Essay

Discounted goods

Rita Skeeter and the decline of trust in journalism

WALK THROUGH THE doors of a suburban op shop and you’ll find the residue of household (de)composition that was once catalogued in rhyming newspaper-speak as hatches, matches and despatches. Along half-a-dozen shelves, tucked behind the racks of second-hand clothes and used cutlery, you’ll even find relics of that twentieth-century mass distribution platform we call ‘books’. There’s something a bit meta about them, just like journalism: the first of capitalism’s disruptors, now themselves disrupted. Almost ­insultingly, like journalists, they’re obliged to tell their own tale.

So, here in my local Vinnies, I’ve come to search – not quite at random – for a handful of books to use as the donkey to carry us through the unwinding of ‘that great black art’, as Rudyard Kipling called the daily press.

Three or four books in a pile: it’s not much in terms of mass. Yet, as the twentieth century turned into the twenty-first, the media was more than its aggregated mass. It was socially massive, grounded in a solidity that had centred it in our society for more than a hundred years. You could judge its grandeur in its large stone buildings, powerful brands and rich tycoons.

Then, to paraphrase Ernest Hemmingway, the world changed: gradually and then suddenly. And instead of trading up on disruption – as it had for more than a century – journalism found itself discounted goods on the cultural remainder table: losing trust, losing value, losing revenues.

‘Trust.’ That most valuable of commodities. That core value proposition of journalism: ‘You can trust us to tell you the truth you need to know.’ Like all core value propositions, ripe for disruption. Star reality performer Donald Trump knew: long before ‘fake news!’ became his go-to bellow, repeated polls had ranked journalists and media low on trust.

Here’s an example in a book whose sheer volume of sales means it will turn up in most op shops: JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Bloomsbury), published in 2000, right on the century’s turn. Turn to Chapter 18, where the ‘enchantingly nasty’ Rita Skeeter, a journalist on the Daily Prophet, first makes her entrance. In the Potter-verse, she’s not the most evil of characters; she is the most profoundly amoral – the perfect mental picture for the public perception of ‘journalist’. Perhaps the image of Rita Skeeter was reinforced a decade later when the first Harry Potter generation turned to more adult concerns as the UK phone-hacking scandal was breaking.

The monopolisation of media in the late twentieth century painted media institutions as so many playthings to be traded between rich and powerful men. That’s the context in which the distrusted journalist Rita Skeeter replaced that mid-twentieth-century model of decency, mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent. But journalists can take some comfort in knowing that there’s a hierarchy of distrust. Media tycoons are least liked. Media institutions – mastheads, television networks – are disliked a bit less. Journalists less again. And in countries with a strong public broadcasting ethos, trust sticks to these networks (the ABC and SBS in Australia) in a way it doesn’t stick to commercial media.

There is some evidence in the recent Reuters Institute Digital News Report that the shock of the Facebook fake news imbroglio has forced a relative shift in attitudes – a greater trust in traditional media than in social media. But the shift in long-term absolute ‘trust’ is unmistakeable.

Journalists take ‘trust’ and ‘truth’ deeply seriously. These ideas sit in the opening sentence of the Australian journalists’ code of ethics: ‘Respect for truth and the public’s right to information are fundamental principles of journalism.’ It’s why so many of the industrial disputes in late-twentieth-century media were over journalists asserting their ethical norms and practices over the commercial interests of their owners. And it’s why so much ‘fake news’ in alt-right sites like Breitbart or The Daily Caller adopts the simulacra of journalism, without the ‘truth’ substance. It shows that somewhere deep within our DNA, trust remains deeply embedded, mediated through these norms and practices.

Yet the twenty-first century has not just discounted journalism on trust. It has discounted the values of journalism.

Here is Liane Moriarty’s superb novelisation of organisational interpersonal politics, Big Little Lies (Penguin, 2014). Between its covers is Ed McKenzie, husband and sounding board of a central character, and all-round good guy. Oh, and he’s a journalist, working on the local paper, suggestive of Sydney’s Manly Daily. As TS Eliot wrote, ‘Between the idea/And the reality.../Falls the shadow’. That good-guy/journalist contradiction was too much for TV. There, Ed became a web designer.

Ed’s a reminder that journalism was profoundly local, reporting information that people needed to manage their day-to-day lives, with a touch of entertainment. What’s on when? What’s worth going to? What’s the goss? What’s ‘news’? Most journalists weren’t working in the Canberra Press Gallery or as foreign correspondents. They worked, like Ed, as reporters writing ‘news’ about their local communities, their city or their state.

But ‘news’ is never static. It’s evolved over time both in content and in style.

From the 1960s, the preferred writing style in Australian journalism became edgier, more tabloid, more beaten up to extract the last juice of ‘news’ out of any given set of facts. The shift was driven out of Sydney with the Murdoch takeover of the Daily Mirror. It took a couple of decades, but by the 1980s both Fairfax media and the Herald and Weekly Times – the latter under News Limited control – caught up. The boundary between the personal and public became blurred as entertainment values meant a story could be too good to leave out. When former Prime Minister Ben Chifley died in his mistress’ bed in 1951 in the Kurrajong Hotel, it went unreported. By 1987, when former House of Representatives speaker Billy Snedden died in similar circumstances, The Sydney Morning Herald eagerly quoted the Melbourne Truth, saying he was wearing a condom ‘and it was loaded’.

 

DURING THE FINAL third of the twentieth century, journalism’s sense of the job to be done bounced back and forth between being the journal of record on the one hand, and holding the powerful to account through investigative journalism (‘everything else is public relations,’ as Orwell said) on the other. There’s a comfort in the grandiloquence of either position. Each places journalism at the centre of society, positing questions and providing the answers people need to exercise their civic responsibilities in a democracy, with the frisson of exposing what someone didn’t want to be known.

These shifting values can be tracked through what journalists themselves recognise as ‘good journalism’ in Australia’s Walkley Awards. In the 1960s, it was good-quality reporting for the record (often about crime). By the 1980s, the awards increasingly recognised reporting that looked outside traditional sources of record to sources that documented social changes, corruption and deep-state misbehaviour. The media was setting the agenda. In the 1990s, the focus shifted to reporting on foreign events, particularly in the Asia-Pacific, matched with an increasing recognition of investigative work – the sort of exclusives that have come to dominate the awards this century.

Meanwhile, the internet had become the place to record everything from football results, the weather and the stock exchange to movie rankings and even government announcements – all information the internet handled better than journalism did. Then social media stole journalism’s role as entertainment. All that time spent being entertained by cats and grandchildren on Facebook had to come from somewhere. It turns out that a fair slab of it came from time spent with journalism.

We’d lost the answer to the question that Harvard innovation academic Clayton Christensen asks: what’s the job to be done here? You don’t need journalists to find out the ‘important’, the ‘new’, the ‘outrageous’, the ‘interesting’ or even, often, the ‘secret’. Or at least, you don’t need journalists and traditional media.

The value journalists still bring is pattern recognition: the ability to grasp almost instantaneously if a moment, an act or a statement is ‘news’. They bring the skill of being able to compress that moment into, say, the 280 characters of a tweet or tease it out over a forty-minute episode of Four Corners. Right now, there are still enough journalists to bring the wisdom of a journalistic crowd to sort the news from the not-really news through retweets, likes and replies. That’s fine while there’s still a body of paid (or formerly paid) journalists with the experience and skills to identify and communicate news. But what happens when that pool dries up and we lose the collective mass that performs the real-time fact-checking that a sense of truth in society demands?

Liane Moriarty’s Ed McKenzie also represents something else about the disruption of journalists’ values. In a throwaway line, Ed suggests in a ‘public’s right’ kind of way that he’ll need to report a particular development. In the narrative, it’s a device to impart urgency, to spur action (a common trope of journalists in novels all the way back to Trollope). But it’s also a nudge to journalists’ values exposed by The New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm in her 1990 book The Journalist and the Murderer (Knopf). Hopefully, it’s not a book you’ll find in a second-hand store. It’s a book that journalists should keep wrapped in plain paper or sealed in plastic away from innocent eyes.

It opens with a famous line that journalists mutter only to each other, glancing sideways to make sure no-one can overhear: ‘Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.’ A journalist, Malcolm writes, is a kind of confidence man, gaining trust and betraying it without remorse. The characterisation of the journalist in Malcolm’s book is just an upmarket version of the analysis embedded equally in the amoral character of Rita Skeeter and the moral character of Ed McKenzie.

‘So unfair!’ journalists will splutter. ‘So true!’ say the critics. And there, ‘between the motion and the act’, Eliot’s shadow falls again.

This questioning of the journalistic sense of truth and journalists’ values and norms was always managed through a sense that it was inevitable to the job we were doing. When the disruption of the business model rolled over the top of us, the lack of public trust left journalism naked.

 

AS LEADING CANADIAN management theorist Henry Mintzberg tells us, each age – each span of a few years – thinks it lives in a time of unparalleled change and disruption. And they’re always right – and wrong. In a 2017 blog post he wrote that we still use buttons and button-holes to fasten our shirts. It’s just that now we can confirm that on Wikipedia. Throughout the twentieth century, journalism was repeatedly disrupted by just about every big trend: technology, distribution networks, advertising, imperialism, mass literacy, feminism, multiculturalism… You name it. It’s just that journalism – and the media industry in which it thrived – always pivoted to benefit. After a century-long process of the coin toss coming up heads, there’s an outrage within the craft that, in this century, the coin’s been coming up tails.

Let’s look back to look forward. Here’s a volume of the letters of Austrian inter-war journalist and novelist Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters (WW Norton, 2012). It’s the sort of punning title popular among headline writers when headline-writing was the work of humans to draw other humans into the story and the paper. Now, that job falls to algorithms optimised for search by other algorithms.

Without opening the cover, here’s the first lesson in disruption of the journalists’ craft: now that headlines need to be shaped by SEO – search engine optimisation – punning and double entendres just confuse the machine. The craft hasn’t been lost: what’s been lost is its value. A simple and easily comprehensible sentence or phrase of key words is far more pleasing to an algorithm.

Take, for example, ‘headless body in topless bar’, the famous all-caps front page of the 15 April 1983 edition of the New York Post, perfectly balanced across two decks above the paper’s fold. It’s the sort of headline that compels, in an analogue way, the viral tests we use to judge content today: shares, likes, buys. When all other memory of that period is lost, the verve of the phrasing ensures the words will endure as the metaphor for twentieth-century tabloid journalism long after all those SEO phrasings are lost from memory in the sheer volume of searchable text.

Writing in the 1920s, Joseph Roth grasped the industrial nature of newspaper journalism, of being a creative worker and yet part of a mass-production machine. In 1926, he corrected his colleague, Bernard von Brentano, who complained about being edited and cut: ‘You are no soloist. You are a choir member.’ Or here he is writing that same year to his Frankfurter Zeitung editor, Benno Reifenberg: ‘I love this paper, I serve it, I am useful to it… I don’t write “witty glosses”. I paint the portrait of the age. That ought to be the job of a great newspaper. I’m a journalist, not a reporter.’

Like many journalists, he could also hate his craft’s positioning in mass media with passion. A year later, he wrote to Brentano: ‘Human relationships with newspapers are just impossible.’ In 1935 he wrote to Stefan Zweig: ‘Journalism. Revolting work. Humiliation.’ All sentiments immediately recognisable by journalists today.

Read just about any memoir-tinged writing about, for example, the Fairfax papers and you’ll find the same love-hate nostalgia for a world that’s slipped away, much of it written out of a sense of anger that somehow, someway, the company’s owners must have mucked it up. How could such large, powerful institutions that gave such meaning to a journalist’s life just seem to…peter out?

Although newspapers have been around since the 1600s, sustaining modern journalism required mass media to emerge in the late nineteenth century. Supply was made possible by the advent of the linotype machine, allowing the scale to meet the demand driven by mass literacy and mass democracy. This demand was monetised through the growth of advertising as capitalism shifted from the gilded age of the elites to the more egalitarian age of mass consumption.

Throughout the twentieth century, disruptive technologies were great for journalism, with radio in the 1920s and 1930s and television in the 1950s providing new platforms. The seemingly endless growth of population, consumerism, democracy and leisure time all fed demand. Journalism’s final boost came in the 1970s and 1980s as the printing crafts that had powered newspapers were computerised, beginning with typesetting and followed in the 1990s by electronic page make-up. This destroyed crafts that stretched back to Gutenberg. But it drove journalism to its peak.

Costs of production fell. Papers expanded, puffed out with advertising-supported supplements and magazine inserts. News and current affairs programming became audience drivers for television. The launch of FM left AM radio to focus on news-driven talk shows on both the ABC and the private sector. SBS created an accessible multicultural media.

There were warning signs: the death of afternoon newspapers, the triumph of talk over journalism on commercial radio, the financial collapse of debt-laden television networks. But at journalism’s peak between 1995 and 2005, there were about 10,000 people earning a living from journalism in Australia, about half in newspapers – metropolitan, regional and community – and the balance in magazines, television, radio and wire services. A dominant publication like The Sydney Morning Herald boasted about 700 editorial staff.

Secure employment was the norm, ensconced in one of three or four large media companies or public broadcasting. Journalists were better paid than they had ever been, particularly in competitive markets like Sydney and Melbourne. Joseph Roth’s letters underscore how contingent – and recent – that security was. At one Deutschmark per line, he was the highest-paid writer on his paper in the 1920s, but he was stuck as a freelancer in what we now call the gig economy. The anxiety of insecurity pervades Roth’s letters, summed up in repeated questions: ‘Where’s the cheque?’ and ‘What about next month?’

It’s where journalism in Australia started; even Rupert Murdoch’s father, later Sir Keith, worked as a penny-a-liner. The founder of the Australian Journalists Association, Bert Cook, described Australia’s press corps prior to World War I as ‘a miserable, down-trodden crew’, and dedicated himself to getting journalists into a system of regularised employment based on recognition of skills through gradings.

Now, journalism is coming back to where it started. Increasingly, journalists work in the gig economy as freelancers or casuals, or on short-term contracts, often outside the industrial regulation that created that middle-class lifestyle for journalists in the twentieth century. Increasingly, you need money to build a career in journalism

 

JOURNALISTS HAVE ALREADY become more like the description that George Orwell gave to himself: ‘lower-upper-middle class’. Not rich, but not poor. Not truly independent, but creatively autonomous. With that comes the risk of disconnection as Australian journalism became more comfortable and less reflective of an increasingly diverse Australia.

In this pile of books from the op shop, here’s Flesh Wounds (ABC Books, 2015), the parental memoir by ABC broadcaster Richard Glover. It’s a reminder of that great journalistic principle that the most ordinary-seeming people can have a fascinating backstory. But the story of Glover’s parents – both journalists themselves – reminds us of something else: until perhaps the 1980s, journalism in Australia was a powerful force for social mobility. Smart kids from working-class backgrounds could get a start through a cadetship and work their way into the middle class.

Roth’s letters from the 1920s and ’30s tell a different version of that same story: born to a Jewish mother in what is now eastern Ukraine, studied in Vienna, served in the Austro-Hungarian army in World War I. After the empire’s collapse in 1918, he moved into journalism, tracing a westward trajectory from Vienna to Berlin to Frankfurt to end up in Paris writing for the Frankfurter Zeitung.

A recent memoir like Rick Morton’s One Hundred Years of Dirt (MUP, 2018) or Trent Dalton’s fictionalised character in Boy Swallows Universe (HarperCollins, 2018) tell us that the door is not closed. But as journalism became more respectable in the 1980s and became coupled with the near-universal demand for tertiary qualifications, it became whiter and more comfortable, just as Australian society became more diverse.

As an ABC broadcaster, Glover’s book also gives us one of the few hints about what a disrupted journalism might look like in Australia, centred around the public broadcasters. Through its news programs, the ABC built and retains a strong reporting-for-the-record focus (watch the seven o’clock TV news). In current affairs programming, it sets off agendas that others need to chase. Talk radio – like Glover’s Drive program – has a strong journalistic flavour. The ABC’s size and spread, and its laser focus on ‘the facts’ and on ‘balance’, provide a cultural ballast for journalism, setting the ethical default of the craft.

This suggests an emerging ecosystem shaped around four pillars: the ABC, SBS and other institutionally supported media (Griffith Review anyone?); the two enduring traditional commercial media corporations consolidating into a News Corp-Seven and Nine-Fairfax nexus that relies on maintaining some traditional advertising; global media with local franchises like The Guardian; and new (and not so new) start-ups carving out some journalistic niche funded through reader support and emerging forms of advertising.

The journalism of this disrupted world will be both more fragmented and more general: more fragmented in that we’ll all be able to find out more, from more sources – and write more – about issues or subjects that interest us, although to smaller audiences; more general, in that a big lump of mass-appeal stories will still be shuffled through the ABC, the two enduring traditional media and the local franchises of global media, heard by smaller and older audiences.

More Canberra. Less of the sort of deeply local news that Ed McKenzie was reporting in Big Little Lies. More imaginative writing styles. Less pyramid-style news reports for the record. Perhaps more advocacy journalism on issues and political positioning, like the opening on the right that News Corp is already seizing. Enduring openings for investigative journalism.

And, yes, more books telling the stories of society through the skills and norms of the journalists’ craft.

There’ll be less money in it. Less cultural weight. And there’ll be fewer journalists. Although there are no clear figures, there are substantially fewer journalist jobs (one third? Two thirds? Somewhere in between? No one really knows for sure), particularly in traditional print journalism, than there were two decades ago – and those jobs are paid significantly less. Expect these trends to continue, gradually and then suddenly.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review