Monday, December 24, 2012

Larry Pickering & Michael Smith: Woodward & Bernstein, or Burke & Wills?

I don't tend to get many comments on this blog, but my last entry a couple of days ago got an interesting one from Andrew Elder. I follow Andrew's Politically homeless blog, which seemingly has as its raison d'etre the cataloguing of all the reasons why Tony Abbott will fail to become Prime Minister, and how the mainstream media has been getting that narrative completely wrong for years now. His editorial line on that blog is a classic Sir Humphrey style "courageous" stance, and I can't help but admire his chutzpah in the face of what has, at times, been almost insurmountable evidence that Abbott would be our next PM. (I am also a strong left-winger who supports Gillard, BTW.) Thus his comment moves me to respond at length to justify my argument in my last post.

I have spent a fair bit of time over the last two years reading and commenting on political blogs. I had an idea that it might be a good business concept to launch a political blog. I found out quickly that that was a terrible idea, because there was no money in it. The subsequent closing of Larvatus Prodeo has left a void on the left side of the poliblog space, which was the subject of my last post. In that time, there has been a gradual but unmistakable connection made between mainstream right-wing journalism and the poliblogs on the right. The Australian newspaper, most notably, has begun littering its pages with references to Catallaxy Files, Professor Bunyip, and other members of the hive of scum and villainy that is the wingnut blog brigade. This culminated during 2012 with the AWU scandal, which was engineered in large degree by Larry Pickering and Michael Smith. Their reports percolated back up through the Australian and eventually made their way to the ABC and Fairfax, such that by the end of the recent parliamentary session it was the Opposition Leader himself who was prosecuting the case based on evidence first aired on these supposedly disreputable outcast outlets.

I praised Pickering and Smith as having "new noise and energy", which Andrew replied "consisted merely of being noticed by the MSM". But that's kind of the point. Worthy but unseen journalism is not worth much. If independent journalism is going to be important after the fall of Fairfax, it must be viewed by the public in large numbers, not hidden away behind paywalls for the rich minority. The right has seen the light, and it has now established an ecosystem to carry the nutrients from the fertilised fungi that is a Pickering or Smith post all the way up through the food chain to a national audience. The right also have created a bully pulpit to cower the "centrist" media into following their agenda, so that while the Australian itself is not widely read, it has colonised other media to run their editorial lines.

Where are the vehicles for Margo Kingston, or even Andrew himself, to carry their messages to the average Aussie in language they can understand? No, The Drum doesn't count, and neither does The Conversation. That's the echo chamber. Margo can post all she likes at New Matilda, and I don't wish to be unkind, but her stuff merits a larger audience than NM and her Twitter followers.

My praise, such as it is, is for the fact that the right have got themselves organised. The left are being far too passive. You may say that journalism should not be debased like that, with everyone taking sides like it's a schoolyard fight. Welcome to the future, it's here and the Fairfax dynasty aren't going to save you! This is what happens when the old self-funded institutions of journalism die. The survivors are subsidised by millionaires, or live via other means like Pickering and Smith. So far, no mass medium journalism publication has arisen from Australian new media, because the economics don't work and the professionals haven't taken it seriously. Yet.

Ex-MSM journos would need to reskill if they are to be the founders of whatever it is that is going to come next, to replace the role Fairfax has played. Andrew is right in those points. While I wouldn't go so far as to say the online journalism scene in Australia is terra nullius, though, there is a big hole in the middle of its continent, and the only incursions so far have been made are restricted to the coastline. There is so much more potential yet to be realised. Pickering and Smith are like some of those hopeless early explorers, doomed to perish in the desert due to poor planning, lack of support and antediluvian notions of competence. We remember ostensible disasters like Burke and Wills today though, because they blazed the trail that others followed with far more success. Who will follow in their muck-flaked footsteps to bring civilisation to the scrub?


Anonymous DaveF said...

I left a couple of comments at the Cat in response to your post.

5:09 pm, December 24, 2012  
Blogger Andrew Elder said...

"But that's kind of the point". I'm glad it's only kind of the point, because this whole post (and others like it on this blog) fails if mainstream media coverage is the be-all-and-end-all. The idea that the mainstream media really are "the vehicles ... to carry their messages to the average Aussie in language they can understand" is cutely nostalgic rather than an assumption strong enough to carry the kind of argument Paul wants to make.

Now let's go to the guts of this article:

"Worthy but unseen journalism is not worth much. If independent journalism is going to be important after the fall of Fairfax, it must be viewed by the public in large numbers, not hidden away behind paywalls for the rich minority."

Worthy journalism is worthy, and unworthy journalism isn't.

Woodward & Bernstein's early inside-pages reports of a burglary were not viewed by a large number of people. 'The Australian' has a smaller circulation than 'The Central Coast Express-Advocate', a regional newspaper covering two marginal federal electorates in NSW (don't get me started on the bullshit that is 'circulation'). The idea of roaring masses flooding the streets on the basis of something they read in the paper is the stuff of editors' wet dreams (and, clearly, those of wannabe editors) but it has no basis in reality.

Worthy journalism has an influence that often isn't immediately apparent. Unworthy journalism can and does hog the front pages for days and days.

There's no proof that those who pay to get behind paywalls are rich. Many of them are people with some means, but who are far from rich. Even if they were, wouldn't it be understandable that media would want to pitch to small numbers of influential people? This is the MSM's holy grail, or rather the last shot of a gambler running out of readies screeching "come to papa!" with a confidence that impresses none but J-school academics.

Burke & Wills are remembered because they had massive backing from Australia's business and political elite and they pissed it all away. A portrait of Robert O'Hara Burke still hangs in the Melbourne Club. A better comparison would have been all those nameless escaped convicts who thought they could walk to China, but who either ended their miserable lives at the bottom of cliffs by the Hawkesbury-Nepean - or who, like Colin "Coal and Candle" Campbell or Tom "Ugly" Uckley, did quite well in the new environment and showed others how they might do the same (if they could get over their racism and other silly assumptions).

There is nothing stopping "the average Aussie" hunting out gems like Independent Australia. The idea that "the average Aussie" will and must wait for the MSM, consumes it avidly and believes everything therein, is not Just The Way It Is - as I said, it is the stuff of dreams which are now in the process of dying. Good journalism has a cumulative and far-reaching role, and you have to dig for it sometimes, but it has a value regardless of platform or whether you are able to monetise it.

10:55 am, December 26, 2012  

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