On Disruption: An insider’s view of the collapse of journalism

July 19, 2018

Can journalism and the news industry survive the perfect storm of digital disruption? Dr Martin Hirst reviews Katharine Murphy’s essay On Disruption.

Katharine Murphy’s brief essay On Disruption lays out for the reader a useful insider’s view of how the news industry and journalism are struggling to cope with the changes wrought by digital technologies and collapsing business models.

If you have any interest in understanding how the news establishment sees itself, and its prospects for surviving the crisis of profitability and trust, it is worth reading this pamphlet.

At only 120 pages, it would be unfair to expect Katharine Murphy to provide fully-articulated solutions to the almost panic-inducing problems confronting the mainstream media. Having said that, On Disruption is an insight into how establishment journalists see themselves, their mission and the state of their industry.

The key theme that Murphy explores is that the internet and social media instituted a period of disruption that has unsettled the news media and left it in a state of uncertainty that persists today.

This is true enough, but my criticism stems from the technological determinism that frames her view:

‘… the boss has decreed this is the future, not because he or she necessarily wants it to be, but because it is the future, and we are powerless to argue with it.’

This is a classic trope of technological determinism: the belief that technological change is the root cause of everything. In this case, it is the pessimistic, and ultimately passive, view that the future is somehow pre-ordained by the technology and that we are “powerless” to shape the future for ourselves.

Inevitably, Murphy argues, journalists must adapt to the new ways, rather than challenge them. The second telling point about the quote I’ve used here is the reference to “the boss”. This metaphorical figure is present in a long anecdotal metaphor that Murphy uses to explain how disruption has affected the news industry.

The analogy involves substituting the car industry for journalism. In the analogy, the reader is asked to imagine themselves as a worker in a car factory that is confronting technological change. Okay, it’s only a metaphor, so perhaps not be taken literally, but it is a key section of the first half of Murphy’s argument, so it is worth deconstructing.

Murphy begins by suggesting that the car analogy is ‘possibly psychic penance on my part’ for her previous work on ‘structural adjustment’, which emphasised ‘disruption as an economic homily’ while ignoring ‘the human dimension of the story’. As Murphy acknowledges, when there is personal interest involved, the human dimension suddenly becomes very real.

The take-away from this is that the structural adjustment process now being applied to journalism is a necessary corrective brought about by digital disruption. Read the rest of this entry »

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The democracy deficit: It’s an economic problem too

June 29, 2018

WE LIVE IN a democracy, right?

It just seems like common sense, something so secure and simple it’s hardly worth thinking about, right?

But what if I told you that what we have is not a democracy?

Would you be outraged? Would you think I’m some sort of unhinged leftie? Or would you be prepared to at least consider my arguments?

I’ll assume the latter, because you’re still reading. Aren’t you?

My argument, in a nutshell, is that despite the formal features of our political system matching most aspects of the dictionary definition, any sense of real democratic practice is an illusion. This is because our apparently democratic institutions are functionally designed to give power to money, not people.

Let’s start with an example from last week.

We will, or we will not, sell the ABC

I don’t know about you, but I was not at all surprised when the Liberal Party’s Federal Council voted overwhelmingly to sell-off the embattled national broadcaster at its annual conference on the weekend of 16-17 June.

The Liberal Party apparatus has been captured by conservative forces inspired by the Institute of Public Affairs and loyal to factions led by Tony Abbott in NSW, Peter Dutton in Queensland and Eric Abetz in Tasmania.

We can only expect this rightward drift to continue into the future, too. Moderates were roundly defeated in votes for the incoming executive and the Young Liberals grouping engineered the vote. The overlap between wealthy student apparatchiks and the besuited, bespectacled cadre of the IPA is very evident in the ranks of the Young Libs.

No delegates spoke against the sell motion, not even the several ministers who were present.

So, we can assume from this that the Liberal Party rank-and-file are committed to privatising the ABC and probably SBS as well.

Okay, we might disagree with this policy position (here at IA we certainly do), but in a democracy, the people have spoken.

In this case, the people are members of the Liberal Party — they elect a leadership, set policy and pre-select party candidates to stand in elections.

Yep, all totally democratic — except for the fact that the parliamentary grouping of the Liberals have said they will ignore the party’s rank-and-file.

The parliamentary wing of the Liberal Party has apparently been wedged by the conservative wing of the party. In the days after the Federal Council, senior Liberal ministers, from the PM down, were publicly vocal in claiming the Government has no plans to privatise the ABC.

What?

That’s right, the Liberal Party representatives in Parliament – those whose positions on the comfy leather benches depends on the party rank-and-file – have no intention of carrying out party policy as set by the Liberals’ highest decision-making body.

Well, that’s one interpretation if the loud protestations of “never, never” from Turnbull cabinet are to be believed.

But are they to be believed?

I think we have earned the right to be cynical and wary when it comes to the COALition and honouring commitments.

It’s no secret that this Government hates the ABC and would love to see it sold off. The Minister for Communication, Senator Fifield, has demonstrated his loathing of the national broadcaster in a series of vexatious, but nevertheless damaging, complaints. The Government stripped out over $100 million in funding to the ABC in the 2018 Budget, forcing cuts in news and other divisions. The appointment of former Murdoch executive Michelle Guthrie as managing director is also widely seen as a Trojan horse for dismantling the ABC.

None of us should be surprised if the Dutton/Turnbull Government moves to chop up the ABC if it wins the next Federal election.

The take out from this is that either way, democratic processes – both inside and outside of party structures – are a sham, a veil of decency to give a shred of respect to an otherwise broken, decrepit and corrupt system.

And, just so you don’t think I’m being one-eyed about this, the ALP deserves some criticism in this area, too.

In May this year, the so-called “left” unions (a block of bureaucrats and careerists) procedurally shut down the Victorian conference of the ALP so that a motion on ending offshore detention of refugees could not be debated. But it’s actually worse than that: motions on several key issues were blocked by the suspension of business.

On Sunday the industrial left teamed up with the Labor right to close the Victorian state conference, shutting down urgency motions on live exports, gender inequality in superannuation, closure of offshore detention centres, the right to strike, the rate of Newstart and recognition of Palestine.

The same grouping also combined to vote against senators being preselected by an equal vote of rank-and-file members and affiliated union delegates to state conference.

How is this different in principle to the Liberal leadership ignoring the wishes of the rank-and-file over privatising the ABC?

Read the rest of this entry »


Nasty, brutish and short: Thomas Hobbes and the Coalition’s politics of exclusion

June 3, 2018

Political editor Dr Martin Hirst has been musing on recent political news while re-reading Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. His outlook is bleak.

First published on Independent Australia 2 June 2018.

I’m doing a course at my local TAFE this year; it’s a mixed group. I’m one of three oldies (I’d describe myself as a late baby boomer). Apart from a couple of students in their mid 20s, the rest of the group are all in their late teens. We had a discussion this week about what constitutes the zeitgeist — the “spirit of the Age”.

Some of the responses from the millennials in the class got me thinking. In part, I reflected on what I was like when I was 18; I also began to think about Thomas Hobbes and those famous lines from Leviathan about war of “all against all” and the bleak lives – “nasty brutish and short” – that some of us are forced to live.

I was reminded of these passages – from Chapter XIII, ‘Of the natural condition of mankind’ – by some of the fears and concerns expressed by millennial classmates.

For them, the overwhelming zeitgeist is fear. They are scared about the future that is facing them. More importantly, perhaps, they feel powerless to do anything about it.

They talked about how difficult it is for them to find work — even the precarious work of casual shifts in the hospitality or retail industries. They talked about feeling like they’d never be able to afford to buy a house, and their fear of global warming and the damage that we’re doing to the planet.

But most of all, they felt like they could do nothing about the problems confronting them.

I thought about it for a few days afterwards. Something was niggling me. I finally figured it out. For many millennials, it feels like they are being deliberately excluded from society and from decision-making.

Then it hit me: our whole political culture is built on exclusion and fear.

It is actually blindingly obvious.

Australia is a nation built on exclusion

Read the rest of this entry »


Trumble, mumble, stumble crumble: #MarriageEquality plebiscite fiasco

August 10, 2017

The strategy of the marriage equality opponents in the Coalition is to retain the conservative status quo at all costs, says Dr Martin Hirst.

THE OPPONENTS of marriage equality came a step closer to blocking the popular move yesterday when Liberal Party MPs decided by an overwhelming majority to stick to a policy of deflecting, pretending and ignoring good sense and common sense.

Good sense should have informed them that bringing the matter forward for a free conscience vote in both houses of Parliament is what the vast majority of Australians want them to do.

Common sense should have told them that sticking to the time-wasting and false “promise” of an expensive, but non-binding plebiscite on the issue would make Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull look weak, embolden his conservative opponents in the party and proven – once again – that the Liberals are a party of reaction, blocking and bigotry, not the hopeful, social progressives Malcolm desperately wants his dwindling band of supporters to believe in.

The position adopted 28 to 7 in the Liberals’ party room was to put the non-binding plebiscite position to the Senate again with the Plan B option being an even less legitimate non-compulsory and non-binding postal vote.

This strategy seems like a rotten compromise. It is. It represents Malcolm the Appeaser at his unprincipled worst. It is a terrible plan that has the fulsome support of all the opponents of same sex union. They are the real winners; everyone else, including Turnbull, is a loser.

Just take a moment to really think through what the Liberals endorsed last night:

  • Plan A represents an idea to the Senate that it has already rejected as unworkable, unnecessary and stupid, and which the ALP, the Greens and enough cross-benchers to sink it have already said they will block.
  • Plan B is to threaten a really awful Plan B – the postal vote – in an attempt to force reluctant senators to back Plan A ‘or else’.

It’s like holding a gun to your own head during a bank robbery while high on crack cocaine and threatening to shoot the puppy unless the bank-teller gives you all the five-cent pieces. And the bank-teller be like Mate, here’s all the rolls of zacs I’ve got. It comes to seven dollars, go buy an ice cream.

Read the rest of this story at Independent Australia


I’m back in the Press Gallery – Now what?

April 25, 2017

Political editor Dr Martin Hirst talks about being back in the Press Gallery on behalf of IA.

We’ve done it. IA has gained a place in the Canberra Press Gallery. After months of work, putting together our submission, seeking endorsements from IA subscribers and current members of the Gallery, and preparing a portfolio of my work to be scrutinised by the committee.

In the four days our GoFundMe campaign has been live we’ve already reached 75 per cent of our initial goal of $10,000.

Thanks very much to everyone who’s donated so far and to all of you who will donate. With just a little more help, it looks like we will be in Canberra for the Budget session in May.

Originally published on Independent Australia as Rejoining the Press Gallery

From application to attending

Getting back into the game was a labour of love for me. I was curious about my chances of getting back into the Press Gallery after such a long absence and on behalf of an upstart media outfit that makes friends and enemies quickly and in almost equal measure. (I’m sure we have more friends than enemies, judging your generosity so far.)

So now I’m pleased, but also apprehensive. If you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear from you.

I was only a bit confident about the outcome at first. I knew our application was pretty good and that it ticked all the Gallery’s required boxes, but that was no guarantee they’d accept it.

We applied under the rules for ‘Freelancers, Bloggers and New Organisations’, which required us to get endorsements from existing members of the Gallery. And I’d like to thank the Gallery members who endorsed our application.

I don’t know, but our path may have been made a little easier by the fact that I have previously held Gallery accreditation. I worked as a correspondent for SBS for nearly three years from 1990 to 1993, so I had experience and some credibility perhaps.

Anyway, we’re in.

I was in Canberra on the 28th and 29th of March to collect my yellow pass from the Security Pass Office and took the opportunity to escort managing editor Dave Donovan and Sydney bureau chief Ross Jones around the building.

It was quite a nostalgic trip for me and it took me all afternoon to familiarise myself with all the routes around the non-public parts of Parliament House.

It reminded me that one of the missions we have in being in the Gallery is to show you what’s behind the curtain.

A lot of the important centres of power in Canberra are hidden in plain sight. The non-public parts of the Parliament building, like George Brandis’ diaries, hold a lot of secrets that they are unwilling to share with the public.

Unfortunately, IA’s presence in the Gallery is upsetting for some NewsCorpse scribblers. I’m not going to link to their spiteful drivel and the only comment I’ve got is “Suck it up children.”

Read the rest of this entry »


Breaking a bad law is an act of conscience, not a crime

March 22, 2017

Show me an unjust law and I’ll happily break it

What precious snowflakes Australian political journalists are. Bernard Keane has written an excellent piece in Crikey about the hypocrisy of reporters “tut tutting” the new ACTU (and first female) secretary, Sally McManus, for suggesting that breaking an unjust law was something she – and the trade union movement – would be prepared to do.

Keane points out that reporters who regularly publish stories from leaked documents are breaking the law. He skewered Turnbull and the Liberals by pointing out that the whole of the NSW branch of the party contravened political donation laws and he noted that employers (bosses) regularly flout the tax laws, the employment law and occupational health and safety regulations in pursuit of profit.

Read the rest of this entry »


Where’s #FreeSpeech Bill when we need him?

February 13, 2017

The Australian’s highly-phobic cartoonist Bill Leak usually has plenty to say about freedom of speech and freedom of expression. He’s always in the frontline and mounting the Holt Street barricades whenever there’s a call to arms over some egregious complaint against his master’s voice.

You can’t silence Bleak when there’s gay Nazis to be mown down, or when a politically-correct snowflake “victim” demands equal rights, or a Muslim family claims institutional racism.

“Certainly a BLeak view”. Screenshot and artwork by @ethicalmartini

Therefore, I find it strange that he’s been eerily silent recently about the plight of fellow cartoonists who are feeling the sting of an unjust law.

The Cartoonist Rights Network International (@CRNetint on Twitter) is currently featuring three incarcerated cartoonists on its homepage:

Zunar (Image courtesy of CRNI)

(1) Zunar, a Malaysian cartoonist currently challenging state-sponsored censorship on multiple fronts. He is subject to a travel ban, is facing multiple charges of sedition, and suffers continual harassment by police and supporters of the government.

Drawing of Musa Kart from an exhibition in his honour (Used with permission)

(2) Turkish political cartoonist and Courage in Editorial Cartoon Award winner Musa Kart, who has spent over 100 days in custody after he and several colleagues from Cumhuriyet newspaper were arrested and charged with ‘crimes on behalf of the Fethullahist Terror Organisation and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)‘.

(3) The winner of the 2016 Courage in Editorial Cartooning Award Eaten Fish, who is currently held in an Australian refugee rendition camp in Papua New Guinea and who has been on a hunger strike for over 10 days.

Cartoon by Glen Le Lievre in support of Eaten Fish (Used with permission of artist)

Dave Pope is one of many international cartoonists who has drawn a powerful cartoon in support of Musa Kart as part of the CRNI’s campaign to have all three cartoonists released.

(Cartoon used with the permission of artist, David Pope)

Mr Eaten Fish is dying on Manus Island

The dire situation of Eaten Fish is yet another Manus Island horror story.

Eaten is close to death. He has been on a hunger strike because the authorities on Manus Island (which is part of Papua New Guinea) refuse to deal with his serious allegations of sexual and physical assault. He weighs only 48 kilos. The guards have told him he is to be returned to the compound where he is unsafe.

Read the rest of this entry »