24 October, 2012

Journalists, Twitter Gaffes and Freedom of Expression

What action should media employers take when one of their journalists crosses the line on Twitter? And what are the implications for freedom of expression when a news organisation seeks to sack, or censor a journalist over an independently published tweet? These are questions I’ve been pondering as I complete my PhD thesis – The Twitterisation of Journalism - and as I deliver social media training to journalists in newsrooms around Australia. 

To demonstrate the potential real world consequences of an indiscreet or injudicious tweet in a journalism education/training setting, I often cite the sacking of CNN’s Octavia Nasr (who was booted for tweets sympathetic to a deceased Hezbollah leader) and The Age columnist Catherine Deveny (sacked over that questionable satirical Bindi Irwin tweet), among others. 

But I also encourage debate about the implications of media employers effectively censoring journalists’ individual Twitter accounts. 

The ABC of Tweeting 

The ABC is assisting with my PhD project and I recently completed a qualitative survey of nearly 300 editorial staff about their experiences of, and views on, the intersection of Twitter and journalism. I’m still analysing the data but there is evidence of significant self-censorship among tweeting respondents, based in part on concern about being seen to bring the ABC into disrepute on Twitter. This may reflect the very simple and effective (as I have previously described it) ABC social media policy. But it also points to broader emerging questions about journalists and their implied right to freedom of expression as global citizens. 

The latest ‘Twitter incident' involving an Australian journalist is the case of one of the ABC’s most experienced foreign correspondents, Eric Campbell. Campbell’s Twitter feed is as engaging and entertaining, as it is informative. Well, at least it was – until he stopped tweeting a week ago, after three of his tweets (I’ll come back to these in a moment) were declared sexist by conservative columnists (See Andrew Bolt's , Gerard Henderson’s and Cut & Paste's typically anti-ABC critiques) and became the subject of complaints raised with ABC Managing Director Mark Scott by Liberal Senator Eric Abetz during a Senate Estimates hearing. Scott has (necessarily) referred the issue to ABC management for investigation.
Eric Campbell's Twitter gags

So, let’s look at Eric Campbell’s tweets – specifically the ones being investigated by the ABC. Here they are, in succession:

 ONE Complete this joke: Tony Abbott's COS and a mussel walk into a bar ... 

TWO Ouch! That hurt' said the mussel. Why didn't you duck? said the COS
THREE The bar was actually, like an iron bar. And the mussel hit even though it's really short. And ... never mind, I'm going home sick 

The context required to understand the potential offence caused includes reports of a sexist and defamatory joke made about Federal Opposition leader Tony Abbott’s Chief of Staff Peta Credlin. But it also includes the debate over shock jock Alan Jones’ universally condemned attack on PM Gillard in reference to her dead father, the sleazy text messages sent by the former Speaker Peter Slipper and the broader global story of Gillard’s anti-misogyny ‘smackdown’ speech in the Australian parliament.  

Sexism is in the eye of the tweet beholder

When I saw Campbell’s tweets, as a long time follower of his on Twitter who had witnessed his anti-sexist tweeting in the preceding period, I interpreted them as a satirical critique of the sexist humour and political discourse dominating recent headlines. I thought he was trying to make the point that much debate about the so-called ‘Gender Wars’ in Australian politics amounted to a bad joke. When I asked my own Twitter followers what they thought of Campbell's tweets this week, all respondents essentially agreed that they weren't sexist. Journalist Nici Lindsay replied: “I thought it was an absurdist gag acting as a critique of the absurd political situation,” while Kristie Cavanagh saw “(Campbell’s) tongue firmly in (his) cheek.” Tammi Jonas called the tweets “incomprehensible” but described them as an “inoffensive bad joke.” As writer/broadcaster Helen Razer tweeted about one of her own jokes that fell flat during the exchange, “I guess if one must explain a joke then it hasn’t functioned.” But a weak attempt at satire does not a sexist make. And while Peta Credlin is, of course, entitled to be offended at Campbell’s gags, as a feminist Twitter user, I didn’t read them as sexist and neither did I find them offensive.  

Disciplinary action  

Regardless, according to The Australian, Campbell faces possible disciplinary action over these tweets as a product of the ABC management investigation that, according to ABC policy, could lead to a misconduct charge. Campbell is undoubtedly one of the more outspoken ABC journalists on Twitter and he attracted international attention with his campaign against News Ltd columnist Greg Sheridan’s attacks on ABC journalists. The ABC’s critics have no doubt been waiting for him to err on Twitter. 

Certainly, ABC management has been made to feel uncomfortable by Campbell’s tweets – especially in such a heated political environment, one feature of which is the spectre of the budget axe that looms every time a Coalition government looks imminent. But is disciplinary action warranted in this case? What kind of precedent would it set? And what signal would such action send regarding the ABC's attitude to freedom of expression? These questions are likely already among those being contemplated by ABC editorial managers as they investigate the complaints raised by Senator Abetz.

The right to be offended 

While I have been a vocal critic of Alan Jones’ public statements on the PM’s father at that now infamous Sydney Young Liberals dinner, I do not believe he should have been sacked for making them. The right to be offended is the price we pay for supporting freedom of expression in a democracy. And the reality is that Australian and Communications and Media Authority regulations didn’t apply to that ‘off air’ after dinner speech, any more than the ABC Charter applies to Twitter. I would also argue that there’s a world of difference between Campbell’s trio of tweets and Jones’ highly offensive public statements (Ditto the donation of a chaff bag by the Woolworths executive who MCd the Jones dinner). 

Nevertheless, there is a strong argument that Campbell should have listened to his ABC radar (tuned to the corporation's social media policy) and steered well clear of Twitter gags in this risky territory, in the interests of good taste and in recognition of the significant potential for misinterpretation in the current climate. Some may judge his tweets as ill-advised, poorly timed and poorly executed. Others will maintain they were offensive. 

The private public clash and Twitter's limitations 

The Campbell case highlights the limitations of Twitter as a platform for nuanced satire. Despite Twitter's function as a public conversation platform which builds context over time, tweets are often viewed by users as decontextualised individual posts. The case also reflects one of the key themes of my PhD – the consequences of merger of professional and public journalistic lives on Twitter. Among these consequences is the recasting of journalists as opinionated citizens and associated debates about objectivity and transparency. Media employers want to leverage journalists' audiences on Twitter where opining is the norm. This is a particularly delicate balancing act for ABC journalists, who are professionally bound to standards of impartiality, as Media Watch's Jonathan Holmes has observed in reference to the ABC opinion website, The Drum. 

But it's also problematic territory for ABC managers and the Campbell case echoes some of the questions I’ve been pondering more broadly with regard to media employers' handling of such Twitter incidents. As the boundaries diminish between journalists' private and public lives on open social media platforms, it is arguably increasingly difficult for journalists to claim that their personal Twitter accounts "are not the views of my employer". But at the same time, it is growing more difficult for employers to apply standards of conduct required of journalists on official corporate platforms to their personal social media accounts.  

The problems with regulating social journalists 

Twitter can't be treated as just another chunk of traditional media real estate by employers attempting to control professional journalists’ activities in the space in the interests of corporate reputation management. There are several problems and a number of risks involved in trying to police an individual journalist’s Twitter feed by subjecting it to the same publication requirements applicable to a masthead or a radio program, for example. Some of the problems and risks with this approach include: 

1. News organisations can’t regulate publication on Twitter. 
2. Regulatory policies (e.g. the ABC Charter and ACMA rules) are not designed for application to individual users’ social media accounts (in spite of references in journalists' social media bios to their employers). 
3. Media employers don't own individual journalists' personal social media accounts, nor their audiences. 
4. Editorial managers could find themselves being manipulated by politicians and others seeking to limit critique by journalists on social media sites. 
5. There is growing acceptance within media organisations internationally that social media audiences are capable of reconciling journalists' personal opinions and experiences with their capacity to independently report on the issues about which they commentate. 
6. Tweeting journalists are arguably more accountable to their audiences than they are as comparatively cloistered members of an inner-city newsroom. Their audience may be the best and most effective regulator of their commentary. 
7. Fear of putting a pinky toe out of place may make editorial staff reluctant to enter or be active in the Twittersphere when the media organisation is desperate to leverage their journalists’ audiences in the space, on which they’re increasingly dependent for content distribution. 
8. Threatening journalists with disciplinary action over tweets on their personal account may lead to their silencing in the space – depriving their audiences there of their insights and micro-reporting. 
9. Penalising or sacking a journalist for ‘saying things’ sends a negative message regarding media organisations’ investment in freedom of expression and self-regulation campaigns. 
10. News organisations now understand Citizen Journalism but they’re still coming to grips with the realisation that their journalists are themselves firstly and foremostly citizens - with views and experiences that citizenship entitles them to share.  

The most important thing 

In reflecting on the broader issue of the balance between regulation and freedom of expression on the Internet, UNESCO’s Director of Freedom of Expression and Media Development Guy Berger recently observed: “The biggest problem isn’t the abuse of freedom of expression but that freedom of expression isn’t being tolerated.” 

“The most important thing is not to bring limitations on freedom of expression but to promote freedom of expression,” Berger said. I think that’s also sage advice for media employers attempting to manage and regulate their journalists’ conduct on Twitter as the 'rules of engagement' continue to shift.    [read more]

02 October, 2012

Setting the record straight on 'trial by social media' and The Australian

The Australian sure knows how to maintain a vendetta. Indeed, Murdoch’s national broadsheet is the originator of what I call ‘vendetta journalism’ in Australia.

For abundant evidence, read Robert Manne’s excellent recent essay, Bad News, in which he assesses the anti-democratic impact of The Australian’s reportage in recent years. And you can watch him discuss the issues here.


My own experience of being at the receiving end of one of The Australian’s vendettas began in 2010 when I defended the popular and thoughtful blogger Grogs Gamut, who was unmasked as public servant Greg Jericho by the paper, in a move which threatened his employment. But the attacks went ‘postal’ when I live-tweeted a public lecture given by a journalist who had recently left The Australian’s employ. She was threatened, and so was I, with defamation suits by the editor-in-chief of a newspaper which loudly proclaims itself a champion of freedom of speech and “The Right to Know” (Google #Twitdef and Chris Mitchell if you’re bored).

Many headlines and column inches later, Mitchell let the defamation threat lapse in accordance with the statute of limitations, but his newspaper has continued its bizarre, sarcasm-laden campaign against me, and any part I take in public debate.

Setting the record straight

Last time I asked the newspaper for an apology or correction over what I viewed as defamatory coverage of me, I was rebuffed. And I have recently practiced a policy of not responding to The Australian’s attacks. But its decision to use the harrowing Jill Meagher case to continue the vendetta has drawn me out - with a view to setting the record straight (which academic colleagues have encouraged me to do).

Trial by social media in the Jill Meagher case 
Over the past week, I’ve been doing my small part to try to educate social media commentators about the risks of sub judice contempt and what I’ve called ‘trial by social media’ in the tragic case of the rape and murder of Jill Meagher. As the investigators and media law experts have warned, along with Jill’s grief stricken husband Tom, speculation about ‘the accused’ (41 year old Adrian Ernest Bayley of Coburg) threatens to jeopordise his prosecution. (See my Storify on the issues, if you’re interested, and read my comments in The Age).

Cut N Pasted 

The Australian, ever keen to suggest that I’m an incompetent journalism lecturer, pretended to re-educate me in an anonymously penned section called Cut N Paste. Here’s what they published on Saturday:

"The Age on one aspect of the Jill Meagher case yesterday:

UNIVERSITY of Canberra journalism academic Julie Posetti said users needed to be aware of potential implications of "trial by social media" by posting about the accused. "In this particular case, it would be awful to think about the potential consequences including an incapacity to prosecute somebody because of trial by social media, for example," said Ms Posetti, who is writing a PhD on Twitter's role in journalism.

So how did she go? Posetti on Twitter yesterday:

DEAR tweeters: your anger & anguish @ #JillianMeagher's murder is understandable but commentary about her accused may risk his prosecution.
And a little later:

... IN the social media age everyone needs a media education.

Good idea. In that spirit, Julie, some free media education from your friends at Cut N Paste: 
WHEN linking a crime to the accused - as you have by using the word "his" - don't forget to use the word "alleged". Or use "death" in lieu of the M word. Tell your friends, tell your Twitter followers and, most importantly, tell your journalism students.

Hope this example helps. One headline on australian.com yesterday: 

"ALLEGED killer faces Meagher family."

Tweet fine: "The whole thing is absurd"

So, was my tweet legally risky? No. Not in the least. But don’t take my word for it, take that of lawyer and former ABC TV Media Watch host, Richard Ackland.

He emailed the following comments on the Cut N Paste piece to me and he’s permitted me to publish them here:

“The whole thing is absurd.

Your tweet was perfectly fine.

They seem to be suggesting that it might have been prejudicial. How exactly?

It's the obligation of journalists and others not to prejudice the trial of an accused.

There was no prejudice in what you said.

You used the word "accused" in relation to the person charged. 

That implies, even to the most half-witted person, that prior to a verdict of guilt it is an accusation.
Their example "Alleged killer faces Meagher family" in no way contradicts or corrects what you tweeted.

What are they saying? - that you should have tweeted "Accused man charged with alleged murder of Jill Meagher". The allegation relates to the accused, unless the police are saying that somehow Jill Meagher dug a shallow grave, jumped in and covered it over herself.” 

Another day, another jibe

And The Australian was at it again yesterday. The paper’s Legal Affairs Editor, Chris Merritt, is taking exactly the opposite view to Cut N Paste on the social media risks in the Jill Meagher case. But he still found reason to ridicule me for suggesting to social media users that they’d be wise to exercise caution in their commentary on the accused man, given the potential risks. Merritt’s point is that trying to change the behaviour of social media users is futile; it is the sub judice contempt law that needs to be changed, to accommodate new patterns of communication.

As I’ve said on Twitter, in interviews and in the Storify I posted on the issue, I agree that law reform may be necessary in response to the disruptive influence of social media. But until the law is changed, I believe we must work with it. And I’d rather go hoarse urging caution and promoting media literacy, than throw my hands up and advocate a social media free-for-all that could derail the trial of Jill Meagher’s alleged killer under current law.

What is weird about Merritt’s story is that he chose to target me alone for criticism, when my concerns regarding the Jill Meagher case echoed public comments from those prosecuting the case and many legal experts. Among them, one of Australia’s leading media law experts, Mark Polden:
“For anyone to publish what is claimed to be an image of an accused person is fraught with danger and it’s very bad for the justice process…quite unknowingly an image like that can replace itself in the mind of an eyewitness and it renders eyewitness testimony inherently unreliable,” Polden told 2SER in a report last Friday which also quoted me.

“It’s not unfathomable that there could be such a conflagration, such a firestorm of social media commentary about a particular case that an application could be made that an individual cannot get a fair trial,” he said. “Individuals need to ask themselves: does what I’m doing have the potential to interfere with a fair trial? Could my sense of moral outrage lead to someone not being able to get a fair hearing?” Polden also told Crikey.

The big picture

The risks are so great, in fact, that following Facebook's refusal to remove potentially prejudicial pages pertaining to the case, Australia's Attorneys General will hold a special meeting on Friday in an effort to consider the implications and the possibilities for law reform.

Yes, the big picture here is the horrendous murder of Jill Meagher and the fascinating but problematic impacts on judicial processes of social media disruption.

Nevertheless, I’m encouraged to see The Australian taking a progressive approach to social media issues, in Merritt's piece at least – it sure beats using defamation law to threaten a journalist who used Twitter to accurately report a speech the Editor-in-Chief wanted no one to hear.    [read more]

28 September, 2012

Avoiding Trial by Social Media in the Jill Meagher Case

I produced this Storify on the social media issues surrounding the heartbreaking story of the rape and murder of ABC Radio's Jill Meagher. My objective is to extend media literacy more broadly among social media users and to provide resources to help people understand the very real risks that exist when publishing comments and content about live criminal cases.    [read more]

14 August, 2012

Media Regulation, Murdoch and the Journalism Wars of Oz*

*This post is an edited version of an article that will appear in the Rhodes Journalism Review of South Africa in September 2012

Rupert Murdoch’s toxic phone-hacking legacy has the potential to undermine media freedom in Australia – his country of birth - where the government is considering recommendations for the regulation of all ‘news’ media, including low traffic blogs.

As the News of the World Scandal brewed, Murdoch’s most influential Australian titles declared ‘war’ on the minority Labor government, the Australian Greens and other perceived ideological enemies. At the same time, public trust in professional journalism continued to diminish and many media critics declared self-regulation a failure. In response, the Australian media was put on trial by the Federal Government in 2011 but the jury is still out

Recommended: Statutory regulation of all Australian news media  

Media ownership concentration is a major cause of disaffection with Australian journalism. Murdoch owns nearly 70 percent of all print media in Australia, including the only national broadsheet newspaper The Australian, and he has a significant stake in the Australian Pay TV market. His ubiquitous brand is arguably a threat to media pluralism and diversity in Australia. It is certainly a threat to local politicians out of step with Murdoch’s politically conservative values and ambitions, along with News Limited (News Corporation’s Australian subsidiary) critics who dare to challenge Murdoch’s Australian media stranglehold and his journalists’ work. 

But while Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard, backed by Greens politicians and some independent MPs, insisted that Australia’s News Limited had ‘questions to answer’ in the aftermath of the UK phone-hacking fiasco, the Government baulked at re-examining Australian media ownership laws. Instead, it hastily established the Independent Media Inquiry to examine ethics and regulation, with an emphasis on the print media. 

Retired judge Ray Finkelstein oversaw the Inquiry, established in September 2011, with the assistance of journalism professor Matthew Ricketson (Declaration: Ricketson is a colleague of mine at the University of Canberra). After taking public submissions and hearing from invited participants (mostly senior editors, publishers and academics), the Finkelstein Inquiry (as it became known) reported back to government, at speed, in February 2012. 

While the final report included important scholarship on the history of Australian media regulation, contemporary challenges to journalism, and professional journalistic standards and ethics, the key recommendation was for the establishment of an ‘independent’ government-funded, cross-platform regulator covering content defined as news and/or news commentary, to be called the News Media Council. The NMC would replace the Australian Press Council (self-regulatory body for print media) and subsume some functions of the Australian Communications Media Authority (broadcast and online government regulator). 

The NMC would capture traditional news media across all platforms – including newspapers, online media and the national public broadcasters ABC and SBS (multicultural broadcaster) - which are already separately regulated by acts of parliament. Foreign online news publishers with ‘more than a tenuous connection to Australia’, would also be captured by the NMC. 

Low traffic blogs & social media caught in the regulation net 

The threshold for print publications would be 3,000 copies per issue. But websites with a paltry 15 thousand ‘hits’ per year (and by hits, they mean total page views per annum, not unique visitors), including social media sites, would fall within the NMC’s jurisdiction. Aside from the implications for freedom of expression, can you imagine the bureaucratic nightmare involving a statutory body, funded to the tune of AU$2million, being tasked with assessing complaints against the tens of thousands of Twitter feeds, Facebook pages and opinionated blogs caught by the regulator? 

As respected Australian business journalist Alan Kohler wrote, at the time the report’s recommendations were delivered, “This (15,000 ‘hits’) is a very silly number and suggests that Finkelstein and Ricketson didn’t do enough work on understanding online publishing. Even a tiny news blog would get that many page views in a week, or even a day.”  

Media Wars 

The recommendation for a News Media Council had an immediately polarising impact when the Finkelstein report was handed down, with much of the mainstream media coverage rich in hyperbole and insults directed at the report’s authors and its supporters. In fact, in the wake of the report, The Australian newspaper appeared to declare a ‘culture war’ on the journalism academy in response to the public championing of the Finkelstein recommendations by several journalism academics. 

Rather than facilitating much-needed intelligent national debate on media standards and ethics, the effect of this coverage was the re-entrenchment of divides between journalists and audiences, and an anti-intellectual backlash against journalism academics and media studies scholars in general. In the News Limited press, the report’s findings were compared with media regulation in Nazi Germany and North Korea, something Ricketson found repugnant. “The problem was not media regulation, the problem was Hitler’s criminality,” he wrote

The problem with Ricketson’s statement, however, is that it depends on unassailable confidence that Australia will never become beholden to a criminal government, nor a despotic leader. Nevertheless, it’s important to note that the Finkelstein report did not recommend the licensing of newspapers, which the retired judge described at the beginning of the Independent Media Inquiry’s public hearings as “…probably as extreme an encroachment on news dissemination as you could get” and “…as close as going back to the Dark Ages as you could find.” 

In his report, Finkelstein also noted some of the concepts put to him during the Inquiry designed to support quality journalism in the face of failing business models, such as increasing funding for the ABC’s news functions, subsidies for investigative and public interest journalism and incentives for investment in news start-ups to increase media diversity. He also called for a Productivity Commission inquiry into the news media within two years to examine the sustainability of the industry. 

The recommendation for an NMC has significant implications for media freedom in Australia, however it has been difficult to find dispassionate assessments of the threat to freedom of expression amidst the vitriolic coverage of the Finkelstein Inquiry, which has, ironically, reinforced calls for government regulation of the print media.  

Jailing Journalists  

According to the recommendations, the Council would be comprised of 50 percent civil society representatives (with no history of media connections) and 50 percent industry/academic representation. It would have the power to frame and compel apologies, corrections, right of reply and retractions, as well as being able to dictate the placement of apologies within a publication. There would be no right of appeal against an NMC judgement, unless the case was referred to a higher court for the enforcement of NMC adjudications, which could ultimately result in the jailing of journalists, editors and small-time bloggers for contempt. 

To fully appreciate the potential gravity of the NMC recommendation, it’s important to note that Australia is the only Western democracy without a Bill of Rights or constitutionally enshrined rights to freedom of expression and/or media freedom (C.f. Abjorensen 2007). Australia’s leading Journalism-Law scholar, Professor of Journalism at Bond University Mark Pearson, is extremely concerned about the prospect of the Australian Government endorsing an NMC as recommended by the Finkelstein Inquiry, particularly in the absence media freedom protections. 

“This means politicians and judges can pass laws censoring the media without constitutional challenge, except in the very limited area of political free speech. Any mechanism thus needs to be self-regulatory until there is such a firm backdrop like they have in the US, the UK, Canada and New Zealand,” Pearson said.  

Impact of convergence on regulation 

The Finkelstein Inquiry was conducted in parallel with the less hastily convened and better-resourced Convergence Review, also commissioned by the Australian Government, which delivered its recommendations after the Finkelstein report was released. The Convergence Review rejected Finkelstein’s recommendation for government-funded, statutory regulation of all media via a News Media Council. Instead, it called for increased support for self-regulation of news media, via an industry-led body requiring compulsory membership, which would oversee journalistic standards in news and commentary across all platforms. 

Alongside this oversight body would sit a new cross-platform statutory regulator for large content producers, replacing ACMA (the body currently responsible for the regulation of broadcasting, the Internet, radio-communications and telecommunications in Australia). As a result, the licensing of broadcasters would be scrapped. And news and news commentary would be exempt from statutory regulation on all platforms. 

These recommendations recognise the anachronistic legal silos that continue to separate print, broadcasting and online media for regulatory purposes in Australia, in the midst of the mainstreaming of media convergence which has resulted in cross-platform publication by most content producers. According to the Convergence Report’s recommendations to government, a content provider/creator which has more than half a million Australian users a month, and AU$50 million of revenue per year from Australian-sourced professional content, would be subject to regulation (but the news/commentary they produce would be exempt from regulation). 

While the main traditional media outfits would be captured under this regime, it could be extended to telecommunications corporations and Internet companies like Google. In a converged media world, it’s not just platforms that are melding, but media company identities that are changing. 

Convergence Review Committee member Louise McElvogue told the ABC that media regulation needs to be approached differently, as a result. "Rather than deciding how entities are regulated based on the medium on which they deliver, entities would be regulated based on their size and the type of services they are, which means that large content services that have a large audience and have a large revenue from Australia would be subject to certain regulation," she said. The Convergence Review also highlighted the need for media ownership diversity and recommended a public interest test for major ownership changes. 

I welcomed the Convergence Review’s findings as a sensible response to the realities of converged media, balanced against the importance of media freedom in a democracy. But my University of Canberra colleague Matthew Ricketson did not. Defending the Independent Media Inquiry findings, which he co-authored, he publicly dismissed the Convergence Review’s recommendations ahead of the Federal Government’s response to them, saying they could not work because news organisations can’t be forced to join self-regulatory bodies. 

According to Ricketson, the time for media self-regulation in Australia had passed and the Finkelstein report sent a clear message to the media. “It says to the industry: you have sound standards of journalistic practice that you say you believe in and you have had 35 years to make a success of the self-regulatory system for dealing with complaints about these standards and you haven’t — and you seem to be content with that situation. So, you’ve had your chance. If you won’t do it you have left us with little choice but to recommend some means of making it work and in your absence that someone will have to be government,” he told a University of Melbourne seminar in May. 

But Bond University’s Mark Pearson says Ricketson, and other academic supporters of an NMC, should be careful what they wish for. “The Convergence Review makes the sensible recommendation that regulation be wound back slightly for broadcasters to self-regulation, but that all news media operators would have to be part of a new self-regulator to earn their current exemptions to consumer and privacy laws. That was the basis of my submission to the Finkelstein inquiry - that the blanket exemptions for 'prescribed news providers' to the misleading and deceptive conduct provisions of the consumer laws should be wound back so they needed to demonstrate they were ethical operators.” 

Pearson’s recommendations to the Finkelstein Inquiry were rejected, but he maintains that they provided a working solution enabling the preservation of media freedom. “Such an approach would bolster the hundreds of existing laws impinging on media freedoms and minimise the risk of News of the World-style situations. Conduct that is 'misleading or deceptive' in news or commentary, or invading privacy, would be actionable UNLESS (Pearson’s emphasis) the outlet was a member of the News Standards Body and complying with its guidelines. This would encourage smaller players into the system, too. It would be self-regulation with the encouragement of some handy defences to existing laws, rather than a big stick approach bringing jail and fines for contempt that we would (see) under the Finkelstein body,” he argues. “And that is not strictly new government regulation, but instead a modification of some existing laws to exclude defences for unethical journalism.” 

Against this backdrop, the Australian Government is considering a new privacy tort applicable to journalism. Labor politicians who’ve been stung by campaigning News Ltd journalists, and salacious media coverage more broadly, turned up the volume on the media regulation mega-phone as the Federal Government contemplated its formal response to the dual Convergence and Finkelstein inquiries.  

Bad News 

It is important to note News Limited’s campaign against the minority Labor government and their ‘coalition’ partners, The Greens, as a factor relevant to understanding both the impact of over-concentrated media ownership, and significant support within the journalism academy for an NMC, in spite of the threat it poses to media freedom. The perceived influence of News Limited on Australian election outcomes and policy formulation is well documented. And the News Ltd brand has been increasingly scrutinised and challenged by civil society activists and academics (including this one) in the past two years. The company’s penchant for ‘vendetta journalism’, which is most evident within the pages of Murdoch’s flagship newspaper The Australian under the editorship of Chris Mitchell, has also made it a thorn in the side of any grass roots campaign to protect Australian media freedom, especially as The Australian has been accused by some of Australia’s leading academics and public intellectuals of having a damaging effect on Australian democracy. 

Falling public trust in Australian professional journalism, magnified by the phone-hacking scandal that revealed an ethically corrupt and cover-up prone culture within Murdoch’s News International, is a problem that needs addressing in the interests of democracy. And I am convinced that a converged media world requires a review of traditional media regulation structures. Similarly, I believe news publishers and individual journalists need to be more accountable to audiences through an active commitment to more robust self-regulatory processes, transparent practice, community engagement and established codes of ethics and professional journalistic conduct. 

But even as one who has felt the sting of defamatory, inaccurate, vendetta-driven journalism penned by News Limited attack dogs, I am not willing to support a recommendation for a government-funded, all-platform Australian News Media Council that might have the power to compel the ‘hate media’, as former Australian Greens leader Bob Brown describes the Australia Murdoch press, to act. The risk to media freedom is simply too great. And the signal that would be sent to despots and media freedom opponents the globe over, should Australia head down the path of a statutory, government-funded News Media Council, would, in my view, be far too high a price to pay for increased media accountability. 

Regardless, failing print media business models and the aftershocks from News of the World continued to shake the Australian media landscape as this article went to press. In June, Australia’s second biggest newspaper group, Fairfax, announced the axing of nineteen hundred jobs and the tabloidisation of the country’s oldest surviving broadsheets in Sydney (The Sydney Morning Herald) and Melbourne (The Age) in an overdue digital overhaul. At News Limited, similar job cuts were being foreshadowed in a digital media shake-up. Murdoch launched an AU $2billion bid to regain control of Australia’s main pay TV network (Foxtel) and its sports channels (Fox Sport), as the aging mogul moved globally to segregate his print assets from his thriving entertainment business (although, in Australia, the print assets have not been isolated). 

But while the upheaval in the Australian news business continued to make headlines, there was no news from the Federal Government about the controversial Finkelstein recommendations for a News Media Council. Watch this space.    [read more]

17 February, 2012

A Letter to my fifteen year old self

I performed the following letter at the inaugral Canberra Women Of Letters event staged at the National Library of Australia this week as part of the Handwritten exhibition. Women of Letters is a literary salon curated by Marieke hardy and Michaela McGuire. The theme of the night was 'A letter about the history you'd like to change'. I chose to write my letter to my fiften year old self. The experience was cathartic and confronting...but ultimately liberating. Please write back...in the comments below.

February 16th, 2012

Dear Julie,

You don’t know me yet...but I know you intimately.

I know your past, your future and your present.

I can see you now, squatting, huddled with your little sister on the floor of your cluttered wardrobe. You’re trying to stem her sobs as the sound of doors slamming, screaming voices and smashing glass pierce the quiet suburban night. You’re worried your stepfather will hear your little sister as you try to stop her hyperventilating tears.

You show your sister only your strong face. You whisper comforting words. But you just want to scream at the injustice and stare down the violent man who turns your book-bound nights into horror stories.

I wish I could reach into your present and rescue you from that cupboard. Transport you to a safe place. But I have no time-turner. All I have are these words.

You are strong, Julie. Stronger than you know. You are brave and resilient. And you already know the power of perseverance...at fifteen.

The police will answer your neighbour’s call tonight, but they will not see the covered bruises. You’ll have to watch them walk away. And he will never change.

I wish I could tell you that you will get out of the house tonight, fall into the safety of Grandma’s bed and never have to return to this dark place. I cannot. Not yet. But I can tell you that you will survive.

You will escape this place. Your mother will finally break free. Your sister will be protected. You will find a home to which you can return in the evening without fear. From which you are not forced to flee in the middle of the night...

You will meet men who prefer the power of words to speaking with their fists. You will even find a few who are tender and reliable.

Your brave, generous heart will know love...selfless love...and great friendship.

But a caution: I know you like to wear that bruised heart on your sleeve, and I so admire that about you...but be careful with it. Exposed hearts are more vulnerable to abuse.

And something you should know: that wit you’re so proud of, that dimpled smile that masks pain, the laugh that mocks adversity, the scaffolding you’ve built – they will not fool everyone. And they cannot protect you from heartache and heartbreak...you will know them both.

Why am I telling you all this? Why don’t I just write down the next winning lotto numbers and the name of the man you’ll marry and sign off now??

Because, what you survive and how you survive it will be your history. You will trip and fall - sometimes painfully - but it’s in living through trials and triumphs that your identity will be formed. Know that you will never fail to get back up when you are knocked down.

You are smart, girl. And terribly outspoken. Those books piled on the floor and that fast tongue are your key to an interesting life. Use them both wisely.

People will ask you “Don’t you ever wish that you’d just kept your mouth shut??” Well, at times you probably will...but you should never be cowed by the many bullies you’ll encounter who want to keep the truth hidden or misrepresent it to the world.

What you’re enduring now is cementing in you a heart for social justice, a commitment to freedom of expression, a determination to speak truth to power, a refusal to sacrifice your integrity...if you can soften those quests with an ability to listen and an appreciation of silent moments...if you can accept that betrayal, pain, disappointment and grief are inevitable human experiences...if you can figure out how to avoid fearing regret...your life will be rich, interesting and balanced.

I need to go now, but one promise for the future I want to leave you with...you will know the love of your own child...I’m looking at her now. And every day she reminds me more of you.

With love from the future,

x Julie

PS Oh, one more thing: remember this - a Poodle Perm is NEVER a good idea!
PPS And another thing: the Internet will be big
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21 July, 2011

Some #Hackgate Questions for News Ltd and Other Media

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard has fuelled calls for a public inquiry into the media in the wake of #Hackgate, telling journalists that News Corp's Australian subsidiary News Ltd has some "hard questions" to answer. Although she didn't appear to be able to identify, nor articulate, those questions.

Unsurprisingly, News Ltd's chief John Hartigan has dismissed calls for an inquiry (although he's more recently agreed to co-operate fully with an inquiry - as have many loyal News Ltd journalists and Opposition politicians. And he continues to reject connections between the News Corp crisis, which is threatening to sink News International and is spreading with speed to the US, and News Ltd's Australian operations (which, significantly, account for 70% of the Australian print media). Nevertheless, he's initiated a review of editorial expenditure across the company dating back three years (i.e. not dating back to the period in question involving UK cases of phonehacking or police payments).

I have some suggestions for some 'hard' questions the PM's office might like to consider.

Over at New Matilda, UTS journalism professor and noted Australian investigative journalist, Wendy Bacon, is crowdsourcing suggestions for questions to put to a media inquiry (which she argues should address regulation and media ownership), along with some specific lines of inquiry regarding News Ltd, including:

* Should News Ltd close one or more newspapers in Australian without there being a buyer what steps can be taken to protect access to media by Australians?

* Has News Ltd’s practice of sharing information and stories across the company meant that their Australian tabloid audiences have been exposed to stories resulting from hacking and bribes?

* Do News Ltd editors respect the professional independence of their journalists or do they compaign to impose certain views or political lines on their journalists to the detriment of the public - e.g. in relation to climate change.

My questions for News Ltd management

I have some additional questions I'd like answered by News Ltd. And I'd welcome John Hartigan's responses:

1) When did John Hartigan (and his editors) first learn of the allegations of hacking, payments to police and the cover-up (now identified by a British parliamentary select committee) afflicting News International?

2) What steps did Mr Hartigan and his editors put in place then to ensure such practices were not happening within NewsCorp's Australian titles?

3) What advice did he issue editors regarding publication of copy emanating from the very tainted News of the World when it was clear (at the latest in December last year, when Rebekah Brooks says she was made aware) that the problem was widespread at the News of the World?

4) Were any of his journalists assigned to News of the World in their capacity as News Ltd employees for additional reporting?

5) If the answers to 4) is yes, has Mr Hartigan (or his editors) examined their records for evidence of expenditure on PIs, phone 'hacking', questionable payments to sources etc If not, why not? If yes, what has he (or his editors)found?

6) Have any News Ltd journalists or editors worked as stringers for NOTW assignments in Australia? (This question is one editors at News Ltd competitors should also be asking of their journalists)

7) When was the last News Ltd journalist dispatched to News of the World in an exchange program or on a placement extended as a 'reward' for journalistic excellence? Did Mr Hartigan/other executives approve such arrangements after becoming aware of the seriousness of the problem? If so, why? And what inquiries have been made as regards their experiences/practices while working at News of the World during the period now under examination?

8) What instructions are NewsLtd editors giving to other executive editors and/or reporters regarding company/editorial policy on coverage of #hackgate?

9) What instructions are being issued to journalists regarding coverage of matters of national importance such as climate change and politics? (These questions should also be put to NewsLtd's competitors)

10) What is the internal process at News Ltd for examining journalists' complaints about ethics and professionalism? What is the policy re: handling such complaints and where is it published? (Also a relevant question for News Ltd's competitors)

11) When News Ltd journalists and editors threaten to sue other citizens/their critics over public comment/reportage (as I have been threatened by the Editor in Chief of the Australian, Chris Mitchell), who foots their legal bills?

These are questions I'd like to hear journalists and citizens asking News Ltd but I'd also encourage the PM's office to consider them after failing yesterday to identify any specific 'hard' questions worth of a response.

Is a broader media inquiry needed in Australia?

I support a public inquiry into Australian media - if there's nothing to hide, why resist? It could be useful in encouraging transparency in media practice, accountability and trust in an important democratic institution. But I'm not yet convinced a parliamentary inquiry is the best venue for such an investigation. What about a broader public inquiry with government, NGO, judicial, academic and community representation?

Similarly, I support public consultation on privacy law reform as long as there's a clear commitment to balance the right to privacy against 'public interest' (as distinct from public interest in something) tests and freedom of expression principles. Although, I'd feel more comfortable if Australia enshrined freedom of expression rights in the constitution in conjunction with privacy law reform that will make it possible to sue for serious privacy breaches.

I agree that political alliances with media barons (particularly as regards News Ltd, given that company's dominance of the Australian marketplace & the evident commitment of that stable to 'regime change') need examination - and that requires inquiries of politicians and political parties' records, not just the media transparency.

Stronger independent oversight

I'd also like this prospect examined: an all media council, comprising industry representatives, community reference groups and journalism/media academics, that acts as a referral body for complaints and investigations sitting above ACMA & the Australian Press Council - both of which have proven ineffectual historically in significant investigations into media ethics and professionalism.

It may also be worth considering a 'readers' editor' be mandated at every publication under whose guidance, concerns can be debated and complaints published (online and in print), along with internal findings.

I'm an advocate of media freedom and I'm opposed to government press regulation in principle as it has proven to be a refuge for despots and dictators, although I believe the time is right to review media ownership laws in Australia. But in light of a media scandal with global implications, journalists and media organisations can't afford to resist public accountability, nor deny an open examination of media ethics and practices in this country.

That's my initial contribution to this important discussion. I say bring on an inquiry, make journalism and media organisations more transparent and thereby strengthen both public trust and professional journalism's credibility.

Meantime, please share your questions and ideas here and elsewhere, to keep this important debate on the national agenda
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03 March, 2011

Colvinius: The Irrepressible Foreign Correspondent

Legendary Australian broadcaster Mark Colvin is known for the timbre of his voice, his broad knowledge of international affairs, his erudite interviewing and his content-rich Twitter-feed.

But the presenter of the ABC’s PM program - a three-time foreign correspondent for the Australian national broadcaster - this week made a mark on my University of Canberra Advanced Broadcast Journalism class with his candor and resilience as he talked about his experiences of reporting war, famine and upheaval across the globe.

These experiences include losing two of his colleagues to violence in Africa and the Middle East in the early 1980s. But the greatest price he paid for bearing witness was his own health. He contracted a deadly auto-immune disease after being exposed to a virus amidst rotting corpses while reporting on the Rwandan genocide in 1994 - a story he described as a "never-ending cycle of death". He is now awaiting a kidney transplant

Nevertheless, he presents the flagship ABC Radio current affairs programme PM five nights a week to which he brings the benefits of an Oxford education and an incredible appetite for international news told from global perspectives. He is also a highly engaged practitioner of social media journalism, interacting with his audience via his iPad – even when he’s hooked up to a dialysis machine in hospital.

These characteristics of resilience, perseverance and tenacity were on ample display when he beamed into our Canberra lecture theatre via Skype on Wednesday morning from his Sydney kitchen.

His presentation took the form of an interactive interview – with questions from me, students in the Canberra University lecture theatre, and remotely via Twitter.

With characteristic self-deprecation, he told us he was ill-prepared for his first posting to London, at the age of 27, and brought "naivety and stupidity" to the job. But he was forced to mature quickly, being terribly traumatised by exposure to significant risk, inhumanity and loss. In fact, he told us he felt like he suffered from a severe but undiagnosed case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after covering the Iranian Revolution. And, later, when reporting on the terrible famine in Ethiopia after having a family, he said exposure to the suffering of children affected him "...so far deep down in the gut it was almost like having a nervous breakdown."

But this trauma, and the illness that now prevents him from travelling the globe, have not dented his desire to work as a foreign correspondent. He says he has no regrets and answered a Twitter question from a student asking if he wished he could be in the field reporting the current upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa, emphatically, "Yes".

You can watch the video of the lecture here or listen to the audio only version.

Unfortunately, the lecture recording was cut short, but Mark Colvin left us with two key messages: foreign reporting has been transformed by technology, with Twitter being identified by the self-described "dinosaur" as one of the best tools available to journalists, with its capacity to facilitate audience engagement, the crowdsourcing of research and access to global views. And in response to the last student question "What keeps you motivated as a journalist?", he answered with one word: "Curiosity".

Afterwards, Mark Colvin tweeted to me his concern that he'd painted too frightening a picture of being a foreign correspondent and noted that he had also spent significant time in Rome, Paris and Madrid during his foreign postings. But he needn't have worried. While he talked in detail, with great candor, about his reporting assignments and the trauma he experienced in the field, the impact on students was inspirational, rather than depressing. And many of them tweeted about the way in which they had been moved and motivated by Mark Colvin’s story once the lecture was over.

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09 December, 2010

#Twitdef: Chapter 2

Since #Twitdef began in late November, I have had the extraordinary experience of seeing my name in the headlines, as the Editor in Chief of The Australian , Chris Mitchell, repeatedly threatened to sue me for defamation, via his newspaper.

The threats came in response to a few tweets I posted during the Journalism Education Association of Australia conference in Sydney on November 25th, in which I quoted Mitchell’s former employee, well-respected rural reporter Asa Wahlquist, who addressed the conference. She was highly critical of The Australian’s stance on Climate Change.

You can read the background here. And you can listen to Wahlquist's address on the ABC's website

Last week, I received a letter of demand from Mitchell’s lawyers, requiring an apology for my tweets and inviting me to visit The Australian to observe the operations of its newsroom and editorial processes.

Today, my lawyers - engaged by the University of Canberra, my employer - have responded to Mitchell's letter

Unfortunately I remain limited in what I can say at this point. But the ongoing support of colleagues in media, academia, and in online communtiies like Twitter, is very much appreciated.

Please note: due to the ongoing threat of legal action in this case, I am unable to post comments on this story at this stage. But I am enjoying reading the comments you're contributing nonetheless! :)
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28 November, 2010


Chris Mitchell, the Editor in Chief of Rupert Murdoch's flagship newspaper in Australia The Australian, is threatening to sue me for defamation over tweets I posted from an academic conference of journalism educators held in Sydney last week.

He is using his newspaper to make these threats and he has repeated them to Crikey

The tweets I posted quoted one of Mitchell's former reporters, award winning rural and science journalist Asa Wahlquist, who delivered an address to a panel on the reporting of Climate Change at The Australian during the Journalism Education Association Australia conference on Thursday.

I was attending the conference at the University of Technology as a speaker, in my capacity as a University of Canberra (UC) journalism lecturer.

UC Vice Chancellor, Professor Stephen Parker, has provided the following statement on the issue:

“(I am) aware of the situation and (I am) concerned about the implications of it for freedom of academic expression. (I) continue to provide full support for academics providing responsible comment on matters of public interest such as this, which includes accurately summarising what experienced journalists have said about the workings of the nation’s media”

All I am personally permitted to say on the issue at this stage is the following: "My University has not received any communication from Mr Mitchell and I have been asked not to comment further on the detail of what transpired until we know what allegations are being made against me and the University and have had an opportunity to take legal advice.”

I continue to strongly value media freedom and freedom of expression.

The only other thing I can say publicly at this point is...thanks to all those who have offered well wishes and support. It is very much appreciated.

* Twitdef (abbreviated from 'Twitter Defamation') Is a Twitter hashtag established by a micro-blogger to aggregate some of the conversation on Twitter swirling around the issue
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09 March, 2010

Stop the Presses

A global study has confirmed women are grossly under-represented in the news – both as producers of it and characters within it.

The result, according to ‘Who Makes the News?’, is a picture of women who are largely absent and the projection of a “male-centred view of the world”. This effect is not just the product of who is portrayed and how they’re portrayed, but who’s invisible in the news…and what issues are ignored.

The study has also found that when women are represented, they’re poorly represented: predominantly portrayed in gendered roles, as wives and mothers, rather than in reference to their professional achievements.

The Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP) – designed to increase women's access to media and challenge gender stereotyping in the news - began in 1995 as an initiative of the United Nations Fourth Conference on Women held in Beijing. Every five years, the GMMP takes an international snapshot of mainstream news coverage of women in an effort to measure the quantity of women’s voices and the quality of their representation.

Newspapers, along with major radio and television news bulletins in 130 countries, including Australia, are being monitored and assessed as part of the project, which this time also measured major news websites’ coverage in a subset of 25 countries. And this instalment of the study represents a snapshot taken on November 10th, 2009.

The full report is due for completion in September but preliminary results were released last week, based on the data collected from 42 countries, including progressive democracies like South Africa, Switzerland and Sweden but excluding North American and Australian data which is not yet available.

6,902 news stories containing 14044 sources were analysed to produce the preliminary findings of the Global Media Monitoring Project 2010. They include:

• Only 24% of people covered in the news are women (up 3% on the 2005 figures)
• Only 18% of ‘experts’ featured in news stories are women (but 47% of sources reflecting popular opinion were women)
• Only 16% of issues covered specifically related to women
• Issues identified as being of special concern to women (e.g. violence against women; economic empowerment; political participation) averaged less than 1.5% of coverage
• Print was judged as the provider of the best coverage in the above categories while radio offered the worst reportage.
• Women are five times more likely to be represented in connection with their domestic roles (mother, wife etc) than men.
• News stories are six times more likely to reinforce gender stereotypes than challenge them
• Women remain underemployed as news producers and presenters with a staggering 17% decline measured in female radio reporters since 2005 to 27%

This last finding is critical as the study has also found that women reporters are twice as likely to challenge gender stereotypes (at the rate of 11% versus 6%). And news stories identified as being told by female reporters are also significantly more likely to include female characters (26% versus 19%)

So, the employment of women as journalists is, not surprisingly, likely to be critical to transformation of coverage of women. And, despite the serious decline in the number of women reporting for radio news, there were slight increases recorded in women reporters within television news (up 2% to 44%) and in newspapers (up 6% to 35%).

These findings contrast the feminisation of journalism courses where women graduates now so frequently outnumber men in Australia, that calls to journalism educators (like me) from News Editors targeting male graduates for employment, to ‘even out the numbers on air’, are not unusual.

But, as many women survivors of newsrooms know – it’s one thing to get a job as a journalist, it’s another thing to be assigned the big stories, or to carry what are perceived to be the most newsworthy rounds – economics and politics, for example. And it’s another battle entirely to get into editorial management positions which dictate assignments and often influence stories’ framing.

Senior women journalists report that things are changing - slowly. And progress can be seen and heard from inside the Canberra Press Gallery where more working mothers are occupying high profile roles.

One of the report’s preliminary recommendations is for the creation of training modules for students of media – in school and at university – to assist in improving the standard of coverage of women and women’s issues. And, while the media will always reflect and magnify broader societal prejudices, there’s value in such training – for both male and female students. But, from experience, such educational reform only really has significant and timely impact if newsrooms are convinced there is a problem, and if their managers agree to embrace such training.
Until such change occurs, male-dominated news management ranks will continue to favour male reporters with the plum assignments; women will continue to be ignored or poorly represented as news subjects; and issues that most interest and affect women will continue to be under-reported.

Meantime, women will continue to seek alternative and self-representation through blogs and online communities that both value their contributions and represent their interests.

The most powerfully written and compelling stories I’ve read in the past month were women’s stories told by the women who lived them. They weren't news stories - in fact they may be judged through masculinist news lenses as 'too emotional', but they were personalised, human tales that resonated...with men and women.

You’d think that with the assault being endured by mainstream media outlets, fair and meaningful coverage of women and the issues that most engage 50% of the population would be a ‘no brainer’. But I don’t hear many editors screaming “Hold the front page…for a woman”.

If you'd like to hear me talking about this issue with ABC 666's Louise Maher, click here. I talk media issues with Louise each Monday afternoon
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27 November, 2009

Thrills & Spills

This has been a most extraordinary week in Australian Federal politics. A week in which the future of the Liberal Party looked as uncertain as Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership appears untenable. A week in which hard right ideologues seemed determined to make the Coalition unelectable in an environmentally aware world. A week in which reformation of Conservative politics in Australia along new ideological lines began to seem plausible. A week in which political journalists and politicians made Twitter and text messaging centre-stage in news-breaking, story telling and media management. A week in which political hyperbole reached new heights of absurdity.

It started on Tuesday afternoon with renewed leadership speculation surrounding Malcolm Turnbull as he attempted to ram climate change legislation (in the form of an Emissions Trading Scheme) through both the party room and the parliament in a rare show of bipartisanship in Australian federal politics.

During question time that day, it became apparent that the ideological fault lines within the Federal Opposition were starting to tremor.



It emerged that, according to some of his internal political enemies, Turnbull had enforced Party Room ‘unity’ on the ETS legislation (timetabled to pass ahead of the Copenhagen summit) despite majority opposition, telling his detractors he was leader and would set policy before storming out of the meeting.

Ahead of widespread speculation about a leadership spill, I predicted Turnbull would be ousted within 24 hours.


It was an audacious (some might charge 'reckless') call, but I could smell the blood and hear the wolves baying.

That evening, after a marathon eight hour Party Room meeting punctuated by interruptions which provided opportunities for dissidents to text message details of the negotiations to journalists, only the Liberal Party’s loony right, personified by the ranting Wilson Tuckey, was publicly talking of a leadership spill.

But the Canberra Press Gallery and the political junkies (me included) following and participating in the story’s dramatic twists & turns via Twitter were breathlessly posting #spill #spill #spill.





As the backroom dealing and the brinkmanship continued, Turnbull went on the ABC’s influential AM program on Wednesday morning, ruling out any facilitation on his part of a leadership spill motion. And party rules require the leader’s ascent for such a showdown.

But by 11am, journalists were tweeting the news that a 1pm Coalition Party Room meeting had been called, at which a spill motion would be put. The stalking horse named Kevin Andrews, an arch conservative who applies religious zeal to climate change denial, was the lone challenger. The motion to allow a vote on the leadership was defeated by a less than convincing margin and Turnbull fronted the media continuing his “I am the leader” riff.

And although the ructions continued to bubble below the surface, even Press Gallery veterans with whom I shared dinner on Wednesday night gave Turnbull a 50/50 chance of political survival…at least until after Christmas.

During Question Time on Thursday, it still seemed likely that the ETS would ultimately pass the Senate, in accordance with an agreement reached between the Opposition and the Rudd Government, by Friday afternoon. But almost as soon as the session was over, the leadership speculation resumed and the spill became a flood as Shadow Minister Tony Abbott began the front bench exodus.

The body pile continued to mount throughout the afternoon and journalists were tweeting the news faster than they could write it. Senator Eric Abetz gone. Senator Minchin going. This one gone. That one gone. Another one bites the dust. By the time Turnbull finally called a press conference for 7pm, he’d lost 10 front benchers, at the end of a day unprecedented in Australian Federal politics according to veteran Press Gallery journalists and even seasoned Coalition politicians!

I wondered aloud about the prospect of a split within the Coalition, invoking the spectre of the 1955 split within the Australian Labor Party which birthed the socially conservative Democratic Labor Party and the 1970s formation of the now virtually defunct Australian Democrats.



I envisaged a Coalition divided along new ideological lines – with social progressives in one camp (the New Democrats or the Progressive Liberals?) and the conservatives (melding National Party representatives with socially conservative Liberals) in the other. This could present a redesigned four-party Australian political landscape: Labor, Greens, Progressive Liberals and National Conservatives.

When he fronted the media pack in a press conference broadcast live into ABC nightly news last night, Turnbull surprised us all with a refusal to entertain the prospect of resignation, giving the impression of an impassioned, unflappable leader of enormous strength and admirable ideals. One thing was clear: here was a leader for a new generation. For a repositioned, socially progressive Australian Liberal Party. A leader who was prepared to bury Howard’s ghost.




But it was also clear from within the party imploding behind him – which was now leaking like a rusty sieve - that he was a member of the political walking dead.

And in that context, the hyperbole reached fever pitch. After political journalist Samantha Maiden appeared on Sky News describing Turnbull as a victim of “political terrorism” the network’s political editor David Speers read a text message live to air from a Liberal Party opponent of Turnbull’s who said his leader was “behaving like Hitler in his Berlin bunker”.

The flaring language in the midst of a major political crisis is familiar. The speed with which it’s being transmitted – in real time via social media like text messaging and Twitter – is new. And in that process – as these platforms invade the traditional media space, and both feature in and facilitate coverage and conversation, they’re changing the rules of political reporting.


Journalists are interacting with one another and citizen commentators as they report the news instantaneously via Twitter – interchanges which are influencing the framing of the news and laying bare the processes of story construction.




It’s fascinating viewing for a journalism academic and invigorating for active citizens of all persuasions to watch the upheaval unfold moment by moment on Twitter.


But it would be excruciating viewing for the politician who first tweeted from his own press conference when Twitter was little more than a novelty: Malcolm Turnbull.

Enter Joe Hockey: former Turnbull backer and one of the socially progressive New Guard within the Liberal Party who helped negotiate the planned passage of the ETS. He's now canvassing for public reaction to his own leadership ambitions, belatedly testing public support for the passage of the ETS legislation via Twitter.


The subtext reads: will you have me as your leader tweeps? That’s a subtext being interpreted by veteran political journalist Michelle Grattan (a recent Twitter entrant) as a leadership nomination.


And it’s a subtext given force today by Tony “The Mad Monk” Abbott who's signed Turnbull’s leadership death warrant, saying he’ll move a #spill motion on Monday unless the ETS legislation is delayed this afternoon.

So, as former staunch Turnbull supporter Joe Hockey firms as the prime candidate for a successful leadership challenge on Monday, the coalition of climate change deniers and leadership change opportunists prepare to filibuster on the ETS legislation to ensure it isn’t passed before the baton is.

And the 3.45pm deadline laid out in the bi-partisan agreement for the passage of the legislation in the Senate looks as shot as Malcolm Turnbull's leadership of the Australian Opposition.

All the while, the Twitter backchannel is chanting "It's Climate Change, stupid".

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08 November, 2009

Trafigura, Tweets & Teaching

I started my professional life as a radio news journalist – with skills honed inside the walls of the Media 140 conference venue - the ABC Centre in Sydney. I was taught that Accuracy, Brevity & Clarity were the A, B & C of good news writing. Twitter is a perfect platform for testing those principles of good practice.

Twitter is one of the new tools I now use in my journalism classes at the University of Canberra to teach my students that pithiness can pack real punch. In September 2008, I took them on a political reporting exercise using the platform: they tweeted the ACT election & some of the journalists in the tally-room came to see what they were up to…most had never heard of Twitter. In the past year, though, it’s made headlines around the world – first in Mumbai…then through reporting of the Hudson River plane crash. In Australia, the ABC led the way with coverage of the Victoria bushfires.

There’s also been the opening up of the Australian houses of parliament to live reporting, with journalists now interactively tweeting Question Time – a reporting practice which is attracting new audiences to the discourses of Australian democracy – headlined by the uber-witty Sydney Morning Herald writer (and newly appointed chief online correspondent for ABC) Annabel Crabb.

And then there’s the iinet trial before the Federal Court. In early May, I tweeted:

“What's the difference between a journo Tweeting or live blogging a court case & a reporter txt messaging a judgement from the courtroom?”

Last month, the Federal Court overturned a decades'-long bar on reporting from within a court-room & accommodated Twitter, afterwards acknowledging its potential value. Meantime, The Australian barred one of the pioneering Journo-Twits, Andrew Colley, from live-tweeting the case while they assessed the legal & business implications. How very myopic & unadventurous.

Of course, Twitter isn’t journalistic utopia…there are a number of significant challenges. In the course of my research, I’ve identified the potential conflict between the personal and the professional created by a medium that encourages private reflections in a public space. As much as many journalists – including me – struggle with this perceived conflict, I’ve concluded that the humanising effect of removing the professional mask and revealing aspects of personality and private experiences is valuable. It’s also valued by online audiences where authentic voices are highly rated. And through this process, journalists are forging online relationships with media consumers, creating individual brands that draw new audiences to their work.

The biggest test for journalism & Twitter to date came during the Iran Uprising where Citizen-Journalism, crowd-sourcing and the speed imperative combined in the absence of a professional media presence to produce a seismic shift in reporting practice… publish first & check the facts later. Content from protesters & observers on the ground was published ahead of verification …on the websites of some of the world’s most reputable mastheads, including the New York Times. It was a watershed foreign reporting moment which highlights the challenges posed by Twitter and other real-time medium to the essential journalistic values of truth and accuracy. While embracing exciting new publication platforms & information-oriented communities, we need to remember that accuracy & verification are the antidotes to an overdose on speed (A panel & discussion on the implications of Iran for Social Media Journalism was held during the conference, featuring ABC's PM presenter, Mark Colvin & Al Jazeera's Head of Social Media, Riyaad Minty. View it here)

But if there’s one case study globally that proves the value of Twitter to journalists and journalism it’s Trafigura: a tale worthy of John Grisham.

As Alan Rusbridger, The Guardian’s Editor put it: “A mix of old media and the Twittersphere blew away conventional efforts to buy silence”

The story revolved around an attempted cover-up by the Trafigura trading company which was the subject of a mass litigation for injury to 30,000 citizens of Ivory Coast, following a toxic sludge-dumping incident. At first, the company succeeded in obtaining a gag order on The Guardian to stop it revealing a leaked report associated with the case…but when the company succeeded in obtaining a super-injunction from the British Courts to prevent The Guardian from reporting an MP’s question to parliament about the case - effectively over-turning 300 years of media freedom – Rusbridger saw red…and turned to Twitter, posting this tweet:

"Now Guardian prevented from reporting parliament for unreportable reasons. Did John Wilkes live in vain?"

Rusbridger wrote of the experience: “By the time I got home, after stopping off for a meal with friends, the Twittersphere had gone into meltdown. Twitterers had sleuthed down Farrelly's question, published the relevant links and were now seriously on the case. By midday on Tuesday "Trafigura" was one of the most searched terms in Europe, helped along by re-tweets by Stephen Fry and his 830,000-odd followers.

Many tweeters were just registering support or outrage. Others were beavering away to see if they could find suppressed information on the far reaches of the web. One or two legal experts uncovered the Parliamentary Papers Act 1840, wondering if that would help? Common #hashtags were quickly developed, making the material easily discoverable.

By lunchtime – an hour before we were due in court – Trafigura threw in the towel…blown away by a newspaper, together with the mass collaboration of total strangers on the web. Trafigura thought it was buying silence. A combination of old media – the Guardian – and new – Twitter – turned attempted obscurity into mass notoriety.”

As Rusbridger observed in the aftermath:

“Twitter's detractors are used to sneering that nothing of value can be said in 140 characters. My 104 characters did just fine.”

This case demonstrated the capacity for journalists to use Twitter as a massive human search engine – to sift the tonnes of information available online in a collective effort, for the benefit of both excellent journalism & democracy. It also revealed the capacity for Twitter mobs to effect change through the application of tweet-heat – a process by which protesters uttering disgust & dismay, caused a topic to trend as they united through aggregating hashtags.

In the aftermath, the British parliament began debating the implications for free speech and there are suggestions of an overhaul of legislation that enabled the offending judgement. This was not just a victory for Twitter and The Guardian. It was a victory for democracy and media freedom. Activist journalism in the Social Media Age involves mobilising online communities and Twitter is currently the most effective of these.

So, let Trafigura put to rest the notion that Twitter is just a fad, full of narcissistic banality, which can afford to be ignored by newsrooms and individual journalists alike. There is currently real journalistic value in Twitter. And that value is not best extracted by dropping into others’ sites as a non-user, but in creating a journalistic identity for yourself on the platform; by making new connections outside your professional and personal silos; by genuninely engaging with followers – not just using the medium as another broadcast device. Don’t expect to have your followers feeding you exclusives & helping you with research if you’re a selfish tweeter Building genuine relationships with audiences & involving them in journalistic processes will help build interest in the quality journalism you produce & it will help mitigate the widespread distrust of mainstream media.

Twitter is entrenching the new news order: where the top-down model of information delivery presided over by an elite few is being swapped for peer-to-peer delivery on online social networking sites …the story-tellers are among us and they’re setting their own news agenda – at a cracking pace. Professional journalists need to figure out how to be distinctive and trusted information purveyors in these spaces.

Central to navigating this new territory will be responses from employers, Journalism academics, professional organisations like Australia's Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance & employers. While I believe it’s now essential for journalists and media outlets to be involved on Twitter, the industrial implications of an ever-increasing workload on reporters need to be addressed along with the ethical & professional implications.

Updating guidelines & editorial codes in response to the Social Media phenomenon is a good idea. Writing restrictive, anti-free speech codes – like the one the Australian Financial Review recently instituted, which prevents journalists from tweeting professionally - is not. But the AFR isn’t alone in its controlling approach.

The Washington Post also sought to tighten the reins on its reporters and editors, banning all commentary on Twitter that could be construed as opinion. Before he was gagged and issued a public mea culpa, one of the paper’s managing editors, Raju Narisetti, tweeted:

“For flagbearers of free speech, some newsroom execs have the weirdest double standards when it comes to censoring personal views.”

The constant framing of Social Media & the Future of Journalism debates through dystopian & utopian lenses conjures conflict, rather than progress. It’s time to move on & make the news…new.

Is social media the death or salvation of professional journalism? It’s neither – but it IS part of the revolutionary armoury in the struggle to reinvent journalism. And engagement is the heroine of the revolution
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«design» enigma CREATIVE MEDIA                © Julie Posetti «2007»
[ *The opinions expressed by j-scribe reflect those of the author only and in no way represent the views of the University of Canberra ]