The Australian media editor Sharri Markson went deep undercover to sit in on journalism lectures at some of Sydney’s universities and has discovered not only do lecturers not worship Rupert Murdoch, but they also believe in the science of climate change and are encouraging students to subscribe to Crikey. It’s the latest salvo in an ongoing war of moral outrage.

Markson’s vitriol in this case was primarily directed at the University of Sydney, where lecturer Dr Penny O’Donnell encouraged students to think critically about media ownership, particularly when it came to Rupert Murdoch’s business interests. The story fits nicely into The Australian‘s long-running “moral panic” about the loss of efficacy of legacy media outlets, like, well, The Australian. Not only are “activist journalist academics” and “activist journalists” (both recent targets) a threat to the Oz, but moral panics are part of News Corp’s business model.

As usual, Markson looked no further than the in-house directory for comment:

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“After being shown a transcript of the lecture on News Corp, the company’s group editorial director Campbell Reid accused the University of Sydney of indoctrinating students, not educating them.

“‘Obviously I can’t comment on the full breadth of the content of these courses but on the basis of what has been relayed here I have to wonder if we are dealing with indoctrination rather than education,’ he said.”

In the same vein, a few weeks ago Markson produced an article titled “Activism a threat to journalism“, drawing on sources to argue that “activist journalists” (most especially Crikey‘s own Bernard Keane) on social media are a threat to journalism. Again relying on in-house comment, she paraphrased her boss, Chris Mitchell:

“Editor-in-chief of The Australian, Chris Mitchell, said the greatest threat to journalism was not the internet or governments and press councils trying to limit free speech, but the rise of the activist journalist over the past 25 years and the privileging of the views of activist groups over the views of the wider community.”

Worse than the figure of the activist journalist is the “modern journalism academic”. Here Markson introduces a Mitchell quote so as describe the “modern journalism academic” as someone with opinions on political issues:

“Mr Mitchell, who has edited newspapers for more than 20 years, said media academics who were vocal about ideological issues on social media were part of the problem.

“‘This is at the heart of my disdain for modern journalism academics. And anyone who watches their Twitter feeds as I do will know I am correct,’ he said.

“Tens of thousands of people, including journalism students and those starting their career in the industry, follow media academics Jenna Price, Wendy Bacon and journalist Margo Kingston on Twitter. All are opinionated on political issues.”

The concept of the “moral panic” once belonged to the academic discipline of sociology, but it has now largely leaked into everyday language. A moral panic is a diagnostic tool used to understand how a given social group experiences fears and anxieties (often about social change) and projects them onto what is called a “folk devil” — a social figure who may be represented by actual people, but functions to gather fear and anxiety.

Clearly, the “activist journalist” and “modern journalism academic” that have so riled the Oz are folk devil figures. “Social media” is used as a collective term in Markson’s piece to describe technologies and social practices that threaten not only the commercial existence of The Australian, but also its existential purpose. As Crikey has reported, the Oz  is losing money hand over fist, but I think this ongoing effort to attack activist journalists and modern journalism academics indicates that the anxiety has a greater purchase than mere commercial imperatives in The Australian’s workplace.

Markson has been a vocal activist for print-based publication, and it is clear from her advocacy work on social media that she is a “print media” enthusiast. Indeed, Markson and editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell could be described as the “moral entrepreneurs” of the moral panic in this particular example — hammering home the issue for the purpose of trying to effect change.

The creator of the moral panic concept, Stanley Cohen, included some critical comments about the concept as a revised introduction to the 2002 third edition of his iconic Folk Devils and Moral Panics book:

“A panic, by definition, is self-limiting, temporary and spasmodic, a splutter of rage which burns itself out. Every now and then speeches, TV documentaries, trials, parliamentary debates, headlines and editorials cluster into the peculiar mode of managing information and expressing indignation that we call a moral panic … Successful moral panics owe their appeal to their ability to find points of resonance with wider anxieties. But each appeal is a sleight of hand, magic without a magician.”

I have reworked Gartner’s “Hype Cycle” model to show the distinct progression of the outrage cycle.

Existential threat: In the case of The Australian, the existential threat is not so much activist journalists and modern journalism academics, but the apparent dire commercial position of the newspaper and the accelerated decline in social importance of a national newspaper. The world is changing around the newspaper, and it currently survives because of cross-funding arrangements from other sections of News Corp. The moral entrepreneurs in this case are fighting for the very existence of print and the institutional social relations that print media once enjoyed.

Peak of Confected Outrage: It is unclear who is actually outraged (besides employees of News Corp) about so-called activist journalists and modern journalism academics in general. There are specific cases, just like with moral panics, where specific people have triggered the ire of some social groups. They serve as representative folk devils for an entire social identity. There is a more sophisticated point to be made about reporting on outrage and other affective states, like fear and anxiety. They become their own sources of newsworthiness.

Trough of Realism: In the case of The Australian, this is where legacy media advocates face up to the unfortunate reality of the shifting media industry. It is not clear to me, at least in this example, that this will actually happen (perhaps after the Oz  folds?). It is basically at this point that proponents have to “face reality”.

Slope of Conservatism: The Slope of Conservatism is ironically named as it signals social change — Markson’s advocacy for print may be a bad example.

Plateau of Social Norms: The constant change in social values and relations that have characterised Western societies for the last 300 years continues unabated, indicated by the increasing “liberalisation” of normative social values, but societies often pass thresholds of organisational composition where certain norms are dominant. Heterosexual patriarchal social values and racist social values were normative up until the postwar period in Australia, then they began a very slow process of changing, and we are still in the midst of these shifts. Most people who work in the media industry are learning to operate in the new norms that characterise contemporary expectations regarding the production, distribution/access and consumption of media and journalistic content.

We can read the perpetual outrage cycle of The Australian as a machine for the production of new normative social values. Without being subsidised by other business areas of the News Corp enterprise, The Australian would be out of business. So to say that the Oz will inevitably fail is to miss the point that it is already in a state of constant failure. Unless someone thinks that The Australian will actually become profitable again (and will do so while its editor-in-chief and media editor are advocating for “print”), the social function of The Australian is not to make money as a commercial journalistic enterprise but to serve a social role that reinforces what its employees perceive to be normative social values.

The Australian and other News Corp print-based products seemed to be currently organised around using this outrage cycle as a business model. Isolate a perceived existential threat (religion, class difference, education, etc.) and then represent this on the front page of newspapers in such a way as to create feelings of fear, anxiety and outrage in the community. We know that they do not aim to represent and report on this fear, anxiety and outrage, because otherwise their front pages would be full of articles about readers of their own newspapers.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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