Hard News by Russell Brown


I've been hybridising for a while now ...

I gather the unprecedented freedom of content on the Listener website this week is not entirely intentional, but it does provide a happy opportunity to link to Jane Clifton's Politics column in a week in which she ventures on the blogosphere and the associated evolution of relationships in the political media.

It's not all good, according to Jane:

Peace activist Nicky Hager and religious activist Ian Wishart have set up covert rival versions of the mainstream media, because they fervently believe that only their networks of true believers are uncorrupted and can tell the truth. The Blogerati – Russell Brown, David Farrar et al – have set themselves up as the aristocracy haughtily removed from the hoi polloi of workaday grunts on newspapers and the telly – a mere plodding peasantry who can be trusted only to miss the point. And that’s not even to get started on the stealth-bombing activist activities of religious sects.

I can’t even decide whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, this job-poaching. First up, best dressed, let the market decide, and all that. But morally and practically, it’s now the Wild West out there, because we can no longer easily tell where journalism ends and politics begins. We used to be separate species, but now we’re hybridising.

I'd like to point out that I've been hybridising for quite a while now: since 1991, when Hard News was first born as a radio commentary. I was a magazine editor then, and I'm still a journalist now. I don't know that I regard myself as "above" the "workaday grunts" reporting news (I have after all, won a couple of awards for news reporting and I'm not throwing the medals in the river). I am an enthusiastic consumer of journalism, as well as a producer.

But I do think that journalists can become institutionalised in a number of ways. In political journalists that can manifest as a tendency to report the sizzle over the sausage, and to -- yes, I am looking at you Jane -- depict it all as a grand, jolly game. In such circumstances, I think it's useful to have a third voice watching the watchers and, where appropriate, nerding it up with facts and figures (which is something that David Farrar does particularly well).

Are we reporting party spin? Well, yes, sometimes. But only in a different way to the conventional practice of reporting talking head counter-quotes as news. And sometimes it can be quite useful. Take this guest post on Just Left. I happen to know it comes from a Labour staff grunt, but it has empirical merit. It makes a strong case for its claim that National bullshitted on the issue of energy security last week. Not just passive, rhetorical bullshitting, but deliberate cut-off-the-end-of-the-graph-to-skew-the-numbers bullshitting. I haven't seen that reported by the pros.

Then, read the technical argument in the comments. I think that's useful too (Jordan may want to ponder on the different nature of commentary attracted by a post that isn't shouting party slogans). And, indeed, the thing I'm most proud of about Public Address is the quality of discussion provided by you, the readers. I learn from what you write every day, and it's a privilege to interact with you all, whether to debate issues or simply yarn.

Your presence bears out something I learned very early on about the internet: it provides access to many people who have the attributes for journalism -- a sharp mind and a good prose style -- but are not in fact journalists. In some cases, they might be as clattering partisan as The Standard, but if the Standard is offering the nourishing fare of statistics and visualised information, then, sure, fill ma bowl. If there's a site as informed, literate and philosophically cohesive as The Hand Mirror, I'm having that too.

We also live in the age of Scoop. It seems quaint now that political party press releases were, until quite recently, hand-delivered or faxed to a small circle of journalists who would decide on our behalf what was fit to print. Now, we can see the lot, and the parties know that. Unsurprisingly, it was small parties like Act who cottoned on to the power of the digital press release first. It wasn't long after that before the major party comms people turned it into an almost hourly battle of statements. Has the total quantity of bullshit increased as a result? Sure. But it's visible, public bullshit.

I am, of course, hardly the only working journalist to be blogging: see Denis Welch, Karl du Fresne and Rob Hosking. I think they've seen something in the blogosphere not offered by the day job. We're some way off the likes of Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo, but that’s largely a function of revenue. It's viable in the US, far less so here.

At any rate, if, as it seems, the unprecedented online availability of the Listener's contents in its week of publication is an accident, perhaps those in charge could see it as a happy one. The Listener joined and guided the national conversation for decades. It could use these marvellous new tools we have to do so now.

PS: We have a different style of show for Media7 this week -- it's anchored by Simon Pound's report on the impending demise of the Levin Chronicle, the award-winning local daily that APN is to turn into just another bi-weekly freesheet. The panel is former Fairfax executive editor Peter O'Hara, Joanne Black of The Listener and indie journalist Jon Stephenson. If you'd like to join us early this evening for the recording, hit reply and let me know.

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