Let’s take a holiday in East Berlin… @jonaholmesMW and off-the-record sources #auspol #mediawatch

It’s a widely held view that something is wrong with journalism in Australia.  For nearly a year — it seems — supporters of former prime minister, Kevin Rudd, were white-anting Prime Minister Gillard. Supporters were providing comments to journalists off the record, and papers were publishing the comments verbatim.  ‘An ALP insider says…’ ‘A Rudd supporter says…’ ‘A senior ALP figure says…’

This has divided part of the audience: LNP-friendly readers saw this as instability within the ALP; ALP-friendly readers saw this as intolerable right wing bias in the newspapers.

On 27 February, ABC’s MediaWatch covered the controversy.  Was it all media beat-up?  Was this a media-induced leadership spill?  Should journalists protect their sources?

It was Jonathon Holmes’ view that:

I think that once a reporter has promised confidentiality to a source, he or she is stuck with it, except in the most unusual cases.

And a reporter who refuses to base stories on off-the-record chats won’t last long in the press gallery hothouse. Any change to the culture will have to come from their editors. [Source]

I find Holmes frustrating as a presenter.  Where Marr was exceptional in his insight and ability to argue his view, Holmes regularly relies on his bellyfeel take on an issue.  There’s nothing insightful or philosophical about his arguments.  Worse, his presentation of legal issues in media coverage is routinely abysmal.  Regarding a case where a court ordered that a newspaper reveal its source to a woman who had been defamed, Holmes said:

Why? Well, it’s a long, complex judgment, and I’m no lawyer. But some of Her Honour’s reasoning strikes me as concerning. […]

It seems to me a wonderfully circular argument. The right to protect their sources is designed to make it easier for journalists to discover matters of public interest; the qualified privilege defence is designed to make publication of those matters more possible; but if journalists make use of the second, they risk losing the first.  […]

What they should do is honour their commitment to protect their sources’ identities – if necessary, by defying the courts. [Source]

It was a bizarre train of reasoning leading to the outlandish outcome: defy the courts!  Journalists really do think that they’re a law unto themselves.

But both stories are linked by this idea of the journalist’s right to protect their source.  In the latter case, they should be protected even if it means denying justice to another party.  In the former, even if that means the public is unable to make an informed decision about politicians.

The journalists’ rhetoric is usually wound up in discussions about democracy and the importance of an informed electorate.  Why, then, is Holmes advocating a policy which actively strikes at both?

Holmes goes one step further: the public should not criticise the media because the public doesn’t know the full story (only the journalists do).  On Twitter, he chastised a critic:

can’t discuss on Twitter but you are merely speculating. You have less actual knowledge than the reporters you condemn. [Source]

I suggested that might be the problem.  If reporters have all this information, why aren’t they sharing it with us?  Further, why should we trust journalists to report accurately and fairly?  MediaWatch is full of stories where journalists distorted and misrepresented in order to grab an exclusive story.

When I asked Holmes if the public ought to be able to verify stories, he responded:

Only solution is not to base stories on off record sources. Then we’d all know even less, seems to me. [Sources]

The problem here is that Holmes has a blunt view of what it means to base a story on an off-the-record source.  What he’s meaning here is: ‘Some public figure divulges information which they shouldn’t; the Press should be able to run their unverifiable comments unchallenged.’

But a more nuanced (and sensible) view is possible: ‘Some public figure divulges information which they shouldn’t and tips off the journalist about how to find more information.’

This isn’t an uncommon way to leak.  Every day, government agencies pour out hundreds of reports, papers, books, pamphlets, &c., &c., &c.  You would be shocked to know how much is revealed in them.  It’s one of the reasons why some governments (cough, States, cough) dilute hideous news in pages and pages of pedestrian dullness.

See also the spookily accurate Freedom of Information requests…

In those situations, protection of source is still important but there’s no need to put blind trust in the journalist to report accurately and fairly the source we’re not allowed to know.

The difference between my kind of off-the-record source and Holmes’ is that my version requires some work on the behalf of journalists.  It’s not all private catchups with senior journalists in back rooms, drinking scotch and then phoning in the story.

A lot of my friends get very uptight about the media.  They perceive it as being biased against whatever political position they hold.  What they forget is that very few people trust the media.  Holmes’ argument that we would ‘know even less’ if journalists couldn’t run ‘trust me when I tell you things you can’t verify’ stories falls into the same trap: the public already does not trust the media, so unverifiable off-the-record stories does not help the public to know things.

The problem is lazy journalists who don’t understand their audience.  Short and simple.

No colours anymore, I want them to turn black… Rinehart is good for Australian media #auspol #ausmedia

My Twitter feed has turned into a sea of boohooery over Gina Rinehart’s announcement to buy into Fairfax.

The problem, it seems, is that rich people are not allowed to buy media companies.  Media companies are a sacred trust, a public good, a pillar of democracy, and therefore ought not be owned by the wealthy.

There is a lot of mythology about the media, most of it cooked up and spread by the media itself.  A healthy, independent, fierce media is essential to a functioning democracy… apparently.  I have no idea why this is believed to be true.  Every ‘essential’ element to a functioning democracy is regulated to ensure that power isn’t unchecked.  These checks and balances do not always work well, but no institution is unfettered or unrestrained.

To even criticise the press will cause tut tuts.

No other profession in the West receives this kind of kids’ gloves treatment.  Politicians will happily savage the Church, the military, and even the police before it takes a long hard look at the press.

Rinehart’s purchase of part of Fairfax might prompt some people to question whether the Specialness of the Press is justified, or whether it’s just the spin of a deeply insecure profession.

Further, Rinehart’s purchase has highlighted the question of media ownership.  At least now we know mining stories might not be 100% kosher.  Until now, I had very little idea who was behind Fairfax.  If I read a story in The Age or SMH, I don’t know what commercial interests are behind the ventures.

For instance, until I looked it up, Fairfax is behind RSVP.com.au.  I’m pretty sure I’ve read articles about online dating on SMH; was the article influenced by Fairfax’ commercial interests?

Finally, Rinehart’s purchase might prompt people into getting a bit more serious about supporting alternative media.  If the major newspapers are bought out by disliked commercial interests, people will have to turn to the newly emerging outlets which support the next generation of journalists and writers.

Perhaps we’re all being a little bit uncharitable.  Fairfax has been desperate for cash and now it has one of Australia’s wealthiest people backing it.  Making Fairfax financially viable can hardly be a bad thing.

Don’t you want to be a big time entity? #TheirABC is biased and that’s fine #auspol #ausmedia #qanda

The summer silly season is over and it’s time for television viewing to get back to normal.  For politics junkies nationwide, that means a return to ABC’s Monday night line up: Australian Story, Four Corners, Media Watch, and Q&A.  For all our grizzles and groans about Q&A, Monday night ABC presents some of the best television journalism available in Australia.

But not everybody’s happy with the ABC.  In 2011, GetUp! found itself in a media storm when the ‘Suggest a Campaign’ tool (now defunct) was used to vent frustrations about rightwing bias on the ABC.  The chief culprit was Chris Uhlmann, co-host of 7.30 who, in interviews with Senator Bob Brown and Prime Minister Gillard, was perceived as “childish” and “aggressively interruptive”.  Although both ABC’s Audience and Consumer Affairs and ACMA cleared Uhlmann, the findings have done little to soothe the rage.

Meanwhile, the feelings of Coalition supporters towards Aunty are well known.  Perhaps surprisingly, at the exact same time the Left were crying foul over Uhlmann’s style, there were complaints from the Right about the lack of Coalition-friendly voices on The Drum.  As a rightwinger myself, I find it difficult to take the complaint seriously. Exactly how many times do you need to present articles which say ‘I’m not a scientist, but I checked the science and climate change is garbage’ before you’ve reached balance?

There have been attempts to settle the discussion.  In 2009, then Professor of Economics (now federal ALP parliamentarian) Andrew Leigh co-authored a paper which tried to demonstrate “media slant” (rather than bias) in Australian journalism.  The study used intuitively unusual methods for detecting slant:

“First, we use parliamentary mentions to code over 100 public intellectuals on a left-right scale. We then estimate slant by using the number of mentions that each public intellectual receives in each media outlet. Second, we have independent raters separately code front-page election stories and headlines. Third, we tabulate the number of electoral endorsements that newspapers give to each side of politics in federal elections. Overall, we find that the Australian media are quite centrist, with very few outlets being statistically distinguishable from the middle of Australian politics.”

The methods were modified from US studies into media slants which, as noted in the paper, had a larger sample.  Despite the caveats, one metric revealed something interesting about the ABC:

“All but one media outlet is within two standard errors of the center position, 0.47. On this metric, the only media outlet that is significantly slanted is the ABC Channel 2 television station, which is significantly pro-Coalition during the period in question. However, even here the difference is relatively small, with ABC television’s estimate being 0.51.”

Instead of being an “Aha!” moment, the paper concluded on a temperate note:

“To the extent that cross-country comparisons are possible, our results suggest that the Australian media – at least in terms of news content – are less partisan than their United States counterparts.”

And that – I would have thought – was that.  2009 was the year we finally put the question to bed.  Is the media biased?  Computer says ‘Not particularly’.

And yet here we are, at the start of 2012, still worried that the ABC is biased against whichever end of the political spectrum we’re haunting.  Part of that might have something to do with our inability to get over our intuitions.  In response to the paper on media slant, Chris Berg of the Institute for Public Affairs responded to all the complicated maths and long words with: “I don’t agree with the results and I think there’s a deep problem with the results in that it doesn’t really pass the laughter test.

Because that’s how you test academic research: “Did you laugh at it?  If so, it’s probably incorrect.”

But there might be another reason why we are here in 2012 pondering the question of ABC bias.  Do we suffer from a socio-cultural inability to discuss concepts like “bias”, “prejudice”, and “balance” meaningfully?

We characterise “unbiased” as being factual, balanced, and impartial as if these are unproblematic terms with which we would all agree if we are not being duplicitous or suffering from a bone growing through our brains.  Worse, we characterise our own opinions as being unbiased.  After all, we are rational, fair-minded people.  It therefore follows – as the night the day – that we have balanced, evidence-based opinions and that people who disagree with us are unbalanced or unhinged.

But we can do better than this.  Bias is currently seen as a pejorative, the white ant infestation in the architraves of the Cathedral of Good Journalism.  This brutal view ignores that language itself is biased.  If we try to convey any fact with language, we are wrapping an objective truth in the foggy cloud of language’s subjectivity.  And that’s even assuming that we directly experience the untarnished and untainted facts that we are trying to convey to others.

Bias is the price we pay for language which can incense, inspire, and insinuate, which can seduce with sublime subtlety, and which can order pizza.  A Faustian trade, perhaps.

On this understanding of bias, we get an easy answer to our questions: yes, the ABC is biased because all language is biased.  A journalist interpreted the scene and is now trying to communicate that information using an inescapably biased toolkit.

If I’m correct – and I think I am, because I’m biased – we should not see bias as an evil to overcome but an occupational hazard of the writing craft.  We’re no longer trying to count empirically the units of bias in an article in metric KiloBolts, and it’s no longer a game of “Bias = Boo! Objective = Yay!”  Instead, we are asking more complicated questions: Is the article being unreasonable?  Is the author trying to render their biases invisible?  Am I reacting to the content or the way the content is presented?

By 2012, we ought to have tamed the bias beast and made peace with how ABC handles its bias.  Alas, empirical studies do not satiate our inner conspiracy theorists, and so we have to turn to our cultural difficulties understanding bias and balance.  We will at last be able to to enjoy our regularly scheduled hit of Monday night political entertainment without the nagging feeling that the television is prejudiced against our political opinions.

And I want to be a paperback writer… ‘Press Freedom’ is a crock #auspol #ausmedia

Reporters Without Borders have released their Press Freedom Index 2011-2012.

The Index operates around a single principle: any State interference with the Press is unconscionable and tyrannical.  Regarding Australia, RWB said:

In Australia (30th), the media were subjected to investigations and criticism by the authorities, and were denied access to information [Source: http://en.rsf.org/IMG/CLASSEMENT_2012/C_GENERAL_ANG.pdf]

The cheek of authorities criticising the Press!  And investigations?!interrobang?!

Let’s unpack this mystery of Press Unfreedom in Australia.  The period in question was 1 December 2010 to 30 November 2011.  Thus, it would cover the period where the Australian Government was establishing the Media Inquiry.  It would cover the period where The Australian took aim at the Victorian Chief Commissioner of Police.  It would cover the period where Australia responded to the News of the World phone hacking.

It seems that the inability to tolerate criticism is not a domestic issue.

There are some fundamental issues about the news to which we need answers.

Are news companies part of the entertainment media or are they something different?  All of our major news outlets have entertainment branches as sister companies and the overlap between news and ‘infotainment’ is getting larger.  Is this appropriate?  Is the only news worth knowing entertaining?

Are news companies a fourth estate of a healthy democracy?  If so, why do the other estates of a healthy democracy engage in checks and balances but not the news?  Why is a free press an unaccountable, irresponsible, unchallengable press?

Finally, what protects the ordinary citizen from the awesome power of the press?  Why are we all fair game for their thirst for scoops?  Why doesn’t my privacy deserve protection?

People, they don’t mean a thing to you… Manne and the Media #auspol #ausmedia

In the concluding passage in his Quarterly Essay, ‘Bad News’, Robert Manne said something which struck me as rather odd…

‘The issue is rather the capacity of News Limited to influence the opinions of the vast majority of less engaged citizens whose political understanding is shaped directly by the popular newspapers and indirectly through the commercial radio and television programs which rely on the daily papers for the content of their programs and, more deeply, for the way they interpret the world.’ [Source: Manne, ‘Bad News’ Quarterly Essay p112]

The sentence is characteristic of the brutal use of language in Manne’s essay, but hinted at an assumption lurking unchallenged beneath Manne’s essay: ownership of a newspaper is a big deal because it gives you enormous power.

The Government announced an inquiry into Australian print media (including online media) (brief commentary by Wendy Bacon here).  The Australian Greens have been the loudest voice shouting for an inquiry, resulting in the extremely ungallant performance by Bob Brown on Lateline this week.

When I read the passage in Robert Manne’s essay, I wondered: ‘We’re spending how many hundreds of thousands of dollars on this inquiry… and for what?  For whom?’

I called my family today and asked them: ‘How often do you read a newspaper?’  Neither of my brothers do.  My mother skims through the newspaper at work.  Not living in the city, their local newspaper is utter rubbish.

There has to be some recognition that those of us who consume gallons of sugary, sugary news goodness each day aren’t typical of the average Australian.  Manne’s essay reveals how indulgent we’ve become: the newspapers are important because a very small section of the community (which includes Manne and, probably, you and me) read them.  This inquiry is a vanity project for the Greens: it will cost a not insignificant amount and will result in shockingly little.

We are the goon squad and we’re coming to town… On Manne’s Quarterly Essay #auspol #ausmedia

Finally!  Some time to write!

Adam Brereton wrote an exciting piece on New Matilda about Robert Manne’s Quarterly Essay: ‘Bad News: Murdoch’s Australian and the shaping of the nation’.  I must admit that I was going to skip this edition of QE, because I rarely find Manne capable of pushing beyond assertion into analysis.

But Brereton made the whole thing sound like a delightful trainwreck:

‘On balance, Bad News is an essay worth reading, if only to confirm the things you probably already thought about The Australian, or to laugh at Manne’s constant whining about objectivity, responsibility, sober discourse and apologising for past wrongs. It’s not for you, at any rate, but for the professional politicos. It’s Manne’s passionate Nietzschean cry to the staffers and journos who peddle our daily news: “The Oz is dead! Now let me convince you why.’ [Source: Brereton, ‘How Manne Would Run The Oz’, New Matilda]

Be warned, gentle viewer!  Do not be seduced by Brereton’s siren-song, ‘Bad News’ is a difficult read.

It’s here that I have to pause: I’m conservative and happily reveal myself to be right-wing.  What could I possibly say which couldn’t be easily dismissed as: ‘Oh, Mark!  Of course you would say that “Bad News” is terrible and Manne is a dreadful essayist.  You’re one of those conservative, right-wing types who kick puppies, eat babies, and chide the Left for preferring ideological whining over substance.’

The problem you raise is a good one and would influence the way I write about Manne’s article.  Am I trying to convince people who disagree with me?  Am I trying to reassure people who agree with me?

Manne, very obviously and very clearly, never bothers to enjoy a similar pause.  The result is a wildly incoherent, sprawling mess of unanalysed assertions and contradictions.  But, of course, you expect me to say that.  I’m conservative.

So let’s try this a different way.  Imagine a person claims that we should privilege expert analysis and objective reason over uninformed opinion.   If that same person were to dismiss expert analysis and objective reason when it became rhetorically convenient to an argument, how should you respond?

Lo and behold, Manne argues that by rejecting Science and Reason, The Australian had ‘broken with the values lying at the very centre of the Enlightenment’ (p50).  Heavy stuff.  And as everybody knows, one certainly shouldn’t break with values lying at the very centre of the Enlightenment (cough, Isaiah Berlin… Nietzsche.. cough).

So when Manne asserts that The Australian is running a campaign against the Greens (‘The Greens: “They are hypocrites; they are bad for the nation; and they should be destroyed at the ballot box’), Robert Manne accepts the objective analysis conducted by Media Monitors and retracts his claim that The Australian is trying to destroy the Greens.

Oh, wait!  He totally doesn’t!

‘Mitchell hired an “independent firm,” [scare quotes Manne’s] Media Monitors, to prove the question of anti-Greens bias at the Australian.  Media Monitors found the Australian‘s coverage of the Greens only “slightly unfavourable.”  I conducted my own study. [Emphasis mine]  I found that in the month following the election the paper published fifty articles on the Greens that were hostile and one that was friendly. [Source: Manne, ‘Bad News’, Quarterly Essay, p101]

Manne cites his own ‘studies’ routinely throughout the book.  Surprise: they all confirm Manne’s opinions.  They all consist of downloading all the articles which mention a term, then ‘categorising’ them according to Manne’s opinion.  Enlightenment values!

Worse, there were times when Manne’s argument was so strained and tortured that the position he was denouncing became significantly more persuasive.  Like many things, I really don’t know how to form an opinion about the Iraq war.  I don’t think I have enough information.  I don’t even think I have the right language in which to discuss the issue.  But Manne has strong opinions.  In one of the early chapters, he outlines the argument of the war-mongers: ‘When we fought in Kuwait back in the ’90s, Saddam had biological and chemical weapons; Saddam has gone rogue and wouldn’t be deterred from attacking Israel or Kuwait by the superior force of the US; there is a good chance that Saddam would assist terrorist networks to attack the West; ergo, we should remove Saddam.’  Manne, at no point, gives a convincing rebuttal of any of that.  He wears a strangely positivist hat when he suggests that, because invading forces couldn’t find the weapons, the weapons never existed.

I repeat: I have no idea which answer is best when it comes to the Iraq war, but by assuming a sackful of rhetorical points uncritically, Manne manages to make the case for the Iraq war all the more persuasive.

He finds himself in similar problems when discussing Media Watch.  I think Media Watch was brilliant in the days of David Marr.  Marr is an ideologue.  Marr sometimes makes errors in his reasoning.  But, of all things, Marr makes serious arguments which demand serious consideration from those of us on the Right.

But when Manne presents his argument that The Australian ran an orchestrated campaign against Media Watch (and, in particular, against Marr), Manne somehow makes The Australian seem justified and sane.  Manne appears to suggest that, when a newspaper is criticised by Media Watch, the newspaper should consider itself chastened by the authorities and cease its sinful ways.  The Australian‘s crime, apparently, was to run four (yes, a whole four!  That’s like nearly a billion) articles stating that Media Watch erred in a story which criticised it.

Worse, it made Media Watch smell a little bit rotten: apparently, Janet Albrechtsen didn’t get the job on Media Watch because she was ‘wooden’ — a fact divulged by the candidate who got the job, David Marr.  So much for confidentiality.

Manne appears to assume that his audience already agrees that The Australian is the worse thing since arsenic bread and that they are looking to him to provide rhetorical points to bolster their claims.  Thus, his language when describing opponents becomes unabashedly negative.  Ian Plimer isn’t a scientist: he’s an ‘arch climate-change denialist’ (p49; but was earlier acknowledged as a geologist on p42 after a complaint that debate was hijacked by ‘non-scientists’).  Similarly, on p52, Bob Carter is a ‘denialist geologist’.  The scientific credentials of Bob Brown, Tim Flannery, and Al Gore are never mentioned.  After the quote by David Marr reveals why Albrechtsen didn’t get the Media Watch gig, Manne has some lovely things to say about the merit of her appointment to the ABC Board:

‘Shortly after Marr’s retirement, as it happened, Janet Albrechtsen was appointed by the Howard government to the ABC Board.  In cultural struggles of this kind it is certainly valuable to have friends in high places.’ [Ibid. p31]

Because conservative women can’t be appointed to things based on merit, right?  Nah, it was totally culture wars.

Worse, Manne takes no time to work out precisely who his subject is: part of the essay feels like it’s about Chris Mitchell (in the style of David Marr’s Quarterly Essay on Rudd); then it slides to being about the paper generally; then it’s about the Murdoch media empire.  ‘Slide’ is definitely the correct word to describe Manne’s style: after a brief introduction, we start on the issue of Keith Windschuttle’s attack on Indigenous history.  There’s no sense of where the discussion is going, but we somehow slide to a fruitless discussion about The Australian trying to… something.  Conduct a debate about Indigenous history privileging the side of denialists?  Maybe, but at no point does Manne go down my line of arguing that this sort of rubbish doesn’t belong in public discussion.  Instead he leaves the section with:

[Chris Mitchell] gave [Noel] Pearson his national voice but was also crucial in the making of Keith Windschuttle, the writer and editor most responsible for the return of old racial attitudes which the nation, since the time of Stanner and Rowley, had struggled to transcend.  [Ibid., p14]

Confusingly, Manne takes another crack at The Australian and its treatment of Indigenous issues in another convoluted mess of a chapter later on.  The result is two very confused and confusing pieces which don’t set out clearly the charges against The Australian, but slide around in innuendo and insinuation.

The essay is painful to read.  There is beauty neither in the language nor in the thoughts they struggle to convey.  It is impoverished of ideas and insight: nothing is said which isn’t already believed by critics of Murdoch.  The result in an essay which can be easily dismissed with: ‘Yes, Robert.  Of course you would say that.  You’re an ideologue.’

But the awfulness of the essay goes beyond that: at times, there are moments when you sincerely believe that the essay is going to tackle something interesting.  Manne references Murdoch’s statements about climate change: giving the Earth the benefit of the doubt.  Manne asserts that Murdoch’s papers say whatever Murdoch wants them to say, so why is there a massive gap between the views of Murdoch and his press?  Manne won’t say.  Further, what is the role of the newspaper?  Is it to provide a list of facts which constitute the news, or is it to cultivate a public conversation?  Are Fairfax and the ABC biased?  Manne never says.

What Manne’s essay does confirm, at least for me, is that we’re not having a discussion about the media in Australia: we’re having a discussion about Murdoch.

Totally off the topic: I totally thought the lyric in Fashion was ‘We are the bourgeois and we’re coming to town’.  Turns out I was incorrect.  There must be something Rorschachy going on…  I’m seeing the political struggle in nonsensical lyrics.  Please send help.

We’re leaving now, so all aboard… Why would newspapers report a Twitter scandal?

Each Saturday, I walk into Civic in order to buy my stack of newspapers: Canberra Times, Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian.  Each Saturday, I end up with a mound of sections which I won’t read either because I’m thoroughly disinterested (Drive, for example) or because it is a billion times more efficient to source the information online (My Career, classified, &c.).

Newspapers have the advantage of being able to provide a calm, reflective, stable version of the news.  Where online media outlets scramble to be ‘first’, giving a few details as they trickle in from various sources, newspapers can provide the richer, fuller, broader story.  This is the trade-off we make with newspapers: the news is at least six hours old, but it’s deep and fulsome news.

I find it increasingly difficult to make that argument with a straight face.  While this might have been the case a few years ago, the quality of the news in newspapers has deteriorated.  There have been a number of stories which literally did not make any sense unless you’d been aware of the background online.

And this weekend we had the final kick in the guts from the newspapers: vast coverage of Weiner’s weiner.

Why, in the name of all that is holy and sane, would we look to a newspaper to tell us about something trivial that happened online?  It’s so batshit insane that my face contorted when I read it.  Why would this be here?  Why is the internet infecting my newspapers?

The idea of newspapers as a journal of record is antiquated.  There are two reasons to read a newspaper.

The first is long-form investigative journalism.  All the short ‘factoid’ articles about who said what and what’s doing who have been outclassed by the internet.  Buying articles from other sources has been a staple part of the newspaper diet since at least the 1930s.  Now, a lot of the stories are just collations of online material: press releases, social media stunts, &c.  While it’s cheap, it’s clogging up space for investigative journalism which is far more likely to attract readers into buying papers (or pay-walled content, if managed properly).

The second is high quality opinion and analysis.  I would gladly pay my eight dollars a week in return for reasoned and logical debate.  Far too often, we’re getting the self-important waffling of people who can barely string together sentences.  In the Sydney Morning Herald two weeks ago, Lenore Taylor wrote a piece that was painful to read.  It wasn’t because the ideas were stupid, but because it was riddled with tortured prose, run-on sentences, and paragraphs which had nothing to do with the argument.  I half suspected Amanda Vanstone was ghostwriting for her.

When I talk to people about this issue, people say that they want unbiased reporting of facts.  I disagree.  While brute facts might be unbiased, the sheer process of putting them into language causes bias.  People from both the left and the right wings of politics read factual material and claim bias against them.  The way to avoid this is to have analysis from both ‘sides’ of the debate, calming and rationally discussing agreed facts.  This would work in Australia, if not for one thing:

We don’t have a non-partisan right wing.

There are very few conservatives left in Australia.  We’ve been strangled out of the debate by neo-cons who, come hell or high water, back the Coalition.  It doesn’t matter what the Coalition says, neo-cons think they’re correct.  It also doesn’t matter who’s leading the Coalition: when Turnbull was leading the meta-party, there was significantly less vitriol spewing out about global warming being a sham.  Why?  Because the right wing media was echoing Turnbull’s talking points of the day.

More left wing papers, on the other hand, are less likely to be partisan (although they routinely give free passes to the Greens).  Left wing papers are more likely to criticise both the ALP and the Coalition, while right wing papers are less likely to criticise the Coalition.

Newspapers should get their noses out of Twitter scandal sludge and hours-old ‘news’, and get back into the game of reasoned, rational argument.  For that to happen, we’ve got to find right wing voices which are more than echoes of Coalition scaremongering.  Good luck.

We swam like rats on fire… The hypocrisy of Australian commercial media

Chris Kenny doesn’t like the ABC.

Sorry.  I should have warned you that I was about to reveal that world-shattering news.  No doubt you dropped your afternoon coffee in shock.  ‘How could it be so, Mark?’  I can hear you question from the future.  ‘Since when does the commercial media, particularly The Australian, hate the public broadcaster?’

Alas, ’tis true, ’tis true ’tis pity, and pity ’tis ’tis true.

Amid the bluster and bizarre faux-reasoning, runs a theme that taxes are being wasted on indulging the left.

In their first show, in 2004, hosts Michael Duffy and Paul Comrie-Thomson dared to ask whether, by feeding off the taxes of all and pitching primarily to a progressive few, the ABC was a form of middle-class welfare. Duffy, provocatively asked: “Should our desire to watch Britain’s naked and biting chefs without commercial breaks be subsidised? Or is this unfair on all the workers who have to put up with ad breaks on Channel 9? Is it time to talk about privatising the ABC?” [Kenny, C. ‘Whose ABC?’, The Australian]

Though quoting others, Kenny clearly agrees that it’s middle class welfare (particularly The Drum, though he doesn’t let slip that he also writes for it).

What he doesn’t reveal is that newspaper companies stay afloat by being compensated by Australian taxpayers, mostly through ridiculous spending by the government on job advertisements.  It has been noted, time and time again, that the government’s use of money in this way is wasteful, but it would cripple the industry if they withdrew the funds.

He also fails to reveal that news outlets waste thousands — if not millions — of dollars on frivolous Freedom of Information requests.  The Australian, like other newspapers, have ‘FoI Editors’ whose job it is to lodge dozens upon dozens of FoI claims to government departments in the hope of a scoop.  Though a nominal cost is placed on FoI applications, taxpayers bear the brunt of the costs.

‘In the hope of a scoop’ is the important part there.  Last week, News Ltd. got upset because Senator Conroy started releasing answers to their questions as media releases (thus ‘undermining’ the journalists’ exclusive scoops).  Their questions to government and constant FoI trawling is not in your interest: it’s in theirs.

And don’t they cry when governments try to circumvent them in order to provide us with information?

But let’s get to the meat of his complaint: ABC isn’t needed because there’s no media market-failure in Australia.

I just went through the TV guide for all free-to-air commercial stations, 6pm-10pm.  Apart from reality TV shows, where’s the Australian content?  It’s easier to come across repeats of ’60s American sitcoms on commercial television than it is to come across shows scripted, produced, and performed by Australians.  Commercial stations regularly complain about regulations which mandate Australian content: it’s more expensive (and therefore less profitable) than running U.S. shows.

Australia needs the ABC and SBS to run content which market forces deem unworthy.  Frankly, I don’t think that they go far enough — I hope that, now digital transmission has increased the number of channels, we’ll get a channel for Indigenous content.  If it weren’t for the ABC and SBS, Australian television would be almost entirely overrun by American issues and viewpoints.

So much for all your highbrow Marxist ways… What @abcQandA could learn from Bolt Report, and vice versa

I have a terrible secret.  I enjoy watching The Bolt Report.  It is trash television.  I know it’s trash television.  Bolt seems to realise that it’s trash television.  The only people who don’t seem to realise that it’s trash television are the scary neo-cons who think it’s a ‘breath of fresh air’ and the lunatic lefties who take it way too seriously.

The Bolt Report took a massive hit in the ratings last weekend.  The week before, it beat Insiders (which is the pinnacle of ABC’s navel-gazing: journalists interviewing each other.  7.30 is going the same way).  I think Bolt realises that he’s some form of performance art (which is a shame for sane, rational conservatives like me, because he drowns us out).

But what most don’t seem to realise is that ABC’s Q&A has been trash television for quite a while now.  Back in March, two people co-wrote in The Drum that

Its eponymous raison d’être has been stifled since it devolved into a barely-civilised Jerry Springer for people with degrees (credits to @lhlh70) where the most inflammatory and ill-informed panellists dominate what passes for discussion and no one can learn anything or hear a cogent opinion. [Source: Shaw, J & J, ‘Q&A jumps the shark’, on The Drum]

This year, Tony Jones has seemed very keen to ask questions of his own, making it seem more like a weird-format Lateline than Q&A.  It really started to push the limits of credibility when it began to be used by Jones as a vehicle for creating news: earlier this year, Jones kept baiting Hockey about quotas of females on boards, which then became ABC’s headline news the next morning, even though Hockey didn’t say anything newsworthy.

The Bolt Report lacks any idea of what sort of show it wants to be.  Is it a panel show?  Is Bolt to interview others, or is he there just to spurt out his own opinions?  It darts so rapidly from format to format, not really getting anywhere.

Q&A knows what it is: a light entertainment panel show.  It plays to those strengths through troll-baiting both the audience and the panel, through linking to Twitter and Get Up! initiatives, and through scheduling comedians to sit on the panel.  I often find it infuriatingly funny when they get a bunch of nobodies to discuss their interpretation of complex policy debates.  They’re not alone in their guilt, as First Dog on the Moon noted earlier this week (Angry Birds discussing SlutWalk).

Where it goes wrong, week after week, is in its treatment of issues.  Instead of sticking to one issue and exploring it in depth, it flitters and flutters around, never really nailing any points.  I also use Q&A to describe marginal utility: each episode, there’s deadwood weighing the conversation down.  Last week, it was Brendan Cowell.  The week before, it was John Roskam.  The panel is far too large for a one hour show; trim it back in order to cultivate more depth.

The Bolt Report, for all its faults, chooses two or three subjects and sticks with them throughout the show.  It’s panel segment has the right number of people for its five minute duration.

In short, both Q&A and The Bolt Report would be better shows if they compared notes.

Staring at the sea, staring at the sand… #lolbolt and the right-wing freak show

Andrew Bolt has a new television show, courtesy of a certain mining magnate.

In the course of 30 minutes, he managed to grovel to Tony Abbott, savage an Afghan Refugee, subject the audience to Latham and Kroger’s furious agreement about how terrible Julia Gillard is, and then a very confused rant about the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Even Abbott seemed uncomfortable about the whole thing.  Bolt is a known climate-change denier.  Abbott has been at pains to show voters that he doesn’t ignore reality.

So there was a miniature trainwreck coming when Bolt asked Abbott: ‘Why didn’t you ask my favourite question?  How long would it take the government to reduce the temperature of the Earth?’

Of course, the question is nonsensical.  Action on climate change is designed to slow the rate of temperature increase; not reduce the current temperature.

Smelling a trap, Abbott avoided the problem by evading the topic.  You know a show’s in trouble when even Abbott thinks the host is a crazy.

Not that other conservatives on Twitter seemed to mind.  Summing up most of the Tweets, @VikingQuester wrote: ‘#BoltReport is filling a massive void in the left, politically correct world of TV.

As a conservative, I was really hoping that Bolt would manage to get on a few conservative guests who could discuss and analyse issues.  Instead, we were treated to a confused rush of nonsense.

For the sake of clarity, I’ll be more precise with my terms.  The sort of ‘conservativism’ on display during the Bolt Report and most of the Tweets is that malevolent neo-conservatism that’s drowned out most of the right.

If there’s one things neo-cons hate, it’s political correctness.  They hate it so much that they’re willing to sacrifice correctness altogether.  There was no substance to the Bolt Report.  It was content to make inflammatory assertions about people, most of whom were unable to fight back.  Admittedly, it fell into the same void as Insiders – in an attempt to make journalists seem knowledgeable, they skirt across issues so quickly to avoid anybody making any substantial comment.  The key difference between Bolt Report and Insiders was BR‘s rapid cycling through issues, rather than moving into new territory.

So the opening monologue was about ‘boat people’ and how dreadful they were.  He moved quickly on to a different topic.  He then returned to ‘boat people’ for a quick chat with Latham and Kroger before moving on quickly again.  He then interviewed an Afghan refugee, asking a string unrelated questions as if to bait the poor guy, then closed down the interview.  I forget if ‘boat people’ returned in the closing section (I was stunned by the last section: it was an unrelenting attack on the senses).

The media has a right-wing bias.  The default reporting of events is written from a right-wing perspective (even on the ABC): Coalition talking points are normalised, even when they’re batshit insane; Greens are considered left extremists (I’m no fan of the Greens — I think they’re tricky and deceptive — but I wouldn’t call their position extreme).  Opinion writing is overwhelmingly left-wing, with most of our highest profile writers being ‘progressives’.  If Bolt was to fill a gap, he’d be filling the ‘Analytical and critical right-wing opinion’ gap which we conservatives have left seeping.

Unfortunately, it seems far too much to expect from Bolt, who seems far too content trolling public debate rather than contributing to it.