For over 200 years now, the news media has been described as the fourth estate. You know the drill: once, there was the clergy, there was the nobility, and there was the common people, but only journalists could be relied upon to serve as the guardians of the naked truth. With a steady fearless resolve, free of passion and prejudice, they described society to itself. Nothing short of the public interest was their stock-in-trade.
Perhaps it’s because traditional media business models face strong headwinds, or because the profession consistently ranks as one of the least-trusted professions in any straw poll you care to take your pick at, but journalism is increasingly forced to share its status as the sole arbiter of truth.
The challenger? A young upstart called social media and the blogosphere. Not that this 5th estate is necessarily a callow youth, of course. The technology itself is historically new, but it’s the domain of people of all ages, interests and professions who now have the ability to self-publish and tell their own stories. But just as journalists can be regarded as friend or foe, crusader or hack, your knowledge or experience of the world of Twitter, Facebook and blogs may vary: it could be the modern-day equivalent of the coffee house or it could be empty carbs.
Trying to make sense of all of this in the context of Australian media and politics is Greg Jericho. A former federal public servant who blogs and tweets under the name Grog’s Gamut, his anonymous critiques of Question Time, the Canberra Press Gallery and the 2010 election campaign trail garnered increasing media attention until he was finally unmasked in the pages of The Australian.
Today, Greg does “this and that” – he regularly appears on and contributes to The Drum, he’s been a researcher for The Hamster Wheel and Planet America and he continues to blog and tweet. He’s also written a book, The Rise of the Fifth Estate, which casts a critical gaze over the history and activities of this new player, and how it functions alongside Australia’s politicians and media.
I recently caught up with Greg to talk about the book and explore some of its key concepts.
Disclaimer: I’m referenced in the book, but as John Birmingham points out, so is the vast bulk of every other Australian journalist and political blogger that’s ever put fingers to a keyboard.
Greg, most when most people think about the manner in which journalism, social media and the blogosphere intersects, a number of colourful metaphors probably spring to mind. I’ll wager, however, that “poetic” isn’t at the top of the list. But one of the enduring motifs in your book, The Rise of the 5th Estate, is a nod to William Butler Yeats‘ famous poem The Second Coming. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” the poem reads in part, not to mention that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” You say the traditional players – power institutions such as government, business and media – have tried to co-opt and control the Internet to no avail. What they can’t control, they fight, and dismiss has the habitat of trolls, tin-foil loons and partisan snipers. That all sounds a bit, well, apocalyptic. But the rise of the Fifth Estate doesn’t have to be at the decline of the Fourth Estate, does it? So, what rough beast, it’s hour come at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
I think you’re right in that summary, in that I see traditional power structures such as government and media certainly struggling to control the beast of social media and responding with attacks against it. I would put The Daily Telegraph’s recent #StopTheTrolls campaign as very much within that motif. Really, it was very much overblown about who they were attacking. It got confused. It received very little support, other than from those within the power structures, namely other politicians and journalists. But I also agree that I don’t think that the rise of the 5th estate does mean the decline of the 4th estate. It might mean an adaptation of the 4th estate. That’s what I think my book tries to suggest where it’s going. At the moment, in Australia there’s very much this sense of the bloggers and those on social media as being an opposing force to journalists. I don’t think that’s the way it’s going to be. In fact, over in the United States, they had this argument about three or four years ago and it’s all a bit old hat for them. It’s a case of them having realised that bloggers have an important place within the discussion. Most media organisations, over there, if they wanted to keep thriving, have made use of bloggers on their pages. There’s isn’t so much this view of oh, you’re just a blogger. You’re obscure. It’s a bit more mature and I hope that in Australia we’ll see that point be reached soon.
The average political blogger seems to confound the man on the Bondi tram. I’ve certainly had conversations with people from a number of occupations – some, but by no means all of them journalists – and they all wonder the same thing. Why would somebody research and write political analysis in their own time – whether it’s crunching polling data, digging through Hansard, reading policy position papers, and so on – only to publish to a relatively small audience, and do it for free? This seems to defy logic. When it comes to blogging, social media and politics, is homo economicus an evolutionary dead end? What’s going on here?
Well, it’s people who are actually interested in what they’re writing about, writing about it. It’s the case of people like me, who wrote a blog about politics and media, have always been interested in politics, economics and the media. My first degree was a double major in economics and politics. When I went back to university and did english literature, I lectured and tutored modern communications, where I was talking about media theory and so forth. These people who are writing about it – it’s not like they’ve suddenly become interested in politics or the media. They always have been. It’s just that now they have a voice. And the view of why would you do it and publish it all for just a small audience is a bit like a professional athlete saying why would someone train every day to run a marathon in three hours and thirty minutes and not make any money out of it? Why would they do that? They do it because they enjoy doing it. There might be other side benefits from it but largely you do what you do because you enjoy it. I think what confounds many journalists is that there are people out there who may be perhaps academics or they work in business or they have training in certain areas and they’re writing about these things that they’re interested in but they’re actually able to do it in an interesting way as well. I think there are a few journalists that are a bit shocked that this is actually possible. They almost seem to have this view that if there’s all these people out there who enjoy writing about politics and economics and everything, surely all those people would have become journalists? And it’s the case of them recognising that no, they didn’t. They didn’t want to become journalists. They wanted to do other things but that doesn’t mean they don’t like writing and discussing politics. One of the aspects about blogs is that because they are written – and I think there is still very much a primacy given to the written word; there’s still a value given to people who can write and explain things well – blogging enables people who have this skill but who otherwise would never have been heard to now be heard. So, this whole thing of why would you do it is because you can. Why would people write entries into Wikipedia? They’ll be the most niche of interests but this knowledge that people possess can now be shared. They like sharing it. They like discussing it. It’s not about the audience, per se. When I started writing I really didn’t care about audience. I didn’t care about how many people read my pieces. I just enjoyed the whole process of researching and coming up with some analysis. Maybe only my parents or my wife and a couple of mates would read it, and they might say well done, but really I didn’t care about the audience. That comes later if you’re able to do it well often enough. It’s amazing how many people get discovered on the blogosphere. I think deep down that must scare a hell of a lot of journalists because they may think to themselves, well if someone is happy to do it for free, why will I keep on getting paid to do it? If there is some able to do it just as well, the initial attack is to say, well, you’re not doing it like us because we’re the professional journalists. We’ve actually spoken to these people and we were at that conference that you’re commenting on. We know more than you. Later on, I think we see the more mature approach of saying, yes, you’ve got some good points to make but you’re actually doing a different job to what I’m doing and, with it, a realisation that the two can co-exist.
I want to unpack a couple of the issues you raised there because I do sense that there is a friction of ideas between the two cultures. The actions of bloggers do tend to inspire shock in some of journalism’s ranks. As you’ve said, when bloggers and social media users pick apart a journalist’s work, the retort often goes a little something like this: “leave it to the professionals”. They’re called armchair critics, or keyboard warriors, or online dilettantes. Now, there are good bloggers and there are bad bloggers, much like there are good journalists and bad journalists. But time and time again we seem to get bogged down in the bloggers versus journalists debate. You say that a lot of this criticism stems from the false first premise that bloggers aspire to be journalists. At the same time, though, bloggers are capable of committing acts of journalism, aren’t they? What are the implications of this? Do you think out of these parallels might spring forth a synthesis of cultures – some sort of hybrid model?
I think so. Certainly, bloggers can commit acts of journalism because, after all, what is journalism? Journalism is reporting something that occurred. I could come home from a football game and blog about that game. Well, if I do, I’ve done exactly what the sports journalist has done, who was there as well. The blog posts that I probably became the most well know for – at least, it certainly increased my readership – was blogging about Question Time each day. There are plenty of journalists out there who are employed to write about what happened in Question Time. So, was I being a journalist when I did that? If I was writing exactly what I wrote but it was in the newspaper, the answer would be resoundingly yes. I really don’t care about the whole bloggers doing acts of journalism thing because mostly, when I think of being a journalist, I think okay, you’re actually interviewing someone. I think that’s how often journalists will treat bloggers. Oh, you’re not actually interviewing someone. You haven’t talked to someone. You haven’t got access to the Prime Minister that we have, and so forth. But the reality is that there’s so much more journalism in the world than just ringing somebody up and actually interviewing someone. The front pages about Lindsay Tanner’s book. Well, they’ve all been given the media release and from the publisher and they’ve written it up. I could do that as well as anyone. It’s not a case of bloggers doing things that are acts of journalism. I think they already are doing that. I think it’s a case of journalists perhaps realising that perhaps if they are able to do that, what aren’t they able to do? Or, what can I do but do differently? If journalists are worried about their position in the whole food chain, I don’t think their approach should be to denigrate bloggers. It should be to show us and answer the question why do we need you? I don’t think journalists have been very good at that. I think that too many media organisations have had the wrong approach. Their approach to it all seems to have been a kind of oh, well you’re going to miss us when we’re gone attitude, instead of saying here’s why you shouldn’t miss us now. I’m almost libertarian about it all in that I think if the media organisations and journalists are able to provide a product that is worthy of being paid for, then it will find a market. It might not be the big broadsheets any more, though. I think we sometimes get trapped into thinking that all journalism is newspapers. I don’t think David Speers would subscribe to the belief that only newspapers break stories. They might be able to cover a wider range of issues than you can in a thirty minute TV spot but I don’t think we need to be too scared to think about what might happen if a big broadsheet goes under. I think that if there is actually news that people feel they need to know, and it has a value, then I think it can find a market. They key is some entrepreneur being canny enough to package it in such a way that people will pay for it. On the whole question of bloggers and journalists and how they interact, and what might come of it, I look overseas and I look at Ezra Klein who writes for The Washington Post and who started out as a blogger and who is now a fairly big deal in Washington politics, co-hosting The Rachel Maddow Show and his posts are a must-read. Is it a case that he only became good when he started writing for The Washington Post? No, of course not. Someone thought that he was worthwhile and ambitious enough to make something of it for The Washington Post and MSNBC. It’s a case of not denigrating somebody just because they’re a blogger. You can attack someone by what they blog about if it’s crap, just like someone can attack a journalist just because what they write about is crap. I always try not to criticise journalists or criticise the media because I hate very much when journalists just criticise bloggers, and there’s this sense that oh, one blogger just wrote something so that means that all bloggers must defend him or her or must disown him or her. It’s a bit more subtle than that. But I’ll also say that I think the media does itself a disservice because I don’t think that it rates journalists that high. The Australian, when it wants to, will refer to Janet Albrechtsen as a journalist. They might say that Mark Latham attacked the journalist for The Australian, Janet Albrechtsen. If Janet is held up as a journalist, I don’t think you can’t then say, oh, you bloggers aren’t doing journalism. You’re not real journalists. You’ve already lowered that bar. It’s also a case that media organisations are now putting out apps and systems that say if you see something, take a photo of it, or write it, you can be a journalist. Overall, another way they’ve undervalued journalists for the last 15 to 20 years is to give away what their journalists do for free on the Internet to such an extend that now the poor journalists are reduced to almost acting like charities on social media. They’re imploring people, oh, please buy the paper and keep us employed. It’s almost like they’re door knocking for the Red Cross. So, when it comes to the conflict between journalists and bloggers, and bloggers attacking journalists, and the denigration of journalists and so on, I think media companies have played their own part in that. I actually think it’s much more complex than simply saying it’s bloggers versus journalists, and wondering if they’ll all come together. I actually think they already are doing very similar things. By and large, I don’t really care very much whether or not journalists accept them because they don’t need their acceptance. I think journalists and media organisations should just stop this fight and realise that we’re all part of one big debate and one big discussion.
I’d like to single out out one thought back there and open it up for greater discussion. You said that journalists need to change the way that they’re doing things and find new ways to create value. I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on journalistic objectivity, as that’s a common complaint lodged against bloggers. There’s a lot of debate around the media’s role in perpetuating concepts of detachment, neutrality and objectivity. Critics suggest that these are old, outmoded intellectual concepts that are very much the product of their times, beholden to the technology that was then used to reach the audience. You write in your book about how some political journalism has been reduced to claim and counterclaim. Point and counterpoint. He said, she said. George Orwell famously wrote “journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.” We all know, of course, of the love-hate relationship journalists have with PR professionals. So what’s going on? Are journalists so focused on treating competing political views equally, that they forget how to treat them fairly? Is it important that they adapt their thinking in that regard?
I think they certainly need to because a common criticism of the media is that there’s too much opinion and not enough actual hard news. I think it’s not opinion that we need, it’s analysis. A model that I really like is found on Delimiter, where Renai LeMay will often write a piece about the NBN and the article will very much be Malcolm Turnbull said this, Stephen Conroy said that, and then at the end of the piece he’ll put a line and there will be a heading that says Opinion/Analysis, where he evaluates what was said. You get that whole notion of what the players are saying, and then you get a quick bit of analysis from a guy who knows the policy very well, in which he offers a short comment. I have to admit, there have been a number of times I’ve read a story, whether it’s The Age or it’s The Australian’s website, and I’ve really wanted somebody right at the end to say, well, actually, he’s some contextual analysis and the back story to this issue, here’s some more information that Joe Hockey or Wayne Swan has left out. I think when it comes to equal and fair reporting, you can do both. There does need to be that crucial element of reporting what each politician says, but where I get annoyed is when there’s no counter to anything. If a journalist knows that a statement is wrong, and journalist should be able to point out that it’s wrong, and not seek out Wayne Swan or Joe Hockey to decide what was said by the other side was wrong and produce a quote. That’s no help to the reader at all because it comes down to whether the reader trusts Joe Hockey or Wayne Swan more. Who are you going to believe? If a journalist really is a neutral party, then they should be able to point out that things that were actually said don’t square with the facts. How that’s done is a bit tricky because if you have that throughout it can come to resemble an op-ed piece rather than a news piece. That’s why I like the way Delimiter does it. There’s a distinct separation. It lets you know that this is what’s been said and then the journalist gives his or her take on it. Also, they keep it to a bare minimum. It doesn’t try to get into opinion, it remains very much a case of well, this is what was said and these are the facts as they are. The annoying thing that has really come to the fore with the rise of the 5th estate is that voice from nowhere that journalists tend to employ. It just continues. Annabel Crabb in The Drum wrote a piece about why don’t public servants talk more to journalists and she writes that it’s a shame that public servants live in fear that if they say something wrong, they’re going to get in trouble for it. There was no acknowledgement that what they actually said that was supposedly wrong, they said to a journalist, who then went and wrote it up, most likely concentrating on those supposedly controversial comments and made a big deal out of it. News doesn’t get written by nobody. I’ve long given up believing that media organisations, and as a result the journalists they employ, are merely objective. Any intelligent viewer or reader of news programs or newspapers knows this. They know that there is an editorial slant. It doesn’t mean that they’re lying; it means that they’re focussing and therefore slanting to one side. That’s fine, as far as it goes. I know that The Australian is in favour of more flexible industrial relations. That’s fine! But where I get annoyed is where those same journalists who are writing those stories try to portray themselves as some omnipresent beings who just report what they see and don’t have any bias at all. It’s a case of well, I know who you work for and I know its editorial position. I know you guys want to get your stories on page one and I know what kind of stories get on page one. So, it may be a case of just reporting what you heard but what you’ve reported, compared to what you could have reported, or what you didn’t report, portrays bias. So, it’s a case of sure, report what you hear, but ask yourself this: is that all that news is? Is news just sticking a microphone under someone’s nose and reporting what was said, and then going off and finding someone to give an alternative view? Or is a journalist actually able to do some research and provide some counter to it themselves? Even if it’s not in the interview, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a journalist doing that. It’s tricky and it takes skill to make it look like you’re not just writing opinion, but there are some journalists who can do it. The ones who do it well are the ones who produce work that people want to pay for.
If journalists can’t or won’t embrace the ability to question answers in what would otherwise be a hard news piece, do you think that the blogosphere will step up and fill that gap? It seems that there is a demand for more analysis from the public. You reference in your book how the former New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane was widely pilloried by the public for asking quite openly if the newspaper should be a “truth vigilante“. I find that metaphor quite funny, because it imagines someone running around like some sort of costumed superhero because for one reason or another the authorities can’t handle things on their own. But journalists are meant to be the authority. We’re the institution. Do you think that if institutionalised journalists can’t discharge that responsibility that the market will find another way of producing it, namely the blogosphere?
Yes, and I think blogs are already doing it. The problem with Australia is that it is so small. When I say small, I mean that there may be 250 odd politics blogs out there. But in terms of blogs that get a sizeable readership, there really isn’t that many. It’s hard to get a sizeable readership if you’re a so-called nobody. Without being too boastful, I was one blogger who managed to have a sizeable readership. Another with a bigger readership was Scott Steele with his Pollytics blog, which he hardly writes any more Both he and I in the last 12 months have stopped blogging as frequently as we have in the past. Larvatus Prodeo has stopped altogether. It has closed up shop within the last year. Those three blogs, which used to be very regular – and especially with me and LP was every day – with those stopping, that actually takes out a fairly sizeable chuck of the Australian blogosphere conversation. That is one of the problems with it. Sadly, we just don’t have the same population that the United States of America does. With regards to US blogs – there are hundreds. I probably read about 50 American political blogs each day as part of my role researching for Planet America. They all have masses of readers some are commercial operations and some aren’t. The commercial operations might fall under something like The Daily Beast but even then non-commercial operations are making a fair bit of money out of Google advertising. In Australia, it’s very hard to do that. I think bloggers are already doing it, it’s just that they probably can’t summon the readership to make it a bit of a critical mass. I think that might be one of the reasons why in Australia fact-checking has not really taken off in any way, whereas in the US they couldn’t ignore it. It became so big in the blogosphere that newspapers had to adopt it or risk being well and truly left behind. So, it still kind of surprises me that someone like Fairfax or even the ABC hasn’t started up a fact-checking site because it seems to me to be a no-brainer. I suspect one of the reasons is for fear that they might have to fact-check their own papers, columnists and material. I think, though, fact-checking is an example of where things can and should go. It doesn’t mean that the fact-checkers are perfect; they’re certainly a hotly contested instrument in America in the blogosphere. But at least there is an attempt to say, right, we’re not going to let what someone says go straight through to the keeper. We’re actually going to challenge it. The great thing about it – and, I think, the totally unforeseen thing about it – is that in this year’s US Presidential election, the questioning by fact-checking has overtaken the questioning by journalists. Journalists are now using fact-checkers as a resource. So, if they see that a claim that Mitt Romney made about Barack Obama is complete bollocks, well, they’re not simply going to let Mitt Romney say that in a press conference. They’re actually going to challenge him on it because now they have more information, and so well known are these fact-checkers that if journalists ignore these people, they’re demonstrating a wilful ignorance. I think it’s a case where journalists are going to have to do it or they will be held up to ridicule because while there may not be many blogs in Australia doing it, they certainly are doing it nonetheless, and there are people on Twitter who are either experts in a particular area or who have good research skills – they just know where to find things and can do it quickly. I think it’s just something that needs to become part of their skill set. I’ll also just say this: I’ve noted in the last few months that Latika Bourke on her Twitter feed has taken on a bit of that role. I’ve noticed, certainly a lot more than she ever used to do, that if someone makes a statement that contradicts something they’ve said previously, or something similar along those lines, Latika will then follow up her tweet with another tweet linking to that contradictory statement, and so forth. I think that is a good sign. It’s certainly good to see the ABC employing someone that’s doing more than just transcribing. She’s actually giving us information that we can use.
I want to change tack and look to the politicians on social media for a moment. It seems like there’s enormous benefit for politicians engaging directly with their constituents via Facebook and Twitter. The popular belief is that they bypass the traditional gatekeepers and that democracy is enlivened as a result. On paper this all seems to check out. But is this theory borne out by the current quality of online political practice? Quite frankly, I already have an incredibly newfangled device to receive media releases. It’s called email. Thomas Tudehope wrote in 2010 that the social media equivalent of John Howard, who used talk back radio effectively to connect with voters, is just around the corner. Are we there yet, or are most politicians still paying lip service to social media?
They’re certainly not there yet. Part of the reason is that it’s tricky to work out at the moment exactly what the benefit is for doing so. Take a thing like Twitter. It’s great if you’re a treasurer or a minister because you can talk to all of Australia. If you’re a backbencher, it’s tougher to tweet something and think, oh, I have seven thousand followers but how many are actually in my electorate? Things like Facebook are better at that because you can use them in a more targeted way and you can actually interact with people who are going to help you get re-elected by voting for you. By and large, what we’ve seen so much is that yes, politicians have taken to social media – and certainly Twitter – more than they used to. The talkback analogy is probably right in a way that Tommy might not have originally intended, in that I see it being used as a tool for politicians to talk to journalists, and interact with journalists, and perhaps a handful of prominent bloggers and people on social media. It is tough for people to interact with people in the social media sphere if you’re aim is just to re-iterate the party line. It has a way to go, I think. The number of Australians on Twitter aren’t at the point where it’s going to make a huge difference directly in terms of electioneering and votes. What difference I do think it’s making in the political sphere, however, is altering a bit how journalists are covering their stories. It’s an indirect thing. Politicians have realised that social media is an effective way of getting a message out; where it hasn’t gotten to just yet is interaction. That’s a tougher part because it does require work and it does require taking a politician away from something else they might have been doing perhaps of more value, not only policy-wise but also in terms of getting re-elected. Even in the United States, social media is very much used to spread the message but it hasn’t quite gotten to the point of being the equivalent of a talkback channel where you can just tweet a politician and he or she will respond. I’m lucky, insofar as most Australian politicians online are aware of me, so if I tweet to them I’ll least get a response. But most politicians are not responding to your everyday, random person. The good ones are taking the tweets on their merit. Look at Malcolm Turnbull, for instance. If you send a message to him that isn’t just abuse, quite often he’ll respond to it. There are other politicians who are good at doing that, but not many. Why? I think you need to consider the generation of the politicians. That is, how old they are. Most are over 40. I’m 40 this year; if I was a politician I’d probably be referred to as one of the young brigade. It’s a bizarre sort of thing, really. In 10 years time we’ll have a situation where the politicians in there will have always been online and have always been using social media. It’s just going to be a natural thing for them. I think that’s when we’ll really start to see some changes. But the one thing I think politicians could do right now – and should be doing right now – is not so much Twitter and Facebook but actually blogs. They should be going onto blogs that discuss policy – and there are some very good one’s out there – and blogs that are read by people who are specifically affected by particular policies. They should be using them, and in a way that’s more than Tony Abbott or Kate Ellis just going on Mamamia and writing a guest post. It should get to the point where it’s not unexpected for a politician to comment on a blog and get involved in the discussion. If I was a backbench MP I’d certainly be doing that. I would be finding the blogs concerned with the subject matter or area of interest relative to a committee that I was on and actually getting involved in a discussion. Not only would that be good for the politician, it would be good for bloggers as well because they’d know that what they’re writing is getting read. It would improve the debate.
Do you think they should go as far as create their own blog? Without knowing precisely what the average politician thinks and feels on the issue, I’d hazard to guess there would be a desire to minimise risk, and blogging represents a risk of sorts, doesn’t it? It might be turned into ammunition by their political opponents and journalists alike. For example, when Bob Carr joined the Senate and took on the role of Foreign Minister a lot of articles sprang up pointing to various inconsistencies and contradictions in the views that he held when he blogged and what he had to say and do in his capacity as a politician. Do you think there’s an aversion to politicians wanting to embrace blogging – insofar as it’s self-publishing that risks not toeing a line – for fear that it might come back to bite them?
Yes, I think there is a little bit. In Britain, where there’s a much longer history of politicians actively blogging, one of the most prominent political bloggers over there recently advised politicians to not blog. Why? She said that nowadays journalists just use a politician’s blog to find inconsistencies and controversies, rather than thinking, great, here’s a politician putting out some ideas. I think that is a sad state of affairs. The difference with Bob Carr is that he was writing his blog when he wasn’t a politician, and when he was writing some of his more strident blog posts, he probably wasn’t ever thinking about being a politician ever again. But take for example Andrew Leigh. He writes a blog on his site and he comes very much from a tradition of blogging. He’s one of the first economics bloggers in Australia. He’s quite comfortable doing that, and I think that’s a good thing. I think politicians should move away from just blogging on their own website, though. Again, if you want to get heard, I think you should go out and find the blogs where people are reading material relevant to you. People that you want to reach. It might be on a particular issue, it might be because they’re you’re constituents – whatever the reason might be, go there and contribute there. It just amazes me that there are politicians who have their weekly op-ed piece in the newspaper but nowhere in the blogosphere. There should be more attention given to politicians having a regular spot on blogs. The great thing about that is that they can then participate in discussion there. It doesn’t just have to be on what they might have written. It can be about what anyone there has written. I’ve often argued that if I was a Labor backbencher or a minister, I’d be approaching blogs like Club Troppo so say hi there, I’d like to do a regular thing with you. It’s already got an in-built readership. It can be a place where good policy discussions can occur and you can reach and receive voices that you wouldn’t get exposed to through traditional methods. We saw it a little bit with Julia Gillard meeting with the so-called Mummy bloggers earlier in the year. So long as it’s not just a once-off – which I’m pretty sure it’s not going to be – and it’s a case of building an ongoing relationship, I think that’s a very smart thing to do. So many policies that really turn votes – things like schooling funding, child care, maternity leave and so forth – are very much impacting on people who read those blogs. So, it’s a case of instead of trying to get those people who read those blogs to go to your website, or go to The Australian or The Daily Telegraph’s website where they’ve written an op-ed, go to them instead. The audience is there. Go to where the audience is, rather than trying to drag an audience to the official Labor Party or Liberal Party website. That’s just silly and wasteful. You have to go there, you have to register – it almost feels like you almost have to join the party to be able to comment on whatever blog they’ve set up over there. It’s a very 20th century view of information and news. Just get in touch with a blog administrator and say, hey, I’d like to be a regular guest poster. They’re not going to say no. Bloggers have egos as much as anybody, and they’ll think to themselves, oh wow, I’ve got a minister that want to write on my blog. Or, approach the blogger and say can you please verify that I’m who I say I am when I comment on the posts. It strikes me as bizarre that there is this untapped resource out there that no-one has though to seize upon in any significant way. The closest they’ve gotten, as I said, is Tony Abbott and Kate Ellis doing Mamamia, which is smart – I certainly think it should be done – but I still think it’s a case of appearing only once in a while. It’s sporadic. It’s odd. Instead of doing #AskTony he’d be much better off going on Mamamia and looking at the comments and contributing. Why doesn’t the government do this, someone might post, and all of a sudden you’re having a conversation with the Opposition Leader. I think political parties are stuck in an old mindset. They try to control social media. They try to use Twitter, for example, as if it’s just an extension of the official Labor party or Liberal party website. Just stick a hashtag on it, and that’s ours, we can control it, their actions seem to say. No, that’s not how it works. Get out of that way of thinking and adapt yourself to these new environments and the way they’re used, instead of saying this is the way we’ve always done it, let’s jam this square peg into this round hole.
It would be remiss of me to not raise the issue of the Internet, social media, blogging and identity. One of the defining characteristics of the Internet has been the freedom it confers on users to act anonymously – or, at the very least, pseudonymously. Of course, you were famously “outed”. Now it seems that some journalists, companies and even some governments have a little thing in common, and that’s the insistence on a single, coherent and “real” online identity. If I could just grab a handful of isolated examples, consider this: Facebook and Google are considering linking offline and online identity, the British government entertained the notion of reining in social media in the wake of widespread riots, and here in Australia we’ve seen the Charlotte Dawson and Robbie Farah “trolling” incidents grab headlines. These examples can’t be said to be linked, but the proposed answer to the problem is often the same: “out them”. I’ve heard it on several occasions described as a shift from anonymity to authenticity. Firstly, what do you think of that distinction? And secondly, what do you think are the broad implications of this kind of proposed shift?
It certainly goes to the heart of the issue of what we were discussing earlier – of the existing power structures and institutions wishing to retain control and set the rules. I don’t think it will work because if Facebook tries to do it and goes too far, then I think it will severely damage it’s business model. It’s easy to think that Facebook will reign forever but let’s not forget that MySpace was big for a while and it died off fairly quickly. Just look at the speed of change. The same goes for Twitter. If Twitter were to suddenly say you must use your real name – God knows how they would do that – all that would be required would be for somebody to construct a program similar to Twitter but without that requirement, and the user base would probably go there. I’m unsure, though, if politicians and journalists would go to such a new platform. Why? Because Twitter is one of the first spaces where journalists and politicians have interacted together they’d probably be loathe to have to go somewhere else. If Twitter required identity verification of some kind, you would lose that genuine diversity of voices. I’m not quite sure why media organisations really want that. I mean, I know why they want it; I’m just not sure that they’ve really thought through the consequences of it all. It just seems to me that we’ve reached a very unusual point. We’ve got a situation where media organisations and governments want the same thing: to erode people’s privacy. In the past, media organisations have traditionally been the ones who would fight back on any government intrusion of this kind. Now it seems that there is this vast disconnect between freedom of the press and freedom of speech. It’s as if to say that the only speech worth defending and that ought to be free is that which appears in the press. If it’s freedom of speech on social media – no, well, that needs to be regulated. It needs to adhere to certain rules, which some journalists don’t bother adhering to when writing in a newspaper. What media organisations really didn’t see coming was criticism coming from anonymous or pseudonymous quarters. They didn’t anticipate that people would turn around and say well, look at the editorials written in the newspaper – we don’t actually know who writes those words, either. Who authorises them? That’s the editor in chief. But who actually wrote them? The public doesn’t know. Or, when journalists write that sources close to the Prime Minister say so and so – who is that? There’s a sense of, oh, well that’s what’s always been done. Yes, we need off the record sources and we need to allow people to be anonymous so we can tell the full story. What they don’t seem to want to acknowledge is that some people need to be anonymous or use pseudonyms in order for them to tell their full story on a blog. I think bloggers don’t see themselves as journalists; they see themselves a little bit like a source. They want to remain off the record and they want to remain anonymous. They don’t want to be quoted directly. That doesn’t mean they don’t want their view heard. Journalists are happy when an off the record source is giving them an off the record story but they’re not happy when an anonymous, off the record source is writing their own story on a blog. Again, I think that disconnect is at play – they think that bloggers should behave as journalists. We’re not journalists! That was very much the case with me. I didn’t think of myself as a journalist. I thought I was entitled to my anonymity, the same way a journalistic source might be entitled to their anonymity. The fact that I was a public servant – well, I wasn’t actually writing that much about the public service – needs to be put in perspective. If I had given the information that I was writing to a journalist, there would be no thinking that there was something wrong with me being anonymous. He’s a great source, they would say. We’re going to keep using him. I think media organisations and governments when it comes to anonymity change the goal posts as they see fit. Whether they’re dealing with things on their own website or whether they’re dealing with social media. The classic case is The Daily Telegraph and the #StopTheTrolls campaign. In all of their attacks and commentary there was nothing about their own website. The one thing they do actually have control of. The was no acknowledgement of the comments on their own website underneath stories about asylum seekers, for instance. They’re a bit toxic and do nothing to have a calm, reasoned debate. There’s no acknowledgement that it employs people who write things which inflame such comments as well. The one thing news organisations can do is control their own website and yet they’re not doing that; they’re trying to control the Internet around them. To me it just seems rather perverse.
I just want to tap into something you mentioned earlier, and that’s social media use being a generational phenomena. As the next generation of politicians and journalists emerge, they’ll be using social media in new and different ways, but to them it will be the norm. I’ve said before that while Twitter, Facebook and it’s kind may one day fade away, the underlying concepts of social media are here to stay. It strikes me that there’s enormous opportunities for journalists with a reasonable degree of digital literacy to work in concert with the blogosphere and social channels. There’s exciting opportunities for hybrid models, paricipatory journalism, crowd-sourced information, online fact checkers. Does this vision of the audience and the media belong to the next generation, or can the current crop of journalists participate? For as many veteran journalist who are defensive of their craft and dismissive of what we’ve been talking about, there are just as many who are enthused about it – but afraid. Afraid that it’s too late for them to “get it”, especially in an industry environment that seems to require them to do more things with less time. So, it seems fitting to end things by making reference to another poem by W.B. Yeats. Must these people leave the country of the young and sail to Byzantium? What can be done?
Ha! As I said, I’m 40. I wrote a blog post recently after I appeared with Fran Kelly gently mocking the old people on the radio talking about the Internet. There is no barrier to interaction on the Internet when it comes to age because the skills involved are actually what journalists should be good at. Connecting with people, finding information and using it. It might be a case of using it a bit more cooperatively than in the past. I don’t think they should worry about being too old because it’s not about language. It’s actually a case of if you’re willing to engage, people will engage with you. This is the great thing about the Internet: most people have got no idea how old you are. Unless you’re someone like Laurie Oakes or Michelle Gratton – you’re a big name, so people actually know how old you are – most people don’t know how old a journalist is. They’re simply not that well known. So, it’s not a case of oh, this is just something for the kids. There was probably that view when email first came out. It’s actually easy to use, and once you get around these initial fears and things, it’s all adaptable. I think you’re right that younger journalists who are well and truly a part of that digital generation are more comfortable with it because they just know technology. They know the terms and they know how to find bits of information – sometimes, literally, bits and bytes of information. They can talk about metadata, for instance, and know what that means. Surely, though, if a journalist was told they were going to be covering the crime desk they wouldn’t say, well, I’ve never done that before, so I can’t do that. They work out what they need to do, and they do it. It’s the same with this. If you need to learn something, then go ahead and learn the damn thing! Other professions have to do that. Doctors don’t just say, well, I graduated 30 years ago. This is what I was taught at medical school. It doesn’t matter what’s changed, I’m going to keep on performing the same operation. They read and they learn. They adapt. There is so much being written about new media practices and things like data journalism. There’s a plethora of stuff on the Internet. If you’re a decent journalist, you should know about it, and seek it out, because it means knowing about your profession and where it’s heading. The wonderful thing about journalists who do choose to do this is that because the profession is so slow moving, if you’re someone who does bother to find out these things, you’re going to be viewed like you’re some sort of ground breaker! You’re cutting edge. The current state of things are moving at such a glacial pace. I don’t put any stock in the belief that you have to wait for the next generation. We probably will because people are too bloody slow and useless at this rate. But really, there’s no excuse. Consider this: Twitter wasn’t around that long ago. There’s now quite a lot of us who are using it and who have adapted our working life around getting information via it, so we’ve obviously learned a new trick there somehow. So, go out there and learn these things. You can be a leader, or you can sit around and wait for your newspaper to die. Again, as Renai LeMay has often said when discussing the media, if you don’t like it, go do your own thing. Start up your own media organisation. It applies as much to journalists as to critics. If you’re worried about how the profession is dying, well ask yourself what you’re doing differently to try and stop it? If all you’re doing differently is imploring people on Twitter to go out and buy the paper I don’t think that’s good enough. I don’t think that’s going to do much. You’ve got to say to yourself, right, I want to still be a journalist in 10 years time, so I’d better start reading up and understand what a journalist is going to need and have to do in 10 years time. There have been a lot of professions in the last 20 years that have essentially disappeared. Some because they’ve gone overseas, where they were able to be done cheaper. For others, the profession is still here, but what they’re doing is completely different. They’re not fixing a particular piece of machinery anymore for instance, because that piece of machinery is old hat. Media is changing because technology is changing. I mean, if you were a computer hardware specialist, you wouldn’t say to yourself I know that people are buying tablets but I’m only good at desktop computers. So, I’m not going to bother studying how to use an iPad or how to fix it. I know that’s where things are going but I’m just going to hope people are going to keep buying PCs. Lots of occupations have had to adapt and I think journalists need to realise that they might have to adapt as well. It’s not just going to be handed to them. There are journalists out there who know this stuff. There are conferences. So go out there and drop the cynicism. Change your world.
Greg, there’s a lot of other questions I could ask but we’ll have to leave it there. Thank you so much for your time.
No worries, John. It’s been a pleasure.