22 July 2011

On why the media should embrace more regulation. Part 1

Over the last few weeks we’ve seen some rather interesting stuff in the media involving the media. We’ve seen all hell break loose in the UK with what appears to be becoming known as ‘Hackgate’. We’ve seen the Herald-Sun publish a call to assassinate the Prime Minister. We’ve also seen the media circuses around the cases of Dominique Strauss-Khan and Casey Anthony where the media essentially judged these folks guilty before their cases had even been heard. In Anthony’s case, they then screamed hysterically about the jury being wrong, even publishing questionable articles where jurors allegedly disclosed a preference for going home rather than finding someone guilty.

I think I'll avoid the issue about concentrated media ownership – it’s probably outside the realm of what I want to blog about here, but what I will add is the sheer, unmitigated bias that passes for journalism in anything that comes out of News Corporation.  Although, it's fair to say that 2UE are probably much worse.

And we’ve seen the spectacle of a majority-owned media not publishing stuff in one area that is newsworthy that relates to the owner in another jurisdiction. Yes folks, I'm going to give News a flogging in this post.

I’m not intending to only bag News in this post, as I am aware that other media outlets have also sinned, and sinned in quite a big way as it happens, but the sheer drivel that News publishes is so incredibly worthy of bagging it isn’t funny. I will point out that I did find it funny, once, but as one of my old schoolmates once pointed out to me, there’s a point when dumping in the shoes of the maths teacher ceases to be funny and starts to be smelly. I’ll further qualify this by acknowledging that I continue to acclaim the Andrew Bolt character by his eponymous author to be one of the funniest satirical creations in any newspaper anywhere.

To put that another way, I will attempt to bag other media outlets in this post, but News is such a disgrace that I’m not even certain that I’ll get around to it. But the two of you who will object, I’ll point out that I’ve bagged the ABC, SBS and Fairfax plenty of times before. So there.

News is just so extremely bad an operator, that we as consumers really should be asking about our consumer rights. And by ‘bad’, I’m not even certain if I mean ‘incompetent’, either. I think I might possibly even mean bad as in ‘malevolent’. It's quite hard to get my thoughts on this down in type, but it looks like in some papers, News are filling up pages with stuff that is totally not newsworthy, like celebrity puff pieces and in others, its painfully one-sided commentary and opinion.

Don't get me started on the disgraceful exhibition that is Fox News.

But what actually is 'news'?

The term ‘news’ has a particular connotation in the minds of most people. We want to be informed and we want to be informed as objectively as possible. News (the company) has been repeatedly pinged for bias by Media Watch this year – particularly the Daily Telegraph, with editions of the Australian singled out for complaint repeatedly on the odious subject of editorialising in news items.

Mere mention of Media Watch is enough to start a News fanboi frothing away. 'It's biased!' they scream, as they segue into a rant about how Media Watch never pings ABC, SBS or Fairfax. The suggestion is clear that Media Watch has an anti-News slant. I will point out that based upon current history, it's more likely that News are just generally incompetent and deserving of the rich spoonfuls of creamy pwnage that Media Watch regularly metes out on News.

Ever notice that News fanbois ask you about why you're not criticising these three particular organisations, but they never ask you about the myriad of other news organisations which exist? News fanbois (and fanboiettes) are even more obnoxious and annoying than the type we normally associate with this tag. But where the other type at least seem to be aware of the obvious discolouration that only highly concentrated powdered drink flavourings laced with house or garden-variety poison leaves on their lips. Even when smugly regurgitating signature Kool-Aid flavours such as, 'new interface paradigm’, ‘retina display’ and ‘headphone jacks are totally consistent with an end-to-end wireless solution’ while vainly attempting to defend Apple’s mystifying tendency to demand that you pay extra, Ryanair-style, for stuff that should come as standard (or more worryingly, defending their willingness, nay, aggressive zeal to part with that much extra cash). News fanbois have absolutely no idea, nor would they seem to care that the sweet refreshment that they’re imbibing is a somewhat disconcerting poo-brown colour. With an odour to match. Yummy!

And it's not just Media Watch, either. Check out the comprehensive smackdown that Crikey puts on the Tele here over what is, and I don't think I'm exaggerating, a vicious and unobjective series of articles criticising the new tax package.

I used to bag the Herald-Sun repeatedly, but compared to other papers in the News stable like the Tele and the Oz, the Hun comes out miles in front. This really says nothing at all about the Hun’s reputation, although I will point out that it has been consistent. The Oz, on the other hand, has moved out so far to the right that even some of my conservative friends get a sick feeling reading it. Oddly, this mostly appears to affect those who self-identify as significantly to the right. Some, who identify as ‘centre-right’, amazingly still see the Oz as fair and balanced. It seems like a slightly unusual manifestation of an alternate form of Dunning-Krueger, perhaps, if you can substitute moderate/extreme in to replace the incompetent/expert continuity.

But I have digressed as I’m prone to do. I haven’t even raised the small issue of the Oz editorialising about the supposed need to destroy the Greens, as they did.

See, there is a pattern emerging which can only be described as a tradition of unspeakably bad journalism from News. Once again, it’s possible that I’m using ‘bad’ in its ‘wicked’ connotation compared to the other variety, but the issue is largely identical, anyway. And at the end of the day, if News are being bad as defined by the evil aspect, then this is bad objectively. Some may disagree, but with about two thirds to three quarters of Australian print media provided by News Corp, it is way wrong of News to be allowing this ultimately dodgy copy through. I am aware of certain voices questioning the public outpouring of ‘hysteria’ about News, but in this case, this time; I think that the criticism is completely justified.

This is almost a textbook example of market failure here, and the normal action in fixing market failure is to legislate or regulate.

In the cases I'm discussing here, it isn’t even years of bad behaviour. Most of this has only happened very, very recently. It might even be excusable, if I had needed to scramble for examples over a couple of decades. Sadly though, this is clearly routine misbehaviour. And although most of this may be legal misbehaviour, Blind Freddy would be questioning the average News editor’s ability to live with themselves.

What's that, there's still a News trouser-wearer who has read this far? I am impressed at your stamina and I thank you for sticking with me. But I do notice you wondering why I am bagging News when just about every news agency was crossing all matter of lines when the Strauss-Khan and Anthony stories came up.

On top of this is the small issue that the same firm of private investigators hired by the News of the World to engage in nefarious activity is the same firm that was hired by non-News newspapers such as the Mirror and the Daily Mail. I expect that we'll see some interesting revelations here before the end of the month.

Well, when I originally wrote that part, I was going to stick it to the media generally, but more importantly, would you think that News should be allowed to do the sensationalism that everyone else was doing just because everyone else was doing it? Unfortunately, a lot of people do, but this is a very difficult position to justify. The circus that enveloped the Strauss-Khan court case was a million miles removed from what might have happened in Strauss-Khan's native France.

In France, the media are subject to some pretty serious privacy legislation. These laws prevent the media from getting the kind of sensationalism out that the US media did and what we think is ordinarily fair game, but in France, this would be a serious breach of one's presumption of innocence.

In the American media (and ours too, I might add), we then saw all manner of commentary, some of which was horribly racist, being thrown around commenting on the unwillingness of the French media to get involved. Racial stereotypes of randy Frenchmen abounded. Again, it wasn't just News who were doing this, but does this make it OK that the rest of the media were doing it?

This story is pivotal to this post. The day before yesterday, we saw our Prime Minister, Julia Gillard discussing changes to the law that would enshrine a right to privacy. It was probably more suggested by malfeasance in Hackgate than anything else – particularly the disgusting tale of phone hacking present in the Milly Dowler case – but it would be nice if we were to consider things like our supposed presumptions of innocence in any new privacy rules. Already, the media is taking up arms against such a move, pointing out that there is no evidence that what went on in Britain has ever happened here.

Of course, the moment that you mention restricting the actions of the media, the hacks start bleating about 'freedom of the press'. If you think about any kind of pro-privacy legislation in this context, this argument really quite hard to argue against. Although, as I have repeatedly blogged about, whether it's free will, free speech, free media or free market economics, people are routinely dishonest about the word 'free' and woefully inconsistent in their usage of it.

Yet, I would really like to go one step further in all of this. Well, maybe not one step, but an entirely new regime, actually. Funnily enough, I think that this is a heck of a lot easier to argue for than arguing for the odd privacy provision. I'll get to that later.

Basically, I’m arguing that what news outlets are allowed to do or not, or how they are allowed to report or the practices they are allowed to use, or not, should be governed by a set of guidelines in a much clearer format than what they are currently. There should be a central, overriding duty of 'newsworthiness'. Would this take out the gratuitous celebrity articles littered throughout? Maybe, maybe not, but at the end of it all, we should have something a little better than what we have now.

I notice that this post is getting kinda long, so my apologies. I will conclude this sometime in the next few days.

A note to me, just so I don’t forget: If I find time to complete this, I may still need to write about the following things:

  • Gratuitous bagging of the non-News media so that our News fans who read this don’t feel so personally slighted at willingly reading such tripe;
  • Why an overarching set of regulated standards is easier to get on the agenda than a couple of piecemeal changes specifically addressing privacy;
  • The lameness of the Press Council of Australia and the utter fraud that is self-regulation;
  • What you as a consumer can do to improve things;
  • What can be done about market failure in the media;
  • Why journalism has less in common with other written communication and more than just a passing resemblance to accounting; and
  • It would be fun to examine concentrated media ownership in Australia, but would this be just too huge a steaming pile to take on?

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