Sitting in the Dschungel… We do have political satire, Mark. They’re called newspaper cartoons and they suck. #auspol

I like satire.  I really do.  Last week, I wrote in defence of satirical news programmes, claiming that they form a necessary bridge between the public and the issues of the day in a format that suits the audience.

But something was wrong.  Something was niggling at the corner of my memory.  Shortly before Presentmas, a few days before I posted that entry, I went to the Behind the Lines: The Year’s Best Political Cartoons exhibition at the Museum of Australian Democracy (Old Parliament House).  As very few people still read newspapers, it’s a chance for the broader public to see what the very best Australian political cartoonists produce.

As I’ve written before, Australian political cartoonists are dreadful.  Since writing that, I came across Simon Doonan’s article in Slate about why the art world is so loathsome. Among other things, Doonan discusses the idea of modern society being in a ‘post-skill’ environment:

“No major figure of profound influence has emerged in painting or sculpture since the waning of Pop Art and the birth of Minimalism in the early 1970s,” writes Camille P. But what about those annoying YBAs, the young British artists, the folks that noted U.K.-based art critic Brian Sewell has wickedly and accurately dubbed “The Post-Skill Movement”? Are they profound or influential? [Source]

It’s a wonderful phrase, if used carefully.  Used inexactly, it’s the vehicle for the sneering and pompous attitude of previous generations of artists towards anything done by newer generations.  Used precisely and surgically, it helps to describe the ugliness that results from a rejection of tradition.  Art cannot exist outside the critical response to the traditions which made it possible.

Continue reading “Sitting in the Dschungel… We do have political satire, Mark. They’re called newspaper cartoons and they suck. #auspol”

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Quick Post: On @antloewenstein’s wishlist for journalism #auspol

English: Rupert Murdoch at the Vanity Fair par...

Over on The Guardian, Antony Loewenstein has written a wishlist for journalism in 2014.  Without gazumping it too much (it’s a good read), Loewenstein has four items on his list: reduced reliance on anonymous sources, a ban on politicians penning opinion pieces, greater investment in the ‘Snowden effect’, and increased lauding of public broadcasting.

Although the piece is interesting and fun, it’s also an example of the sort of thing that I don’t want to see in 2014.

Continue reading “Quick Post: On @antloewenstein’s wishlist for journalism #auspol”

Things I’d like to see in the media: closer merging of news and entertainment #auspol

Image representing Rupert Murdoch as depicted ...
Image via CrunchBase

It is an oft heard complaint that there is too much overlap between news and entertainment.  It is not uncommon in Australia for news programs to promote reality television programs or to report on soap opera plot developments.  It is frequently opined that we treat politics like it’s a football match, that we turn politicians into celebrities by making them perform like dancing monkeys on prime time TV, and that we sacrifice intelligent, sober political analysis for clickbait.

People misdiagnose the problem.  These are examples of where news is sacrificed in the name of entertainment. It’s not really an ‘overlap’; it’s one dominating the other.

On the other hand, merging news platforms with entertainment platforms — entirely possible given recent technological developments — would improve the quality of our news output and the diet of people who regularly consume the news.  If done properly, it would also improve the quality and quantity of Australian made entertainment.  It sounds counterintuitive, but it’s more than possible.

I’ll admit that this is the idea which makes me seem most like a supervillain…

Continue reading “Things I’d like to see in the media: closer merging of news and entertainment #auspol”

Things I’d like to see in the media: Journos who are comfortable with their ignorance #auspol

PEN Quiz 2007
PEN Quiz 2007 (Photo credit: englishpen)

Over the next few days, I’m writing up these shorter posts about things that I really wished were actually things in the media.  Should it so happen that a wealthy philanthropist likes the sound of any of these and would like to bankroll them, you can contact me through my ‘about’ page.

One of my key arguments is about the importance of opinion writers.  They — like ethicists and legal theorists — have the task of putting into language the intuitions of non-experts.  If successful, non-experts will have better tools with which to express their own views.

The invisible hand likes to interfere and so opinion writers (by and large) are not necessarily successful if they are clever or insightful.  They are successful if they generate a lot of traffic, either in the form of newspapers sold or views of their website.  Thus, we have the foundation for the Outrage Economy.  Not only do we share excellent pieces of writing with which we agree, but we feel the need to share things which offend us so that we can add our condemnation.

The invisible hand affects opinion writers in another disturbing way: opinion writers need to produce content on a wide variety of subjects, and thus there is an incentive to opine beyond the capacity and knowledge of the writer.  Thus we get writers who one moment are experts on asylum seeker issues before turning rapidly to the carbon tax, and then to foreign affairs, &c., &c., &c.  Far from being polymath foxes, they run the risk of becoming ‘Professors of Everythingology’.

It would benefit public debate if Australian opinion writers were more familiar with Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Criticism:

Be sure your self and your own Reach to know.

How far your Genius, Taste, and Learning go;

Launch not beyond your Depth, but be discreet,

And mark that Point where Sense and Dulness meet.

Pope’s essay contains the core idea of what I’d like to see in the media: journalists who transcend their insecurities and have made peace with their ignorance.

Continue reading “Things I’d like to see in the media: Journos who are comfortable with their ignorance #auspol”

I wrote some songs; they’re all for you… Why @ShoebridgeMLC is wrong about shield laws #auspol #auslaw

In New Matilda, David Shoebridge (Greens member of the NSW Member of the Legislative Council) argued that shield laws for journalists need to be more robust.

As a motherhood statement all political parties say they accept that the media have a legitimate role in uncovering often difficult evidence and then using that to hold the powerful to account. But the real test of their commitment to this principle will be if they support the extension of shield laws beyond just sources and beyond the Courts.

It is time for all governments to urgently reform shield laws so that they protect journalists from revealing their sources and from betraying their confidences and to extend these protections to other coercive public inquiries. For all those politicians who say they believe in the principle of a free press, the time has come to put up the laws. [Source: Shoebridge, ‘Why Journalists Need Shield Laws’, New Matilda]

Shoebridge gives examples of cases where the wealthy and the powerful used the courts to chase after journalists.  Mining heiress Gina Rineheart is currently chasing a journalist in the WA courts over claims she believes are defamatory.  Rineheart wants the details of correspondence between the journalist and the source so that she can then sue the source for those comments.  And so on and so forth.

The argument relies on the audience having fairly similar reactions to the examples cited: journalists are the brave, courageous truth-seekers who need protection from the rich and the powerful.

But Shoebridge isn’t arguing for shield laws to protect the brave, courageous truth-seeking journalists from the rich and the powerful; Shoebridge is arguing for shield laws to protect all journalists from everybody else.

I think I’m entitled to a certain level of privacy and a fair reputation.  One day, I become a little bit famous and a local journalist decides that publishing sordid details about me would sell more papers.  They find a secret source who’s willing to divulge all kinds of strange stories about me.

Due to our legal system, I’m unlikely to be able to afford the same level of legal representation as the newspaper.  I could probably afford to sue the source of the information, but Shoebridge’s proposed shield laws prevent me from discovering who that person is.  So what are my options?  What protects me from the tabloid journalist? Why don’t I have a right to face my accusers?

Journalists are not on the side of the public.  For example, it was clearly in the interests of democracy that voters knew which politicians were leaking information to the media, but the media decided not to tell us.  This problem is reflected in the level of trust the public has for journalists: it’s extremely low.

So if we don’t trust journalists, and if we can clearly see that journalists are not acting in the interests of the public, why would we confer upon them greater protections from public accountability?

So free your love. Hear me, I’m coming… Why opinion writing matters #MediaWatch #auspol #ausmedia

Monday night’s Media Watch ran another of its ‘special’ episodes where it tries to explore a particular issue relating to journalism in more depth.  Unfortunately, both the time constraints and the limitations of the current host tend to cripple the show’s ability to really nut out the issues in sufficient depth.  In an interesting exploration of the phrase ‘A man’s reach should exceed his grasp’, Media Watch really wants to achieve something amazing, but has neither reach nor grasp.

Which is a shame.

In an episode filled with unchallenged assumptions, one stood out to me in particular because it’s quickly becoming the dominant ideology in discussions about the media.

 And even as their numbers dwindle, more and more senior journalists appear to be spending time analysing and opining, rather than digging and reporting. […] Laurie Oakes is hoping – vainly, perhaps – that the mainstream media will see that fact-based reporting, not endless opining, is what it can do better than the blogosphere. But he, and I, both fear that it may be too late. [Souce: Media Watch, 22 April 2013]

In the comments of the transcript, one comment echoes this ‘fear that it might be too late’:

The media doesn’t have any interest in reporting facts. I’m sick to death of listening to journalists opinions. I want the facts. As a result, I now look for my news and facts outside of the usual news outlets. [Source: ‘Jason’ 23 Apr 2013 8:12:40am]

As a person interested in theory, I worry when people start to divide the world into ‘fact’ and ‘opinion’.  Facts, it seems, are independent of the observer and, as such, are the correct material for newspapers and journalism.  But we know that the world doesn’t work like this.

Take the discussion about live exports.  People were extremely passionate about the subject and had radically different ideas about what was at stake.  In the middle of this was an internal-ABC paroxysm about whether the ‘correct’ word for the building where animals are killed was ‘slaughterhouse‘ or ‘abattoir‘.  Both words denote the same thing (broadly), but one has the word slaughter in it.  Is it neutral to use a word which does not include that connotation?  Is it neutral to use a word which does?

In January, Australians celebrate ‘Australia Day’ which marks… settlement? colonisation? invasion?  Which is the neutral word?

More than the prevalence of opinion (to which we’ll return in a moment), I’m worried about the pretence of ‘neutrality’.  Time for some Zizek!

In his review of Zero Dark Thirty, Zizek noted the director’s claim that it was supposed to be a neutral account of the events leading up to bin Laden’s… death?  killing?  murder?

One doesn’t need to be a moralist, or naive about the urgencies of fighting terrorist attacks, to think that torturing a human being is in itself something so profoundly shattering that to depict it neutrally – ie to neutralise this shattering dimension – is already a kind of endorsement.

Imagine a documentary that depicted the Holocaust in a cool, disinterested way as a big industrial-logistic operation, focusing on the technical problems involved (transport, disposal of the bodies, preventing panic among the prisoners to be gassed). Such a film would either embody a deeply immoral fascination with its topic, or it would count on the obscene neutrality of its style to engender dismay and horror in spectators. Where is Bigelow here?

Without a shadow of a doubt, she is on the side of the normalisation of torture. When Maya, the film’s heroine, first witnesses waterboarding, she is a little shocked, but she quickly learns the ropes; later in the film she coldly blackmails a high-level Arab prisoner with, “If you don’t talk to us, we will deliver you to Israel”. Her fanatical pursuit of Bin Laden helps to neutralise ordinary moral qualms. Much more ominous is her partner, a young, bearded CIA agent who masters perfectly the art of passing glibly from torture to friendliness once the victim is broken (lighting his cigarette and sharing jokes). There is something deeply disturbing in how, later, he changes from a torturer in jeans to a well-dressed Washington bureaucrat. This is normalisation at its purest and most efficient – there is a little unease, more about the hurt sensitivity than about ethics, but the job has to be done. This awareness of the torturer’s hurt sensitivity as the (main) human cost of torture ensures that the film is not cheap rightwing propaganda: the psychological complexity is depicted so that liberals can enjoy the film without feeling guilty. This is why Zero Dark Thirty is much worse than 24, where at least Jack Bauer breaks down at the series finale. [Source: Zizek, ‘Zero Dark Thirty: Hollywood’s gift to American power’ The Guardian]

Zero Dark Thirty is a really good case study in ‘neutrality’ as a way to obscure the ideology of the author.  Watching this film, you get the impression that torture was useful in the hunting down of bin Laden even though no particular point of the film outright makes the claim.  When confronted with the allegation, the director was able to hide behind the air of neutrality: ‘Oh, I’m not really saying anything or pushing a particular message.  I’m being neutral.’

Journalism should not go down this path.  Journalists and editors are just like directors, they make decisions about what goes into the news and, equally as importantly, make decisions about what is not covered.  When we, the ordinary public ask, ‘Why did you cover this story in this way, and why didn’t you cover that story?’ the answer is not ‘We objectively presented the facts!’ but ‘We made decisions about what we thought was important based on our own judgement.’

In this respect, I wish journalists were a little bit more human.  Instead of hiding behind the phony veil of objectivity, I wish we could get a better understanding of how they view the world first so that we can see the perspective from which they’re writing.  Alas, we’re never going to get that because of journalists’ pretension of professionalism.  Objective and impartial…

Don’t get me wrong.  Worse than trying to be objective and denying subjectivity is the greater evil: being extremely partial and pretending to be objective.  Going holus bolus after particular political parties, &c., &c., &c., in the ‘news’ is flatly unprofessional.  It was unprofessional when Murdoch’s media empire backed Gough in the 1970s and it’s equally unprofessional today.  All of that said, I wrote in New Matilda that the attacks on News Ltd weren’t always entirely justified and still agree with that position:

It’s like watching the hyenas maul Scar at the end of The Lion King. Sure, Scar wasn’t exactly the hero of the story, but did he deserve to be torn to shreds? [Source: Fletcher, ‘Has News Ltd Actually Done Anything Wrong?‘ New Matilda]

So, just to reiterate: outright bias masquerading as objectivity is a Bad Thing, but feigning objectivity without admitting subjectivity is also a Bad Thing.

What I argue now is that the same principle can be applied to opinion writing.  Further, good opinion writing is absolutely essential to a well-functioning democracy.

The difficulty in making this argument is that we are much more familiar with bad opinion writing than we are with good opinion writing.  From both sides of politics, we are more familiar with the asinine restatement of partisan party lines as opinion than we are with opinion writers who are able to put into words those ideas that we’re struggling to express.

Forget journalism for a moment and turn to applied ethics.  Everybody has ethical intuitions.  Everybody has a vague idea of what they think is morally good and morally bad.  The point of applied ethics (and ethicists) is not to be some decider who determines whether some act is good or bad, or even some pontiff who tells people how to think about ethics.  The point is to give language to people’s intuitions and to challenge those intuitions.

Opinion writing — good opinion writing — fits into a similar framework.  The point of opinion writing is not to just express the opinion of the author (every halfwit with an internet connexion can do that) but to give language to people’s intuitions about debates and to challenge those intuitions.

It therefore becomes almost a trivial matter of showing why good opinion writing would not be an expression of outright bias pretending to be objective but, instead, would be more like good journalism simpliciter — presenting a balanced and fair account of an argument without pretending that the account was objective.

Why is good opinion writing as I’ve described important?  We assume that everybody is equally capable of putting together a coherent argument.  ‘Opinions are like arseholes,’ I’ve been told, ‘Everybody has one.’  But it’s not actually true.  Some people have much better opinions than other people.  Some people are much better at expressing their opinions than others.  Some people have opinions that would never occur to other people — for example, as a straight white guy, my perspective on the world is very different from a homosexual, a person of colour, or a woman (see, for example, the recent atheism debate where a white guy straight up told me that there was no problem of gender in pop-atheism and that I should STFU for claiming such a thing).

When we live in a Republic of Reasons, it is important that people have the tools necessary to discuss and debate their reasons with others.  Good opinion writing provides that tool.

And we see the outcome of our modern landscape of poor opinion writers.  Tony Abbott puts up a sign with some potentially inaccurate words; people freak out about those words, vandalise the sign, and then completely forget to analyse the policy.  Meanwhile, millions of voters have their bellyfeel instincts about both border control and asylum seeker activists confirmed.  We have protests filled with people of both political tribes who can barely mumble out what they believe.  Meetings of the WTO and G20 are bombarded by people screaming ‘Something something globalisation something something.’  We see crowds gathered at Parliament House with ‘Ditch the Witch’ signs.  You could replace all journalists with objective robots who dutifully conveyed information in some value-neutral way (i.e. with magic) and you’d still see this depressing obliteration of public discourse.  Why?  Because people don’t have good quality resources for forming opinions.

So let’s get back to Media Watch.  Jonathan Holmes and Laurie Oakes fear ‘endless opining’.  They shouldn’t.  The current batch of opinion writing is not unlike a sewer gushing out into the wilderness and we should fear that the rivers will never again run clean, but we shouldn’t fear opining itself.  What we should be doing is looking for ways to improve the content of our opinion columns.  We should look for ways to promote diversity in columnists for one, and to promote quality for another.

But we already know why this won’t happen: the market.  When it’s more profitable to pump out blogs and columns by trolls (leftwing and rightwing) who can draft up linkbaiting garbage with very little research, you’re going to tap that resource dry before you start to look for well-researched opinion pieces which (shock, horror) will be expensive.

I have a dream that, one day, I’ll be able to read the opinion pages of an e-newspaper which won’t be flooded with ‘comedians’, ex-politicians or their staffers, or think tank miscreants.  I suspect I’ll be dreaming for a long time to come.

You’re such a delicate boy in the hysterical realm… The Spectre of Catholicism in Folk (A)Theology

You make the whole world want to dance…

So we have a new Pope and he’s totally a Jesuit.  A Jesuit.  From the Society of Jesus.  Didn’t Dan Brown say something about Jesuits?  Weren’t Jesuits another name for Opus Dei, the Illuminati, and the Reptile Lizard People?  Wasn’t Tony Abbott advised by an influential Jesuit?

For an institution as old and as influential as it is, it is strange that the Catholic Church is so poorly understood and so often misrepresented.  Misunderstandings and misrepresentations of theology are understandable; theology is difficult and popular culture has neither the time nor the inclination to grasp its subtleties.  It’s why Dawkins can sit on Australian television guffawing about Cardinel Pell’s grasp of human evolution, while simultaneously making stupid comments about how Catholics understand the concept of the soul.  Knowing about science is Important, but knowing about theology is a Waste of Time (especially, it seems, for people who write books with titles like God Is Not Great and The God Delusion).

But misunderstandings and misrepresentations of the Church itself seem less understandable. Perhaps it’s because of the huge amount of anti-Catholic propaganda circulating the place.  Perhaps it’s because the Catholic Church has a history of not being entirely open about its wheelings and dealings.  And perhaps it’s because people just like to think the worst about large organisations and powerful individuals.

When Pope Benedict XVI declared his intent to resign, social media went into meltdown.  ‘The Pope?!  Resigning?!  Can the Pope resign?!’  I had a rather testy exchange with Alan Fisher, a senior journalist with Al Jazeera, when he added to the noise of ‘Oh, wow!  How is this even happening?!’  His role, I argued, was not to be as ignorant as the average punter, but to be a source of information for the average punter.  He disagreed, figuring that the media was supposed to be a mirror of public reaction or some crap.  But when the media appears to be mystified by the mysteries of the Church, how is the ordinary public supposed to keep up?  (More cynically, I think they feign mystification in order to hype up the news: ‘The Catholic Church acted in a way contrary to ignorant public expectation; this is extraordinary news!  Click here!  Retweet this!  Linkbait!  Linkbaaaait!’)

But problems with Pope Benedict XVI’s image went further than mere astonishment at everything he did.  He had significant image difficulties.  This shouldn’t have been a problem, given that he was a man of substance — but when the wider world gets its information in 2-second bites, looking like Emperor Palpatine did more to influence public perception than anything written in an encyclical.

Perhaps that’s a bit unfair.  It also appears to be true that the wider world wants nothing more than a non-Catholic Pope.  ‘This Pope is anti-condoms, homophobic, and believes in the resurrection of Jesus?!  Way to stay in the Dark Ages, Catholic Church.’   It is strange to compare the Pope with the Dalai Lama; while the Dalai Lama is homophobic and occupies a weird place in Tibetan politics, he gets the benefit of being a smiling, goofy-looking Asian.  Pope John Paul II was an Old, White Guy.  Pope Benedict XVI was formerly of the Hitler Youth or something.  And while the Dalai Lama occupies a fantasy role in the lives of hundreds of thousands of white Buddhists (who totally think it’s a philosophy and not a religion, and who think they can pick and choose the bits which affirm their affectations), the Pope is Catholic.  Horribly, horribly Catholic.

Somewhere in this space is the attitude that you don’t need to understand the Catholic Church in order to criticise it.  Child abuse!  Anti-condoms!  Dan Brown!  But it could also be that we feel it’s not possible not to know something so omnipresent and influential.

The Church has a lot of problems to resolve, and it needs to resolve them quickly.  The problem of child abuse (and abuse in general) has a systemic and long-standing problem, and an academic Pope might not be the best person to address those needs.  But the problem needs to be understood before it can be solved: is the problem that there’s abuse within the Church, or that the Church knew about the abuse and did nothing, or that the Church knew about the abuse and covered it up, or that the Church suspected the abuse but had structures which tried to avoid addressing the issues, or &c.?  When the prevailing attitude is ‘Boo!  Catholics!’ it is difficult to nut out the problem of abuse.  I hope that the Catholic Church in Australia engages with these questions.  Given some of the people responsible for engaging with the Royal Commission, I think that there’s a good chance of that happening.  In fairness, although the Catholic Church has had some of histories finest apologists, the Church itself has never been sufficiently apologetic for its past and current crimes.

But part of the solution has to be a reengagement with the community.  The Church has become like an estranged father, shadow looming over the community as it tries to rebel.  The image problems, the conspiracy theories, and, now, the questions about what it means for a Jesuit to be CEO of the Corp are symptoms of the disconnect.

And this is all said by a devout and practicing atheist.  A healthy, open, and connected Church is in the interests of everybody, not just Catholics.  I hope that Pope Francis is capable of the task.