And there it rests: Lessons from Twitdef

On Tuesday, News Limited attempted to draw a line under its latest battle with new media which went under the tag of #twitdef. In a terse article by media writer Caroline Overington on Tuesday, The Australian admitted Canberra journalism academic Julie Posseti probably didn’t commit a crime when she live-tweeted the words of a speaker at a conference. The broadsheet made the admission after it heard audio evidence about what Asa Wahlquist said at the recent Journalism Education Association Australia conference in Sydney. Posetti, said Overington, produced a “fair summary”.

Mitchell had earlier threatened to “unremarkably” sue Posetti for defamation (though given the paper’s climate change agnosticism it was never clear what reputation Mitchell was defending). Few were surprised to hear Wahlquist, who recently quit News, faced intense editorial pressures to conform to a party line when reporting on climate change and other political matters. It also corresponds to what I have heard (off the record) from other News Ltd journalists.

Mitchell’s real intention was to project power by creating a chilling effect in Twitter. It didn’t work because Mitchell has no idea how the medium works. His non-apology apology via Caroline Overington claimed Wahlquist told Mitchell her comments were taken out of context and Posetti “should have contacted him to get his side of the story.”

Apart from the idiocy that Twitter must follow the conventions of “he said, she said” journalism, Mitchell also refused to concede the truth. He maintained Posetti had defamed him though the ambiguous sounding “And there it rests” suggested he was not going to take the matter further. After the Twitterati picked this ambiguity up, Overington issued a coda saying it meant “she had no more” to offer. It allowed Mitchell to maintain the pretense of keeping legal avenues open.

Mitchell couldn’t apologise properly to Julie Posetti because it was not in his nature. Stephen Mayne picked that up seven years ago when Mitchell was first appointed editor of The Oz. “Mitchell is known for his hardline political views and aggressive style – The key to understanding [him] is to know that he is a right-wing social engineer who happens to be a journalist,” Mayne wrote.

New York University’s Professor of Journalism Jay Rosen probably hadn’t heard of Mitchell in 2003 but he certainly knows about him now. He believes Mitchell’s social engineering is a major problem. “I think The Australian is fast becoming a malevolent force and for some reason that I do not fully understand it is not met with the sort of public opposition it deserves,” Rosen told me by email yesterday.

I contacted Rosen because I was curious to know why he injected himself into recent News Ltd stoushes against new media such as the outing of Grog’s Gamut and now the hounding of Posetti.

Rosen told me he saw it as a critical part of a larger battle.
“As the Murdoch empire faces the loss of the emperor–his lost grip or his eventual passing–it starts behaving erratically and in that state it becomes rather dangerous: to itself, but also to other people and to cultural treasures like freedom of the press,” he said.

But the Empire has an Achilles heel according to Rosen: “Murdoch cannot master digital.”

“He tried, but the thing has eluded him. That is unacceptable for a mogul. But it is also a fact. Put those two things together–an unacceptable fact that is also true–and you have a dangerous situation for a news empire. Rupert is trying to impose an order on the digital world that it does not have. This creates problems for his editorial employees. They have to believe in an analysis that is ‘shitty’ but also saintly because it comes from the top. They get into trouble when they try to prove the emperor right, and behave like little emperors themselves.”

Rosen said the dynamic is being forced down through the hierarchy so it reaches even the reporters at The Oz, “who think they can impose order, knock heads and, for example, demonstrate to the blogosphere which rules it has to obey”.

“Notice how often people from The Australian say there’s ‘nothing special’ about Twitter, or that it doesn’t get a pass, that it isn’t an exception. That’s the echo, way down the line, of the unacceptable fact that is also true. ‘There’s nothing different going on here. We got this under control.’ When they are criticised for taking what is, in effect, a party line, people from The Australian have a strange habit of hearing criticism as a charge of conspiracy. Then they laugh at the overheated image of a conspiracy which in turn protects them against the criticism”.

Rosen agreed with my suggestion Australia’s dangerously concentrated media landscape was one of the reasons the Twitterati have been so feisty in opposition but said there was an important second reason.

“The above ground opposition is weak. Online, there is a lot of juvenile sneering at News Ltd. which reflects how rarely the respectable people criticize and investigate what’s rotten in the empire. How many journalists who were there when Asa Wahlquist made her remarks spoke up about what they heard?” he asked.

“For the professional culture of journalism in Australia, which extends to the academic centres where journalism is studied, that is a significant number,” Rosen concluded.

While the Oz attempts to thrash Posetti’s reputation as much as their own via #twitdef, the climate change that started it all continues to be ignored. As another journalism educator Marcus O’Donnell pointed out today “even a threat of US walkout at Cancun is relegated to p15 of SMH”.

Chris Mitchell, it would appear, is not the only social engineer running mainstream Australian media. And there it rests.

====
(The full text of my question and answer session with Rosen is attached below)

DB: Firstly, given your geographical position in the intensely creative hub that is New York why would what is going on in the boondocks of Australian media be of interest to you enough to take part in the debate?

JR: Within the Australian press culture, blogging and journalism academic worlds, there’s a decent number of people who are interested in my work, so I have taken an interest in what’s going on there, especially after my latest visit. Twitter allows them to follow me and me to follow them, which is also a big factor. At a certain point you acquire enough background knowledge that you can monitor events in another country without feeling lost; after my last visit to Australia, during the elections in August of this year, I felt I had reached that point. I know what Telstra is. I know about the marginal seats in western Sydney. I’ve watched Tony Jones on Q&A.

Finally, I think The Australian is fast becoming an malevolent force and for some reason that I do not fully understand it is not met with the sort of public opposition it deserves.

DB: Is there lessons from the Australian experience in the current old/new media “war” for the American mediascape?

JR: As the Murdoch empire faces the loss of the emperor–his lost grip, his inability to master digital, or his eventual passing–it starts behaving erratically and in that state it becomes rather dangerous: to itself, but also to other people and to cultural treasures like freedom of the press.

DB: Are the likes of Chris Mitchell just being Canutes trying to stop the tide or can the Murdoch Empire really stamp its authority over the old/new media landscape worldwide?

JR: Here’s one hypothesis: Murdoch cannot master digital. He tried, but the thing has eluded him. That is unacceptable for a mogul. But it is also a fact. Put those two things together–an unacceptable fact that is also true–and you have a dangerous situation for a news empire. Rupert is trying to impose an order on the digital world that it does not have. This creates problems for his editorial employees. They have to believe in an analysis that is “shitty,” but also saintly because it comes from the top. They get into trouble when they try to prove the emperor right, and behave like little emperors themselves.

This then draws ridicule in the new media environments they disdain but also have to participate in. Which enrages them, causing them to say and do stupid things, as Chris Mitchell did. The dynamic is being forced down through the hierarchy so that it reaches even the reporters at The Oz, who think they can impose order, knock heads and, for example, demonstrate to the blogosphere which rules it has to obey.

Notice how often people from The Australian say there’s “nothing special” about Twitter, or that it doesn’t get a pass, that it isn’t an exception. That’s the echo, way down the line, of the unacceptable fact that is also true. “There’s nothing different going on here. We got this under control.” When they are criticized for taking what is, in effect, a party line, people from The Australian have a strange habit of hearing criticism as a charge of conspiracy. Then they laugh at the overheated image of a conspiracy, which in turn protects them against the criticism. Sally Jackson did this just the other day:

In the case of Matthew Franklin, I documented the pattern here:

http://jayrosen.tumblr.com/post/102744512/massively-multi-player-denial-when-do-we-grok-the#comment-84775968

Even after I showed it to him, he had no idea what I was talking about.

DB: Is it perhaps because the mainstream Australian media scene is so dominated by one publisher, that the underground movement as represented by Australia’s Twitterati is so lively?

JR: Also the fact that the above ground opposition is so weak. Online, there is a lot of juvenile sneering at News Ltd. which reflects how rarely the respectable people criticize and investigate what’s rotten in the empire. How many journalists who were there when Asa Wahlquist made her remarks spoke up about what they heard? For the professional culture of journalism in Australia, which extends to the academic centres where journalism is studied, that is a significant number.

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