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 »


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?

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Public television for $1 a day

April 3, 2009
The Babbage Difference Engine - similar to the one at my place

The Babbage Difference Engine - similar to the one at my place

Earlier this week my Unitec colleague Peter Thompson had a very thoughtful response to National’s canning of the TVNZ Charter published on Scoop.

If you haven’t seen it yet, I can recommend it as a good read. Peter makes a very interesting point, New Zealand can afford a decent public service television broadcaster and it would cost around $1 a day per household. I have run his maths through the old EM Difference Engine and, By Jove, I think he’s right.

This good news deserves to get a lot more coverage than it has. It should have been the headline statement in Peter’s piece. So I’m bringing it too you again.

This is a debate we need to have, but the National governmet is so keen on its ludicrous 100 day plan to make Ms Laura Norder the sultry star of its first (and last) term of office that there’s no time for intellectual quibbles or a proper public discussion.

My AUT University colleague, Alan Cocker, also makes some good points in a piece published a couple of days ago in the NZ Herald.

I also want to draw your attention to some correspondence I got a few days ago from Radio New Zealand’s Comms Manger (a threatened species these days) about how we often leave public service radio off our radar in these debates.

As John pointed out to me, progammes like Morning Report and Checkpoint do a good job of irritating everyone and for many Kiwis they are a daily fix. More anon…

But first to our headline: Would you be wiling to pay $1 a day for a quality public broadcasting television service?

Read the rest of this entry »