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December 8, 2011 / Siobhan Argent

Malcolm Turnbull on ‘Politics, Journalism and the 24/7/ News Cycle’


Malcolm Turnbull on journalism, news cycles and permanently disliking Labor.

Last night I saw Malcolm Turnbull–ever the silver fox, in a suit tailored down to the micrometre–captivating a room full of attentive listeners. What’s not to like? The Centre for Advanced Journalism’s lecture on ‘Politics, journalism and the 24/7 news cycle’ seemed to suit every inch of Turnbull’s background: former journalist, current member for Wentworth (NSW), Rhodes Scholar and successful businessman.

To a faithful observer of the media industry, Turnbull was simply preaching to the converted, repeating much of what we already knew. My high hopes were somewhat quelled after I realised, for example, that we weren’t going to get a damning review of the way social networking has warped the media cycle in Australia and beyond. As Annabel Crabb pointed out in Rise of the Ruddbot, increased demand for quotes that are friendly to people with short attention spans, scanning internet pages, has forced politicians to evolve into walking sound-bite generators.

In fact, much of Turnbull’s speech centred on journalism rather than politics. Turnbull lamented the death of the newspaper’s golden era. It’s a time that I am, unfortunately, too young to know. Turnbull’s focus was not on the delegitimisation of journalism in an era where the digital sphere grows ever more powerful, but instead the viability of journalism itself. While he did admit, for example, that ‘The barriers to entry [into journalism] have never been lower’ thanks to the internet, there seems to be no question in Turnbull’s mind as to the legitimacy of journalism as a check and balance against the power of government.

Turnbull pointed out, for example, that newspaper readerships are still as steady as ever. It’s the revenue that has suffered as newspaper audiences moved online. The repercussions are obvious—less intelligent, in-depth reporting—but its practical implications are far more insidious. Turnbull argues, for example, that the Canberra press gallery is becoming increasingly impotent, forced to write cheap, quick opinion articles on the oh-so-soap-opera Kevin versus Julia dichotomy, or a profile of the politician in the media’s eye that week. In Turnbull’s mind, the 24-hour news cycle has become the ‘opinion cycle’, with a distinct lack of rigorous analysis to cut through the bias. At this point, it’s a little bit of tell us something we don’t know.

However, Turnbull’s opinion  on such matters is not to be sneezed at; it carries considerable weight when you consider you’re talking to a man who was co-founder of OzEmail, has had a blog seemingly since before the dawn of time, and has guest dog bloggers on his personal website. As you do.  His evident familiarity with technological development also suggests he’s had plenty of time to consider the conundrum digital media presents within the political sphere. And while Malcolmturnbull.com.au has clearly taken advantage of the elements of media technology that work for him, it’s hard to ask one man to shed light on how to fix an entire Fourth Estate system going weak at the knees whenever somebody mentions the word ‘Google’.

Turnbull, ever the careful politician, never names guilty parties and takes only a few quick jabs at the Labor party’s incompetence, which must be something of a tic for a shadow minister. He makes brief but inevitable mention of the Murdoch scandal, but shies away from accusing anyone within News Corporation’s Australian arm of having anything to do with phone hacking. On the contrary, he seems happy to argue that phone hacking is a British phenomenon that hasn’t crossed international borders within News Corp. While he discussed an increasingly partisan approach to politics and political reporting in the US, Turnbull made no mention, for example, of the blustering, climate-change-denialist Australian newspaper, succinctly slammed by Robert Manne in a recent Quarterly Essay. Turnbull only glanced over the crushing dominance of Murdoch’s daily metro newspapers in the Australian sphere. We never really hear what Turnbull thinks of that, so clean is the sheen on this man’s opinion.

However, glimpses of what must be the Dr. Jekyll in the Malcolm split personality–Malcolm the Journalist–did sometimes slip through. When questioned by an audience member about the he-said/she-said journalism finding increasing favour among mainstream reporters, particularly in terms of interviewing politicians, Turnbull replied, ‘You should never assume that you are going to be told the truth’. Even Malcolm the Politician tittered at that one.

Perhaps the most telling comment of all was from Michael Gawenda (former The Age editor and outgoing Director of the Centre for Advanced Journalism). As MC, he came back to the podium after Turnbull finished speaking and summed up the warped little world of mainstream Australian political reporting as it stands today: ‘It’s wonderful to hear a senior Liberal praising the ABC’. When something like that deserves to be pointed out and praised, perhaps we know it’s time to start crawling up from rock bottom.

Links of interest:

Malcolm Turnbull’s House of Representatives bio

Mellie Turnbull’s dog blog update (feline friendly)

The Centre for Advanced Journalism: their mailing list keeps you in the know for events similar to this one.

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