IN her classic long-form essay The Journalist and the Murderer, American writer Janet Malcolm used an opening gambit that immortalised herself while throwing a bucket of corrosive acid over her profession. "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible," she declared. "He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse...
"Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and the public's 'right to know'; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living."
After one of the most traumatic weeks in the history of Australian media, perhaps now is not the kindest time to be quoting Malcolm. But I was reminded of her words last Thursday, when a nasty spat broke out over at Media and Marketing website Mumbrella after Tina Alldis, head of PR agency Mango in Sydney, penned an opinion piece for the website that seemed to do a tap-dance at the prospect of thousands of people about to hit the dole queues.
Alldis (who seems very young, if the photo accompanying her byline is any guide) argued that the restructures taking place at Fairfax and News Ltd were "great news for our clients", saying that the soon to be diminished number of journalists "that we harass daily" would result in an increased reliance on wire services and other content that could be syndicated across networks, "with stories running across multiple platforms and extending out into social media".
If that wasn't enough, Alldis concluded that "with a significant number of Fairfax Media and News Limited employees likely to be on the hunt for new roles, it would be remiss not to expect that there will be an increasing number of former journos joining the 'dark side' of publicity. All in all, it's an exciting time to be in PR."
Bayoneting the wounded, as one commenter put it.
Alldis' piece was widely tweeted and retweeted for all the wrong reasons. Perhaps her position will be among those being eyed off; in the meantime those who manage to keep their jobs will just hang up the phone the next time anyone at Mango comes calling. The company's MD Simone Drewery hastily issued a statement (now printed below Alldis' story) apologising for the presumably unauthorised spiel - "We have friends and peers who are impacted by the recent changes at Fairfax and News Ltd and we do not want to profit from the distress caused to them and their families" - and Alldis herself invited anyone whom she had offended to email her so she could apologise personally.
So it's hardly necessary to castigate her further. I'm sure she's had a pretty rough weekend, and most journalists with a modicum of self-awareness have written some things they wish they hadn't. For me, the more pertinent question is why Mumbrella editor Tim Burrowes decided to publish Alldis' screed in the first place: sure, it's not his job to save errant PR flaks from themselves, but editors are quality controllers, and apart from driving traffic to the website it's hard to see the value in handing a rope to someone about to attempt career suicide.
What really caught my eye in the ensuing discussion, though, was the following: "Why do journalists think they are better than PR professionals? You certainly love us when we give you an exclusive on topics that meet your approval. As journalists you get people to trust you so that one day you can betray them and yourself. Tina you came across as a bottom feeder, but so too do many journalists, many days of the week."
The comment illustrates the nasty corollary to the often uneasy ethical relationship between journalists and their subjects exposed by Malcolm: the equally awkward embrace of the journalism and publicity industries. Central to this is the modus operandi of PR itself: it exists to create content favourable to the client, whether the client is a pop star, a politician or a corporate entity. And Alldis actually has a point: with fewer journalists attempting to feed a hungry 24/7 beast, there is a real danger of an increasing reliance on spin in place of real original content.
When an approved journalist from an approved organisation is fed an "exclusive" (or, in political reportage, a leak) it's invariably to serve the purposes of those granting it. A journalist perceived to be sympathetic to the client's interests is targeted. By being brought inside the tent, they are made to feel important, and the splash they make with their feature wins them the additional favour of their editors as a news-breaker, kudos from readers, and possible promotion up the food chain.
Rare is the journalist that spits in the eye of apparent good fortune. One fine example is Jack Marx, famously courted by actor Russell Crowe. Crowe needed a booster for his feeble attempts at rock stardom and targeted Marx, who went along for the ride, then won a Walkley Award for ruthlessly exposing Crowe's brazen attempts to curry his favour. Perhaps, in a way, it was a betrayal of his subject - Marx could have just told Crowe he wasn't interested from the outset - but it was a blow for journalistic integrity in the face of a star's glad-handing.
On the front page of The Australian today is a different kind of exclusive. Reporters Michael Owen and Rebecca Puddy have been granted access to the submission by the Northern Territory Police Association into the death in custody of a 27-year-old Aboriginal man Kwementyaye Briscoe, who died in the Alice Springs watchhouse on January 4 after being put in protective custody. He was heavily intoxicated, with a blood alcohol concentration of seven times the legal driving limit.
"Grog-fuelled violence swamping police," reads the headline (probably not written by Owen or Puddy). The story praises the submission as "powerful", describing a police force that is buckling under the strain of incarcerating drunk people, work that is apparently so "mind-numbing, desensitising and soul destroying as to be heroic", highlighting "the extreme difficulties police [are] faced with daily in dealing with a problem others had washed their hands of". It's a story clearly sympathetic to the interests of the Police Association.
I don't doubt the severe duress that police working in disadvantaged Aboriginal communities are under - read, for example, Chloe Hooper's The Tall Man for a beautifully balanced dissection of what it did to the Kurtz-like figure of Christopher Hurley, charged and later acquitted of the manslaughter of Cameron Doomadgee on Palm Island in 2004. But what Owen and Puddy's story fails to mention at all is the fact that, at the time Briscoe died, probationary constable David O'Keefe was listening to his iPod and surfing the net. Repeated distress calls from other prisoners couldn't get him to budge from his desk.
"I was distracted by other things," he told the inquest, admitting he didn't do a single check on Briscoe on his watch. "I was lazy, I guess."
Trust has always been the cornerstone of reporting. What makes the travails of the heritage media in the digital age so acute is that it coincides with a collapse in trust in the Australian polity generally. An Essential poll on 12 June showed a collapse of our trust in federal parliament (from 55 percent last year down to 22 percent this year, a staggering fall). Trade unions were also down to 22 percent, from 39. Business groups fared no better, from 38 down to, you guessed it, 22. And on it goes.
The news media fared especially poorly. Print media rated just 26 percent for trustworthiness. TV and online news was even worse. The only institution to lift its trustworthiness in the eyes of consumers was the ABC (so often attacked for alleged bias), from 46 to 54 percent.
There's a lesson in all that, not only for editors but for media investors and would-be owners, too. If we want readers to pay for quality journalism online, winning back their trust will be the first order of business. And to do that, journalism's relationship with the various hands that feed it needs re-examination. Because readers aren't stupid. They're awake to partisanship (even though, paradoxically, they may also seek it out to serve their own pre-existing biases). They're awake to fluff padding out quality (even as they devour "news" on reality-show winners). They're awake to spin.
I'm not seeing such self-awareness in too many journalists. A re-read of Malcolm might be in order. In the meantime, mostly they're just turning their bayonets on themselves.