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Monday, 9 July 2018

Book review: On Disruption, Katharine Murphy (2018)

This fascinating book is way too short. It should have been written as part of a PhD thesis, with interviews conducted with media practitioners included to flesh out the points that it wants to make. That might have given them more force and substance. But Murphy is a working journalist and she didn’t have time to dedicate to the work away from her job. Time is of the essence. And, fittingly, the economics of journalism in the internet age is the true subject of this work. Time is money.

Murphy launches the narrative by talking about her early days with the Australian Financial Review in Canberra, where she started working as a journo just before John Howard won the 1996 federal election. The sedate pace of journalism of those days has evaporated in a miasma of heat and noise propagated by the WWW. The result of the digital disruption, she tentatively infers, is Donald Trump.

This sally seems to be reaching a little bit far in its attempt to grasp a truth, but the underlying narrative has some merit and so it’s worth taking more time to understand what she is trying to say. As the economics that underpin the media business have changed, the rules that moderate conduct in the public sphere have changed too. (Murphy could have talked a bit more about the hollowing out of the incomes of the American middle classes as she tries to fathom what brought DT to public office, but there seems to have been no time.)

She does illustrate how the news business has become more shouty, more polarised, and more tribal. She does underline the importance of the clash of ideologies in the process of progress in our democracies. Conflict, she says, is the very stuff of democracy. She understands partisanship but she falls a tad short when she echoes others who have complained about “echo chambers” in the online world. (In my review of Michael Brissenden’s new novel, ‘The List’, published on this blog last month, I talk about this as well.) In fact, I think that people are more aware of the things that divide them from those who have different world views than them than they have been in the past. Especially with the use of hashtags, there is more sharing of views and discussion between people from different camps now than there once was. The commentary surrounding retweets that people put up to criticise their enemies might be consistently negative, but at least you get to see exactly what they are complaining about.

Murphy does better when she talks about “community building” as the stated goal of media outfits, on both the left and the right, organisations that attempt to cultivate a reliable paying audience by regularly feeding the beast, as it were, rather than working to serve the interests of truth. I mentally applauded when Murphy took exception to US media commentator Jay Rosen’s dictum that journalists need to declare their ideological position from the outset, and agree with her that pursuing the truth, wherever it leads you, is more important than this one, single, well-intentioned aim.

When she started talking about the goal of competition between ideas in the public square being progress through compromise, I was relieved because it told me that she is a sophisticated thinker. Coming to agree to disagree and maybe settling for 60 percent of what you had asked for, instead of 100 percent, is how democracy works, and always has worked. But debate online is conducted in the same way team sports are, as a zero-sum game, and Murphy points to this dynamic in her book. It’s as though the teams were playing for keeps, instead of just control of the government for the next four or eight years.

It’s not that there is a polarised echo-chamber, it’s just that the people involved don’t care what their opponents say or think. As we saw in the case of David Leyonhjelm’s slut-shaming of Australian Greens’ Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, public criticism aimed at the Liberal Democrat senator was mere water off a duck’s back. And his supporters when they hear voices from the left complaining about his words just double down and dig in deeper in their trenches, making themselves even more secure in their positions despite what other people opine. This goes back to what Murphy says about “community building” by news orgs. They use the hostile voices to strengthen their positions, saying “We’re not like them.”

But I think part of the problem that journalists and politicians have with social media comes down to aesthetics. Twitter has done us a favour in a way but for some it’s a hard lesson to learn. Twitter is full of people who can't spell, can't articulate what they want to say properly, whose views have never been taken seriously by their peers, or who have only just discovered that they have personal opinions. They might have deeply-held beliefs that are married to an incomplete grasp of the facts. People come in all shapes and sizes.

Twitter shows us the world as it really is. We are what we are. I wrote about this on 23 March this year in a post titled, ‘Twitter is becoming more like the world.’ We may not like some of the people whose tweets we read on the social media platform, but the unmistakeable fact remains that they are real people and they still get to vote. In the past their voices were only available through letters to the editor, or through gatekeepers like journalists, or through the utterances of their elected representatives, or by way of people working for peak bodies like charities. Now, we hear from the stakeholders themselves, and sometimes the style of their delivery is unlovely, if not worse.

Especially for progressives, furthermore, playing for all of the spoils of victory in the same way that a sport team competes for a silver cup, is a little strange when you think about it a bit. Progressives are always on about sharing and spreading the wealth that the community generates. It’s those on the right side of politics who talk about individual enterprise at the expense of the integrity of the community as a whole. Those on the left especially should be more awake to the benefits of compromise because their very ethos relies on it. They might get a better response from those on the right if they broke with the party line a bit more from time to time, and embraced change that is infected by ideas coming from their competitors.

But perhaps the antidote to the malaise set up by party polarisation and the 24-hour news cycle is to slow down the news process. News organisations might put aside a few journalists who can be tasked with merely examining the truth of assertions that are thrown up in the rush of debate, every day, day-in day-out. Many organisations are starting to do something like this already, with fact checkers all over the pace tasked with testing assertions that appear all the time that are repeated willy-nilly without confirmation by many people online.

But perhaps what is needed is a “slow news” movement like that has happened in the food industry. Longer, more well-researched stories on topics that are not necessarily emblematic of the current debate but that still have something to do with it. Things like wealth inequality, immigration, violence against women, youth suicide, stigmatisation of mental illness, legalisation of illicit substances. Gnarly problems (to borrow a trope from Rosen) that need a bit more thought and space to properly articulate. The rush of topical stories does add to big debates like this, of course. All news stories are in a way proxies for larger debates (even lifestyle and celebrity stories). But giving a few, select journos the room to breathe while they study all the ins and outs of a major issue, so that they can produce longform stories or a series of articles that bring more facts to play in the search for the holy grail of informed compromise, might be a way for news outfits to add value and prevent the unwanted outcome of the election in Australia of a demagogue like DT.

Crikey has done something in this vein recently, called ‘Prying Eyes’, a three-week series of stories about data harvesting. It set up a funding campaign to gather money from people in the community for the express purpose of writing stories about privacy in the online world. The way companies and political parties use the data we release in our online lives. The series editor, Stilgherrian, is an IT journo who usually writes stories for another organisation. He is a regular at cyber security conferences, which he often live blogs using his Twitter account. This is a one-off attempt by a reputable news outlet to go deeper into an important issue that most people have some idea about but probably don’t understand in all of its rich detail.

The difference between winner-takes all attitudes and constructive democracy was highlighted for me yesterday when I saw a tweet by self-declared Chinese-Australian writer, researcher and commentator Jieh-Yung Lo that went, “Jenny Macklin will forever be remembered as a parliamentarian who prioritised policies over politics. Her leadership and advocacy in a number of social policy areas have changed the lives for the better for millions of Australians. Wish we had more like her in #auspol.” Policies, not politics. So different from the hyper-partisan democracy that they have in the dysfunctional United States, where judges are elected depending on their party allegiance, and electoral boundaries are drawn by partisan state legislatures to favour one side over the other.

We don’t want that kind of politics here in Australia. The way that Malcolm Turnbull has pitched the National Energy Guarantee as being “technology agnostic” so that we get sources of energy that provide reliable baseload power at the lowest cost to consumers while honouring our Paris emissions targets, is a good example of how democracy should work. And Bill Shorten’s recent backflip on tax paid by businesses with revenues between $10 million and $50 million is another example of how good policy is formulated: by discussion in public in a respectful and moderate way.

UPDATE 9 July 2018, 7.38am: After I had posted the review on Twitter, Murphy responded with the following comments: "Thanks for the review Matthew. Few things. 1. Time isn't the reason the book is 15,000 words. That's the format. 2. Time isn't money, sadly. 3. I wanted to do interviews. Some people were reluctant to be interviewed given we're still in flux. 4. Twitter isn't representative."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Using the word 'backflip' to describe a reasonable change in policy based on discussion and debate is another symptom of our problems. There is nothing wrong with changing your mind after a discussion.

We rush to judgement all too often.