Last weekend I chaired a session at the Byron Bay Writers' Festival in which ABC Radio presenter and newspaper columnist Phillip Adams, Network Ten’s Charlie Pickering and Fairfax columnist and ABC presenter Richard Glover gave an overflowing audience their views on the future of an ethical media. I was also privy to the thoughts and occasional confessions of three other journalists on this issue. Here are some points on what I was told:
The problem starts with us.Insofar as the media behaves badly, it is their audiences, individual journos and their bosses – in that order – who are to blame. We buy, listen or view the stuff – if we’re too dim-witted to not know which outlets are worthy of our trust and when a broadcaster is delivering fact, opinion or paid advertisement, we deserve what we get. As Glover put it when talking about the News of the World scandal: ‘'The British public have … got this incredible tone of surprise about it … it’s like a butcher holding up a leg of lamb and saying, 'What, you’re telling me they killed a sheep to get this?’‘’
Shining light in dark corners ain’t cheapIf we want an ethical commercial media, we have to pay for it. Glover advised buying electronic newspaper applications to fund the investigative journalism on which radio and TV broadcasters rely. Stories told by Adams and Pickering – who was working at Triple J when the Iraq war began but says he was prevented from offering critical coverage – implied fearless leadership and structural separation from the meddling arm of government were critical to avoiding craven self-censorship.
Accountability is keyWhere regulations or codes of conduct are violated by journalists – including those who call themselves broadcasters or entertainers, such as John Laws and 2GB’s Alan Jones – there must be consequences that include being thrown off air.
There’s no substitute for ethical leadershipAll news organisations have blacklists. I was told News Ltd blacklisted Andrew Denton for years. This meant he received no publicity and, wherever possible, got a ‘'kick in the head’‘. Junior staff discovered who was out through the rejection of story ideas or the discovery a name and quote had simply been removed. All informants agreed blacklisting was an abuse of power but believed the only way to prevent it was through an ethical form of leadership rarely seen in media management because ’‘mongrels’‘ tend to be the ones promoted.
Towards an ethical future According to one young former News Ltd employee, the transparent nature of campaigns run by several of the organisation’s papers was ‘'embarrassing’‘. It ’‘watered down the paper’s cachet,’‘ and meant he couldn’t trust them. Luckily, he says, he no longer has to trust them. When he smells a vested interest he just surfs to another story or paper.
All this made me wonder whether there might be a generational divide. While older audiences tend to believe that it wouldn’t be printed or broadcast if it wasn’t true, the internet generation knows better. It may also mean that whatever audience gains newspapers make by promulgating mean-spirited and formulaic tripe to stimulate a reaction from their readership, they may lose in their standing among readers of the future.
Bad news? The bucks stops with you, dear reader The Sun-Herald (Sydney)