Thursday, September 02, 2010

Time to ditch the ABC?

Follow the debate here.

And now, here.

Below the fold ABC boss Mark Scott (unintentionally) responds in a typically excellent address delivered in Melbourne Thursday night:

The Quest for Truth: Quality Journalism and a 21st Century ABC

The 2010 election campaign was the journalistic gift that just keeps on giving.

I had intended to draft these remarks once the result was known. But remembering that I was speaking at the Melbourne Writers' Festival rather than Improv Night at the Comedy Festival, I couldn't wait for the white smoke.

This election has changed how we think of „politics as usual‟ in this country. It has also triggered significant debate about the practice of political reporting.

And I can‟t let the opportunity of this speech go by without wading into these murky waters.

So let me make some muddied observations about the campaign and how it was handled by the fourth estate and then make some tentative suggestions about implications for the media and the nature of news coverage.

Then - following the proud traditions of these events - it will be time for questions, where you can tear into me. The toughest Senate Estimates sessions are merely training for encounters like this.

I want to break with the curmudgeons who talked about a boring election campaign, saved only by a thrilling election night and the epic drama that followed.

The long-standing, predictable narrative train of the election, pre-destined when the Government soared twenty points ahead in the polls, was derailed in the dead of a Canberra winter‟s night.

Now, for the first time since 1993, we had two new leaders in the top jobs fighting their first election. The most inexperienced Prime Minister to ever face an election. A dangerously honest Opposition Leader with – to use Annabel Crabb‟s memorable phrase – a truth parrot squawking on his shoulder. Polls in flux, strategies in disarray. An electorate polarised, idiosyncratic, unpredictable.

And important matters in play: the economy, the environment, national infrastructure. A nation at war.

Rare ingredients for journalists and journalism. A remarkable opportunity to use old tools and new tools to bring the story to the Australian people.

A few days into the campaign, the ABC launched its long-awaited 24-hour news channel. While Sky had been on air for 15 years and has increasingly focused on live events and reporting from Canberra, with ABC News 24 we created a news channel that was an option for all Australian homes, not just the 30% with pay-TV.

The mixed model of public and commercial news services has served Australia well for over sixty years – and will serve us well in the age of 24 hour news as well. Competition, despite the protestations of the monopolists, has been to the advantage of both audiences and practitioners. Sky, for example, greeted our arrival by winning more money from its owners and putting that to good use. They had a strong campaign - as did ABC News 24.

Modern campaigns are a political version of The Truman Show. Keep the channel on and you know what I mean.

He's on a bike. She's on a train. He's running with kids. She's eating a cake. He‟s making a speech.

She's holding a doorstop. He‟s looking cranky. She‟s looking tired. Where is he now? Why‟s she wearing that hat? She drinks Guinness. He drinks shandies!

If he had done it in week 2 rather than on the final day, Abbott‟s liking for a shandy made with light beer could have killed him in those Western Sydney marginals.

Campaigns always had these features. But now everyone can see it. Outsiders became insiders. And now we have the truncated news cycle: which advances stories and then responses and then generates further iterations throughout the day, rather than simply setting up the evening news and tomorrow‟s papers.

It exacerbates the phenomenon. The politicians always seem on. And we see now what only the journos once saw: the politicians are scripted – they say the same things over and over again. Less variation in response means fewer choices for journalists to report on something you don‟t want.

The old maxims taught to politicians apply more than ever:

“Just when you are sick of saying it, people are beginning to hear it for the first time”.

“Don‟t answer the question they ask, answer the question you wanted them to ask."

"Don't change the argument, change the audience."
And the journalists are shunted and controlled and frustrated and increasingly sick and tired.

It might be more controlled, there might be more events, things might be more closely scripted – but this is modern campaigning. It is just that we can all see it now, live, around the clock.

Every press conference, every speech, every photo op, and in the background, every nodding local candidate.

It may be refined, but it is not new. There have long been books written about this stuff: pioneered by Teddy White with The Making of the President 1960. But now we can all see how political campaigning is done – and like seeing the law or sausages being made - it‟s not always an edifying experience.

But it is important. The scrutiny, the performance under pressure, the way questions are answered and avoided, unexpected events are dealt with, managing the tiredness, the frustration, the disappointments – this is part of the political crucible our leaders must endure. Attention must be paid to this. There needs to be a bus, journalists need to be on it. Asking questions, waiting for the unexpected, watching it all and reporting back.

This was, after all, one of the great achievements of Tony Abbott in the campaign. The most mercurial of performers, disastrous in 2007, prone to erratic bursts, turning in such a disciplined performance.

After a shaky start, he reminded me of a marathon runner, clocking 5 minute miles, mile after mile. That consistency allowed people the opportunity to rethink him and what he might offer. Just as the lack of consistency from the Prime Minister, the articulated shift from the programmed to the real, caused people to rethink their view of her also.

Another great political classic of the past was The Boys on the Bus by Timothy Crouse – about the journalists covering the 1972 Presidential campaign.

Well now we know all about the 2010 bus. Journalists tweeting their frustrations, snap commentaries, collective fury. Live crosses back and forth – to the news channels, to local radio. The journalists add to the colour of the campaign.

Off the bus, senior journalists sit back, read, watch, review, dig and come to judgement. The field of reference is so limited on the bus it is hard to see the broader field - so many of the big guns simply don‟t climb on board.

What was significant here was how senior journalists would break stories – good old fashioned scoops – that would set another agenda for reporters to follow up on the bus – a different one from the one prepared by the parties for their daily policy announcement.

Chris Uhlmann on the young political staffer sitting in on top level defence meetings. Lenore Taylor and her scoop on Treasury‟s costings of the Coalition‟s proposals. Laurie Oakes on the Prime Minister‟s reluctance to embrace parental leave. Phillip Adams, at ten o‟clock at night on Radio National, getting the former Prime Minister to break his silence. Stories that dominated every press conference for days after – reporters on the road following up the lead that every editor wanted to advance.

And while there has been some discussion over whether there was an over fixation on these issues, I would simply argue that at any time, in any campaign, they are great scoops – delivered the way any great journalist delivers a scoop: authoritatively, mysteriously. A reflection of experience, credibility and contacts cultivated for just this moment.

I will come back to policy discussion shortly, but I want to add that this campaign did feature great, substantive journalism, and genuine investigative energy. Full hours of radio devoted on RN‟s Background Briefing, presciently, to the crisis in rural Australia and the national broadband network. A stunning undercover investigative piece on Four Corners about people-smuggling and then again, a compelling case study on mental health issues based in a regional city.

The detailed stuff was there, where we always had found it in the past – particularly in long-form news and current affairs. And it is not as though policies were not debated – there were numerous occasions – at the Press Club and elsewhere – where Ministers and their shadows, senior campaign spokespeople or candidates had the opportunity to engage around policy differences.

And as has been the case for nearly 15 years now, any candidate who seeks the top office had to endure cross-examination by Kerry O‟Brien. This time, three interviews each – moments when the whole campaign seemed to come to a halt while the questions were placed and answered. And then afterwards – an assessment of the impact.

This campaign offered a depth and richness through online coverage that was never before available.

Certainly at the ABC. We‟ve never had the chance to offer as many different perspectives, as many different policy and political insights, as we were able to through our website, The Drum.

One of the joys of online is that you have space. Space to run details on every candidate in every seat on Antony Green‟s election pages. Pendulums and calculators and demographic analysis. Detailed policy briefings. Press conferences available in full. Debates. Archival material. All there for anyone who is interested, anyone who wants it.

I remember being delighted when Annabel Crabb wrote a story for The Drum trying to explain what it is like following these candidates. A storm erupted about the behaviour of the journalistic pack, now visible for all to see. She wrote a piece, and in it, noted her surprised realisation that she has already passed the 2,500 word mark. Virtually an impossibility in print for a weekday turnaround piece.

More words than half a 30 minute news bulletin. But the space is there online to tell the story properly.

I do think one of the achievements of this campaign was the deconstruction of the political process for all to see. Look at Gruen Nation. Remarkable audiences, being educated about the dark arts of political communication, the construction of crafted messages, the execution of the smear, the dog whistle, the earworm jingle. We laughed and we learned and – by the last week of the campaign when the advertising barrage was remorseless – we were all wiser.

But interestingly, I think all these features, culminating in the most comprehensive and exhaustive campaign coverage ever – do not capture its single most salient aspect – the voices of the public being heard more than ever before.

The first example is through blogs and the Twitter traffic. Half way through the campaign, the ABC Executive met on a Monday morning and discussed the weekend blog by the Canberra public servant, writing under the tag Grog‟s Gamut. It was a lacerating critique of the journalists following the candidates, their obsession with transient matters, the political scandal of the day. He met a chorus of praise and support, triggering a barrage of criticism of campaign coverage.

I think there is quite a bit of beard-stroking on this issue. There will be big political stories and they often have important implications – like how united or divided a party is – or how seriously they treat matters of national security. Leaders must be questioned on these issues.

And often it is hard to ask nuanced questions about a policy that is only delivered in press release form to your hands at the beginning of the press conference, if at all. In fact, often the leaders only want you to ask questions on their policy of the day, on their terms, without allowing you to dig – avoiding the news stories and deflecting other issues for another occasion.

You need both of course. The journalists on the bus firing questions, the team back doing the digging, taking paths away from the mainstream. So that we don't just get more and more about less and less.

One of the questions of this campaign is whether we took advantage of the increased capacity to create and deliver content using digital media to provide the breadth and depth of coverage that was possible. And if we did - whether we really helped interested voters to find it.

There has been some criticism of journalists treating the election as a horse race and treating every poll, every press conference, every wrinkle on a story as a chance to slash odds, fine-tune predictions and call the result.

It reminds me of when, as a newspaper excutive, I met The Sydney Morning Herald's famed rugby analyst, Sprio Zavos, outside the final of the 2003 World Cup. "Who is going to win?," I asked him. "I don't know Mark," he replied. "That's why they're playing the game."

We don't want only horse race journalism. But the result matters. As does the path that was taken to get there. Polls may only be a snapshot in time - a theoretical moment on the way to a real outcome. But polls and campaign ups and downs do have an impact: tactics change, new policies emerge and old ones are dead, buried, cremated because of polls. Polls cost a Prime Minister his job this year.

And the race isn't only held on election day - it is held day in, day out, through the campaign and in the lead up to voting and counting. Like the Tour De France, the final sprint into Paris is not where the race is usually won. It is a multi-week epic, slogging through the hills in the middle stages, going day after day.

And the person who emerges from those mountains, wearing the yellow jersey towards the end, usually takes the prize.
The parallel might break down if you tried to compare the views you have across the French countryside to those within the Rooty Hill RSL, but you get my point.

At the ABC, we identified that the dynamic political news was crowding out proper reporting of policy initiatives in some news bulletins – and that we needed to allocate more time to reporting some of these issues properly. We adjusted our strategy as we listened to critics, our audiences - and critiqued our own coverage. Politics and policy are not binary choices. We need to do both.

The contributions of bloggers – the constant feedback and commentary of thousands though the #ausvotes stream on Twitter – were watched and considered by every mainstream media editor. And we could see – the impact made by some bloggers was every bit as great as that made by other mainstream professional journalists.

And through Twitter, the „people formerly known as the audience‟ - to use Jay Rosen‟s phrase - could become real participants. Firing in questions, challenging journalists, finding facts and delivering them to those on the road. Part of the conversation, not simply observers. As Grog's Gamut wrote last week for The Drum:

"Twitter and the mass of amateur blogs contain many smart people who for some bizarre reason enjoy writing about policy....the media should not scorn these people, they should feed off them for ideas and research (properly acknowledged of course)."

The blogosphere is no place for the faint-hearted. You know that by reading comments on stories – and they are the ones that got through the moderation process. There is no filter on Twitter. And I expect there will now always be savagery in the criticism of much mainstream media performance, just as most weeks there is robust criticism of the professionals who run out onto sporting fields or those who get elected to office.

What is important, though, is to find the signal through the noise. There was some significance in the signal that could be heard from those writing and commentating on campaign coverage over the five weeks.

And of course, we had clearly demonstrated in the campaign that the people formerly known as the audience knew how to ask pretty good questions. Questions that were funny, full of emotion, questions fuelled by rage or fear, uncertainty or contempt.

The audiences flocked to Q&A to see the leaders questioned by real people. The crowds at Rooty Hill and the Broncos showed to many in the media cocoon precisely the issues that drove people to make the decisions they made in the polling booth.

And by getting out to find the voter‟s voice, through a range of people, we got a sense of what was really going on. I thought the work of the AM team, criss-crossing the country, talking to people in their homes and at work – helped us all to understand the country a little better.

Much of AM's time was spent in regional areas. During the campaign, the program addressed issues the whole country was soon to hear much more of, once the empowered Independent Members of Parliament strode in from the bush and grabbed the nation‟s attention.

It was quite a campaign.

Some of the criticism I understand. We would all have liked more detailed policy engagement by the candidates. Have them a little less scripted, offering more unguarded moments of honest engagement around complex, substantive issues. Some issues were under reported. Some important questions were not asked, some were not answered.

I am not going to defend every interview or press conference. But having come from print into broadcasting can I just say there is nothing tougher than a live interview: no second takes, no re-writes, no sub-editors, no time for reflection or collaborative discussion – just the moment and what you can make of it, given what is being presented to you from across the table.

You can only deal with what you have – and there were two main candidates marching to a plan, trying not to be deflected from it. We still need to do better in reporting the campaign and the politics, while not simply dancing to a tune set by party strategists and the pressing story of the moment.

But I do think it was a great campaign, with an amazing result.

What does all this mean for journalism and our quest for truth? And are there implications for the ABC?

A challenge for media organisations is to think about what is compelling in this era of global content, of endless archives and long tails, of generic content and time shifting and the breakdown of appointment viewing.

In this era - live matters. Events matter. Sport. The final of Masterchef. News.

In this election, audiences were huge. On ABC News 24 they were immediately much larger than we expected. Enormous numbers for Gruen and Chaser, for 7pm News and in 7.30 Reportland. Over 35,000 tweets in an hour for Q&A. It was a compelling media product - and that is good news for journalism. When the story matters, the news counts.

Now there are challenges with that - how do you cut through? How do you stand out? Enter Mark Latham.

I look at Nine with amazement. A reported $10,000 for Latham, a million dollars publicity, reasonable ratings – and - Laurie Oakes enhances his reputation by attacking it all as a farce.

That's showbiz.

What isn't so good is how everyone else gave the stunt so much oxygen. The Taylor, Oakes and Uhlmann leaks were real news, Latham was the ultimate pseudo-event and the way every news outlet gave it oxygen was a low point.
There is also evidence that money is not all that matters. The election night ratings were interesting.

The expertise of the ABC, with our investment in research and experience over time attracted a much larger audience than the vast extravaganzas on the commercial networks. The audience can tell the difference between news and showbiz - and they want each in due season.

I read the speeches of Kim Williams and John Hartigan gave at the PANPA newspaper industry conference last week with interest. Both spoke with great enthusiasm about the opportunities of new technology for journalism – and there is much they say with which I am in heated agreement.

But – checking my Kevlar vest – I would like to make one observation about what a current trend might mean for future campaigning and journalism.

I am acutely aware of the pressures facing commercial media organisations in their pursuit of a viable business model. And I have always maintained some media companies can and will be able to devise strategies to deliver targeted, value-added material that audiences are willing to pay for.

A diminution of competition is simply not in the public interest. As I said earlier, Australia‟s mix of commercial and public news services has worked well for over sixty years. We will still need that diversity in the digital age, and we‟ll find a way to ensure it. The way forward is not, however, over the dead bodies of the public broadcasters.

What this election has clearly highlighted and foreshadowed is that some of the proposed charging models bring with them some very big risks.

Tony Abbott‟s words on the live Rooty Hill debate were interesting. He thought it was a great event; he was sorry so few people saw it. The ratings showed fewer than 100,000 people watching – compared to more than 3 million who saw the leaders‟ debate.

Of course, this is because it was behind a pay wall and designed for a pay-TV audience with hours to fill in a schedule. Sky argued at the time it was a television program not a news event, and denied anyone else live access.

Reacting to the criticism, the organisers of the identical format in Brisbane a few days later suddenly decreed it to be a news event, not a television program, and made it available to all.

The lesson was obvious: a pay wall slashes your potential audience.

We can see the impact this has in the field of print.

Laura Tingle is probably the country's finest writer when it comes to sophisticated political analysis. But I would argue that far from dominating the conversation, too often Laura's fine words disappear from view, locked up behind the Fin's expensive and impenetrable pay walls.

It is a classic example of the link economy at work–the value comes from links that enable content to spread through the community. Through its dissemination the work garners comments and power and, in the end, is more highly prized. Unfortunately with Tingle – unless you buy the paper or pay very significant amounts for an online subscription – much of the potential audience misses out.

No links, no tweets, few comments, little blogging response, no emailing the online reference. And as a result, the presence and impact of the work is starkly reduced.

I know the arguments about content needing a price and audiences needing to pay. I don‟t dispute this argument tonight.

I am simply saying that if your model means that your best content is hidden away, rather than spread widely around, you have removed yourself from the conversation - at a time when the media is all about the conversation.

Setting an agenda, driving a response, engaging with your audience leads you to the pay model that showcases your best talent and drives the habit of readership – rather than locking your talent away.

Of course, this is what the New York Times discovered when they made their first attempt at the pay wall. Dowd, Freidman, Krugman – the journalistic all-stars, disappeared. So many people stopped reading them, sharing them, talking about them.

And it was the journalists who demanded the model be changed.

If the miracle happens, and the emergent Government goes full term, it remains to be seen what will happen at the next election. What if The Australian is behind a paywall, or The Sydney Morning Herald or The Age? Will their impact diminish? Does the conversation go on without them?
These things we don‟t know, but they are worth considering and debating.

For the moment though, there is still life in newspapers and an enraged or crusading newspaper editor can still attract a politician‟s attention. But what
if, in future, your journalism is not available to be widely shared and talked about – will that politician still pay attention?

Within half an hour of Tony Abbott saying he wanted another town hall meeting in Brisbane, the ABC had started talking with the parties, booking a hall, collecting an audience. Our real focus was on snaring a final debate, but we were happy to have a town hall meeting as part of it.

In discussion with the campaign directors, it was clear to me that they wanted the reach of free to air television and were happy to use ABC talent to host.

But finally, there was no way either was going to upset a monopoly Murdoch newspaper in the pivotal swing state three days before polling day. The thought of what The Courier-Mail would do to the candidate who didn't show to their sponsored event was chilling to contemplate. The Prime Minister got a taste anyway from The Daily Telegraph on election eve.

It said to me, conclusively, that the system of debates and town hall meetings should not be in the hands of political parties – nor media organisations. The events, the venues, the panels, the hosts, should be set by a totally independent panel and commonly understood, a year before the date of the election.

I agree with John Hartigan’s assessment that newspapers need to evolve to deliver news content 24 hours a day, to audiences in print and on a range of devices. This has been the key to our thinking at the ABC. It has led to a million iPhone and 100,000 iPad ABC apps being downloaded - delivering the best of our websites, the latest news and now live streaming ABC News 24.

And I would tentatively suggest you see some signs of that already in this campaign. I would argue when the race was on, it was a digital event – for all media organisations – broadcasters and publishers.

Breaking news live, instant feedback and response, the power of the visuals – immediately accessible. People were not waiting for tomorrow morning to find out what happened – and nor were they waiting for the evening news.

It places demands on journalists, but it is interesting to note how many of our best are now genuinely cross-platform. Journalists want to be in the midst of the conversation. They are keen to report, appear on radio and television and write and tweet and connect with that audience.

Laurie Oakes‟ tweets, like everything else he does, are masterful. Uhlmann is a wonderful writer. Fran Kelly can talk about her important Malcolm Fraser interview while appearing on The Drum. These cross-platform appearances reinforce brands, cross-promote and build the skills and personal brand of the journalist – all positive things I would argue.

The ABC hosted Jay Rosen for a day while he was recently in Australia. He is always good value on the role of social media and the nature of political
journalism - in some ways quite a contrarian – and full of encouragement about things we could do better.

He had two suggestions for the ABC, which we are exploring and will likely pursue. The first is to provide more background, detail and context for members of our audience who are coming fresh to complex stories: like an ETS, or the NBN, or the operations of a hung parliament. The ABC has a role as a patient explainer of these complexities, to help people catch up with the conversation, understand what is being said and to make a contribution if they wish. It plays nicely to our Charter role to provide an educational service to the community. It makes policy more accessible and can bring important issues into the mainstream.

And Rosen said we should plan more thoroughly and consult more widely around what national issues are at play in an election campaign. Long before the campaign starts, talk with the community, engage with experts, undertake polling, think about national challenges: the immediate and the far-reaching.

And then articulate that agenda – let the political leaders know that we will be doing stories on these things, asking questions, seeking policy responses and political insights to them. And if the politicians will not engage, devote space to these issues anyway, using experts, finding divergent voices, doing real investigations.

It would not be the ABC‟s agenda, it would be an agenda framed by the audiences we engage with – and the voters who fund us – from all around the nation.

Perhaps it would at least be a way of countering tightly scripted politicians, who want policy discussions only on the day and terms they – not the public or the journalists – have set.

And it might help us from reaching the end of a fascinating campaign with such important issues in play and saturation coverage only to find that somehow, a significant number of people were left wanting more. That their questions were left unasked. Issues still avoided. That there was too much noise and not enough light.

But for all that, a remarkable campaign.

And now, a result would be nice.

Related Posts

. Rupert to the rescue - his little-known role in the creation of ABC 24/7

. Absolutely top notch listening - Paul Krugman, Mark Scott

. Why so much economic and financial 'news' is crap

. This will make you want to watch the news -- Soooo much