Confounded by pranksters and journalists

Increasingly, the journalism delivered to Australians is a product of stunts and the fantasies of media managers – and that’s as true of political coverage as it is of the comings and goings of celebrities.

More than enough has been said about the prank, much more than enough. Not just on social media where the furious and the frustrated, the malevolent and the powerless seem to reside in such great numbers. Pity and fear is what they evoke, but not contempt. This is reserved for the hypocrites and cynics of what is laughingly referred to nowadays as the mainstream media.

They have no shame, especially those who run and write for the British tabloids. They exhibit, many of them, one of the key characteristics of sociopaths: an inability to empathise with other human beings. Their supposed empathy is a confection and sick-making at best.

It is transparently cynical. All the vilest characteristics of this form of British journalism have been on display this past week. There’s no point, surely, in rehearsing the details of their behaviour. It’s much of a muchness with what has been standard practice for these journalists for a very long time.

Australian journalists have not yet descended to this level of shameless cynicism, but there has been much about the extent and tone of the coverage of the prank and its aftermath that has been exploitative, thoughtless and mawkishly cynical.

The commentary on the ABC of a Melbourne media academic who apparently was a journalist for 25 years before she retired to the university, illustrates the bewilderment of some journalists and media commentators in the face of changes that the digital revolution has wrought, changes that have destroyed the careers of hundreds if not thousands of journalists.

This academic argued that the prank by the two presenters was so egregious, such a breach of ACMA rules that their station’s licence should be revoked. When asked what rules had actually been breached, she couldn’t say. But something had to be done. Something drastic. And anyway, she said, these presenters aren’t journalists. They are entertainers, the implication being I suppose, that journalists would never behave this way.

This of course is laughable. There has been far more egregious behaviour and speech by several commercial radio hosts that went more or less unpunished than the behaviour of the two 2DayFM presenters. In one case in particular, it could be argued, the presenters' behaviour and speech had dire consequences. This call for the revoking of 2DayFM’s licence feels like little more than a knee-jerk response to the war being waged against the presenters and the radio station on Twitter and Facebook. Not to mention the British tabloids and sections of the Australian media.

As for who is a journalist and who is an entertainer, the question is increasingly meaningless. In the digital age, everyone is a journalist and everyone wants to be an entertainer. When journalists use Twitter or Facebook and garner thousands of followers, are they journalists when they are dressed in their social media outfits?

When journalists and media academics become involved in petitions – for instance to get Alan Jones off air – are they being journalists or social activists, players in the politics of what is acceptable behaviour and acceptable speech? There was a time when journalists accepted the rather quaint notion that they should have no political affiliations or connections and should definitely not be involved in campaigns – social, political, environmental – that they might have to cover.

(There was even a rule once upon a time that in the interests of reporting being seen to be fair and objective, journalists who become political advisors should spend a considerable time excluded from a return to journalism when they finish up their time as political flacks. But that’s another story.)

We are probably past the point where there is a workable definition of what is a journalist and what is journalism. If that is right, there will soon be no ethical standards that govern journalism and journalists. That is one consequence of the digital revolution. There are no ethics and no real consequences for appalling behaviour when it comes to social media.

What’s more, the so-called mainstream media is in such dire straits that increasingly, only journalism that is inexpensive – that can be produced quickly – is actually practised. Of course the 24/7 news cycle doesn’t help. Increasingly, the journalism delivered to Australians is a product of stunts and the fantasies of media managers – and that’s as true of political coverage as it is of the comings and goings of celebrities.

In this context, there will be a federal election next year. The last federal election campaign was not exactly memorable or edifying. In the main, the politicians should shoulder a significant amount of blame. But we journalists cannot consider ourselves blameless. One reason why the campaign was so woeful was that there was a failure on the part of senior journalists to find ways around the stunt-meisters and talking point mavens to properly and relentlessly interrogate Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott and the rest of the political class and insist on substance and accountability.

In the main, the Canberra heavy hitters covered the campaign from a distance. They were not out on the road. They gave up one of the fundamental pre-requisites of good journalism, which is relentless reporting. Not just of polls and leaks and off the record briefings, but of what was happening out there in the electorate, at every shopping centre stunt, every fake barbecue, every staged small business visit. And the goal of all this reporting should have been to force a break from the talking points and the endless stunts.

In a sense, the most consequential – and certainly the most memorable – journalism of the 2010 election campaign was the reporting of leaks involving damaging claims about positions Gillard had taken in Kevin Rudd’s Cabinet on a range of sensitive issues. Nothing wrong with that and any journalist would have been delighted to be a recipient of such leaks during a campaign.

But it is significant that the most consequential journalism of the 2010 campaign was the reporting of a leak from somewhere in the Labor Party that was designed to do Gillard and Labor serious damage.

Like most of what passes for a major event, the prank call and its tragic – but wholly unintended and unforeseen – consequences will be forgotten soon enough. But what was revealed about the state of journalism should not be forgotten, not by journalists anyway. Then again, that might be just wishful thinking.