Shaun Micallef

It’s been said there’s a crisis of trust in news media. If that’s true, what can we do?

I agree there is an increasing lack of trust in the news media. Whether this is a crisis, I guess, depends on where you’re sitting. If you’re in the boardroom of a news outlet, then yes, it’s a crisis; because without trust, there’s nothing. If you’re sitting at home, wanting someone to tell you what’s happening, then it’s less of a crisis and more of a feeling of fatigued resignation.

To the average punter, the heritage gate-keepers look worried and desperate. They seem to us to be trying to turn their newsreaders into personalities and their writers into comedians, so that people don’t abandon them entirely for the Betoota Advocate or whatever news feed is coming to them via their phone or Facebook page. As Junkee, Pedestrian.TV, etc become interchangeable mastheads with Fairfax, News Corp and the ABC, then the less distinction people will draw between the news aggregators and actual journalism. It all becomes, or looks and sounds, like the same thing — editorial. And it’s wearying sifting through it to get to what the story is — or enough of the story that you can form some opinion about it.

But then maybe that’s a good thing; maybe we should be questioning what we are being presented with. Maybe we should do a bit of investigating or archaeology on these stories and check our sources. The thing is, not everyone does it. Or has the time or the resources. But I guess there have always been people wandering around who are misinformed, uninformed or malinformed. Maybe now there are more of us.

How do we combat fake news and misinformation?

The same devices we use on Mad as Hell to hopefully entertain people are being used to give their fake news or misinformation the illusion of weight. The grammar and rhetoric of TV news/newspaper journalism makes everything on the internet seem like a version of the real thing.

But people also like stuff that looks like gossip, so a tweet or a post or a comment on a website can get passed around simply because people want to believe the sheer outrageousness of it and/or it confirms their world view or ongoing narrative of someone or something they usually loathe. Nice stories that are made up don’t tend to travel; mean ones do. And the nice stories that do capture people’s imagination (real or fake) tend to have a spoiler following close behind (real or fake).

I think the only solution is to have a castle keep of some integrity somewhere. A news hunter/gatherer that doesn’t feel the need to compete with light entertainment or reality TV but that can build and maintain its gravitas.

Sadly, I think that the time to have done this was when TV started back in 1956. In return for being granted their licences (and let’s face it, an oligopoly) the commercial FTAs [free-to-airs] should have been obliged to provide an hour or two of commercial-free news each day. Boring it may have seemed to some, but a smart operator could have built on such a foundation or used it as a keystone in their scheduling. Without having to make money from it would have only needed to be one thing: good.

How important is quality journalism?

We’re all stumbling in the dark without it.

What’s the role of satire such as Mad As Hell? (I recently read about research showing more and more young people list “TV comedy” among their top news sources.)

It’s sad if what you say is true about TV comedy being the preferred news source. But sometimes on our live nights, I do get the feeling that when we show a news clip, it may be the first time some in the audience have seen it (they will react viscerally to it). This makes our job a little harder on occasions because we only want to tell the audience a few things in order to set the joke up. We do assume they are familiar with what’s been happening in the news; we’re not there to educate.

Having said that, we did a sketch on Bitcoin … and I had to research it because I didn’t know enough about it to make any informed jokes. I even checked what I’d written with [business reporter] Phillip Lasker to make sure I was right about my tax points and the status of cryptocurrency with APRA. It ended up feeling like an actual news feature, albeit on a pretty low-grade news service. But with jokes.

Satire is dangerous because it creates the impression sometimes that something is being done; that it will change things; that because we’ve seen how ludicrous someone or something is, it will all come crumbling down. But no, we’re just sitting on our arses, laughing at the TV or a clip on YouTube. We’re not doing anything. It’s like the old Peter Cook joke about how the Establishment Club was modelled on “those political cabarets of Berlin in the Thirties that did so much to prevent the rise of Hitler and prevent the Second World War”. Tom Lehrer called it “titillating the converted”.

To effect change you need to push a piano onto someone, not play it.

This article was originally published by the Centre for Media Transition at UTS.