Pictures, Pauline Hanson and the media

Books have already been written about the curious relationship that Pauline Hanson enjoys with the media, but her latest foray into politics, a tilt at the Queensland seat of Beaudesert, looks set to provide ample fodder for future updated editions. The latest furore her candidacy has brought into the limelight concerns someone named John Johnson, some twenty year-old photos, and what seems to be a rather gung-ho approach to the business of newspaper editorial at the Sunday Telegraph. Unless you are blind, deaf and dumb or overseas you have probably heard about the story thirty-two and a half times already, but for mine the key contribution to the debate is this:

Sunday Telegraph editor Neil Breen said the newspaper was standing by the story and the pictures. The newspaper’s photograph experts had checked the images using computer software before they were published.

“You can see changes in the pixels … if they’ve been doctored, and they weren’t doctored,” he said.

He said the paper had given Hanson every opportunity to comment on the pictures before they were published, but she did not do so.

“It’s now a battle of he-said she-said,” Mr Breen said.

Well if the photos have been put through “something called Photoshop”, as Breen has painfully asserted, then that’s all right then, eh? Whether the photos are indeed shots of Hanson or not is one question. The fact that a stinking morass of doubt exists about their authenticity, however, raises some serious concerns about how this has unfolded. Hanson denies that the woman in Johnson’s photos is her, and has made a few decent points in the public domain supporting her case. Unless the Tele has some further information that not been aired yet in the public domain, it has published these photos on the word of just one man, and stunningly circumstantial evidence. The woman looks like she could be Hanson, and Johnson recalls the woman’s name to be “Pauline”. Is that really all they are going on? A name and a likeness? Could it in anyway be fair or just for a newspaper to publish photos of someone in a state of undress without proving beyond reasonable doubt that the photos feature who they think they do?

It is currently unclear whether Neil Breen and the Tele have been played like fiddles, John Johnson is just plain mistaken, or, in fact, the photos do feature Hanson and the controversial belle from Ipswich has purposefully or absent-mindedly put the whole episode behind her. What is clear is that regardless of her political views, Pauline Hanson has been needlessly burnt at the stake in the media once again, and it is looking likely that she will collect a swag of votes from a sympathetic electorate when this episode is finally done and dusted.

For once I am with Tim Blair and Andrew Bolt – whether they feature Hanson or not (and there is a decent chance they do not) publishing these photos was a mistake of diabolical proportions. The pursuit of a lurid exclusive has landed the Tele knee deep in excrement.

Good news for the ABC and SBS

I am quite sure that industry veterans working for the ABC and SBS have become accustomed to their Federal Government telling them to tighten up their act, cut costs, and to not expect any funding increases in the near future. In other words, funding cuts in real terms, at a minimum. This sort of attitude from government can only work to the operational detriment of Australia’s public broadcasters, in a media environment where the Australian market is being flooded with often high-profile, low-quality programming from overseas. In recent years, we have the humble ABC to thank for critically acclaimed shows such as Seachange, The Hollowmen, and of course the various incarnations of the Chaser Team’s hijinks. The 7:30 Report, despite the occasional flat batting from Kerry O’Brien, remains the most important current affairs program on Australian television. SBS, of course, continues to screen the best documentaries available on free to air, and offers a global perspective on day-to-day news not offered by any other station.

It is thus extremely satisfying (and refreshing!) to read the reflections of Senator Stephen Conroy in this report from Matthew Ricketson in The Age today:

Senator Conroy said the federal cabinet would have “a very healthy debate” about the next round of funding for the public broadcasters. “I will be going in hard in the next budget debates, saying that the future is dramatically shifting,” he said. “The ABC and the SBS have a responsibility to step up to the plate, but to do that they will need new funds, and Kevin Rudd and the Labor Government understand the changing nature of the media.”

Mark Scott and his colleagues working for our public broadcasters must be shocked, having become conditioned during the life of the previous government to having their organisations used as public waste receptacles by high profile ministers.

I have (I think fairly!) taken more than one swing at Senator Conroy over the government’s content filtering plans, but with respect to his stated vision for the public broadcasters, I think he deserves some kudos. Once again we have someone in the Federal Government who is prepared to do the unfashionable thing and actually stand up for the public services that so many of us take for granted, to the ire of blinkered right-wing sell off merchants everywhere. Let’s hope we see some results when it comes to the crunch on this front.

Minding Your Money – a bridge too far?

Last weekend, some readers will no doubt have tuned into Channel Seven’s landmark Minding Your Money: An Audience with the Prime Minister program which was televised on Sunday evening. Hosted by David Koch, the program featured Prime Minister Kevin Rudd fielding questions from a studio audience on Australia’s standing in the global financial crisis. For those that missed the program, it can be viewed on the Yahoo7 site here.

From all reports, the Prime Minister went down a treat with the studio audience, who reportedly were drafted in from the Sunrise email newsletter subscriber base. Watching the program, I certainly felt that Rudd did a damned good job of making clear his position on the issues raised by audience members, as well as conveying a sense of warmth and pathos. One could never have imagined John Howard fronting up like this, to a television studio audience in an impromptu fashion. With respect to the government’s relationship with the media, the former Howard Government was probably quite happy to keep doing things the way they had been done for the last few decades, with a couple of honourable exceptions.

Of course, “stunts” like this one will also attract cynicism from some quarters, and to be fair, that’s probably a good thing. I am quite sure that some viewers, when confronted with their Prime Minister lecturing them in an ad hoc fashion on national television, moved swiftly to issue an abusive remark and change the channel. Without necessarily being critical, there is the scent of something Orwellian in Rudd’s decision to participate in the program. The relationship between government and the media is arguably entering a new phase, whereby politicians with the requisite gall and self-confidence (some would say, arrogance?) can push themselves into previously unchartered openings in the infotainment landscape. When the Prime Minister offers himself up as a television host, as he effectively did last Sunday night, should we be concerned or appreciative that the government is launching itself into the infotainment sphere? Or both?

For my money, I think the endeavour offers some promise. At half an hour, including commercials and David Koch interludes, it was a bit saccharine for my tastes, but I think with some changes in the format, it could really fly. I would actually like to see senior members from the Federal Government or Opposition face up to scrutiny from a studio audience for an hour, once a week. We all know that parliament itself has declined in value as a house of debate in recent years, and the scrutiny of politicians in press conferences is at arms length from the majority of the population, twisted and mangled as it is into tidy packages for the nightly network news programs. Why not usher in a new, more direct breed of political debate into our living rooms?

Politics in itself can’t effectively compete with entertainment when it comes to holding people’s interest in the short-term, but maybe political infotainment can. In an age where hedonism is king and political apathy is of considerable concern for our democracy, why shouldn’t political parties be seizing every avenue they can for engaging people in debate about the big issues of the day?

When in doubt, attack the ABC

I note with interest that Senator Eric Abetz has apparently attacked the ABC’s Q & A program in a Senate estimate committee hearing today. The full Hansard transcript will probably be worth a review before we pass total judgement, although the following report from AAP raises a couple of interesting opening questions:

Figures show that over the course of the program’s 2008 season, 32 per cent of the audience was made up of Labor supporters, while just 24 per cent supported the coalition.

In other words, the representation of Coalition supporters in the audience for this show in 2008 was on average 75% of that of the number of Labor supporters present. But is this really a big deal?

It might be worth reminding Senator Abetz that the Coalition only has 78% of the number of seats in the House of Representatives that Labor has in the current federal parliament. I wonder if he is also concerned about this imbalance.

The Coalition quite frankly should not be expected to be entitled to equal representation to Labor in the audience of this program. It is only entitled to receive representation proportional to the amount of support it enjoys in the nation at large. Senator Abetz might like to believe that this is 50/50; but this is nothing but a petty distortion. The senator should get on with the job with helping his party become an effective opposition, and cease bashing the national broadcaster when it is not particularly warranted.

Obama, Osama, a media piñata

Sure, I think this is kind of clever and “wryly amusing”, but coming as it is supposedly from a liberal publication like The New Yorker, it is also somewhat stupefying. Don’t the magazine’s editorial staff realise (or is it that do they just don’t care?) that there are people out there in the United States whose racist or just plain insane views about Barack Obama could do without any (even satirical) reinforcing? In a not dissimilar fashion to the Mohammed cartoon fiasco, what we seem to have here is a media outlet indulging in a form of lurid self-gratification; self-gratification, of course, in the name of editorial freedom, artistic integrity, or whatever other elitist flag one can conceive of being bandied about.

Either that or it is just a plain colossal misjudgment that records (in wink nudge, ha-ha triplicate) that self-destructive foolishness is alive and well in the liberal media. Needless to say, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for any prominent conservative publication to make their man look like a joke on the front cover, for the sake of some insider giggles. No sir. Only us smart guy liberal types shoot down our own for laughs.

When celebrity news supercedes real news

I am currently reading Dawn of the Dumb, a collection of newspaper columns by comedian and Guardian columnist Charlie Brooker. While a good proportion of the columns in the book relate specifically to British popular television “entities”, most of whom I am not too familiar with, Brooker is nevertheless successful in his vicious running of the rule over the inanity of modern news culture and indeed the cult of celebrity. This excerpt from a column of his from October 2005 makes a fairly canny observation about the media and celebrity:

The police have charged a man with committing murder in an Oxfordshire village occasionally used as a location for the TV series Midsomer Murders. I know this because I read it in the paper, in a single-paragraph story with the heading'”Midsomer” Murder: Suspect Charged’.

Surely it’s bad enough being murdered, without the news of your death being reportedly solely in relation to a TV phenomenon that’s nothing to do with you. Imagine the coverage if you were run over and killed by the bloke that played the Honey Monster. I’d rather not make the papers at all.

Brooker goes on to observe that while he was in Edinburgh for that city’s comedy festival earlier that year, if the bar in which he and a few other comedians (including The Office’s Ricky Gervais) were drinking at happened to burn down, it would be an almost certain bet that the tragedy’s coverage would be skewed by the media to focus primarily on the victim who happened to be the biggest celebrity; namely Gervais. Anyone else who died would almost certainly just be tragic footnotes to the central story.

Nonsense, do you think? Well courtesy of the now depressingly tabloid Sydney Morning Herald, Brooker’s point has sadly been winningly proved by the front page of the SMH website as at around 9:30PM this evening (Thursday 19th June):


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Perhaps it would be pedantic to compare the proportion of the image above that is focused on the unfortunately attacked (but only injured) All Saints star to the area dedicated to the tragic murder of a here-to-fore anonymous Sydney chef. Pedantic it might be, but it does give some rough indication of what was considered really important and newsworthy by smh.com.au.

Clearly even a “somewhat” famous face trumps the story of a tragic loss every time.

ELSEWHERE: Nicholas Lezard succinctly sums up the visceral appeal of Brooker’s diatribes.

Forging new ground in mistake-riddled media

Amidst the fascinating news breaking about the wreck of the HMAS Sydney finally being found, this wonderful opening vignette from an AAP story, reproduced mindlessly by The Age:

The wreckage of HMAS Sydney, sunk off the West Australian coast in 1941, has been found, Prime Minisiter Ken Rudd confirmed this morning.

There are a lot of derogatory yet fair things that people can say about bloggers, but I think there would probably be very few out there who comment on politics and are capable of getting the name of the Australian Prime Minister wrong. By and large I think it’s fair to say that if someone is getting paid to do a job, you expect more than a kindergarten level of quality control.

Demolishing media caricatures

One of my pet hates regarding the mainstream media is the way that personalities in the limelight are swiftly and forcefully reduced to archetypes, or caricatures. If you ask anybody what words spring to mind when they consider George W Bush as a person, it’s a fair bet that the answer will be at least partially derogatory. I certainly won’t contest the point that some or even most of the criticisms made of the US President are valid ones, but I also think that like anyone, there is much more to Bush than meets the eye initially. When people like George Bush, or Harbajhan Singh, or Amy Winehouse are attacked by commentators who don’t know them personally or seek to engage with them intellectually, one wonders whether they are really succeeding in identifying genuine flaws in their targets, or merely flaws that appear in the caricatures of the targets presented by the media. Do we usually score a hit on the person we are criticising, or are we merely connecting with their shadow, reflected grotesquely on the wall by the flash bulbs of the paparazzi?

What we do notice is that every now and again, someone has the courage (or the sheer bloody-mindedness) to challenge the media’s publicly accepted caricature of someone, and attempt to paint an altogether different picture of them and where they are coming from. Enter Bob Geldof. Geldof has written a number of pieces for TIME Magazine reflecting on President Bush’s achievements in Africa, and his good will tour there. To be honest, the former musician really does handle everyone’s least favourite president with kid gloves, but on the other hand, I challenge anyone to decry reported results like these:

The great unacknowledged story of America in Africa didn’t immediately originate with this President (John Kerry and Bill Frist initiated legislation in 2002 to conbat the continent’s AIDS epidemic). But it was accelerated hugely by him, increased by him, argued for by him and monitored by him. It has saved millions upon millions of lives and healed broken bodies; more than 1.5 million Africans are on lifesaving antiretrovirals.

Unusually, it is being done deftly, slowly and gently with due respect to the dignity of those it seeks to help. There are no votes in helping the poor of Africa, but Bush did it anyway.

It is these sorts of facts that don’t fit quite neatly into the universalist portraits of Bush that often win through in the mainstream media and in popular critiques. Yes, his administration made a terrible, bloody mess with foreign policy in Iraq and with its hawkish “axis of evil” rhetoric. It is patently true that he does not have a way with words like one might wish of a leader of the free world. The temptation to intellectually shrink Bush (and personalities like him) and what he stands for into a tiny caricature of the real person is overwhelming, but I think, for the sake of efficacy, we should all challenge ourselves to resist. There is more to our old mate Dubya than meets the eye, and more to his often horrifically bumbling but not entirely destructive administration than meets the eye.

As there is, I am quite sure, to virtually every other person presented to us through the media’s regressively simplifying lens.

ELSEWHERE: Another TIME piece from Geldof featuring Bush is online here.

Speaking ill of the dead

Immediately after a dictator dies, is it permissible to condemn them? What about a murderer, or a paedophile? In my mind the social norms regarding what is considered acceptable or unacceptable to say about the deceased are quite subjective. It is difficult to imagine, to take one example, the victim of a heinous crime not feeling some valid sense of relief and/or disgust in drawing their concluding thoughts about a deceased perpetrator. But then where does one draw the line? If a starving homeless man steals a loaf of bread from a shop but is then mown down by a semi-trailer, we would surely expect the shop owner to mourn the man’s death, and to consider the loss of the bread as a triviality by comparison. There is clearly a certain degree of immorality that a person has to exhibit before we consider some trampling on their grave to be morally acceptable.

The recent death of Paddy McGuinness and the astonishing comments of former Prime Minister Paul Keating on McGuinness in the Australian Financial Review are a case in point. Calling McGuinness a liar and a fraud, Keating rather rabidly asserted that the Australian media would be better off without him, and justified his stance with this argument:

In a long public life I have made it a rule never to speak ill of the dead; to not criticise someone who can no longer respond to the criticism. I am going to break that rule in the case of Paddy McGuinness. I do so for this reason: in the last two decades of his life, McGuinness heaped more vitriol and contumely on me than anyone in public life. Working on the notion that “the dogs may bark but the caravan moves on”, I rarely responded to his unreasonable and unceasing tirades. So, in that piggy bank of reasonableness, I have a massive store of credits that, in all fairness, I am in a moral position to draw on.

I have a lot of respect for Paul Keating and his achievements for the country and the Australian Labor Party. I am however inclined to strongly agree with Michael Short’s conclusions in The Age; namely that what Keating has written about McGuinness is “grotesque sludge”, and that the former PM has done himself a grave disservice by putting these conceited aggravations out into the public domain. Whatever Paddy McGuinness may have done to upset Paul Keating during his lifetime, it is difficult to imagine it justifying the obnoxiousness of Keating’s tirade. Rather than storing up all his venom in a so-called piggy-bank of “reasonableness” for over a decade, the former Prime Minister should have expelled it immediately after leaving office and moved on with his life. That some twelve years on, we have a former Prime Minister ripping a newly deceased political commentator to shreds in an opinion column probably says something about the personalities that the Australian political scene has provided succour to over the last two decades.

If Keating is trying to ensure that he is remembered first and foremost as being a ill-tempered and inordinately petty character, rather than a trailblazing Treasurer and Prime Minister, then he is doing a mighty fine job of it just at the moment.

The state of the media according to someone who should know

I am currently reading The Blair Years, an epic tome of political diaries written by Alastair Campbell, who was Tony Blair’s Director of Communications and Strategy from 1997 to 2003. Although the book suffers from my subjective standpoint due to my lack of knowledge about Labour politics and politics in the United Kingdom more broadly, it has offered a fascinating “fly on the wall” insight into one of the most historically important governments of the late twentieth century. Ever wondered what newly elected George Bush was like as President? (“a curious mix of cocky and self-deprecating, relaxed and hyper”, p.506) Or what Tony Blair and Bill Clinton used to talk about on the phone as leaders of their respective countries? Campbell has the extremely privileged position of being able to inform us.

The impression that I have formed of Campbell is that he is someone who has his heart firmly in the right place when it comes to politics, but is capable of being fairly brutally pragmatic if required and is quite intolerant of what he perceives as incompetence or a focus on the wrong issues. What is also obvious is that the time Campbell has spent on both the journalistic and political sides of the fence over the course of his career has profoundly informed his views on media and politics and the way the two interact in the modern world. His views on the state of the modern news media, perhaps unsurprisingly, are bitterly critical.

Last night he delivered the Hugh Cudlipp lecture at the London College of Communication. The full speech is here [PDF], and there is also a summary article from the Guardian here. The full speech is well worth a read, and is packed with succinctly phrased nuggets of observation on the modern media such as this one:

One of the reasons for the sheer volume of coverage attached to big events now is the near infinity in scale. Something has to fill it. A lot of the time, anything will do, whether political speculation, an airhead columnist, or the latest guff from last night’s reality TV shows. In radio, “text us your views” is seen by some no doubt as a great contribution to debate. In reality it is random people, identity unknown, making random comments to help broadcasters fill space. Sit down in front of your TV and channel hop, and the “something” filling the space tends to be a depressing combination of the downmarket, the dull, the cheap, the occasional good repeat plus, thank God, sport, where it is the event, rather than the surrounding hype and commentary, that really matters.

I defy anyone who is not a human drone to read that without nodding their head in agreement. The “something” that fills the space in media programming and publications these days so often seems to be there for no compelling reason at all, other than to “fill space”.

But perhaps even more worryingly is this thought from Campbell as he winds up his speech:

When I left Number 10, because there was a lot of coverage, I got a lot of letters. Some saying Good Riddance. Some saying thanks for what you did for Labour and for Tony. And some, fewer than the other two categories, but worrying, from people saying they have thought about going into politics, but they see what happens to people who put their heads above the political parapet – the near universal media contempt, the refusal to see much good in any of them, the difficulty in ever having complex points about complex issues debated let alone understood, the rooting through dustbins, the targeting of families – and they think why bother with all that
when they could have easier, more pleasant, more lucrative lives in business or in the media or others walks of life?

It is a damned good question, isn’t it?