A new paradigm
THESE ARE unusual times, but spookily good times to be talking about new ways of thinking about the role and place of the news the way it is gathered, collated and communicated. Maybe even, a time for a new paradigm or two.
Who would ever have thought that talk of new paradigms would have ever made it into the headlines and ten second news grabs. But for the past week or so it has been the phrase of the moment – even if it has been an unfamiliar word from an unlikely source.
The letter writers have been very exercised about all this talk of paradigm shifts, wittily engaging with the incongruity of a bloke in a big hat being the one using such a pointy-headed term.
But, as I said, these are unusual times. Times that challenge many of our presumptions.
It may say something about the caricatures that we have about blokes from the bush that it comes as a rather confusing shock that “paradigm change” talk should role so effortlessly off Bob Katter’s tongue. Isn’t he a hick, a throw back, a bit of a buffoon, a parody of an Aussie cowboy? Why is he, of all people, suggesting that it is time to think beyond a party system that evolved, as he correctly noted, in the nineteenth century, when we are now in the twenty-first, or something…
The system has served us well – but he is quite right we are in the midst of a paradigm change. We are seeing the signs of this change all around us – and we don’t really know where it is leading, in politics or the media. But there is something going on, and the uncertainty around the formation of a new federal government is in some ways emblematic of it the product of this flux.
John Keane, the professor of politics at Sydney University who has been exciting the Q&A twitterati with his wild hair and wordy responses, suggested in his big book, The Life and Death of Democracy, that the era of representative democracy, has been gradually giving way to a new era of monitory democracy, where many competing and complementary agencies are keeping tabs on the system, checking power, acting as watchdogs.
In this new era these roles are no longer comfortably or willingly handed over to the political parties, elected representatives or the press. An educated and well-informed citizenry expects to be involved, and actually knows a lot. The twitterers on Q&A demonstrate this with amusing clarity every Monday night.
Indeed I suspect that for all the talk of the campaign over the past month or so being dumbed-down to win the support of that handful of undecided voters in a few marginal seats, what the election has actually revealed is just how smart the electorate really is.
Those who want to disengage from the political process will of course find their own ways to do so. It appears that there may be more than a million people who are not enrolled, in many cases not because they missed an impossible and unconstitutional deadline, but because they are disconnected from the process, consider it remote and irrelevant.
Then there are those who chose to vote informally, a substantial proportion in some electorates – where Mark Latham’s cynical and disaffected message resonated.
Both these groups are a cause for concern and need further attention, but should not distract us from the reality of our civic-minded polity. We are the envy of many countries. It says a lot that programs like Gruen Nation and the recent Chaser manifestation, Yes We Canberra should attract such huge audiences and advance the discussion and understanding in a way that extends and complements the extensive and more straightforward reporting and analysis we have come to expect from traditional news sources.
It points to the fact that most of the people have been taking it seriously, and using the information they can glean to make shrewd decisions.
This was clear in the disappointed response to the slide away from the urgency of action on climate change and in the collective emotional intelligence on display following the removal of Prime Minister Rudd – the people knew instinctively something that seemed to elude the assassins: that face saving is essential to smooth transitions.
The collective outcome – a divided parliament, putting the outcome in the hands of several archetypal Aussie blokes – says a lot about the uncertainty we collectively feel the best way forward in unusual times. This does not feel like bitter division, like the red states blue states divide of the United States, it feels like an evolutionary step into an uncertain future.
There has been quite a lot of talk about the need to reform the political process by these archetypal blokes to whom we have delegated the responsibility of deciding the new government. Interesting they have all made comments – throw away lines, grumbles and a few harsh words about the role of the media. Bob Katter sniped that it was time to take him seriously, Rob Oakeshott has complained about the dirt mongering by some tabloids, Tony Windsor archly noted the role of partisan pen pushers. On her last day as Prime Minister before the election at the Press Club, and again this week in her new more tenuous role, Julia Gillard pleaded that it was more than a game, on Q&A on Monday night Malcolm Fraser castigated News Ltd for its self-interested and hostile approach to the Labor government, and Tony Abbott has tried very hard and quite successfully so far, not to offend anyone.
It is not appropriate for the politicians who are negotiating what the new parliament might look like to be prescribing changes to the media system, but we are kidding ourselves if we don’t recognise that the need for a new paradigm extends to the media as well. What do we think should be the new rules of engagement for the media in this world? At one simple level formalising rules around the debates in future election campaigns would be one building block – taking this out of the hands of the party officials to say yes or no. There is something more fundamental at stake. If we are serious about the media’s role in the political process, surely this should be one of the reforms on the table, but no one seems to be advocating it, we are more comfortable as observers than accepting the responsibility that comes with playing an active role, which is what really makes this vocation so addictive.
There is a need for some new ways of thinking and acting – and fortunately there are a bundle of new tools sitting there waiting to be deployed. There has been so much talk in recent years about the need for new business models for journalism, that we have forgotten to concentrate on what we are best at – public sense making, reporting and interpreting the news, getting the mood of the times, the complex fabric of life that undergirds the events that erupt on the surface. We have become much better at the events but have not maintained the same levels of innovation when it comes to covering the underlying issues…who would have had any expectation that talk of paradigm changes in the political system was as well advanced in the thinking of some of our members of parliament as it has been shown to be for instance.
Either we will be caught up in something that is not of our making – trailing along behind the audience and the news-makers or we can seek to apply the lessons of decades of professional skill to crafting a new way of doing journalism.
The election campaign has demonstrated this with striking clarity. The vacuity of the campaign reached a new level. The reporters on the buses at the whim and mercy of the campaign organisers were treated as quote harvesters, or stenographers. They worked a shallow seam with as much professional integrity as they could, but much of the time it appeared to be demeaning work. Little wonder that the sport of Mark Latham’s bomb throwing provided a welcome, if meaningless distraction that nonetheless dominated the headlines for days and days.
The high points were those moments when the audience of electors became involved. The News Ltd sponsored town hall meetings, fifty bucks a head for undecided voters, to ask their questions, the Q&A sessions where the leaders could provide answers that lasted for more than 30 seconds and explain the context and some of the complexity.
These forums were especially revealing, but the reports the next day tended to play to the gags, the slip ups, rather than the bigger picture. Because of my position on the ABC Board lots of people contact me to comment on things they like and dislike – and this was striking. The narrowness of the political reporting missed the bigger picture – it was more than a game many people said.
This may be inevitable, but just as these forums are now a possibility, technology has provided other ways of reporting, or making sense of issues, of engaging with and drawing on the audience. But it is not enough to be passive in response to these changes – there is a need for leadership, for media professionals to bring their insights to the process, to build a new, more informed and nuanced relationship with the audience, which we now know so much more about. To reassert the best of our role in public life, to reclaim the fourth estate role by looking forward to finding new ways of learning from the public, new ways of using the tools the technology has provided, remembering the old lessons of story telling and understanding what makes people tick with empathy and insight.
If the public is dissatisfied with the political parties and with the nature of much political reporting, it is up to us to reinvent it, to forge a new relationship, to find out what it is that people are wanting and find new ways of giving it to them, not leaving it to the political parties to chose the tune and decide who is dancing.
We have a huge range of tools now, there is more knowledge than ever before about the interests, preoccupations and concerns of the public. It is our responsibility to address these concerns, unpack them, find their causes and solutions, to dig beyond the obvious to seek out patterns, to find a path through complexity.
Instead we all too often find ourselves parroting the cut down lines, the ideologically shaped rhetoric, untruths and misstatements, the overstatement that is meant to address fundamental concerns, but is generally simplistic nonsense that everyone sees through and greets with cynicism.
Doing this is hard and will require original thinking. Already the attitude towards audiences is changing – but the need for a new relationship is going to be more complex and difficult, an iterative process as the new paradigm emerges.
More than a decade ago when I wrote Reviving the Fourth Estate I argued that if the best traditions of journalism were to be realised into the future journalists would need to find a new way of respectfully relating directly to their audiences – not as ciphers, or partisan snipers, but as public sense-makers.
We now have tools to do this that were unimaginable even a decade ago. We can gather and collate complex data to find patterns and make sense of complexity and we can engage directly with our audiences and learn from them. As the Washington Post showed in its recent expose of the growth of the security industry in the US the big stories these days may not be about goodies and baddies as we have known them, but about processes and systems that get out of control, and produce extraordinary unintended consequences of profound significance.
We can provide leadership, bring the skills of weighing competing claims, analysis and story telling to make sense of uncertain times, to help raise the level of civilisation, rather than turn it down to the lowest common denominator.
Or we can be stenographers, recycling manufactured lines and dealing ourselves out of the game, bystanders and ciphers playing catchup with a fast moving mob.
I don’t think that is the new paradigm we aspire to. But unless we seek to be masters of our own destiny, apply the hard won skills of information gathering, analysis and story telling, to find new ways of adding value to the information rich world, which could be what the future holds.
I don’t think this is inevitable. The public has demonstrated that they are smart and have high expectations. There is a lot of disappointment abroad at the moment, this is our time to invent a new way of doing journalism that rises above the disappointment and provides a way of helping people make sense of an unusual and uncertain time.
Maybe even a new paradigm or two! •
Julianne Schultz is the founding editor of Griffith Review and a professor at Griffith’s Centre for Public Culture and Ideas. This is the text of her opening address at the New News Conference, held on 2–3 September at The Wheeler Centre in Melbourne.