One journalist further

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People passionately follow all kinds of things – Manchester United, the Catholic Church, Justin Bieber, Survivor, Capitalism, Communism, chess, guns, baseball, Islam, Formula 1, scouting, civil war (whichever) re-enactments, stamp collecting, Republican Party, Alan Jones … A comfort I suppose, a sense of belonging to a club, a sense of not having to think about stuff (MUFC is simply the greatest football club in the universe, obviously).

I sometimes wish… No, I don’t really. They all involve not only a willing suspension of disbelief, but a kind of willing acquisition of total belief. And total belief, or faith, is the antithesis of what should make us human.

Demagogues with crowds of cheering, saluting, marching, smashing, looting, killing, followers (even football fans!) are the example that everyone thinks of. But it makes no difference, ultimately, whether the great leader is spouting populism, anarchism, fascism, communism, catholicism, islamism or buddhism. The words are spread on the fertile culture medium of total belief and the mobs begin to rampage.

But there is a much commoner, more apparently acceptable form of belief, so common that people don’t see it as part of the same phenomenon. That is the belief that some particular individual – shock jock, sportsperson, journalist, politician, celebrity, hell even some religious people – is a role model, someone whose words, written or spoken, are to be taken seriously, accepted as, well, gospel truth.

Curiously a corollary of this touching faith in the one true prophet is often a belief that the rest of those in the cohort are fools and rascals. A typical sentence construction “Well of course most journalists these days are biased rogues, except so-and-so”.

This worries me (hell, everything worries me these days). It really is no different in kind, although obviously in scale, to the adoring crowds hanging on every word of the political demagogue. At both ends of the scale what should be important to us is not who is saying something, but what is being said. If we think so-and-so is the one true journalist, then our critical faculties are suspended and we are more likely to believe what we are being told instead of subjecting it to the kind of cynicism and fool-me-once-shame-on-you-fool-me-twice-shame-on-me disbelief that should serve us so well with everyone who is telling us stuff.

Think of it this way. When people say to an atheist “how can you not believe in god” the reply is “well, you know how you don’t believe in any of the thousands of gods except one, well I just take it one god further”.

So there you are. If you don’t believe in all except one journalist, take it one journalist further, politicians same, shock jocks, the lot. Belief, faith, has no place in politics or media.

Except blogs of course. No harm in you thinking this is the one true blog, the best blog, and casting your vote by clicking the Best Blogs 2013 blue button near top of right column (blog subscribers, don’t forget you need to visit the blog to vote, come on down). But you can show your critical faculties remain intact by leaving a critical comment or two.

The Three and a Half

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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.

Inlaws and Outlaws

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There are two kinds of people in the world, those who claim they are outside the law and those who are happy to be inside the law. The first kind include the Mafia, Bankers, Energy companies, Doctors, Priests, and Journalists; the second include, well, everybody else. Not much can be done about the first kind of course – the Mafia are too powerful to be tackled seriously by justice systems, bankers of course are even more powerful, and energy companies are the most powerful of all. But the other three, while also wielding considerable power are starting to face questions about their status.

Doctors are the easiest one. Some time ago, at least in Australia, and I guess in other jurisdictions, the absolute confidentiality of Doctor-Patient conversations was limited by a requirement that they (as well as nurses, teachers, police) report cases of suspected child abuse. No brainer, obvious need, no point in a doctor treating a child who is being constantly damaged without dealing with the causes of that damage. I’m not sure of the situation regarding spousal abuse, but I think increasingly doctors are being asked to pay attention to this area too. Fine, easy, all the rest of your discussions with doctors remain confidential.

Now priests. The public have been outraged, all round the world, to discover the level of paedophilia in the Catholic (mainly) and other churches. Finally people coming forward, bravely, to talk about what was done to them when they were, for example, altar boys, at the hands of trusted old priests. Lives destroyed, people psychologically scarred for life, finally, reluctantly (in many cases still part of the church), coming forward. Certainly many many more unwilling to speak out (for all kinds of reasons). Huge problem causing great individual and social damage in our community.

The public were even more outraged by the churches reaction to the dreadful crimes. Priests had been merely moved from parish to parish, not sacked, thus exposing fresh new children to these monsters. Each new parish in turn not even being told there might be a problem. Furthermore attempts were made to shut up the victims, settling out of court, insisting on confidentiality, applying pressure to hush things up.

Then on top of that, more recently, there has been discussion about the “confessional”. It quickly emerged that a paedophile priest who confessed to dreadful crimes to another priest in the confessional box would be merely given a “penance” and that would be that. There would be no reporting of the admitted crimes to the police. Furthermore, it emerged, something we had all thought a mere relic of mediaeval times, no crime confessed by anyone would ever be reported. You could go into a confession, admit to being a serial killer of young girls or old men, a paedophile, an arsonist, a child or wife abuser and killer, a terrorist, whatever, you would be merely again given a penance and sent on your way.

When this appalling situation was brought to light in the year 2012 in a civilised secular country, priests, even apparently relatively sane ones, instead of apologising and promising to implement change, defended the practice, promising to go to jail rather than ever divulge what a murderer had told them in a box representing a relic of ancient times. That is, their church doctrine outweighed any concern for public safety or well-being. Again, this is a no-brainer. It must change. The church is no longer running society and making its own laws and the laws for everyone else, as it once did, it is merely one part of a larger society. Hard to believe that this needs to be said.

So, priests a bit harder than doctors, but eventually will be brought kicking and screaming into social responsibility. Which brings us to the most recalcitrant of all, journalists.

Journalists have long seen themselves as priests or doctors who operate in the world of politics. Their role, as the “fifth estate” is to report frankly and fearlessly, speaking truth to power. In order to do that, to find the chinks in the almost impregnable walls government throws up to protect itself, they need insiders/informants/whistleblowers who can tell them the secrets the government is hiding. For that to happen the journalists, so they say, have to absolutely protect their Deep Throats, guarantee that they will hide, protect their identities, safe from fear of reprisal or prosecution. OK, so far so good, go forth our intrepid young Woodwards and Bernsteins, expose the wrong doers, the crooks and liars.

But just a moment, hold that front page, drop that dead donkey. Forty years ago Woodward and Bernstein made it clear they had no political connections. They knew, when they began, nothing about the workings and personnel of the Nixon White House, and, if I remember correctly, at some point Woodward says that he votes Republican and Bernstein has never voted. It is clear that as you read their account they simply set out to solve a puzzle, rather in the way one might solve a crossword puzzle, or the clues in a murder mystery. These days, while journalists protest loudly that they still seek the Light on the Capital Hill, there are few, very few, who follow the independent investigative journalist path. They see themselves not as objective recording angels but as political players, eyes on the main chance, playing in the main game. Once upon a time many journalists could be described as “progressive” or “liberal” I guess, though I suspect the proportion was always overstated, nowadays most undoubtedly have conservative beliefs and inclinations, matching, by pure coincidence, the beliefs and inclinations of their media proprietors (notably in US, UK and Australia of course, Mr Rupert Murdoch).

They confidently stride the corridors of power, doors of conservative party members always open, absorbing, through their pores the sound bites and slogans of their political friends. They see themselves not as impartial reporters but as the promotional arm of the conservative party concerned or, more accurately, the one favoured by their masters. (In Britain in 1987, famously, Murdoch papers switched allegiance from the Conservative Party which had outlived, it seemed, its usefulness, to Tony Blair’s New Labour, which showed signs of being useful in turn). When their friends are in Opposition they will work hard to get them into government, when in government the aim will be to keep them there forever. The politicians will feed them bits and pieces, there may well be public servants who do the same, but everything they get will have a political purpose – to bring down a government, to keep an opposition subjugated, to destroy an environmental or social movement.

In this culture the purpose of the journalist’s cone of silence is not to protect whistleblowers but to protect themselves and their political friends. To make it appear that they are getting their stories from dedicated insider, when in fact they are doing no more than legitimising, laundering, the political output of their friends. There is absolutely no justification in these cases for the journalist being able to claim the right to protect the identity of sources; every reason why journalists practicing real investigative journalism should be able to continue to do so.

The amount of secrecy in our society has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished. The priests of religion, and the high priests of journalism, would be good places to start.

Falling leaves drift by the window

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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.

I’m going to live forever

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As a famous blogger, newspaper editor, scientist, writer, farmer, polymath, I am used to the attention that such fame brings. The mobbing in the streets, the schoolchildren thrusting autograph books at me, the paparazzi with extra special long distance lenses on their cameras to catch that priceless image of me blowing my nose in the back paddock. Comes with the territory of course – fame and fortune, so you have to put up with a complete loss of all private life. Indeed celebrities like me (and even the ones not like me), court photos, live and die in their careers by them, will phone up paparazzo headquarters in order to advise when they are next likely to be blowing their nose, getting a tattoo, giving birth, in order that the cameras will be there to record the event.

So since they are “asking for it”, being famous and all, it follows that they are asking for it even in their own homes, right? So long range lenses held by paparazzi in helicopters hovering over a backyard are fine; or with an excellent view from a high rise building into a bedroom, Ooh Ah. Even when these folks try to cover up windows with curtains or put up screens or tents or whatever, when they are having a wedding or other family event, a medical emergency perhaps, doesn’t mean they don’t want prying eyes and lenses, oh my goodness no, just playing hard to get.

And of course the opposite is also true, anyone, walking down a public street, or any public area, is fair game. They don’t own the space, do they, belongs to everyone, especially the paparazzi, and the journalist pilot fish who accompany them. So film people, harass them, shove microphone in face, keep asking rude and aggressive questions about their private lives. Can’t lose. Either they respond in a futile attempt to get away with some casual response which will be edited to sound and look as unpleasant as possible. Or they react angrily and ask to be left alone, tell the reporter to get lost, might shout. May hold up hands to shield face, attempt to turn away, perhaps even run, all good television, endlessly repeated on the evening news. In a public space, who do they think they are not wanting to be harrassed?

Look, maybe it’s just me who gets outraged when I see this stuff going on night after night right there on my tv. I guess many people would buy the line about celebrities are asking for it, indeed demanding it. Others would possibly think that “ordinary people” possibly shouldn’t be treated like this but of course it is fine, indeed rather amusing and titillating, to watch Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Brittney Spears et al treated like this.

But really, first they came for Lindsay Lohan and I said nothing, and then they came for me. I don’t think my objection has anything to do with the particular people, even if many of them are remarkably stupid and unpleasant it seems, being paparazzied. Rather it seems to me to be a manifestation of an increasing ill-treatment of some human beings by other human beings in general. A rising trend that in turn encourages more bullying and cruelty in society in general, which in turn raises the paparazzi to new heights to cause new sensations to entertain the bread and circuses crowd.

Do we really want a society in which reporters establish that the norm of behaviour towards other human beings anywhere, any time, is bullying and harassment, at the whim of an ambitious editor and a greedy media proprietor? Think I would rather have one where the expected behaviour towards each other is one of respect, courtesy and restraint. And it needs to start with the media. If you want an interview, matter of public interest (real public interest, not public prurience), fine, ask for it nicely in advance by phone. If they say no, take no for an answer. Use the opportunity to go off and do some real journalism, investigative reporting, Woodward and Bernstein (remember them?) sort of stuff. Matters the public really should know about but which you don’t have time to do in the endless rush for harrasnertainment video segments.

Start playing nice, treat people as if they were your own family (unless of course you are the kind of journalist who would sell his own grandmother for a story). Live and let live eh?

*In case you were wondering, the title of course not another medical prognosis but a line from a song.