My university career began in 2011 as a journalism student at the Queensland University of Technology. Journalism, for me, was not a vocation: it was an accident, the outcome of a secondary schooling system that insists that children aged seventeen (or sixteen, as I was) are capable of making informed decisions about what they should do for the rest of their lives. Unwilling to turn down my scholarship offer, nervous about taking time off to work or travel, and displaced and heartbroken in the way that many school-leavers are, I decided that somewhere in my subconscious, so deeply rooted that I had never actually been aware of it, there was a desire to report the news.
A common rhetoric amongst journalists is that they chose their profession because they were told that they were ‘good at writing’. Never mind that the people telling them this – teachers, parents – are largely unqualified to make an assessment about what ‘good writing’ actually is, never mind that modern day journalism is far more about minimalism and efficiency than possession of an extensive arsenal of adverbs.
Like many aspiring journalists, I assumed that my florid adolescent vocabulary was an asset, rather than a hindrance. I assumed my job was to tell stories.
Cut to four years later, and I am studying creative writing in Bath, Somerset.
My journalism career ended in spectacular fashion with a job interview at a notorious tabloid television program, during which I abruptly realised that the newsroom was not a place I wanted to be. Seated across the desk from the Chief of Staff, my assumptions about the journalistic world crumbled.
‘I went to uni with Karl Stefanovic,’ my prospective employer informed me. ‘Captain Charisma. I got straight 7s and he got all 4s, but guess who’s making ten times more money now?’
I left the room in tears, frantically phoning my best mate. For me, the conversation was a terrifying glimpse into the future: a future where my funnier, more photogenic friend laughed his way through breakfast shows, and I was the bitter prick in the dingy office of one of Australia’s worst current affairs programs.
It was not merely this incident that made me realise that news reporting was not for me, though it’s the one that stands out in my mind. Rather, it was the culmination of two years of university training, where my lecturers insisted on the importance and integrity of the journalistic profession. It was the result of several internships, in which I experienced the manic, thankless, and egomaniacal environment of the newsroom firsthand. It was the byproduct of my own idealism, an idealism which, when faced by the practical, working world of the media, I suddenly realised was absurd.
Throughout my time at uni, reference was repeatedly made to the Journalists’ Code of Ethics, the Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance manifesto that, in theory, dictates the rules of journalistic practice. Honesty, Fairness, Independence, and Respect for the Rights of Others: these are advertised as being the linchpins of a free press’s operations. And, for some journalists, I’m sure that these principles do guide their collation and distribution of data. But, for the most part, it’s a creation myth: the smoke and mirrors that provide sufficient distraction from what the business, like every other, is really about.
Journalism, as I discovered in my interview, is about money.
It’s not about the money made by journalists themselves, who, if they are lucky, will eventually work their way into the territory of $70, 000 a year. It’s not even about the money made by the Karl Stefanovics, riding the mass-market idiocy on the airwaves between six and nine in the morning. No: it’s about the money made selling papers, in people clicking on weblinks and in dominating the ratings. It’s about money that makes the lofty ethics of a journalism student redundant.
This week in the Guardian, Katharine Murphy posed the question: what kind of journalists does Australia need?
Her article came in response to the restrictions on press freedoms recently enacted under the Abbott government. By her own admission, it also followed in the wake of a series of colossal fuck-ups by various Australian media outlets: the publication of biased, damaging and blatantly false material that marginalised Australia’s Muslim population in a delicate cultural moment.
The use of hysteria to sell papers is by no means a new, or particularly complicated, concept. The practice is so simple, so morally obvious, that JK Rowling indicts it in her series of children’s books otherwise populated by wizards, goblins, and other such manifestations of the unreal. Kids who read Harry Potter learned, over the last four books, two things more frightening than any number of magical, noseless mass murderers: do not trust your government – and do not trust the media.
As someone who devoured the books as a child, the revelations about the ugly capitalism underpinning the journalistic enterprise should not, perhaps, have been so shocking. But I was, while studying, a good journalist: I learnt quickly, was efficient in my writing, and was a favourite with most of my lecturers. I enjoyed the process, the thrill of putting a story together, of waking up early and phoning five, ten, thirty people before getting the perfect eight-second grab of media-trained bullshit. I looked good in a suit. And I do not pretend to be any more morally high-minded, or possess any more integrity, than any of the other young women and men who studied my degree, completed it, and went on to work in a newsroom.
I just decided that I couldn’t do it.
Living in the UK, observing Australia, I’ve never felt more convinced about the decision. The hyperbole that screams from the front of newspapers, on every television screen – Islam and terrorists and national security and the ludicrous oxygen thief who currently runs the country – more than vexes my mind. It terrifies me. It scares me as a white, straight, middle-class male, the least threatened demographic in our country, and more or less the world. It scares me that people will read the stuff, and will think that it is real.
Murphy argues that despite its flaws and failings, Australian journalism is needed now more than ever. A free press is necessary to make sure people are informed, educated, empowered. It is needed to ensure that people can make their own decisions.
This is not the narrative in Australia’s media landscape. Newspapers are not about knowledge, or informed decision-making. They are about fear, the fear that Australian citizens now have about a threat to their coveted, entirely abstract notion of a ‘way of life.’ They are about the fear of an entire community, demonised by a religious affiliation to a gang of extremist murderers. They are about bombings, alleged bombings, adolescent militants, attempts on the life of the Prime Minister that may or may not have actually happened. They are a fiction as convoluted as any story about JK Rowling’s teenaged magicians.
Murphy is correct in saying that Abbott’s reforms are a threat to the freedom of the press. Journalists facing jail for reporting on intelligence services is the stuff of Orwellian nightmare, the kind of dictatorial behaviour that Australians would rightly condemn if it were happening anywhere else. In a democratic society, a free press is essential to the distribution of information, and the government and its agencies must be subject to the same level of interrogation and scrutiny as any other body.
Tony Abbott’s reforms are not about keeping a rabid media in line: if he were interested in fair and accurate reporting, then the proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act would not have floated around in parliament for the past year. Despite current attempts to distance himself from party radicals, it’s clear that the Prime Minister’s issue with the media is not its Islamophobia or irresponsibility: it’s the concern that, at some point, intelligence journalism will unearth something that will bite him on the arse.
The Prime Minister, therefore, takes the easy road when it comes to dealing with Australian media, much the same way as the media has with their obligation to the Australian public. Murphy understands that the media has betrayed its purpose, and is willing to concede fault, but her article should not be viewed or accepted as an apology on behalf of the entire industry. Stirring and frank though Murphy’s argument may have been, it reads along the same lines as Jerry Maguire’s ‘Mission Statement:’ idealistic, inspiring, and heartbreakingly ineffectual.
If there is to be change in Australia’s media reportage, it needs to come from something concrete. The Australian Media and Communications Authority and the Australian Press Council should view her call to action as more than just another think-piece: if we are to continue with the self-regulation that journalists value so highly, then they need to tighten their codes of practice. The alternative is too grim to contemplate: a regulatory body installed by the government, a paternal authority for misbehaving children.
Murphy is right when she says that the Australian public has deserted the media. She is right in saying that the media does not deserve their support. But that means the outlook is bleak for those young people, who (unlike myself) have a burning desire to report the news. If journalists continue to be viewed as unreliable, untrustworthy, sensationalist and amoral, then it’s disturbing to contemplate the kind of people who, in the future, will be attracted to the job.
We need to stop pretending that a journalist’s job is to be ‘good at writing.’ We need to admit that a Code of Ethics that functions as little more than a vague set of guidelines will not prevent people from publishing material that is ignorant, didactic, unfair. We need it to be clear that compiling a newspaper with the sole intention of making money by feeding the fear of the masses is unacceptable.
We need the self-regulators to regulate.
If journalists are to remain the valuable and necessary part of our democracy that Murphy, and many others, believe they are, then our media narrative needs to change. We do not want people to tell stories; we do not want 24/7 coverage if it’s all just white noise. And for the journalists who can’t cop that, who think thoroughness and truth telling is simply too much effort, then it’s time to get out of the game.
They can always have a crack at creative writing.