Sunday, December 04, 2011

The 'howlers' are in the ascendency?

I began this post some months ago, but never quite finished it despite the plethora of examples that demonstrate my point.   I wrote then:  After nearly three months away from Australia I have returned to find that the 'howlers' have flourished in my absence.  Barbara Kingsolver's potent metaphor from her book The Lacuna fits all too well, unfortunately.  She says, referring literally, but not metaphorically, to a troup of Mexican monkeys:

'In the beginning were the howlers.  [Their howling] would start with just one: his forced rythmic groaning like a saw blade. That aroused the others near him, nudging them to bawl a long with his monstrous tune. Soon the maroon-throated howls would echo back from other trees...As it was in the beginning, so it is every morning of the world' (p. 3)

I find myself very unsettled, and not unlike Kingsolver's young protagonist who, subjected to the daily tirade from the howlers, wakes terified 'at every day's dawn'.

Clearly, and thankfully, I am not the only one worried.  But those who worry as I do are drowned out it would seem by the howlers.  Sean Carney illustrates my point well in his article in the Saturday Age when he says of the howler-in-chief:

"Since he became leader in December 2009, he [Tony Abbot] has reduced himself almost to a political parody - a politician who can rail and complain and harness community anger and generate fear but himself appears to stand for hardly anything, including the words from his own mouth."

Barry Jones pursues a similar line of argument to mine when he claimed during the week: 'intelligent discussion all but extinct'.  What is it about Australians?  More and more they seem to portray all the worst features of those trapped in an island state, where news of difference and reasoned debate merely trigger even more outrageous howling.  My cousin, a therapist, relates a story about a German client, a young woman here because of her relationship with an Australian lad, disturbed because she has yet to encounter anyone in her circle able to engage in civilised critical discussion. Having been in the reverse situation when young, with a German girlfriend, I can relate to her experience. I cannot imagine any Australians I know in Australia sitting in a mixed sauna discussing the latest news of the Baader-Meinhoff gang and the antics of Helmut Schmidt. But that was how it was in Munich in the 1970s.

In many ways the Murdoch press in Australia is the main megaphone for the howlers.  But how it works is not straightforward.  Some years ago when Vice Master of Wesley College at the University of Sydney I helped the students run a guest speaker program. One of the more interesting speakers was Wendy Bacon, then a well recognised and 'radical' journalist.  She was asked whether she had ever had stories censored by her employers (Murdoch, Packer, Fairfax). Her answer was revealing.  My memory of her answer was that to her knowledge she had never had a story censored or blocked by her employer.  Instead, she said, the main form of censorship was self-censorship by journalists themselves. They knew that if they wanted to keep their job, or to get another job in Australia, they had to observe certain rules.  Concentration of ownership in the press has increased since Wendy gave this talk so I imagine that self-censorship has become even more insidious.  There is good evidence for this today in an article by Wendy Bacon in The Age where she reports a revealing exchange with News Corp (Australia) CEO John Hartigan:

"I emailed Hartigan some questions. They included: Do you consider that bias by newspapers in cities where only one company owns a newspaper could ever be an issue? How do you monitor whether fair means of reporting the news are being applied across the company? What auditing or monitoring mechanisms do you apply? Are there occasions when you do take up matters of bias with editors? Do you think that it would be a good idea if the Australian Press Council became an independent body with funding from both media and other sources, including government?
I received this reply:
''Your bias against our organisation over many years and the errors and omissions in your recent New Matilda piece renders your right to answers from me completely redundant. It is deeply troubling to me and to all of our editors that someone like you has any role in teaching young journalists in Australia.''

Hartigan did not elaborate on my errors or omissions. Nor, to my knowledge, has he pointed these out to online magazine New Matilda (which has a policy of publishing corrections)."

It is a pity freedom of information legislation cannot be used to find out what was discussed at the recent meeting of  News International senior staff at Rupert Murdoch's Californian ranch.  Given the power News International has, the intentions of FoI legislation would, in this instance be better directed at News International than governments.

I agree with Martin Flanagan, whose witty piece today sums up the week of Murdoch theatre in tremendous style, when he says:
  "I hope the debate about journalism that the News of the World has triggered hits Australia like a tsunami"

Since I wrote this piece Murdoch junior has reappeared before the House of Commons Committee in the UK highlighting to us all the inadequacy of his answers.  In Australia an inquiry has been mounted and is now underway.   I fear its terms of reference are inadequate to the circumstances. Particularly telling is recent research released from Wendy Bacon's academic group which concludes:

" The first of a two-part analysis of Australian press coverage of climate change, A Sceptical Climate, has found that between February and July this year negative coverage of the carbon policy across 10 major newspapers outweighed positive coverage by 73 per cent to 27 per cent. Report author Professor Wendy Bacon said the overall result was driven by News Ltd group publications (82 per cent negative versus 18 per cent positive), compared to a more balanced result for the Fairfax press (57 per cent positive articles outweighing 43 per cent negative)."

News Corp is clearly the verdant forest for modern day howlers!

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