When I was a little boy discovering the world of words I often used to wonder where the news came from. It puzzled me that my family never featured in the news. Our photographs never appeared in the newspaper. News was something that happened to other people.
My father had been to school with the local state MP but that was about the extent of our links with what I began to perceive as another world out there, a world where certain things were deemed worthy of retelling.
An awakening of sorts came when my photograph appeared in the local newspaper the day after I commenced secondary school. It was a new school and I was a foundation student. A photographer appeared in our classroom and the teacher, Mr. Berndt, hovered over my shoulder pretending to correct my work as the photographer framed his shot. For days I delighted in telling everyone that the page we pored over was blank. I’d had my first direct experience of a manufactured media non-event.
Another insight came when my Maths teacher explained how he wrote some of the sports reports in the local paper every week. He could say what he liked and they printed it every week, provided he met the deadline. It was essential to always mention support from local business and to submit photographs of the management committees. It was all a game to do with filling empty space and keeping influential people happy.
A couple of years later my nascent interest in politics and current affairs led me to take out a subscription to TIME magazine. Australia rarely featured in its pages but when it did – I think the story was John Gorton’s downfall in 1971 – I remember the shock of finding errors in the magazine. People were incorrectly titled, their words presented differently. The feel of the story seemed wrong, the emphasis distorted. I began to realise if that was what they did with news I knew about, how could I trust them on the things I didn’t know about?
Years later, whilst at university, I was involved with an election campaign for a state Labor candidate in a must-win marginal seat. Whilst the candidate holidayed overseas during the Christmas-New Year period, a friend and I ran his media campaign. We prepared a press release every week and submitted it to three local newspapers with an accompanying photograph of the candidate. Here’s our man speaking out on the issues. Here he is taking a stand for better services. Here he is fighting hard for the community, holding the government accountable. We didn’t use the word so popular now but we were spinning like mad.
Every one of those press releases appeared almost verbatim, often on page one or three. It was so easy to manipulate the media, we decided. But as the campaign developed we were told quite openly that continuing coverage was contingent on our candidate taking out paid advertising in the papers. Amusement gave way to cynicism and contempt.
Over this past week my mind cast back to these long ago memories as the media talked incessantly about itself.
There was the orgy of self-congratulation as the Australian media presented itself with this year’s Walkley Awards. Is there any other profession which so loves presenting prizes to itself?
There was the ABC’s long, cloying, farewell to its not-quite-retired presenter Kerry O’Brien. It seemed as if the consequential shuffling of personnel was as important as the news they report. Those of us who spend time in online social media space found it hard to escape the hordes who think that an understanding of politics is dependent on the identity of the Lateline host.
And throughout it all, Oprah Winfrey. Commercial television news in particular has this week given us endless coverage of the American television host’s visit. A promotion for Tourism Australia, aided and abetted by the Australian government, has been given the status of headline news. Economic and business news it most certainly is but beyond that?
The nadir of this celebrity idolatry was reached last Friday in Melbourne. The evening news broadcasts showed Prime Minister Gillard on stage at Federation Square, snuggled up to new Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu as he wrapped one arm around her and the other around Winfrey.
Later, Gillard walked along the banks of the Yarra with Winfrey, the exuberant visitor embracing our head of government as the cameras clicked away. When the American’s arm was withdrawn, Gillard gingerly tried to work out how to place her own hand in the small of Winfrey’s back. I cringed at her obvious unease.
The ultimate indignity came as Winfrey turned and walked away mid-sentence as Gillard farewelled her. Know your place, Prime Minister.
But then, as if to prove the point that celebrity is just a matter of definition, there came the news that James Dibble had died. For Australians of a certain age, those of us who grew up with The Majestic Fanfare announcing the ABC News at 7.45am every day, it was like farewelling a trusted link to the outside world. “My childhood is leaving the building,” said the editor of The Drum.
Those days when men like Dibble read the news were not halcyon days. The history of the ABC in those times is characterised by outrageous management interference. Modern technology has improved the delivery of news beyond all measure.
But what can’t be denied is the sense of seriousness. Watch the first bulletin of colour television news with James Dibble in 1975 and notice the emphasis on international news, including an item on Papuan separatism. When was the last time you saw an Australian television news bulletin lead with a story from Papua New Guinea? Just this week the PNG Prime Minister, Michael Somare, the man who also held the job in 1975, stood down because of misconduct charges. Which television networks bothered to report this? The Oprah Winfrey spectacle stands in stark relief.
If James Dibble was a talking head, at least the words he read to us contained something of value. With the arrival of 24-hour news channels, we’re now inundated with talking heads and continuous commentary on every imaginable issue. News and politics junkies struggle to keep up with the proliferation of talk shows. These shows abound with all manner of supposed insiders, pushing assorted agendas, beating their drums and offering insights and perspectives about the nation.
Intriguingly, it seems mandatory to augment this growing parade of ever more youthful commentators with comedians and video montages of the day’s events. Colour and movement. There’s a message there.
As technology permits ever more news and opinion to be transmitted, it’s become so noisy. Seeing beyond and rising above the cacophony of noise is harder. Finding the value is a game of hit-and-miss with a remote control.
The media cause celebre this past week has been WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. And yet, I had a chance encounter with a woman who hadn’t heard of either. She did know that Oprah Winfrey was here and she knew about the floods in NSW because a relative had to evacuate over the weekend. “What exactly IS a cable?” she asked me as I struggled to explain the ramifications of the diplomatic and media sensation of the year.
This woman was intelligent, aware and concerned. But her priorities were different. There were practical matters to consider.
It was reminiscent of another conversation in February last year when I encountered a young twenty-something man who didn’t know about the Black Saturday bushfires fully five days after they took place.
Whatever might now be said about media coverage of the news, it seems that growing numbers of people by-pass it all, shutting themselves away in gated communities of the mind, granting entry only to those who talk and think like them. The online world facilitates this with the click of a mouse.
It means that any idea of a shared stock of information and priorities is well and truly dead, even in societies with largely homogenous values. The implications, especially for governance and education, are profound.
That puzzle about what constitutes news remains as great today as when I pondered it as a child. There are more diversions now, more noise and movement, but at least I can filter out the ranting and raving. I can ignore the celebrity obsessions and the other frippery. I can discount the personality cults that have overtaken so much of the news reporting business. I can try to concentrate on the issues that matter.
But it’s getting harder.
This article first appeared on The Drum.