No one to blame - Page 2
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 5: Addicted to Celebrity
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Gideon Haigh
THE OTHER IMPRESSION, FORCIBLY LEFT, WAS OF JOURNALISTS' IMMENSE CONFORMITY. Again, this was a function of the industry. In no other field of endeavour – except, perhaps, oddly enough, politics – are the doings of one's competitors so regularly and totally revealed. Your story almost always has an exact equivalent in rival organs. Comparison is more than tempting; it is mandatory. In my first few years, the nightly ritual of the subs' desk always fascinated me. First editions of The Age would be perused in desultory manner, then swept to one side when copies of The Australian, The Sun and The Australian Financial Review arrived. How we performed was never absolute, always relative. Ideally, this should have fostered a wish to outdo – and sometimes it did. More often, it instilled a defensive mentality, a desire simply to match, replicate or even copy. Omissions, I saw, were always somehow more ghastly than commissions were satisfying: news desks, I learned, tend to grow uneasy if their reporters write stories that don't look exactly like the oppositions'. I always imagined that this would change when I graduated to a task other than daily news. But it emerged when I did that, like our culture of complaint, the culture of conformity had become pathological. The only slight change was that features staff pored over foreign newspapers – which could, of course, be ripped off with impunity. The sight of an airfreight copy of the Sunday Times on an executive's desk was to be dreaded, tending as it did to prelude the question: "Do you think you can do one of these
Good journalists have many virtues. The best are adaptable, enthusiastic, intuitive. But we are not as individuals, with the possible exception of Stephen Glass, frightfully imaginative. We rove widely, flitting from story to story, ranging across states and subjects. Yet our work is ultimately reductive, fitting what we find into what we already know. After a while, news comes alike to us, to be simplified according to established formulae. Thus the immortal advice of the Daily Express's Desmond Hackett: "Get an idea and draw the facts toward it." Under the pressure of deadlines and headlines, we clutch for clichés like drunks for lamp-posts. And in the past 20 years, this native disposition has been harnessed to some powerful market forces. For most of that time, the daily print media has been a sunset industry: gently declining, but declining all the same. Most outlets are simply circling the wagons. If a metro daily in Australia did substantially improve circulation, it would be mimicked in a trice – but none has. And after a stealthy process of mutual imitation, a visible consanguinity has emerged between the popular press and what Kelvin MacKenzie rather wittily called the "unpopular press".
This makes a kind of sense. Just as politicians have spent 20 years seeking the sunny uplands of the "centre", so society's steady embourgeoisement implies a homogenising of culture with common aspirations, values, role models and figures of fascination (the new visible, mobile, lionised celebrity elite). And were it not for their distinct dimensions, the content of broadsheet and tabloid newspapers might be difficult to distinguish. Both are infatuated and saturated with money and glamour, even at its tawdriest. Both view Hollywood with uncritical awe. Both take cues from broadcast media and have been heavy investors in the bubble economy of reality television. Both go to pieces in the face of a foreign celebrity actually visiting Australia. Both have fallen into the habit of printing what my former colleague Jim Schembri calls "trumours": assertions published by one news outlet, probably extracted with the help of a fat cheque, quite possibly untrue or at least grossly distorted, but whose repetition is licensed by the use of the weasel word "reportedly". In time of scandal, broadsheets seek to reassert the vestigial illusion of difference with a disingenuous formula of presenting the news as a comment on the news: here is what the popular papers contain concerning Becks/ Nicole/Russ/Kylie, they seem to say, which we would never sully ourselves by reporting directly, and which we offer here with an air of ironic detachment, a loftily amused headline and some media studies musing of Catharine Lumby (whose recent ubiquity suggests that she sits by her phone dispensing soundbites). Even that distinction, though, has latterly been breaking down. Henry Porter, author of Lies, Damned Lies and Some Exclusives (1985, Coronet), has complained that all British editors seem to crave is "a handbook, a guide to the G-spot of middle England". We in Australia aren't even that sophisticated – we're waiting for them to find that guide so we can crib from it.
IT IS A HUNDRED YEARS SINCE JOSEPH PULITZER'S FAMOUS WARNING, now carved over the entrance of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism: "A cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will produce in time a people as base as itself." Today, the ratiocination runs in reverse: because we have a base people already, a cynical, mercenary, demagogic press is exactly what is required. "It might be argued that a public which becomes preoccupied with such issues is hedonistic and narcissistic, that its interests reflect the absence of an external threat to the nation, a commitment to trivia unworthy of a responsible society. But it is the business of any successful newspaper to reflect the world as it is, rather than attempt the impossible task of changing the values of a generation." Thus said the editor of the Daily Telegraph – not the Sydney tabloid, either, but the London broadsheet, by tradition the stuffiest newspaper in Christendom. This counsel of despair, of course, is also a thinly veiled abdication of responsibility. Acting as a tame spectator to the industry of celebrity can barely be said to "reflect the world as it is"; it is participation in illusion. Reflection is what inspired Caliban to rage; a newspaper should be capable of provoking the same. Such news, too, is not as chemically inert as is commonly assumed. Because newsroom resources are finite and investment once allocated is irrecoverable, every réchauffé ramble about Becks is space stolen from something else. And exaggeration and hyperbole in one place tend to set it off in others – even politics.
Politics has always had a theatrical dimension. But both broadsheets and tabloids have in recent times taken these to a further extreme, treating the business of government as a kind of Punch and Judy show, with polls as handy bludgeons. Events are interpreted not by reference to their causes or outcomes, but by the Government's "handling" of them. Refugees? Could be significant in marginal electorates. Third World War? Perhaps a bigger tax cut will be needed. As The Guardian's Polly Toynbee commented last year: "Journalism has become obsessed with the processes of government, but incurious about any complex problem that cannot be blamed upon some hapless minister ... The trouble is that a generation of young journalists now know nothing else, bred on the idea that attack is the only sign of journalistic integrity – all politicians are villains, all journalists their natural predators, or else toadies and lackeys." Yet this is not scepticism, for it is mixed with a perverse credulity about what governments choose to tell them. In Dark Victory (Allen & Unwin, 2003), for instance, David Marr and Marian Wilkinson mention one small but significant instance of a political deception that through sheer apathy went undetected. At the height of the Tampa crisis, both John Howard and Philip Ruddock suggested that the ship's captain had deliberately chosen to take a longer route to an Australian port (Christmas Island) rather than a Indonesian one (Merak). The authors put it succinctly: "This was simply not true, but from this press conference it was generally believed to be so." On some occasions, it is difficult to tell whether the press is merely cynical or altogether insensate. In last November's PEN lecture at the National Library, Phillip Adams offered a dispirited memoir of the rise and fall of the Opposition's Knowledge Nation policy document – which, if you recall, was accompanied by a not unconfusing but essentially irrelevant diagram adumbrated by Barry Jones:
...that impressive report was never discussed, never analysed, never given the seriousness it deserved. Why? Because everyone went off on a tangent on Barry's diagram ... And the media, who'd been jumping up and down demanding a policy from Labor, ignored the contents of Knowledge Nation and decided to play silly buggers with the diagram. Fine for cartoonists or for pundits pushing their own barrows – but appalling conduct for the press gallery and people claiming to be serious about the issues. Beazley was scared off in 10 seconds flat – and Knowledge Nation sank without trace. It was an act of intellectual philistinism that, quite clearly, demonstrated the need for Knowledge Nation rather than a nation of dills. I've no doubt there was much to criticise in the policy. What a pity that no one got round to it.
STILL MORE EXTREME IS THE WORLD OF NEWSPAPER COMMENTARY, which in recent years has been transformed: the once-peaceful grove of the leader page is now entirely overshadowed by the soaring plantation forest of signed columns. When I joined The Age, I remember only three columnists: the aforementioned Adams, irascible Michael Barnard, and unobjectionable, usually uninteresting Claude Forell. This was seen, though, as quite a lot, and the op-ed pages operated within a carefully defined cordon sanitaire to prevent their being mistaken for news. Columns, still quite novel, were considered a little risqué. Some newspapers eschewed them altogether. As recently as 1986, according to Stephen Glover in Secrets of the Press (Penguin, 1999), the page facing the leaders in the aforementioned Daily Telegraph carried news: Conrad Black's predecessor as proprietor, Lord Hartwell, thought columns "self-indulgent". As indeed they are. Opening a modern broadsheet reminds one irresistibly of Paul Pennyfeather's instruction to his class at Llanabba in Decline and Fall: "You will all write an essay on ‘self-indulgence'. There will be a prize of half a crown for the longest essay irrespective of any possible merit."
The tradition of comment in the tabloid press, beyond the occasional leader advocating capital punishment or the return of flogging, is even briefer. "Cassandra", William Connor's mighty megaphone in the Daily Mirror, was exceptional. Hugh Cudlipp, the paper's presiding genius, recalled taking it over and finding a pundit called "The Man of a Thousand Secrets" on the payroll. He picked up the phone: "I've got a secret for you. You're fired." The first tabloid commandment was that thou shalt not burden the punter with opinion – save, occasionally, when an opinion happened to be one close to a proprietor's heart. How long ago that seems.
For, in the ceaseless proliferation of columns, it has been the popular press that has led the way. Facts are sacred and comment is free, runs the old journalistic saw – and what journo has ever been able to pass up a freebie? Because being a columnist is falling-off-a-log easy. Good reporting, requiring a willingness to immerse oneself in plural opinions, a talent for intelligent and sympathetic questioning and for fair and judicious simplification, is hard work. Competent commentary involves none of these things; it is like dressing in motley. In A Hind Let Loose, one of the most delightful of novels about journalism, the Manchester Guardian's Charles Montague makes comic merriment of the idea of a character who writes leaders of fiercely opposed opinion for rival newspapers. Not even that versatility is required today. Comment is increasingly strident and partisan, whether this be sound-alike leftists peddling petrified anti-Americanism, or the furious consensus on the right tilting at the straw man of political correctness, inveighing against a make-believe elite enemy and manning the barricades of the status quo. The issues themselves are of secondary significance to their utility in inflicting collateral damage on one's op-ed enemies.
All those salvos of manufactured outrage soaring over the public's heads, of course, can be a little hard on the hearing. The solution has been to make other parts of the newspaper softer, lighter, gentler and even less demanding. Thus the proliferation of another kind of columnist, the oh-so-wry observer of human nature, whose kind was once exquisitely described by James Thurber: "He is aware that billions of dollars are stolen every year by bankers and politicians, and that thousands of people are out of work, but these conditions do not worry him a tenth as much as the conviction that ... a piece he has been working on for two long days was done much better and probably more quickly by Robert Benchley in 1924." Since then, the type has gone forth and multiplied. Newspapers today dedicate inordinate amounts of space to a kind of desperate hilarity, from the stand-up comic reciting rote-learned gags about email and cats and the resident curmudgeon complaining about service in restaurants to the daiquiri-addled ditz with a shoe fetish and the girly singleton who calls herself a feminist yet hankers for the days when men opened doors for one. The world's best-known journalist? Not Woodward. Not Fisk. Step forward Carrie Bradshaw, whose weekly relationship column provides the overarching narrative to Sex and the City, famous for mots like: "I like my money where I can see it ... hanging in my closet." Boom-boom.