This is the second part of my post about Rachel Buchanan and Tim Dunlop’s new books about the media. See Part 1 here.
If Buchanan’s book Stop Press is apolitical, Dunlop’s The New Front Page is a polemic. Dunlop was one of the earliest Australian bloggers, deeply impacted by living in the US in the wake of 9/11. Dunlop’s attitude to journalists and the media is grounded in other life experiences. As a youngster working in his father’s garage and later as an adult running record and video stores, it was all about customer service. Dunlop admits media has more complex relationships and must relate to its audience as citizens as well as customers. The problem the media never faced up to, says Dunlop, was that customers alone didn’t make them money but selling those customers to others did.
This attitude of audience as product, affected the way the media dealt with them and led to significant failures which deeply eroded audience trust. Newspapers have been in a slow decline since the 1920s as other media like radio and then television took away advertisers. Classified ads were still profitable until the Internet destroyed that business model. Dunlop sheds few tears for these developments. Journalists were complicit in their own demise, believing too much in their own invincibility and relying too much on reputation that reality rarely lived up to. Dunlop was one of the earliest to understand the new technology allowed to audience not only to talk back but create their own media narratives.
Dunlop was one of many writers across the world who found their muse in 9/11. The day and its many consequences galvanised opposing views of history. The “mainstream media” as Dunlop and other bloggers called them, lined up almost to a masthead on one side of the argument. Too captive to their sources and too addicted to the drip of insider information, they were unable to connect the dots of the wider picture. Its failure to talk truth to power was epitomised, argued Dunlop, by the groupthink that supported US President GW Bush’s case for war in Iraq. The casus belli presented by Bush supporters was swallowed almost whole by the MSM. They were shown up by a variety of amateurs enabled by newly invented blogging technologies, who pointed out the faulty reporting. Dunlop and others were a rare counterpoint to what was otherwise painted as a national consensus for war.
The result were a lack of trust between media and audiences, hostility between the professional and amateur producers, and paranoia and barely concealed contempt from the professionals who saw the newbies as leeching on their work. They were interlopers that had to be resisted rather than challengers to be embraced. The later News of the World scandal confirmed for many the perfidy of the press who treat their audience solely as a commodity.
Dunlop’s own blog The Road to Surfdom, inspired many in Australia to follow his path. He charts his own inspiration to journalist Margo Kingston. Kingston was one of Fairfax’s best journalists but her outsider status was tested to breaking point when she covered Pauline Hanson’s failed 1998 election campaign. Kingston and Hanson seem unlikely bedfellows but they were both maverick women who refused to play media games. Kingston’s disillusionment with the politico-media alliance at the expense of their audience/voters led to her setting up Media Diary as an online portal for news and discussion. Media Diary became all-embracing and ultimately died when it wore out Kingston but it led the way for many in the audience to find their own voice, Dunlop included.
Dunlop had just done a PhD on democracy, citizenship and public debate. A blog like Surfdom allowed him to eloquently put those ideas into practice. Its success eventually led to a surprise job offer from News Ltd. Despite being an ardent critic of Murdoch’s Empire, Dunlop jumped at the chance to talk to the large audiences News Ltd portals offered. Dunlop quickly learned news.com.au was treated as a second-class citizen in the News Ltd power structure but it attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors. Some said he was selling out, but Dunlop accepted on the condition he would not have any editorial interference. He was a poaching blogger who was now a gamekeeper in the nation’s largest estate. Dunlop became obsessed with issues of moderating comments and curating the unruly conversation that swirled around him. It led to 18 hour days that were both exhilarating and exhausting. Eventually it was undone. His insistence on complete independence proved untenable when sooner or later he criticised the Empire itself. The relationship was terminally damaged after a post criticising the Australian’s editor was deleted. You shouldn’t be surprised, fellow blogging trailblazer Tim Blair advised him, you cannot bite the hand that feeds you.
Now independent again, Dunlop’s main concern remains democracy’s ability to allow a variety of voices to be heard. Social media has further muddied the waters, empowering audiences and yet offering new ways for media to show leadership. Newspapers are among the most-connected places in a city or town but their employees can no longer take their audience for granted. Nor can they just troll them for clicks. Dunlop says media practitioners must accept power relations have changed. They must engage audiences or as Dunlop says, according the “respect of talking to them, not down to them.” Otherwise journalism will have little role to play in the continuing evolution of democracy.