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The Future by Us

By Margo Kingston
Created 17/07/2009 - 12:55

Margo Kingston [0] writes:

Here is the speech by journalist Chloe Adams, delivered last Saturday in Canberra to a literary event called Words Change Worlds [1] at which I spoke as an 'historical figure' on online journalism. How inspiring!

The Future by Us
by Chloe Adams

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 Australia’s young people in 2009. A book written by young people, for young people, but hopefully also for the elders of our community, so the dreams and ideologies of Australia’s youth might have a voice. May I just say at this point, that at the age of 31, the irony of still being referred to as a young person is certainly not lost on me! But I can assure you, most of my co-authors are much younger and far sprightlier than I am.

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 Summit, which was held here in Canberra last year. The idea was, for each of the authors to create a vision for our country in the years post-2020, and while I may be a little biased, I must say I think there are some really interesting ideas and issues raised in the book.

At the very least, this book should give Australia hope that there are young people out there who are engaged in the world around them, and who care about the future of this nation. Of course, that should come as no great surprise, but unfortunately, some stereotypes stick.

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 Australia’s youth engage too heavily in fast food media and not enough in real news, we will be doing democracy in this country a huge disservice. Democracy depends on knowledgeable citizens. It depends on transparency of government and business, and it depends on a well-functioning media that offers every person, not just the elite, an opportunity to access accurate and unbiased information of substance.

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 Australia currently ranks 28 on the Press Freedom Index. We trail behind New Zealand and the UK, and even Latvia, Estonia and Costa Rica. Technology and its ever-evolving nature poses yet more threats. … but I’ll return to that in a moment. There is also the matter of resources and financial security for newspapers and to a lesser extent, the broadcast media… And in addition to all of this, there is another threat that I believe is probably the most sinister of all. And that is the matter of spin doctoring. In the ten years I’ve been working in the industry, I’ve seen a dramatic shift in this area. As newsrooms shrink and editors struggle with smaller and smaller budgets, the opposite is taking place in the corridors of power. The public relations sector is mushrooming at an extraordinary rate. Imbedded in governments and corporations across the country, these spin doctors are highly trained, well-paid and come fully armed with the best new weapons and `weasel words’ to ensure they keep sensitive information out of the public spotlight. The recent Utegate Affair raised a few interesting issues on this topic. The Prime Minister has called for a public debate on journalistic ethics, and in particular the handling of the story by News Limited papers. But I think what I found more interesting throughout that affair, was watching our political figures perform on radio and television.

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 Iran have highlighted just how important citizen journalism is becoming, especially in countries where the government still controls the news media with an iron fist. When foreign journalists were being removed from Iran, the world was still able to witness the violent events unfolding, and that was largely thanks to citizen journalists posting mobile phone footage on the web. At times, the vision coming out of Iran has been incredibly graphic, particularly the footage of a young Iranian woman dying on the pavement after being shot dead by the military. I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch that YouTube clip, but I don’t think you need to see it, to understand the powerful impact it’s had on a global scale.

In recent days, I’ve even read comments from analysts suggesting Iran will be seen in history as a watershed moment for citizen journalism, not least because much of that vision made such an immediate jump into the mainstream media, like on CNN and the BBC.

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.

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