Those who criticise journalists in this country had better watch out. We all know this. Look at the vitriol aimed at Media Watch, at Crikey (even if the wrong man got targeted), at anyone who dares to challenge the assumed righteousness of journalists.

Media types react like porcupines a-quiver when criticised. Journalists are often so sure of their own sense of the public interest that they see critics are not merely wrong, but evil.

This overlooks the fact that the mediaho industry is in a crisis of public confidence, as all the surveys suggest. Last week’s fracas at the Walkleys can hardly be helping matters.

The rhetoric in the opening speeches last Thursday night was all about “the public interest” and “the service of truth”.

The reality, even setting aside the biffo, was tables of journos so full of themselves, so irreverent, so damn clever and poised-to-be-ironic and contemptuous, that they wouldn’t even shut up when awards were being presented. (The exception was Michelle Grattan’s award. They shut up for her.)

Truth and public interest, my eye.

Of course there was good journalism on display, and some worthy award recipients. But did the high priesthood of the profession, gathered together, seem to care about it much? Not really.

So where and by whom can the Fourth Estate be criticised? Perhaps only in small and independent media.

Apropos of which, the latest issue of The Monthly contains a few sharp articles this month. They probably couldn’t run anywhere else.

David Marr defends his role in the debate over Chris Masters’ Jonestown. As those who follow these things will know, it is Marr who chose the extracts from the Jonestown book that ran in the Fairfax press.

They concentrated mainly on issues of s-xuality, and several commentators including me have said they helped skew the debate away from more important issues of politics and power.

Marr defends the notion that s-xuality is important to character, and points out that Piers Akerman is an odd and new recruit to the ranks of gay defenders:

In seven years of taking pot shots at me in his columns, (Akerman) has rarely failed to remind his readers that I am gay. I’m a homos-xual commentator, homos-xual spokesman, homos-xual activist and ‘The Sydney Morning Herald’s expert in matters queenly’.

I’m ‘prissy’ and ‘flaccid’. I purse my lips. Piers even wants his readers to know that I can be seen at the beach with homos-xuals, ‘disporting with pals before the North Bondi Surf Club.’ He may not think homos-xuality is integral to Jones persona, but sure seems to think it’s integral to mine.

But the main point of Marr’s column is to point out how the media commentators have distorted the debate as one between Left and Right. He points out that elite schools, sporting clubs and even the Liberal Party have all had problems with Jones, and cannot be fairly said to be left wing.

This point – the constructing by media columnists of a false enemy in order to tear it down – is also relevant to another, rather over-long piece in The Monthly by Martin Krygier in which he does a major dump on Quadrant and its current editor, PP McGuinness.

Krygier writes:

Where Quadrant once appreciated the complexity and variety of motives, options and choices, exhibited curiosity and even occasional puzzlement, raised the tone and enriched the vocabulary of debate, its central role now is as radical vulgariser and simplifier.

In particular, its energies are directed to composing an enemy, against which it and its allies can flaunt their fearless contrarianism.

And there’s another big piece by David Salter in which he alleges the Fourth Estate generally is unravelling. The strident, hectoring type of journalism betrays an underlying lack of confidence, he suggests.

That, for what it is worth, was my main thought coming away from the Walkleys last Thursday night. The centre isn’t holding. Things are falling apart.

As a profession, we are in desperate need of reinvention and renewal. None of that is coming from the mainstream. It’s just too damn full of itself and defensive.

Peter Fray

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