Ben Hills’ monument to newspaper journalism

Ben Hills has a new book out – Stop the Presses! How Greed, Incompetence (and the Internet) Wrecked Fairfax. It’s published by (surprise!) News Corp’s HarperCollins. Its essential thesis is that the Fairfax media group, owner of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, is in trouble because it has been run by nongs. Boards and managements have been too dumb to exploit the opportunities of the Internet, Hills reckons. He thinks Fairfax should have bought Seek and carsales.com.au and realestate.com.au. Fairfax also needs to be run by “people who know about media”, he complains.

Hils has done some great journalism over the years, notably on the asbestos industry and medical scams. But this book looks like a mis-step.

Since Hills is making a virtue of plain language, I’ll copy him: Hills’ theory is tripe, and I’m surprised more people aren’t calling him on it. In the media, most people seems to be treating him very politely.

But Stop the Presses! also has its lessons – though perhaps not the ones Hills draws.

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Could the press gallery please score Bronwyn Bishop?

Much of the time, the public can make up its own mind on public events once it get a decent helping of facts; the theatre commentary from the parliamentary press gallery – a little of which I used to write – is more entertainment than vital input.

But on the running of the parliament, the press gallery really does have something to offer. The gallery watches parliament day after day. If the speaker is doing a bad job, the gallery is uniquely placed to say so.

So it’s surprising that there’s been so little judgment of Bronwyn Bishop’s performance in the speaker’s role. I would really like to know more about how she’s going. I was somewhat surprised to turn on the TV late one night and see her telling Tanya Plibersek to withdraw the remark “if the number is zero, just say it”. But maybe that was an aberration. I’m not watching all the time. The gallery is. And yet most of the media is avoiding judgment just at the time when judgment is needed. It’s not just me; Barrie Cassidy remarked on Insiders this week (at the 25:47 mark) on the gallery’s unusual coyness.

Slight diversion: I like Bronwyn. She’s charming and razor-sharp, and I always enjoyed talking with her when I was in the parliamentary building. She also occasionally read my stories when I was a gallery member, a tactic which like many journalists I found endearing. It was a story I wrote about then ATO chief Trevor Boucher that she pursued in a somewhat infamous committee hearing flare-up in 1992. (The story wasn’t prompted by any discussion with her; she simply picked up on it.)

But I always thought Bronwyn’s speakership was going to go one of two ways. She would accept that this was her last gig and try to make it her best gig, extending the examples of the three most recent speakers and being a fairly neutral arbiter, but with the trademark Bishop steeliness that would make her an absolute legend. Or she would remain fiercely partisan and fail, as Labor’s “Leaping” Leo McLeay had done before her. (Contrary to Tony Burke’s claims, the Opposition of the day moved a motion of no confidence in Leo, too, back in 1992; it also failed.)

With Bronwyn, it’s usually black or white.

At time of writing, only two senior journalists have committed their judgments of Bronwyn to print. Both think she’s botched the job.

  • Michelle Grattan, The Conversation: “Bishop doesn’t even give the impression of trying to be fair. She hasn’t been able to establish authority in the job – an elusive quality that is bound up not just with fairness but with an ability to know when to be tough and when to be lenient – and when to bring a touch of humour … Bishop is very obvious in favouring the government side and it comes through in her tone – she is often dismissive, sometimes bordering on rude, to Labor MPs, sounding like the cross school mistress.” She would have done better with a ministry.
  • Dennis Atkins, Courier-Mail: “She is the most biased occupant of the chair I’ve seen in 33 years of coming to and living in Canberra …” Atkins specifically rates her as worse than Leaping Leo.

Let me know in the comments if I have missed any other judgments from Gallery members. On this one, it’s worth keeping score.

Update 1: Two other gallery commentaries:

  • Gabrielle Chan, Guardian: “To the most untrained eye, Bishop is clearly batting for the government, often refusing to hear Labor’s points of order, joining in on government jokes at Labor’s expense and taking the mickey out of the opposition herself. Labor, without the numbers, can do nothing but sit on its hands.” (Hat tip to Zacster - interesting blog there)
  • Peter van Onselen, Sunday Mail (Adelaide): The most brutal of them all, and back in November to boot. “Bronwyn Bishop is going to be a hopeless Speaker. Not, of course, if you are a partisan who happens to enjoy the Coalition winning the day in Question Time, for Bishop ensures that happens on an all-too-regular basis. She is hopeless for anyone who thinks a Speaker operating with even just a modicum of independence is good for our parliamentary process … The overtly partisan style she has adopted is unlikely to change. In fact, it will probably harden … I didn’t have much time for the performances of her predecessors Harry Jenkins or Anna Burke during Labor’s time in power but at least they tried to develop non-partisan approaches to rulings … Bishop can’t even keep her snide remarks out of her partisan interventions … a hack who might as well be sitting on the benches behind the Prime Minister.”

Update 2: That link to the motion of no confidence in Leaping Leo back in 1992 has some interesting commentary by then Deputy Opposition Leader Tim Fischer:

McLeay has named eight members who have been suspended.

Let me ask those present in the gallery how fair they might think this is: seven of them were in fact from the coalition and just one was from the Government. That is not a bad ratio. This year we have had another two from our side of the House, so the ratio is nine on this side sent to the sin bin and further and just one on the Government side.

I think there would be an absolute riot at the SCG or the Sydney football ground if there were rulings from a referee in that ratio.

No prediction, sadly, of what would happen at the SCG if there were a 98 to zero record on suspensions.

Update 3:

  • Jack Waterford, Canberra Times: The Canberra veteran argues that fairness is not a speaker’s only virtue. “Bishop is in a class of her own for making no pretence of hiding her bias, and for making herself an active participant, and interjector, in debates. Sometimes, however, it is a little unfair that the referee, already playing for one side, makes so free with her power to throw players on the other side out.” But the core of the job is “ensuring the efficient management of the legislative and talking-shop agenda of parliament through the sausage machine. Bronwyn performs admirably … Her sheer feistiness in prosecuting it makes parliament a far more entertaining institution than it has been when someone boring but scrupulously fair-minded has been in charge of proceedings … I cannot think of a debate this semester which was the worse, or less well-informed, simply because Bishop had remorselessly shot every Opposition soldier who had put their head above the parapet.” (Hat tip: Spanky McPhee)

Whose ABC?

As part of its Gruen Nation show, an ad was produced which Clive Palmer wanted to use in his campaign. Well it was public money that produced it, so why shouldn’t he be able to use it? Now in fact there may be complications. Gruen Nation is bought in by the ABC, but no doubt it calls most of the shots on licensing. The video is, as you can see, up on YouTube. But the ABC’s reaction was that he couldn’t use the video. Why couldn’t he use this publicly funded digital asset?

As Marketing Mag reports:

“Yesterday we got a call from the Palmer United party team, asking if they could use last week’s pro-Clive Pitch ad, by 303Lowe for their real campaign,” wrote The Gruen Planetwebsite. “The answer, of course, was no. The ABC can’t provide support to a political party.”

I can’t find that on the relevant website, but I hope it’s provided by some ill-informed flunky because it’s absurd.  The video happens to be useful to someone. It’s publicly funded, and they should be able to use it. Does it imply that the ABC supports Clive Palmer? No. Saying it does reminds me of a favourite pastime of small minds which is to notice that something unusual is being asked for and then to make up some lame reason why it can’t be done.

In fact this has all happened before. When Kaggle was not that much more than a glint in Anthony Goldbloom’s eye I persuaded Catalyst to do a segment on it, which it did with its usual aplomb. We wanted to use the video they’d made as it was the best visual explanation of what Kaggle was all about. The ABC said ‘no’. Meanwhile the 7 pm Project did a segment on another venture I’m involved in – Family by Family from the Australian Centre for Social Innovation. And did they object to our posting it on our website? No.

Conspiracy to commit journalism | Pressthink

Investigative journalism and the secret state are natural enemies. Even with an enlightened government and relatively untroubled times, their relationship will be uneasy at best.

Today, they’re in a state of undeclared war. Surveillance states and most of their fellow travellers are in too deep to pull back voluntarily. Some will be uneasy about how far things have gone but changing one’s mind is never a comfortable business, particularly if it has to be done in public.

Those opposed to overly intrusive and secret surveillance need to figure out the best ways to increase that uneasiness and offer palatable means for players to defect. The playing field needs to once again be tilted towards openness as the primary operating principle. To do that, unearthing secrets, valuable though it may be, is not enough.

It’s exactly these issues that Jay Rosen takes up in this recent piece at Pressthink.

A conspiracy to commit journalism has to operate in the open. Its methods go beyond investigation, careful editing, truth and accuracy, telling a good story that brings complex issues home. There is inescapably a political element. Release-the-information coalitions can only form around broadly shared goals. People who disagree on other things are likely to agree on the need for sunlight. Continue reading

Probing the nadir of punditry

Troppo readers who have followed my meanderings about asylum seeker policy over the years will realise that I have some fairly basic differences with the Greens on that issue 11. KP: although not on the fundamental fact that many if not most of them need our compassion and support – it’s a matter of how best to deliver  it and that’s where I think the Greens are both naive and self-indulgent. [].

However, I am utterly repulsed by Tory media pundits like Andrew Bolt and Ben Fordham who advance the proposition that Labor and the Greens should be blamed for the one thousand or more asylum seekers who have drowned at sea over the last few years trying to reach Australia. An interview by Fordham yesterday with Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young is a particularly odious example of the genre:

Tension mounted after Mr Fordham asked if Ms Hanson-Young took responsibility for the deaths that have occurred at sea since the Rudd Government dismantled John Howard’s immigration policies. …

“You supported a policy which has led to 50,000 people arriving here ever since and 1000 plus people drowning to the bottom of the ocean and dying,” Mr Fordham said. “They’re not on the earth anymore.”

In reality, asylum seekers have full agency in their own decisions.   They are making difficult choices in situations that are sometimes close to impossible. If Australian laws are effectively changed in the ways that Rudd and Abbott are promising, all that will happen is that most asylum seekers will turn their attentions to other first world country targets that now look like a better bet. Moreover, irregular entry to many of those countries is also dangerous. Lots of asylum seekers drown while trying to get from North Africa to Italy or Spain, even more while trying to get from Cuba or South America to the United States, and some even suffocate while being smuggled overland into Europe in shipping containers.

Government authorities are not responsible  per se for asylum seeker deaths any more than police are responsible for the actions of murderers and rapists just because they don’t stop all of them.

The Humbug Martyrdom of Andrew Bolt II

Interlude: Ruminations on ‘the costs of speech’, monkeys and Dexter

In The 2013 PEN Free Voices lecture, reproduced on the ABC’s Religion and Ethics web site, Waleed Aly makes the following observations on Freedom of Speech:

… let us grind this out, beginning with a trite observation: that, in some sense, we are always free to speak. Even if our speech will land us in prison or before an executioner, there is nothing anyone can really do to stop us saying whatever it is we want to say. The only question is whether or not we are prepared to bear the costs of our statements. We can never escape those costs. Even an imaginary society with no legal restrictions on speech at all will still have mechanisms for making certain speech costly in one way or another. Only when speech is entirely meaningless to the audience can it have no cost, benefit or consequence (which is why swearing in a foreign language is nowhere near as crude as swearing in the dominant one).

Put simply, there is simply no such thing as free speech (original emphasis). There are only different costs. When we say we support free speech, we’re actually saying something very imprecise. What we really mean is that the costs of speech should not be imposed by the State, and where possible, social pressure should decide. (emphasis added)

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The Humbug Martyrdom of Andrew Bolt

A Peculiarly Australian Cause Celebre

In one of the less nebulous sections of the Liberals’ curiously fisk-resistant manifestoi, you’ll find this special promise for Andrew Bolt and his fans and supporters:

Protecting freedom of speech – supporting an open media

We will protect the media from over-regulation; support an open and accountable media; and protect the freedom of speech to strengthen our vibrant democracy…

  • We will support freedom of speech, particularly in relation to anti-discrimination legislation. Prohibitions on inciting racial hatred or intimidation of particular groups should be focused on offences of incitement and causing fear but not a prohibition on causing offence.

At the April 4 IPA shindig where Rupert Murdoch preached his sermon on the morality of the market, Abbott made the promise quite explicit; Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act (S18C) would be repealed and once more Andy will be free to write whatever he likes, about whomever he likes, regardless of race, creed, colour or a conspicuous and unseemly lack thereof.

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The newspaper crisis (and Finkelstein, again)

The graphic below comes from the University of Michigan’s Professor Mark Perry, who runs a libertarian and market-oriented blog called Carpe Diem.

Graph: US newspaper advertising revenue

It shows, essentially, the collapse of the advertising revenue stream in US newspapers. Adjusted for inflation, US newspapers will earn as much from advertising this year as they did in 1950. Note that advertising has historically made up more than half of US newspaper revenues and more than two-thirds of Australian newspaper revenues.

The Australian newspaper industry is not in the same state as the US industry yet, but you wouldn’t want to bet the eventual outcome will be all that diffferent.

I’ve noted this before, but the contraction of the newspaper industry is a huge problem for supporters of the Finkelstein Review’s recommendations for new Australian media regulation. In order to justify its claim that the marketplace of ideas was irrelevant to the Australian media landscape, Finkelstein argued that the press would be a dominant media form for many years to come. From page 101 of the Review:

“The Australian press is in no immediate danger of collapsing. The main media companies appear to be reasonably capable of dealing with the pressures facing them at least over the medium term.”

The Review is not yet a year old, but its intellectual underpinnings are crumbling. Let’s hope the government has noticed.

Newspaper crisis ensuring Finkelstein’s demise

In the torrent of words over the job cuts at Fairfax and News Ltd, not many people seem to have noticed that these events also further undermine the already teetering argument of the Finkelstein Review for a new system of media regulation.

How’s that?

Recall that the Finkelstein Review is founded on a downplaying of print media’s central economic problem. This problem is simply that print circulation and ad revenues are collapsing – and use of print media’s online versions is not close to making up the difference. As information economist Hal Varian noted of the US news industry in 2010: ”The average amount of time looking at online news is about 70 seconds a day, while the average amount of time spent reading the physical newspaper is about 25 minutes a day.”

The Finkelstein Review repeatedly declares this is not a problem:

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