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On the wrong side of the ABC’s ‘Cool Wall’

On the wrong side of the ABC’s ‘Cool Wall’

By Stephen Smith 

“The advanced societies of the future will not be governed by reason. They will be driven by irrationality, by competing systems of psychopathology.”
- J G Ballard

It is a mistake to overrate the intellectual capacity of the media as being capable of bias. Bias demands the rigour of imposed values. The sobering lesson when we look at much of today’s news coverage is the lack of intellect and values. In the place of bias, we find only the banal.

There is no highbrow or lowbrow culture. All that remains is a sea of banality and in the littoral zone, the odd jewel of social media. Stricken by boredom, corporatized media workers need an outlet. They find this in the psychopathology of celebrity; and based as it is on hype and hatred it takes two alternating forms.

Firstly, we find the elemental instinct of blood in the water – the feeding frenzy of the media pack. Secondly, you can’t miss the media’s gift for the culture of the sycophant.

The Australian Story (ABC TV) episode on Nicole Cornes  exposed the feeding frenzy at its most ugly. Nicole – a law student and columnist who is married to an AFL legend - was one of Kevin 07’s celebrity candidates. But from the start, Labor held her back by failing to give her adequate training. In the heavy media traffic, it seemed nothing could save her. She was humiliated simply because she was a woman. One print headline ran the “legally blonde” pun. Judging by Australian Story, we find that the ABC was one of the worst offenders.

An entrapment piece by Matthew Abraham on ABC Local Radio set off a misogynist ripple across the airwaves. A blatant lack of fairness crucified Cornes. It seems some celebrity gaffes are cooler than others are. While Peter Garrett was ‘politically inexperienced’, Cornes was just dumb - so said the media message. It did not help that Labor caste a cordon of minders around Garrett while Cornes was cut loose.

The final insult came from ABC TV’s Tony Jones on election night. With Nicole’s challenge falling short in what was a fairly safe Liberal seat, Jones made the bizarre remark that she had “lost her seat”. He called her tilt at Boothby “a disaster”. By convention, interviewers offer only condolences to defeated candidates - not abuse them live on air.

Ironically, in view of the cruel level of journalism exposed, the format of Australian Story allows the subject’s own story to unfold without intrusion. One of the voices heard in support of Nicole was from Senator Natasha Stott Despoja. She summed up the whole process by saying that Cornes’ treatment sends out a message to women; and it reveals the slim chances of fair treatment. In Cornes’ case, others had already written her script. As Stott Despoja put it, “I think a lot of people saw her shaped very early in this media construct”. The image of Nicole portrayed proved irreversible. The question remains; does the candidate have the power to change? The contest is stacked against you when the media is both opponent and umpire.

We have seen the beat up at work in Nicole’s story. Equally insidious is the leaning towards the sycophantic. Media groups such as the ABC operate by the equivalent of the Cool Wall from Top Gear (SBS TV). You know the one – where the jackass trio, with forced hilarity, paste pictures of cars on the ‘cool’ or ‘uncool’ side of the studio wall. In the newsroom, the ‘Cool Wall’ has a similar faddish bent. Those not in favour are mocked, humiliated or ignored. On the trendy side, the sycophantic machine runs into overdrive.

I saw this culture most at fault in the ABC’s Canberra studios during the Federal Election. A friend who was standing for the Democrats (= uncool) found out what it is like to be pasted on the margins. He rang an ABC producer who mistook his voice for that of the ACT Greens campaign manager. The ABC producer proceeded to fawn a greeting before realizing that it was someone else on the line. First, a tone of disappointment, then disinterest – slapped onto the wrong side of the Cool Wall. I hasten to add that the Greens are more than capable of running their own campaign on a level playing field. The slavish manner of the ABC, creating an impression of favouritism, only serves to corral the ‘cooler’ candidate into a latte set dead end. Beware the ABC kiss of death.

What do we learn from such cases? There is no longer a divide (if there ever was) between the popular or tabloid and so-called bastions of culture such as the ABC. We may even need to reverse our old perspectives. Thus, it takes a clever talent to ‘dumb down’ content to the level of the market. On the other hand, it is too easy for muppets to concoct highbrow culture.

There is no longer any high ground, only a flat featureless landscape broken by digital ones and zeros. Witness the erosion of credible news gathering and analysis in the story of Prince Harry’s tour of duty in Afghanistan. Here, we find New Idea magazine and the ABC News reading from the same page of sensationalism. It is war as heroic narrative. (A British Royal hasn’t died in battle for about 400 years!) The headline is the withdrawal of Harry from the war zone in Afghanistan. In the shadow of celebrity, the more gut wrenching story – the case for the withdrawal of ALL troops from Afghanistan - is lost.

Today, we hear much of progress that shifts print and broadcast content online. A deeper change is that of the failure of reason and with it the rise of a brand of psychopathology that seeks to either hype or humiliate its subjects. However, this power contains an ironic reversal in light of what were once ethics and standards. In journalism, we often say that the pen is mightier than the sword. In these times, those who live by this weapon also perish by it. For in seeking to humiliate others they only succeed in humiliating themselves.


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Thanks Stephen

I'm not sure that bias demands rigour.

Knee jerk idiocy is it's own form of bias.

There are magazines like the Monthly by Robert Manne and co.  Not exactly mass circulation though. 

There Is Still Hope

I've been moaning for years about the dumbing down of the ABC news as though the commercial stations somehow set the standard ,and not the other way around.

One day they will reach the dismal levels of the atrocious standards of the Ten network which shames even some of the US local networks in its tabloid nastiness.

It just shows how successful Howard was in neutering the ABC but there is still hope. But the culture of fear has to be resisted.

Watching Kerry O'Brien grill Rudd the other night about how long it would be before Rudd would stop blaming the last government for present woes - just 3 months after an election when the previous Coalition government was still blaming Labor after 11 years - was utterly bizarre. Even O'Brien has been rattled and is trying to look unbiased - he just looked crazy.

The main point about Nicole Cornes, apart from the ABC also sharing in the blood sport as it did with Cheryl Kernot, is that Australians are still horribly misogynist when it comes to women in politics and discuss personal matters about candidates that wouldn't even rate a mention in Europe or even the USA.


I knew that the local ABC were in trouble when local "hotel giant" and AHA President Peter Hurley was elected to the board. A few years ago Hurley's hotels were involved in an enforcement of the musos that performed at them to attend a "conference" (under the auspices of the band agency that booked them into Hurley's pubs) supporting a new pokies tax, having informed them that they wouldn't get any more gigs if they didn't come. A media conference was called to proclaim the event's successful outcome ... a day and a half before the event. On the actual night bugger-all musos turned up (as one told me, "we're not into politics, we just want to play") and the Channel 7 cameraman, the only media representative to turn up, laughed like a drain when he heard what had happened. Anyway, on the 7.45 news next morning the local musos' union bloke (Sam Moody, a good man) was explaining what had happened.

QED.  If you don't know to what, sorry, but I'm treading carefully.

I'm not in the mood to defend Matt Abraham this week, for the purely sulky reason that he seems to have developed a phobia about ukuleles. He does get over-didactic at times and and listening to his cat-and-mouse game with Nicole Cornes was painfully like hearing a captured animal being tortured.

However, defend I must. I've learned a lot, over the last few years, about what goes on in this city, that I wouldn't have heard anywhere than from Abraham and David Bevan (why they passed him over for TV news editor I'll never know). This transcript of their interview with a certain Scott Bates was one such eye-opening example. I've seen many instances of action being taken by politicians being instigated by these two journalists, one (on the shocking condition of Lake Albert, where the jetties have been on dry land for weeks) being worked at by the water minister in attempt to stave off the bad publicity the show will give next week.

I would like to think, and sincerely hope, that some of Abraham's recent conduct is a tactic to keep himself distanced from stultification by the Howard-reconstructed ABC board (who also seem hellbent on turning their TV station into the free-to-air equivalent of a cheap cable channel (no new Doctor Who this year; I guess the current crop has been too political)) so that he and Bevan maintain some journalistic independence from the board (as outlined, with the likes of Hurley aboard I think they'll need it). I don't think that the production crews and presenters are the problem; but the requirements that have been placed upon them. In such an environment erroneous reflex actions such as the treatment of Cornes are to be expected. Unfortunately though, such activities play into the censors' hands.

Thank you, Stephen Smith, for highlighting the situation. I hope enough people look upon the ABC as in need of help, as opposed to the slow euthanasia it's currently receiving.

PS Nicky Downer, who's presenting an afternoon show on a commercial station at the moment (is Downer really selling his house, or was he just pretending for the segment, and if so why get son Edmund on to ask for tips in preventing his parents selling up?) got on to Abraham and Bevan's show this morning to tell a tale and no doubt try and pinch a few of the audience for Alex. Another QED.

PPS The same goes for local music as politcs.  We wouldn't get it if the ABC producers and presenters weren't able to broadcast it. 

PPS When the Downers talked of Peter Hurley on their show last week, they referred to him as their friend.  Hey look, the evidence may be circumstantial, but if that's enough to convict terrorists... 


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