Natarsha Belling (former journalism student of Martin Hirst) is now the face of Channel 10's high rating Weekend News. (Image via http://www.natarshabelling.com.au/)

Plenty for IA readers to get their Tweets into this week when Media Watch picks on two of Doc's fave former students, the eternal fight over Aunty's bias (is she "ours" or "theirs?") and something to get your dander up — Turnbull's privatisation of ASIC's company data. Doc Martin Hirst wraps up the week in the media.

In praise of former students

AS A journalism educator for over 20 years, I have seen at least two generations of young reporters leave J-school and embark on a long, successful media career.

There are many stand-out performers among the thousand or so graduates I’ve lectured, tutored, mentored and berated over two decades.

Two of them, from my early years at Charles Sturt University (CSU) in Bathurst, have been on my radar recently for all the wrong reasons.

Natarsha Belling, a newsreader on Channel 10 and Deborah Knight a morning news presenter on the Nine network, have been pinged by the ABC’s Media Watch for touting products on their social media accounts.

Of course, they’re not the first or the only ones to do this, as Media Watch pointed out last Monday night.

Actually, newsreaders and television presenters are celebrities too. Some even have their own personally-branded websites. They are in the entertainment business more than information brokering and, in our celebrity-obsessed world, it’s no wonder TV personalities cash in on their fame. After all, isn’t that just innovatively monetising your clickstream?

Knight, in particular, is no shrinking violet. Her “baby surprise” births and children are regularly featured in the supermarket magazines.

I remember Natarsha and Deborah fondly. They were both excellent students and left CSU as well-regarded highly capable graduates. Both have done well in their careers as reporters and deserve to be regarded as good professionals. As undergrads, they demonstrate all the attributes and the right attitude to succeed in the cut-throat world of television news.

“Deb” and “Tarsh” have worked hard for their successes and their reputations. Sometimes, like many women in the media, they have achieved position and acknowledgment only by battling against the odds.

Now they are taking advantage of everything they’ve worked for via the growing commercial trivialised “channels” of social media.

The stuff that my former students were promoting on their Instagram accounts seems harmless enough — holidays, cars, fashionable items and beauty products mainly (Tarsh's here and Deb's here).

But Paul Barry makes the serious claim that it could be seen to compromise their roles as news presenters.

To some extent it does, but audiences are savvy enough to know the difference.

Ironically, as Barry pointed out, it is precisely their “credibility” as newsreaders that gives them cache as brand “ambassadors“.

Like many in their profession, Knight and Belling also make money speaking and hosting events.

Speakers Bureau has journalists from many outlets on its books

Journalistic credibility can be compromised by a lot of things and in my book there’s a lot worse than using your personal “brand” to score a few freebies or work the after dinner circuit as an infotainer or host.

Of course, at some point it crosses the line and the onslaught of endorsed social media feeds blurs ethical boundaries even further.

If an argument can be made that commercial considerations unduly influence editorial decision-making then it becomes more serious.

The same arguments apply when it comes to allegations or perceptions of political bias.

Journalists and subject to political as much as commercial influence from powerful individuals and lobby groups.

Proven cases of hidden political bias in reporting are much more serious in my view than telling everyone that an expensive face cream keeps you young enough for television even in your mid-forties. For example, I've noticed an increase in the frequency of tweets in my timeline complaining about "pro-Liberal" bias at the ABC. I’m not surprised that I see that from some of the left-wing and progressive types I follow, it mirrors what the right-wing has been complaining about for some time — that the ABC bias is too left.

Was it ever our ABC?

The Australian’s Chris Kenny often tweets #theirABC and his frequent pokes at the ABC mimic his boss’s long-standing hatred of public-funded competition for lucrative television eyeballs. Kenny’s mantra, echoed by his coterie of well-instructed leader writers, is that the ABC is a cauldron of self-loathing Leftists intent on a fifth-column destruction of his way of life.

Kenny’s feigned ignorance of his own elite status as part of the commentariat he bitterly harangues week-in, week-out is just part of his postmodern alt-right schtick.

On the other hand, tweeps I respect offer a legitimate criticism of the softness with which key interviews with Coalition ministers are handled or stories from Canberra framed by senior ABC reporters.

They point to frequent stories or interviews which seem to take a pro-Coalition stance, that ignore key questions or unfairly attack Labor or the Greens.

At the same time, on other ABC programs conservative commentators seem to dominate, yet these same broadcasts elicit outrage from the right.

Both sides can’t be right!

The ABC cannot simultaneously be more left-wing and more right-wing. So which is it?

It is a favourite meme of the conservatives in Australia that the public broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is too left-wing in its views, programming and choice of presenters.

Open any edition of The Australian or one of the putrid Murdoch tabloids and you will see column after column devoted to opinion pieces, editorials and letters from readers devoted to bashing the lefty bias at the ABC.

It motivates the cultural warriors intent on exposing the Marxists’ long march through the institutions and it provides a vent for the mindless commonsense expressed by readers of the Murdoch press who are one conspiracy theory away from becoming the next Malcolm Roberts.

But why then, if the ABC is as progressive, radical and ”left” as its conservative critics argue, do my left-wing friends think exactly the opposite?

 

Why is my Twitter feed constantly brimming with angry whinges about Leigh Sales giving Libs an easy run and Fran Kelly bashing Labor and sucking up to the government?

The answer is not that the ABC is balanced and doing a good job by upsetting both sides. That is a false balance that does not take into account the relative merits of each argument.

The explanation is a bit more sociological and systemic than that and it’s a bit more complicated than common sense.

The media ecology in which the ABC operates is predicated on the principles of capitalism — private enterprise, competition between providers in a crowded market and, importantly an ideological perspective that simply sees a black and white world:

“capitalism good – socialism bad”

There is no real analysis of this supposedly common sense ideology by those working in the media, it is just another form of taken-for-granted pro-market thinking that doesn’t demand, require or provoke any critical inquiry on their part.

In fact, it’s easier if journalists don’t think about it too hard. Some do, and they take their responsibilities as reporters and advocates for the truth very seriously. But for others, the path of least resistance leads to success. Like accepting commercial freebies, accepting the political status quo is more rewarding.

If you hold to a basic set of assumptions, common to your peers and compliant with the expectations of your managers, stories become easier to find and the routines of reporting “he said, she said” political issues lead to a comforting sense of importance in the hierarchy of insiders.

ABC staff are competing for a jobs in a shrinking market and they can’t afford to be too left-wing if they ever hope to work in the commercial media or to take a job as a political staffer.

Whether you work for the ABC or a commercial outlet it pays to maintain a slightly cynical and “middle of the road” attitude to politics. It is also plain survival instinct to be less critical or more sympathetic to government and more critical of opposition politicians and policies.

On the whole, people who work in the media tend to be socially more progressive, but this is true of those who work more generally in the area of arts and ideas. But this doesn’t make them left-wing, it makes them a bit less conservative; that is all.

"If you are prone to believe the exaggeration and hyperbole 

generated by the ABC’s conservative critics you’d think

that its entire news and current affairs division is a hotbed

of sleeper agents applying a secretive agenda of Marxist mindwarping."

If you are prone to believe the exaggeration and hyperbole generated by the ABC’s conservative critics you’d think that its entire news and current affairs division is a hotbed of sleeper agents applying a secretive agenda of Marxist mindwarping.

Do you remember the ludicrous claim from one addled Newscorpse minion that Peppa Pig was a lesbian plot? Well anything’s possible in a world where Teletubbies is denounced as Stalinist propaganda.

 

I’m not sure that Michelle Guthrie has been at Aunty long enough to have had a visceral effect yet on culture and attitudes, so I don’t think we can blame her influence for a shift in ABC editorial standards.

However, I’m sure her reputation and her apparent willingness to deliver government-friendly outcomes at the ABC mean that her presence in the ABC’s Ultimo HQ and legitimate fears of what she might do to streamline the national broadcaster may well be chilling enough to make journos and presenters pull their heads in a bit.

I think it’s just easier for journalists to go with the flow and not rock the boat. Those that do, like John Pilger, usually end up on the outer. If you’re “too” left-wing, then your critics will try to marginalise your stories and opinions. It’s safer to follow the pack; that’s really at the nub of the ABC’s problem with perceptions of bias. 

We should be particularly cautious when critics complain of too much left-wing bias at the ABC, particularly when it comes from sources with sympathies for the Murdoch media. 

However, with John Howard making a TV comeback, hosting a loving recreation of Australia’s mythical past under Menzies and Andrew Bolt about to assault us with his jaundiced views of Indigenous Australia, its hard not to believe some of the ABC’s critics.

Add to this recent increase in conservative “talent”, which also includes among others Amanda Vanstone and Patricia Karvelas on Radio National, the continued presence of identikit IPA opinionobots on the ABC’s many discussion programs makes any suggestion that the networks producers have a significant left bias seem hollow.

Another attack on press freedom and our right to know

One area of journalism that doesn’t receive enough attention from the media’s many critics is business reporting. The usual guff is premised on an unwavering belief in free enterprise and the sanctity of the markets.

Only rarely do business journalists blow the cover off multinational tax rorts and dodgy global merchants of misery.

As we know from the Panama Papers released by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in April this yeaer and other leaks to investigative reporters, evading taxes, minimising apparent profits and “off-shoring” your misdeeds away from public or journalistic scrutiny is just good practice.

Leaks are also embarrassing for governments, so to are pesky rules like Freedom of Information, or making company records easily available for searching and scrutiny.

So behind a veil of secrecy and smothered in techno-babble, governments will often do things to make it easier for their business backers (who also finance them through dirty deals).

The Abbott-Turnbull government is in the process of doing its mates one such favour. It seems like a small thing, but privatising and selling off the companies’ database of the corporate watchdog ASIC has got transparency groups, some politicians and many journalists offside. 

The Nick Xenophon Team has announced its opposition to the potential I'll-effects of the sale. Nick Xenophon called the sale, estimated at close to $1 billion in value, a "dumb" move by the government. 

It's a hangover measure from the hated 2015 Abbott budget and Labor's yet do make up its mind. Public sector unions have opposed the job-cutting measure since it was first mooted in 2014 by then Treasurer Smokin' Joe. Surely this is a time for Shorten to step up.

The problem is that privatising the ASIC data will make it harder for anyone to find out important information about companies, their directors, owners and business operations. This will add another layer of secrecy over sensitive corporate information and make public interest investigations harder.

Former senior Fairfax business correspondent and thorn in the side of corporate secrecy, Michael West, is spearheading a campaign to have Treasury’s proposed tender process stopped in its tracks. On Monday this week, 84 journalists and public figures signed an open letter calling on the Turnbull Government to back down claiming it would impede their ability to investigate unethical corporate behaviour.

 

The pro-transparency campaign group Get Up! has petitioned the government and is continuing its campaign to have the sale halted. Cabinet is set to rule of the privatisation and tender in the next few weeks. (See where you can sign the petition below).

All IA subscribers and readers (who should be subscribers) should get behind this campaign. If you value good journalism and transparency in the corporate world add your voice to the campaign. It’s not over yet.

Watch this space ...

Read more by Dr Martin Hirst on his blog Ethical Martini and follow him on Twitter @ethicalmartini.

You can stop Turnbull's attack on transparency by signing Get Up!'s petition here.

Fearless Stuart Littlemore's brilliant smackdown of the IPA in 2001 is legendary and demonstrates how successive Coalition governments have nobbled our ABC since.

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