry to the political pressures it might be under. Labor governments, now routinely afraid of fighting the culture wars from the left, will leave the state broadcaster alone, while Liberal governments will religiously run the stop-watch  on its programming to enforce an accountant's conception of 'balance'.

In a world now perilously short of publicly minded media, what's needed more than ever is a rigorously independent public broadcaster which does not seek to pander to anyone, which asks hard questions of all sides of politics and which devotes its precious resources not to cheap and populist "opinionating" but to straight journalism, the type that exposes who is pulling the strings of power in a world in which wealth is ever more concentrated and independent voices ever more straining to be heard.

See also: "The ABC fears the conservatives": Roger Wegener

Monday, March 14, 2011

Noise Vs Signal

First it was the nightly weather, then the finance report and now it's politics. There is a creeping conspiracy in television news of people standing in front of charts, taking the daily temperature - of meteorology, of markets and of members of parliament - and trying to persuade us that it all means something.

So an unseasonably cool early autumn day is enough to disprove the existence of man-made climate change, or a two per cent shift in an index presages a new bull/bear market or every five-point downward shift in an political leader's poll rating means a caucus challenge is inevitable. The media are inherently impatient, chronically innumerate and because of ever tightening deadlines and ever diminishing resources, dangerously ready to extrapolate a one-day or one-month wonder into a long-term trend.

Indeed, the great untold con of the news business is that it largely consists of passing off the transitory for the terminal, the ephemeral for the everlasting and the faddish for the forever. This mentality, of course, is quite understandable among journalists themselves for whom anything more than 24 hours ahead is the long-term. (Actually, in radio, wires and online media, anything beyond the next half hour is the distant future.)

It's something the public needs to keep in mind when sitting down to watch the television news at night (assuming of course people still do that in this age).  Because for many journalists, every day is a new day and each event exists independently of what came before. So in the constant obsession with the new, context and perspective become collateral damage.

While short-termism has always been a professional hazard for those who work in the news media, the problem has become much more intense in recent years under a general ratcheting up of deadline and commercial pressures and amid the online commodification of the who-what-where-when news that was once the bread-and-butter of the nightly television bulletin.

Alongside this sense of a compression of time has been a shift away from qualitative to quantitative factors in news assessment. So as time pressures have increased, and as resources have been cut, journalists are being asked to say something meaningful about subjects driven by numbers - whether it be climate change, financial markets or political opinion polling. And it's fair to say that for most journos, maths is not a strong suit. Neither is their facility with new media. When you add that to their deadline-driven impatience with complexity or nuance, you have a pretty good recipe for misleading the public and deforming democracy.

This problem was neatly highlighted by the invaluable Possum last year when the Auditor General's report exposed the beat-up that was the media mantra over the BER "waste" (and, earlier, the Pink Batts "scandal"). The actual numbers were totally at odds with the accepted media narrative, but the facts simply didn't matter or where deemed just too darned esoteric to bore the audience with.

This institutionalised innumeracy is rather unfortunate and perhaps explains why an experienced journalist like Barrie Cassidy, appearing on a taxpayer-funded public broadcaster, can just sit mute as one of Rupert Murdoch's professional trolls is paid to come on the Insiders program and spray deliberate mistruths to support a far right political agenda.

And you could see it last year in the gullibility of some (not all - honorable mention to Ian Verrender) of the financial media in giving slack-jawed credence to numbers provided by multi-national miners to beat off a government attempt to secure a better return for taxpayers from finite and publicly owned resources.

Most of all you can see it in the usual suspects wetting themselves over the latest Newspoll without pointing out to their viewers and listeners that Howard was in a similar position as Gillard is now in his first term. And reminding them that in any case the election is still more than two years away and today's poll will soon be a distant memory.

Perhaps it's time for our media bosses to slow things down, take a deep breath, send a few journos off to short courses in statistical analysis (or point them here) and reacquaint themselves with some old fashioned concepts like, oh, respect for the facts and context, a real regard for the reader and viewer and an appreciation of what things mean beyond the 24-hour news/noise cycle. Too much to expect?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The End of the Affairs?

A truism about journalism is that it consists of applying six basic questions to issues of public interest: Who, What, Where, When, How and Why. In breaking news, journalists often will deal with the first four questions fairly readily. The last two are sometimes harder.

Decades ago, public broadcasting sought to deal with this challenge by splitting the roles of journalists between the who, what, where and when people (the 'news' journalists) and the how and why people (the 'current affairs' journalists). The cultural differences, competition and divisions this rather arbitrary definition created in the '70s and beyond are a story in themselves. But more of that another time.

Essentially, though, broadcast journalism (in the public sector anyway) these days comes in two strands - news (what happened?) and current affairs (what does it mean?). Sometimes, the latter form of journalism is described as 'public affairs', which embraces the wider definition of being concerned with issues pertaining to the public domain, not necessarily just what was deemed to be 'news' or 'current'.

Anyway, the recent revamp of ABC Television's 7.30 Report (now trimmed to just 7.30) triggered a debate on Twitter this week, with a few of us (including the formidable Mark Colvin and the charming ABCNewsIntern ) musing on the role of current affairs and, more particularly, its relevance in an age when many people have access to original source material and analysis in real time over the web. The discussion ended with Mr Colvin, a respected journalist and broadcaster, wondering whether I had developed a rather "jaundiced" view of current affairs. Naturally, I respectfully disagreed. If anything, my view is that current affairs has a jaundiced (as in cynical) view of its audience. And this shows up in a number of ways.

The first of these is the tendency of journalists in current affairs programs to interview other journalists (Fran Kelly and Michelle Grattan on ABC radio and Barrie Cassidy and his cast of "insiders" on ABC television and now, Leigh Sales interviewing Chris Uhlmann on 7.30 about HIS interview with Julia Gillard). Obviously, there are cases where journalists have little choice but to interview another journalist - most notably when a reporter is on the spot of a breaking story in a warzone or disaster area. But in political coverage, these insider chats risk becoming too cosy for a couple of reasons. For one, a journalist-on-journalist interview can become an easy option for reporters who don't want to push hard enough to get someone on the record or who want to insert an inference they didn't manage to extract in their external news gathering. For another, it suits the politicians and minders themselves, who come to see journalists as tools to manipulate opinion to their advantage without having to put their own heads above the parapets and risk getting them blown off.

The second problem with current affairs, as it has evolved, is the cult of the host. This is the idea, never expressed directly, that the program really isn't about the issues; it's about who's presenting them. For instance, the once respectable Sixty Minutes long ago became more about show business than the news business. Who can forget Richard Carleton turning up to Timor with his yuppie hamper to pick fights with he militias? More recently, that show morphed into the most superficial form of magazine journalism, cranking out paper thin pastiche profiles of here-today-gone-tomorrow pop stars. To its credit, the constantly cash-strapped, cardiganned and looking-over-its-shoulder ABC had largely been immune to this journalist-as-celebrity schtick. But we are seeing it creep in even there now. Witness the Nine-like puff over Sales and Ulhmann. Surely, a Women's Weekly cover story can't be too far away?

The third problem is an existential one. What is the purpose of current affairs journalism in a disintermediated and disaggregated world? How often do you find yourself watching one of these programs to discover they are a day or two behind what you had already read on Twitter and Facebook and seen analysed in more depth and with greater authority by the actual authorities on each issue on blogs? Yet, in this traditional journalistic world, it as if social media does not even exist. They are starting with a blank sheet.

Operating within established power structures and conventional narratives, many MSM journalists live in a womb of splendid isolation that leaves them telling stories in predictable ways. Nothing new is revealed because their own assumptions about their status in all this is never challenged. And this gets to the heart of what should be a familiar problem for those reading this blog.

And that is that journalists - who pride themselves on the ability to "stand back" from a current issue and shed light on it - seem strangely incapable of doing the same thing to their own profession/craft/trade. They are hopelessly incurious about their role within public life and the impact their programs and articles make on discussion of public issues; how the news widgets they create are part of and drive the story.

 In so many ways, they are talking to themselves. And this is more than ever evident when everybody else not employed in the mainstream media is talking with each other online. Most of the communication in traditional media land is purely one-way and the 'audience' is left out of what should be (and more important, with new technology) what CAN be a discussion and a sharing of ideas.

Paul Bradshaw, a visiting professor at City University's school of journalism in London, put this malaise rather well in a recent speech, one that asked whether "current affairs" needed to open out more to the discussion that is happening in an online world rapidly finding traditional media irrelevant:

"Journalists have always been jacks of all trades, and masters of none," Bradshaw said. "Now that the masters of each trade can publish themselves, it is our connections across differing worlds that is our strength. But to maintain those connections we need to put people before stories, and get over our egos."

You can see Bradshaw's full presentation here:

Monday, March 7, 2011

7.30 Something

After a build-up bigger and longer than the advertising campaign for Avatar (where were the 3-D glasses?), ABC Television's revamped current affairs flagship 7.30 Report went to air for the first time on Monday under its "new generation" hosts the televisual Leigh Sales and Chris Uhlmann.

As expected, there was a new set - leaving the flame-haired Leigh up on her feet, weather and finance presenter style, and accompanied by an animated slideshow over her left shoulder.  While the graphics were a welcome addition in explaining number heavy stories (why has the ABC never used them before?), the actual package was depressingly formulaic, reflecting a style that hasn't changed in television for 40 years.

That style is lots of pretty pictures (in this case ships at sea), interspersed with set-up shots, brief grabs, a droning voice-of-god voiceover and an occasional piece to camera. The old 7.30 Report's style was to dramatise the news by doing slow-mo shots of politicians getting out of cars to a sinister music track.
Whether the 30-something version of the show does the same remains to be seen, but on the basis of the first episode they are not taking any particular risks either.

The "big story" was an investigation into the Royal Australian Navy's "rust bucket armada", another ritual expose of mismanagement and over-spending in the Defence Department.  The response of this blogger was: "And this is news?" When hasn't the Defence Department been accountable and when hasn't it sought to white-ant attempts to fix it? The better story might have been to take a step back and iterate how the department has resisted reform for decades.

Chris Uhlmann, perhaps suffering from nerves and the inevitable comparisons with Kerry O'Brien, overdid it with his interview with the minister Stephen Smith, repeatedly interrupting and rushing questions when there was no suggestion at all that Smith had anything to hide.

The other major segment - Ms Sales' interview with Westpac boss Gail Kelly - I thought could have been turned into a better lead. Kelly said she supported a carbon price mechanism and wanted an ETS running ahead of the government's timetable. Given the huge topicality of the carbon tax, I would have used that as the stepping off point for a story about business' undeclared support for action on carbon (for instance, Graham Bradley of the Business Council is a passionate advocate for greening corporate Australia).

But apart from a lack of acuity in news judgement, my major quibble with the program was its worthiness. Good television current affairs should take public issues and look at them in a fresh perspective. That means playing with conventional television narrative techniques, defying audience expectations and subverting journalistic cliche to get at the truth. It often helps to have an attitude - as Jon Stewart does so well on The Daily Show. We last saw this in Australia back on the ABC with This Day Tonight in the late 1960s and early 1970s and by the early days of A Current Affair with Mike Willesse on the Nine Network.

Ultimately, and admittedly based on just one episode, the makeover of 7.30 appears to have gone no deeper than a change of set, the insertion of a couple of younger and better looking presenters and the loss of the word 'report' from the title.  To this bloggers' eyes, it's all a bit beige and one is left to conclude that at least stories about dodgy plumbers would be entertaining.

PS: If I were EP of 7.30, I'd poach one of the creative young minds from Hungry Beast.  They at least explore new ways of telling stories outside the extremely codified narratives of television journalism.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Hitting Them Where it Hurts

The previous post Radio Ga Ga looked at the ever deteriorating standards in Australian talkback radio - including inciting racial hate and prejuidice, cash for comment, distortion, lies, breaches of the rules of contempt and a general absence of any respect for the ethics of journalism.

As I explained, this is because these people are not journalists, they are entertainers paid to pull in sufficient audiences to satisfy the advertisers who ultimately are the clients of the radio stations. The deregulation of the industry in the early 1990s has brought this situation about. And the regulator ACMA is ineffectual.

I suggested that if citizens and consumers are as energised about this as I am, that they directly contact the advertisers and sponsors (and franchisees of those companies) and advise them they will boycott their products in protest at their association with media outlets that do not exercise proper journalistic standards.

(If you think this is idealistic, look what has happened to Glenn Beck on Fox in the US).

Here's a suggested letter:

"We are writing to protest the association of your company with (insert station name here). 

We fully support a free media and the right of people  to express an opinion. However, we are increasingly concerned about the way radio licences are being used in some cases to incite racial, ethnic and religious prejuidices and even violence.

In that context and given your business' sponsorship of (insert station name), we are contemplating no longer buying your products or services. We urge you as a responsible member of the business community to reconsider advertising on this station. 

We have copied this letter to the industry regulator ACMA."

ACMA's email address is broadcasting@acma.gov.au or just click here.


Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Radio Ga Ga

As people marvel at the immediacy of news via the internet, it is easy to overlook the fact that old fashioned steam radio has been doing this for 70 years or more. The words come out of the announcer's mouth and they are worming into listeners' ears in real time. And therein lie the potential problems.

While many more active media consumers gave up on stultified radio years ago for podcasts, online streaming and other portable digital tools that open the world to our ears, most people still rely on either parish pump local stations, Barnesy and Farnsay FM and talkback shockjocks that pander to the fears, prejudice and ignorance of their listeners.

The common view is that most talkback listeners are old - lonely, bored people, overwhelmed by change, taking solace in strong opinions and feeling reassured by the tones of an authoritative tub-thumper. But in recent years, audiences have been supplemented by the middle-to-late baby boomers, who grew up with rock radio, but who have migrated to talk radio after growing tired of the same handful of rock 'classics' that the mullets on FM radio have been recycling since the early 1980s (the Run From Paradise generation?).

Middle aged or old, though, these people generally don't read books or pay much attention to broadsheet newspapers; their primary source for news is commercial talk radio and commercial television. Consequently, they tend to adhere to the view that the economy is going to the dogs, that crime is out of control, that the country is being swamped by Al Qaeda-trained Islamists and that climate change is a plot by communist greens to establish a One World government.

To maintain these contrary-to-evidence convictions, they listen religiously to shockjocks talkback whose job it is to manufacture outrage and keep their listeners in a state of continual indignation and anger at an invisible and indefinable "they" who are ruining the country and destroying their memories of an idealised past.

Of course, we've had talkback radio for decades now and, for the most part, it is a vague background noise that many of us are aware of only when we get into a taxi. The supposition was it would die off as the last of that pre-WWII generation disappeared to the meet the great Burl Ives in the sky.

But talkback has gained a second wind in recent years as politicians, led by John Howard, beat a path to its door. In Howard's case, the motivation was pretty clear. He was speaking to his constituency - the old (in body or mind) and afraid and conservative. And he could be guaranteed an easy ride by the right-wing non-journalist entertainers who were grateful to have at last a political leader who sanctioned the airing of their audience's prejudices under the guise of an attack on "political correctness". 

Just why Julia Gillard should legitimise these clowns by appearing on their programs is not exactly clear. The reception she received recently from that self-aggrandising windbag Alan Jones, who dared to chastise her for being late before calling her a liar, should have been enough - I would have thought - to put a blackban on his program and to send a mildly threatening letter to 2GB's licence holder about broadcast standards.

To the issue of standards, old journalists like this blogger - who came up through radio - are shocked at what is allowed to be broadcast these days. Journalists of my generation were taught that to maintain a broadcasting licence and to meet one's professional code of ethics, one was expected to observe laws concerning undisclosed paid comment, sub-judice, contempt of court, racial vilification, incitement to riot, defamation and just plain public decency. But apparently no longer.

Australian commercial radio was deregulated in the early 1990s and since then a climate of anything goes seems to have taken hold to the point where shock jocks can say just about anything with relative impunity - the only risk being a mild slap over the wrist by the ACMA (formerly the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal) or perhaps a mention on the ABC's Media Watch, a program that few people see, unfortunately.

(Incidentally, anyone who is interested in the development of talkback radio in recent years should get hold of a paper by the acknowledged expert in this area, Professor Graeme Turner of the University of Queensland, 'Some Things We Should Know About Talkback Radio'. It's not available online without registration, but you can hear his summary here.)

Essentially, those changes in the early 1990s led to the unravelling of the public service obligations of radio, including the provision of an independent news service. So radio reinvented itself, as Turner explains, by using its non-journalist talkback hosts not just to read news but to break news (and make and break governments). They do this by mobilising and polarising public opinion, with little respect for facts, fairness, balance or any of the ethics of professional journalism. And they do it for dollars.

The nadir (at least to date) of this shameless rabble rousing and stirring of public raw emotion for ratings points and advertising contracts (which is what this industry is fundamentally about) was Alan Jones' provocative comments during the racial disturbances in Cronulla in late 2005. ACMA later found that Jones' broadcasts were likely to vilify people of Middle Eastern descent and encourage violence.

Of course, Jones is still on air, as are all the other propagators of hatred and fear - entertainers masquerading as journalists who pollute the public arena with deliberate falsehoods and propaganda. The difference now, of course, is they have a new generation of careerist Liberal Party politicians who grew up with One Nation, who speak their language and who peddle their own wingnut opinion to raise their profile through talkback.

Call me old fashioned, but does anyone else wonder just WHO is in charge here? WHY does no-one complain about this? Are there standards? If so, why are they not enforced?  Where are the civilised voices speaking out against these practices? And what are the consequences for our democracy of a system that legitimises the deliberate peddling of falsehoods and hatred for commercial advantage to people whose primary source of news is these very licence holders?

Of course, the right-wing defenders of talkback will respond to this critique as an attack on freedom of speech and open public debate. But no-one is arguing against the right of people to vigorously debate issues of public interest through the media. But a radio station, using the publicly owned airwaves, has a primary obligation to providing its audiences with the truth before it sets its attack dogs off the leash. It has an obligation to declare the commercial interests of its licence holders in pushing particular policy viewpoints. It has an obligation to our principles of justice and to the responsibilities that come with a radio licence.

If this is just too hard, can I suggest two courses of action. Firstly, those who are fed up with the behaviour of the talkback demagogues should organise a boycott of the products of those companies who advertise on these stations. Money is what Alan Jones and the rest of them are fundamentally about. So hit them where it hurts. Secondly, we should pressure our policymakers to re-regulate the industry, give proper teeth to those who police it and to take off air for good those who breach publicly agreed standards.

Oh, and Media Watch should run for an hour, not 15 minutes.

See Also:
Dial-Up Death Threats Do Not Deter as Shock Jocks Maintain the Coalition's Rage (Peter Hartcher)
Tony Windsor Calls for Talkback Calm after Death Threats (ABC News)
Climate of Hate Ramps Up from Right-Wing Populists (Clive Hamiltion,  Crikey)