Thursday, September 26, 2013

Journalistic civility and a weak press

A vignette from 2010: I watched with cringing embarrassment as one journalist apologised to the gentleman at the front of the press conference, for the aggressive questions from another journalist.

The gentleman subject to the questions was the chairman of Indian company Tata Group at the time, Ratan Tata. And his response was humorous and slightly confused, along the lines of: “Oh, that wasn't impolite. In India, if journalists think you're leaving a press conference without answering their questions, they will put their hands on you to restrain you.”

I have no knowledge of Ratan Tata himself – naughty or nice, clean or corrupt, venal or visionary. But the vignette stuck with me, because Australian journalists wear a level of politeness that is nakedly sycophantic, with few exceptions.

And it shits me to tears.

A couple of years ago now, Paul Fletcher appeared in front of a bunch of tech journalists, desperately ill-prepared for the event. He got questioned hard – stood up, in fact – by a small handful of us.

Behind the stories, on a Website you can't access because you need a login, there was serious criticism that aggressive questions somehow represented ill-manners to an invited guest.

I said then, privately, and say now, publicly, “bollocks”. His job includes suffering in public, and mine includes being rude in the face of bad answers.

Let's move the time machine to April, 2013, when I tried to assert to Malcolm Turnbull that his favoured model for Australia's broadband, the BT rollout in the UK, was running behind schedule and over budget. I won't name my sources at the time, but events proved I was right – here are some links:


When I pressed Malcolm Turnbull on this point in a public press conference – recorded here but I'm not going to seek out the exact minute right now – he first responded with a simple “you're wrong” (I wasn't), before recommending that I “model my civility” on the example of some other journalist present (I know his name, and he dips as easily into sycophancy as a drunk dips into gin, but why add to my list of enemies?). 

In the clip, I'm the journalist with the WTF waistcoat, having a bad-hair-day. I didn't have an invite to the press conference, I gate-crashed, and wasn't dressed appropriately. Okay?

Oh, and Malcolm Turnbull had spent the past year deflecting questions about BT's experience by asking journalists “why don't you call BT, as I have?” My answer to that is, naturally, that I had no need to hear corporate bromides to assess what was really happening.

But this is about journalistic manners and the way that the death-mask of “professionalism” has been pressed onto the clay of journalism to make it compliant and well-behaved.

The worst thing that can befall a journalist is that he or she be considered a “valued member” of any community other than that of the reader. The interests of an industry, a political class, or any insider clique, are not the business of the journalist.

The second-worst thing is that the journalist be cleaned up, made neat and presentable, and taught to respond to peer pressure.

That peer pressure is used, manipulated and abused, to remake journalism in the evil banality of their surroundings. Instead of standing out, accepting the lightning strikes and abuse, we're taught by peer pressure and “good manners” not to challenge, not to demand answers, to serve the toxic club of insiders that's too easy to inhabit.

We're taught to let the leaders frame the debate, regardless of the facts (look at how climate change gets abused, as an example).

Hence the idea among other journalists that I and a couple of others behaved “unprofessionally” towards a “guest”, or that I should “model my civility” on a member of the inside club.

Bollocks. I don't owe anything to a politician's spin-doctor's attempt to frame the debate in terms favourable to his master. I don't even have to acknowledge the attempt to frame the debate.

And yes: I have my punishment for choosing truth over civility. The only way I'll ever get to a Malcolm Turnbull press conference will be by subterfuge or leak. I'll never be on the list of honoured insiders that are welcome because they'll kiss the ring.

It bothers me not: the only way I've ever been present in the same room as the communications minister is by subterfuge or leak. I've only ever heard from him indirectly, when a spinner demanded that I change a headline to remove an inference he didn't like. It was this one: “Turnbull floats e-vote, compulsory ID”.

I stand by that headline. Malcolm Turnbull said what he said, and my inferences are my own and I'm damn well not subject to a spinner's whines and whims. The advisor got the best of my tongue on that call and an invitation to call my boss.

So I'm an outsider? It's more fun here than licking boot-polish with the civil.

Compared to an Indian CEO, our politicians are a protected class, accustomed to being surrounded by lapdogs.

The result is a clique at the cloaca, only consuming what the politicians choose to let fall from their tails, and never going beyond the bounds of good manners.

All of which speaks to the stunning lack of diversity in the media. There are too few outlets, so nobody will dare ostracism or exclusion. The press is weakened by its monolithic structure; and no journalist in Australia would dare stop an interviewee from leaving the room for not answering questions.

Because if Fairfax gets ostracised and News doesn't, or vice-versa, it's a bloody disaster: there aren't another 20 outlets still demanding answers.

Which is why no politician in Australia will do anything serious about media reform: the near-monoculture in the Canberra gallery is controllable. Manageable. The threat of exclusion – not just from invitations to pressers, as I “suffer”, but from leaks, whispers, and parties – is too great.

And by the way: I'll stalk our communications minister. He will have public appearances in the next three years whose invitations are in the gift of others. And life, and memory are long. I'll have fun.