In this recent piece in The Australian Laurie Oakes laments the decline of traditional journalism as it faces the rise of independent journalism. The article leads off with:
Press gallery veteran Laurie Oakes has warned how new media technologies are challenging political journalists with “implications for the health of our political system”.
He is rueful that what he calls fact-based journalism is now confronted by what he calls the march of opinion. It is interesting that he blames new media technologies and fresh opinions as the threat to traditional journalism. I would blame the decline in mainstream media standards, which I will return to later.
The Oakes story was repeated a few days later in the National Times of The Age where he continued his lament:
I want to be optimistic about the future of political journalism and the press gallery, if for no other reason than that its past shows that it really matters. But I have to say I’m not as optimistic as I’d like to be.
For 111 years Australia’s federal politicians and members of the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery have been matching wits. The politicians have used every trick they know to try to control what the journalists report and how they report it. Gallery members have used every trick they know to get behind the spin and try to dig out things the politicians want to keep hidden.
But in an internet era that is fragmenting the media as we’ve known it, and making new communications technology easily and cheaply available to anyone, the press gallery’s role seems set to decline, which obviously has implications for the health of our political system.
If one looks at this opinion, the implication is that by making communications technology available to anyone will, as a natural consequence result in a decline in standards. The involvement of these “anyones” has previously been lamented by professional journalists. Is it that only those directly employed by a major newspaper or who gets behind a microphone, or in front of a television camera has a valid opinion? Is an anyone aka a nobody, aka an ordinary citizen not permitted to voice an opinion; not have an opinion worthy of note?
One need to look no further than Letters to the Editor for example, and especially those in the Murdoch press, or attempt to have an opinion published on a Murdoch blog for it to become obvious that not just anyone and especially those with a contra opinion, is permitted to voice that opinion.
Oakes’ suggestion is that the internet era is set to cause a decline in journalism by fragmenting the media and as a consequence has obvious implications “for the health of our political system”. The logic of this argument escapes me.
I would suggest that the decline is more likely due to what he refers to as fact-based journalism being dead and buried, right under his nose. The march of opinion will of course be the driving force of the independent media but they will be marching alongside the Press Gallery who replaced fact-based journalism with biased opinion, seemingly, when Howard lost government in 2007.
Ad astra at The Politic Sword in his fine article “The Canberra Press Gallery stumbles – yet again” succinctly summed up the Press Gallery with the astuteness that Laurie Oakes is oblivious to:
Journalists hate being wrong, being wrong-footed. Political journalists regard themselves as the insiders, privy to the labyrinthine goings-on in the corridors of power. They yearn for the scoop, one that places them a cut above their colleagues. Being out of the loop is anathema to them. They foster contacts, their ‘sources’, from whom they suck whispers, or speculation, or information, which sometimes turns out to be misinformation, accidentally purveyed or deliberately so by Machiavellian operators. Although at times it must be hard for them to know what to believe, that does not seem to inhibit most of them from rushing into print with their ‘exclusives’, so long as it makes for a good story, and trumps their fellow journalists in the process.
Ad astra discusses many instances where the Press Gallery have failed to apply the fact-based journalism that Oakes proudly boasts is the hallmark of the gallery. And more recently we can add Ashbygate – or the absence of it in the media – to the list. In an earlier piece “The Canberra Press Gallery will decide who governs this country” Ad astra also recognises the dismantling of and replacement of fact-based journalism with the marching opinion that apparently only the new media is guilty of:
Blatant political bias: This is the most contentious framework ‘bias’ of all. It is one that I wrestled with defining specifically because I could not decide, as I have never spoken to any of the protagonists about it, how fully invested politically are some journalists in defining the stories they write based upon their own political prejudices? It is probably fair to say that some are guilty of this bias. Yet others may only be playing to the audience that the proprietor instructs them to write for.
Today’s article by Gay Alcorn in the National Times kicks the stuffing out of Oakes’ blind faith.
Federal Parliament resumes in a fortnight. Are you looking forward to it? Can’t wait to tune in for question time? Hanging out for an election this year?
As a journalist for more than 20 years, and an editor for seven, I’m surprised at how much I’m dreading it. Already, press gallery journalists have pronounced that politics will be more bitter, more personal, more toxic this year and that – groan – the election will be about “trust and character”.
Well, what if it wasn’t? Specifically, what if the media decided it wasn’t going to be? The 2010 election – “Real Julia”, a gate-crashing Mark Latham, Tony Abbott’s “stop the boats!” – was pilloried by politicians and journalists as the most woeful in memory. Journalists complained about the politicians, but this time the rise of online commentary meant that feedback about our own performance was out of our control.
Two weeks into the campaign, blogger Greg Jericho was listening to Abbott announce the Liberals’ disability education policy. As he recounts in his book, The Rise of the Fifth Estate, as a father of a daughter with Down syndrome, he – and presumably others affected by disability – was interested and, “like a naive fool”, waited for questions. But reporters asked nothing at all about the policy, instead grilling Abbott on whether he believed Latham when he accused Kevin Rudd of leaking to Channel Nine’s Laurie Oakes.
A frustrated Jericho blogged that news directors should “bring home your journalists” because they were wasting money and delivering little. He still thinks that if you weigh up who was most at fault for that campaign – the politicians or the media – “a greater level of blame should be directed towards the media”.
It might surprise Jericho to know that many in the established media, where most Australians still get their political news, agree with him. We limped to the end exhausted and chastened. Why didn’t those journos ask about policy? Because their head offices weren’t much interested. Because the assumption is that policies – apart from a few the parties want to talk about – are dull compared with personalities. And because once it starts, a campaign has one big narrative: who’s going to win? The polls are the story, and how they go week to week dictates whether the leaders are judged harshly or kindly.
At last, a journalist who recognises that something is clearly wrong with the traditional media.
As I earlier wrote, those of the new media believe they are better suited to provide the diversity that today’s democracies need, yet which are often ignored by traditional journalists, or in Oakes’ case, the rise of which is lamented. New, independent media advances the opportunity to expose doctored or omitted facts from mainstream media and point out the bias – referred to above by Ad astra – by particular reporters who do not provide such opportunity for his/her readership to give voice to alternate opinions.
The new media also encourages readers to think objectively and ask the probing questions that might often be avoided by the mainstream media (MSM), particularly if they are working to a different (or hidden) agenda. Further, through independent media, people have the opportunity to analyse and disseminate the news and opinions thrown at them from the established media; the blogosphere, for example, is awash with a more objective and factual analysis.
Independent media has exploded, not because they are the echo of dissenting voices, but because the MSM has created an arena for them to enter. If the MSM was objective, impartial and committed to providing a quality service then in a modern democracy there may not be any citizen journalists, or for that matter, the dozens of independent media sites that exist purely to fill in the gaps exposed by the mainstream media empires.
Welcome to the march of opinion. Only now might it be laced with fact.
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