Over the weekend, New Matilda editor Chris Graham spoke on a panel at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas with Amanda Pepe (from the Adelaide Review) and Professor Peter Fray, Co-director of the Centre for Media Transition, University of Technology Sydney. The topic was ‘Future of Media’, and specifically asked these questions: Given the 24/7 news cycle and even faster social media platforms, how can we control information? Is this development the ultimate democratisation of what used to be strictly-controlled offerings of the powerful few? Who’s making sure we’re not being duped? Below is a speech Chris Graham prepared, but never delivered (the group just chatted instead).
One of the key questions in today’s discussion is given our new, fast-paced media world, how can we control information?
I think the short answer is we can’t. And to be honest, I don’t think we really should anyway. I think government believes its job is to control information, and I can see some cases where that’s obviously necessary – national security, commercial in confidence etc etc. But in this day and age I think there’s a lot of overreach by government in the control of information. The current prosecution of Witness K in the East Timor oil and gas scandal is a disgraceful, outrageous example of that.
I think traditional media has also felt a strong desire to – and indeed has a long history of – controlling information. I think there’s a lot of overreach in that area as well. I’ll give you an example.
Tomorrow, I’m getting on a plane to fly to Italy. From there I board a boat in Sicily to sail to Gaza, in Palestine. I’m there to report on the Freedom Flotilla Coalition, an international group (with representation in Australia) which, every year or so, organizes a few boats from across the world to try and break the Israeli imposed naval blockade on Gaza.
Now, wherever your politics reside on the question of Israel and Palestine, it’s undeniably a news story. It’s undeniably information in the public interest. In the past, Australian media coverage has either tended to ignore the Flotillas entirely, or tended towards mockery and criticism. And yet, it’s basically universally accepted – save for a few countries – that Israel’s blockade of Gaza is illegal under international law. The Human Rights Council of the United Nations says it is, for example.
Gaza is the world’s largest outdoor prison – a jail to almost 2 million people. And yet most of the time, we only see it in the news when Israel is slaughtering people. And even then our media ‘strives for balance’… as though there’s a balanced way to report the deaths of hundreds, sometimes thousands of unarmed Palestinians at the hands of one of the world’s most powerful armies.
Ironically, the only way I can see Australian media taking an interest in next week’s Flotilla is if the Israeli Defence Force storms the boat and kills a few activists – and they’ve done that before, as some of you may remember.
The other way, albeit to a lesser extent, is if an Australian journalist – i.e. me – gets jailed for doing my job. Because of course the temporary liberty of a white Australian journalist has far more news value than the decade long detention of 1.8 million brown people.
I do expect to be jailed briefly, but I don’t expect to arrive home to a crush of TV cameras. Even if I do – and let’s face it, I won’t, I’m about as popular in Australian media as the average Gazan – but even if I do, I don’t expect to be asked by media about the situation in Gaza. I expect to be asked about the food in a prison in Ashdod, or why I chose to clearly defy the laws of Israel and whether or not I think I might be a little bit anti-Semitic.
That’s what control of information looks like. It’s not always deliberate, but it’s very much a part of the groupthink of Australian mainstream media, which brings me to the other major question for this session: Is the development of social media the democratisation of what used to be strictly-controlled offerings from the powerful few?
I think it is. I think there are many wonderful things about social media. Obviously I think there’s some spectacular downsides as well. But first the upsides.
Just as traditional free to air television is being worn down by platforms like Netflix and Stan, news has essentially also become an on-demand news service. Gone are the days of powerful publishers and arrogant, out of touch journalists sitting on high and deciding what you read about in the morning and afternoon editions of the newspaper.
Now, news is 24 hours. It breaks all day every day. And it’s written based on its ‘shareability’. So on the upside, the ‘people get what they want’. That is undeniably a real democratization of the news.
Of course, that’s only one way to see it. Another is that, really, only the majority are getting what they want – which is actually how a democracy works. I don’t think that should necessarily be how news works.
If enough punters don’t like a story or an issue, that story or issue invariably won’t get covered adequately by the mainstream media. Like Gaza. Or the Northern Territory intervention. It comes down to independent media to fill those gaps. And in independent media, we often don’t have anything like the resources or the reach to give issues the coverage they need and deserve.
That’s an obvious downside. Another is what goes viral. Last week, I wrote a story about the brawl between the Australian and Filipino basketball teams. It took me about an hour to write the story. Frankly, it’s one of the least important things I’ve written in 30 years of journalism. I wrote it simply because the Australian media coverage of the brawl struck me as partisan, biased and bullshit. Which is how I described it.
The story went viral and had more than a quarter of a million views in 24 hours. A week before that, I published a major investigation into animal cruelty. It took the better part of a week to write. It got a few thousands reads.
As I said, a downside. But then, democracy isn’t perfect.
Which brings me to my final point. I remember when I was a cadet, it was drummed into me that any publication needed to be a mirror of the society it served. It needed to reflect the views – and that means ALL the views (with some obvious limits).
I think the reason why media is failing so badly today is because big media has never really been a mirror of the society it serves. I think big media has always been governed by big egos and even bigger interests. The letters to the editor page – traditionally the only place where average punters get to have their say – was NEVER a democratic cross section of opinions and ideas.
It was always heavily curated, and heavily biased towards the particular ideology of the publisher , or the segment of the population he – and they were almost always men – decided their organisation would serve.
I think the evidence which proves that, is social media today. It can be both spectacular and amazing – the #metoo movement, or #illridewithyou are great examples of social media – and society – at its best.
In particular social media has helped enable Aboriginal people finally to find not so much a voice – they’ve been talking for decades, we just haven’t been listening – but to find a ‘market’, unfiltered by the conservative and/or ignorant gatekeepers in mainstream media.
And then there’s the downside. Which is that social media can also sometimes be a fetid, toxic shithole of a swamp. I don’t think I really need to give any examples – just go and search ‘not all men’ or ‘blue lives matter’ or ‘therealdonaldtrump’ on Twitter and you’ll see what I mean.
But you know what – it’s a lot closer to the mirror of our society that we’ve all kidded ourselves existed in organisations like Fairfax or News or the ABC. They were never mirrors – they were always reflections of powerful vested interests, and that’s even more the case today.
The simple fact is, the best chance we have of building a cohesive society – and the best chance we have of building a vibrant, fair and accurate media – is if we operate in the real world. And I think social media, for all its flaws, is forcing journalists to rethink what that world looks like.
This is, of course, a Festival of Ideas, so I thought I’d finish with an idea of my own. It’s spectacularly self-serving, and not particularly original, but it’s an idea none-the-less.
You should think about supporting and consuming independent media. You should subscribe to Crikey. And to IndigenousX. And to Overland. And to Independent Australia. And to Meanjin. And the Adelaide Review. And the Saturday Paper and the Conversation. And to New Matilda, of course.
Just as in a democracy you get the government you deserve, in today’s 24-hour news cycle, you get the media you deserve.
With the democratization of media, you actually have the powerful to influence how that news cycle performs. There is a vibrant, independent media out there in Australia, you just have to know where to look.
And one last thing… every time you click on a Daily Mail story, somewhere, a small, independent journalist, just like me dies. #dontsayyouwerenttold
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.