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’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.