Oakes’ orthodox Olle

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.

21 responses to “Oakes’ orthodox Olle

  1. I agree with most of what this post says, except for the following:

    “The example he gives to illustrate why this is such an alarming thing is not subterfuge at all, but an educated guess.”

    In that case he took it one step further – he made an educated guess and then called up people in the know and pretended that he knew it to be fact. Pretty low on the scale, but nonetheless – sneaky, clever journalism.

    In any event, having read and enjoyed his piece, good to read a differing view.

  2. He didn’t address what I see as one of the big issues of concern, the issue of bias in the media. I know we’ve always had some degree of bias in the media, but I think it’s become a lot bigger over the last decade.

    Newspapers used to report campaigns on political issues. Now they run campaigns on political issues themselves (e.g. climate science). The MSM are no longer reporting on our political landscape, they are part of it.

    The closest Mr Oakes got to addressing this was to pull out some 40+ year old anecdote of “Rupert wrote that, and we trashed it”, and leave it at that. He didn’t attempt to give the anecdote a context in his speech, nor did he address the issue in the context of the way today’s media behaves.

    The other thing about his speech that got under my skin was that he tried to shift some of the blame to the public. It’s not just the pollies’ fault, it’s also the fault of the public, it’s that ratings fall, blah blah blah. The problems in modern journalism are apparently everyone’s fault except those with the most direct control over their output (the journalists and their editors).

    • @kyna62 I agree that the media has a lot to answer for – and that LO didn’t really address that.

      This is something that I often reflect upon when Ms NewsWithNipples tweets about what the leading story is on this news website or that news website – most of those stories become the leading story because it is what people click on. If people didn’t always read the stories then the websites wouldn’t put them up there.

      It’s a kinda chicken-and-egg argument – has the media made us more superficial, more focused on triviality? Or have our tastes shifted in the last few decades such that effective, compelling journalism has fallen by the wayside? For me, i think it’s hard to answer that question, although I suspect I know what our host may think.

      I guess my point is that the MSM is the way it is because it sells/drives clicks. They are public companies focussed (for better or worse) on clicks/sales. If we don’t like it, there are plenty other sources we can use. That why I stopped buy the Herald, skim the website online and bought a subscription to Crikey.

      I also agree that some more focus on bias would be good – I’d be interested in what someone who has been around as long as LO would think about that. Given he writes for News, he may have decided to leave well enough alone…

      • On the issue of a website’s lead story, it’s about credibility as a news source. People will always find the stories about sex tapes/celebrities/weird crime, so an online editor doesn’t need to make that the lead story. In fact, doing so damages your credibility. That’s the mistake that online editors are making – and it is a mistake that is backed up by the research (admittedly, it’s mainly US research but our news systems are quite similar). Also, most online editors are youngish and don’t have a lot of experience in the industry. So they can be easily lead, particularly up the PR path (all those “studies”).

        Effective, compelling journalism always finds a big audience. Look at the Four Corners story on live animal exports.

        As for bias, I’m ok with it as long as it’s clearly announced. I don’t believe the “view from nowhere” exists – the journalist’s bias always shows through in who they interview, how they frame the story, who they give the first word to and who they give the last word to. Bias becomes a problem when you pretend it isn’t there – like we do now.

        On the other hand, by declaring your bias loudly, we could end up with Fox News, where people watch in order to have their own views reflected back at them. (Mind you, people tend to already do this.)

    • I agree with Oakes in the sense that the consumer is to blame for shit quality in the MSM. The customer gets what they want which is why the DT outsells the SMH by a fair margin.
      As for the bias I think you may only be concerned that a ‘conservative’ bias exists in some sections of the MSM.

      • Like I said, I’m ok with bias as long as it’s clearly labelled. That way the audience knows they are not getting objective, balanced news and then it’s up to them to decide if they want it.

        An old housemate, who watched ABC news but read the Tele, said that it was the preferred newspaper on building sites (where he worked) because it was quick and dirty and easy to read, whereas you couldn’t get through the SMH on your break (ah, those were the days, eh?). He also said the Tele’s sports coverage was better. Mind you, the Tele’s website doesn’t rate nearly as well, despite the boobs all over it.

      • I honestly disagree that the consumer is wholly to blame for the poor quality in the MSM. It is true that consumers will only pay for what they want, but that doesn’t explain everything.

        Does consumer demand have anything to do with the appalling lack of source-checking in the current MSM? You might say that this is a result of the vicious news cycle and that consumers have come to expect news to be available instantaneously, every second of the day. But consumers only expect that now because the MSM created it.

  3. I actually turned off half way through – I was very disappointed, he had the opportunity to show some of that “quality” he was banging on about but didn’t.

  4. I watched the talk and I agree it was disappointing. Your assessment above seems right on the money. It’s everybody else’s fault except the media’s according to Oakes. I was hoping he’d mention bias too – and possibly even the pernicious effect Rupert Murdoch has had on journalism globally. Still, I suppose you don’t get to be a big establishment figure like Oakes without, you know, being part of the establishment.

  5. What is needed is not the absence of bias but the presence of intellectual rigour. If that becomes the norm, I’ll live with any bias that survives it well enough.

  6. I completely agree with your point about everyday journalism. The most vulnerable consumers of media (being those who are less likely to think critically) are far more likely to be reading the everyday stuff rather than the special features.

    I once entered a contest to win a holiday run by Yahoo/Channel 7 News that required me to make their news site my homepage (ahh, the lengths I will go to for a free holiday). That competition has long since ended but I’ve actually left it as my default homepage. Mainly out of laziness, but also just so I can amuse myself by reading the utter shite that mainstream online news services are serving up to Australia. I see things on there that would make your head spin. I can’t give you any single example that encapsulates all that is wrong with online media, but when you see that site every single time you open Firefox – day in, day out – you start to understand how bad things actually are. It’s depressing that these kind of sites are now the primary source of news for many Australians.

  7. I just heard Tim Flannery on the radio railing against the misrepresentation of his views on coal seam gas by the murdochracy. I watched Oakes and was also deeply disappointed by his attitude but he too is driven by the bullshit rather than the facts. And when he accused the blogocracy of failing to check facts it was all to much for me. I’m old enough to remember Andrew Ollie, he must be truning in his grave at what now passes for journalism.
    Great article though.

    • Thanks bundysmum, and welcome to the News with Nipples. If you’re interested in bloggers who are doing a better job – for free – than almost every journalist working for News Ltd and Fairfax, check out Matt Cowgill. He checks the claims against the figures (something journos don’t do anymore) and links to original sources (something online journos don’t do).

  8. The only newspaper I ever buy is The Guardian Weekly. The ads are for uni courses in international aid. It gives me the global news – there are much more interesting ideas out there that what we discuss in Australian media.
    I’ve been thinking SMH online is put together by a 15 y o boy. LOOK. BOOBIES.

  9. “I cannot tell a lie. The soundbite did it.” The Andrew Olle Lecture is having problems with finding good speakers these days…

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