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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

Crabb on the media « Previous | |Next »
October 19, 2011

Annabel Crabb has an edited copy of a speech on changes in the media she gave at the Sydney Institute on The Drum. It is about a deep, elemental, structural revolution taking place in the media and what this means for democracy.

It is about the political class--the intertwining of politicians and journalists in liberal democracy that is most marked in the Canberra Press Gallery. The speech is more focused on the politicians than the journalists, as it pretty much ignores the bad practices of insider journalism.


Crabb acknowledges that the 20th century model of the media/politics relationship was a politico-media complex, a closed shop of ideas with its passive mass audience. She says that the status quo of the politico-media complex which has comfortably characterised political debate in Australia has changed radically in the last 10 years. In the last five, even. The old gatekeepers are losing control whose job it used to be to decide what people would or should like, are are losing control and are increasingly redundant.

Secondly, digital technology means that mass audiences are fragmenting into smaller segmented marketplace; more targeted advertising based on the information gleaned about consumer's preferences and behaviour; an active audience who critique what journalists write; and some kind of paywall---eg., Crikey now and The Australian coming very soon.

This is pretty much a summary of what we know. What then, are the implications for our deliberative democracy? For Crabb it is the disappearing town square:

The most legitimate concern about today's fractured media marketplace is that we no longer have a town square. A place where we're all on the same page. A moment - outside grand finals, or landmark episodes of Masterchef - at which a large chunk of Australians are all thinking about the same thing. ...At times, I think politicians get spooked by this freewheeling Babel of media with which they tangle each day. They are worried about getting a run in the media, to the extent that getting a run becomes the aim in itself ... they still crave control of the message, some sense that they are prevailing against the [feral] beast.

What does this mean for journalists? The dumbing down, or the coarsening of political debate, says Crabb is really democracy in action. The political discourse isn't getting stupider because we citizens have more to read.

Crabb makes no mention of the partisan campaigning style of News Ltd based on the deliberate mass deceptions and disinformation around issues, such as climate change, The Greens, and the national broadband network. She also evades the issue of journalists selling out their professional ethos to become political players with the shrill and hectoring tone of the schoolyard bully. Political journalism--both the horse race and 'she said he said' styles -- in Australia is broken backed. They more often than not write crap.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 11:54 AM | | Comments (13)


I rarely voluntarily read Crabbe. She, like most [all?] of her cohort, has no depth of understanding of the fundamentals of politics and equates gabbling about the personalities of the few with wisdom.
Nup. Fail.
Send her a copy of Chomsky and Herman's "Manufacturing Consent".
"Crabb makes no mention of the ......"
That is because she either doesn't understand the political dynamics involved or, if she does [and this is a nasty thought] is willingly complicit.
The poor lass needs [giving her the benefit of the doubt] to learn of other world viewpoints and socio-ecomomic realities other tham that of her elite closed circle.
Oh and just in case it seems I have a particular down on Crabby, I don't. I have actually read stuff of hers, a line or two, that made sense.
No its just that she is typical of journalism, and therefore most journalists, in this society.
Propagandists for hire.

The speech was the result of Crabb travelling to the United States with Eisenhower Fellowships. She says it was time for her to reflect, to observe and to think about the extraordinary changes that are tearing through the media industry.

It is worth reading.

Crabb starts from a low base:

In Australia, there is a hostile, scratchy feel to politics at the moment. Everyone's fed up to the back teeth with everyone else. The Government doesn't understand why newspapers write "crap", as the Prime Minister so pungently put it. Newspapers respond tartly that if Government's didn't dish up such crap, they wouldn't be obliged to report it. Whose fault is it all?

She adds that the 2010 election was up there with 2001 as a nasty election. It had a bad feel. For those of us working in the media, it had a chippy undertone, a mutually accusatory flavour between us, the politicians, and the public.

Whose fault was it that this was such a rubbish election? It's a chicken and egg kind of argument.

Who cares. We've moved on from that politicians versus journalists starting point. That's an insiders viewpoint.

fred says:
"Crabb makes no mention of the ......"
That is because she either doesn't understand the political dynamics involved or, if she does [and this is a nasty thought] is willingly complicit."

I would say wilfully complicit. She may have to work for Murdoch one day.

To give Crabb her due, she's at least understanding the structural changes going on and she doesn't see the audience as the enemy, like some. And she's sworn off writing about polls.

What she's not doing is responding to audience criticisms of puff reporting. She's still treating politicians' antics as though they're the most important things happening in Canberra.

She says she's much better informed these days, reading what her audience tells her, but she's still protecting the politicians who feed her. As a journalist, she's still more useful to them than she is to us.

What Crabbe is pontificating about is not a fundamental or structural change.
Its a minor technological tweek which has yet to fundamentally change the media structure at all.
I presume, from the summary. that she has, as is usual for journalists, totally ignored the audience and probably does not recognize who it is.
Contrary to the ideology of conventional right wing journalism the public is not the audience for journalism. Hasn't been for about a 100 years when structural changes did occur in the media industry that led to the demise of the public as a major agency in the mass media picture.
Advertising agencies and corporations are the audience of the media.
Media, in this a capitalist society, exists not to inform the public about social issues, but to deliver their eyes and ears to corporations via the advertising which is the life blood of media companies.
Thats where the money is.
The change, and its yet to be seen just how fundamental it is, that has occurred is that advertising revenues are down in the print media as other avenues [eg the internet] have opened up.
But the relative impact on radio and TV is slight.
Enough for Murdochia [a broad country that includes Fairfaxland, and the ABC] to try to combat the NBN which is a threat to their revenue.
The essential characteristic of the mass media and thus its employees the journalists, is that it has to deliver eyeballs to advertising, the public is a passive powerless recipient in that process. Politicians are involved only as clowns on the Punch and Judy stage and to be kept in line so as not to divert the public from eyeballing ads.
Heaven help the corporations if journos were to actually involve the public in [beware, dirty words coming up] political issues.
Fundamental change might occur!!!

I used to read Crabb's stuff in the 'Sydney Morning Herald'. She should have stuck to the string of superficial one-liners, which could be quite funny at times, and not tried to become a Serious Media Personality.

In what alternative version of Australian history did we have a town square? Taken literally it is obvious nonsense but it doesn't make any more sense as a metaphor. Consequently her whole argument is revealed as a cutesie piece of showing off rather than a useful exercise in analysis. Given Nan's comment I can only conclude she's recycling something she wrote for a New England audience, for whom the concept of a town square square once had some actual relevance. Or maybe she stopped off at a Swiss canton on the way home, I don't know.

fred says:
"I presume, from the summary. that she has, as is usual for journalists, totally ignored the audience and probably does not recognize who it is."

Crabb is very aware of the audience:

The new model is perhaps not all that different from the old one. An element of up-front payment, and an element of hustle. In the old model, you paid a small price for the newspaper itself, and you exposed yourself in good humour to the implicit risk that you might feel more like buying a fridge by the end of reading the thing. That was the hustle; your partial attention was rented to advertisers, and sometimes it worked, and most of the time it didn't, but those were the odds and advertisers took them.

These days, the upfront payment is a work in progress. The hustle, though, is a new model. Rather than surrendering your partial attention as part of the trade, you are more likely, from now on, to be offering something much more valuable. Information. Perhaps you'll give your postcode. Or your age. Or your email address. Perhaps, your use of a news website in and of itself will leave a trail of golden identity crumbs. Are you unusually interested in articles about cars? Do you pounce on articles about housing prices? Or perhaps - most profitable of all - you might let on that you are expecting a baby, or renovating your bathroom.

She adds that pitching an ad at a thousand people whom you know are likely to be in the market for a stroller might be more valuable, to Mr Bugaboo, than an ad in a paper read by 200,000. You still pay. You just pay in different ways.

Thanks George.

It appears she has some glimmerings of the absolutely vital function that advertising plays in corporate media but cannot see that 'who pays the piper calls the tune'.
The growth of niche advertising vehicles is well illustrtated by "The Australian". It aims at the well to do high disposable income group and as such reinforces their political prejudices.
Few others, except for those dependent on it politically, bother to read it, hence the decline [however disguised] in its circulation.
Such has always been the way [ever since the demise of reader funded mass circulation newspapers], so its nothing new its been around since before my time, just being emphasised in the new media.
The 'News of the World' had tiny circulation numbers when it went down the gurgler compared to its own numbers and thise of others, eg "The Mirror] a generation prior.
The essential characteristic of mass media, the nexus between advertising, corporations and corporate media itself [including ABC/SBS] has not significantly changed and as such, the political class as it is termed, is, as previous, subservient to this characteristic and the public are, as previous, mere consumers, not of information, but advertising.

Crabb noticeable fails to mention that the ABC is no longer functioning as the quality leader it once was and is enabling the News Ltd jihad on global warming and other issues. To a certain extent her own vacuous ramblings exemplify this trend.

She talks about the commercial imperative as plainly delivering eyeballs to advertisers. She also suggests that advertising doesn't guarantee sales for advertisers, which is the first time I've seen a journalist say so up front.

The reading/listening/viewing audience is still the most important part of the game. Why else would newspapers be going to so much trouble to inflate circulation numbers? You can't seriously expect an advertiser to hand over squillions for a quarter page ad if can only deliver them an audience of 100 readers.

To the extent that audiences consume media for the content, that content has to be useful to them in some way. That's my argument. Annabel telling people that both sides want to be seen as tough on asylum seekers isn't as useful as, say, explaining why both policies are rubbish.

Personally, I like reading her stuff. Without her we wouldn't have the University of East Bumcrack. I don't see that a colour writer is the person to be analysing the problems with political reporting.

Ther's weeny bit of diversity as to views here.
Interestingly, "les femmes" have a little more regard for her handiwork than the blokes.
I agree she can be funny and incisive (at least more so than Miranda Devine); she can be a genuine irritatant, also.
I tend to subscribe to what's eventually contained in the quick summaries offered by Ken and Gary, as well most of the rest.
As Lynn says, perhaps following Fred and Ken slightly, its about "delivering eyeballs to aadvertisers".
I actually take that literally; the eyeballs would be delivered to sponsors with the rest missing, if it made them a quid..

There will be changes soon---not just The Australian going behind a paywall. When it does I won't be paying them.

The changes I have in mind is that after Murdoch departs that will be the end of The Australian. It is loss making newspaper.

Australian democracy will be better for it.