The failure of the fourth estate

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There is a huge disconnect between how journalists perceive their profession and how it is perceived by commentators. David Horton explains why.

You cannot hope to bribe or twist,
thank God! the British journalist.
But, seeing what the man will do
unbribed, there’s no occasion to.


~ Humbert Wolfe

It is an image for our times, the pulling down of the statue of the dictator Saddam Hussein. We all know now it was a fake; the statue was pulled down by American soldiers — one of whom made a big mistake, draping an American flag over the head of the statue, which had to be quickly removed. The “cheering crowds” “filling the square” was nothing more than a small rent-a-crowd made up of Iraqi exiles, and assorted others, brought in by the Americans and made to look like a big crowd by making sure cameras were focused right up close.

The reason for this fakery? It had to be created to support a narrative. Defence Secretary Rumsfeld had claimed, as the invasion was about to begin, that the Americans would be welcomed with cheering crowds throwing flowers to the troops. That is, the narrative was a replay of American troops liberating Paris in 1944. The reality was that it was a replay of the Germans invading Paris in 1940. So, in the absence of beautiful women with flowers, the “pulling down the statue” had to be faked. Had no effect on reality, of course, as the next few years showed, but the images kept the public content and were shown over and over by the compliant media.

I have considered this incident at some length because it has become the model for much that passes as mainstream journalism these days, and because politics has evolved to take advantage of it. Just before his unsuccessful attempt to topple Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd turned up in a Brisbane street and was, according to media, “mobbed” by an adoring crowd, thus proving his popularity. In an article headed “Rudd humbled then mobbed” we had:
“Hitting the streets of Brisbane yesterday Kevin Rudd was mobbed by excited supporters ahead of Monday’s vote on the Labor leadership.” and then remarkable journalist honesty – “The Rudd’s walk through the Mall was a chance for photographers to capture the images to reinforce the message from today’s three opinion polls.”

Now, the thing looked staged to me — like the Hussein statue. Cameras in close-up suggesting throngs later, from a distance, showed nothing more than a small group — and many of them from the media. A sort of uniform look to the young people (someone later queried a Young Labor group). I don’t know the truth, but the point is, nor did the journalists. An event had been organised which matched their perception (and some opinion polls) of Rudd as rock star and no one was going to rock that boat. Too much effort, perhaps, or not in keeping with the agenda of journalist or media proprietor.

These kind of stunts have become an almost daily part of Tony Abbott’s free media campaign. Day after day, the media would be summoned to see Tony – in hard hat, white coat, overalls, swimming costume, goggles, gut a fish, sit in a truck, hammer a nail, swim in a race, buy some cake. All content free — just an extended photo opportunity and a sound bite, off with the goggles and white coat, on to the next stunt. And yet, each night the journalists would happily, uncritically, report this rubbish as if they were a Liberal Party advertising agency doing a paid promotion. As they effectively were.

And, day after day, when they weren’t practising journalism as stenography to the powerful  – and practising a journalism that relies on saying and doing exactly what your colleagues are saying and doing – they were promoting false balance, citing anonymous “sources”, and promoting, almost unanimously (some overtly, some subtly), the interests of conservative political parties.

Whenever I, and others, make observations like this, we are met with a strong reaction from journalists. Most, probably all, journalists see themselves as a noble profession, part of the fourth estate, defending the people against the first two estates (well, not the church of course. Or royalty. But, you know). In every journalist’s knapsack is a Woodward baton. And a phone on which the first Watergate call will be received.

They are good people, family people, loving children and pets, good citizens. And hard-working, highly trained professionals doing stressful jobs that are totally misunderstood outside the profession. Oh, and proprietor interference with what they produce? Come on, get your tinfoil hat off mate.

So why the huge disconnect between how journalists perceive their own profession and how it is perceived by a number of anonymous highly ranked commentators? Two reasons I think (I’m talking political journalists here, but the same thing would apply to sports journalists, business journalists, entertainment journalists). The first is that the journalists, whatever media outlet, seem to see themselves as something of a club, and a beleaguered club, of people misunderstood by the general public. Much in the same way as politicians and policemen, journalists think no one appreciates how hard the work is, what long irregular hours they work, what skills are required. They work alongside each other, socialise, marry each other, move between different media outlets, give each other industry awards. They no longer compete with each other for “scoops”. Instead (just as in the lack of competition between banks, oil companies) they ensure that if one person does a story everyone else will immediately do the same story in exactly the same way, so no one gains any advantage. Breaking ranks to either ignore a particularly crap story, or investigate something others were not asking questions about might leave you exposed on a limb, making a mistake. Besides, to question something your mates were accepting would be unsporting, might embarrass, expose a friend — and you won’t do that to your friends and don’t expect them to do it to you.

But it gets worse. The journalists not only work and play with each other but with the subjects of their work, the politicians. All the same things apply. No one understands them like each other, they share a workplace, intermarry, party together, are each other’s BFF or worst enemy. They share secrets and, like doctors and priests, journalists can guarantee the secrecy of the confessional. Say what you like, political person, and I will publish, anonymously, no more and no less than you want published to suit your purposes. You win, I win (promotions and by-lines and TV shows if the secret big enough), we are all looking out for each other in parliament house. And here, too, no one asks awkward questions, or friendships could be lost, access to secrets curtailed. You scratch my back, I’ll report your political stunt as if it is the Gettysburg Address.

But even more than that I think. The journalists have come to see themselves as players; politicians themselves, but for minor accidents of pre-selection. They are not umpires, linesmen, referring games, reporting infringements, showing red cards, but out on the field running and tackling with the rest of the team. Will identify so strongly with particular individuals, particular political parties, that their interests become indistinguishable, and it is not uncommon to hear a journalist say “we” when they mean the political party of their preference.

And that almost does it, with one final polish. I don’t think Rupert Murdoch and other media owners (including the new intrusion of billionaire miners) get on the phone to reporters and say “spike that story” or “lose that tape” or “praise that politician” as they are said to have done in years gone by. You will often hear them and their employees denying that any such instructions are given and I believe it. Why would you bother? Much easier (and with the advantage of plausible deniability) to use the pyramid approach. Appoint a managing editor (or whatever is the senior post) who is absolutely sympatico to the owners ideas, politics, philosophy, so close as to be like Young Liberal twins separated at birth. He (occasionally she) then appoints the next level of management, half a dozen editors, say. Needless to say each of those will have the right family background, have attended the right school, and will undergo careful interviewing to ensure not a breath of heterodoxy has crept in at, say, university. Leave those editors, producers, whatever to appoint the next level of journalists, presenters etc, the public face, coal face people. Should go without saying that those people in turn, the actual, so to speak, workers, will all be of the right kind, and so on.

From then on the thing runs itself. Not only have you handpicked the team individually, but all of them having similar world views means they reinforce each other’s approaches. And since all the other media outlets have been similarly staffed, the linkages will ensure that all can be relied upon to come up with the same stories, presented in the same ways, none of which, it can be guaranteed, will make a hair on the proprietor’s head curl (although, just for the look of the thing, an occasional maverick will occupy a column). He or she can relax, knowing that their business and political interests are being soundly cultivated, and simply count their money.

And the journalists, working hard, can remain indignant that anyone could suggest there is political interference in their noble calling.

Hard to think of any losers in that system of managing the fourth estate.

Well, except for the third estate of course.

(This story was originally published on David Horton’s The Watermelon Blog and has been republished with permission.)

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