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The Future by Us
Margo Kingston writes:
The Future by Us
I’ve been asked here today to speak on behalf of the authors of The Future by Us, to talk a little about my chapter which focuses on the media, and to perhaps give some insights into how young people might better engage with the media and in turn, with democracy.
The Future by Us is quite simply a blueprint for the vision of
The Future by Us was the brain-child of former Young Australian of the Year and well-known philanthropist Hugh Evans and former Young Victorian of the Year Tom O’Connor. The book was conceptualised following Hugh’s role as the co-chair of the Youth 2020
At the very least, this book should give
Now, before I go on, I have a confession to make. Not so many years ago … I worked as … a gossip writer. Yep, a real live gossip-mongering, martini-sipping, party-going, celebrity magnet … or more to the point, tragic celebrity voyeur. Let me be clear. This is not something I am proud of! I would be living it up on the French Alps right now, if I had a dollar for every time someone told me back then that my job was the "dream job". The funny thing was, all this celebrity obsession and adoration was completely lost on me. I hated that job. I fell into it like other people fall into a Tuesday night dinner date they really can’t be bothered going to. But there was one plus-side to the "dream job". It gave me plenty of time to observe human nature’s obsession with celebrity. And the longer this went on, the more concerned I became at what I can only describe as the dumbing-down of our collective knowledge.
I know that probably sounds alarmist, but I honestly think that whether we choose to face it or not, celebrity-centric, tabloid and sensationalist news media is defining our age. Our young people are drowning in a deluge of what I call fast food media. Whether it’s through reality television, your daily newspaper, prime-time current affairs programs, the internet, pay-TV, radio, or magazines, there is no shortage of this cultural effluent. I define fast food media as a sycophantic worship of all things celebrity, a devastating lack of substance, soft on real issues, heavy on pop culture, but always with a sexual leaning, a desire by the creators to push new and bigger buttons of the collective spirit. Fast food media is about the here and now, filling the mind with vacuous, disposable fodder. It appeals to our Western hedonistic nature. It fuels gossip and our own insecurities. It’s about what’s new, what’s hip. Combine it all together and you’ve got an instruction manual on how to be cool in the modern world. The only problem is, while you’re busy cramming into your head all that useless information, you’re running out of space and time to engage in valuable information; information that might do you, the country or the world some good.
So herein lies the core of my argument. If we continue down this path, where
So, if our aim is to make sure we can enjoy such a healthy and helpful media, we have to ask the question, are we well on the road to this destination? I think on balance, the answer is yes. I think we do have a media that functions on par with most others in democratic nations, and certainly much better than many parts of the world. But that doesn’t mean we’re not faced with real and serious threats. In fact, the Australian media is currently facing unprecedented pressures. We’re up against some of the world’s strictest defamation, contempt, vilification, privacy, and anti-terrorism laws. You may be surprised to learn that there is no explicit constitutional right to freedom of speech in this country and that
For me, it illustrated just how sophisticated spin has become. I’m not in a position to make any comment on the accuracy or truthfulness of any of the claims made, but it was a good example of the spin doctor’s agenda. It goes something like this; behind closed doors, and with the help of your large team of ‘’communication’’ advisers, concoct a message that suits your position, it helps if the message is clear and simple but really has no substantial meaning, then enter the interview arena and pig-headedly refuse to deviate from your message, no matter what questions you’re asked. Just recite over and over again, the message you’ve been instructed to deliver. If you repeat yourself more than three times, well, it’s a job well-done. As you can imagine, this technique is incredibly frustrating for journalists and in my opinion, does very little to aid the democratic process.
And it’s not just in Parliament House where we see such sneakiness. A good friend of mine and journalist for The Australian Milanda Rout recently experienced spin in the court room, of all places. She was there reporting on the case of pharmaceutical giant Merck and Co who have been accused of knowing their anti-arthritis drug Vioxx increased the risk of heart attacks long before it voluntarily withdrew the drug from the market. The strange thing about this case was that Merck & Co hired a crisis management team, ie spin doctors, to sit in court every day, and ‘’manage’’ the reporting of this case. The public relations team followed journalists around, continually called them, accused them of ‘’cherry-picking’’ evidence, and even handed out press releases with their interpretation of the facts heard in court. This is, quite simply, outrageous behaviour. In my opinion, this is clear example of a company attempting to manipulate matters heard in court. And the most interesting thing about it all was that once Milanda exposed this behaviour in a newspaper article, the harassment magically stopped… overnight … just like that. I guess they decided the technique didn’t really achieve what they had hoped for … which ironically, was to get good press.
Moving on to technology now … and there’s been a lot made of the "democratisation of the media". In other words, a media dominated by citizen journalism. Technology is now allowing anyone with access to a computer the opportunity to play journalist for a day, and there’s been a lot of hype made of the benefits of such a system. Of course, in theory I agree. The recent events in
In recent days, I’ve even read comments from analysts suggesting
Citizen journalism does have its downfalls though, and these are not easily ignored. The question often remains; how much of what I’m seeing or reading online can be trusted? An Irish student made this point rather comprehensively earlier this year. In an effort to prove that journalists rely too heavily on the internet, he posted a phoney quote from a recently-deceased French composer on Wikipedia. Within days, the quote had appeared in newspaper obituaries right around the world. Even the prestigious Guardian fell for the stunt. The information was then copied into dozens of blogs and websites. In essence, this kid re-created history in one fell swoop, and he would have probably got away with it had he not owned up to the hoax a few weeks later. An interesting experiment but probably not one we should all be trying at home.
Finally, before I go, I’d like to just say that I hope every one of us here today recognizes the power we hold in this thing we call the media. We can blame the media all we want, but ultimately, we as consumers hold the power to dictate what we want to see, hear and read. We create the demand for vacuous celebrity fodder, or … we create the demand for reliable, informative news.
The most important thing to remember is: without knowledge, we are vulnerable to a minority group of well-informed minds who stand to gain a great deal from our ignorance. Democracy is more than just turning up to vote every three years.