I was taking an early morning walk around Balmain this week listening to my iphone, when the news reported that the assassin who murdered a French police commander and his wife, streamed his account of the atrocity on Facebook Live.
Five years ago I might have watched the attack broadcast live on international television. Ten years ago I would have heard it on my pocket radio. My father would have read about it in his newspaper. Now an armed man at the centre of a French siege can make his own international telecast, cutting journalists, editors, producers, government shills, censors and security out of the communications loop.
Welcome to the Brave New World of new media amplified free speech.
The apparently limitless reach of internet, telephony and social media can create a market of ideas where we can negotiate prosperity, unity and social inclusion.
It’s up to us to choose.
Free speech is a cornerstone of Australian democracy. It should inform our governance, politics and elections. If voters are provided a choice of factual accounts, they should be able to make rational decisions about what’s best for all of us. We can build a better world through technologically assisted dialogue. We can maintain and expand it through education. As one Islamic Scholar, Fethullah Gulen, put it: “The core tenets of a functioning democracy — the rule of law, respect for individual freedoms — are also the most basic of Islamic values bestowed upon us by God.
Speaking against oppression is a democratic right, a civic duty and for believers, a religious obligation. The Quran makes clear that people should not remain silent in the face of injustice: “O you who believe! Be upholders and standard-bearers of justice, bearing witness to the truth for God’s sake, even though it be against your own selves, or parents or kindred.”
Pursuit of truth in the modern technological environment informing discussion and debate can help cleanse our societies, exposing misadministration, abuse of power and corruption. Free speech, which is not guided by ethics has a lot of downsides.
Many citizens prefer entertainment to information. We can be gulled by paid ads called native advertising, hidden in what appears to be factual reports. Others are misled by intentional diversions from the truth, called spin. Some of us are angered like the Orlando gunman, by encountering ideas, they disagree with.
Unfortunately, we live in a world awash with untruths.
There is a meme circulating on Facebook, which shows a smiling image of the Deputy opposition leader, Tanya Plibersek. It purports to directly quote her 2002 maiden speech to parliament, “ISIS is not a terrorist organization. It is a sovereign group fighting for freedom”. This claim would appear to substantially undermine Plibisek’s credibility as a foreign affairs spokesperson.
If it were true.
I went to Youtube, located Plibersek’s maiden speech, listened to the whole 19 minutes 28 seconds of it and found that she never mentioned ISIS. That’s hardly surprising, given that ISIS didn’t exist in 2002 when the meme claimed Plibisek gave her maiden speech, or even 1998 when she actually made the speech. The meme designed to damage Plibersek, was a carefully constructed layer of lies.
Whatever their political persuasion, the net allows anyone to publish anything, no matter how wild, fact free and hateful. And too many people believe it. In the case of Donald Trump, many thousands fervently believe and enthusiastically retweet his thought bubbles, creating a new political reality. Even malignant fantasies can make entertaining unreality programs…but is it any way to inform and electorate or perhaps run a country? Cynics who say yes, should Google the politics of the thirties..
One upside of the internet is that it also allows us to check false claims as never before, if we take the time to do so. One US TV channel now shows footage of Trump speeches, while running subtitles of Trump’s earlier quotes which flatly contradict what he is now saying. In Australia, the ABC established a fact checking unit, which runs politicians public claims against data based records, to determen how truthful they have been. As you can understand its not particularly popular with some politicians and their friends. The fact checking unit is about to be abolished, as part of the ABC’s cost cutting measures.
Journalism, mediated dialogue which offers factual information to mass audiences, can help keep us all honest.
Not that I’m suggesting Journalism is perfect.
Every day you can see journalists make mistakes, or commonly leave out stories which are off their or their bosses political agenda. At its worst, you can watch TV reporters blithely ignore foreign country’s laws and fund a Middle Easr kidnap as they compete to make sensational stories to draw audiences.
In a world of exploding misinformation, accuracy and ethics should define professional journalism. Unlike social media, journalists are supposed to observe codified ethics, with the best news organisations maintaining their own professional guidelines, enforced by a transparent complaints process.
The first article of the code of professional conduct for the International Federation of Journalists (to which I belong) states that “Respect for the truth and for the right of the public to the truth is the first duty of the journalist”
If you went to the cinema this year and saw the Academy award winning movie Spotlight, you would have seen newspaper journalists exposing pedophiles in the Catholic Church in Boston. It was inspiring and realistic account of an investigative journalism team’s Pulitzer Prize winning reports.
Most of the heavy lifting in journalism is still done by newspapers…but many appear to be in terminal decline.
We took newspapers for granted. They were cheap, mostly informative, often entertaining and available just about everywhere. We sometimes forget newspapers were finely honed nineteenth century artifacts,. In the twenty first century, where globalised infotainment dressed as news is delivered instantly by smartphone; and advertising is continuously tailored to social media conversations, daily newspapers are in big trouble.
To make a newspaper you had to cut down half a forest in Tasmania and convert it to wood chips. These were fed through a toxic chemical process to create tonnes of newsprint which was then carted in oil burning ships to ports along the Australian coast. The newsprint was then fed into steam and later electric driven factories which before dawn each day, reproduced images and text on sheets of paper. These were sorted and packed before being trucked to shopfronts which employed child labour (paper-boys) to hawk the final products to people on their way to work.
It couldn’t last.
Meanwhile, the shift of real estate and motor car advertising from newspapers to online has cut off what was called “the river of gold” which once cross subsidized expensive journalism. The Fairfax group, which bungled this technologically driven transition, now tries to survive by closing printing presses, selling off assets and sacking hundreds of journalists, artists and photographers. Advertising revenue is shifting fast to multinationals like Facebook and Google who retail other people’s ideas, images and writings. They don’t do investigative journalism.
And for organized truth seekers, there’s worse to come.
Seven years ago, I surveyed about two hundred of my journalism students and found that while 95% said they enjoyed keeping up with the news, more than sixty percent said they read a newspaper once a week or less.
These weren’t ordinary students just to get into the class at QUT, they had to be in the top ten percent of matriculants and presumably they wanted to be journalists. But even then, most of them didn’t read newspapers.
I asked then ”If the journalists of the future don’t want to read newspapers, who will?”
The answer in 2016 is fewer and fewer people.
This year, Fairfax management hinted they could close the daily print editions of the Sydney Morning Herald, which has been appearing since 1831.
Its competitors, Newscorp’s loss making newspapers seem to survive through cross subsidies approved by its 85 year old owner’s affection for print. How long they will survive Rupert Murdoch, remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, even electronic traditional media are faltering. A study by the American Pew Centre showed 61% of millenials got their news on government and politics from Facebook and only 37% from local TV. This compares to 39%of baby boomers who preferred Facebook. If you believe that democracy only works well when its citizens make rational decisions informed by facts, you, we, all of us could be in deep trouble.
The question is what can be done?
Here’s a short list which might provide a start.
Wealthy individuals or corporations could simply buy ailing newspaper groups and maintain them in the public interest, onselling the rich content they produce to cable, online and new media outlets. Its been done before elsewhere.
The Washington Post, the winner of 47 Pulitzer prizes and publisher of the Watergate investigation, was sold in 2013 to the founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos.  Its been so successful this year in dissecting politicians wild claims in the Presidential race, that Donald Trump has withdrawn the Post’s press accreditation. What the mendacious Mr Trump calls “unbelieeevable” reporting, journalists see as a commitment to the truth.
The quality British newspaper, Guardian, which runs the popular Australian online news site, is operated by a trust founded in 1938. The Scott Trust sought. “to secure the financial and editorial independence of the Guardian in perpetuity: as a quality national newspaper without party affiliation; remaining faithful to its liberal tradition; as a profit-seeking enterprise managed in an efficient and cost-effective manner”.
The online Huffington Post was founded in the United States in 2005, was sold to AOL in 2011, and was the first digital media to win a Pulitzer prize. In Australia Crikey.com and New Matilda have been perhaps the most successful of the news journalism outlets, surviving on subscriptions. However, none of these newer media have been able to sustain major investigative journalism projects. The Global Mail which tried offer quality long form journalism, was funded by internet entrepreneur Graeme Wood. It folded in less than two years.
The ABC and SBS
The ABC and SBS employ the largest and most diverse corps of journalists in Australia. In its annual report to parliament, the ABC claimed it had 572000 active app users each month and each week 4.8 million radio listeners and 9.4 million viewers.While SBS may be affected by the advertising revenue downturn afflicting commercial networks, both these state supported networks have the staff , resources and infrastructure to provide a bridge as new forms of private enterprise platforms for journalism to evolve. More funding cuts won’t help here.
Encourage diversity and reward equality.
Australia has healthy and diverse ethnic media which is flourishing. We can encourage it to do better.
Multicultural New South Wales, has been giving annual ethnic media awards for the last five years. The aims are explicit:
- To support social cohesion and community harmony
- To celebrate and recognise the importantance of multicultural media
- To reward meaningful contribution to the multicultural debate
There are special awards for the Emerging Journalist of the Year and a Lifetime Achievement Award. For the first time this year, kids who study and practice media at schools or universities can be recognized.
The judges are working journalists, journalism educators and community representatives. They are asked to look for journalism which is technically excellent, which promotes social cohesion and understanding and which are produced within professional ethical standards.
These are awards for real journalism, not public relations spin. Last year Mostafa Rachwani from Youthink Magazine, won best Editorial comment with a piece on the radicalisation of Australian Muslim youth, Raiding the Muslim Community:
What happened, the law, and the politics
The awards arean example of a government using carrots rather than sticks to support unity through diversity.
The example of the French assassin, with whom I began this speech can tell us a lot about the new communications world in which we live.
Globalised news is increasingly delivered to your phone, wherever you may be.
Much of the reliable content is still created by the old industrial process of journalism.
But the new technologies allow the news actors to bypass the traditional mediators and speak directly to a global public.
The old communications order, which limited dialogue for good or ill, is dying.
The technologies might change but there is a continuing need to to connect all us with tested information so we can make rational and compassionate decisions on our societies.
Ethics remain a constant point of reference.
We don’t have to give in to misinformation or deliberate lies.
The choice is ours.
[This speech was delivered as a keynote address at the Iftar Dinner hosted by Optus at Macquarie Park, Sydney on 16.6.16.]