Category Archives: The Media

Fluoro vest? Just say NO!

This piece was first published in The Australian Media Section on 1/8/2011

Last week on the TV news, Tony Abbott, wearing a fluoro-green safety vest, lifted a fish above his head and criticised the carbon tax. Ten seconds later, he lifted another fish and criticised the carbon tax again. New words, same message, different fish.

In the same bulletin, Julia Gillard, dressed in a fluoro-orange safety vest, hard hat and safety glasses, praised her carbon tax and tried to cut a small piece of timber with a bandsaw. After her attempt she removed her safety glasses and again praised the tax. Different words, same message, new look. It was riveting television.

Many things are deeply troubling about the two pieces of footage. One is that the fluoro safety vest has now become de rigueur among politicians from all sides and looks like being THE fashion must-have of 2011. Sources tell me David Jones is looking to Christmas sales of fluoro vests to revive their flagging share price. Another concern is the welfare of Abbott’s fish. Were they harmed in any way? Was a vet on hand to oversee the event? If dead, were they humanely put down?

Yet the most troubling aspect of the footage is that the news editor thought these two obviously constructed photo opportunities newsworthy enough to broadcast in the first place. Neither contained anything ‘new’ that would alter the political landscape or impact our daily lives. Indeed, neither was newsworthy at all. Visually interesting – perhaps. Newsworthy – no.

As a past practitioner of the dark art of Public Relations, I know exactly how the newsroom was contacted and why journalists were assigned to cover the fluoro fish and timber shows. TV news editors, desperate for colourful footage, and having no budget or time for investigative journalism, have become the PR practitioner’s lap-dogs.  It’s estimated that 60% of our news comes from media releases written by PR people pushing ‘a particular truth’, not necessarily ‘the’ truth. The ever thirsty TV news beast can be full of real news, or constructed stunts, real colour or fake fluoro, one truth or THE truth … as long as the bulletin is full, the job’s done.

Having our news broadcasts largely at the mercy of political spin doctors creates a formulaic news cycle that’s predictable and sanitised. Our news audio becomes tit-for-tat argument while our visuals become stage-managed theatre. The TV news package becomes soap opera entertainment – ‘Days of our Lives’ in a different time slot.

Love them or hate them, Barnaby Joyce will at least say something unscripted by media advisers just as Bob Katter doesn’t need a fluoro vest to be interesting. These two don’t have advisors flapping around trying to maintain positive public opinion and constructing photo opportunities. Feeding the TV news beast is clearly not a priority. They are at least ‘real’.

In these days of potential media regulation, TV newsrooms must become what their name implies – not merely passive camera crews rushing to creatively orchestrated photo stunts. News editors could begin to cover stories that are not so easy and not so cheap. While the stage-managed easy, cheap and fast story may provide palatable, entertaining viewing while we eat our TV dinner, it is not usually newsworthy.

Above all, we the news-hungry public could begin to not only question the media, but question our own passive digestion of daily news. Our society, at risk of becoming physically obese on fast food, is becoming mentally flabby on a diet of fast TV news we rarely analyse.  We seldom ask where it’s come from. Just as our food is a choice to be considered, so is our news. It’s time to shed some flab. Questioning our news content, and especially its source, is a great place to start.

Smiling in the gloom

And the Lord said unto the people of the world, “Verily, as the globe warms and the waters rise and the uncontrolled renovation of bathrooms and kitchens continues unabated, I will send a pestilence. This pestilence will be in the form of an Angel, and this Angel will be called the Angel of Financial Turmoil who will drive out the greedy company directors, merchant bankers and uncontrolled mortgage lenders to the land of moderation and frugality.

“And as the supply of credit dries, there will be no more funds for expensive four wheel drives nor the fuel they consume. The people of the world will reduce their consumption of all things, and will begin to walk, ride pushbikes or take public transport. Lo, they will realise that there is little money for regular restaurant meals or a diet of take-away food. They will once again grow vegetables, milk the beast and sustain themselves. The word ‘McDonald’ will once again be a Scottish clan and obesity will be no more. The people will rise and be fruitful and while they will not even think about it, they will be happy.”

When the people heard these distressing words, they began to mourn and no one put on any ornaments. Some however found an interesting parallel between financial turmoil and the world’s need to consume less. Some understood the sign and saw that God and Nature had fought back in the way that people would best understand; that if reducing consumption to save the planet wouldn’t force change, reducing consumption because they had no money to do otherwise would have to do.

The financial turmoil of the past month has left many looking at ways to save a few dollars. My conversations with local restaurant owners indicate people are eating out less, and when they do, they’re becoming more price conscious.  Radio gardening shows have begun serious talk-back on growing vegetables and raising chickens.

According to media reports, many are taking to the pushbike to save on fuel and parking costs. The world is certainly a different place, and while many mourn the loss of financial freedom the ‘Angel’ has delivered, others see our sudden consumption consciousness as the first step in solving the world’s climate crisis, perhaps a first step they were unable to take by themselves.

According to the Worldwide Fund for Nature, if the demands on our planet continue at the same rate, “by the mid 2030’s, we’d need the equivalent of two planets to maintain our lifestyles.” For the unconscious spender, this simply means two planets to renovate. Great! To others, 2030 is very close indeed.

Yet rather than cry in our double brie about it all, there’s a definite feeling that this change, this new world we’re entering, could be OK. That in delivering the pestilence, the Angel has created a non-negotiable set of rules that we must abide by. Carte Blanch is fine, yet limits created through necessity provide a structure and direction that western society has lacked. Like a tear-away child needing discipline, western consumers ran away with the ball, really wanting someone to give chase and read us the riot act so we could feel safe within fair boundaries.

Capitalism, bless its little heart, has allowed us to do what we want when we want, yet capitalism spinning out of control creates individual greed and community breakdown. The ridiculous salaries paid to some company directors represents capitalism gone mad, especially when these salaries stand alongside declining literacy, underfunded hospital systems and an indigenous problem that we should all be ashamed of.

Yet we’re all responsible. I saw no street protests when the Macquarie Bank chiefs walked away with their zillions. Words of dissent in Australian society have been few and far between, and while we were renovating, many tear-aways ran away with the ball. Indeed, we may have run and hidden the ball ourselves somewhere in our new kitchen!

The structure, direction and limitation imposed through necessity need not spell doom and gloom. Throughout history, it’s the ‘difficult’ periods that create community and a sense of ‘pulling together’. Australian ‘mateship’ wasn’t a product of good times and consumer bliss but the result of hardship and necessary limits. Whatever the advertisers try and spin us, our lasting memories aren’t of lying in the sun sipping margaritas, but of the holiday when we had to overcome something that went drastically wrong. It’s of having something to work for with creativity and flair, not just having something to spend. It’s the memory of crusty bread from an old wood-fired oven, or long seasons without air-conditioning waiting for the southerly buster. It’s of warm bottled milk capped with cream, home without renovation and the romance of old things.

And as the people worked, and as they celebrated the Feast of Weeks with the first fruits of the harvest, they realised what they’d lost in the years between then and now. They laughed and they sung. They ate, drunk and danced and the children danced with them. They made love and made no plans – certainly no renovation plans. And the Lord saw that although the food was plain, and the wine cleanskin, it was all very, very good.

Media as business: In defence of Fairfax

As Australia’s journalism depth becomes ever shallower with the sacking of 150 Fairfax journalists, the big question to ask ourselves amid all this argy-bargy is “What on earth did we expect?”

The entire Fairfax focus is not on ensuring you and I have are informed and educated Australians; that in many ways is the role of the ABC. The entire Fairfax stable including The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Financial Review and 2UE, is essentially media as business. Like any business, its primary mission is to make profits for shareholders…the dominant one being John B Fairfax himself.

This is a markedly different role to that of the ABC whose role it is to educate, inform and entertain in a way relevant to the broad spectrum of Australians. If a similar cost cutting occurred at the ABC we should and would be upset. Yet if a similar cost cutting occurred at Ernst & Young or perhaps Coles Myer would we be as concerned? Not on your life.

The emotional lynchpin in all of this is that The Herald, as one of Australia’s first newspapers, has a social responsibility to bring us ‘quality’ investigative journalism not stifled by  a lack of resources or the need for profit. What rubbish! The Herald is no more a social service than Pizza Hut or McDonalds. It exists to make money, and if we want ‘quality’ we may have to look elsewhere.

This ‘responsibility for quality’ we hear bandied about is the responsibility of the individual journalist, not of the media entity that presents itself as business. While it has been the case that Fairfax employed journalists who maintained ethical and responsible levels of journalism to bring us a ‘quality’ product, there was no guarantee this would continue. In the world of slipping media profits and greater competition from web-based media, there is no way that the Fairfax business could maintain its old-world standards in the face of real-world profit decline.

The truth is that Fairfax missed the boat when it failed to snap up online media products over the last 10 years. A greater online presence in its stable may well have provided the buffer it needed to maintain quality broadsheets like the Herald or the Age.  In the wake of poor past leadership, its flagship products,  the ones that bleed most money, need to be realigned. Like it or not, that would be the decision that any modern management team, a team that leads a business, not a social service, would make.

Most media watchers have known for some time that Fairfax has been piling money into its online entities like Domain, RSVP or at the expense of its old-world broadsheets. A simple look at the Herald website shows a dumbing-down of intelligent discussion and a rise in celebrity-driven guff. In the world of business, this shallow ‘fast-food-journalism’ clearly makes more money than the serious stuff we used to digest.  Sad but true.

So should we be horrified at the sacking of Fairfax staff? No. Media as business has the right to do what it likes. The real reason for our horror, and a reason that should shake us all to the core, is that as our flagship quality broadsheets make their initial slide into mediocrity, we have nothing left to fill the void.

Ode to Colin: Suckling on the tabloid teat

Australia, and in particular Sydney, has witnessed a fascinating human spectacle this week. While the rest of the world has been obsessed by the performance of the Jamaicans in Beijing, we’ve been preoccupied with the health and eventual death of a humpback whale calf named ‘Colin’.

Now Colin (AKA Collette; a closer examination revealed he was actually ‘she’) had somehow become orphaned and was snuggling up to large boats in a stretch of water we call ‘Pittwater’. Supposedly a highly intelligent animal, this small humpback thought one of these boats maybe his mother. As he became increasingly hungry, he became increasingly snugly in trying to suckle whatever piece of racing yachtware he could find.

While this piece of animal delusion was interesting in itself, what was even more interesting was the vast array of whackos that came out of the woodwork as ‘experts’ or ‘friends’ of Colin. Odd-bods from all over Australia were putting in their bit, getting their faces on commercial news condemning authorities for “not doing enough to fix this dreadful tragedy”.

There were whale whisperers, whale chefs (who thought they had the ideal recipe for whale milk), Aboriginal whale callers and whale psychologists all thinking they had the answer. They all believed they knew better than the scientists who concluded that euthanasia was the best and only course of action. Sad but necessary.

What was even sadder was that commercial broadcasters gave these over emotional do-gooders airtime. People whose sole connection with animal health was possibly the ownership of some Skippy videos or a statue of a dolphin, were given the same airtime as our Parks and Wildlife professionals.

Yet the whole shebang doesn’t end with the fast and assisted death of Colin. There are now some in Sydney who are lobbying for a memorial to Colin…a statue or fountain that would help us remember his (her) trials. Oh dear.

In a week where we’ve witnessed the pinnacle of sports achievement at the Beijing Olympic games, the tragic death of hundreds in a Span-Air plane crash, and TV images of tanks rolling through the towns and villages of Georgia, the death of Colin is a very unimportant bleep on our evolutionary and historical radar. In the big picture, the death of any living thing – human, whale or chicken – is minor. Life isn’t always fair, cute or important.

As the ill-considered blatherings of a few become newsworthy, our myopic view of what really is ‘news’ funnels even more into something parochial and inane. Our increasingly irritating tabloid news becomes fixated on individual teardrops rather than national or world ones.

Yet there’s an even greater concern. By raising the insignificant to something worthy of prolonged media attention, we somehow dilute and devalue the truly significant. While a focus on the small issues maybe benign, a lack of focus on the substantial issues of our world creates a malignant state indeed.  It’s a state that higher mammals like humans – and whales – can do without.