Ending the Affair

Ending the Affair by Graeme Turner

Ending the Affair by Graeme Turner

The ‘post-journalism’ environment

The phrase ‘post-journalism’ – a phrase coined, I believe, by Altheide and Snow in 1991, although there are a number of other locations where it appears, seemingly for the first time, during the 1990s “ refers to the factors underlying shifts in the industrial production of news which have the effect of nudging the journalist aside in order to exploit other, less independent, sources of information. The growth of public relations, the reduction in the news media’s resourcing of news gathering “ both in terms of personnel and funds “ and the increased competition between news media has reinforced the importance of controlling access to, as well as the supply and presentation of, news stories. Buying the exclusive rights to stories has become an established practice; to accomplish this, the news media must deal with agents, managers and publicists before they gain access to their news sources. Over the last two decades, publicity, promotion and public relations have become just as integral to the practices of commercial news production as to the marketing and positioning of the commercial media organisation itself.

In my view it is now undeniable that news and current affairs content is as much the product of public relations and publicity as of journalism. In the research which was published in Fame Games, my co-authors and I outlined the growth of the public relations and publicity industries since the 1980s, and argued that they are now responsible for a significant proportion of media content right across the various sectors. In the mass market magazine sector, where one might of course expect the influence of the publicity industry to feed a heightened interest in celebrity, it is the single most dominant category of story. Within current affairs programming on television, celebrity stories accounted for between 30 and 50 per cent of the story topics on some of the programs surveyed: these included the market leaders A Current Affair and 60 Minutes.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at the Australian

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at The Australian

However, the influence of public relations is not confined to celebrity or entertainment stories. Tracking the fate of government public relations media releases “ determining their success rate in being published, uncorroborated or without any significant change “ has revealed alarming results; one study found that, in television, 60 per cent of these media releases were taken up and used without any corroboration at all. Given that kind of result, it is not hard to credit assessments which suggest that between 70 per cent and 80 per cent of the content of our newspapers originates in media releases from public relations firms or personnel.

The effect of government public relations units upon the content and treatment of news is not simply the result of the strategic intervention of spin doctors. Rather, the Fame Games research suggested, it is a routine operation of government that is just as routinely accepted by a news media hungry for stories and too busy to question everything that lands on their desks. Perhaps less obviously, it is also worth pointing out that the business press is probably the worst example of a sector of news which is almost entirely in the capture of its sources. Surveys of the output of the business sections of the print media have found an extraordinary proportion of business news has been lifted, unchanged, from the press releases of the companies concerned. Clara Zawawi’s 1994 research, which we discuss in
Fame Games, found that between 84 per cent (Sydney Morning Herald) and 93 per cent (The Australian) of the business news published in our quality papers was composed of little more than public relations releases. Small wonder that the fall of HIH or One.Tel came as such surprises to the Australian consumer. While Zawawi is at pains to point out that her interest is in locating the effects of changes in journalism’s work practices, resource allocation and management direction rather than anything more sinister, and although her research involves the print media only, she does make the concluding comment that perhaps we should remove the journalist ‘from the centre of the news process in the print media and give more emphasis to the role of the public relations practitioner’.

Zawawi’s comments remain worthy of serious attention because the shifts in journalistic practice and in the conditions within which journalists have to work should not be left out of the equation here. The intensity of the commercial competition described earlier has increased the pressure on individual journalists to come up with the goods on a regular basis. This, at a time when the downsizing and casualising of newsrooms has reduced journalists’ capacity for investigative work and enforced the prioritisation of ‘same day’ stories. As each medium attempts to exploit its industrial edge in order to beat the competition, we find that the electronic media increasingly look to exploit immediacy as one of their preferred means of competing with the print media. This has significantly increased the speed of the daily news cycle for these media, and thus reduced the time available for checking facts or for corroboration. The print media are caught between two strategies as they attempt to respond: to go for more detail and more depth (the broadsheet option), on the one hand; or to opt for colour, shock-horror teasers, sensationalist headlines and pictures, and multiple editions (the tabloid option), on the other hand. Some outlets do both “ offering competing versions of journalism within the one publication in order to protect their circulations against an increasing number of competing media.

In the midst of all this, it has to be acknowledged that those dedicated (or privileged) few who do manage to perform investigative journalism in the traditional manner do not find it a comfortable occupation. Anyone who has heard Four Corners journalist Chris Masters speak in the last few years will have heard him say that the ten years of litigation he endured after the broadcast of his Four Corners story on corruption in the Queensland police, ‘The Moonlight State’, was simply not worth it. This is a clear example of a story which had enormous social and political repercussions, and has changed the nature of Queensland politics. Yet, the person who was responsible for it has been so ruthlessly hounded through the courts that he now says publicly that if he had known what lay ahead he would not have done it. The use of stop-writs, libel and defamation actions has been increasing, particularly as a means by which large organisations or corporations can prevent publication. Australian journalists have long argued that the nature of the libel and defamation laws in Australia, and the fact that they vary significantly across state jurisdictions, has actively assisted those who are the legitimate object of public investigation.

At present, multilateral negotiations are underway to produce a set of national defamation laws, which might exclude corporations as eligible complainants and which could establish truth as a complete defence “ neither of which is the case at present. Such changes would improve the conditions under which the investigative end of journalism might operate.

The fact that the federal government and the Media, Arts and Entertainment Alliance are negotiating on this process at the moment does indicate how seriously it has been taken (and progress reports on these negotiations indicate how difficult it will be to satisfy the competing interests involved). This also reminds us that the commercial pressures facing media organisations are not solely those involved in beating their competitors to the story; it also involves absorbing the legal costs of a story once it has been published. Understanding this helps to explain why the kinds of stories for which Masters became famous “ most of which date back into the 1980s and early 1990s now “ are now simply not commissioned by the commercial networks, and only rarely by the ABC or SBS.

‘News entertainment’ and politics

The really depressing thing is that these intensely competitive media systems are fighting over something the public seems less and less bothered about: that is, news. The category of news itself, and in particular the ‘behind the news’ model of current affairs, looks increasingly old-fashioned. Journalism finds itself backed into something of a corner. Under the pressure of marketplace competition, journalism has increasingly opted to define itself, in effect if not always explicitly, as a form of entertainment rather than information. It has taken some time to do this, and the early attempts met with significant consumer resistance as well as with the difficulties in calibrating innovations in the format.

When comedian and talkshow host Graham Kennedy hosted a hybrid late news and comedy program in the 1980s, called Graham Kennedy’s News Show, the mix of information and entertainment formats proved a little uncontrollable. Reading the news for laughs simply offended people. The format was eventually revised and renamed Graham Kennedy Coast to Coast, Kennedy stopped reading the news himself and a live audience was brought into the studio to make it clear that we were meant to laugh at the jokes. In the UK, the salacious tabloid red-top newspaper, Sunday Sport, legitimated its practice of printing totally fictional stories in a news format by calling itself a ‘news entertainment’ on its masthead, rather than a newspaper.

In American television, what is usually nominated as the most significant moment in the shift away from news to entertainment occurred during the 1970s when the success of 60 Minutes proved, for the first time in that market, that current affairs could achieve top ratings. The practice employed by the US networks at that time, of quarantining news and current affairs programming from the ratings as a means of protecting the provision of public information, appeared no longer to be necessary. Since then, it seems in hindsight, news and current affairs programming has increasingly been forced to conceive of the competition for audiences as a competition over the provision of entertainment rather than merely of accurate and useful information. This has produced the shifts in the format’s content we have seen over the last two decades: the introduction of sport, personality and celebrity gossip, for instance, as well as consumer affairs stories.

It has produced shifts in method, too. Ethically questionable tactics such as the use of hidden cameras have displaced more conventional investigative journalism as a means of exploiting television’s capacity for dramatic visual exposure and revelation. There have been knock-on effects. By compromising the legitimacy of some of its methods, the authority of the program and ultimately of the format became increasingly dependent upon the credibility of the constructed persona of the presenter/host. Along the way, journalist Amanda Meade has pointed out, ‘the notion that the programs should follow the daily news, providing current affairs reports and interviewing key players, has all but evaporated’. An acknowledged casualty of such an approach is the treatment of politics.

In Australia, politics has largely been evacuated from commercial television current affairs, although it survives in diminished form (largely) as a ritualised Q&A exchange on the ABC. There are very few long-term investigations mounted and very little use of investigative research as a means of framing a political or social issue. As noted earlier, it is common-place to point out that most commercial current affairs programs employ a narrow range of populist story topics (back pain, cellulite, cosmetic surgery, difficult neighbours) and are loath to deal with politicians at all. The allocation of resources is also implicated here “ most starkly in the 7.30 Report‘s routine attempt to cover national politics via a live conversation between the host and the relevant correspondent rather than through filmed stories or direct reporting from a range of sources. When the program does interrogate a political representative, mostly it is without the support of any specialised investigative research and so the resulting product is an entirely ritualised performance of the participants’ respective roles. Where once the coverage of politics might have been regarded as a fundamental media responsibility, this is no longer the case. This is a deliberate and strategic choice for the commercial networks. The argument routinely offered by the likes of news and current affairs veteran Peter Meakin (formerly of Nine Network, now at Seven) is that the public is simply not interested in politics and that any show which put long interviews with politicians to air would be cutting its own throat, in terms of ratings. Any suggestion to the contrary is, we are told, simply wrong.

This explanation has been around for a long time (it appears in the ITC report as well, in the conversations with current affairs producers). It is not simply self-serving. Clearly, something like it must have informed those earlier regimes of programming which quarantined news and current affairs from the commercial effects of poor ratings in order to ensure that they continued to deliver information to the public. Furthermore, it would seem to be supported by Australian media commentators and pundits such as Hugh Mackay who, for instance, regrets what he suggests is the public’s apparent apathy about, or disengagement from, politics over the last decade or so. As we have seen already, this is a familiar argument. Nevertheless, I am not convinced that what Mackay describes constitutes a cause of the character of the contemporary media’s representation of politics. Rather, I think it may be an effect. Specifically, I am sceptical about the claim’s validity as a general principle to account for the contemporary interests of the media audience, particularly when I look at other media formats where politics has proved to be a fundamental component over a very long time “ such as metropolitan talkback radio, where it is the staple diet.

There are reasons to regard this, today, as a convenient justification for avoiding content areas likely to offend powerful interests or institutions upon whom the program or the network may some time in the future depend “ such as those involved in funding (the ABC) or in protection from commercially damaging regulatory changes (the commercials). The classic Australian television current affairs program, This Day Tonight, was closed down for a number of reasons, and prominent among them was its history of attracting political pressure to the ABC’s management. The history of TDT was one of regular controversy; the management of the ABC at that time was strongly inclined to cooperate with government and in many instances responded to government pressure by disciplining program staff “ in some cases pressuring them to leave. At the end of its eleven-year run, TDT was still enjoying ratings that today’s 7.30 Report would kill for, but all its highest profile staff “ both in
front of and behind the camera “ had left the program. Those who remained were burnt out, the anecdotal evidence from former staff would suggest, to a great extent by the demands of continually defending their decisions and their colleagues. ABC management regarded the program as a hot potato, too difficult an operation to maintain, and sought reasons to close it down.

TDT‘s distinction was that it popularised politics as a new form of content for Australian television. Its success provoked the Seven Network to poach TDT‘s Michael Willesee (significantly, himself the object of pressure from ABC management for his interviewing style), to launch the first generation of A Current Affair. The reputation of ACA at Seven was built around the Willesee interview “ long, searching, skilled interviews with politicians and public figures (and, eventually, celebrities). Comparisons with the contemporary version of the program only serve to reinforce the possibility that today’s audiences are not actually bored with politics at all. Rather, perhaps, they have been bored and alienated by the diminution of the journalistic strategies employed in the media’s contemporary performance
and representation of politics.

Rarely is a television current affairs interview used as an occasion to spring a surprise “ to introduce new information the journalist has uncovered independently and about which the interviewee has not been warned.

Where this does happen, it is usually as part of a process used to ensnare the small-time operator “ the tradesman or shonky salesman. (The last time I saw it happen in a political interview was when Lateline‘s Tony Jones asked Health Minister Tony Abbott about his meeting with Cardinal George Pell “ and it certainly livened up that exchange!) Regrettably, today, the political interview has become institutionally integrated into the public ritual of party politics; one might suggest that the continuing relationship between the program and the politician has become more important “ to both parties “ than the production of journalism or the generation of news on that day. It goes without saying that producers of television current affairs programs have actively collaborated in this process. And it is not hard to understand why. Once a program’s capacity to generate political pressure becomes a significant practical problem for the network it is not surprising that management would prefer to draw the format’s teeth.

The treatment of politics then becomes wrapped in the recent industrial history of the medium and of the format. While the story of what has happened to the format at the ABC is slightly different “ although by no means unaffected by the kinds of influences I am describing here “ what has been presented so far is largely a tale of the effect of the commercialisation of the news service. The scale of the commercialisation of the format, with the regularisation of such practices as cheque-book journalism; the effect of deregulation on television’s responsibility for informing the public by no longer requiring the media to properly resource the reporting of social and political issues; and the responses of those in charge of television news and current affairs to these changes and pressures, are interrelated contingencies that have produced the current situation: where current affairs must now be considered an endangered format.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.