KATHARINE MURPHY June 25, 2012
Illustration: Andrew Dyson.
Talk of the looming death of newspapers blurs the issue. What's really under threat in the shift from print to digital is a commercially sustainable ''objective'' model for news.
AS THE Australian media convulses inelegantly towards the digital age, Australians have found themselves again debating the concept of editorial independence - what it means, and whether it exists or matters. If politicians speak the unvarnished truth, they tolerate rather than celebrate media independence.
Politicians would prefer media outlets produced hagiography; or, if that's too much, simply opened our channels sufficiently to allow them to land the message of the day.
This impulse isn't vanity so much as professional necessity. Only a few years ago, before the 24/7 news cycle, politicians could more easily ''manage'' the message. The times suited able political communicators such as Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and John Howard. Events and policies actually adhered and endured in the news cycle. They weren't washed away in an hour.
But these days, a complex message is no sooner out of a politician's mouth than it fragments. Even gifted communicators struggle if the information isn't dead simple. This is a serious challenge for professional political communication around the democratic world.
Events in the Australian media industry this past week have issued an invitation to politicians to reflect on the kind of media they might want. The responses have been interesting.
Wayne Swan and Stephen Conroy have issued a clarion public call in defence of Fairfax Media's charter of editorial independence.
Conroy said the Fairfax readership would go into ''crisis'' if there was overt editorial interference by Gina Rinehart (who has lifted her stake in the company to nearly 19 per cent and sought to gain seats on the board).
''The key about the Fairfax brand is that it is seen as trustworthy, and it is seen as impartial, and that it goes without fear or favour, and to corrupt the 'without fear or favour' I think we'll see a real backlash, a crisis of confidence,'' he said.
The lower house Greens MP Adam Bandt played the moguls. He did not want to find himself stranded between what Gina Rinehart thought and what Rupert Murdoch thought.
The Coalition exhibited a modest spectrum of views. Tony Abbott thought discretion the better part of valour on Rinehart's aspirations. Whether she signed the charter of editorial independence was a matter for her and the Fairfax board, he said.
Christopher Pyne made it abundantly clear he believed a charter of independence was a relic from another era.
Malcolm Turnbull spoke like a chap who might have some insight into the uncompromising psychology of the super rich. He trod carefully, but nonetheless believed Rinehart would be prudent to sign the charter. (Perhaps it was his condition talking. Turnbull does suffer from chronic independence-itis.) Jokes aside, he knows the wiles of moguls, people who like calling the shots.
The rest of us can examine the Leveson inquiry in Britain to glean that the relationship between politicians and media proprietors can be cosy one minute, toxic the next. What goes around in these complex relationships tends to come around. Usually the fractures coincide with an ambition by the politician to be their own person.
So, can genuine independence exist between politics and the media; and between media owners and the editors and journalists they employ? In our harried, corrupted, uncertain age, the ''independence'' creed seems either heroic and true, or ludicrously optimistic - depending on your disposition.
Talk abounds about the looming death of newspapers, but this is a straw man. What's really under threat in this transition from print to digital is a commercially sustainable ''objective'' model for news. Objectivity (a luxury that flows from institutionalised editorial independence) is seriously out of fashion. It's either derided as a construct, or considered boring.
And who will buy objectivity exactly? This is the subscription era. Crowds follow conflict and aggressive, simple, cut-through points of view. Further discounting of objectivity comes with the fantasy that anyone with an iPhone and a Twitter account can ''do news''.
Objectivity, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. Conservative critics of The Age would have you believe it is a dripping wet left-liberal parody of itself. Progressive critics of The Age would have you believe we have been too unrelenting in our criticism of Gillard Labor. Whatever your view, we are not directed. We call as we see. We rarely shriek issues, or ''campaign'' off the long run.
This great responsibility and privilege, I fear, is at risk of being rendered passe in the age of breaking invective. In that universe, objectivity is not an intrinsic value but a construct that wimps hide behind because they cannot summon an opinion.
In the great media debate, Australians tend to fixate on the puppet masters: what will moguls do to assert influence and chase audiences? What will governments do to either abet or block them?
That fixation misses an essential point. The arbiter of the future of commercial news is you, the readers.
You have the box seat for the transformation. You will determine what is left after this revolution, through your preferences, through how you respond.
So, decide what you want. And be prepared to love it, buy it, defend and cherish it. You have the power. I'll be fascinated to see how you use it.
Katharine Murphy is national affairs correspondent.
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