They really don’t get it. That is the only conclusion that can be drawn from The Australian’s extraordinary display of glass jaw over the blogosphere’s critique of Dennis Shanahan’s reporting of poll results. This culminated in News Limited censoring one of its own bloggers, Tim Dunlop, last week.
Today Dunlop told Crikey that he was having “talks” with management about editorial independence after a post was pulled against his will last Thursday. Dunlop expected to be able to post on the result of his talks later this morning – but had not done so in time for Crikey’s deadline.
The whole affair highlights the gap between the larger News Corp – a modern interactive empire – and the sharp but old fashioned conservative newspaper men who run the local incarnation. For powerful and intelligent people they have made themselves look fragile and silly. It is rather sad.
There is no need to trawl over whether Shanahan was right or not. That has been done by others, and I have no strong opinion. The real story here is about how media is changing. This is the first election Australia has ever had in which the mainstream media has lost its monopoly on analysis.
Dunlop, an Adelaide-based academic and former small business owner whose doctoral thesis was about public debate, was the first blogger recruited to mainstream media “from the wild” when he signed with News Limited late last year. At the time he assured his readers that he would remain an independent voice, but it seems he discovered the limits of the mainstream media’s tolerance when he criticised his employer last week.
Thankfully Dunlop’s original censored post, mild compared to what some were saying, has been preserved here – proof, if any were needed, that editing newspapers doesn’t work like it used to. It’s a fair bet that Dunlop’s censored post has now been read by many more people than would otherwise have encountered it.
To recap: the fuss has been brewing for a while with many bloggers (and some Crikey commentators) observing that Shanahan seems over-willing to emphasise anything in Newspoll that can be seen as positive for the Government. Shanahan, on the other hand, protests that his record is its own defense. This all came to a head last week after this piece provoked a flurry of online criticism, and Shanahan responded defensively.
All fair enough, but then it got nasty. First Peter Brent, who runs the psephological blog Mumble, reported that Oz editor Chris Mitchell had rung to say The Australian would “go” him for criticising Shanahan. This was followed by an Australian editorial that did indeed “go” Brent, other bloggers, and Crikey. The editorial included this breathtakingly arrogant paragraph.
On almost every issue it is difficult not to conclude that most of the electronic offerings that feed off the work of The Australian to create their own content are a waste of time. They contribute only defamatory comments and politically coloured analysis. Unlike Crikey, we understand Newspoll because we own it. (Emphasis added).
News Limited, it seems, sees itself as uniquely qualified to detect bias, and uniquely free from “political colour”. It would be laughable were it not so obviously the product of tunnel vision.
Then to cap it off Dunlop got censored for making very similar points to the bloggers under attack.
Contrast the behaviour of News Limited with some words of wisdom from a well-known newspaper man a couple of years ago:
What is happening is, in short, a revolution in the way young people are accessing news. They don’t want to rely on the morning paper for their up-to-date information. They don’t want to rely on a god-like figure from above to tell them what’s important. And to carry the religion analogy a bit further, they certainly don’t want news presented as gospel…They want control over their media, instead of being controlled by it. They want to question, to probe, to offer a different angle…We need to encourage readers to think of the web as the place to go to engage our reporters and editors in more extended discussions about the way a particular story was reported or researched or presented.
That’s right: these words are from the landmark speech by Rupert Murdoch in which he signalled his conversion to the digital world.
Murdoch worried about whether his editors were capable of making the cultural change. He said that too many saw their readers as stupid and less able than they to discuss the news.
“In any business, such an attitude toward one’s customers would not be healthy. But in the newspaper business, where we rely on people to come back to us each day, it will be disastrous if not addressed.”
It seems Rupert was right to worry.