Saturday, 16 July 2011

With the News of the World soap opera in its second week we're now over the initial shock we experienced at the news that NotW journalists paid private investigators to hack into the mobile phones of crime victims, and that they paid police for information. Two senior executives in Rupert Murdoch's empire have stepped down including Rebekah Brooks, CEO of News International (Murdoch's British company) who was NotW editor at the time the hacking was prevalent. With the passing of days various experts have entered the field of punditry notably, for the purposes of the present blog post, Michael Gawenda, who has written a piece for ABC The Drum in which he shows surprise at the hypocrisy of journalists who have expressed outrage at the machinations of the British tabloid newspaper.
Honestly, is there a journalist in Australia with any sort of time served in this trade who was genuinely shocked by the revelations of the way journalism was done on the News of The World? Or who will be genuinely shocked by the revelations still to come, not just about the now defunct News of the World but about other News International titles and beyond that, about the tabloids owned by other media companies in the UK?
If there are any, they ought to be doing some other trade.
Gawenda is Director of the Centre for Advanced Journalism at Melbourne University and so presumably is involved in some form of teaching of young students, those who bring their ideals into the practice of journalism, who may even have dreams of changing the world for the better by getting involved in what Gawenda refuses to label a profession ("We are not a profession like lawyers and doctors and should not pretend that we are," he writes). He would also be in some way responsible for setting the tone around campus, in terms of expectations for aspiring journalists. So I was shocked to read this:
So it's okay to hack the phone of Hugh Grant - who is now a moral arbiter of what is ethical!- because NoW readers want the goss on Grant and people like him, including politicians, especially if it is salacious which means getting the story invariably involves an invasion of privacy.
No, in fact it's not OK to hack the phone of Hugh Grant and Gawenda should be trying to prise journalists away from celebrity gossip, which is an easy and high-GI gig that produces short-term satisfaction but should not be confused with the kind of journalism a person of Gawenda's stature could more profitably endorse. At issue here is not just phone hacking. At issue is the entire celebrity-watching industry that encourages the type of shenanigans NotW journos found themselves caught up in. In fact, journalism should be more like a profession. Gawenda notes that the Australian arm of News Corp has belatedly loaded its Code of Conduct to its websites.
What's the code of conduct for A Current affair and Today Tonight for instance? I am my brother's and sister's keeper - these programs employ journalists and they are my colleagues for better or for worse - but are we operating on the same ethical standards? What about the Fairfax papers? Where's the discussion with their readers of the ethical challenges they face in this time of technological revolution? And this time when journalism is being shamed.
As if all journalists were involved in the type of low-rent manufacture of social bugbears that those tabloid TV shows routinely engage in. Manifestly, Fairfax papers do not operate at the same level as these TV shows and it's a little obtuse of Gawenda to suggest otherwise. I have always tried to be an ethical journalist even to the extent that I transcribe interviews in their entirety and do this irksome work all by myself because it is the only way that I can achieve complete accuracy - and be utterly confident that the transcript is faithful to the recording. I need to know in my bones that the material I use to write stories is without blemish in the least of its elements. I also make sure that I do not mislead interview subjects as to the type of story that I will write, to the extent that I will contact a person interviewed to tell them if the story plan has materially changed in a way that might surprise them - I don't want them to be upset when they see the final product in the magazine.

Gawenda seems to be satisfied with the way journalism is conducted in Australia (let alone the rest of the world). He seems not to worry about 'he-said-she-said' journalism, which is so prevalent and which inflames the public consumption in the same way as junk food accelerates the process of digestion - so that the product is quickly exhausted and a new fix is required to keep the machine running. He seems not to be concerned about the shortage of funds that exacerbates this kind of journalism. And with his brass-tacks demeanour and lack of high-mindedness he seems to think that journalism not only cannot but should not get better and more effectively address the problem of making information that will sustain a responsible and successful body politic. He seems to have a low opinion of humanity, a jaundiced eye, and the taint of hard liquor on his breath.

One of the least-examined aspects of the NotW case is that it was the people, who created the momentum necessary to prosecute action against Murdoch's newspaper. The journalists who initially reported the wrongdoing were partly responsible and kudos must go to The Guardian for living up to its name. But the sense of moral outrage that has led to Parliamentary hearings, standings-down, the flight of advertisers, criminal prosecutions, independent inquiries, and phone calls to apologise - all this is due to the will of the people. Gawenda should be taking the moral high ground and asking that journalists do even more to ensure that their craft performs more like a profession. I want to consider myself as a professional not in the mundane sense that helps me navigate the jobs page of the daily broadsheet, but in the deeper sense that I profess to hold certain skills and standards as necessary for the performance of my work.

Only by doing so can the media industry begin to work toward a better future where the kind of practices that have led to the current debacle are shunned by the least-principled practitioner and so never happen again. Risk management experts will tell you about weak links. They would also say in respect of the NotW case, in all probability, that Murdoch's business style is clearly unsustainable because it caused the corporate crisis we now watch unfolding. Unsustainable business practices should be publicly discussed with the aim of finding a more sustainable way foward. Unfettered competition between only privately-owned media companies is not sustainable, in the same way that the kind of practices that led to the GFC were not sustainable. Something else - and here we get back to codes of conduct and the notion of the 'professional journalist' - is needed.

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