The Three and a Half

12

The Canberra Press Gallery has always been, necessarily, close to its subjects of study. Not a unique situation perhaps, if we think of, say, the worlds of Music, Sport, Art, Agriculture, Finance, but very different from those of say Science, Medicine, Law.

In recent times the linkages, the shared workplace, the chumminess, the personal partnerships, the commonality of interests, the sense of being not observed and objective observer but politicomedia gang members, seems much greater than ever before.

The proprietors of the media have moved to the Right and taken their staff with them. As a result, these days journalists have a much closer sense of common beliefs, goals, tactics, teamwork, with the conservative parties of the Coalition and the more conservative members of the government. Which in turn has led to even more team bonding and confusion of roles.

The Press Gallery now see themselves not as objective, arms length reporters of their subjects and subject matter, but, rather like those embedded with army units, as part of the regiment. Sharing objectives, helping their team defeat the enemy (the government), capture the Hill, plant the Conservative flag firmly on the House flagpole.

Conversely the politicians see their role more as a media one – packaging press releases, delivering sound bites, performing photogenic stunts. At best these things are content-free, most are partial or total lies, at worst they are vicious smears. They are not designed to withstand any kind of rational analysis, they are designed to provide a tv news image, a radio shock jock talking point, a tabloid headline.

They will receive no rational analysis. Because journalists and politicians are so close, working together, socialising together, eating meals together, perhaps on occasion sleeping together, the fodder of the press event seems completely unremarkable to journalists. They will consist of words, phrases, sneers they will have heard, may indeed have contributed to, in a hundred late night conversations in rooms, corridors, restaurants, bars, as they socialised with their friends. It would be no more appropriate to analyse, dissect, criticise, such conversations, than it would be to do that to discussions with family and friends.

Having sleep-walked into this tender trap the journalists, being professionals, would surely welcome wake-up calls from outside observers, consumers of the media? Well, if you think that your knowledge of human nature is a little lacking. Just as criticism of, say, the behaviour of a policeman has the police cars forming a protective circle, so do journalists protect their brothers and sisters from the non-professionals. Indeed, criticism of the politicians, also their brothers and sisters-arms, will be treated in the same way.

But really, how could there BE criticism? Only the journalists are privy to the late night gossip sessions, only they know where the bodies are buried, where others will be buried. Only they know the buzz, the vibe, the context. There are no other stories, hell, there are no other ways of presenting the stories. Media and politicians are in perfect agreement as to what the narrative-du-jour will be, and how it will be sold to the world outside the politicomedia one. The journalists, hearing and reading criticism from, say, the upstart social media, are probably genuinely puzzled, indeed hurt, that they could be so misjudged for simply doing their job of repeating the indisputable. And seek ever more eagerly the warm embrace of their crowd of insiders.

Fourth Estate? Three and a Half Estate.

Falling leaves drift by the window

2

The other day, on one of my many social visits to hospital, I came across a chap, on the hospital entrance path, using one of those leaf blowers. It was a scene made to be, begging to be, turned into a metaphor. And many sprang to mind: he was the good and faithful social democrat politician clearing the path for the poor and needy to enter the public hospital; he represented the shocking waste of energy in modern society; he was part of the loss of the natural world, the leaves of introduced deciduous trees being swept from the concrete; he was the forces of civilisation holding back the chaos that always threatens. All good metaphors, fine for another blog, but unworthy of the high standards of Watermelon.

For me he was Journalism with a capital J. He seemed to be not so much clearing the leaves as rearranging them into patterns, his penetrating stare was seeing into cracks and crevices, and spaces between paving stones and palings, as he turned the blast of fresh air onto stray leaves here and stray leaves there, making a pattern on one side, and then sweeping back to make a pattern on the other, and then back again to rearrange them into a new order.

This was the world of heroic journalism, of Woodward and Bernstein, and, well, Bernstein and Woodward. Investigative journalists peering into the dark corners of politics, blowing fresh air into smoke-filled back rooms, bringing patterns to our attention from what had seemed merely a few random political events as unconnected as leaves falling from a tree.

Then the improbable image of Woodward sweeping leaves (Carl Bernstein yes, Bob Woodward no) shattered before my eyes as I thought of modern journalists. Those bright-eyed young things, eyes on the eventual prize of “breakfast tv presenter”, happily attending Abbott media stunts; “interviewing” random pedestrians for their thoughts on climate change; thrusting microphones at people involved in court cases; salivating over the tears of parents of missing or dead children; running UFO stories seriously.

And I realised that the world of journalism had turned upside down. That modern journalists were no longer carrying intellectual leaf blowers to add to the sum of public knowledge, and refine the art of political discourse. Instead they now carry vacuum cleaners, which suck information out of the public mind, that extract knowledge and leave it in a dust-filled bag in the garbage, that leave the public less-informed than they were before a “story” is presented. That instead of creating patterns from apparently random events, they turn obvious patterns into disconnected moments so that the public can no longer see the connections. Fallen leaves mount up in drifts, clog drains, trip pedestrians, smother gardens. The fallen leaves from our politics clog up our parliament, damage good government, destroy the chance that elections can represent the will of the people.

Modern journalism sucks the life out of public discourse, and there seems no way to reverse the settings on their behaviour.

I miss the old journalists, when autumn leaves start to fall.

Strawberry Fields

4

Let me take you down, ’cause I’m going to Strawberry Fields.
Nothing is real and nothing to get hung about.
Strawberry Fields forever.

Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see.
It’s getting hard to be someone but it all works out.
It doesn’t matter much to me.

Lennon & McCartney

Ding dong bin Laden dead. Not dead. Dead. Gun fight. Unarmed. Wife human shield. Not human shield. Four helicopters. Two helicopters. One crashed. Two crashed. Million dollar mansion. Ordinary house. Multi-million dollar mansion. High wall. Ordinary wall for area. Intelligence from torture (sorry, “enhanced interrogation techniques”, don’t want to upset anyone). Not from torture. See the photo we’ll believe he’s dead. Unless it’s a fake photo. Like the other one. Quote from Martin Luther King. What a beauty. No, sorry, fake quote. War is over (Afghanistan of course, I forget the name of the country the other war was/is in. Anyone? Does it start with an “I”?). Not over, going on forever. Second in charge, and now king of A-Q, is x, no y, or is it z?

Confusion after a major event is inevitable, always was, as journalists seek information, try to get to the facts in situations where eyewitness accounts notoriously conflict. But this was something else. This was a cloud of misinformation. A willful invention of whatever seemed plausible, whatever fitted the preconceptions/ideology of the journalist/news outlet concerned.

We are now living, sadly, not so much in a post-modern world, but in a post-reality world. CP Scott, former editor of The Guardian said “Comment is free but facts are sacred” – other times, other truths. Were Scott living now he would be forced to conclude exactly the opposite. Facts have been set free, free as a bird, to settle where they will.

Obama, commenting on his refusal to release photos (a demand of the media) of the body, said that it wouldn’t settle anything in the minds of some. Absolutely true, and many of the “some” are in the media.

It would be bad enough if this bin Laden story was just a one off. It is, after all, a story of such implications that the media would, you would think, be under some obligation to get it right. To say nothing until they knew something. To make a list, check it twice. Sadly though pretty much every story you read exists in the same virtual reality. It began in the context of “He said, she said” “balanced” journalism. Every story, every fact, can be, must be, disputed. It continued through enthusiastic media support for conspiracy theories, and support for UFOs, ghosts, the paranormal, homeopathy, climate change denial.

We live in a world in which the media are no longer responsible for informing people but for disinforming them.

Disempowering them too.

We need to invent a new profession to replace the “Journalist”. Report the facts.

That’s it. “Reporters”.

When East meets West

4

For many years now television channels, in order to avoid apparent overt bias in their reporting (as distinct from the every day subtle bias), insist generally that their reporters present "both sides of the story". There are exceptions – only the police view of a demonstration that "turned violent" is acceptable, only conservative economists get to talk about the economy – but usually the convention is followed even when it is mind-numbingly boring. A statement by the government that it is doing well is unerringly followed by a statement from the Opposition saying it isn't; motoring groups say petrol is too expensive, oil companies say it is so cheap they are about to become bankrupt. So far, so ho hum, "he said, she disagrees" reporting has become so all pervasive we are rarely aware of it any more – it is just the way things are done.

And, since it is just the way things are done, the reporters have extended it to every single story that is not about celebrities or car crashes. Extended it to stories where there is no controversy, but where the appearance of one can be given (and therefore the "bias" removed) by making the second interviewee a person who has a strong vested interest in the subject. Here are some examples – A scientific study finds that the alcopops tax increase has reduced consumption of alcohol among the young – an alcohol industry spokesperson says he doesn't think so. Research says GM food dangerous – a company producing GM food doesn't think so. Nuclear power risky – not according to the spokesperson for a nuclear power company. Fish stocks declining, need to be protected in refuges – no says  the president of a fishing club. Run off from sugar cane farms damaging the Great Barrier Reef – no way says a sugar cane farmer. An extensive scientific study on old growth forests around the world shows they are major factor in storing carbon, shouldn't be logged, but then we have "But the National Association of Forest Industries chief executive says…".

In story after story a scientific study conducted over a long period by highly qualifed people reaches a conclusion, only to be matched by someone with a major financial interest in the reverse – in no action being taken to correct a problem. The reporter reaches no conclusion, the presenter of the program provides no context, oh dear no, for to do so would be to introduce bias into the "debate". And so every effort by ecologists or health researchers to protect people and their planet is neutralised, turned into a brief exchange in which it is impossible to conclude what the problems and solutions are. Who can know the truth when there are, literally, two sides to every story? In a very real sense, television channels have created a world in which there is no truth about any serious issue.

A world well suited to those whose interests are served by things remaining just as they are, and indeed such people help to maintain the "he says she says" format, will scream "bias" if a spokesperson for the vested interest is not included. Last week on a blog I saw someone say that it was appalling that the Department of Climate Change was providing warnings about future damage to Australia as a result of global warming without consulting the climate change denier web sites and publications for an opposing view. Any day now I expect demands that the Health Department should consult faith healers instead of being biased against them.

All I can say is that if I ever see a television program with some fool announcing that the sun rises in the East, without a spokesperson from the "West Sun Research Institute" there to present the alternative view I will be on the phone so quick they will think they have been hit by a weapon of mass destruction from Iraq. No argument about that, I can tell you.

All David Horton's earlier writing is here.