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Kill Your Darlings, No. 7

Clouds of Rhetoric: Climate Change and the State of Australian Journalism

Midway through 2010, exhausted by the pressures of government and family life, federal finance minister Lindsay Tanner quit politics. He settled down to write a book, Sideshow, on what he saw as the biggest problem facing Australia’s political system – the media.

Sideshow is a thoughtful meditation on what Tanner perceives as the dumbing-down of Australia’s public conversation. Locked in an unhealthy embrace with a media industry, politicians have found themselves more and more beholden to the sound bite, the quick slogan and the cheap gag.

In an age of ubiquitous social networking and the most diverse array of media outlets in history, can we really blame the media for the quality of our political discussion? Tanner argues that we can, since the media remains the way most Australians encounter politics. But the media is increasingly failing us, and as a result the health of our democracy is deteriorating.

Most of us would like to believe that one of the roles and responsibilities of a free media in a diverse and multicultural democracy like Australia is to interrogate the issues of the day. To help ordinary people better understand a complex world, and to facilitate their discussions about the state of their society, and the future courses of action their elected governments should undertake.

This, roughly, is the notion that animates the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas’s famous idea of the ‘public sphere’ (first advanced in his 1962 opus The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere). Habermas is perhaps the best exponent of the idea often espoused more vulgarly by working journalists of ‘speaking truth to power’ and ‘holding governments to account’.

Sadly, most media outlets pay little attention to such noble intentions. As Margaret Simons painstakingly establishes in her magisterial ethnography of the Australian news media, The Content Makers (2007), the commercial imperatives and tribal organisational cultures of Australia’s big media companies are far more relevant to the daily making and shaping of what comes to be called the ‘news’ than the sorts of things that are taught in university journalism courses.

And there is no more tribal culture in Australian journalism than that of News Limited. The newspaper company owned by Rupert Murdoch dominates the Australian daily-newspaper market, representing about 70 per cent and occupying an absolute monopoly in two of Australia’s five largest cities. That readership easily translates into political power for editors prepared to campaign vigorously on public issues with little concern for notions of balance or journalistic integrity.

This would be a reasonable description of the Courier-Mail and the Australian under the chief editorship of one of Murdoch’s most polarising and partisan figures, Chris Mitchell, who earned his stripes at Murdoch’s monopoly Brisbane newspaper, the Courier-Mail, where I freelanced for five years in the early 2000s. It was an open secret in Brisbane media and political circles that Mitchell considered himself the ‘real opposition’ to the then-popular Labor government of Peter Beattie. Unafraid to pursue overt political agendas, the Courier-Mail would hunt certain stories – a beat-up about historian Manning Clark receiving the Soviet Union’s Order of Lenin is particularly notorious – with a zealous glee, glorying in the influence its campaigns could exert on the public discourse.

Mitchell brought this same energy to national politics when he was appointed as editor of Murdoch’s national broadsheet, the Australian, in 2003. In Sally Neighbour’s recent profile of Mitchell in The Monthly, she quotes a ‘veteran Canberra-watcher’ (detractors are cautious about going on the record, given his penchant for personal vendettas): ‘Mitchell has inculcated a view [at the newspaper] that they are there not only to critique and oversee the government, [but also that] it is their role to dictate policy shifts, that they are the true Opposition.’

While I was writing this article, the News of the World scandal blew up. Key editors at Rupert Murdoch’s top-selling British newspaper – including News International’s CEO, Rebekah Brooks, a former editor of the News of the World – were implicated in a vast conspiracy to illegally hack into thousands of mobile phone accounts, including that of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler. The scandal stretched all the way to the top of British politics, forcing Prime Minister David Cameron’s chief media adviser Andy Coulson to resign. For a time, it even threatened to bring down the Murdoch empire.

But, with characteristic chutzpah, Murdoch gathered his tribe in London, circled the wagons, killed off the News of the World, and toughed it out – even at the cost of appearing bumbling and senile at a British parliamentary hearing. Only weeks later, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard was paying Chris Mitchell a personal meeting at News Limited’s Sydney headquarters. No one was prepared to divulge what was discussed.

Similarly, no one has so far suggested that the Australian arm of News Corporation has engaged in illegal activity such as phone hacking. But News Limited is scarcely a scandal-free organisation. The Melbourne Storm salary cap breach, for instance, happened while News Limited’s Australian chief executive John Hartigan was in charge. News Limited owns the Melbourne Storm and part-owns the NRL, but Hartigan has resolutely pleaded ignorance of the abuses and seems to have suffered no ill effects. Indeed, his excuses – that the fraud was perpetrated by a small number of ‘rats in the ranks’ to the ignorance of senior managers – sound a lot like those trotted out by Rebekah Brooks and James Murdoch as they tried to deflect the damage from the News of the World.

The Simon Artz affair at the Australian also has echoes of the British abuses. Artz, a Victorian policeman, leaked details of a counter-terrorism raid to the Australian’s Cameron Stewart in 2009. As a result, Artz and Stewart were investigated by the Victorian Office of Police Integrity, and Artz was later charged. The Australian responded with a vicious campaign against the investigation and against Police Commissioner Simon Overland, in particular. In its 2010 Annual Report, the OPI accused the Australian of mounting a ‘sustained attack’ on its activities that was ‘intended to be intimidatory’. The case against the newspaper was eventually settled out of court, with much secrecy.

Less secrecy has surrounded some of the Australian’s other public campaigns. Perhaps its most notorious is against the science of climate change, which, in a patina of plausible deniability, the newspaper claims to believe in, but against which it continues to run biased and factually inaccurate material. So much has been written about the Australian’s anti-climate science campaign that little needs to be further recorded here – the science writer Tim Lambert has now written 66 separate posts on his blog Deltoid, chronicling the newspaper’s elisions, obfuscations and lies with forensic detail.

But you don’t need to be a blogger dedicated to climate-science communication to notice the Australian’s skew. In one recent example, which was also picked up by the ABC’s Media Watch, the newspaper splashed a front-page story chronicling the research of NSW Department of the Environment scientist Phil Watson, which relates to sea-level rises induced by climate change. The Australian’s Stuart Rintoul published a story misrepresenting this research, proclaiming that sea-level rises were ‘decelerating’ and that Watson’s research ‘called into question … the assumption of an accelerating rise in sea levels because of climate change’. Rintoul’s article also argued that Watson’s research raises ‘questions about the CSIRO’s sea-level predictions’.

Not so. According to the NSW Department of Environment, who wrote a letter of rebuttal to the Australian, ‘this is untrue and misleading and it is not what Mr Watson told your journalist.’ But the newspaper didn’t print the letter, nor did it ask anyone at the CSIRO about their sea-level predictions. As Kathleen McInnes of the CSIRO told Media Watch, ‘the study by Phil Watson does not call into question the projections of the IPCC nor CSIRO and so there is no basis for anyone else to make such assertions.’ Instead, the Australian went on the offensive, writing an editorial attacking ‘the activists who often have made implausible exaggerations about climate change impacts’.

Rintoul’s article is a perfect example of the way the Australian regularly distorts its climate-science coverage. Not only did the newspaper misrepresent the science and the scientist, and attack the CSIRO without even contacting the agency, it also failed to cite any of the plentiful peer-reviewed evidence that does link climate change to rising sea levels. After all, as Lambert concludes in his blog post about the matter, the Australian doesn’t give front-page treatment to ‘more important scientific papers on climate change because they can’t be spun to support the Australian’s agenda.’

Climate-science reporting was also at the centre of the so-called ‘Twitdef’ controversy in 2010. University of Canberra journalism lecturer Julie Posetti was threatened with a defamation suit after she tweeted the content of a speech by a former journalist at the Australian, Asa Wahlquist. Posetti’s tweets recorded Wahlquist as saying that editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell had an anti-climate-change news agenda. Mitchell himself threatened to sue.

The irony of a newspaper editor threatening such a lawsuit was not lost on the newspaper’s many critics. The controversy illustrates the insular, tribal culture of News Limited, and the often vindictive fervour with which perceived enemies are pursued.

What gives Murdoch’s organs their power is the concentration of media in this country, and that News Limited’s influence extends beyond the boundaries of its own publications. With its massive resources, the organisation exerts a subtle, shaping influence on news stories in much of the rest of the media. Since television and radio editors tend to start their day by reading all the newspapers, even the ABC can often be seen framing stories in ways that owe obvious lineage to the skews and biases of Chris Mitchell’s troops.

Of course, printed newspapers aren’t everything – indeed, they’re slowly dying – and citizens get their news from many sources. The power of the mainstream media is slowly disintegrating under the transformative solvent of the internet. The rise of social networking sites has led many to argue that the informed citizen no longer needs media organisations and journalists to help explain current events. For instance, Twitter can be a rapid and highly effective source of new information and breaking news.

Unfortunately, you can’t argue that the internet is strengthening our democratic discussion. The changes wrought by the internet bring worries of their own, foremost the problem of media resourcing. To put it simply: the internet is destroying news media business models and journalists are losing their jobs.

It’s not easy for journalists and writers to get paid. The latest Australia Council research by Macquarie University’s David Throsby reports that 68 per cent of Australian writers earn less than $10,000 a year from their creative work; 37 per cent earn less than $1000. The middle-ranked writer in Throsby’s survey earns $3,600. In 2011, the federal-mandated minimum wage in this country was around $30,600; Throsby’s survey suggests that only three in 20 writers will earn this. Working journalists of course earn far more than this, but jobs are being shed rapidly and the future of journalism looks likely to converge on exactly the sort of working conditions – the freelance, the precarious, and the unpaid – now suffered by artists, musicians and creative writers.

In an age where the means of cultural production and distribution – if not quite the means to make a living from them – are available to most, what does public debate now consist of? And who and how many will get paid to take part in it?

The answers to these questions have never been more contested. When an obscure non-government organisation running an anonymous leaks website can become the most influential media outlet in the world; when the peerlessly powerful chairman of the largest media corporation in the world has suddenly been dragged before the elected legislature of Britain and publicly humiliated; when the public conversation about contemporary affairs includes a savage disagreement over the fate of the planet’s very atmosphere and climate – there can be little doubt that our collective ship of fools finds itself adrift in uncharted waters.

For journalists and other professional non-fiction writers, the story of the last five years has been one of unadulterated economic decline. Buffeted by the tides of economic forces beyond their control, the publishing and news media industries are letting go of full-time writers and journalists at an alarming rate. Those who remain have fewer and fewer resources, while their replacements are often casual freelancers, paid by the piece.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the rapid consolidation of large media conglomerates created many full-time, highly paid, salaried jobs for journalists and other types of media professionals. Even those who worked freelance were often able to enjoy what now seem like spectacular word rates, kill fees and book advances.

But wrenching industrial change has melted all that was solid into air. The contemporary journalism graduate leaving university confronts a profession in which their trade will increasingly be treated like any other casualised, atomised input to the global economy. What used to be a reasonable chance at a steady job, a middle-class living – even perhaps genuine wealth – has now gone. Modern content clicks over at the speed of a hard-drive cylinder, and the modern producer of it must ‘compete for eyeballs’ with millions of writers all over the world, not to mention the increasingly clever algorithms of computers themselves.

The issue of how to make a living is, of course, one I struggle with myself. I am a stay-at-home dad with a nine-month-old child – a working family, in the degraded lexicon of the political sphere. Paying the rent isn’t easy. In some respects, I enjoy a rare privilege to make any money out of writing at all. Nonetheless, the issue of how intelligent political discussion can be supported financially is a personal one. I fear that high-quality political reporting may end up where arts criticism is at now: an essentially amateur pastime, nurtured and developed on blogs for love; abused and traduced in the mainstream media for money.

‘So what?’ you might be thinking, and fair enough. But professional journalism matters, because amateurs rarely have the time and resources to pursue really big investigations, or to doggedly hold political systems to account. Bloggers can excel at opinion and analysis. But in raw-news gathering, their need for a day job inevitably constrains how much they can achieve. I should know: I’ve been both.

The equivocal role of professional journalists is perhaps no better illustrated than in their position in reporting on the larger and more complex issues that affect our body politic – such as the economy or climate change. When it comes to these broader social issues, citizens can certainly form views. But public knowledge is also inevitably filtered through the news media and the views of experts. It is, as the sociologists like to say, ‘mediated’.

Science journalism is an excellent example. The media remains the most important source of information about science and technology in our lives – for obvious reasons. Few ordinary citizens have the scientific and mathematical literacy to follow a field as complex as climate science at the level of the peer-reviewed literature, even if they wanted to.

But clouds of rhetoric and noxious plumes of special-interest spin have obscured the reportage on climate science. Australia is about to embark on an attempt to tax greenhouse-gas pollution and reduce our carbon emissions. The importance of the topic can scarcely be overstated. Yet time and again, the quality of our public debate has been degraded by journalists unable to parse fact from scarifying fiction, and by news stories that present an idea of ‘balance’ predicated on the belief that a small minority of often discredited researchers somehow cancel out the peer-reviewed research of tens of thousands of professional climate scientists. At their best, science journalists are communicating the gravity of climate change with the urgency of the scientists they are reporting on. At their worst, political journalists with no scientific training and a very real agenda are misleading the public.

The problem with lamenting the downfall of the traditional media model is that much of what we like to think as the value of the old order no longer exists. Was it such a great model, anyway? There are some wonderful political journalists still working in the mainstream media: Laura Tingle, George Megalogenis and Mark Colvin, just to name a few. But alongside the luminaries are plenty of hacks. Much political journalism has morphed into ill-disguised opinion, horse-race calling, pop psychology and ‘instapunditry’. Few political journalists are prepared to admit it publicly, but privately most concede that Lindsay Tanner’s analysis in Sideshow is all too acute.

What can save journalism? What can rescue a mission for the democratic good from the Scylla of the internet and the Charybdis of global capital?

In an optimistic view of the future, journalism will somehow restore its tarnished image with the public, re-establish news values in the boardrooms of media corporations and the living rooms of ordinary citizens, and engineer a new business model to pay for it all. The pessimistic view suggests this is unlikely. The changes the industry has undergone cannot be undone; the glory days of All the President’s Men are unlikely to ever return.

No matter your perspective, the erosion of news media business models means more and more journalism will be done by ordinary citizens themselves. Yes, the future of journalism will still include a few large organisations with considerable remnant power, prestige and resources. But much journalism will retreat to individual bloggers and small publishing collectives, staffed by volunteers and lowly-paid freelancers.

Much will be lost in the transition: experience, access to power, resources to investigate, corporate memory. But much might also be gained: transparency, commitment, and a vision of journalism as an art to be honed and an ideal to be pursued for non-monetary gains.

Removed from the perpetual circus and Canberra doorstop interviews, the quality of the reporting might even improve.

– Ben Eltham is New Matilda’s National Affairs Correspondent and a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development.

‘Clouds of Rhetoric: Climate Change and the State of Australian Journalism’ appears in Issue Seven of Kill Your Darlings. Purchase the issue here or subscribe to the print journal.

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