Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Belshaw's World - seagulls from fish and chip wrap become part of the story

Joh Bjelke-Petersen used to describe the whole process as feeding the chooks. By this he meant the way in which the media gathered around while he fed them.

Now whatever one may think of Joh, he was a shrewd old bird himself. It is hard to deny that the media does behave like a flock, and Joh knew them all pretty well.

Like any flock, the individual birds do have differences, as do breeds. Journalists from the Australian do not behave in quite the same way as those from the Age or, indeed, my colleagues from the Armidale Express.

Yet despite these differences, reporters and commentators wheel in circles, rushing from place to place in a flock.

When the Rudd Government was elected, Mr Rudd received universally favourable coverage. The flock wheeled around the new PM, pushing and shoving to receive scraps from his hand.

Then, quite suddenly, Mr Rudd could do no right. The flock had turned cannibal, pecking away at him until he bled to political death.

Ms Gillard’s media honeymoon was brief, but it was there. Then a new food source arrived in the person of Mr Abbott.

Initially derided, the media could not resist the new food source. They rushed after him. The coverage of the Gillard Government became relentlessly negative. A new feeding frenzy formed. The Gillard Government, too, began bleeding to political death.

Then, surprise, surprise, the reporting tide turned.

The Government didn’t fall over and managed to get some successes. As we reach year’s end, the flock is now pecking away at Mr Abbott as Doctor No, suggesting that Ms Gillard has in fact had a successful few months.

We saw the same flock behaviour during the Global Financial Crisis. We will all be ruined shouted the breathless reporting. Then, as it became clear that Australia was not to experience economic armageddon, the flock wheeled. Suddenly, the reporting was all about this country’s relative success.

To a quite substantial degree, the media flock now operates independent of reality. The flock has become its own reality.

The problems experienced by Mr Rudd lay in part in his style and personality. But they were also affected by current structures in politics and public policy and administration.

Those of us watching how Mr Rudd worked pointed to problems early on. Initially, these problems were ignored by the main media flock until, suddenly, they became central to reporting.

In removing Mr Rudd, the Labor Party removed certain aspects of his style, but other elements were in fact left untouched. As problems resurfaced, reporting swung.

Mr Abbott’s focus on a very small number of issues was quite effective. However, barring a catastrophic collapse by the Government, it was always going to be the case that just the normal business of Government would bring new issues and initiatives. This swung the media flock back.

The media’s flock behaviour is due in part to its focus on the current issues and the now twenty four hour news cycle. Inevitably, reporters constrained by time and lack of resources go quickly with main stories and themes. This has become more important as real resources are reduced in the name of productivity. However, I think that it’s more than that.

One of the distinctive features of modern media is the way that reporters and commentators talk too and watch each other.

The same talking heads appear on multiple outlets, exchanging views. They may disagree on issues, indeed that disagreement is part of their stock-in-trade, but they actually talk about the same things. They opine, opining that inevitably affects subsequent reporting, but they opine about similar things.

This drives the flock behaviour. However, there is another factor.

Today we live in a world dominated by celebrity. Reporters and commentators have become name figures, themselves feeding the flock. They no longer report just on the news, but have become part of the news.

I think that’s a problem.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 14 December 2011. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011.


Anonymous said...

Jay Rosen, a well respected US media and journalism commentator, was much perplexed when he heard that Australia had a current affairs type show called Insiders where journalists talk to each other about the news of the week as he thought the best journalists should be and remain "outsiders" to the fray.

Jim Belshaw said...

How interesting, anon, to get an outside perspective. I don't think that its quite as clear-cut as that, the country press has a somewhat different role, but Rosen is still making the same point.