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Sunday, 11 March 2012

News Limited attack on academics deeply self-interested

A student like this at university risks
becoming infected by dogma, says The Oz.
The Australian never gives up. And it hates anyone who thinks they know better. Associate editor Cameron Stewart's long piece dated yesterday, which nimbly negotiates the borderland between reporting and opinion, demonstrates these truths. Or at least they're true when the academics in question are not saying the things that The Australian wants them to say. We're talking, of course, about the Independent Media Inquiry, and those academics who agree with the recommendation of its head, Ray Finkelstein, which is to institute a new news media regulator.

Stewart knows how to write a compelling piece, which means focusing on one point and using all available resources to affirm, again and again, that single point until it appears unassailable. And that point, in this case, is the distance, as Stewart tells it, between realistic, feet-on-the-ground, working journalists (like him) on the one hand and out-of-touch, Left-leaning, theory-obsessed academics (like those who support the inquiry's recommendations) on the other. And the point that Stewart goes back to, again and again, is the kind of point that will appeal to the masses. It's all of a piece with News Limited's traditional Right-leaning agenda. Attack the ivory tower and you bring the great unwashed along with you. Never fails.

But it's deeply flawed, as is the story. I am a working freelance journalist who has spent two years at one of the journalism schools Stewart criticises for potentially infecting the next generation of young reporters with Left dogma. I wrote about the Media Inquiry's findings earlier this month because I find nothing suspicious and nothing dangerous about them. The regulator is needed because of the way newspapers like The Australian operate, and of course nothing that the paper says that is at variance with the inquiry's findings can be taken at face value. I'm not a journalism teacher, yet I believe that News Limited operates unethically and in a way that is against the best interests of the Australian people. We are not being well-served by this company, it is too big, and needs someone to hold out a guiding hand to make sure it behaves itself. Stewart is part of the problem. Taking his story at face value is like taking something Tony Abbott says in criticism of the government and holding it up as truth.

In my two years at university studying journalism as a mature-age student I met a wide range of teachers, most of whom had extensive industry experience. As well as this, they often relied on interesting and challenging texts that attempt, in good faith, to grapple with the complex problems that are associated with the media in contemporary societies, like Australia today. The rigid dichotomy that Stewart sets up and that I mentioned at the start of this piece is deeply flawed and, in addition, the way that he does it is deeply dishonest. As though any taught topic that is not directly and intimately related to churning out mediocre stories in the newsroom's heated environment is suspicious and not to be trusted. The fact is that, once you leave school and enter the workforce as, say, a journalist, you have little time to think about the sometimes difficult concepts you learned about at university. So that intensive focus on sophisticated ideas is therefore a necessary counterweight to the compromising environment you find yourself in once you start writing stories.

Journalism schools try to help you respond better in the workforce when you are confronted by complicated situations in the real working world. What you learn is designed to keep you out of jail, to help you see different angles in a story, to assist you in deciding when you have enough information to truthfully cover a story, to make sure you live up to the highest ideals of a profession that is, to me, very important. Journalism is critical to the functioning of a democracy. Without journalism no democracy can survive. In the absense of the ability to see differing viewpoints, to understand the real situation, to recognise and appreciate corruptions of all kinds the world as we know it would simply be run by the powerful with narrow, vested interests, at the expense of the interests of the regular citizen.

News Limited is, unfortunately, one of the powerful, vested interests that the news industry should be questioning. Because it controls so much of the media in Australia today that is unlikely, however. What Finkelstein and his colleagues have done, with their report, is to help us understand how society at large can make sure that this powerful, vested interest can be counterbalanced so that it does not simply accrue more power to itself.

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