There was much criticism online on the weekend of The Australian‘s attack on Margaret Simons. Like the paper’s 8000-word response to Robert Manne, or its efforts to defend News Corporation against Neil Chenoweth’s forensic pay-TV piracy piece, there was considerable flailing and no punches landed. The reader, probably like the journalists involved, sat back breathless and dissatisfied by the end. And, sadly, there was no Bill “once was funny” Leak cartoon of Simons on the toilet.
Still, if The Oz wants to use its journalistic riches — or Christian Kerr, Nick Leys and Chris Kenny — to air-swing at critics, that’s its prerogative. And critics miss the point that it is Australia’s most successful paper. Not by readership, of course; and not financially, given it now loses more money than ever; and not by the quality of its journalism. Because it has achieved the goal of every media outlet in the world: to become one with its audience. The Oz no longer represents its key demographic — old middle and higher income males — it has become its key demographic.
This explains the toothless savaging of critics, and its assertion-based coverage of issues like climate change. Like the cranky old men on the Sunshine Coast that form its readership, The Australian is permanently angry, not so much about individual matters per se, but about the whole world, which infuriatingly refuses to stop changing. Like its readership, The Oz used to be powerful, unchallenged and secure in a socio-economic environment tailor-made for it. But now the world has changed, and like angry climate deniers or “Juliar” placard-waving protesters, it doesn’t like it one little bit.
Thus the irrational lashing out at critics, who are the easiest target in a world becoming ever more incomprehensible. The goal is not reasoned engagement with critics with the aim of an enlightened debate, it’s simply to have a lash, because it feels good, because that’s all that’s left to do. To this end, evidence or reason don’t matter, assertion and abuse are all that is needed.
The parallels with Rupert Murdoch himself are obvious; you only have to look at the man’s tweet stream to see a confused (POTUS? OPTUS? self-tweets?), unhappy bloke railing at the world, regardless of consistency (behold the attack on “right wing toffs”!) or evidence (accusing Google of streaming pirated movies). You may recall that back in the 1990s, Murdoch predicted that one day we would, in content terms, inhabit a News Corp-run world, in which we would rise in the morning and turn on Fox News, pick up a News Corp newspaper to read over breakfast, enjoy novels published by Harper Collins and go see a movie produced by Twentieth Century Fox — although Murdoch forgot to add, of course, that we’d vote for News Corp-approved governments too.
That was before Murdoch began almost randomly trying to figure out what the internet was, wasting half a billion dollars, back when that was quite a chunk of change, buying MySpace and calling Google parasites. The world has long left Murdoch behind and his grand plans to NewsCorpise the globe now look like strange scribblings from a distant past.
The most telling moment of late from News Ltd was the bizarre “announcement” in The Oz — written in the form of an actual news story, complete with spokespeople “declining to comment” — about News Ltd “seizing the power of Twitter” by a new system that would “pipe Twitter and Facebook streams to computer screens as journalists write stories” because “news desks have increasingly come to view social media as an important source of breaking news information and public, corporate and political reaction”.
As plenty of people pointed out, it’s not long since The Oz was comparing Twitter to a toilet door. And as the announcement itself seemed to recognise, there’s an amazing tool already in existence that pipes Twitter and Facebook streams to computer screens, called web browsers, use of which is really taking off these days.
But the wording was a dead giveaway of the News Corp view of the world, which remains firmly planted in 1995: social media is, apparently, just another node of distribution that News Corp can co-opt — it doesn’t even need to buy it, like it had to buy Dow Jones; it can pipe it in to its own system, corralling and controlling it.
In News Corp’s view of the world, media is just a series of distribution points that either it controls or it attacks because they’re competitors, the media how it was in the analog world, when dinosaurs ruled the earth. That media might now be a vast conversation, composed of millions of networks, of which the mainstream media is now just one part, is a realisation certainly beyond the angry old blokes of The Australian; it’s just one more thing to rail at, more evidence the world has changed and not for the better.
So lash back at The Australian all you like, but you can’t properly understand it until you realise there is no media outlet that has more successfully integrated the view of its readership into not merely the content that it produces but the way it operates. And that must count for something.