Hate on the media, sure — but leave the journalists alone
There’s no doubt about who’s getting the worst press out of the current election. That would be, umm, the press itself. Hating on Australia’s media seems to be how plenty of Australians are passing the time while they wait out the election campaign. It’s dominating social media: if there’s a word cloud for this election, the journalistic take-down GOTCHA! would be centre-field.
Sure, hate on the media, but let’s leave the journalists out of it. More, let’s recognise that plenty of individual journalists — most of them, really — are doing some great work. It’s journalists, not a no-longer mass media, that amplify the agenda (with significant input from Twitter), story by story.
The core issues that are shaping the election — like the treatment of women in politics, the inherent corruption in a politicised grants process (and the consequent demand for a national ICAC), the aged care crisis — all started as news stories, dug out and spread around by journalists.
We saw it again this week when journalistic inquiry helped re-set the agenda with questioning of Albanese on real wage rises, bizarrely resulting in Morrison self-gotchaing himself with his knee-jerk “Higher wages? No way!”
Sure, there have been stumbles. The first week time-wasting, when Albanese was gotcha-ed over the unemployment and cash rates (and the later failed Nine gotcha over NDIS), an over-eagerness to insert themselves into the story, or the complacency of a handful of highly paid commentators about the decline of real wages.
These stumbles demonstrated both the worst of journalism — its glass jaw — and the best: its ability to learn. While the first gotcha was applauded (and defended), the later attempts fell flat, critiqued by the craft’s opinion leaders, despite Nine’s best efforts to keep it alive.
All the (many legitimate) criticisms of the way the media is handling the election comes from one simple truth: Australian news media has lost its “mass” that once allowed it to jointly shape an election narrative. Now, it’s fragmented — and each of those fragments is trying to fit its election coverage into their sustainability strategy.
Take News Corp (please! Boom tish!). Its strategy is to build a loyal, committed audience on the right, prepared to dig into its pockets and throw dollars at them as reward for bias confirmation. It has abandoned news for propaganda as a result, most of it safely pay-walled or turned into Liberal Party advertising.
Or take commercial television. Building its audience demands must-watch-now programming that keeps its ageing watchers away from the streaming services. That means it finds it hard to resist the temptation of turning its news into a reality TV-style event.
Morrison has made free-to-air commercial television his medium of choice. It plays to his campaigning strengths: if TV needs doing-things images for disengaged voters watching the news with the sound turned down, he’ll give ‘em that. If it needs a shouty grab that fills the conflict quota, well, he can do that too.
Morrison also knows something that Trump taught word-saladers the world over: you can ramble as much as you like. Television’s imperatives will impose the clarity of brevity over the messiest of pressers. As free-to-air audiences literally switch off (or switch over to streaming), the commercials need must-watch-now events. It’s why they’ve been so eager to host the leaders debates — and why Morrison has been happy to oblige them.
The ABC, for Morrison, is another matter. Its business model demands serious content for serious people. It’s more words than images. That’s not Morrison’s schtick. That’s why he’s consistently ducked the hard or live interviews on 7.30 or Insiders.
Instead, between elections, the conservatives use their think-tank front, the Institute of Public Affairs, to provide the “thought” leadership for ABC programming and, in elections, rely on its deep-thinkers, like Treasurer Josh Frydenberg or the modern Liberals under attack from teal independents.
The Morrison focus on TV has worked for the Liberals since Tony Abbott patented the approach. But it misreads where the media is now in 2022. Today, only the ABC endures as the mass part of the media. Just these past three years it’s replaced News Corp as the critical media voice both in reach (it’s now the leading go-to site for online news) and in agenda setting through its ability to amplify its own programming.
Just about all the issues that have hacked Morrison’s credibility over the past term grew out of ABC reporting: the compelling coverage of its reporters across the regions in the 2020 bushfires; Louise Milligan’s early reports on the culture of the Parliament in 2020; its Four Corners 2018 two-parter on the aged care crisis.
Let’s bash the commercial media; it’s not meeting the needs of the moment. But Australia’s journalists? I’m with The Who: the kids are alright.