Book review: The Rise of the Fifth Estate – social media and blogging in Australian politics
Revenge is tweet.
The blogosphere, social media, twittering and “buggerising around on Facebook”, to use the fine phraseology of the honourable member for Ilam, are all in the news.
Sometimes, it seems, despite themselves.
If there is one thing that triggers a ranting spasm from some journalists and most bloggers it is the subject of their respective roles this 21st-century media world.
Bloggers are “parasites” “armchair critics”, a “rancid sewer” and an “echo chamber”. Journalists – sorry, mainstream media or MSM, to use the TLA – are “smug” “comfortable” and “lazy”.
New Zealand saw a bit of this bad feeling go public a fortnight ago when New Zealand Herald senior political writer John Armstrong took a public swipe at bloggers who criticised media coverage of the recent APEC summit.
It got nasty and personal fairly quickly, as sibling rivalry fights tend to do.
Because this is the awkward truth about 21st-century journalism and blogs. While there are some important and substantive differences, the two groups are more alike than perhaps some would feel comfortable admitting.
Maybe they are not quite siblings. Half siblings, perhaps, with each side calling the other the illegitimate one.
Not alone in this digital spit-fest
New Zealand is not alone in this digital spit-fest. In quite timely fashion, Australian blogger Greg Jericho’s The Rise of the Fifth Estate hit the bookshops last month.
Mr Jericho writes one of Australia’s better-known blogs, Grogs Gamut – its at http://grogsgamut.blogspot.com – and was doing so as an anonymous public servant until the 2010 federal election campaign, when he was “outed” by a journalist in The Australian newspaper.
The outing happened after he had criticised some of the paper's election campaign coverage.
So he’s got a bit of an axe to grind, and you cannot, in all fairness, blame him too much for being a little teed off with Australia's press corps, especially the Canberra press gallery.
It’s a bit overdone though. Every insult from journalists about bloggers seems to be recounted here with the kind of mulling over grievances that – yes, again – characterises some sibling relationships.
Some of it is pretty tedious. Other people’s rows are usually boring, and the blogosphere is filled with other people’s rows.
The row which led to his “outing” had an effect, though, and not only on Mr Jericho’s own life and career.
Triggered a defence
His criticism of the election coverage by the Canberra political journalists triggered a defence from journalists which boiled down to a grizzle that it is bloody hard work following political leaders around the country and being subjected to the staged photo ops and carefully managed “events”.
His response at the time was devastating – and accurate.
“The news needs politicians to pretend? The news needs choreographed images? …If that is what the news needs, it has long ceased being news…. the campaign trail is not about news, nor about providing information that might allow voters to decide how to vote: instead, it is just a travelogue for the leaders that provides them with a free advertisement every night at 6pm.”
That had an impact on news coverage in Australia, although not immediately. Earlier this year in Queensland’s state election, the Brisbane Courier Mail pulled its reporters off the leaders’ buses, saying it had been “a waste of our resources and therefore a waste of our readers’ time”.
That, though, touches on an issue Jericho has not, as a blogger writing from afar, had to deal with.
The rise of the blogs, Facebook and – especially Twitter – has led to more obsessive news management.
It has made “communications managers” or “media relations executives” or whatever you want to call them even more aggressively paranoid than they were before.
This is right across the board, from politicians (both central and local) to government agencies to business, although in my own experience businesses are less twitchily paranoid than public sector spin merchants.
In a world where any little thing can be on Twitter within seconds, the drive from such types to try to not only manage the news but manage the journalists is becoming more presumptive and in your face.
The age of hyper-tweet
The other thing that makes this book worth persisting with is Mr Jericho does have some good stories to tell and some insights into journalism and the world of the 24-hour news cycle and what seems to be turning into the age of the hyper-tweet.
He is a fan of Twitter to an almost breathless extent at times, urging journalists and politicians to use it more actively and imaginatively than just as either, respectively, a news source or another way of whacking out a press release.
He also raises questions about the future role of journalism when so many specialists are prepared to write lengthy analytical pieces free online – whether you call them “blogs” or not.
That is indeed a challenge for the industry and it seems, I would suggest, to be leading to a wider bifurcation between media who cover any damn thing and those who specialise.
If anyone can, and does, stick breaking news up on Twitter that means journalists are going to have to specialise more if they are going to produce a product readers are going to be happy to pay for.
In summary: The Rise of the Fifth Estate is worth a read, but be prepared to skim through some of the more point-scoring bits.
But never mind. It’ll give you more time to tweet or to post photos of your cat on Facebook.
The Rise of the Fifth Estate by Greg Jericho (Scribe, Melbourne, 2012). Download the Kindle version or a free preview chapter here.