Andrew Barr

ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr

I hate journalists and I’m over the mainstream media”. Declare this to anyone but your best mates only in the case you seek a walloping from mainstream media. Otherwise, those in public life would do far better to sing from the Oprah book of common praise, “I value the press more than ever before as we try to navigate these complicated times”. Big outlets love this stuff. So, provide them with that and perhaps some blandishment about the courage/integrity of high-profile journalists in the face of power/deceit. This will be swallowed very gratefully by the beak of corporate press, then disgorged over all us hatchlings.

It’s likely you’ve read some critique of that first statement, uttered last week by ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr, then leaked and reported widely yesterday. It’s possible that you share some, if not all, of the press revulsion for it, unanimously expressed in outlets from Sky to The Graun. And, why not? First, that it is the work of press to hold political power to account is, surely, manifest. Second, that Barr made unfavourable statements about an essential institution not only in a fairly private context — even Trump makes his loathing public! — but to an audience of professional communicators, AKA the spin sector, is proof only of his corrupt self-interest and aversion to the truth, etc.

Oh. Come on. Fairfax publication The Canberra Times, a publication singled out by Barr for its ineptitude, can find a scholar to compare the Chief with Joh Bjelke-Petersen all it wants. None of this changes the fact that many of us are, in fact, “over” a mainstream media that we believe will fearlessly defend truth about as ardently as a politician. There is, in my view, but one thing that large and corporate outlets will fearlessly defend: themselves.

We can see this play out implicitly in the #MeToo journalism of the present. Yes, the particular kinds of abuse to which many women workers are routinely subject is an urgent matter. No, you do not serve many women workers by electing to focus, for six months now, almost entirely on women who work in or with the media, or related elite sectors. Six months! It should not be true that readers will become impatient with such an important discussion, but, it is true that they will, including the many women workers who have been subject to abuse of an everyday sort not yet broached by Tracey Spicer.

I understand that high-profile journalist Virginia Trioli means well when she declares on social media that “a woman’s best weapon against vile harassment” is a filing cabinet. I also understand that persons of her class have simply forgotten that most women workers, largely employed in the care and retail sectors, do not have the opportunity to “file” their experiences of abuse anywhere but their memories. In #MeToo, as in many other kinds of reporting, journalists now see their own interests and lives as utterly indistinct from those of their audience.

We can see this play out more explicitly any time there’s a labour dispute by salaried journalists. A walk-out by ABC or Fairfax workers will gain coverage disproportionate to any other labour protest, and even journalists normally hostile to the very notion of worker organisation will briefly remember the value of solidarity when “press freedom”, AKA press jobs, is threatened. We saw such unanimity when Oprah gave her very mediocre speech at the Golden Globes, with Janet Albrechtsen praising this much-needed praise along with the “opposition”.

There is no opposition in press. Sure, Australian journalists spend all day shit-canning each other on Twitter and writing articles about other articles to prove the point that all journalism but that of their own outlet has gone to the latrine. We get weeks of attack from the Oz on Emma Alberici, understood as a symptom of a “left-wing” ABC that, in its craven turn, does so little to defend her, but so little mainstream discussion on the veracity of her claims. Mainstream talks about how crap media is constantly and expects us to be enchanted. And then it expects us to believe that being “over” it is an indefensible position. Oh, they’re all unified bravely against Barr today, who, although a politician, did accidentally say something true. Mainstream media. We’re over it.

Mainstream media friends: I understand the need any worker has to believe that they are important. I do get that you haven’t been freelance as long as some of us, and are now anxiously denying what you ought to have faced long ago: people don’t respect us much these days and don’t want to give us their money. Yes, it is difficult to leave a storied organisation and see that independent or crowd-funded media are where active audiences are now placing their trust. I remember how proud my parents were when they saw my byline in The Age or heard me on the ABC. I get it. I would say, though, that you should check the esteem in which your parents and their friends now hold those organisations.

I do not “hate” journalists of the mainstream. But, like many readers, I find myself unsatisfied by the narrowness of their work. That I happen to personally know the forces that produce this tripe doesn’t mean I’m any more inclined to swallow it than anyone in an era where “fake news” is not itself always an illegitimate charge.

So. A politician said it. Perhaps, for the wrong reasons. It remains true.


Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey