Watching media that aren’t

As far back as 2005 I find myself noting that watching Media Watch on the ABC made me angry. It did so again last night (you can watch it yourself here), not because presenter Paul Barry does a poor job, but because he seems to be shouting into the void.

It so happens that two items raised the same basic issue, although it’s not clear how many viewers would have made the connection. I’ll try to explain it; this might seem parochial at first, but international readers should persevere. The problem is worldwide, and it matters.

One item was about the Australian Football League (AFL). The AFL runs a large publicity division, in which it employs a number of people with journalism training to promote its activities. But that’s not how the AFL would frame things – it will tell you that it runs a media division, which employs journalists. And Barry accepted that framing and used those terms himself, even though the point of his story was to show that it’s bogus.

What had happened was that one of these “journalists” had retweeted a story that the AFL felt reflected badly on the game – or, in Barry’s words, breached his obligation “to keep bad news under wraps to protect the people involved.” He was promptly stood down, although he was reinstated after he apologised for the indiscretion.

The lesson, which should have been obvious from the start, is that calling something a media organisation doesn’t make it one. The people the AFL employs might be trained as journalists or have a journalistic background, and they might wish that they were doing journalism. But they’re not. They are public relations people, doing public relations. That’s their job.

Which brings us to the other, more significant item from last night. (It actually preceded the AFL one.) Last Thursday, the Australian published a front page story by long-term News Corp operative Dennis Shanahan that featured supposed “secret modelling” of prospective Covid-19 cases in Victoria, showing an alarming rise expected to peak at around 1,100 a day in mid- to late August.

As Barry showed, and as seasoned observers might have guessed anyway, the story was nonsense. The figures did not come from the government, the graph appeared to have been copied from a stray Twitter user, the story had not been checked with the government beforehand and the Australian declined to answer Barry’s questions about it.

All pretty much par for the course. The story fitted News’s political agenda, so that was all that mattered. But this is not primarily, at least in my view, about the evils of News Corp, but about the way it’s treated in the media – something that Barry’s framing again failed to fully convey.

News Corp is not a media organisation, it is a propaganda organisation. To treat its stories as news reports and its employees as journalists may be flattering to those individuals, but it is simply wrong. Many of them are decent and talented people who would no doubt prefer to be doing journalism, but, just like the AFL’s employees, that is not what they are being paid for.

All media have their problems, and all journalists sometimes have to make compromises. None the less, there is a fundamental difference between organisations that are trying – perhaps badly – to do journalism, and those like the AFL and News Corp that are in a different line of business altogether.

Watching Media Watch, and at many other times these days, it’s easy to feel helpless; to think that the forces of darkness are marching inexorably forward to envelop us all. But this is actually a case where each of us on a small scale can make a contribution.

Do not cite, post or link to News Corp stories. Do not patronise its advertisers. Do not refer to its organs as media outlets, or its employees as journalists. Do not participate in the pretence that an ideological crusade is just another legitimate part of the information landscape; that the deeply abnormal is really normal.

3 thoughts on “Watching media that aren’t

  1. I wholeheartedly agree, Charles. For too long News Corp has been treated as a news organisation, when it is a propaganda outfit. The article about COVID-19 cases in Victoria was a classic case. The article presented a forecast of COVID-19 cases and claimed that it was secret modelling by the Victorian Government. Given the source of the modelling was a private Twitter account, it was clearly anything but secret government modelling.

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