Sydney Writers’ Festival 2012: “Can’t be that hard”

Taking its inspiration from Julie Gillard’s admonishment to journalists at the National Press Club last year: “Don’t write crap. Can’t be that hard.”, this event, chaired by the host of the ABC’s Insiders program, Barrie Cassidy, brought together a number of well respected media veterans to discuss the extent to which the media bears responsibility for the state of contemporary political culture.

An absence of leadership
Peter Hartcher, the Political and International Editor with The Sydney Morning Herald, began proceedings by saying he doesn’t believe that the blame lies primarily with the media having a negative effect on politics, but rather that politics has brought about its own decline thanks to the quality of leadership provided by our politicians in recent times.

“My view on the story so far is that what we have is not so much a break in the political culture as of leadership.”

He put forward the view that what ails the Australian political system the most at the moment is less lack of oversight by the media, and more the loss of first class political leadership, which he believes the nation enjoyed under Hawke/Keating and then Howard/Costello. These governments of differing political stripes took on “difficult and unpopular reform tasks not because they had to, but because they thought it was important.” This once hearty appetite for reform was most noticeably absent in the current era during the 2010 federal election when no ambitious reforms were announced by either political party leading the Australian electorate to vote for, in Hartcher’s words, “neither of the above”.

He went on to ask if the media are in any way responsible for this current waning state of political affairs. While he acknowledged that the media’s faults are many, and any accusations levelled against it are likely warranted, he credits the Australian public with being bright enough to see beyond the media’s faults and flaws and “respond to the big, important developments”.

We’re all consuming luncheon meat
While Annabel Crabb, the ABC’s chief online political writer, and sometime host of The Drum on News24, agrees that politics is a lot messier and scrappier than it once was, she believes greater blame should be laid at the foot of the current communications revolution, which has brought a massive deregulation of the old system where people were limited to sourcing their news via a few channels. Contrast this with 2012 where we have access to “all sorts of outlets”. She said that journalists are notoriously bad at planning ahead, so haven’t reacted appropriately to these changes, and have “kept ploughing on while the entire world changed around us”.

“What the new regime means is that we’re madly producing content all the time…when you change deadlines like that, it really changes the way news works. A story that might have lasted all day in the old system now lasts two hours and everyone is looking around for something new. And politicians experience life differently as a result.”

She reasoned that with politicians being called upon more and more to provide commentary for the voracious maw of the needy modern news cycle, they are resorting to actually saying less and less to “avoid getting into trouble”.

“You end up with this reconstituted language that has the consistency of luncheon meat.”

RIP fact-based journalism?
While Lachlan Harris, former senior press secretary to Kevin Rudd and media commentator, agrees that there has been an extraordinary growth in media channels in this decade, he says it has been accompanied by a decline in the practice of old-fashioned hard-hitting journalism.

“Journalism, as in news-based, fact-based journalism, is actually disappearing for most people.”

He maintains that what we are getting instead of facts is opinion, which he says “is not really news at all… it’s a very frightening phenomenon.”

George Megalogenis agreed with this assertion, arguing that the internet revolution is affecting the ability of traditional news sources to practice fact-based journalism because the old revenue streams that used to fund it have dried up. With so many new disruptive media outlets competing for peoples’ attention, opinion is winning out over objective fact-based journalism, and politicians are responding to the voracious demands on this new media environment by being ever more careful about what they say.

He believes both camps have become “fractious” in their own ways and are reacting to the fragmentation of their traditional bases of support in ways that indicate “neither of us know what we’re doing”.

Things aren’t what they used to be
Malcolm Turnbull, the Liberal member for the Federal seat of Wentworth in Sydney and the shadow minister for communications and broadband, backed what Lachlan and George said, stressing that “the digital age, the internet age, has absolutely shattered the business model of newspapers”. He maintains that it is the newspapers, chief among all the traditional media entities, that have been responsible for the sort of fact-based journalism that is now in decline, and it is also newspapers that have suffered most at the hands of the still-emerging communications revolution.

The only media group that has a chance of stepping into the breach now that the investigative power of the newspapers has been decimated is the ABC because it is government funded and isn’t hostage to the same ups and downs of revenue as private media companies.

But he believes that the media and politicians have a shared responsibility to make sure that their readers and constituents, who are after all one and the same, receive the sort of news and information that will allow them to make informed choices. While he jokingly referenced Annabel’s comment about “luncheon meat” by saying to her that “I guess you’ll stop writing luncheon meat if we stop talking crap”, he made the serious point that democracy depends very much on this free flow of ideas and that this is being impaired, not enhanced, by the rapid changes afoot in the digital age. This is primarily because “print dollars are being exchanged for digital dimes” in American parlance, and the media outlets, as noted by Harris and Megalogenis before him, don’t have the resources to keep politics as accountable as they once could.

Fragmented opinions and non-existent facts
This has led to the already noted rise in opinion-based journalism which often reflects less the facts of a situation than someone’s take on the issue, which by necessity in an age where you almost have to shout to be heard, is sensationalist rather than a sober-recounting of what actually took place. He noted:

“It is much easier and cheaper to pay someone to sit at home and knock out a column than actually have a team of journalists going out to do some work, research and analysis.”

But far more worrying in Turnbull’s eyes is the fact that the proliferation of new media outlets, a point echoed by Annabel Crabb, is the fragmentation of news consumption. People increasingly are reading only what they want to read, or only watching channels that cater to their political beliefs, such as the Fox News Network (which has capitalised on this trend by appealing to right-leaning voters), which means that the political climate and debate is becoming increasingly polarised. While Turnbull doesn’t believe we are as far down that road as the Americans, he believes we have lost that communal spirit of political understanding and discourse that underpinned our democracy up to this point.

“We are no longer having the same common experience where we are all essentially watching, well not all of us, most of us, are watching the same general account of the day’s affairs. In other words, people are listening to the outlets that agree with their own particular point of view so you get… a rush to the edges and the extremes.”

While Peter Hartcher agreed that there has been some fragmenting of media consumption in this country, he doesn’t believe that the effect on Australian politics will be as dire as it has been in the United States. He pointed to two key structural differences between the USA and Australia – we have compulsory voting as well as seats boundaries set by a non-partisan commission, which means that our politics is more likely to swing to the centre than the extremes.

Lachlan Harris disagreed with this saying that media outlets are creating a “sense of crisis” to make sure people read their web sites, or watch their shows. While he agreed it was an evolving phenomenon, he believes that this rush to give people what they want to read and hear is going to “push us right to the edge” and we will head in the US direction as we lose a shared media experience.

While there were some additional points raised about the way in which anonymous sources are corrupting journalistic ideals, and the way in which the media might unduly influence the political process, the main area of the panel discussion centred on the fact that we are in a brave, new and uncertain age where the old rules that governed the media and politics have changed beyond all recognition. Neither the media or politicians are completely sure about  how to react to these changed circumstances but one thing everyone agreed on was that things would sort themselves out eventually, as they always do when the brash new kid on the block upsets the established order of things.

This article first appeared on writingbar.

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