It is funny the way some phrases stick in your mind and become part of a personal lexicon. One of my favourites was a line by the German communications scholar Michael Kunczik, who described the role of the media as ‘the feedback mechanism in democratic system management’.
It is not a very elegant phrase, but it appealed to me. The notion of reducing the messiness of the interaction between the media and democracy, between journalists, media owners, politicians and citizens to something akin to a flow chart from an expensive consultancy report struck me as almost amusingly German. High-minded, yet mechanical.
This phrase was serviceable in the days of the mass media, but journalism has changed and with it the reliability of the feedback mechanism. It was useful to help justify a role for an industry that had a uniquely privileged position in public life at a time when communications scholars were grappling for a place in the social sciences, journalists were becoming more assertive about their professionalism, and media companies were starting to become truly global conglomerates of extraordinary commercial (and by extension, political) power.
Kunczik used the phrase in the 1980s to contrast the journalism undertaken in many developing countries, where there was limited commitment to well-informed citizens or freedom of speech. At the time media companies in most developed democracies still accepted that they needed to operate with ‘social responsibility’. At best this fostered watchdog journalism and at worst a bland blanket of ‘he said she said’ reporting. It was a time when radio and television were subject to stringent licence renewal processes and enforceable requirements to operate with ‘fairness’. It was a time when massive profits were normal, and the media business created extraordinary wealth and family dynasties and, because of the nature of the business, exercised political influence of which others could only dream.
This was in the days before deregulation, before the internet, before media business models started collapsing and the rationale for licences virtually imploded as scarcity gave way to glut and self-interest trumped almost everything. While purporting to be a description, Kunczik’s phrase was aspirational. It recast other favourites from my lexicon: of nineteenth-century editor George Reeve, who described the way the press intruded itself into the political process, to become a quasi-institutional Fourth Estate, and ‘created the wont which it supplied’ and a young Rupert Murdoch, who argued in 1963 for a return to Fourth Estate principles but asked, ‘what right have we to speak in the public interest when, too often, we are motivated by personal gain’.
While the media companies, for commercial reasons, and journalists, for reasons of professional pride, cling to the ideal of being the ‘public sphere’s pre-eminent institution’, its continuing relevance needs to be interrogated. This is not because of the proliferation of new distribution platforms. The old ways of the news business, in which local media companies were such profitable and powerful entities that they both influenced public life and were insulated from its pressures, are rapidly eroding. The media is now a weaker watchdog, one that rarely barks, but its routines have infected public life, creating a new game of gotcha politics. While there is still some power in being a scarecrow, powerful institutions and individuals are smarter and hungrier than crows, and the public knows a scarecrow when it sees one.
Most public discussion about news media futures revolves around the need to find new business models to rebuild the profitability that insulates and empowers, and makes it possible to subsidise critical journalism, whatever platform it is published on. Beyond the article of faith that attaches to the value of journalistic scrutiny—the importance of speaking truth to power, defining news as something that someone doesn’t want published—the more complex institutional question, about the best way of achieving independent scrutiny to ensure a robust democratic system, goes unasked.
The fundamental issue is whether the feedback mechanism or the democratic system has broken, or does damage to one fatally weaken the other? This has elements of the proverbial chicken and egg dilemma. There are plenty of public figures ready to argue that the news media’s increasingly desperate quest for audiences has meant that ‘tabloid hysteria has infected politics’.
For instance in the last week of June 2015 former prime minister Julia Gillard maintained that there is something uniquely Australian in the relentless media speculation about leadership and this more than anything else destabilised political parties; former British high commissioner in Australia Dame Helen Little argued that the ‘viciousness of the press has undermined the political system’; and former MP Cheryl Kernot said she believes ‘there is no safe place to discuss what is important any more because someone will always leak to the media’.
On the other hand the routines of political life and the readiness of politicians to close down debate with snappy lines, such as Prime Minister Abbott’s admonition of the ABC, suggesting it had betrayed the nation by providing a platform to Zaky Mallah on Q&A, leave journalists chasing their tail. As renowned US journalist Daniel Schorr famously said of President Nixon’s Watergate defence, ‘If you can discredit the press, you don’t need to take notice of anything they say.’
As befits any symbiotic relationship, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that both the system and its feedback mechanism are falling short. The public has lost trust in the parliament, political parties and the media; politicians and journalists have rarely garnered much public confidence. Essential Poll’s June 2015 survey had each of these institutions with trust figures well below 30 per cent and falling. That is a fragile base for a robust political system that depends on clear communication and active interrogation.
There are three sets of questions that need to be asked: one about the robust-ness of the ties between our democratic system and the media; another about the range of oversight now provided by regulatory organisations, and the increasing importance of internet-enabled informal and dispersed activism, and whether this has displaced the media as the principal watchdog; and the third about the role and trajectory, and democratic and institutional capacity, of social media and the new digital tools at its disposal.
Has the symbiotic relationship between electoral politics and a media that provides the information necessary for informed decisions and to hold power to account been broken, or just changed? Has the self-interest of the media companies distorted their ability to act as a quasi-institution? Is the news media the best way of providing such scrutiny, or is it an artefact of another time? Can a mass media, with independent journalism at its heart, be revived?
With a proliferation of independent statutory agencies, monitoring, regulating and overseeing the operation of key institutions of public life, what can journalism bring to the mix, beyond reporting what these agencies do? Can informal networks of activists and citizens effectively monitor and hold the political system to account?
Are crowds always right or can they degenerate into mobs? Is social media able to carry the weight of becoming a quasi-institution? Is it even interested? How will this change political communication and public accountability? Will new means of subsidising journalism emerge to replace advertising?
As media companies struggle to find a business model that generates even a fraction of the profits they once took for granted, they find themselves with increasing desperation in a survivors’ race to the bottom. Even—or especially—for established news organisations, the challenge is to hold attention long enough to be noticed.
Journalists have sometimes seemed to take a perverse pride in being near the bottom of the scale of professional integrity, but the ‘journalism movement’ has worked hard to offset the negative with rhetorical assertions and occasional demonstrations of public good. Now the danger is looming irrelevance.
Meanwhile, as the political system anticipates and responds to the diminishing importance of established media pathways to reaching, informing and persuading the public, it has contorted itself into an almost unsustainable shape, leaving citizens increasingly cynical and detached. If Kunczik’s ‘feedback mechanism’ included an alarm it would be ringing loudly—with potentially dire consequences for the whole system.
In some ways this crisis resembles a category 5 cyclone, the one we tracked as it inexorably built momentum as it moved over warm waters, knowing that when it hit it would leave a swathe of destruction. And it did. Now it looks as though it is one of those storms that will double back on itself and produce even more damage.
This is not something that is confined to Australia; it is happening around the world, and with particular ferocity in English-language countries with a deep faith in the market. The authors of Columbia University’s Tow Center report Post-Industrial Journalism, for instance, do not pull their punches: ‘The effect of the current changes in the news ecosystem has already been a reduction in the quality of news … we are convinced that journalism in [the United States] will get worse before it gets better, and in some places (midsize and small cities with no daily paper) it will get markedly worse.’
The limits of an essentially unregulated market to provide a public good are becoming clearer here as well. Meanwhile the ubiquity of English-language content compounds the issue for Australians. We can gorge on cheap content from the most skilled and prolific producers in the world, and be satiated well before we realise it wasn’t about us. Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2015 suggested that Australians have turned off the soap opera of daily political news and overwhelmingly access international news. As Columbia University’s Professor Emily Bell noted, ‘Fragmentation of news provision, which weakens the bargaining power of news organisations, has coincided with a concentration of power in platforms.’ Most people have one or two ‘go to’ news providers, which they are most likely to access on their smart phones. In the new world of global brands Facebook, Apple and Google will very effectively distribute news from the BBC, the New York Times and the Guardian—and the local may just disappear.
For many decades Australia has had one of the most concentrated systems of media ownership in the Western world, one in which the owners became accustomed to exercising extraordinary political power. Policy changes to loosen the grip of the few companies that controlled the commercial news business had consequences that could not be anticipated, thanks to bad judgement, technology and market aggression, and concentration has not reduced. Arguably it has got worse, as Fairfax has weakened, News Corp has become more dominant, and now owns monopoly newspapers in four capital cities, significant interests in the suburban and regional newspaper markets, and radio networks. It seeks to consolidate its role in pay and free to air television, and is unapologetic in its determination to set agendas.
In the old mass-media days the concentration of ownership set communications scholars on a quest to prove the broader consequences of stories told and those that were neglected or biased; politicians bridled against unfair treatment and sought ways to work with and around the constraints of demanding owners and increasingly assertive reporters; journalists professionalised and grew in confidence; and from time to time the public rallied.
Even though ownership of the mainstream commercial media is as tightly controlled as ever, the potency has gone out of the issue: in our reflexive commit-ment to the market it has all just become too hard to intervene. While there is less table thumping than there once was, and several key dynasties have imploded or pursued other more lucrative fields, the power or threat of power is still real, helped in part by the lack of constraint that attached in the days of ‘social responsibility’, when licences could be revoked and the personal was generally off limits. As Blanche d’Alpuget said, ‘Bob [Hawke] would never have got to be prime minister had the media been as intrusive into his private life as they are now … He couldn’t have been … (because of) his drinking in particular, and his infidelity’ (Australian, 18 May 2015).
Strikingly at the time of writing in mid June 2015 it was reported that the communications minister, after nearly two years of consultation about a new media regulatory regime, had been given a prime ministerial dispensation to float a proposal (rather than present a submission) and see if the Cabinet had the stomach for media reforms that had split the industry. No doubt the excoriating, yet crude, treatment the previous government received when it suggested new regulations—the minister depicted as Hitler on the front page of the Daily Telegraph—was in mind when they decided to let the proposals go through to the keeper. The scarecrow can still be surprisingly scary.
In reality the economics of the business, given the size of the population and the cost of production, make it more fragile, despite the huff and puff. As recent studies of the impact of News Corp papers in western Sydney and Brisbane during elections have shown, there is almost no correlation between the sharply anti-Labor position and the outcome of the ballot. The pollies may be the last people to read these papers and take them seriously, certainly the Essential Poll shows that there is little public trust in them.
The news industry is now like a giant tree with weak roots in poor soil. It was once rich, but the failure to take tough decisions means it is not as resilient as it should be. One company, with an explicit agenda that it once tried to mask, produces most of the newspapers that, even if they are read by relatively few, influence the rest of the ecology as the often flamboyant way these papers treat stories itself becomes what passes for news. Those that remain share and recycle content to fill shrunken pages that inevitably become less comprehensive and influential as the traditional expertise that journalists and editors built by covering rounds gives way to saturation coverage of the surface; television and radio news has become even more formulaic; thousands of journalists have lost their jobs; and about 80 per cent of ‘news’ starts its life as public relations, framing questions and stories that churn and bubble online and on air.
As newspapers shrink, radio and television news is syndicated and commodity news becomes a free online product, Australian journalism is even more likely than American to get worse before it gets better. Now public relations firms and political advisers track the twittersphere, politicians play a game of switch and bait, journalists hanker after a golden age, technologists test ways of automating much of the news and the public glued to their many screens laugh, despair and share the occasional nugget.
The early promise of citizen journalism and technologically driven universal access to information has given way to a fearful and secretive public domain. The noise overwhelms us: immediate, breaking news, continuous live coverage, endless comment, reaction, opinion, self-promotion, rehearsed lines, questions that rarely cut through. Yakety yak.
Walter Lippmann once wrote that the news media could at best ‘signal events’. Even in the age of mass media, and notwithstanding extraordinary hubris, the idea of a news organisation holding a mirror that reflected the full complexity and diversity of a society was beyond even the most well-resourced or professional organisation. Now Lippmann’s signals fly like sparks from a grinding wheel—at best organised by hashtag, or carefully curated by trusted intermediaries, at worst an undifferentiated soup of unsubstantiated claims and counterclaims, rehearsed lines, calculated interventions and the occasional gotcha that hints at an underlying truth. It is a feedback mechanism cluttered with what Sean Kelly describes as ‘breaking news’ and opinion. The former prime ministerial press secretary wrote:
There were two simple ways of providing content. Opinions, as the saying goes, are like arseholes—everybody’s got one. So procuring opinions was not hard … The second simple way … was breaking ‘news’ … the threshold for actual news and breaking news is very, very different. For something to be news it must be important, have some bearing on our lives or our understanding of the world. For something to be breaking news it merely needs to have just happened. And once it’s happened, and been reported, and had the gloss of faux-importance applied, it’s time to call in the opinionistas to fill some space.1
In this environment the old rules of journalism—fairness, accuracy, impartiality, multiple sources, completeness and clarity—are often jettisoned. There isn’t enough time, other views can be picked up next, mistakes corrected later, and the carnival moves on. Paradoxically it has never been easier to check facts and details, to establish background, to link to the full text, the authoritative source—to get closer to the full story. The best news organisations still stress that it is better to be correct than first and wrong, but the pressure is palpable. The medium, as Marshall McLuhan once incomprehensibly predicted, has become the message.
There is a danger of conflating the 24-hour news cycle with the fundamental changes that are occurring in journalism—the collapse of commercial business models, globalisation, the proliferation of monitory agencies, the rise of social media, data-driven analysis and storytelling—and the impact of this on the political system. The eminent former political speechwriter Graham Freudenberg welcomes the new social media environment for its essentially democratic features, but in describing how things once worked he highlights important issues of what is lost in the rush. He told Radio National:
[Prime Minister] Menzies made his announcement of the commitment of troops on 29th of April , and Calwell … made his reply to parliament on the 4th of May, the following Tuesday. Between the Thursday and the Tuesday Arthur Calwell as Leader of the ALP was not asked by the media to say anything about Vietnam. The Opposition position would be made clear in the parliament. So that was it. We had no curbside interviews, no thirty-second grabs and we had five days to prepare that speech. But the basic principle, that the Labor Opposition would oppose the commitment of combat troops, was never in doubt.2
Australia came late to an always-on news cycle, with its endless loop of stories and commentary. The television networks were able to cling to a single-channel model much longer than their counterparts in comparable countries; they were also able to hold cable television at bay longer. Even as online news took off, for years it looked more like repurposed content than new news.
Dedicated news channels are just one platform in the 24-hour news cycle, the ease of accessing news online from any device means the quest to be first takes precedence over the accuracy and even the importance of the story. It can always be corrected, amended, updated, deleted—just so long as there is not a vacuum.
Coming to it late has not meant we have come up with a new or better way of doing it. ABC News 24 has used innovative production processes to keep costs down and tapped into its resources as the largest employer of journalists in the country. Sky News, a traditionally lean cable news service, originates some breaking coverage, but inevitably also recycles and repurposes.
Despite the new outlets, the pool of possible news about politics seems to have shrunk even as the news hole has grown. The new symbiotic relationship is all too often one of transmission rather than meaningful scrutiny. This is most marked in terms of what was once known as political coverage, but is increasingly an echo chamber of talking points, occasional rebuttals and a never-ending loop of ‘national conversations’ in which the same few talk over everyone else.
So at least once a day the prime minister will appear in shirt sleeves, neat suit or fluoro vest, two interchangeable wise monkeys nodding, seeing no evil, hearing no evil, beside him, to deliver the day’s lines and answer the questions he has been prepped for; meanwhile the leader of the opposition struggles to find the right words to emphasise that day’s confected outrage. It feels phony and scripted because it is.
The urgency to get new sound and vision, even if it is vacuous, wins, day after day. Someone cries wolf, overstatement becomes the norm, half-truths prevail, context is rarely found before it is lost, and we move on to the next ‘national conversation’. Passions may be raised, and positions reinforced, but more often than not the ‘conversation’ echoes like a hollow drum. Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull declared with exasperation, ‘The vocabulary of reporting has been tainted by hyperbole.’ As Graham Freudenberg noted when describing the 1965 routines, there was time to reflect and craft a detailed response, but under the umbrella of a known position. These days the known position is often just a grab bag of clichés and slogans, so it is little wonder that the talking points need to be so carefully crafted, who knows what might be said otherwise—truth might be spoken.
Government by talking is a poor substitute for government by analysing, evaluating, arguing, persuading, implementing, evaluating, refining, communicating. Again Australia is not alone in this. There are startling US figures that illustrate the scale of the problem there. In his first year in office President Obama, according to CBS News, gave speeches or made comments on 411 occasions, in addition to giving forty-two news conferences and 158 interviews, yet in his first term cabinet met only nineteen times, the equivalent of once every eleven weeks; and he had only one face-to-face meeting with his secretary of health, who had carriage of the signature Affordable Care Act, in three and half years. Talking is a poor substitute for governing, even if the need to communicate is seemingly insatiable.
The fault for this does not lie solely at the feet of journalists and editors, who are under ever-increasing pressure to get the breaking news, not to miss out on the story the competitors have, to fill the bulletin or pages, with every utterance—they are at the end of a production chain in which timeliness is the most prized value. But the old routines of journalism—especially the reliance on specialist expertise that comes from reporting an area in depth for a time—have been broken. Instead of being replaced by new pathways to depth and expertise, stenography has mated with opinion to produce a bastard that is sometimes entertaining and diverting, but unfortunately rarely important or meaningful.
Being at the end of the line is not a good place; professional agency is diminished and pressure is increased. It does make the system more manageable, but in a flash process overwhelms content, the hamster wheel spins faster and there is less to show for it. This goes to the heart of the need to reinvent journalistic practice, and as noted earlier it is now much easier than ever to check facts and details, to link to authoritative sources, to draw on more diverse sources of firsthand observation. The old model of sources and expertise was always weak and depended on the capacity of individuals rather than the robust methodology of more traditional professions, but it was a serviceable model in an imperfect world of dispersed and disaggregated information. As the Tow Center report Post-Industrial Journalism notes:
The reality is that most journalists at most newspapers do not spend most of their time conducting anything like empirically robust forms of evidence gathering. Like the historical fallacy of a journalistic ‘golden age’ the belief in the value of original reporting often exceeds the volume at which it is actually produced.
Too many reporters remain locked into a mindset where a relatively limited number of sources are still relied on to gather evidence for most important stories, with the occasional rewritten press release or direct observations thrown in. This insidercentric idea of original reporting excludes social media, the explosion of digital data, algorithmically gathered sources of information and many other new strategies of information gathering.
Australian journalists, in part because their number has fallen while demands for output have increased, are overwhelmingly trapped in the old modes of information gathering—even as those generating the information they seek get slicker and sharper at withholding it and distorting it, always ready to resort to slogans, talking points and outright refusal to discuss.
Journalists have very rarely been given access to information, as a gift of politicians with a commitment to the public’s right to know. In 2007, thirteen Australian news organisations worked together on a Right to Know campaign. It was self-interested but designed to increase access to public information. Around the same time many hoped that the internet’s apparent promise of openness and access to information would change history. Instead restrictions have tightened. The reaction to the leaks by WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden has been to tighten secrecy, increase surveillance and refuse access—reinforced with new laws and protocols limiting discussion of crucial areas often in the name of national security. One former ABC press gallery journalist described the transition over her career with striking clarity:
In the press gallery during the Hawke and Keating years they would brief us until our ears bled. Explaining the policy, explaining why it had to be done, going into detail, providing background and briefings. Then when Howard was elected it all changed. Instead his advisers used to prowl the gallery and ask, ‘what have you got, what are you working on’, and then they would go and try to close it down, or divert attention with something else. And it has just been worse and worse ever since. The connection between reporting policy and reporting politics has broken.
Even in the Hawke–Keating days when gallery journalists were briefed ‘until our ears bled’ the punishments for transgression were swift and memorable. Like political leaders before and since, these prime ministers were prepared to make their views known and to try to shape the news in a robust manner.
Nonetheless, the long history of Australian journalism shows how the professional demand of access to information, by briefing, leak or legal right, was fought and won. The move from journalist as handmaiden of the media baron to independent professional, prepared to bite the hand that feeds, produced important and influential reporting that raised standards and expectations. This is now more at risk than at any time in the past thirty years, but as with the reaction to the concentration of ownership, the readiness to fight has imploded.
It is my impression that in the past it was more common than it is now for journalists to spend time in ministerial offices and government departments and to move back and forth between different institutions. It was once less a sign of partisan commitment than a stepping-stone to being a better reporter as a result of understanding the process from inside. I well remember the leading investigative editor in Australia urging me to take a job in a ministerial office, to learn the routines from the inside. I didn’t. I found out how government worked from the inside by other means, but over time I realised what wise advice this was.
The access that enabled deeper reporting was won in a contest—a contest in which the real power of the media organisations, which competed ferociously with each other, was a material factor, and in which journalists who understood the routines and practices of policy formation were able to demand background and briefings so that they were better able to report the substantial issues. It depended on trust, and on agreed rules of engagement, so when one too many off-the-record briefings became public it was scarcely surprising that politicians and public officials became more guarded. There are trade-offs in any truly professional relationship.
More than ever there is a need for journalists and editors to reclaim this access, to demand the background briefings that enable them to understand policy decisions, to hunt out the data sets that enable them to grasp the dilemmas in the way that sources who point to anecdotes are unable to do, to fight for access to documents, to work to see the whole picture. As the institutional power of the media organisations has weakened, this capacity has also eroded, and with it the quality of much political reporting. It is little wonder that the Reuters survey suggested that Australians had switched off political news, although other polls point to an abiding interest.
A small number of Canberra journalists regularly reach beyond the obvious, seek out the history, present something more than the talking points or ask questions that weren’t anticipated by the subject, and are able to hold their own when discussing complex matters of policy. They refuse to be bamboozled by irrelevant details, understand from experience the principles of policy development and implementation and add real value and understanding to the increasingly complex world in which we live.
For most journalists, though, there simply isn’t the time to find out, or the space to use what they learn. Covering the staging of the drama—and there is so much of it—makes a ready substitute for analysing the substance of the play. The fear of misunderstanding or breach of confidence may also keep lips sealed. As a result, because the political contest is fierce and unrelenting, public information is hollowed out, the background is rarely explained, and all that is left is slogans. Meanwhile the proliferation of specialised sites and blogs goes someway to compensating for the loss of mainstream coverage, but these niche services rarely reach a large audience.
The irony is that the technology that is transforming the modes of communi-cation, and fragmenting audiences, also offers new tools to make sense of the world and to draw the big picture. The simple process of linking to original and authoritative sources, and new methods of data aggregation and representation, make it possible to understand complex stories in a more nuanced way, to undergird statements with data that goes beyond the impression gleaned from a single source—and the information gathered and evaluated by a wide range of monitory agencies merits more coverage than they receive: all too often the reporting is about the reaction rather than the content.
Australian journalists and news organisations have been slow to harness the power of social media and data in innovative ways. Twitter and Facebook are overwhelmingly used as promotional tools (my article/interview is here, have a look) to harvest likes; as new channels for the same stuff; as places to source personal details of those who unexpectedly find themselves in the spotlight; as a source of leads and a means to check facts. There are still relatively few Australian examples of social media being used to build stories, or bring new perspectives or to challenge official narratives and the like. Major news organisations, notably the BBC and the Guardian, are refining ways of tapping into user-generated content, to enrich the stories they tell, without undermining accuracy. Q&A is probably the most successful Australian example of a program incorporating social media—the voluminous Twitter feed provides a curated commentary that has become an essential, and often the most interesting, part of the show.
On my first day working as a reporter at a national newspaper I rewrote a press release by an insurance industry body about the costs of recent bushfires. At the suburban newspaper where I had previously worked that was how one person was able to fill the whole paper week after week. After I filed the insurance story my editor took me to task. ‘Never ever do it like that again, you need to check everything, source it properly, put it in context, speak to someone, not just the PR,’ he yelled at me. It was a good lesson.
Twenty-five years ago I did the first study in Australia to evaluate the accuracy of major newspapers and quantify the amount of ‘news’ that began life as a press release. The result was a shocking 56 per cent, but in just over half these stories the journalist had at least then made extra enquires before turning it into news that was worth publishing. Now the figure is closer to 80 per cent. At a practical level this makes sense—the space has shrunk, the business of media management has grown in scope and sophistication, the routines of journalism easily anticipated but reporting by the mainstream media is still important.
But it begs the question, what value does the journalist add? We have seen it in so many areas, the technology takes out the middle, removes the intermediary and establishes a direct line of communication or exchange. Not so long ago to get the auction results in one of the periodic property booms meant calling the individual real estate agent or waiting for the property pages the following weekend. Now the results, by state, city or street are emailed by close of business each Saturday.
There are many other examples that point to the automation of routine and data-driven news. Kris Hammond, the chief technology officer of Narrative Science, a company that ‘takes raw numerical data and generates full narratives’ using algorithms that turn ‘streams of data into words’, is certain this will become the new normal. In an interview with Wired Hammond said he ‘anticipated that 80 per cent of stories in the future will be algorithmically generated’. Before dismissing this, it is worth reflecting on the speed and extent of other changes that once seemed just a flight of fancy. Last year Associated Press partnered with Automated Insights to produce news stories based on data—company and sports results—and is now looking at ways to extend this, estimating it could produce 2000 stories a second.
In theory automation improves the accuracy of routine stories and reduces the need for people to do the repetitive tasks, freeing them to do more analysis and thinking—that press release about the insurance costs of a bush fire that got me into trouble could well have become an automated report, freeing me to examine the causes and consequences of the fires. But we have heard that before …
When trying to answer the question of whether it is the feedback mechanism or the democratic system that is broken, the importance of the public broadcaster cannot be underestimated. The ABC, SBS and NITV have an unequivocal role to provide Australians with the news and information they need to be informed citizens, actively engaged with the unique cultural life of this country. It is the one institution in the list under examination still trusted by the public. Despite attacks on it for bias, overreach and self-interest, which became remarkably heated in June 2015, its trust rankings remain high.
The process by which the ABC in particular became increasingly willing to exercise journalistic independence was hard won, and will not be easily relinquished. As managing director Mark Scott declared, the ABC is a public broadcaster, not a state broadcaster. Those most actively involved in the political system—politicians and their advisers, who are the ABC’s most vociferous critics—are also the biggest beneficiaries. They are taken seriously and given time, and in a sophisticated system most recognise the value, even as they know that non-partisan journalism is an unreliable ally.
The mixed system of public and private sector news provision has a long history in Australia. It has benefited the commercial sector as well as citizens. It has provided a training ground and a resource, complementing and extending the work done in the commercial sector; it has compensated for market failures and fostered new opportunities. As the business model that has underpinned the commercial news media in Australia comes under assault it is not surprising that the attacks on the public broadcasters, and particularly the ABC, increase in pace and tempo. The self-interest that underpins this assault was most clearly expressed by News Corp columnist Miranda Devine, who declared during the Q&A dispute that as the commercial industry is under pressure the ABC should be supported by donations, not taxpayers.
From a citizen’s point of view though the independent public broadcasters have never been more important. As the commercial dollars needed to underwrite the news media evaporate, with it goes the information citizens need to make informed decisions. This has been particularly marked beyond the capital cities, as the amount of original local news shrinks. The ABC is now the biggest employer of journalists in Australia and the most trusted media organisation. But as the system crumbles around it, the ABC needs to exercise more leadership, to find new ways of innovating, of using the technology to find new ways of telling stories, of aggregating data so that more of the story can be told, of partnering with other organisations to fill the gaps that have been created, to be more open and transparent.
It is probably not surprising given the economic challenges that the news business has faced, but there have been precious few innovations in Australia. Eric Beecher’s suite of Crikey websites and newsletters have stretched the range of commentary at the margins of public life; Morry Schwartz’s estimable publications replicate an old model of long-form journalism; The Conversation brings new expertise into the public domain but does not pay for content; the Guardian’s Australian edition has expanded the areas of coverage, and its unapologetically liberal perspective means it takes seriously areas that could otherwise have disappeared from view. Beyond these outlets there are countless websites and blogs, areas of special interest that provide communities of interest with the information they seek but rarely reach a more general audience that needs to know more if it is to make informed decisions.
As a relatively small yet rich English-speaking country, it is hard to find easy comparators—we do not have the resources or capacity of the United States or Britain. Even as the old news media implodes in the United States, new ventures take off—the Huffington Post now employs 540 US journalists and has operations in thirteen countries; Politico has two Washington newsrooms, one with 160 reporters and another 100 who cover the full range of policy areas in detail; and Buzzfeed is using its populist base to pursue serious journalism. These organisations are beginning to look as though they may have the capacity to become quasi-institutions that accept a public role that extends beyond the commercial.
There are no real equivalents in Australia, although Buzzfeed has a presence here and Huffington Post is partnering with Fairfax. What we do have is a unique, resilient and trusted public broadcaster. We also have a technologically savvy population that takes politics and public life seriously and expects more from its media, whichever platform it is delivered on. In this fragmented age, the public service broadcasters are paradoxically more important than ever, providing a firm foundation to public life and an opportunity to innovate not constrained by the need to profit.
The race to gather eyeballs, to create new platforms and means of reaching people has sometimes occurred at the cost of the content. Finding new ways to tell stories, to use and share data, to build partnerships, to reform production processes, to build depth is important to the health of the system. The organisation best able to do this, to innovate, to break the shackles of the old ways of doing journalism, to find new ways of being an appropriate feedback mechanism, is the one we have taken for granted for nearly a century.
There is no need to apologise or be defensive. Quality journalism has always been subsidised, and that subsidy is now more important than ever. Fortunately for us we have a mechanism that works and has the institutional capacity to defend its role, to be more than a scarecrow.
- Sean Kelly, ‘Libs, ALP need courage under ire in face of opinion polls’ Saturday Paper, 23 May 2015.
- On Between the Lines with Tom Switzer, ABC Radio National, 14 May 2015.