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Book review: Katharine Murphy’s On Disruption

July 9, 2018 - 08:00 -- Admin

Katharine Murphy’s short, well-written book On Disruption succinctly puts many of the themes that are appearing elsewhere from journalists and ex-politicians and raises some interesting points while it does so.

The first takeaway from the book is how desperately journalists need a union, or some organisation to defend their interests. Like other occupations, journalism has faced technological upheavals from a position of bargaining weakness. Job losses and longer, more stressful, working hours are not confined to journalism. Murphy writes approvingly of the Guardian’s distribution of readership metrics from the digital site to its journalists, but from a weak negotiating position such things can just as easily be management productivity tools.

This is a problem, of course, that goes deeper than just the problems faced by journalists – a case in point being the upheavals faced by car workers mentioned in her book. For years we have been told by unions that they can’t protect interests because we are all terribly middle class and individuated graphic designers. Yet here we had a traditional working-class occupation facing closure where unions were able to do little more than send their leaders to cry outside the factory gates as workers walked out for the last time.

But like most professions, journalism has its particular problems that go beyond merely the sphere of industrial relations. Here the record of Australian journalists in defending their interests in recent years has not been sparkling, often struggling to get over the News Corp/Fairfax/ABC divide.

Freedom of speech may be an empty libertarian abstraction most of the time but for journalists is an operational necessity. It is not just the more blatant examples where it has fallen down, such as the craven response by New Corp journalists (and the Turnbull government) to the ban placed on the ABC by the Nauru government.

Too often there has been a selective attitude by journalists to freedom of speech issues, based on left and right political priorities, more suitable for politicians than the interests of journalists as a profession. This leads to the main point of Murphy’s book, and the one of most interest to this blogger, the relationship between journalists and politics in this period of change.

The uncovering of the Watergate scandal – or the rewriting of it – hangs over political journalism and not always to its benefit. The problem with the Hollywood All the Presidents Men version is that making Redford’s Woodward and Hoffman’s Bernstein into heroes required removing the context in which it was happening. It is taking nothing away from the heroism of Woodward or Bernstein, nor the fortitude of their employers, Katharine Graham and the Washington Post, but the missing player in this is the disarray in the political and government establishment at the time.

Much of that disarray was down to the US losing the war in Indochina that was reverberating back home not just in anti-Vietnam demonstrations but the militancy of the civil rights movements. It forced a red-baiter like Nixon to have to seek entente with Moscow and Beijing to help contain Vietnam, winning him no friends with his traditional backers. It was this establishment in disarray that was leaking to its very core, not just over Watergate but had already given the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times a few years before. The lack of this context leaves the impression that journalism at its best holds power to account and brings down governments.

But in a democracy it is the public that holds power to account, not journalists. Journalists may inform the public to help, but usually such public accountability comes from daily experiences that are readily apparent rather than what journalists can uncover. Indeed, Watergate itself showed the limits to such political journalism. It took Nixon’s resignation for the establishment to start to close ranks, with Nixon’s pardoning within a few months. The Republicans narrowly lost the next election and then came roaring back in a landslide in 1980 with Reagan reviving Nixon’s racial southern strategy from the start with his notorious speech at the Neshoba County Fair, starting a second Cold War and intervening further in the third world, especially Central America.

It is not just that political activism by journalists has a limited effect. Because it is happening usually in the political sphere, and so on politicians’ own terms, it is not good for the health of journalism either.

In Australia, the problems between politicians and journalists really stem from what is supposed to be the Golden Age of this relationship when Hawke and Keating were “educating” journalists, who in turn were “educating” the public on the need for economic reform. This was needed not least because after years of suppression of wages by Labor and the unions, for which employees were rewarded with the Recession We Had to Have at the end of it, Labor’s primary vote and union membership were beginning the terminal decline from which neither have yet to recover. This increasing reliance on the media to mediate the message became a political necessity as the party institutions and their social bases that would have played that role fell away.

Under Howard this relationship turned sour as the government “educated” the media that refugees who risked their lives for a better future for their children would then chuck them in the ocean as a negotiating strategy, while a country that had been bankrupted and starved by decade long sanctions would have at the same time developed weapons that could threaten the world.

This relationship between politicians and journalism was to reach its apogee under Rudd, when a government detached from its own political party, let alone any social base, became reliant on the media to not only communicate policy but also develop it (a role that the media performed with gusto and has had trouble letting go of since). Suitably, that government ended on the night of 23 June 2010 with a media orchestrated dumping that presented a largely stunned and oblivious Caucus with a fait accompli.

Since then there has been malaise and, after a final failure of media hopeful Turnbull, combined with political disruption overseas, questions are now being raised across the profession about that relationship of the type raised in Murphy’s book.

But the response has usually been a call for more political activism from journalists, rather than a rethinking of it, let alone stepping back. If Watergate showed the limitations of political activist journalism, then a look at the US again under the Trump administration suggests its dangers.

At one level the open antagonism between the current US administration and large sections of the media is to be welcomed, not least if it means the exposing of deportation and treatment of immigrant children unreported during the cosy Obama years.

But as would be expected with Trump, he has picked a fight with an opponent he thinks he has a good chance of beating. It is not just that the media is in a weak position and even less popular than Trump, nor even that it is unaware of how weak its position is, but its reaction to Trump’s attacks is to make it even worse.

First, because political activism in journalism naturally focuses on uncovering conspiracies as journalists vie to become the next Woodward/Bernstein/Hersh, such as the Russian conspiracy that so far has produced little result, and may even have led the Democrats down a blind alley. Such conspiracy journalism can even only bolster Trump’s standing with his own supporters, much as Watergate did for Nixon, against the “liberal media” and “Fake News”.

“Fake News” was a term that originally came from the media to describe pro-Trump stories abounding on social media before the election, as an explanation for a win they didn’t see coming. It has rebounded against the media because their reputation, already low, is being further damaged not just with Republicans but even Democrats who think the media deliberately makes stuff up.

What hasn’t helped have been the mistakes made by the media, especially its more authoritative sections, in their battle against Trump. The problem was best summed up by the photograph of a child crying that was put on the front of Time, supposedly being taken from his parents by immigration authorities but which later turned out not to be the case. The problem was not so much the mistake itself, nor even Time’s follow up reporting to the photo that also wasn’t true, anyone can make a mistake, but the reaction by Time to the error, namely that it was secondary to highlighting the issue itself.

This is the political disease. In normal society mistakes matter, and those in a profession or any job are accountable for them – it is the only way things can get done. Dismissing it in the interests of “the bigger picture” is a luxury in the ether of politics, not for anyone doing an actual job.

In Australia, for better or worse, the relationship between press and politicians is more benign. The discussion is more about how the demands of 24 hour digital media are impacting the quality of policy debate within our political parties.

However, seeing the decline in political life as a problem of lack of the grasp of policy has unfortunate resonance right now in the US and UK where arguments have been emerging over the problem of lack of education in political life – presumably not because education standards are declining but because of recent voting results the authors did not like. It is especially prevalent in Britain where the Brexit vote was blamed on voters failing to grasp the complexity of the decision they were making, and ironic this year, being the centenary of granting the vote to women and working class men previously denied on precisely such arguments.

The political problem is one of interests not education. The lack of coherence in political parties’ programs these days is caused by the declining influence of those interests that formed those parties and gave them their programs. Journalists should be far more concerned about their own interests and the impact of the 24 hour news cycle on the declining quality of their own work-life.

That someone like Trump can be President is a product of a hollowed out Republican party that couldn’t stop him and an equally defunct Democrat party that couldn’t defeat him – and looks no closer still. Similarly, the current malaise in Australia is a result of political parties that have had their day but with nothing to replace them. This is up for the public to sort out. It is not up to journalists to step in and fill in the gap left by a failing political profession – even if they could. As Murphy’s book shows, they have their own problems to deal with.