Today’s post is the text of the speech I gave yesterday in Christchurch for the launch of Don’t Dream It’s Over - Reimagining Journalism in Aotearoa, which I edited along with Emma Johnson, Sarah Illingworth and Barnaby Bennett.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
A nationally televised, prime time, half hour current affairs programme, hosted by a beloved journalist, consistently breaking and covering stories of recognised public value, gets cancelled.
It gets cancelled in spite of the fact that it is returning a profit for its commercial network.
It gets cancelled because the same slot could be exploited even more profitably by a lighter, cheaper programme.
Hosted by Ed Murrow and produced by Fred Friendly, See It Now ran on US television between 1954 and 1958.
Murrow had cut his teeth as a correspondent in Europe in the 1930s and 40s, when he was responsible among other things for an immensely influential radio report from the Nazi extermination camp of Buchenwald.
In its relatively brief life, See It Now was the first television programme to talk about the link between cigarette smoke and cancer. It was the first television programme to discuss the effects of radiation on human health after nuclear tests. Most famously, it is credited for hastening the fall from grace of Senator Joe McCarthy, and the winding up of the Senate Committee for the investigation of Un-American Activities.
Yet shortly thereafter the programme was moved to a Sunday afternoon time slot and eventually cancelled. It happened 58 years ago, before television broadcasts had even begun in New Zealand.
Three months after the end of See It Now, Murrow was honoured by the Radio-Television News Directors Association of Chicago. In accepting the award he delivered the famous ‘wires and lights in a box’ speech, in which he claimed among other things that, ‘during the peak viewing periods, television in the main insulates us from the realities of the world in which we live.’
Murrow proposed that the television industry set aside, on a voluntary basis, dedicated prime time slots for the discussion of matters of national importance, in a sort of mutual disarmament move.
It was a proposal such as you might find in our book. And I think I speak for my fellow editors when I say that we aspire for our book on reimagining journalism to read as well and sound as fresh in 58 years as Murrow’s speech does today.
At the same time, there is something uniquely depressing about the fact that the terms of the debate have shifted so little. By rights Murrow’s speech shouldn’t be current at all, and I’m sure he would be dismayed to learn that we still haven’t figured out how to reliably bring quality current affairs to a mainstream public, or safeguard the basic delivery of investigative journalism.
On one hand this underscores how nostalgia for the past is one of the least helpful responses to the current situation. There is really no golden age to be nostalgic for, and certainly no past to go back to. All we can do is to keep grappling with these frustrating problems, put our best ideas forward, and continue to agitate for a journalism at the service of democracy.
I’m really fond of Once in a Lifetime, which is how I came to know Freerange Press. To me, it was more than a book on how to rebuild a city, although that is certainly no small thing. It was a model of how to mobilise a diverse group of people from different knowledge domains and experiences in order to think deeply about a problem.
Books like these age well not because the reality they describe refuses to change, but because they map a set of concerns and aspirations that are common to different areas of our social life. As Barnaby Bennett pointed out while we were drafting the introduction to Don’t Dream It’s Over, Once in a Lifetime was already a book about journalism. In a way it was just a question of changing the title and the subject matter, and recruiting a new group of writers. But the blueprint was already there.
Like Once in a Lifetime, Don’t Dream It’s Over is grounded in the belief that this problem is not too big for us. And hopefully next time you hear someone say ‘We just can’t do this simple thing, it cant’ be done’, you’ll be able to wave the book and say ‘Look, we haven’t tried doing what it says in here yet. We aren’t done trying.’
I want to thank Freerange Press for including me in this project, I’m really proud of this book we made. Please join me in wishing Don’t Dream It’s Over a long and useful life.
The book is hitting the shops this week, or you can order it directly from Freerange Press.
Over the past few weeks I discussed the book with Sam Smith and James Dann, Paula Penfold talked about it with Wallace Chapman, and Barnaby Bennett dropped in on Kim Hill, while Russell Brown wrote a report of the panel he chaired with contributors at the Christchurch WORD Festival.
There will be a Wellington and an Auckland launch as well over the next little while. Look out for the details.
Finally, I’ll be at the Going West Festival with Sara Vuitalitu, Simon Wilson and Paula Penfold on September 11. I hope to see you at one of these things.