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October 07th 2014 print

Malcolm Colless

‘Quality Journalism’s’ Inky Wretchedness

The high priests in the media's self-proclaimed temple of truth talk a good game about freedom of speech and the public's right to know, but when push comes to shove their first instinct is to genuflect before the authority of the state

reporter “Quality journalism” is a term tossed around with gay abandon by the Left. But what is it, other than a euphemism for exercises in self-indulgent political correctness? Well, it apparently refers to  an elite  professionalism possessed exclusively by the Left, along with so-called “editorial independence”, that set it apart from the dog-eared, ink-stained and unprincipled wretches who populate sections of the media beyond Fairfax and ABC newsrooms.Lest there be any doubt they are amongst the anointed, the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age both trumpet  the slogan “Independent. Always” beneath their home page mastheads. There is some truth in that, mind you:  both papers are certainly independent of a proprietor’s oversight, not to mention reality.In November, 2011, not long before it transitioned from broadsheet to tabloid, the SMH ran a full-page house advertisement stating that it proudly said NO
No to fear
No to favours
No to pulling punches
No to watering it down
No to one person’s interest ( Who could that be aimed at?)
No to compromises, and
No to agendas
What a load of sanctimonious rubbish — and what an incomplete list! In spruiking the self-ordained attributes that Fairfax Media imagines set its publications apart from the lowly rest, the ad might have added a couple of additional “no” entries: No to being interesting, and No to attracting readers.Anyway,  according to the Left, quality is an asset lacking in the work of commentators such as Andrew Bolt and Piers Akerman,  but an intrinsic virtue, apparently, to be found in journalists like Mike Carlton, whose suspension and consequent resignation from Fairfax  for abusing reader critics was bemoaned by several of his  colleagues, who clearly regarded his treatment as a breach of “editorial independence”. To the uninitiated, know that the term is taken to mean that editorial operations must be conducted independent of managerial oversight, including that of the editor. How else could Carlton’s bilious screed about jackbooted Israelis and whining Jews, illustrated for good measure with a caricature that could have been lifted from Der Sturmer, have made into print? Either the editor is as dim and vicious as his now-departed columnist or, more likely, he simply does not read what goes into his own paper.As far as the print media is concerned this perceived “quality” is supposed to identify formerly broadsheet  newspapers, the SMH and The Age, as journals you can trust, unlike tabloids such as  Melbourne’s  Herald Sun and Sydney’s Telegraph,  both of which, coincidentally, just happen to part of the Murdoch stable. The Fairfax-owned Australian Financial Review puts the lie to that conceit, as it has been able to shoulder in a professional manner the burden of its tabloid format for many years. But why let mere facts ruin an approved and Left-endorsed narrative?The fact that the SMH and The Age are now themselves tabloid, a switch brought about by the  inevitable decline of the newspaper industry, must gall members of their editorial teams who have not yet been laid off — a discomfort reflected, from a craft perspective, in the tortured page layouts and day-to-day design of those publications. Like the ugly sisters trying to squeeze their oversize feet into Cinderella’s glass slipper, the inept use of pictures, narcoleptic headlines, story placement, overall news judgment indicate an editorial quarterdeck populated by senior hands who have lost their bearings. Further, what of accountability?Before I go any further I would like to nail my journalistic colours to the mast. For a start, my background is in tabloid and broadsheet newspapers in Australia and in the UK. But in all cases, no matter where I worked or the physical dimensions of the publication, I have always believed that a journalist’s primary role is to inform readers. In other words, news  should come first, followed by the interpretation of that news, then comment and, finally, opinion.  Too often these days the order is reversed, with opinion becoming a substitute for reporting the facts. If, as I believe, people buy newspapers to be informed about a whole range of things, from wars to  weather, this may explain why so many former readers are fallen by the wayside.Reporting the news was a key — no, the key — to the newsman’s craft when journalists were referred to as “reporters”. When was the last time you saw that term used? Now everyone, regardless of age or experience, seems to be some kind of editor — an associate editor; contributing editor or a specific content editor. The term reporter has come to seem a second-rate, lacking in gravitas, almost tacky.

Meanwhile,  it seems that every story, news or otherwise, must carry a byline. Largely driven by  changes to copyright payment laws some years back, this scuttled the time-honoured convention of editors awarding bylines to reporters who stories and skills warranted special recognition. It now seems that journalists expect their every written word to be garnished with an ego-tickling byline. Like it or not, it is the way of the future.

Despite publishers’ assurances that readership is holding up (notice how talk of circulation now takes a back seat, which is hardly surprising) they know only too well, even if they will not admit it, that the vast majority of the population believe they are adequately informed via New Media communications, much of which is peer-driven. This has coincided with the rise in what I will call personality journalism which, as  print has waned, has spread like a grassfire across the electronic media into social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

The widening of this communications spectrum has been accompanied by periodic government  attempts to  hobble and shackle a hostile or unacceptably inquisitive press. That this should happen comes as no surprise; all governments of every stripe believe the press should be kinder to them. But what has been more disappointing than surprising is the failure of the mainstream media to oppose such measures. This applies in particular to those who preach the  gospel of “quality journalism”  who, in some cases, have actively endorsed and promoted such initiatives. Don’t forget that the co-author of Finkelstein Inquiry into media regulation was Fairfax journalist-turned-academic Matthew Ricketson. One of the suggestions to which he put his name was a measure that would have subjected recalcitrant editors to contempt-of-court penalties, meaning they could be incarcerated at a judge’s pleasure. No doubt Ricketson congratulates himself on teaching quality journalism.

Here are  some examples where “quality journalism” is a synonym for hypocrisy:

During the life of the recent Federal Labor administration the ABC argued strenuously that it, as the national broadcaster, was the only appropriate steward to manage the country’s  government-owned international television service, the Australia Network.

Unfazed by the fact this required delivering government propaganda to support Canberra’s  regional diplomatic objectives, the ABC, that self-proclaimed bastion of alleged editorial independence, insisted that it could take up the brief with a clear conscience because, apart from anything else, it had no conflicting commercial objectives. No prizes for recognising this assertion as a direct shot at Rupert Murdoch, whose SKYNEWS, for some reason, was also interested in winning the tender.

The ABC also saw no problems in the highly interventionist role that then-Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd planned to take. The Australia Network — aka the ABC — would  be obliged to supply his department with regular, detailed breakdowns of how each news, current affairs and business show was produced, and to spell out how the content of those programmes supported government policies and objectives. Then-Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, who had made much of the need for transparency in government, torpedoed the tender process and handed the contract by ministerial fiat to the ABC in perpetuity.

The Australia Network has now been shut down but not, unsurprisingly, as a result of any pressure from the ABC.

Meanwhile, seizing on the fallout from the phone-hacking scandal at the Murdoch-owned News of the World in the UK while facing trenchant criticism of  her government’s performance  at home, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said that, apropos of no evidence whatsoever, News Corp in Australia (then known as News Ltd.) had some “hard questions to answer”.

Conroy followed up on his leader’s slur by announcing the establishment of the Finkelstein Media Inquiry, the entire exercise premised on the preconception that reform was neededto ensure  that the media operated in “the public interest”. This appraisal of what it was good for the public to know was to be defined by the government and, via a new bureaucracy to enforce government-mandated standards of conduct, its appointees.

The Finkelstein recommendations brought a sharp response from media management. But despite the  threat to  freedom of speech raised by these measures, no individual journalist gave evidence objecting to the assault on journalistic ethics, professionalism and the traditions of a free press.  As a reflection on leading journalists’ and academics’ commitment  to free speech and the public’s right to know, that supine silence was a very sad indictment indeed.

More recently, the Australian Law Reform Commission has released  its final report on serious invasions of privacy, which pose far-reaching implications for investigative reporting. While privacy is precious, what the term means in law and the extent to which it can be violated are issues steeped in the soup of the partisan leanings and subjective emotions that define political correctness.

Now comes the latest assault on media freedom. This  month the government has begun a process to put forward sweeping legislation to significantly increase, among other things, the surveillance-and-interception powers of our spy agencies. Government figures swear these measures are not designed to intimidate investigative journalists or restrict freedom of speech, but it is hard to escape the conclusion that those will be a new law’s direct consequences. Strip away the rhetoric and the Canberra salesmanship and the only possible conclusion is that whistleblowers and the media organisations reporting their revelations face a heavy price, starting with hefty legal fees and ending perhaps in a spell behind bars, for publishing information that incurs the wrath of the government of the day.

For many years publishers operated under the constraints of so-called “D Notices” issued by the Defence Department. But these edicts were subject-specific restrictions, such as reporting on nuclear-weapons testing in Australia during the early 1950s and the location of Soviet defectors Vladamir Petrov and his wife. While the proposed  legislation will allow ASIO officers and their affiliates to engage in otherwise unlawful conduct under a new Special Intelligence Operations scheme, it will make it an offence, punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment, for the unlawful disclosure of information relating to any of those special intelligence operations (SIO).

The penal provisions are quite specific, but the scope of the legislation is broad and open-ended. For example, it could be applied to a journalist who reports an SIO operation even if he or she is unaware that it is a special intelligence  operation. For reporters and their editors — the editors who read their own papers, that is — it will be like walking on eggshells. The key issue will be how these powers are used.  For example, one consequence of terrorists’ use of social media to parade their atrocities and recruit additional fanatics could be a government attempt to shut down of these outlets.

In what may be another sign of things to come, freedom of speech took a whack recently with the Prime Minister’s  decision to make a “leadership call” and abandon his promise to scrap or substantially de-fang Section 18c  of the Racial Discrimination Act,  which makes it  unlawful “to offend, humiliate or intimidate” another person or group of people because of ethnicity or race.

Abbott won uncharacteristic praise from the left-wing media for this repudiation of his solemn pledge, an about-face he has said was inspired by what he perceived as the greater need for “national unity”. But I think the real question here is what price, in terms of freedom of speech, should we be prepared to pay in order to guarantee the “right” not to be offended.

Judging from the howls of protest from the Left, claiming as always to reflect the court of public opinion, at Cory Bernardi’s attempts to reopen the 18C debate, no price is too high. But, if members of Parliament were to accurately echo the views of their constituents, you might find a deafening call for the Senator from South Australia to be heard.

Faced with the brutal reality of mounting global terrorism there are few, if any, who would argue that national security is not of paramount importance. But with truth the first casualty of war, as the saying goes, the  challenge for the media in general and journalists in particular is to strike a responsible balance between national security and the right to know — an equilibrium that must be achieved without sacrificing freedom of speech which is so vital in any democracy and from which all other rights emanate.

So forget the quality-journalism navel-gazing nonsense. Telling the truth, and telling it responsibly, is what journalistic professionalism is all about.

Veteran journalist Malcolm Colless is a keen media watcher and regular contributor to Quadrant Online