Issue 12

BLURRED VISION

*IT’S ONLY JUST BEGUN (THE WAR ON JOURNALISTS)

*BUT WHAT IS A JOURNALIST ANYWAY?

*SLANG MATCH

*EVEN BIKES DO IT

*ARE WE THE BADDIES?

IT’S ONLY JUST BEGUN

Anyone who thought the federal government might have had enough sense to take note of the wave of criticism that has greeted the release of the media inquiry report from former federal court justice Ray Finkelstein QC should read today’s Australian with concern.

On its opinion page is a short piece from chief government whip, Joel Fitzgibbon.

Fitzgibbon argues: “Letting our media police themselves has been a mistake” and cites approvingly a British academic who, in the wake of the phone-hacking scandals, claims that because “the press has become part of the legislative function and a powerful policer and enforcer of morals and laws, so it has to be regulated and democratised…”

But we haven’t had any phone-hacking here, remember?

Nevertheless, Fitzgibbon frets, “surely it is prudent to modernise our structures” and concludes, “I’m confident the [federal] government will act to raise standards, protect people from misrepresentations and restore public confidence in our media by embracing Finkelstein’s sensible reforms.”

Hello? Charles Dickens’s self-congratulatory Pumblechook couldn’t have served himself better.

The Finkelstein report’s release in early March saw a plethora of news stories and analyses, followed quickly – thank the Lord – by a series of strong editorials from the major newspapers that delivered one strong message to the federal government: do not implement this report.

After that, the deluge.

Daily opinion pieces, features and columns that stirred up angry, lengthy counter-arguments and letters to editors fighting over who said what and who didn’t do what and who had done what that proved exactly this point (or that point).

Then, like “Pop Goes the Weasel”, it ended with a slapping contest in The Australian’s letters pages between former publisher and editor Trevor Kennedy and ex-Media Watch executive producer David Salter.

But, as Fitzgibbon’s article proves, this war is only just beginning.

Anyone who thinks that Finkelstein’s recommendations are so ridiculous that no-one who prizes our freedoms could possibly take them seriously doesn’t understand that that is exactly how nonsense theory and ideology win out over commonsense, knowledge and empirical evidence.

This is how preposterous schemes get implemented all the time.

As I wrote several years ago, airheads – whether they are management theory-obsessed consultants, mantra-spouting vice-chancellors or postmodernist , politically correct educationists – succeed with their plans just because no-one at first takes their nonsense seriously.

The next time we look up from our work, they’re up there on the parapets and we’re down below, gawping helplessly from the wrong end of the drawbridge.

Remember when the idea of a media inquiry was first opportunistically raised here by politicians after the closure of The News of the World? Busy media executives and editors, trying to save their industry in these turbulent, tricky times, looked up briefly in bemusement, and then went back to resuscitation duty.

Do they wish now they’d ridden in to Canberra in a posse to put a stop to it pronto?

We all know that journalism is rarely perfect and that there can be appalling lapses in judgement, taste and compassion but I have yet to read anywhere of one horrific example of systemic journalistic behaviour in Australia – one as destructive as the phone hacking in Britain – that justifies this media inquiry or its recommendation for a government-created, government-funded news media council.

A stronger press council is desirable but not an expensive, bureaucratic, time-wasting, news-choking committee run by appointees who, no matter how it is disguised, will have been approved by the federal government of the day.

Key newspapers have all run strong editorials explaining how the Finkelstein recommendations add up to a serious threat to the freedom of the press, and therefore democracy.

“A news media council, controlled by the government, cannot do other than increase the power of the government.” The Sydney Morning Herald.

“Mr Finkelstein’s catalogue of supposed media wrong-doings demonstrate the censorious nature of the exercise.” The Australian Financial Review.

“… a government-funded star chamber to pass judgement on newspapers and broadcasters is not a recommendation that should be lightly adopted in a democratic society.” The Australian.

The usual on-line trolls have been squawking happily of the above that, well they would say that, wouldn’t they.

Well yes, they would because, as Jschool journalism college director John Henningham, pointed out in The Weekend Australian, the proposal means a government body in a democracy will be telling a privately owned newspaper to print something.

“Opposition to this is in journalists’ DNA.”

BUT WHAT IS A JOURNALIST ANYWAY?

The only time I was asked, by a well-meaning colleague who had gone into media academia, to do some lecturing in feature-writing at a journalism college, I failed at the second hurdle.

Once my resume had been vetted – it took them three months – I found myself unable to fill out the required application form to go with it.

Reader, I tried.

But every time I went to fill in the queries on how I could demonstrate my “knowledge and understanding of professional practice and/or current issues in relevant area”, or how I could show that I had “demonstrated understanding of the needs of culturally diverse students and learning environments,” something inside me curled up its legs and died.

Finally, I realised that the form and I were at logger-heads. I put it to one side forever. I figured that whatever practical knowledge and wisdom I had to pass on was probably not what this particular journalism college prized.

So I’ve been interested to see how the kerfuffle over the Finkelstein report has revealed deep divides between those who practise journalism and those who now teach it.

How did this happen?

I found one clue in a blog by Margaret Simons, director of the Centre for Advanced Journalism at Melbourne University. She has been vocal in the Finkelstein debate given her other role as a media commentator for crikey.

Simons, with whom I worked for several years after I had been impressed by her coverage of the Fitzgerald inquiry in Queensland, has been careful in her appraisal of Finkelstein’s recommendations. Her first instinct was to dislike the inquiry’s proposal for enforced self-regulation for news media but Simons still ended up saying that, while she hoped for a better alternative, if it was a choice between ineffectual self-regulation and the Finkelstein model, then the latter would be preferable.

It is incomprehensible to me how anyone who has covered a judicial inquiry into widespread and long-standing political and police corruption can believe that.

But maybe Simons and I don’t agree on what graduates from the dozens of journalism and communication schools that now exist in Australia should be doing anyhow.

I think the majority should be bringing us the stories we need to know, and working for media outlets. Like many, I therefore worry about how all these graduates can possibly find jobs, given the way our industry is shrinking faster than a cashmere sweater in a Laundromat tumble-drier.

Simons isn’t worried. She writes: “I predict that within five years there will be more jobs for people with journalism skills than ever before in human history.”

She then explains why: “First, in the modern world, media communication skills are not an added extra but part of the way the world runs. Very few things can be achieved without media…

“[Second] In this modern world, every organisation of any size is, whatever else it may be, a media organisation. They all have web pages and, increasingly, social media presences… The social purposes of marketing and PR are very different from those of journalism, but there is no denying that the skill sets are similar…

“A great deal of work which deserves the name of journalism is being undertaken in collaboration with others who are in the same general game.”

Simons goes on to elaborate that by that, she means, for example, press releases from NGOs that now, because of input from employed journalists, are “easier to translate … into news”.

She believes, in this new world of collaboration and networks, that integrity is more important than raising your fist in the name of independence.

There’s a tricky path to tread.

It gets muddier, and for me, scarier. This is someone who seems to be predicting, without too much concern, a future that will blur the profession of journalism with the trades of proselytizing.

But maybe that’s unfair. Decide for yourself and read Simons’ argument here.

Finally, it has to be said that we wouldn’t have all these communications courses if the media industry hadn’t dropped the ball decades ago when it decided to drastically reduce cadet intakes or do away with them altogether.

In the Seventies, the afternoon newspaper in Perth where I did my training took in around ten cadets alone in my entry year. On-the-job experience is still the very best training you can get, and easily enhanced by an undergraduate degree in science, law, arts, economics and so on.

Perhaps the serious split that has been revealed in the Finkelstein furore will encourage the mainstream media to think about large intakes of cadets again.

I hope so.

SLANG MATCH

In spite of the current fashionable idea that no-one cares about proper punctuation, spelling and grammar anymore, it turns out that good use of the English language still has its rewards. Twitter is currently undergoing a hacker frenzy with umpteen fake tweets being sent to a surprising range of people from a surprising range of oblivious tweeters.

The recipient is advised that the tweeter has either heard terrible rumours about them or seen hilarious pictures of them and a link is helpfully included.

Click on the link… and yes, I don’t have to take you further. It’s a phishing exercise to extract your twitter password from you.

My account has been hacked and no doubt umpteen of my connections have now received these rubbish tweets.

There has been one consolation. Recipients have emailed to say that the moment they spotted the slang LOL and ROFL they knew the tweets couldn’t have possibly come from starchy me.

EVEN BIKES DO IT

Propaganda is a way of life now. In central Sydney, there are many good people driven to wondering if it is possible to do to the Lord Mayor’s $76 million worth of new cycleways what villains do to trees that obstruct harbour views.

It is hard not to contemplate dastardly doings if, like me, a city of Sydney ratepayer, you’ve had to sit through a commercial for the new cycleways at your local cinema.

The movie-style clip showed three pretty young women happily cycling past shops, chatting away on their cutely decorated bikes.

It was 60 seconds long and it seemed interminable.

It also contained no information.

Its only purpose was to promote cycling and the cycle-ways – and to waste my money.

ARE WE THE BADDIES?

Now imagine that things get so blurry you don’t even know whether you’re a goodie or a baddie anymore.

'2012