Sunday, February 27, 2011

Easy Meat

The concept of "churnalism" - the idea that newspapers and broadcast media are increasingly dominated by PR-originated content - has gained a high profile in the UK in recent years. Given the same practices are evident in the Australian media, why aren't we seeing a similar debate here?

Churnalism, the term itself is credited to a BBC reporter, gained currency as an idea after a publication of a book in 2008 by UK journalist Nick Davies called Flat Earth News. Davies came out to Australia two and a half years ago to promote the book and spoke to Kerry O'Brien on the 7.30 Report. The guts of his thesis is that corporate 'ethics' (such as they are) have overtaken journalistic ethics in recent years to the point where newsrooms have been transformed into dark satanic information mills, focused on producing more and more with less and less and in a shorter and shorter time frame.
"You take away time from reporters, you are taking away their most important working asset. So they can't do their jobs properly any more," Davies said. "So in this commercialised world, you have journalists who instead of being active gatherers of news - going out and finding stories and making contacts and doing funny old-fashioned things like checking facts, they've become instead passive processors of second-hand information."
Anyone who has spent any time working in Australian newsroom in the past two decades knows the power of the PR industry, a sector staffed by former journalists who are better paid than they ever were when working as mere hacks for Fairfax or News Ltd. Such is the power of spin that over-worked and under-paid journos spend much of their time reprocessing pre-cooked information generated by flaks, as the ABC's Media Watch discovers week after week in its exposes of the lazy regurgitation of PR stunts as news.

But what people don't appreciate is that this lack of editorial discretion in news selection now ritually extends beyond the 'and finally' throway sweet stories at the end of the bulletin to the meat-and-potatoes news at the top. It's how 'weapons-of-mass-destruction' was so easily swallowed by the global media as the pre-text for the Iraq war. And it's how, locally, our media rolled over and meekly accepted a transparently self-interesting advertising campaign by the mining industry against a super profits tax which for a $22 million outlay by resource companies won concessions costing this country at least $60 billion.

Now in 2011, watch the media once again meekly take the bait from a well-resourced fossil fuel industry - and its political agents - in white-anting the Gillard minority government's extremely modest framework for a carbon tax.  Sold slickly orchestrated lies and distortion, an electorate tranquilised by gizmos and lifestyle news almost certainly will be persuaded to vote against its own interests by swallowing manufactured stories over the consequences for electricity bills of attempts to spare the planet from extinction.

How did it come to this? How did the fourth estate so meekly stick out the do-not-disturb sign? Because the corporations who run our media long ago gave up any pretence of upholding editorial standards. Instead, they have run down newsroom resources and deskilled journalists to the point that reporters are easily outgunned by a slick spin doctoring industry whose messages resonate nicely with the business interests of the media owners. Nick Davies sums up the loss of journalistic backbone:
"In the old black and white films there's that classic image of the media at work, which is the printing presses. And tomorrow's newspaper comes swirling out of it. Well that's not the sound of newspapers any more. The sound of newspapers nowadays is this - "baa baa"... the sound of sheep. While these new corporate owners have been cutting editorial staffs, those journalists who have lost their job have crossed the bridge over to the other side and joined the PR industry"
That's who's editing your media these days folks; the former journalists now earning big bucks in PR and creating pre-fabricated copy that just slides through the sub-editorial process into your news pages without the slightest oversight. It's just so convenient for the capitalists who run the media. And it's just so tragic for anyone with an interest in the future of democracy beyond the convenience of being able to buy household electrical goods cheaply. Baaaaa....


  1. I love the line, 'dark satanic information mills'. Sounds like where Tony Abbott learnt his journalistic craftiness.

  2. There are two forces working against truth and facts in journalism. The first is as described above - corporate media in collusion with other corporates in both objective and methodology (ie treating news and information as a commodity like dog food). The second is when so-called journalists do the proprietor's bidding for the proprietor's shilling. Andrew Bolt recently castigated Tim Flannery for allegedly blindly serving the political interests of the govt in his new job. A bad case of the pot calling the kettle black.

  3. Yes Mr Abbott and his nothing matters but should that not be dark satanic disinformation mills or would that have just been too much?

  4. Yes, Mr Denmore, spot on.

    If it wasn't so important, it'd simply be sad.

    But it is important. I keep thinking ... if Tony Abbott manages somehow to unseat the govt, we will be governed by the likes of Alan Jones!

  5. Excellent piece! You have put my thoughts into words.

    Helga from Daylesford