Who, or what, is an Andrew Laming? And more: how’s he been hiding in plain sight all this time?
Australia’s media (particularly Nine News Queensland reporter Peter Fagen) has done a good job getting some answers to the first question. But Laming’s behaviour has been hidden from the broader political narrative for so long by the long-term collapse of local media — particularly in suburban communities — coupled with Canberra’s hierarchy of interest that often leaves long-term backbenchers below the reporting eye-line of the gallery.
Fortunately, there’s good news. Local digital media outlets are increasingly using social platforms to build a new media that’s revitalising local news. Plus, the rise of community independents means no seat is safe and no backbencher can be left ignored.
It’s been almost a year since the traditional local newspapers vanished from suburban communities, when News Corp grasped the opportunity to stop printing its mastheads. That included its Brisbane-based Quest chain.
Although some traditional community newspapers linger online, the shuttering marked the close of the two-decade decline of local reporting in the suburbs where so many Australians live — particularly where News Corp has an effective news monopoly (like south-east Queensland).
The closures were the inevitable result of the business model: milking the local advertising cash cow while slashing costs to sustain profits. Mastheads linked into city-wide chains cut costs through sharing resources, including news content. The result: fewer local voices reflecting their communities, more papers as branded franchises.
The hunger for advertising (particularly council advertising) made the mastheads reluctant to challenge the local establishment. For the local MPs, that was welcome news.
Similarly, in News Corp’s metropolitan tabloids like Brisbane’s Courier-Mail content is shared from city to city through reporting pools and syndicated right-wing opinion (why, here’s Brisbane’s own Andrew Bolt!). The local focus narrows to police-sourced crime, sport and state politics. Local reporting jobs are cut year after year.
The result? The behaviour of Brisbane’s south-side MP went largely unnoticed.
Meanwhile, Laming’s parliamentary terms were ticking over from election to election. Once a future star (rising briefly to shadow parliamentary secretary), he risked settling into the obscurity of a long-term backbencher. (Dennis Atkins, a long-time observer of the state’s politics, nailed the reasons this week in an article for independent website InQueensland: immature, poor judgement, arrogant. Ouch!)
Trolling offers a magic ladder out of that slough of obscurity and into the heart of the attention economy, a modern resolution of Oscar Wilde’s conundrum of the public figure (“There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”)
In the media ecosystem of the right, trolling can be leveraged up out of social media into radio and television — into the commentary roster of Sky After Dark.
In Trump times, this made sense. It was 4D political chess. Now, suddenly, not so much. It doesn’t work for the emerging local media, nor for fragmenting party loyalty.
In place of the predictable corporate-owned suburban newspaper chains, local news is being mediated through a diverse ecosystem: new digital start-ups embedded in their communities, Facebook groups and citizen journalism networks like No Fibs by Margo Kingston (which was reporting on Laming locally long before he spilled into the Canberra narrative).
It’s inspired by the same spirit of the March4Justice and the network of community independents encouraged by Indi MP Helen Haines and Warringah’s Zali Steggall.
In Australia, that emerging media is still, well, emerging. It’s easy to miss its significance or to under-estimate the changes it’s driving in journalism. Right now, it’s stronger in regional communities (like the Naracoorte News) than in the suburbs. It’s reflected in the digital and social media being built by Indigenous communities, like IndigenousX.
There are powerful examples overseas: the neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood reporting of Block Club Chicago, the investigative participatory journalism of France’s Mediacités or the hyper-local women-run Khabar Lahariya across villages in northern India.
Both the scope and the journalistic focus of this emerging local news media are making it that much harder for politicians to avoid being held accountable by and to their communities. Andrew Laming won’t be the last politician to figure that out.