Thursday, November 17, 2011

Going French with Eric Beecher - Civil Society Journalism

Eric Beecher is probably Melbourne’s most outstanding media entrepreneur. To all intents and purposes he is a self-made media mogul, albeit on a small global scale and thankfully perhaps, one who did not inherit his media products from a parent. In this way he epitomises the spirit of liberal capitalism, which welcomes hard work, innovation and determination to take and make money in the marketplace.

The take and make framework is a well established model for all manner of enterprises – with some exceptions, namely the media. In Australia there are well known models of state funding for industries that cannot survive without Federal and State Government support. The Australian Film Industry, Ballet, Opera, Orchestral Music, Literature, Children’s Television are obvious ones which are all variously supported and defended by keepers of whatever faith is being promulgated therein.

Film buffs will defend to the death Australian cinema and government support. Ask an opera buff to give up that boondoggle and all hell will break loose. This narrative is played out over and over again and with good reason. Civil society in Australia and around the world is enriched by public support for otherwise unsustainable artistic activity. It is a long and worthy list.

So it was both a surprise yet nothing new to read the submission from Eric Beecher to the Australian Government’s Media Inquiry. Mr Beecher is advocating for an Australia Council-like institution to fund what he considers ‘quality journalism’.  

He also refers in the document to ‘public trust journalism’ and ‘meaningful journalism enterprises,’ suggesting that the categorization of what he considers worthy of promoting is mercurial at best. Unfortunately, he complicates the matter and his argument by talking about ‘commercial journalism,’ when what he seems to really mean is a type of journalism that makes civil society in Australia worthy of the name.    
 ‘Australian governments should engage in serious discussion and analysis of the potential collateral damage that could be inflicted on our civic society if expensive commercial-sector quality journalism is no longer viable,’ Beecher said in his submission.

‘This could be done – as it is France, on a large scale – by the creation of independently administered government incentives that foster media start-ups and innovative commercial journalism ventures. This approach, possibly using an independent funding mechanism like the Australia Council, could allocate grants on a project basis (to independent publishers as well as ventures such as The Australian Literary Review), would expand the diversity of ownership of independent journalism.’
Mr Beecher makes it clear that he is not in favour of questions about government funding of quality journalism.

‘The relevant question is not: “Is government funding of public trust journalism a bad idea?” The relevant question is: “What kind of country would we have if the commercial funding of quality journalism was devalued to the point where it no longer fulfilled its historic watchdog role?”’

Do we need a new category of journalism? How about civil society journalism? This is journalism that meets the old standards of social responsibility journalism by meeting the obligation to inform and educate and entertain. It would go beyond the claims that social responsibility journalism does little more than reflect the limited imagination that drives ‘responsibility’: the kind of ‘to whom much is given much is expected’ kind of cant, which every dubious evangelist mouths with cherubic solicitude.
Civil society journalism will not be directed to the good and the great, the educated and the excellent – in other words, the elites of society. It will be a much more complicated beast, a multi-headed hydra that represents the diverse interests pulling and pushing at society.

Curiously, civil society journalism already exists and has a name: it is the internet.
The bottom line here is that what Mr Beecher wants is journalism that is not News Corporation. In making this case for diversity of ownership he is absolutely correct – various cities in Australia are dominated by News Corporation publications. Brisbane and Adelaide, Hobart and Darwin citizens have few print media options but a News Corporation perspective.

News Corporation journalists and editors wave their hands in protest at suggestions that there is a News Corporation line and rightly so. Every paper has a line. Why Australian news organizations persist with the myth that there is an objective style of journalism, or that there is no bias is a waste of time.

The fact remains that all information is determined by its source and the forces that impinge of that source. This fact is well known from the history of The New Journalism which emerged in the 1960s, as a means of placing the messenger in first person form in the story. And yet we persist with the idea that journalists are capable of reporting some objective truth.

What we need are clear rules about enhancing the flow of information to citizens so that there is some confidence that as much as possible is available for scrutiny.

Mr. Beecher’s proposal for a funding organization to support quality journalism has value. However, it is not in the self-serving call for a public organization to offset News Corporation’s hegemony. It is revealing that Mr. Beecher believes that the refined tastes of traditional values and history should be embodied in quality journalism. In the era of the internet, such an appeal is conservative, and Mr Beecher is what I would consider a good Melbourne liberal.

These days, journalism is open to all sorts of abuses, mostly through the internet. Furthermore, most citizens under 35 gather their news from social media cites, not from newspapers.

Certainly the French have a grand idea for publicly funding full coverage of French society. That should go with their interest in the values of equality liberty and fraternity. The question for Mr Beecher and for anyone who cares about civil society, is how Australia can create an institution that promotes those values within the take and make framework.

Please see the link below for Eric Beecher's submission