Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Hall of Media Mirrors

  • Former Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner has sparked a bitter storm within the Labor Party after publishing a tell-all book that exposes the inner manoeuvrings of the final days of the Rudd government.
  • Prime Minister Julia Gillard has attempted to laugh off revelations by former Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner of her role in the Rudd government dumping its Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.
  • Federal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has seized upon revelations of extreme disunity with the former Rudd Labor government  from former Finance Minister Lindsey Tanner in a tell-all book.
  • The minority Labor government is hanging by a thread after frank admissions by former Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner in his new book revealed still festering divisions in the ALP.

You don't have to be a genius to work out how the news headlines might have gone if Lindsay Tanner had used his book 'Sideshow' and the surrounding media interviews to do a 'Latham' and round on the party that had kept him in politics for two decades.

But quite wisely, realising from bitter experience how the media would revel in a Labor Party catfight, Tanner has chosen instead to focus on the wider theme of how our politics got to become so busted. And he has aimed the bulk of his criticism at a media that in recent years has been like a child with ADHD, running around in a raspberry cordial-fuelled frenzy seeking outrage and excitement at every turn and unable to focus on any one thing for more than a few moments.

Given Tanner's silence since retiring at the last election, it wasn't surprising or indeed illegitimate that in interviews about his book, television journalists like Leigh Sales on the ABC or David Speers on Sky should seek to focus on the former minister's senior role in the last government and the circumstances that led to Rudd's controversial dumping.

But once it quickly became clear that it was not his intention to rake over those coals, the media's response turned rather indignant. Tanner was “missing the point” or burying the lead or, more accurately, simply not telling the story that the media wanted to hear.  And when respected bloggers like Grog’s Gamut pointed out that journalists were rather proving Tanner’s very point about treating politics as a sideshow, some mainstream media commentators became characteristically defensive. An exception, once again, was the always perceptive Laura Tingle in the AFR, who noted in Saturday's paper (subscriber) that initial reports of Tanner's interviews almost universally misreported him.

As a former journalist, I can understand that had Tanner tipped a bucket on Gillard, it would have been a story. But he didn’t and it was very clear that he wouldn’t because the point his book was making was that the media thrives most in a climate in which the focus is all on the game of politics, not the substance.  Without having a fully formed idea about it, reporters implicity understand their job is about entrapping politicians – even when they are no longer politicians - into rare outbursts of frankness, only to accuse them then of making “gaffes”. Equally, they know that the game works best when they demand that politicians “rule in or rule out” certain causes of action. And when the hapless policymaker succumbs to the inevitable and changes course, they accuse them of a “backflip” or “lying to the Australian people”.

Some in the media are saying it has always been that way, but I strongly disagree. The focus on the fight itself or behind-doors politics has become ever more dominant in recent years. That can be explained partly by the growing sophistication of the spin doctors (usually former journalists who supply talking points to their charges and tell them to stay on message), partly by the worsening economics of the media (fewer journos, deteriorating standards of training) and partly by a gradual blurring of the distinction between journalism and entertainment (the job is now almost entirely about putting bums on seats, eyes on ads and ratings). So it's cheap vaudeville or Punch and Judy. Here comes the man with the black hat. Boooo!!

Highlighting that his agenda in Sideshow is not a partisan one or a lame defence of politicians, Tanner, in an interview with former Age editor Andrew Jaspan, expressed sympathy with the position that his arch political opponent Tony  Abbott was put in ahead of the last election over Work Choices:
Yes you can, at one level, blame individual politicians and say you shouldn’t have done this or you should have been more brave, or you should have said this, but for example when you see the thrashing around that Tony Abbott had to go through on industrial relations at the commencement of the campaign in order to ensure that he wasn’t under siege about Work Choices from the media for the whole campaign, and that he had to go to the absurd lengths of promising absolutely not one tiny bit of change to industrial relations law for any reason full stop, then you see where the silliness is coming from.
So, it is most clearly a game. The only wonder is that the press gallery journalists themselves cannot see their agency in it. And they cannot see that the much bigger story here is the one that Tanner is alluding to – the increasingly short-termist and trivial nature of reporting on politics, the focus on entertainment and fluff and the absence of any real hard analysis (the type the modern reporter literally does not have time for) of the underlying policy and the difficult choices involved.  Ultimately, it is highly ironic - or tragic - that the scrutiny the media rightly seeks to apply to every other institution it seems unable or unwilling to apply to itself.

Is it any wonder, then, that politicians are reluctant to tell people the truth – the truth, for instance, that electricity prices are going to up regardless, that our tax system rewards property speculation, that a budget surplus is not an end in itself, that we are in Afghanistan purely because our alliance with the US requires us to be and that we cannot afford the middle class welfare that has built up under successive governments.

To quote that Jack Nicholson movie, the entire politico-media edifice has decided that the public can’t handle the truth. And we are all the worse off as a result.

It's a great story. But who is going to tell it?

(Further reading: Journalism academic Jason Wilson finds Tanner's treatise disappointing)

Thursday, April 28, 2011

That's Entertainment Revisited

At what point does journalists' dedication to 'neutrality' obscure their obligation to reveal the truth? My post about a public form about 'false balance' in reporting on climate science, run late last year, has sparked feedback from one of the quoted forum participants - the Sydney Morning Herald's environment's editor Ben Cubby. Ben's complaint, and I quote him in full below, is that I had taken him out of context.

When the bug-eyed publicity hound and climate change denialist 'Lord' Monckton paraded through Australia early last year with his travelling circus act, the media (and a typically guileless ABC in particular) laid down and let him have his way with them.

The Australian media's undiscriminating reporting of the hard core skeptic movement - based partly on the he-said-she said ersatz 'neutrality' model that conveniently allows journalists to claim they are 'objective' - was the subject of a fascinating forum broadcast on the ABC's Big Ideas program.

The forum, held at the University of Technology in Sydney, was sponsored by the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism and was held in conjunction with the annual George Munster award for journalism. The panel featured three academics - one climate scientist and two journalism professors - plus two practising journalists - Sarah Clarke of the ABC and Ben Cubby of the Sydney Morning Herald.

While starting amicably enough, the conversation soon became noticeably tense. Leading the attack on the media was Monash journalism professor Philip Chubb, who pointed to the distortions created by journalists giving credence to a hard core of either mad or fossil fuel-funded climate change denialists when 97 percent of published peer-reviewed scientists support the concept of anthropogenic climate change.

Cubby's response to this was to say essentially (though he argues I have taken him out of context, see below) that the media does not just have a responsibility to inform people, but to entertain them as well. And with the likes of the Mad Monckton providing such good copy, it was just too hard for journalists to resist giving him blanket coverage.

"One thing about journalism that is different from say a scientific journal is that it is also about story telling and it is to some extent about entertainment, as well as informing people," Cubby said. "You've got to sell newspapers, you've got to make people watch your TV show. Now that can lead to an unacceptable level of distortion. But the opposite is that every story in the paper could be dull, but worthy."

Cubby went onto say that it just wouldn't do to run front page stories every day saying 'Earth Still Warming; Extinction Approaches', because that wasn't news. Journalists had to find new angles to the story constantly and if someone was going to come along with a potty theory about socialist world government conspiracies, well all very good because the copy has to keep on coming.

So there you have it, folks. Out of the horse's mouth. Journalism is half entertainment-half information and sometimes the story - however important - is just too dull to bore one's readers with.

At the risk of breaking Godwin's law, one imagines if this is the case, we can expect invitations onto the Fran Kelly show for Holocaust denier David Irving should he ever be allowed into Australia - because we've heard those stories about the genocide of six million Jews over and over and the listeners are just bored with that.

Call me old-fashioned, but at what point did entertainment become a priority of journalists, particularly when it is at the expense of giving people an accurate view of the world and particularly when it concerns news about the survival of the planet?

Write colourfully, certainly. Seek out fresh angles and tell stories in compelling ways that resonate with people, of course. But this must ALL be in the service of revealing the TRUTH of things. It is not the job of journalists to do a little bit of truth telling and a little bit of entertaining to spice up the mix when they think the lead is going stale.

Climate change is but one area where this novelty-for-novelty's sake happens. Financial journalism is full of it. Every financial journalist knows in their heart of hearts that you can't "beat" the market and that a whole industry is supported by this ridiculous notion.

But because the media can't risk boring its readers with the truth (building wealth is about taking only those risks that come with an expected return, diversifying across asset classes, paying attention to costs and taxes and keeping a reserve of cash), they have to seek fresh angles to keep the punters looking at their clients' ads - for hedge funds and contracts-for-difference and high-yield bonds and fancy derivatives.

And we know how all that bad advice and exploiting the need for endless novelty by pushing fabled "high return-low risk" investments turned out, don't we? The global financial system nearly collapsed, millions of people were thrown out of work and governments in the US and Europe put themselves into a level of hock from which it will take them decades to recover, if at all.

So the media to some extent has blood on its hands over the GFC by playing up speculation as investment and by treating as gurus the spivs and charlatans that got us into this mess. And now, for the sake of entertainment, novelty and "story-telling" - even if those splendid yarns misinform the public -  it is prepared to put the planet at risk. This is why the Fourth Estate has become the Failed Estate.

Ben Cubby responds:

Hi Bob,
Entertaining an audience is an intrinsic part of any reportage for any topic and any media, commercial or otherwise, and has been for a long time. But you should never jeopardise truth or accuracy to make a piece more colourful.
Yet you have paraphrased me as saying that if a story is too boring then the truth has to be sacrificed in order to spice it up, and that it's reasonable to give lots of news coverage to climate sceptics on this basis. This is an inaccurate rendering of what I said at this particular forum and what I believe in general.
You didn't record the relevant fact that a substantial part of that discussion forum was devoted to why our paper is NOT interested in covering or giving any credence to Monckton or his theories in its news pages.
So, your post is arguing that reporters should tell a full and comprehensive story, even if it’s dull. But to argue this case you are relying on a few out-of-context quotes and ignoring other evidence in order to make it seem like the facts fit your theory - pretty ironic.

Mr Denmore adds:

I accept that Ben's intention was to say that truth should never be compromised by the need to entertain and that the SMH for the most part treated the Monckton visit as a backpage sideshow (unlike the ABC).

Unforunately, that is not the way it came across in the recording of the forum and I have listened to it three times. The quote I included is accurate. He did say that a level of distortion can result from newspapers seeking to "tell stories" in the service of entertainment, which is what the other panelists were accusing the media of doing in the climate change debate.

Ben is clearly a thoughtful journalist and in the context of the forum may have been playing devil's advocate to spark a livelier discussion. But I maintain that the  media as a whole has not served the public well in the climate change debate, too often treating the views of charlatans as equivalent with those of credentialled scientists.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Killing Boredom as Your KPI

With television increasingly dominated by the Outrage Business and shamelessly exploitative and cheap 'reality' shows, the 1976 Sidney Lumet-directed Oscar-winning movie 'Network' looks increasingly prescient. In this bitter satire of the effect that intense commercial competition has on broadcast standards, Australian Peter Finch plays Howard Beale, a TV demagogue so appalled by the profit-driven amorality of the network that employs him that he urges his viewers to turn their sets off.

Network's scriptwriter Paddy Chayevsky understood the nature of television as a sideshow, its primary aim to put bums on seats and eyes on advertisers' products. In the end, it doesn't really matter what Howard Beale or Andrew Bolt or any talkback ranter or tabloid preacher says. If he's successful, half the audience will hate him, half will love him and no-one will be indifferent. The important point for the broadcaster - and the number one KPI  for the talent - is that they build an audience. And in the end, as the fictional Beale proclaims in the movie's pivotal scene, that's all that matters to the network.

"Television is not the truth," Beale says. "Television is a goddamned amusement park. Television is a circus, a carnival, a travelling troupe of acrobats, storytellers, actors, singers, jugglers, sideshow freaks, lion tamers and football players. Folks, we are in the boredom killing business. You  won't get any truth from us."

When 'Network' first came out 35 years ago, it was seen as a satire, a deliberately over-the-top send-up, in which cynical network owners allowed clearly extreme and deliberately inflammatory commentators on air to deliver ratings points. Beale, for instance, dies in a hail of bullets fired by an extremist urban terrorist group hired by the producers to breathe new life into the show.
For some reason, it now doesn't seem so far-fetched.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Truth Test

What responsibility do journalists have to tell the truth? If the commercial or ideological interests of their
employers require them to misrepresent an issue or incite conflict or exploit partisanship, what protections are there for the public against that deceit? And if journalists are the professionals they insist they are, what sanctions do they face for breaching the ethics of their trade?

These seem more interesting questions than the reflexive liberalism we saw in recent weeks in response to the racial discrimination case against right-wing Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt.  Incurably romantic about their chosen profession, journalists love any opportunity to quote Voltaire and argue that even the most odious commentator has a right to speak their mind. After all, rallying around the freedom flag proves how committed they are to the role of the Fourth Estate as an institution that asks tough questions and squares up to authority.

But perhaps the more courageous questions for journalists to pose in this climate of extreme partisanship and increasingly desperate attempts by media owners to create a sustainable business model in a disintermediated world relate to their own roles in the power structure and their own accountability to the public.
Yes, there is a journalists' code of ethics, which lists 12 major principles that journalists must follow - well at least those journalists who are paid-up members of the union - the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance.

These include a commitment to report honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts. Journalists are required not to suppress relevant facts or to give "distorting emphasis".  Other principles include not placing unnecessary emphasis on personal characteristics such as race and religion, and not allowing one's personal beliefs or commercial pressures to undermine accuracy or independence.

But what sanctions are in place should journalists not follow this code in practice? More importantly, who polices and prosecutes breaches of the code?  Can journalists be disbarred or disqualified from the pursuit of journalism as can doctors and lawyers and even financial advisers? The short answer to these questions is an unequivocal negative. The Australian media is largely self-regulated - newspapers by the Australian Press Council (an irrelevant and totally toothless organisation run by the papers themselves) and commercial broadcasters by the Australian Communications and Media Authority.  The ABC is held separately accountable by a government-nominated board administering a charter and a code of practice, as is SBS. A full list of regulatory arrangements is available here.

Ask yourself when was the last time you can recall a journalist in Australia sanctioned by an industry regulator over breaches of professional standards. Perhaps the most high profile case was the 'cash for comment' scandal, in which the ABC's Media Watch revealed that shockjocks Alan Jones and John Laws had been paid to give favourable on-air comments about major corporations such as Telstra, Qantas and the big banks. Laws was found by the then Australian Broadcasting Authority to have breached a disclosure standard. But Jones was cleared amid controversy over the ABA's inquiry, which the Communications Law Centre of the University of Technology described as "overly timid".

But calling Alan Jones and John Laws 'journalists' is a stretch even on the most charitable definition of the word. Paid entertainers certainly. But journalists? Surely not. But the fact is, as far as the listening public is concerned, there is very little difference between the young, idealistic and very badly paid reporters scurrying around town from press conference to press conference and the millionaire talkback hosts pontificating on the issues of the day with minimal respect for accuracy or independence or fair comment or the need to report all "relevant facts".

It might shock non-media people, but what is happening now is that nothing, beyond the conscience of the individual journalist, stands in front of the media's increasingly unethical pursuit of profit and the truth. A journalist can become and remain a good journalist in Australia ('good' as in upholding that code of ethics) only despite the organisations they work for, not because of them. And with only three or four substantial employers of journalists outside the ABC, it is a very brave reporter who stands on principle when they see the pursuit of the truth getting in the way of commercial imperatives.

In that context, then, what prevents Andrew Bolt using his new program on the Ten Network to  propagate manifest untruths about climate science in support of an ideological agenda? And what is to stop the shockjocks on commercial radio using selective reporting to incite racial hatred and exploit prejudice and ignorance? Are the limits of our sanctions a slap on the wrist from Media Watch on a Monday night? How do you improve accountability in journalism and the media without sacrificing the rights of a free press?

At an academic level, this debate is now well underway in the United States, a country whose constitution's protection of a free press under its first amendment has been flagrantly abused by Rupert Murdoch's Fox News, which has given up any pretence of fairness and independence to pursue partisanship in a way that makes no distinction between news and comment.  In a paper published last month in the University of Michigan's Journal of Law Reform, Andrew Selbst noted that while newsmakers always have been driven to an extent by profit, sensationalism and partisanship, this is now at a level that compromises the functioning of democracy. While the media trumpets its rights, journalists failed to reveal the truth in two of the biggest stories of recent years - the invasion of Iraq and the events leading to the global financial crisis. In the US, media companies such as Fox now actively promote untruths, such as the idea that President Obama was  born in Kenya or that his health reforms would involve compulsory euthanasia.

The problem as Selbst sees it - and it applies equally in Australia - is that the media has become much less diverse since the mid-20th century "golden age" of journalism. Murdoch is dominant among a handful of media corporations that use their First Amendment protections to pursue their own commercial and ideological agendas. Media regulation is piecemeal, hostage to industry interests and largely toothless. Individual journalists might proclaim their commitment to a professional code of ethics, but these decisions seem unlikely to have a demonstrable effect on standards in an industry in which the pursuit of profit and audiences overshadows every other imperative.

In his paper, Selbst advocates the establishment of a Journalism Ratings Board, that administers a ratings system employing a list of eight principles expressed by New York journalism professor Jay Rosen - namely veracity, accuracy, transparency, intellectual honesty, inquiry (doggedness in pursuit of the truth), polyphonicity (plurality of voices), currency (staying up to date) and utility (the usefulness of the information).

Of course, this proposal will almost certainly provoke shrieks of indignation from most journalists, who view any oversight of their trade as an assault on the freedom of the press. For their part, public choice theorists argue the regulators inevitably will be captured by the industry they oversee (as we saw in the GFC). But just because there are potential conflicts, does not mean we should ignore the challenge.

Selbst argues the Journalism Ratings Board could work like the electoral commission or the securities commission (our ASIC), using a market-based approach that requires news programs to to provide "news consumer guidelines" that work similar to the parental ratings already employed. The details are up for discussion, but I suspect no working journalist, in their heart of hearts, thinks the public is currently properly protected against an industry that routinely hides behind high-minded appeals to freedom to push an agenda that aims to draw as many eyeballs as possible to the ads that underpin their profits.

What do you think?

PS: For a "people-driven" ratings system on journalism, it's hard to go past the idea of UK satirist Tom Scott, who has advocated sticking warning labels on newspapers. The warnings include:
  • "Statistics, survey results and/or equations in this article were sponsored by a PR company"
  • "This article is basically just a press release copied and pasted"
  • "Medical claims in this article have not been confirmed by peer-reviewed research"
  • "Journalist does not understand the subject they are writing about." 
Here's a template if you want to make your own.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Outrage Business

As in drama, conflict drives the news business. The more black and white the conflict is portrayed as, the greater the passion the issue raises, the greater its confected 'news' value. Once a savvy media organisation works out what gets people worked up, it's a fair bet it will go out of its way to construct narratives around those very issues.

Welcome to the idea of the mainstream media as a gigantic trolling device. The business model, in the absence of anything else in these days of news of a commodity, is to post deliberately inflammatory commentary and to feature as much as possible those commentators who elicit a strong reaction from audiences. Good or bad; it doesn't matter. It's the culture war as a business model.

This explains why the ABC, for instance, is so ready to provide multiple platforms for professional provocateur Andrew Bolt and his News Ltd stablemates to recycle memes aimed at outraging the intellectual and cultural left that patronises the national broadcaster's programming in the absence of any other media outlet that provides a serious analysis of public affairs.

While the ABC isn't a commercial organisation, it does face substantial pressures; in its case to demonstrate  to its political overseers - particularly on the Right - that it delivers sufficient "value for money" to as broad as possible an audience and to show its programming is not a form of  upper middle class welfare. It is fair to say that these overseers, who have flourished since Howard's day and who strangely continued to assert great influence even under Rudd, will not be content until such time as the ABC is a facsimile of commercial talkback radio.

In practical terms, the outcome of all this appeasement of a prickly and paranoid Right is a pandering to views that already saturate the rest of the media - particularly tabloid newspapers and commercial talkback radio. If those views also receive the endorsement of the ALP, even better, which explains why the ABC is so ready to promulgate the myth that The Greens are anti-Semitic (despite 12 per cent of the electorate giving them their first preference votes in the last federal election).

In the commercial media, the culture wars are used as a business strategy to drive page impressions and breathe life into a dying industry desperate for an audience, any audience. This is why News Ltd, for instance, spends so much money on so many columnists whose job description is to elicit condemnation from tertiary educated , liberally minded people who find their views objectionable.

How all this informs people isn't exactly clear. But then it's not really supposed to. It is part of what Kevin Rudd's former press secretary Lachlan Harris describes as The Opinion Cycle. It's about generating an ongoing wave of outrage to pull in eyeballs, put bums on seats and  manufacture a reaction for commercial advantage. That reaction then becomes part of the story, so that the narrative becomes self-generating.

Believe it or not, that's the way a dying mainstream media makes its bucks these days. And it's why our political debate is so narrow and exhausted and self-serving. It's why the media desperately wants to keep alive the idea that there is serious scientific disagreement about man-made climate change. It's why the media wants you to believe that the world will come to an end if the budget doesn't return to surplus and why it is no rush to tell you that Australia's refugee "problem" pales into insignificance compared with the issue in Europe.

Ultimately, it's about maintaining a permanent rolling outrage to obscure more prosaic truths that do not lend themselves to the favoured red team-versus-blue team template. It's successful, for sure. Like the circus, it draws in big audiences to look at the ads. It is guaranteed to cheer one side and outrage the other. But it sure as hell isn't journalism.

See also: Grog's Gamut: Decline and Fall
See also: Lachlan Harris: It's a Fact: Opinion is Rising
See also: Beck's Toxic Legacy