Monday, April 13, 2015

The show can't go on

Discussions about the state of our media have come more and more to resemble that old joke that Woody Allen used in Annie Hall:
“The food here is terrible.”
“Yes, and the portions are so small!”
We complain about the quality of our journalism and simultaneously about its dwindling state. Less often, when we stand to lose a genuinely good show – such as Campbell Live can be – the reaction may seem less incongruous, but then it too quickly morphs into a sort of nostalgia for the present time, when in spite of everything we still have (or, very soon, had) at least one prime-time current affairs programme that isn’t total shit.

So many of the campaigns and struggles around which what’s left of the Left can broadly unite these days are rear-guard in nature, and as such aspire for little, or seek to preserve what until yesterday some of us wanted to leave behind. Say, an economic system that provides a modicum of job security without a meaningful share of the national wealth; or a BBC-style national broadcasting system founded on myths of neutrality and objectivity that most people have long-since stopped believing in.

Yet it is reasonable – important, even – to point out where we are relative to where we used to be, if only because the current iteration of economic liberalism promised to achieve old goals with new means. Thus, to stay with the previous two examples, general prosperity without workers’ rights, or public-service information on a private-profit basis. In this respect one of the most significant moments of this past week was hearing Mediaworks’ chairman Rod McGeoch make the following admission to Matt Nippert and Phil Taylor:
We put news on, but only because it rates. And we sell advertising around news. This is what this is all about.
This would almost sound acceptable if the state-owned channel had any more of an obligation to provide the news as the only other national channel does. But since this is not the case, a suitable response might be to take Mr McGeoch’s frequencies away and see how he likes that particular crate of apples. Which of course requires political will, and possibly an appetite for TPP-style international litigation. But this is where we are at, and it should bother us that it took a corporation’s chairman to state it so clearly.

This Julie Christie, who hastened my sexual awakening by an estimated 16 weeks, is offered in lieu of the one who is currently Head of Firing John Campbell at Mediaworks

Used as I still am to how some things work in the old country, I have not ceased to be struck over the last few months by the lack of a united voice of journalists throughout a series of events that have profoundly affected their industry. Where is their union? Do they even have one? I know, technically it’s the EPMU, and they put out the odd release during Dirty Politics, but nothing at the level and with the visibility that one might have expected in other countries in such tumultuous times. In particular, the lack of apparent solidarity towards Nicky Hager last year and John Campbell and his staff this year has been staggering.

I have no moralising intent: workers do not organise when their working conditions prevent them from organising; workers do not speak when they are gagged. I expect this to apply to journalists as much as to any other category, and more broadly as a country we suffer from this enforced silence. So much so I’m sometimes tempted to call it (with dramatic flourish) omertà, as if it were a code on which the survival of too many depended. But the more prosaic reality is that if you are an intellectual – therefore a person likely to have first-hand knowledge of how the media industry interacts with the public service and other centres of power – you’re also likely to hold down a job that prevents you not just from speaking out, but from speaking at all. And when the topic that can’t be discussed by those closest to it is how to sustain a critical public discourse, it spells a special kind of trouble for a society.

Given the state of things as acutely summarised by Mr McGeoch, I struggle to follow the debate on how much further the commercial model might take us, or credit the suggestion – straight out of Peter Pan – that Campbell Live will not be cancelled so long as we all promise to watch it more often. We won’t be saved by being better consumers, nor would things be significantly better if our business leaders were less short-sighted and awful. We have tasked the wrong people with solving this problem, and as we watch them extracting a diminishing profit from our desperate need for information, we had better come up with alternatives.

Some of these alternatives are staring us in the face, for the same government that kept bailing out Mediaworks could have taken the opportunity to ask itself: ‘Why the hell am I doing this?’ and ‘What am I getting in return?’ But today the Prime Minister has stated again that the conditions for public discourse are none of his business, days after one of his most junior charges saw fit to greet the demise of Campbell as a victory for team Hosking and the forces of good.

Reconstructing basic notions of the public good beyond petty and bloody-minded partisanship – for Labour’s record is hardly any better – is one of the tasks. But a bigger one is to imagine what a diverse, inclusive, critical journalism might look like, how to allow journalists to be central to this conversation, and what we need to do to make it happen before the plates of terrible food disappear altogether.

And yes, in the meantime we really ought to save Campbell Live if we can.