Passing Bull 107 – Bull about journalism

Last Friday, the press carried two worrying pieces about the crisis facing our journalism.  Adam Creighton in The Australian said:

High-profile job losses at Fairfax in recent weeks are part of a worrying trend. More than 2500 journalists have been laid off by Australia’s media companies since 2011, about a quarter of the total.

Meanwhile, the ranks of public relations, advertising and corporate affairs professionals have swollen by around 19,000 to 91,000, according to ABS statistics. That leaves about 12 PR people for every journalist in the country — and it certainly feels that way when I open my inbox each morning.  These figures exclude the thousands of political advisers working for state and federal governments too.

Unless this army of spinners is entirely useless, such an onslaught must have compromised the quality of what journalists write and say, quite apart from their reduced numbers…..

Journalists are the only effective check on government and large corporations, whose information about, and power over, citizens and customers is probably greater than at any time in history. Their incentives — to call out vested interests — are naturally aligned with the public interest more than any other job.

The author referred to reports that half the populace take their news from Facebook.  The horror of the fading of journalism under inanity and the internet becomes apparent from a piece by Edward Luce from the US in The AFR. 

If America’s political system were working as it should, Donald Trump would be in serious trouble. Either Congress would be taking steps that could ultimately lead to impeachment, or people around the President would have concluded him unfit for office.

But Mr Trump retains an ace up his sleeve. No elected Republican dares cross him. Any who think of standing up to him know they would risk an electronic lynching that could finish their career. Just ask Jeb Bush.

America’s government is at a dangerous impasse. Most people know Mr Trump is unfit to be commander in-chief. But nobody with the power to redress it has found the courage to act.

The tragedy for America – and the world – is that this is likely to persist at least until next year’s US midterm elections. Even overt signs that Mr Trump is trying to obstruct justice, which was the first article of impeachment against Richard Nixon, are glossed over. Between a quarter and a third of Americans are diehard Trump supporters. They have the power to eject rebel Republicans in primary elections.

Trumpians are stoked by a closed ecosystem of news sites that presents the world in a radically different light to the rest of the media. Thus Mr Trump did not fire James Comey last week. The director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation resigned, according to Fox News. Likewise, Mr Trump did not disclose vital intelligence to Russia’s foreign minister. Nor did he put pressure on Mr Comey to shut down the investigation into Michael Flynn, Mr Trump’s first national security adviser. These are fake stories.

Most of the sites ignored this week’s revelations and focused on the shooting of Seth Rich, a Democratic staffer who had apparently forwarded thousands of emails to WikiLeaks last summer. Readers were left in no doubt that Hillary Clinton, or people close to her, were involved in MrRich’s murder.

We should not underestimate the power Mr Trump draws from these alternative narratives. Whenever the elites express outrage at his actions, his supporters take pleasure in their anguish. Mr Trump knows how to cater to his base. If that means passing secrets to the Russians the day after firing the man investigating his campaign’s alleged Russia collusion, all the better. Scholars call this ‘‘negative partisanship’’. People no longer join a party because they believe in its agenda but because they despise the other one. By mocking his opponents, Mr Trump is literally delivering on what he promised. It is a mandate for nihilism.

Everything in those two pieces looks to me to be self-evidently true.  Now we know that when people hand over what brains they have to Facebook, we get people like Farage, Le Pen, Hanson, and Trump.  It’s no wonder that Hitler was so popular.  He backed up his seduction and fraud with murder and terrorism.

But the decline is not all down to the internet.  Bruce Guthrie came through the ranks to be fired from top positions with both Fairfax and Murdoch.  His book Man Bites Murdoch (2010) offers sad insights into a world of pettiness, bitchiness, triviality, greasy poles, gossip, jealousy, ambition, deceit, and downright bastardry.

On the evidence of this book, there is not much to choose between Murdoch and Fairfax.  The first suffers from an ethics deficit, but it is better run because it is run like an African dictatorship.  Its attitude to staff could be described as feudal, although many medieval barons probably felt more loyalty to their vassals than Murdoch feels to his serfs.  Fairfax has not been satisfactorily owned or managed.  Its board is currently paying a former journalist about $7 million a year to fire as many of his former colleagues as possible.  There is no prospect of his handing back any of those pieces of silver.

No sane person would wish to work for either Fairfax or Murdoch.  The insecurity just gets passed down the chain brutally.  Some bullies posing as executives talk nonsense about ‘creative anxiety.’  The distrust is massive and mutual.  Loyalty is at best suspect and at worst dirty.  The atmosphere reminds me of that in Paris near the end of the Terror.  They finally got up the nerve to bring down Robespierre after someone bustled about saying ‘they say he has got a list, and I hear that your name’s on it.’  It was a very dark and nasty place.

This is a tragedy for Australia as well as for its journalists.  Only ideological fanatics deny that journalism is essential to the rule of law.  Just look at what is happening in the U S now – and what was not permitted to happen in Germany in the 1930’s.  We are looking at a threat to journalism that has already found itself sitting on shifty and seedy marshes.

Let me take a few examples from the book.

Murdoch’s capos met at Aspen in 1988.  These must be like party meetings under Stalin.  All eyes are on the boss.  The pall of possible death is everywhere.  The revolting editor of the revolting paper The Sun boasted ‘We don’t report the news, we make it.’  Guthrie thought the speech was appalling.  He then made a serious tactical mistake.  ‘Tom.  Do you have any ethical framework at all at the London Sun?’  The whole place erupted with hilarity, revulsion, or amazement.  The answer was no.  The boss was not amused.  There would be no more talk about ethics (which Guthrie says later was thought in the Murdoch empire to refer to the county of Essex).  ‘I would have thought it’s news if the captain of the England cricket team is taking barmaids up to his room the night before a Test match.’  Later the boss said about that stupid question to one of his capos: ‘I see we have a Fairfax wanker in our midst.’

I despaired of getting any moral or intellectual sense out of The Australian years ago, but there in that anecdote you can see the cancer that has infected Australian journalism.  The whole outfit is coarse, venal, inbred, tribal, brainless and vicious.

Then you have the politicians.  Their closeness to the press has been incestuous, and incest is not tolerated by any human tribe.  Hawke and Keating were each notorious for ringing editors and abusing them with that fruity language that such people associate with machismo.  The unseemly memoirs of Chris Mitchell showed just how demeaning those relations would be with a later generation.

Kennett prefigured Abbott by loathing Fairfax and the ABC with a passion.  (It’s ironic that he brought himself undone by suing Murdoch and losing the unlosable libel action – presumably because the jury thought as little of him as did the electorate.)  Kennett was backed by Murdoch and 3AW.  He was so close to 3AW that he thought he had exclusive rights.  Kennett was outraged when 3AW gave the opposition leader air time.  Kennett grabbed the program director Steve Price in a corridor, pushed him into a room, slapped his face, grabbed him by the scruff of the neck, and demanded ‘What about loyalty, mate?’

It’s just revolting, isn’t it?  Later when Guthrie and Kennett were in a shitfight of correspondence, the Premier of Victoria though to dignify his office by writing ‘your mighty organ is very limp indeed.’  (Indeed, as you read this, Kennett starts to look more and more like that ghastly oaf Trump.)

It looks like more of the editors’ time is spent worrying about business and profits than news and journalism.  The partners of large law firms will recognise this dilemma.

Finally there are the corporate partners – back scratching for profit, and an inducement to go soft on an issue that may annoy someone you are in bed with.  Partners of law firms know about this, too.  But when Fairfax let Michael West go, it was hard to resist the inference that he was silenced because his insights into the underside of big shots at the big end of town had become intolerable.

The book has a splendid vignette on the managerial incompetence and gutlessness of Fairfax.  The board appointed Zelman Cowen as Chairman.  Why would any sane business entity want a garrulous know-all law professor at the helm?  Guthrie briefed the board.  He sensed unease.  Cowen asked Guthrie if he wanted to restore the paper’s reputation for scrutiny.  ‘Yes.’  ‘That’s all very well, but it will be positive scrutiny, won’t it?  We don’t want any of this negative stuff.’

That bullshit could have made Goebbels blush.  When I was seeking to adopt a child, a church agency asked me if I had a positive attitude to religion.  That was the end of that application.

Through The Australian, Murdoch is at risk of doing to conservatism in Australia what he did to conservatism in America through fox News.  This is the view of The New York Times.

….nobody did more than Ailes [the late head of Fox news] to broaden the reach of conservative ideas among the American public, at least nobody since Ronald Reagan.  Except in this respect: If Ailes broadened, he also debased.  The man who did so much to engineer the ascendancy of conservative media paved the way to its moral and intellectual decline…..

Nor does the network have any fixed set of ideas that it seeks to champion or disseminate, other than an ostentatious patriotism that has the distinct feel of a marketing campaign.

What Fox is mainly in the business of doing is hating the left. In the manner of Ailes himself, its convictions stem from its resentments – and shift accordingly. It is sympathetic to military intervention when the left is against it (Iraq) and hostile when the left is for it (Libya); anti-Russia when President Barack Obama was reaching out to Russia, pro-Russia when Obama started getting tough on the Kremlin.

….Populism is not conservatism, which by definition entails resistance to public whims. Conservatives who use populism for their own ends make a Faustian bargain.

We are now living with the consequences of that bargain in the form of Donald Trump’s presidency. ..No network has put itself so wholly in the service of a candidate and the resentments he espouses as Fox.

No president has done more to harm the reputation of conservative ideas as this one. This, too, is Ailes’ legacy, unintended but fateful.

God save us – and our journalists – from idiots, crooks, ratbags, and real dead shits.

Confucius says:

When a man in office finds that he can more than cope with his duties, then he studies; when a student finds that he can more  than cope with his studies, he takes office.

Analects 19.13