December 2006 - January 2007

Essays

David Salter

Media circus

Disconnect in the fourth estate

The media in Australia have become seriously unhinged. Television, especially commercial current-affairs television, is losing whatever small sense of proportion it once possessed. Newspapers and talkback radio pursue shallow forms of populism where the assumed political centre has been nudged so far to the right of the soup spoon that any deviation from the mainstream is reflexively branded "un-Australian". The internet descends into an unnavigable swamp of blogdom and crass home videos. Vast acreages of our Fourth Estate are now an unweeded garden. Things rank and gross grow there.

IT'S TIME YOU WERE TOLD THE TRUTH! fumed 60 Minutes, teasing their version of the New Guinea cannibal saga. If it's finally time for the truth, what was all that other stuff you've been telling us?

GIVE GERMAINE A GOBFULL! urged the Daily Telegraph, after Greer's critique of the late Steve Irwin. The newspaper helpfully published her agent's number, suggesting readers phone in their fury.

HAS REALITY TV GONE TOO FAR? asked a promo for A Current Affair, directing its question at the perceived ethical shortcomings of a rival program. The answer, remarkably, was "maybe".

And it's not only the commercial media organisations that seem to be losing their grip on reality. The ABC's recently rewritten Editorial Policies document warns that, "Staff involved in satirical content need to consider the potential for satire to cause harm to groups or individuals." Er, yes - there wouldn't be much point to satire otherwise. (The ABC axed The Glass House anyway.)

Why do our media organisations now seem so close to unravelling? It's always tempting to search for grand themes that offer a convenient, catch-all explanation. The truth is more complex and scattered. We've come to a point where a handful of powerful yet disconnected impulses are tugging the media in different directions. The brash, self-regarding confidence that characterised so much of Australia's print and electronic output has largely evaporated. The old swagger is gone.

New technology undermines the media's poise because few local editors and producers understand it. The newspapers' embrace of the www world was motivated more by fear of being left behind than by any genuine expectation of journalistic improvements or expansion. Their rush to re-version themselves on the internet came largely without a workable strategic plan as to how the two forms would then support each other as businesses. The more prominent writers were given blogs on which to blather, adding to their workload without adding to the number of people willing to pay cash for a daily newspaper.

Commercial television fears everyone else. Ever so slowly, its audience is seeping away to other forms of communication and entertainment. The many niche channels on pay-TV threaten the networks' audience reach and advertising share; broadcast technology gallops ahead of free-to-air's capacity to adapt. So far, the companies' response has been to use the immense political clout they've accumulated since 1956 to ensure that, whatever might lie over the digital horizon, no government musters the courage to dismantle their monopoly. For its part, pay-TV worries that the growth in subscribers has slowed, while the cost of delivering the service keeps climbing. After ten years, Foxtel has finally crept into modest profit but, divided between Packer, Murdoch and Telstra, the surplus would barely pay for a decent weekend of polo.

Nervousness and insecurity breed weak judgment and anguished introspection. There's been a parallel tone of strident, almost hectoring journalism that reveals a crisis of confidence. This has expressed itself in the bizarre new levels of competitive frenzy within the television industry, and in the newspapers' persistent delusions of editorial grandeur and influence. Australia's media have managed the extraordinary trick of being off the deep end and up themselves at the same time.

Case in point: the national rate of HIV infection is at its highest level in ten years. But when it came to reporting these horrifying results, the ‘journal of record' broadsheets reduced the story to a few short pars. They devoted far more space - on the same day - to celebrating the nominations of their own staff for Walkley Awards. Self-praise effortlessly outweighed the obligation to give significant news the prominence it deserved.

That disproportion is magnified even further when media organisations report on each other. In June, the News and Current Affairs boss at Nine, Mark Llewellyn, became collateral damage in the vicious crossfire between PBL capos John Alexander and Sam Chisholm. In any other industry, the demise of an executive of equivalent rank would merit no more than 100 words in the business section, yet the manner and detail of Llewellyn's passing were treated as front-page news for days. The text of his leaked affidavit - including the notorious "boning" reference - was treated as the literal truth, even though his verbatim account of life inside the PBL palace had never been tested in court. Once again, the media's weakness for prurience overcame the professional scepticism that the public has a right to expect of its brave seekers-after-truth.


The recent changes to media law were never about access, diversity or the multiple opportunities of digital transmission. They were always about money, and lots of it. From the grave, Kerry Packer finally cashed in on the surprising public endorsement he'd given John Howard before the 1996 election. (Packer invited himself onto A Current Affair to tell Ray Martin that the Opposition leader was a decent fellow who deserved his chance at running the country. It can be handy owning your own network.) And what was the first major response to the new rules? James Packer and his private-equity allies performed a thimble-and-pea trick that gave PBL an extra $4.5 billion to invest in Asian gambling, or to buy whatever slices of the local print pie they fancy. The prime minister dismissed Rupert Murdoch picking up a 7% seat at the Fairfax table as "just a strategic investment". With even greater insouciance, communications minister Helen Coonan labelled the takeover whirlwind she'd unleashed as simply "some positioning". Like the mongoose positioning itself beside the snake.

All but forgotten during these blizzards of speculation over how the ‘media landscape' will look after the dust has settled was a quiet, decisive and cashed-up young man with a natural talent for the media business, and newspapers in particular. His name is Lachlan Murdoch. While Coonan skirmished with fractious Nationals, Murdoch the younger was a thousand miles north, racing his 80-foot yacht in the Whitsunday Islands. Meanwhile, his premises in inner Sydney are fitted out, furnished and ready for action. The market would be foolish to overlook the capacity of the son of the Sun King to start building a corporate fortress to challenge his father's.

Murdoch Jnr may already have a Mata Hari in the enemy camp. His wife, Sarah, a former model, is the summer-cum-confinement fill-in on Nine's Today Show (replacing yet another former model, the as-yet-unboned Jessica Rowe). Such a public intermingling of media families would have been unthinkable before Kerry Packer's demise, but James has a notorious weakness for models and sustains a polite friendship with Lachlan that has lasted at least a decade. These offspring of robber-barons are far too clever to continue the fierce old-technology turf wars of their fathers.


The Howard years have had a long-term impact on the media that is far more dispiriting than the sordid spectacle of politicians dumping unearned billions into the moguls' pockets. The dominant leitmotiv of Coalition politics is its pervading resort to artfully engineered divisiveness. That technique has now infected the language and story choices of daily journalism. The most obvious expression of this automatic us-or-them standpoint is the unchecked ugliness of commercial-television current affairs. Like the calculating wedge-meisters who feed Howard and his ministers their targeted lines, Today Tonight and A Current Affair now deal almost exclusively in attacks on a nameless "they": WHAT THEY WON'T TELL YOU ABOUT BANK FEES! THE DEADLY THINGS THEY PUT IN OUR FOOD! THEY WON'T LET YOU FLY THE AUSSIE FLAG ON YOUR OWN HOME! These aggressive haikus of Orwellian prejudice outnumber the traditional current-affairs staples of miracle slimming creams, uncontrollable toddlers, uplift wonder bras and those neighbours from hell.

This Witches of Salem approach now takes the form of SMS polls. IS JOANNE LEES INNOCENT OF HER BOYFRIEND'S MURDER? we were asked (she was never charged with it, but no matter), turning tabloid television into a forum for instant thumbs-up/thumbs-down justice. What's generally overlooked is that such polls are yet another revenue-raising scam. Charges to register a vote will commonly total more than a dollar; the audience's money is shared between the television network and the phone carriers. It's a nice little earner: income generation dressed up as participatory democracy.

A more subtle form of this wedge journalism is surfacing in the serious press, often disguised as ‘investigative' reporting. WHAT THEY'RE TEACHING OUR KIDS was a recent page-three headline in an otherwise sober broadsheet. The newspaper had swallowed whole the decline-in-standards tosh peddled by the claque of federal ministers all trying to ambush the state Labor governments, while painting themselves as the humble representatives of ‘concerned parents'. The prime minister set this flywheel spinning on radio by describing the states' public-school curricula as "incomprehensible sludge". Much of the media unquestioningly (and, in many cases, enthusiastically) accepted that language as setting a new and reasonable framework for the ignorant alarmism and name-calling that followed.

It's not just the goalposts that can be moved so cunningly through this lack of rigour, but the whole playing field. Politicians need little encouragement to exploit an opportunity. The next day, education minister Julie Bishop saw a Maoist in every classroom, and even the broadsheets declined to directly challenge her Cold War paranoia. The Australian then obligingly front-paged a South Australian education union's journal article which had noted that Cuba's public-education system has well-trained teachers, is free to all, maintains small class sizes and produces a 100% literacy rate. Shock! Horror! Surely this confirms Bishop's claim that evil Maoist ideologues have colonised the curriculum? It escaped the tut-tutting editorialists that the teaching model in Cuba is very similar to the 3Rs pedagogy they so loudly lament has been abandoned by our subversive collectives of ‘Left-liberal' educators.


Nowhere has the federal government worked harder to impose its political will on the media than at the ABC, the only conglomerate funded entirely from the public purse. Previous prime ministers have treated the ABC boardroom as a convenient place to park loyalists owed favours or rewards, but John Howard is no sentimentalist; he's a strategic hater. His absolute power over these appointments has been methodically used to create a board of conservative activists, each sent to Ultimo with the tacit brief of expunging the ‘leftist' culture hiding behind Aunty's skirt.

By mid-2006, he'd completed this vision splendid by appointing as directors Ron Brunton and Keith Windschuttle, those fierce public critics of the ABC, to sit alongside the neo-con News Limited columnist Janet Albrechtsen. She was already hard at work urging cultural change within the corporation. Mark Scott, a one-time Liberal staffer with no broadcasting experience, was then appointed managing director. The Coalition further underlined its determination to purge the ABC of dissent by ramming through an amendment to the Broadcasting Act that abolished the position of staff-elected director. This goes far beyond the stacking or de-stacking of the board: it's an unblushing proclamation that the government believes overt political manipulation of the ABC is its right.

Not long after, the new managing director broke cover, pointedly choosing Gerard Henderson's Sydney Institute to make his first major public appearance. (Henderson is himself a former Liberal staffer, and one of the ABC's most dogged conservative critics.) Scott used his speech to announce a distinct change of editorial direction. Henceforth, the national broadcaster is to openly embrace populism: "We have to serve all the public," he declared, "not just those who would come to the ABC for comfort or confirmation." He committed the public broadcaster to deal with "things that matter for all Australians". The message was clear, but just how this new inclusiveness is to be achieved was left unsaid.

It was a mistake for Scott to title his address ‘The Editorial Values of the ABC'. In the current political climate, adopting the V-word without qualification aligned him with the ruck of Coalition frontbenchers who have repeatedly used that term to bludgeon the Opposition over its nationalist credentials. But the most ominous development in Scott's ABC is the creation of yet another content Gauleiter, a highly paid director of editorial polices. "Values" appeared, yet again, in the recent advertisements for the position. This new Kultur-Kommissar, who reports directly to the managing director, will presumably prowl the corridors of Ultimo and Southbank policing "editorial compliance".


When Eddie McGuire, the relentlessly ambitious footy caller and former quizmaster was summoned to greatness as the new boss of Nine, many industry observers felt he was being set up to fail. So far, McGuire hasn't disappointed them: Nine has had a difficult year, and McGuire still looks a lot like Mr Ed the Talking Corpse. But on a base annual salary of $4 million, a man can afford to die slowly.

In truth, death has been very good to the network ever since Nine grabbed squatter's rights over the Beaconsfield mine drama. Eddie Everywhere had himself pictured shouting the bar at the local pub, and then couldn't resist hosting the contrived "special" that wrung every last ratings point from the miners' rescue. The unfortunate little matter of their mate's earlier death underground was relegated to mawkish afterthought. Meanwhile, Richard Carleton, pursuing the mine management over their apparent negligence, was felled by a heart attack after asking a characteristically tough question from the rear of the media scrum.

Carleton was one of their own, so his commemoration needed to be handled with reserve. Steve Irwin, on the other hand, was working-class Australiana - commercial-television heartland - and his beatification began before the cadaver was cold. No recent death has better illustrated the unbridled mythmaking power of the media. Celebrity sentimentality sells newspapers and piles on viewers, so the tabloids and commercial networks whipped each other into a frenzy of cloying adulation. Few had the nerve to point out that Irwin and his family were entertainers, not naturalists.


Those with a strong interest in the content of our quality media often forget that, with the exception of the ABC, everything is a business. Their favourite broadsheet is a profit centre first, and a newspaper second; the only page traditionally free of ads is the one carrying editorials and letters. Even earnest old granny Fairfax, the dowager queen of Spencer Street and Darling Park, is a tart at heart: once we're past the op-ed spread, money is usually piping whatever tune the advertisers wish to hear. Supplements are by far the most profitable way of riding piggyback on a broadsheet's circulation and high-end demographics, so newspapers now devote at least half their journalistic and production resources to these lift-out titles.

Wish, the 94-page glossy magazine of luxury consumer porn given away monthly with the Australian, has just celebrated its first birthday. Crammed with full-page ads for diamond-encrusted fountain pens, 50-foot yachts and $400,000 Ferraris, it is a discomforting reminder that today's executive remuneration packages make these baubles affordable to many of the magazine's window shoppers. And despite the high production costs, the magazine apparently pays its own way.

The same can't be said for the Australian's new monthly Literary Review. Its front cover acknowledges the "co-operation" of the University of Melbourne, Melbourne University Publishing, the federal government and the Australia Council. On 30 June this year, News Corporation had declared assets of US$57 billion and annual revenues of US$25 billion, but the company's not embarrassed to put out its hand for a bit of cultural-subsidy socialism on behalf of the literati.


Much of the media's 2006 passed as a cascade of increasingly grotesque vignettes. Kerry Stokes squandering squillions suing everyone else over the inevitable failure of C7, his long-forgotten pay-TV sports channel. A Current Affair, falling with bloody-toothed glee on the body of their previous boss, Peter Meakin: NEXT, THE RESPECTED TELEVISION EXECUTIVE WHO'S BEEN CAUGHT DRINK-DRIVING! ("Respected television executive"? Surely an oxymoron.) Sol Trujillo and his Telstra gang mooching around the country, trying to convince institutional investors that the lumbering telco's future lies in downloading snippets of television onto mobile phones. (Meanwhile, everyone is buying a bigger plasma screen and a six-speaker sound system in the search for a "cinema-quality experience".) And everywhere, the intelligence insult of galumphing literalism. For the final week of September, 60 Minutes began their promos with a booming voice-over that told us all to WATCH CLOSELY. LISTEN VERY CAREFULLY. (Whatever you say, James, but do we really have any other option?)

If there is a single, underlying theme to this extraordinary year for the media, then it's a strong sense of disconnect. The established continuities seem to have been shattered by the ferocity of competition and a fear that the conventional media may soon be overwhelmed by new technology. Lost among these insecurities is the confidence and authority that flowed from stable corporate structures and dependable profits. Instead, everything is ‘in play'. Many of our major media companies are now managed by people with no background in journalism or broadcasting; the boards to which they answer often have even less knowledge of the media game. We should not be surprised that these increasingly wobbly foundations are reflected in the material we consume every day.

Cover: December 2006 - January 2007
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