ABC, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, BBC, British Broadcasting Corporation, buzzfeed, Colvinius, Donald Trump, Facebook, Fairfax, fake news, Fran Kelly, Google, Jeremy Paxman, Leigh Sales, linkedin, Mark Colvin, Maxine McKew, Patricia Karvelas, Phillip Adams, Skimm, The Apprentice, Tony Jones, Virginia Trioli, Waleed Ali
I got a tweet yesterday from someone who had just died. It simply said ‘It’s all been bloody marvellous.’ It was none other than Mark Colvin, the longstanding journalist from the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation). The death of Mark is a blow to quality journalism and his passing is made even more salient by the fact that quality journalism is under attack like never before. There are three threats to the fourth estate. Traditional media is under pressure from falling advertising revenue, social media is skewing newsfeeds, citizen journalism is in many cases reducing the quality of the message and furthermore Trump, ostensibly the leader of the free world, has been doing his damnedest to undermine the role that the media plays in filtering out fact from fiction.
I was no early listener to Mark Colvin whose career spanned some 40 years with the ABC. I was in the UK enjoying arguably the best quality radio, television and print media journalism in the world. The BBC remains, I think, the best news organisation across radio, television and digital platforms. So on my migration to Australia I was bracing myself for a bit of a culture shock from ‘nation speaking peace unto nation’ to laid-back news ditties interspersed by surfing forecasts. Imagine my surprise when I tuned into the ABC and listened to the likes of Fran Kelly, Waleed Ali, PK, Phillip Adams, Virginia Trioli, Leigh Sales, Maxine McKew, Tony Jones and of course Mark Colvin. I realised pretty quickly that my highbrow bias was totally off beam. Mark though, stood out for me partly I think because of his radio voice which appeared to have a tinge of British accent. He had a very direct approach, not quite Jeremy Paxman, but one that had an edge suggesting he had little tolerance for BS. He never got upset or talked over his interviewee and what was abundantly clear was that he didn’t work from scripts. His second question always seemed to be seamlessly linked to the previous answer; a clear mark of an accomplished journalist and interviewer.
Why is the passing of Mark Colvin, aka known by twitter handle ‘Colvinius’, so important? Possibly like no other time in modern history has the freedom of the press been so much at risk. There is the Trump effect. He believes that if you say it is so then it is so. This is mainly true if you run a Corporation. This is patently true if you host The Apprentice. This is clearly not the case if you are in public office and especially if you are running a country. It’s people like Mark Colvin who have kept and keep on holding such individuals to account.
Secondly there is the worrying aspect of falling advertising revenues to the traditional media platforms of radio, TV and print. We have a very recent example of this in Australia on, of all days, World Press Freedom Day, with the notification of over 100 redundancies of journalists from the Fairfax Group. This means quality journalists committed to keeping our politicians, those in public service and corporations honest. Democracy is kept alive through the constant application of scrutiny. Those who do so are increasingly targeted as ‘un-American’ or ‘un-Australian’ etc. when nothing could be further from the truth. Those who place the spotlight on our freedoms are surely the great defenders of it which comes out of patriotism and not hatred. As Burt Cohen would attest, to lose quality journalists means our ability to actually undertake some of the long-form journalism or investigative journalism is seriously compromised. Denying media freedom is something we would not tolerate in the free world, but allowing it to be starved through lack of quality personnel seems to be something we sit idly by and allow.
There is the argument of course that alternative platforms, including digital, are taking the place of traditional forms of media and we should just suck it up and get on with it. Besides the young people are accessing their media that way aren’t they? All well and good but the questions you have to ask yourself are whether Facebook, Google, Skimm or Buzzfeed etc. would have had the tenacity and prowess to uncover the Watergate scandal if they had been around then? I strongly suspect not.
Digital platforms, especially social media, have underlying algorithms allowing social media sites to garner an incredible amount of information about individual eyeball owners. Behaviours and patterns are the primary focus here because advertising revenue is what underpins these companies. This isn’t the world of the first wave of internet companies which were based on ‘fluff’ with no underpinning business model. The business model for the likes of Facebook, Linkedin etc. is well established and it is advertising. We know from FeedVis, developed by the Northeastern University and the University of Michigan, that social media news is actually curated for us. This has caused the New Scientist to claim that ‘in the history of mass media people were in control of what you saw. That’s not true anymore.’ We have every right to be alarmed by this. Our news is likely reflecting our current biases both conscious and unconscious. We know from neuroscience that our ego-brain is constantly seeking confirmation of our particular view of the world. Such self-affirming ‘proof’ delivered to our news feed daily, if not hourly, cannot be healthy from a knowledge, growth or democratic perspective.
That said, not all digital news delivery is bad. I love keeping abreast of breaking news via Twitter. So did Mark Colvin by the way. What’s remarkable about Mark is that while he embraced the technology, he also embraced the polar opposite of Twitter and its 140 character limit with a breadth across an amazing range of issues that often had his colleagues breathless in admiration.
So I’ve received his last ever tweet. Those who listened to Mark on PM on a regular basis will know what I mean when I say that when I got his last tweet I held on for a further one, after a suitable, almost awkward pause, that simply said….’goodnight.’