Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Why Media Watch is wrong about journalists and Twitter

Australia’s most important watchdog on all matters media made a rare lapse last night. ABC’s Media Watch got its message badly wrong in a segment where they warned off journalists from making controversial statements on Twitter. Little-known journalist Adam Turner was the scapegoat new host Paul Barry (no relation) chose to pillory to prove a badly flawed point.

According to Turner’s bio he is an Australian freelance technology journalist who was formerly Melbourne deputy editor of Next and the business IT sections of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald. He left The Age in 2005 and has been a freelance journalist ever since providing “news, features, reviews, blogs and podcasts to various business and consumer technology publications.”

Turner is a regular user of Twitter with over 2,000 tweets to his name. Like many involved in the media he was online on 21 August as the federal election results were coming in. Turner was an avid contributor to the #ausvotes tag with at least 50 tweets on the day (including two mentioned by Media Watch that have since been deleted). Like most people in this particularly conversation, Turner had an opinion and was not afraid to share it on Twitter.

It was obvious Turner was no fan of Tony Abbott. There were tweets like “If Abbott wins, New Zealand will be swamped with boat people on Monday” and “If Abbott wins, helicopter waiting to fly Kerry O'Brien off the ABC roof as coalition forces close in”. His tweets were clearly partisan but hardly noteworthy. They were also little different to hundreds of other similar tweets that night from those supporting the left of centre parties.

Turner's turning point came as Tony Abbott emerged to address his party and the country on live TV. According to the program transcript, Turner tweeted “Listen to this c-------er gloat when he hasn't even won” which he followed shortly by “this a---hole is trying to make a victory speech, complete with cheersquad”. I suspect Turner spelt out the words cocksucker and arsehole in his tweets though I can’t be certain as they have been deleted. On the night they would have been lost in a swathe of tweets with the same hashtag, many of whom would have had much harsher words to say about Abbott, an extremely divisive public figure.

But someone had it in for Turner and informed the ABC. Media Watch made it seem like the pinnacle of investigative journalism tracking him down as Barry announced “I think we have our man”. All they did was count his number of followers (as if that had any meaning at all in this age of Twitter mass marketing) and then grab the text off his bio that I’ve reproduced above. Both the bio and the tweets are openly available to anyone who looks at Turner’s Twitter page or follows him. There was no suggestion Turner had anything to hide.

So where is the problem? It seems as if Media Watch wanted to save Turner from himself. “Luckily Turner's not a political correspondent or he might now be unemployed,” Barry said. “But even so, why on earth did this seem like a good idea?” He compared Turner’s fate to that of Catherine Deveny who was sacked for breaching the taboo of discussing child sexuality with her tweet "I do so hope Bindi Irwin gets laid”. Leaving aside the sanctimonious outcry from rival media, the furore ignores the fact The Age probably wanted to shaft the troublesome Deveny anyway. More importantly it fails to acknowledge her tweets had nothing to do with her work at the Age.

Similarly with Turner. What he got up to on election night with a few bourbons on board may or may not have been a good idea but it was hardly unethical. It also had absolutely nothing to do with his work. Yet Media Watch felt the need to ask The Age’s editor Paul Ramadge about his freelancer. Ramadge’s reply was succinct “[Adam Turner] has received an official first and final warning.” Media Watch’s verdict was that it was an “embarrassing mistake”. Neither Barry nor his team seemed to understand the openness and conversation that underpins social media tools like Twitter.

This became blatantly apparent with Media Watch’s second target in the same segment. ABC WA journalist Geoff Hutchison was forced to delete his Twitter account after he too had a go at Tony Abbott during a Q&A program in the week before the election. Hutchison tweeted "Tony, why are you frightened of intercourse with Julia? Is it because we will be watching and measuring?"

This sarcastic offering offended someone enough to contact ABC management who ordered him to delete his account. ABC Radio spokesman Warwick Tiernan said the comments had breached the ABC's social media policy. "Geoff's comments, posted on a personal Twitter account, do not meet ABC social media guidelines and do not represent the views of the ABC," he said.

Media Watch claimed the problem with Hutchison’s tweets was it interfered with his job which is to be objective. Under ABC’s social media rules staff are directed not to mix "the professional and the personal in ways likely to bring the ABC into disrepute" and not imply the ABC endorses personal views. But Hutchison was not working when he attacked Abbott, he was most likely at home on the couch. No reasonable person could imagine his personal comments could bring the ABC into disrepute. It is also an insult to Hutchison to think he could not be professional enough to leave his personal opinions to one side when interviewing politicians.

Media Watch inadvertently let slip the real reason why he was forced to take the punishment of deleting the account. “Stupid comments like that make it harder for him to do that job properly... and they're a gift to the ABC's critics.” What Barry is really saying is that this has nothing to do with left-wingers putting their gripes on the Internet and everything to do with not giving ABC’s right-wing enemies the opportunity to make tired claims about bias.

Typically Andrew Bolt (who like Hutchison is an able interviewer of politicians despite his own well-known political biases) was quickest off the mark lumping Turner and Hutchison together in a rogue’s gallery with Deveny, Marieke Hardy and Daniel Burt. “Yes, only five,” Bolt admitted in his final sentence, “but all attacking from the Left, with the ABC and barbarians [Fairfax] strongly represented.” Bolt avoided drawing any conclusions from his post allowing his audience do the dirty work for him.

If Barry and his cohorts are frightened off by streams of invective from "ABC’s Critics” like Bolt and his audience then we really do have a problem. Silencing Turner and Hutchison achieves no purpose. We desperately need more robust views not less. We need to know what our politicians and our journalists think, not frighten them off into platitudes. Guiding the social media policy should be an underlying philosophy of publish and be damned. There will be those who will damn the ABC no matter what they do or what their policies say. Media Watch should be standing up to them not for them.


Kevin Rennie said...

Thoroughly agree with you. Journalists do not need to be neutered and mute in their personal lives. Should they be forced to hide behind anonymity and risk 'exposure'. there are enough moral cowards around these days without making it obligatory.

Anonymous said...

Interesting points. I wonder how long until someone challenges these directives to delete personal accounts on legal grounds?
Paul Barry is now (again) the host of Media Watch? His ACA background didn't disqualify him?

Derek Barry said...

Anon - Paul Barry's background should not disqualify him from hosting Media Watch. I wish well in the role. They were just way off beam with this one.