Two weeks ago, News Corp Australia's Miranda Devine published Wendy Bacon and comrades lay into Sharri Markson on Twitter in defence of The Australian's media section editor Sharri Markson, who had been criticised for a column she wrote about the dangers of mixing activism and journalism.
Three of Markson's culprits were the undergraduate coordinator of journalism at the University of Technology Sydney, Jenna Price, well known political journalist Margo Kingston, who founded the citizen journalism site no fibs, and myself. Mike Carlton, who recently resigned as a popular Fairfax columnist, and Channel Ten's contributing editor Paul Bongiorno, who had dared to express the view that the National Broadband Network was being 'trashed' by the Abbott government, were also mentioned.
There is nothing unusual about a column complaining about the blurring of news and opinion journalistic genres. News writing is more openly opinionated than it used to be although many who complain about this development fail to understand that so called more traditional 'objective' reporting disguises preferred values and biases.
When I read Markson's column, one of my first thoughts was about how amusing it was that a section editor of a publication, which so transparently and relentlessly pursues a political agenda, should criticise others for expressing opinions.
In a quick tweet, I pointed out that Markson seemed to be remarkably lacking in self-reflection and knowledge of the history of journalism. In referring to history, I was thinking of the US investigative muckrakers of the early twentieth century and of how the roots of modern journalism are rooted in political struggles for democracy. It wasn't my best tweet as it was overloaded with content and had a grammatical error. The tweet ended with the comment that people 'laugh at you'. This was a reference to the fact that under Markson's editorship The Australian's media section has become so predictable in its agenda that people do laugh.
Devine's defence of Markson began with the statement that the "twitter hit squad of journalism and cranks rounded on one of their favourite targets this week".
Devine devoted quite a bit of her column to my ideas.
“I am an investigative journalist who is also a political activist,” she once wrote. “This means that I want my journalism to be useful to those who resist abuses of power and seek social justice rather than supporting existing power structures.”
Fair enough. I am a radical journalist just as Devine is a conservative one.
As a journalist, you cannot avoid the contest of ideas and information. As Chris Nash wrote, "journalism is profoundly engaged with the politics of truth and knowledge". (Nash, 2013). The Australian's attack on progressive journalists is all about the 'politics of truth', although its editors persistently prefer not to acknowledge that. This is what I meant by a lack of self-reflection.
In one sense Devine's column is good publicity for progressive ideas, right in the heart of the beast. In the rest of the column she posted some of my recent tweets.
She retweets stories about police brutality, especially if there’s a racial angle: “Police taser black man who was sitting on a chair while waiting to pick up his kids”.
"Perfect", she commented. Devine worries about the influence of such retweets.
She attributes to me some extraordinary powers. “For more than 20 years she moulded young journalists in her image”. By ‘mould’, she means I ‘brainwashed’ thousands of journalism students, many of whom still work in corporate and public media, into leftwing activism.
A whole generation of journalists brainwashed?
I stopped teaching full-time at UTS two years ago although I still give guest lectures and short courses.
Could Devine seriously believe that UTS Journalism educators have been able to foist our world view on a generation of students?
She reports that “there was a period in Bacon’s heyday when News Corp refused to hire UTS journalism graduates because they had been brainwashed so successfully into left-wing activism they were useless as reporters for any successful mainstream publication.”
There was never a time that UTS journalism graduates did not get jobs at News Corp. Devine seems to have been oblivious to the ones who flourished at News Corp or the many UTS graduates who became editors and executive producers of mainstream programs, let alone the scores of graduates who won journalism awards.
There have also been reporters who did not flourish at News Corp (e.g. those who reported climate change) but they came from a wide range of educational and journalism backgrounds.
By attributing a world view to UTS journalism she seems not to know that UTS Journalism at all times included staff with a wide range of views. Ex-staff members and even employees of News Corp have taught at UTS.
It is true that the relationship between executives and editors at News Corp and UTS Journalism has been rocky. At one stage in the late 1990s, News Corp waged a campaign against journalism students doing courses in journalism or media studies. I support the linking of theory and practice in journalism education. As in any other profession, journalists need to understand and critique the industry in which they practice. Journalists must seek to exercise independence in applying their ethical code. The way they ‘play the game’ will depend on the context in which they work.
More recently News Corp was angry when in 2012, Australian journalism academics failed to fall into line with their hysterical assault on Ray Finkelstein's Independent Media Inquiry report. This extended well beyond UTS. Some journalism academics including myself agreed with Finkelstein that media concentration is a problem and that accountability mechanisms need strengthening. The Australian launched personal attacks on several of us for that.
It is fanciful to suggest that any academic could exercise the powers Devine attributes to me. I am in that sense a figment of her imagination. However even if that were not so, she completely misunderstands progressive approaches to learning and education.
Devine mentions that as a young woman I was a member of the Sydney Push, the members of which believed in free sex and hard drinking.
In fact, the main influence of the Sydney Push and Sydney Libertarians on me and others was their support for the idea of critical inquiry and non-servile and co-operative activities. They alerted me to the idea that ideologies can operate as illusions. They were opposed to authoritarian socialist states as well as capitalist states. For this reason, and for his clear writing, they admired the author George Orwell.
Devine doesn't understand that the Sydney Push's rejection of notions of conservative 1950s sexuality was part of a broader questioning of authoritarian institutions and ways of thinking. These ideas flowed through to my ideas about teaching. Education was about thinking for yourself and being unafraid to critique the powerful, even if it made you unpopular.
I also studied sociology at UNSW where I did my first tutoring in 1968. I was influenced by Berger and Luckman's book The Social Construction of Reality, which awakened me to how notions of normalcy and morality are socially constructed but become fixed within individuals and social structures. C. Wright Mills book Sociological Imagination, which highlighted the connection between 'personal problems and public issues' was also a favourite. I mention these books not because they are necessarily important for today's students but because they influenced my politics and my lifetime focus on hidden stories and injustice in my reporting.
Anti-authoritarian approaches to learning were also linked to feminism and critiques of patriarchy, including in the Sydney Push itself. The women's liberation movement of which I was a part also encouraged ideas of self -help, consciousness raising in small groups, public access to health information and services for women managed by women. When I worked at Liverpool Women's Health Centre, I helped set up an early program inside local schools in which students could discuss sexuality and contraception.
Students in the late 1960s asserted the right to influence the curriculum and I've always agreed with that idea. I still believe that students should be involved and represented in curriculum decision making rather than merely consulted in what has become a tokenistic ritual in the continual course restructuring in Australian universities.
I also supported the idea that school students should have more rights which is why I was part of a group that published and distributed what was known as The Little Red School Book in Australia.
These are some of the influences that shaped how I approach teaching. In thinking about what I think is important in teaching, including journalism education, I was reminded of the words of Brazilian educational philosopher Paulo Freire.
In the hierarchical tertiary institutions and overly crowded classrooms of today, Freire's vision seems an optimistic one. Nevertheless, my aim in teaching is to encourage people to think for themselves and reach their own conclusions.
Rather than seek an authoritative or iconic truth as Devine would prefer, students should be encouraged to be constantly engage in critical inquiry and reflection, including into the institutions and companies that dominate the field in which they'll work.
The most enjoyable teaching that I ever undertook was a New Opportunities for Women course at TAFE in Liverpool in South West Sydney which was part of a program designed for women who wanted to build their confidence and skills to enable them to enter the workforce.
Part of what attracts me to journalism is that idea of putting information in the hands of people to make up their own minds about what action to take. My own emphasis has been on research and building skills in how to retrieve information. I believe there is a fundamental link between journalism and the public right to know and that educational approaches to teaching journalism which reduces it to a form of writing and storytelling run the risk of missing that connection. Journalism is not just another form of communication.
These days I support information and journalism initiatives such as citizen journalism site NoFibs, Detention Logs and the OpenAustralia Foundation’s access to information projects such as Right to Know.
Underpinning UTS Journalism is an educational philosophy that prioritises learning through practice and reflection that extends beyond the personal to an understanding of context.
We encouraged students to learn by doing their own stories. One of my favourite journalism education projects was a joint project with Crikey called Spinning the Media. This was an analysis of the public relations content of one week's news coverage across ten publications. The Daily Telegraph ( the publication for which Devine usually writes) got the highest score with 70% of its stories triggered by public relations, of which 44% could be traced back to actual press releases.
Devine's political imagination was schooled in an environment that was right wing Catholic and vehemently anti communist. She reflects a cold war mentality that can only imagine leftwingers as people who believe in authoritarian Leninist states. I knew hundreds of communists between the 1960s and 1980s, all of whom questioned socialist states to varying degrees and many of whom remain actively involved in non authoritarian progressive politics today.
Feminism and Debate
Part of becoming a feminist is learning how to stand up for yourself rather than feeling intimidated.
In coming to the rescue of Markson, Devine complains about our "bitchy put-down of a younger colleague by baby boomer feminist journos". Her column unleashed a torrent of sexist twitter trolls including on the themes of "old hag' and "use by date".
At an age far younger than Markson, I would have been irritated by the notion that I should be protected in a debate on account of my age. I'm irritated but not deterred by attacks on me as an older woman now.
Feminism is not a protection racket for women.
Activism and Accuracy
The issue of the relationship of activism to journalism, impartiality and objectivity is an interesting one. Later in the year, I'm presenting a paper at a Pacific Media Centre conference on that theme. Briefly, all journalism has subjective qualities and underpinning values. No journalist can avoid being part of the politics of 'truth' and 'knowledge'. However the most important characteristic of journalism is that it is about evidence and the verification of truth claims. This characteristic and its connection with the public right to know is what differentiates journalism from other forms of communication such as public relations and advertising.
What ever your political views and in whatever environment you work, it's important to strive for accuracy and not to suppress information that runs counter to your preferred narratives.
The topic of asylum seekers provides a small example of how progressive politics can link to different reporting genres.
In 2011, I was appalled when the Australian Gillard government reintroduced offshore processing for asylum seekers. I signed a protest letter signed by 200 academics. This was a political act. But I was also dismayed by the failure of the media to remind the public of the previous tragic history of offshore processing. So I developed a timeline for New Matilda. You can't get more factual than that.
Offshore processing turned out to be just as awful as we predicted. Later in 2012, I wrote an more investigative report for New Matilda about G4S headlined 'The World's Third Worst Firm runs Manus'. As readers would have known or guessed that I am strongly opposed to offshore processing. Part of the job is journalists is to push governments to hold corporate contractors like G4S accountable. But these views did not affect my obligation to make sure that the 'facts' or 'truth claims' in the story were not as accurate as possible. The credibility of journalism depends on the reliability of its truth claims, which is why News Corp persists in attacks on the credibility of myself and others.
There are challenges in combining journalism and activism. In my chapter in Left Turn, I reflected on my experiences as a progressive journalist, both inside and outside mainstream media institutions. Universities should explore and practice a wide range of approaches researching and practising the link between journalism and politics.
Unfortunately, we are surrounded by journalism that spreads inaccuracies, distortions and misunderstandings. This is why accountability mechanisms are needed so that citizens can hold the media to account.
I have argued that journalism academics should assist accountability by researching gaps or failures in media coverage. This was the impetus behind the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism's research into the Australian media's reporting of climate change. One finding of that research was that The Australian uses reporting strategies in its climate change news reporting that promote climate scepticism. Rather than being separate from its opinion columns, News Corp's news reporting supports openly sceptic columns like those Devine publishes.
Devine's image of UTS Journalism is a reflection of her cold war framework. Her imaginings about the power of progressive educators is driven by her fears. She is anxious because although the LNP government triumphed a year ago, its values and policies are under challenge. I am heartened that Devine is not alone in her fear. In an Australian Financial Review column last week, the Institute for Public Affairs CEO John Roskam declared that the right in Australia had lost the ‘cultural wars’. That is by no means my own assessment but I'd love Roskam to be right for once. If he is, I'll be laughing.
Twitter like all media crosses journalism genres. It can be a means of fast distribution across space that connects communities. This morning, for example, I was alerted to a Guardian piece by whistleblower US prisoner Chelsea Manning giving her critique of US foreign policy and recommendations for fighting ISIL and another by George Monbiot lambasting corporate media's performance on the Scottish independence referendum.
Twitter and other social media also give us a reporting voice to niggle at suppressed stories and to spread uncomfortable ‘facts’ about injustices.
We should not exaggerate the power of social media or the extent to which it can become an internal conversation. The concentrated power of the corporate media still shapes debate. Too often public broadcasters follow suit. But when News Corp wants to bully those of whom it doesn't approve and dictate the political agenda, social media help us contest its version of events. It's not the blurring of opinion and fact that worries the editors at The Australian but the fact that opinions opposed to their own appeal to many.
Note: I have not linked to Devine's piece because it is behind a paywall. If you do subscribe, which I don't, you will be able to find Devine's article with a google search.