Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Just a week ago there was an open floor during a Journalism Education Association of Australia conference which was held at the University of Technology, Sydney. Questions were taken. One attendee, Jolyon Sykes, had a voice recorder switched 'on' and another, Julie Posetti, had her laptop open and running with her browser pointed at Twitter, and she was posting to it when an ex-News Corp journalist, Asa Wahlquist, who was not a marquee name for the event, began to speak within the confines of the room.

What Wahlquist said - that she became disheartened with her treatment by editors at The Australian while working for the paper as a science journalist because her stories about climate change were routinely changed to fit a politically-driven agenda oriented to the right wing, and that it was affecting her health - would explode into controversy when Posetti's post came to the attention of staff at the newspaper. Editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell declared that he would sue Posetti, who promptly clammed up as the heat came on and the temperature dropped in the air surrounding the debate. She had probably even forgotten about her post when news of the threatened action broke.

Various staffers at the newspaper editorialised and reported, confirming for many Twitter users a suspicion that the newspaper had decided to launch a crusade against the micro-blogging service in much the same way that many thought it had launched one against, say, the federal political issues of the National Broadband Network or The Australian Greens.

Posetti dropped out of the online debate but a Facebook group was set up where supporters could register their mindset by 'liking' it. The level of chill that had come to predominate in the air around the debate even after the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported - using the actual voice recording to compare against Posetti's posts - that she had been accurate in her online reporting during the session, was best summed up by a post by Posetti at this point:
I am so very limited in what I can say for a short time longer on #twitdef, but please spare a thought for Asa Wahlquist...
Many people on Twitter felt that The Australian, as a news organisation, was displaying a double standard, as its parent company, News Limited, has been vocal on numerous occasions in response to legal action taken against it or threatened, by individuals operating in the public sphere. To register their support for Posetti, a large number of Twitter users reposted her post. There were also a number of fairly triumphant posts from users who saw that Mitchell's case had been fatally wounded by the ABC's story and the public broadcaster's release online of the audio recording that had been made during the session. Despite its sometimes poor quality it caused a palpable stir in the ranks of supporters.

One or two of them pointed to an earlier event, tagged #groggate on Twitter, as they searched for a reason for the newspaper's apparent highly-confrontational stance vis-a-vis Twitter. Caught in the middle, Posetti remained silent. Wahlquist, meanwhile, has also been silent except to deny at one point to a reporter for The Australian that she said what was attributed to her. Like Mitchell, Wahlquist no doubt hardly suspected that a recorder was running during her speech last week. But such events are public, a fact Posetti underscored during the session when, addressing Wahlquist, she congratulated her for her forthright honesty and courage. It seems that that acknowledgement of a higher order of conduct was prescient. It sounds a deep knell, now, when you listen to those files.

But the issue of media bias remains unresolved. When a journalist is faced with answering a question about it on the TV, for example, the normal response seems to be "We don't want to get involved in self-reflection that viewers aren't interested in, let's stick to focusing on the real issues". I've heard this a number of times and it's frustrating. It is an interesting issue and it does need to be talked about. It might be the type of thing that the ABC's MediaWatch program could focus an episode on, to bring to light what is currently obscured in the constant churn of stories in the public sphere, and by the coy shrugs of reporters reluctant to reveal any embarrassing trade secrets. What the #twitdef case shows us is that there is a lot more going on under the varnished surface of the media than is easily acknowledged.

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