Laurie Oakes gave the Andrew Olle media lecture on Friday, and it’s pretty disappointing stuff. It simply repeats the criticism levelled at the MSM over the past few years and then dismisses much of it. There’s no evidence that he’s thought about these criticisms and seems to just blame young journos for not caring about journalism’s lofty ideals, and the 24 hour news cycle – as though it exists independently of journalists, editors and management.
It’s published on The Drum today: Between the dumb sideshows and hamsters, journalism endures:
[The decline in trust in journalism] worries me because I’m proud to be a journalist, and because – as a member of the board that judges the Walkley Award finalists – I see how much high-quality journalism is produced in Australia.
There will always be enough examples of high-quality journalism to sustain the Walkley Awards. But the bigger problem, as I see it, is the low standard of everyday journalism. The “he said she said but we didn’t bother checking any of their claims because the quip was the most important thing that was said” stuff we read and watch every day. If you want to talk about journalism and democracy, this is the stuff you need to look at, not the Serious Investigations which are written/produced with an eye to an award.
There’s been a lot of criticism of political journalism recently, and I don’t just mean the ‘Don’t write crap!’ variety levelled by the Prime Minister, though it wasn’t bad advice.
Much of the criticism is directly related to this democratic dialogue between punters and pollies that we as members of the Fourth Estate are supposed to facilitate. Trust is just one aspect.
What the criticism boils down to is that the changing character of the media is distorting the conversation with damaging consequences for the way our political system works. Or doesn’t work.
Oakes doesn’t get around to answering this criticism in any meaningful way. Which is a shame. He tells some decades-old anecdotes from a different media era and then moves on.
I noticed with a degree of alarm that the issues paper put out a few weeks ago by the Media Inquiry headed by former Federal Court judge Ray Finkelstein QC raises the possibility of prohibiting journalists from gathering of information by subterfuge.
The example he gives to illustrate why this is such an alarming thing is not subterfuge at all, but an educated guess. It’s unlikely that he doesn’t know the difference, so his point is disingenuous.
The problem with much of his lecture is that, like other high-profile journalists who have recently tried to dismiss criticism, Oakes is unable – or unwilling – to see how his product looks to his audience. He almost gets there:
I’m concerned that we don’t highlight to young journalists as much as we should, within media organisations and in academic institutions, the relationship between what they do and the public good.
And I’m certain that we don’t discuss sufficiently – among ourselves and in public – the obligations that the public welfare side of journalism imposes on us.
But nowhere in his lecture is evidence that he has applied this to what he does.
The argument is that, with media organisations under siege from commercial pressures and technological innovation, the balance in political reporting has shifted away from providing information and towards entertainment.
And that this, and the way politicians have responded, is trivialising politics and dumbing down debate.
I think it’s over-stated.
He uses one example of Howard’s carefully crafted “we will decide” line to “prove” that criticism of soundbites is unfounded. But all it proves is that someone wrote a cracker of a line.
It’s tosh. The problem Tanner and Rosen describe is down to weak politicians, not the media. Can you imagine Paul Keating being so timid? The solution doesn’t lie with the media. Politicians need to grow a backbone.
And there it is, folks. It’s not the media’s fault. In what was an opportunity to say “yep, the criticism of us is fair, we’re also to blame for the dumb state of political discourse in Australia”, Oakes ignored the fact that any politician who doesn’t play the soundbite game is either ignored or crucified. The MSM loves Barnaby Joyce, just as they loved Steve Fielding – not because either added anything important to public discussion, but because both could be relied on to say something wacky.
Many of those bemoaning the media’s performance seem to think the nation is crying out for more high quality news and analysis and heavier current affairs programs.
They’re dreaming. If that was the case, Four Corners would out-rate Masterchef. And I’d still be doing interviews on the Sunday program and writing for The Bulletin magazine.
And George Negus might still be on air.
I didn’t watch 6.30 with George Negus because it clashed with World News on SBS. I’m sure I’m not the only one who made this choice. I ignore Channel 10 (and 7 and 9) because of the constant fucking ad breaks. If you want to talk about audiences, you need to consider not just the numbers who are watching but also what might be keeping them away. Also, simply blaming the internet/dvds/facebook for taking people’s attention away from “serious journalism” ignores the possibility that what you’re producing might not be very good.
People do want quality journalism. The constant criticism of the MSM is evidence of that. What Oakes has failed to see is that what he thinks is quality journalism is actually rather ordinary. It’s the same voices talking about the same things, knowing that they’ll be the only voices heard. I stopped buying The Bulletin because it had disappeared up its own arse and was no longer publishing high quality, interesting journalism. And now The Monthly is following it up that rectal path, which is why it rarely gets $8.95 from me.
So, after spending half his lecture saying that the problem is the politicians and the audience, Oakes says that none of this “gets journalists off the hook”. Interesting. (What’s also interesting is that many journalists seem to have adopted Tanner’s use of the word sideshow, without showing evidence that they’ve thought about his criticisms.)
He says “technological advances in the field of graphics” means journalists don’t need to rely on politicians in hard hats and budgie smugglers to make visually interesting news.
Nothing trivialises politics more than these stunts, especially given the bad puns and strained analogies TV journalists reach for as they try to make ridiculous pictures relevant to the issue of the day.
I’m surprised politicians haven’t twigged already that they’re counterproductive.
I’m surprised that senior journalists haven’t twigged that if they stop covering these stupid stunts, then the politicians will stop doing them. It has nothing to do with the use of graphics on tv.
In this new high speed, non-stop environment, journalists will have less time for proper consideration of such matters. Less time to make such judgements. Especially since the same technological advances that have speeded everything up have also undermined the economic foundations of media organisations, so that there are fewer staff and resources to cover the whirling cycle of continuous news.
Firstly, cutting costs in newsrooms – ie, getting rid of journalists – doesn’t just happen. Management makes these decisions, yet they don’t even rate a mention from Oakes.
And secondly, journalists have created this idea of continuous news, and they seem to believe that their audience just watches them all day. In one newsroom I worked, the editor – let’s call him Mr Toupee – demonstrated day after day that he didn’t think too deeply about what he did. He thought he was a “cutting edge thinker” and would tell me what blogs and sites to read, in a tone that implied I didn’t know what the internet was, but they were just the same old ones that had been around for ages. Besides, he displayed no evidence of having read more than the first three sentences or having any deep understanding of what they were writing about.
Anyway, a story about a kid getting hurt or going missing would come in from AAP. A white kid, of course, because the MSM loves a missing white kid. Even better if it’s a girl with blonde hair. Anyway, the story would come in from AAP and Mr Toupee would be rolling his eyes and swearing as you worked, particularly if the competition had it on their website before we did. As though he actually believed that our audience was sitting there with the AAP feed themselves, and flicking and refreshing between the different news sites to see which one had exactly the same copy up first. What a joke. Still, there’s ample evidence that people of mediocre talent have done very well in journalism. Which is part of the problem because they think that this is the most important news of the day.
But back to Oakes, who says that bloggers are bad because they don’t verify facts. Which is an interesting criticism because the MSM doesn’t verify very much these days – they just simply repeat claims made by politicians/lobby groups. There is more fact-checking of the articles in your pay tv guide than there is on news stories at News Ltd.
What could have been an honest reflection on his day job, an opportunity for Oakes to say “hey, we’ve been copping the same criticism for a few years now so they’ve probably got a point, and here’s how we might fix it”, was nothing more than a self-serving wander down memory lane.