Do we really get the media we deserve?
Julia Gillard doesn't seem to think so. Unfortunately, her critique is based on the idea that the owner chooses what is published, and this doesn't explain the way the media works at all.
If we want to improve journalism in Australia, this column suggests that the best way is to get a reliable, independent body to investigate the way the media works . . .
HARD QUESTIONS, BUT A SIMPLE ANSWER
On Wednesday Julie Gillard insisted there were some “hard questions Australians want answered" by News Limited, insisting the company had "a responsibility to answer those questions when they are asked". Unfortunately, she's proved incapable of framing even one, although they obviously derive from her personal perception of bias, utter bias, emanating from Sydney's Holt Street office of the newspaper group. If the Prime Minister can't even begin to compose the questions, it seems unlikely she'll be able to articulate the answers. But that doesn't mean her concern about the media's role is rubbish.
More of that in a minute. But first, understand how Labor has so enthusiastically gone about trashing its relationship with journalists since 2007.
It all started with Kevin Rudd. He realised reporters would focus on exciting tit-bit's if these were dangled in front of them. The resulting stories were, of course, highly critical of the Howard government and build his case for urgent electoral change. These were far easier to generate then genuine policies that would address the issues; but that didn't matter because everyone thought (well, hoped, at any rate) that he did have a program that would address issues and solve problems.
Whenever Rudd was stymied by questions he leapt over the press gallery to communicate directly with people. He used chat-shows (think Rove) and FM radio to present himself as a 'gawky, thoughtful, hipster', even though this was extremely improbable to anyone who had even a casual acquaintance with the man.
Rudd effectively manage to shoulder journalists aside. He did, on rare occasions, deal with editors and he had one, perhaps two favourites in the gallery who benefited from inside access. Even for such apparently chosen intimates, however, every veil that was discarded simply revealed yet another lying behind. It was a government of spin. Journalists were deliberately kept at arms length from finding out what was really happening, for fear it might reveal something, anything, that showed the government in a slightly less than positive light. News stories stopped being about truth and fact: they degenerated into morality plays in which the evil villain (insert name here) acted to thwart a heroic government from achieving its aim of leading Australia to Nirvana.
This explains the shock that accompanied the suddenness of Rudd's downfall. He was so busy feeding journalists with titivating morsels, before spinning and moving on; distancing the press gallery from the machinery of government; even preventing ministers from developing their own relationships with journalists, until truth was distanced from news reporting. The spinners had achieved their aim. Everything was so covered in fairy floss that reality had become difficult to discern.
Nothing has changed under Gillard. There's the same attempt to prevent journalists finding out what's really going on in the engine room of government because doing so might reveal oil stains and a boiler about to blow. Look at the way the Carbon Tax was formulated in absolute secrecy. There was no attempt to bring people on board by explaining the process of negotiation. Instead, eventually, when the final model had been chosen (behind closed doors) it was unveiled as the solution to all our problems. Unfortunately, we hadn't participated in any of the discussions or been privy to the trade-offs. People felt excluded. The government had failed to use the media to explain what it was trying to achieve.
And of course the question of weather Labor federally is shrinking into oblivion and if coal miners will loose their jobs is more interesting than pretty pictures of solar pannels.
Not everything can be spun.
The great insight of Marshall McLuhan, way back in 1964, was that the medium is the message. Television, radio and print all have different requirements which shape the content of the story. In doing so, they change the narrative and meaning of events. A stupid gesture, like a so-called comedian splashing a foam-covered pie into Rupert Murdoch's face, quickly trivialises real issues. We allow the sound, colour and movement of shouted conflict to dominate our understanding of events, instead of attempting to find genuine meaning – an occupation that's far more demanding of our intellect and time. Rather than being persuaded by argument, we follow the noise of the loudest voices.
The government's aided and abetted this process. It's sought to capitalise on our unwillingness to deal with the detail, smoothing over complex questions with “feel-good" reassurances: whether it's the Navy assuring us the amphibious fleet is achieving objectives or the Department of Sustainability handing out postcards with pictures of ruined churches. Events are portrayed simply as being intrinsically good and evil, black and white. It's an attempt to divert our attention with gee-jaws, beads and trinkets, instead of facilitating explanations that demonstrate life is made up of many complex shades of grey.
Gillard has been particularly inept at allowing the media into her world. Tony Abbott simply has to cast down, just like Rudd back in 2007 – it's no wonder he excels at his task. He'll continue outmanoeuvring her, and Labor, until the government treats journalists like adults and attempts to explain the detail of policy instead of relying on gimmicky advertising campaigns to shift the mood of the electorate.
Of course, the media isn't free of culpability either. The news agenda is arrived at by a complex operation of different pressures and forces. Three factors are particularly relevant in determining if a story pushes its way to the top of the news hierarchy: (so-called) professional practice; organisational factors; as well as broader social and cultural factors. It's ridiculous to assert that any one of these will be the sole arbiter of whether a particular story is used or spiked. That's why calls for the government to examine media ownership will take us down the same old dead-end alleyway of investigations that have proved so unproductive in the past.
Ownership is one factor that shapes the news, but Gillard is deluded if she thinks there is a conspiracy that will be discovered. It doesn't prevent bad owners (like Alan Bond, or previous generations of Fairfax's) possessing good products nor ensure that good owners will manage to turn out a worthwhile output (just look at the ABCs Drum, for example). There's rubbish, bias and what Gillard calls “crap" available everywhere.
Only shining a light into the dark recesses of process is likely to send the cockroaches scuttling away. Don’t pretend a Parliamentary inquiry will find anything – it won’t. The politicians themselves have far too much to gain from a cosy relationship with the media. Instead of what’s needed is an independent Centre for analysis, something like a combination of Mediawatch and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, that’s properly resourced to examine news production.
Until the government’s prepared to do this, you can dismiss its complaints as nothing more than special pleading.