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Sep 28, 2011

The quality journalism project: Switzer the Spectator

Editor Tom Switzer is one of TV's favourite conservative talking heads. He's close with former PM John Howard and was a former adviser to opposition leader Brendan Nelson. But what does Switzer read and listen to on a daily basis?

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Editor Tom Switzer is one of TV’s favourite conservative talking heads. He’s close with former PM John Howard (The Australian even called him a “confidant”) and was a former adviser to opposition leader Brendan Nelson. But it was his time as editor of the opinion pages in The Australian — yes, he hired Janet Albrechtsen that placed him firmly in the public conscious. Switzer now edits The Spectator Australia (the local arm of the conservative British magazine) and is a research associate at the the United States Studies Centre, University of Sydney.

But what does Switzer read and listen to on a daily basis?

Crikey‘s quality journalism project quizzes the top editors and journalists in the nation for how they define quality journalism and where they go to get it. So far we’ve had luminaries including Laura Tingle, Leigh Sales, Chris Mitchell, Alan Kohler, Wendy Bacon, Mark Colvin, George Negus, George Megalogenis and Marni Cordell. If there’s an expert you’d love to hear from, please let us know.

Now it’s over to editor and researcher Tom Switzer …

CRIKEY: What is your definition of quality journalism?

TS: I used to define quality journalism as objective journalism: a commitment to facts and fairness through a disinterested and non-ideological lens. But these days I think journalistic objectivity is a misnomer, both here and abroad. For every story involves subjective judgments, especially in the digital age.

Given the demands of modern technology, “quality” journalists are increasingly making their mark by explaining not just events but their meaning. Again, this is a matter of opinion. (Think about how so many so-called “reporters” and “hosts” are increasingly writing opinion-comment pieces or speaking on the talk-show circuit.)

As it happens, the opinion of many “quality” journalists tends towards consensus because of an intriguing uniformity. Remember David Marr’s Overland lecture several years ago? “The natural culture of journalism is kind of vaguely soft Left inquiry sceptical of authority,” he argued. “I mean, that’s just the world out of which journalists come. If they don’t come out of that world, they really can’t be reporters.” Talk about letting the cat out of the bag.

At many “quality” media organisations — and not just the ABC — there is a strong “group think” mechanism at work. So on many of the big political issues of recent times — the republic, Iraq, multiculturalism, border protection, anti-terror laws, same-s-x marriage, carbon tax, Rudd’s apparent omnipotence — the instincts of journalists all too often is to embrace a progressive, small-l liberal view. No conspiracy is necessary; it just happens.

Although a regrettable byproduct of some of today’s media, especially on the internet, has been its frequent lack of decency and respect, I am not so disturbed about the trend towards opinion journalism. As the great Bob Bartley, the long-time editor of The Wall Street Journal, argued: “Opinion journalism, by not following consensus group think, can find a lot of news. But journalists can’t have it both ways. Since they’re increasingly dealing with subjective opinion, they should stop wearing ‘objectivity’ on their sleeves.”

Tom Switzer’s top five quality journalism sources in Australia

  1. The Australian. It continues to provide the most informative and in-depth news, analysis and opinion. (Disclaimer: I edited the Oz opinion pages from 2001-08.) I especially admire Paul Kelly, the eminence grise of Australian journalism. He has been writing about politics for so long and acquired such an air of wisdom that his pronouncements have taken on a tone of lofty authority such that they are always worth listening to.
  2. Sky News. Excellent television news service that also delivers quality breaking stories from the US (ABC, CBS) and Britain (Sky). (Disclaimer: I’m a regular Sky panelist.) David Speers is the best interviewer in the business; he’s highly respected by all sides of politics; and he’ll dominate broadcast journalism for the next 30 years just as Laurie Oakes has done in the past.
  3. ABC News Radio. For all my criticisms of ABC bias, my life would be poorer without this national treasure which delivers outstanding 24-hour news updates and summaries of the many ABC stories and interviews I’ve missed. I wake up to Glen Bartholomew, Marius Benson and Debbie Spillane most weekdays.
  4. Insiders. Following the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show (formerly Breakfast with David Frost), Barrie Cassidy’s show does a superb job of summarising and explaining the week’s political events. It’s lost some of its lustre since Andrew Bolt left to start his own lively show (which I never miss afterwards), but Insiders is more often than not worth watching every Sunday morning.
  5. Q&A. My Spectator colleague Mark Latham puts it best: “People who despise the show feel compelled to watch it every Monday night: it has become compulsory viewing for media masochists, a self-flagellation hour for political tragics.” The Speccie has often criticised host Tony Jones and team, but I readily concede he is the Jeremy Paxman of Australia: a tough, smart, sharp and incisive interviewer.

I only have five personal quality journalism sources in Australia, because much of my reading/viewing time is spent on following US and British sources: the Wall Street Journal editorial page (and its 30-minute show the Journal Editorial Report on the Fox News Channel on our Sunday);  Fox News Special Report with Bret Baier; the PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer; BBC’s HARDtalk with Stephen Sackur; and CNN’s GPS with Fareed Zakaria on our Sunday night.

What media do you consume on a daily basis?

Wake up to News Radio before I flick between Alan Jones on 2GB and Jason Morrison on 2UE. On the bus and/or train to work, I skim the following sources on my iPhone (I rarely read hard-copy newspapers these days): The Australian, The Age/SMH, Miranda Devine’s Daily Telegraph column, Andrew Bolt’s blog, the UK Telegraph (my favourite columnist: Boris Johnson) and The Guardian (Timothy Garton Ash).

After the US papers download the next day’s edition (around 2-4pm Sydney time), I check out The Wall Street Journal (favourite columnist: Peggy Noonan), The New York Times (David Brooks) and Washington Post (Richard Cohen, Anne Applebaum, Charles Krauthammer), as well as the excellent RealClearPolitics.com, which provides the best of the web commentary. While I am reading late at night, I flick the channels: Sky News, Fox News, BBC World, CNN and ABC1’s Lateline. I also am a great admirer of Gerard Henderson’s Media Watch Dog, out every Friday.

What particular stories — either Australian or international — do you are were classic examples of quality journalism?

  • Pamela Williams’ post-election investigative reports in the Australian Financial Review are always worth reading.
  • But it is The Australian that sets the trend here, especially in the area of indigenous affairs. It has also broken several award-winning stories over the years — children overboard, the Scrafton allegations, AWB scandal, Dr Haneef, pink batts, schools halls — that have hurt both Coalition and Labor governments. One standout during the past decade was the Skeik al-Hilali story in late 2006. Reporter Richard Kerbaj revealed that a leading Sydney-based Muslim cleric had used a Ramadan sermon to blame scantily clad ladies (“uncovered meat”) for inviting r-pe. This was an important story that highlighted the very real tensions between conservative Islam and Western modernity, especially equality of the s-xes. Yet many media outlets either played down the story or attacked The Australian for running a campaign (“media lynching”) against the Mufti. It was as if they were defending an antiquated and violently anti-female outlook. The episode was a reminder that editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell, perhaps because he does not easily subscribe to the consensus view that dominates newsrooms elsewhere, detects important, different and yes, quality, news stories.

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