Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Talk is Cheap

Our public broadcaster is our most trusted source of news. So why does it spend so much time and money chasing cheap and predictable opinions from a small group of people who have plenty of other places to bang their tin drums?
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation received a net $840 million in revenue from the federal government last year. Its real funding has been cut 23% since the mid-1980s.
Aware of changing technology and of being required to do more and more with less and less, the broadcaster in its annual report talks about how audiences are expecting to access content wherever they are and across multiple platforms.
The annual report shows that by output, 51% of revenue from the federal government went to television, 27% to radio, 10% to digital TV transmission, 9% to analog transmission, 2% to online media and 1% to digital radio transmission.
The flagship is the still relatively bright and shiny ABC News 24, a network that according to the national broadcaster “reached” 13.1% of the metropolitan population last year. I am not sure how many of those being “reached” actually watched it, but that seems to me a fairly low figure for an institution that proudly brands itself as Australia’s only 24-hour TV news channel.
Apart from audience, it is arguable how much of the news channel features actual, you know, ‘news’. Highlighted programs include ‘The Drum’ – an opinion show on the issues of the day featuring “an ever changing panel drawn from all walks of life”.
In reality, The Drum is a talking shop where the same old faces from the same institutions – News Ltd, the IPA, the CIS and former party hacks – issue the same predictable talking points. In fact, Independent Australia did some interesting analysis, testing the ever changing panel concept here.
One can feel sympathy for the show’s producers. Getting talking heads into a studio every single day to blather on about stuff that the vast majority of the population has yet to catch up on (or indeed cares about) is a soul-destroying job.
But it’s not just The Drum. There are equivalent talking head forums on business, the environment, the arts, health, food and, of course, rural and regional ‘Straya’.
Now television is an expensive medium, the most expensive in fact. What TV does well (surprise surprise) is pictures, colour and movement.  Doing TV news properly means sending reporters out of the studio with camera crews and interviewing newsmakers in their natural settings. 
But when television just becomes a studio-bound talking shop, it looks like a very expensive version of a far superior medium for that sort of thing – radio. What’s more, it rarely breaks news. It is just yet another opinion-mongering echo chamber.
Now I know the ABC has a very high-falutin’ charter which requires it to appease every noisy constituency in the land, not the least of which are the grumpy culture warriors of the Right who resent the very existence of a national public broadcaster.
But I would argue that if Mark Scott wants to get more bang for his buck, he should ditch his expensive trophy 24-hour ‘news’ channel and put the money into more actual newsgatherers in the radio and digital space (not ‘producers’ who cut and paste from The Australian every morning).
That means more content along the lines of the excellent radio documentary Background Briefing, more youthful experiments like Hungry Beast and more established long-form TV current affairs like Four Corners. And it means far less of the cheap he said-she said, view-from-nowhere programs like The Drum and Q and A.
Yes, I know Scott has a vision of the ABC as a sort of town hall or village square, where people can air their opinions. But I’d argue that social media has made that vision redundant. Twitter features millions of points of view and users can customise their experience. This makes the idea of listening to Peter Reith and some IPA lackey every second night express predictable opinions on The Drum rather unappealing, no matter how it might appease the culture warriors in parliament and the nabobs of News Ltd.
The fact that the ABC is regularly polled as the most trusted news media outlet in the country is even more reason to transfer its limited and declining resources to actual news rather than making the national broadcaster a sort of empty echo chamber where old media hacks and Murdoch lapdogs repeat lines they have already churned out in their print editions.
This isn’t just about the ABC. Much of the commercial media is now in a death spiral, with its journalistic standards falling almost as fast as its life expectancy. Just look at The Daily Telegraph. When not brazenly making stuff up to play on its audience’s prejudices, the nation’s biggest selling newspaper dedicates a good chunk of its resources to ridiculous promotions that have nothing to do with journalism.
If public broadcasters don’t do serious public interest news, no-one will. Without the ABC pursuing stories that need to be told (stories like the untold Slipper saga), no-one will tell them.
I’d pay more than 8 cents a day for that. Wouldn’t you?

(Disclosure: I was invited onto ABC radio four times last year to pontificate on my views about media – three times on Jonathan Green’s ‘Outsiders’ and once on Richard Adey’s ‘Media Report’. But I’d sooner Jonathan and Richard spent their airtime and limited dollars in pursuing news).

Sunday, January 13, 2013

FEIJOA Awards, 2012

Good journalists are troublemakers. They ask questions that others feel too uncomfortable to ask. They ignore the spin and seek inspiration from something other than the prefabricated fodder that forms the foundation of 90% of the PR masquerading as news that you see in the media most days.

With that in mind, it gives me great pleasure to announce the second annual F.E.I.J.O.A  awards (The Failed Estate International Journalism Awards), sponsored by ________ (insert non-compromising and appropriate commercial enterprise here).

It's really not that hard to stand out as a decent journalist these days. You refrain from buying into the Narrative Du Jour (promoted intensely by the more highly paid spin doctors of the warring ideological clans) and you give the public valuable insights that might help them understand issues that could affect them and steer them away from the self-serving  noise.

These journalists haven't forgotten that they are representing the interests of the general audience, not the in-crowd of would-be agenda setters of which most in the media seek the approval.

Of course, I don't pretend that this is an exhaustive list. It merely represents my view of some of the journalism that has added some needed understanding and insight this past year. And it's what we need more of - journalism that ignores today's talking points and looks at what's really at stake.

Unholy Silence - Geoff Thompson and Mary Ann Jolley, Four Corners, ABC: The best journalism highlights a discrepancy between the proclaimed virtues of public institutions and the actual practices. This clear-eyed and fearless investigation of systematic child abuse within the Catholic Church fits that definition and led to a Royal Commission being called. It is interesting to speculate whether this program would have been made under an Abbott/Pell government.

Ashbygate, David Donovan, Independent Australia: The mainstream commercial media, particularly the News Ltd tabloids, got very excited when former Liberal Party staffer James Ashby accused LNP turncoat and parliamentary speaker Peter Slipper of sexual harassment. This was going to bring down the government was the line, which is perhaps why the journos needed to exercise just an ounce of  scepticism about the motives of Ashby and others involved. Donovan's IA did what most others failed to do and questioned the motives of those involved. Sure enough, it was a stitch-up.

Abbott Interview - Leigh Sales, 730, ABC: For months, Tony Abbott was allowed to get away with blue murder by the media with his claims about the carbon tax. It was going to drive up the cost of living, he said, wipe towns off the map, destroy the economy. Which is why it was such a relief to see Leigh Sales put Abbott on the spot over his claims that BHP Billiton was blaming the carbon tax for the the mothballing of the Olympic Dam expansion. Turns out he hadn't read the statement...at all.

A Fair Share of the Boom - Stan Correy, Background Briefing ABC Radio: One bugbear I have with much policy journalism these days is that reporters spend their time reporting what politicians say about public issues without getting out of Canberra and finding out the facts for themselves. And this is what Stan Correy did in explaining why the mining industry was so opposed to a profits-based tax. This took him to Africa and  an analysis of the tension between 'globalisation' and resource nationalism.

Bernard Keane, Crikey - Australia's best media analyst of public policy. From his Crikey vantage point, Bernard can afford to ignore the daily tennis match. What's more with his background in public policy, he manages to get into the politics from the level of what's at stake for the public and beyond the egos of the individuals and the party machines.  If you want an insight into politics without having to wade through the predictable he-said-she-said templates, read Keane.

Ross Gittins, SMH - The quaint notion that governments 'manage' the economy dies hard in Australia. There is simply too much at stake for media companies and polling organisations and the punditocracy for people to be told the truth - that the RBA and Treasury run the macro economy and then only up to a point. The international cycle has a much bigger influence.  Ross Gittins is a truth teller in financial media. One of the few. We'll need him even more in an election year.

(Once again, this list is not intended to be a comprehensive one. There are many more worthy names in the comments from readers below. I would also tip a hat to Mark Colvin, Laura Tingle, George Megalogenis, Wendy Carlisle, Hugh Riminton, Paul Bongiorno, Peter Martin and Stephen Long).