Death as a public spectacle

Images of death and dying hang over parliament and anonymous sources say media laws could be the final nail in Julia Gillard’s coffin. But debate over the laws, on both sides, has completely ignored the media's own crisis.

What a hoot it has been in Canberra this week. And it’s not over yet. By week’s end, Stephen Conroy’s media laws will most likely be dead and buried. So too might the Gillard government.

First up, we had those slightly pompous media executives who appeared before the two Senate committees examining Conroy’s media laws.

Described as media barons by some journalists, most of them of course are nothing of the kind. Kerry Stokes might be heading towards media baron status, but the rest of them? It’s interesting that Stokes was the mildest in his response to Conroy’s proposed media laws.

It has become a cliché to say that newspapers and commercial free to air television – and commercial television journalism – is in crisis but it’s nevertheless true. There was of course no recognition of this fact from any of the media executives who travelled to Canberra to trash Conroy’s so-called reforms, a trashing that was well deserved.

A bit of humility from these men – they were all men – might have been in order. A public recognition that journalism is facing many challenges – okay, for commercial reasons, they could not use the word crisis – might have been appropriate. Perhaps even an admission that the level of community trust in mainstream commercial journalism might need to be addressed and might be a continuing issue as journalism companies downsize. In other words, sack journalists.

At a time when anyone with an internet connection can set themselves up as a journalist, about the only thing, in the medium and long term, that mainstream commercial journalism has going for it is that it can be trusted, that it has standards to which it adheres. Why not say that? Why not set out what these companies are doing to shore up trust in their journalism?

But no, there was none of this. Instead we were treated to the spectacle of a bunch of media executives disguised as Voltaire or John Stuart Mill defending freedom against the forces of authoritarianism. Nothing wrong with our journalism, they argued. It’s the only thing defending us against a return to the dark ages.

I imagine that back in their newsrooms, now more than ever an environment suffused with uncertainty and paranoia, with journalists wondering who would be next to face redundancy, this spectacle may not have been all that well received.

But in a newsroom environment like this, who’s going to publicly declare that trust in journalism is a real issue? Who is going to say that perhaps each media company needs to examine ways of ensuring that its journalism meets the standards each media company has set for itself?

None of this means that Conroy’s proposed media laws deserved to be treated with great respect, let alone be passed. It is breathtaking that after two lengthy inquiries, after two years of debate over these issues, Conroy, with the support of Julia Gillard, could only produce this dog's breakfast of media regulation and expect it to be passed in a great hurry because Conroy wants to establish his legacy – giving News Limited a black eye – before the government loses the next election.

Apart from anything else, Neither Conroy nor Gillard seem to understand that journalism is in crisis, and that the best they can do is ensure that the ABC is properly funded and perhaps even consider ways to fund – not media companies – but journalism, in the way the government funds the arts.

Nor does there seem to be any recognition of the fact that the time to do something about media concentration has more or less passed. The idea that Murdoch, for instance, could be forced to divest himself of some of the News Limited newspapers in the name of less concentration is a pipedream.

Who would buy the lossmaking Australian for instance? Or some of the struggling tabloids? The greatest threat right now to diversity is that the Fairfax metropolitan mastheads might not survive in print for very much longer, which, whatever way you look at it, would mean less diversity and fewer 'voices’ in Australian journalism.

Meanwhile, almost at the same time as the media executives were performing their circus act before those Senate committees, the Canberra press gallery was helping to dig the grave for the architects of the media laws that had caused their bosses to express such passionate outrage.

This is not to say for a moment that press gallery journalists were somehow doing the bidding of their bosses. No, that can be dismissed absolutely. Still, it was one of those coincidences which, if one had the mind to do so – and some people undoubtedly have such a mind – could be seen to be pregnant with conspiratorial possibilities.

What can be said though is that the Canberra press gallery is pursuing the Gillard-is-gone story with great vigor and they explain their dogged and determined pursuit of the story of Gillard’s imminent political death by quoting, mostly anonymously, caucus members who reckon the Conroy media laws debacle might well be the last nail in Gillard’s political coffin.

Yes, there’s a lot of death and dying imagery around. We must take it on trust when journalists tell us that the Rudd numbers are going up by the hour, that Rudd probably has a majority of caucus on his side now and that Gillard’s prime ministership is now an hour-to-hour proposition.

We must take it on trust because it is now an established convention in political journalism, that anonymity is granted to virtually any politician who wants to say something provocative. The consequence of this is that journalists become players and politicians who use the cover of anonymity to advance their position, or to simply vent, are never held to account for what they say.

This week, The Sydney Morning Herald’s Peter Hartcher reported that Foreign Minister Bob Carr had deserted Gillard and was telling caucus colleagues that he had lost confidence in her leadership. This story was splashed on the front page of the Herald and The Age. Big story.

Carr subsequently emphatically denied the story, said he remained a Gillard supporter and was equally emphatic that he had not discussed his 'disillusionment’ with Gillard with any caucus colleagues. Carr repeated all this several times. And he said that had he been contacted before the story ran, he would have told Hartcher that he remained a Gillard supporter.

Hartcher responded by essentially saying that Carr was lying. He might be right. But he did not explain why he had not contacted Carr on this story and why he had not given Carr the opportunity to deny that he had deserted Gillard.

Hartcher could still have run with the story but at least his readers would have known that Carr rejected, publicly, what some caucus colleagues – anonymously – were saying about him.

The use of anonymous sources is a real issue in journalism. Used too often or too indiscriminately, it can lead to an increasing distrust of journalists, a sense among readers and viewers that journalists are players in the political game, and that politicians are getting away with telling lies and that only the insiders really know what’s going on. And they are not telling anyone.

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