Last week, popular News Corp magazine insert Sunday Style began its public search on social media for an intern. Within minutes of the release of an “Interns Wanted” message plastered on the rump of a heavy-lidded, lightly clad lingerie model, users jeered. Even if it had never previously occurred to The Sunday Telegraph that a little light bondage was not the best way to depict its workplace practice, someone thought better of it and posted an Instagram apology.

“WE MADE AN ERROR IN JUDGEMENT TODAY”, wrote the social media manager, in majuscule. This is as may be, but where Murdoch employees erred in PR, they excelled in representation. There can be few images more evocative of working unpaid for a News women’s fashion supplement than that of a vulnerable body on all fours in cheap scanties awaiting conquest. The message was clear: give us your arse. And don’t expect payment.

Users called the image “sexist” and “offensive” and they were absolutely right. These soft-core pixels show us the bigoted ill in the body of the current era’s press just as The Age’s recent failure to find a picture of one of its best-known columnists, Waleed Aly — whom they represented with the head of comic Nazeem Hussain — did. The ire that met these missteps was warranted and the jokes occasionally hilarious. But, even as we laugh at these flashes of news industry idiocy, we fail to mourn the diminished conditions that allow their eruption. Which is to say, newsrooms are emptied of skill and filled with budget-conscious “policy”. You know, of the sort that not only counts the unpaid labour of interns as an asset but also permits these interns to advertise for other interns with the use of kitsch pictures better suited to promote an over-28s sex nightclub than a career in fashion journalism.

This is not, for a minute, to decry extreme youth, but it is to say that its companion qualities, cost-cutting and inexperience, will bring us a press that mistakes one of the nation’s foremost public intellectuals for a funny guy best recognised for dressing up like a discount Deepak and offering celebrities advice like “You mind is like a dirty carpet. Let me clean it with my vacuum.”

Readers called The Age caption a proof of orientalism and it was. They called the Tele‘s take on human resources sexist and it was. It’s easy to see snafus of the type published only as proof that traditional media are out of touch and are staffed by racist, sexist idiots. Speaking as one who has served traditional media for the better part of two decades, I can say that idiots are well represented in this employment sector, as they are everywhere. It’s just that once, we had professional protocols to temper this idiocy. We had idiots but we also had photography departments, subeditors and senior editors forming part of a system that moderated their idiocy. Now, we just have content management systems and there is nothing between the idiot and the button marked “publish”.

There is a broad view gained from the terrible outpourings of our push-button age that people are becoming more racist and sexist. Certainly, there seems to be more evidence of racism, from The Age’s caption screw-up to the writing of Andrew Bolt. A reader could be forgiven for thinking that these are the documents of a bigoted age. But what they are is evidence of a cost-cutting age. Bolt exists for the same reason errors like the Aly-Hussain screw-up appeared. He’s cheap.

Handsome payment to a few noisome trolls who can take the idiocy of one’s drunk uncle and work it into paragraphs is a lot more cost-effective than newsgathering. Bolt is an effect of “restructure”, just like The Age screw-up and just like Miss All Fours. Of course, Bolt’s writing is not an actual misprint. But, he’s an effect of the age.

To understand traditional media as a mirror of the real is a mistake at the best of times. And now, in the worst of times, such a view makes no practical sense at all. One can treat the culture industry as a text all one wishes but the plain fact is, the stuff that you are reading and viewing is produced at a fraction of the cost of those items you consumed a decade ago. It’s not just that we love polemic and that racism is now more acceptable in the public sphere. It’s just that we can’t afford to make anything better. And, shit, that’s sad.

I venture a guess that some of those who would — again, not without justification — critique the Tele ad or The Age caption as evidence of media bigotry are also those who would champion the new freedom in publishing. There are many who rejoice that ours is a time of fewer “gate-keepers” and that a newly democratised media peopled by citizen journalists is a wonderful, robust thing. And, there is legitimate evidence that it is a marvel. The work of Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden — courageous history-makers whose unfairly criminal names have hardly been mentioned in this last week’s celebration of “free speech” — has shown us the best of our push-button age. But, these heroic muckrakers are rare communicators. Most of us are idiots.

And, we idiots need protocols and editors and resources to produce news and news analysis of quality. We need grown-ups to show us the way and subs to review our insensitive wording and solicitors when our processes have failed. There is a view, of both news and of society in general, that we need better, more moral people who wouldn’t even think of using a lingerie model in a human resources context. In news, as in society in general, what we need — or, indeed, can legitimately expect — are not better individuals. We need a better system to make up for individual flaws.

Individuals don’t change the world as effectively as a hierarchy of “gate-keepers” can. It’s tedious but nonetheless true that one’s labour conditions impact the quality of one’s labour. You can’t write well about anything — and most especially style — in a cheap g-string.

Peter Fray

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