Not everyone seems impressed, but in my view Lindsay Tanner raised substantive points in his interview with Leigh Sales this week in the 7.30 Report (sorry but I hate the almost invisible new title of the show). Tanner was arguing from his new book Sideshow where he says the media are largely to blame for the shoddy state of our polity. The argument was never fully teased out. The interviewer took the adversarial role of blaming the politicians for the problem and so the central issue of media behaviour was ignored.
Never did Sales address the problems Tanner was there to talk about: “gotcha journalism”, the treatment of gaffes, the trivialisation of politics as a game, and the glorification of the aggrieved whenever reform is proposed. Not once did Sales, an interviewer I respect and admire, accept the blame on behalf of the media and push on from there. Instead she took the easy line, pushing back on the duty of the politician to rise above the shackles the media has imposed. As Kerryn Goldsworthy pointed out, it was a textbook example of the problem Tanner was describing.
Sales kept asking why politicians couldn’t rise above it, but never once explored the other half of the problem, or even acknowledge it existed. It is as if the commodification of news is a taboo topic, which is somewhat understandable. After all, what media will admit to its audience the inconvenient fact they are part of the problem they are analysing?
Certainly none of the media organisations that spent millions of dollars giddily covering Friday’s Royal Wedding would make any such admission. As Dan Rather pointed out, we should remember this next time a media company closes a bureau or is unable to cover a “foreign story with full force”. This week-long extravaganza saw hundreds of journalists stationed in Green Park with nothing better to do than seek mind-numbing excreta on the edges of the wedding. For instance, the one snippet I caught of Channel 7’s Sunrise on Wednesday morning featured an in depth article on Kate Middleton’s stripper cousin or to use the parlance beloved of media pretending not to be prudish while being prurient, Middleton’s “saucy cousin”.
I don’t blame the journalists involved. Short of taking News of the World tactics and hacking the Royals’ phone service, they are not going to get an exclusive royal story outside the long lens. So they’re hard working hacks who devote their talents to a Kevin Bacon game to find news in saucy strippers two irrelevant stages removed from something that struggles to be important in the first place. The only newsworthy elements of the Royal Wedding are the fuss over the Bahraini ambassador, the snub to Blair and Brown, and the censoring of the Chaser’s attempt to satirise the wedding. Tanner’s Sideshow has moved into the centre stage.
The problem is, as Robert McChesney puts it, media companies are a government sanctioned oligopoly, owned by a few highly profitable corporate entities. They guard their privilege through legislative influence and through control of news coverage; they distort understanding of media issues. According to Eric Beecher it is a convergence of economic, technological and societal trends which is threatening “quality media” in an unprecedented way. He blames a media obsession with celebrity, fame, trivia and lifestyles as serious analysis cannot attract a broad constituency “without large dollops of celebrity gossip and soft lifestyle coverage.”
The Royal Wedding is easy news - controllable, glamorous and unthreatening to the journalists covering it. None of them are taking chances like Mohammad Nabous or Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros. Their deaths show courageous journalism still happens. These men died trying to understand things people don’t want you to know. But as Lindsay Tanner points out, the companies they work for don’t want you to know either. The model is borked. Investigative and analytical journalism do not pay their way any more. With the likes of the ABC too entrenched in the status quo, only the unpaid fifth estate is showing any interest in saving democracy. But without the power and kudos of the fourth, I don't fancy their chances.