KERRY O’BRIEN. We can’t let ourselves off the hook (Part 2)

Apr 11, 2019

Part 2 of a speech delivered at The Walkley Fund for Journalism Dinner in Sydney on Friday April 5, 2019.

Every year at the Walkley Awards, we honour a craft that holds power in its various manifestations big and small, to account. We should also, all be prepared to reflect on our own failures.  

The Walkley Foundation, as part of its brief to promote quality journalism, seeks to highlight the immense importance of public interest journalism, as practised by quite a long honour roll of investigative reporters and researchers. But that form of journalism is still only one strand of the craft.

The journalism that is most commonly practised in this country today, as it is in all genuinely liberal democracies, is arguably failing at least as often as it’s succeeding. In every under-staffed newsroom where media releases are published with little or no basic fact-checking, it’s failing.

In every doorstop where camera operators are sent to record the shallow and self-serving lines of politicians without a proper, strong journalistic presence, it’s failing. In every regional centre where the presence of well-trained local journalists is too thinly spread, it’s failing. Every time we’re on the phone when we need to be on the beat to see a situation first hand, we’re failing.

Every time we devalue or disrespect the critical skill of sub-editing—in whatever the medium—we are failing our craft.

Every time media organisations reduce the ratio of wise older hands in the newsrooms of Australia to the younger journeymen and women, and the novices, because experience is more expensive, robbing the young of their mentors—the kinds of mentors that journalists of my era took for granted and flourished from—we’re failing.

Has journalism faced a bigger test of its effectiveness in the past 25 years than in its reporting of climate change—an issue arguably bigger than terrorism, bigger than the rise and hopefully (speaking personally) the fall of Donald Trump, bigger than so many other challenges that preoccupy so much of our waking hours and fill up so much of our journalistic space and time—because ultimately, it actually goes to how our planet survives.

Hold our political leaders to account for their failures on this front? Certainly. But we can’t let ourselves off the hook either. Tough subject to cover. Complex to explain to our readers, our viewers and our listeners. Very tough to hold their interest and keep them accurately informed and engaged over years of obfuscation and manipulation, and the fake information fed by vested interests, and the deniers or so-called agnostics, shrieking from their self-constructed pulpits.

But on any honest reflection, by any yardstick, we have to acknowledge our part in a failed democratic process with regard to climate change. I’m not urging hair shirts and self-flagellation (that’s the Catholic coming out in me)—but we should always be about seeing the whole picture of what we do, not just the bits we like about ourselves and our work.

I was a correspondent in the US for the Seven Network as the age of 24-hour news began to dawn. Because we had the Australian rights to CNN at the time, I saw their operation from the inside. I was struck by the amount of time their journalists spent spruiking in front of camera positions around the country as the live cross became increasingly ubiquitous. I was struck by the amount of time that was sucked up by journalists and other commentators filling the airwaves with cheap talk. Much cheaper than boots on the ground, in filling the big black hole of 24-hour news.

Twenty years ago, I returned to CNN in Atlanta as part of a study for the ABC on how news was being gathered in major television newsrooms in Britain and America. And I noticed a large graph on the wall framing the main stairs in the news centre, and the sign above it that read ‘CNN’s Chart of Human History’. When I took a closer look I realised it was actually a ratings chart. And the biggest event in human history according to CNN up to that point, was the day the police chased O. J. Simpson through the streets of Los Angeles after his wife had been murdered.

I’m not just talking about CNN here. I’m talking about the nature of modern news-gathering that’s under more severe pressure than ever before. I’m talking about the age of satellites in television, which while it introduced a greater and more immediate sweep of news coverage, also heightened the shallowness and the promotion of news—even serious news—as entertainment, or infotainment, as it quickly came to be called.

This coincided with another phase of the revolution—the arrival of technology that delivered colour to daily newspapers, followed closely by the marketers who began more and more to dictate what stories should be run to reach this demographic or that demographic—so newspapers could withstand the onslaught of instant television news.

And now we’re all struggling in the internet age; the age of digital disruption—well, traditional media outlets are. The new giants of this media age are doing very nicely indeed. And there’s another huge debate being had about all that.

At one level this is all very exciting. We’re seeing the Crikeys, the Buzzfeeds, the Huffington Posts, the Junkees and all the rest—although even those models are having their troubles evolving into more mature, long-term manifestations of reliable news coverage.

This is the age of the podcast—all those people around the world in their Gucci fitness uniforms listening to in-depth news and analysis as they power walk, or sit in traffic snarls on their way to work, or even as they go to sleep.

We’re actually awash with information—and on this front there are no borders. We can access just about anything we want if we know how, or have the resources to do it. Including fake news—and misinformation of the most toxic kind, feeding the prejudices of the naïve, the ignorant and the fearful. We’ve watched the deeply worrying rise of Donald Trump. We’re watching the rebirth of illiberal democracies in Europe. But we can’t be too derisive from the safety of distance because we’re all only too aware of our own endemic vacuum of leadership in this country.

With all this noise around us, The Walkley Foundation, a small but growing institution, is endeavouring to keep its eye on the ball. The protection and promotion of quality in journalism is our game—at the most basic level as well as at the pinnacle.

We’re not just about acknowledging the best and the brightest through an awards process that had small beginnings more than 60 years ago and now more than ever provides the gold standard that anchors arguably the single most important cornerstone of democracy—we are endeavouring to underwrite that gold standard in a very foundational way, to promote mentoring where it’s in short supply, to assist regional journalism to lift its horizons again, to provide a leg up to quality freelance journalism whose income base has all but collapsed.

That’s one reason we’ve established the Walkley grants to assist freelance journalists with worthwhile projects that might otherwise never see the light of day.

Thank you for joining with The Walkley Foundation in its pursuit of excellence. Thank you for your ongoing support.

Part 2 of a speech delivered at The Walkley Fund for Journalism Dinner in Sydney on Friday April 5, 2019.

Kerry O’Brien is Chair of The Walkley Foundation. He is former editor and host of the 7.30 Report and former host of Four Corners and Lateline, all on the ABC.

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