It may be 2015 but Australia’s only national newspaper The Australian remains stuck in the 20th century, raging against the dying of the light. This weekend the ever-pompous broadsheet reached into its grab-bag of perceived enemies and pulled out the one marked “Twitter”. For hundreds of millions of users worldwide, Twitter is a great communications tool that companies, organisations and individuals use to market themselves and find out what is happening in their chosen field. For The Australian, it’s more personal. As its banner headline reads Twitter is “debasing quality journalism”.
No doubt the Oz has themselves in mind when they talk about “quality journalism” and there remains many talented journalists in their ranks. Unfortunately their work is skewed by editorial decisions tied to owner Rupert Murdoch’s increasingly unhinged world view. Was Murdoch debasing quality journalism with his tweetstorm last week, based on his observations after returning to Australia last month? Murdoch called the country “ungovernable” thanks to “extreme greenies”, “corrupt violent unions” and “deadly drugs”. The solution to this odious cocktail according to Murdoch? More of the same – another Abbott government.
The Australian is a faithful servant of His Master’s Voice ranting against environmentalism, unionism, drugs and more. It has long defended its position as the sacred arbiter of the news and its opinion pages are clogged with political analysts mostly to the right of Genghis Khan. The newspaper has been particularly dismissive of “pyjama-clad bloggers” and “under-employed academics” who dare venture into its chosen field with alternative views. Twitter, with its easy facility to talk back to power, has long been a target. But would @rupertmurdoch (now 1500 tweets old and counting, with 608,000 followers) appreciate a full page of this weekend’s Inquirer section devoted to exposing the evils of the 140-character communications mechanism?
The lead story on the page from reporter John Lyons (a talented journalist who seems reluctantly roped into this auto da fé) was about the Border Force debacle in Melbourne last week. The headline “The news, brought to you unedited” is dripping in irony at a company that sacked most of its sub-editors in 2013.
Yet the sub-headline continued to push the house message: “The idea of checking facts and verifying sources is alien to Twitter”. It is a statement that makes as much sense as saying “the idea of checking facts and verifying sources is alien to paper”. Twitter is a tool used by hundreds of millions of people, with hundreds of millions different reasons. “Twitter” (even in the narrow News Ltd sense as “the people that use Twitter politically”) is made up mostly of individuals, not news organisations and they are not bound by the institutional, and increasingly fraught “rules of journalism”.
Despite calling it a Twitter war, Lyons initially plays a straight bat on the #borderfarce story acknowledging the effect Twitter has on the news cycle. But then it gets judgmental. There is a ritual attack on Fairfax before decrying the lack of filters in Twitter with people “re-tweeting” (his quotation marks, it’s obviously not a real word yet) information that often was wrong. That’s true, but no different to newspapers, and with far less influence. Traditional media says Lyons, “usually” (my quotation marks, it’s getting less and less usual) has several pairs of eyes looking at articles before publication.
The problem says Lyons is that (political) Twitter is skewed towards “the young and the left”, constituencies the Australian has well-nigh abandoned. Lyons quotes social media expert Axel Bruns who denies that simplistic skew saying Twitter was used by all sorts of constituencies for all sorts of reasons. That’s true. I was at an AgForce forum in Roma last week where farmers (hardly young and left) were encouraged to get their personal brand out on Twitter. Lyons attempts to be even handed but the headlines and fact-box “A Friday Afternoon Twitterstorm” push the house line that “Twitter” cannot be trusted.
This point is emphasised in the second story on the page, “When the Twitter tail wags the dog” by deputy editor Peter Fray. Once again, the frame is set by the sub-headline: “Some newsrooms are allowing social media to dictate what constitutes a news story”. In this context “some newsrooms” is code for the enemies Fairfax and the ABC and Fray mentions them both in the context of the Australian Border Force story. Fray’s lament is not the stupidity or dangers of paramilitary government bodies but that Dutton’s jihadists (Fairfax and the ABC) prefer the “siren song” of social media over “sober tones of fact-checking, empirical evidence, objectivity and plain common sense.” The plea for common sense is a sure signal this is a right-wing rant and Fray does not explain why social media and journalistic practice has to be either/or and not both.
Fray (who tweets @peterfray) has three “truisms” to share about Twitter. It is fast not deep, it is dominated by “media types” and it is both a blessing and a curse for time-poor journalists. I would take issue with all three. To say it is not deep takes no account of hyperlinks; its supposed domination by media takes no account of celebrities or the millions of other non-media users; and it is only a curse to those that allow themselves to be ruled by it. Yes, there are unsubstantiated claims but lies are found out just as quickly. In a social media world where your reputation is everything, it doesn’t pay to muck around with the truth for too long.
But that seems completely lost on the writer of the hilariously awful third article on the page. Margaret Kelly (“who holds a degree in English literature and language”) was angry about lazy language, but inevitably social media comes in the firing line. In a confused rant that pours doubt on climate change and has Orwell disapproving of Facebook, Kelly laid into “groupthink” which “lives today in cyberspace where people want to be unknown”. Kelly does not define groupthink but she says it leads to terrible things like Trending on Twitter. Kelly does define trending, which she says is “a lot of people saying the same sorts of things, mostly unconsidered… and trending is just what groupthink means.” Though her readers are none the wiser (not least at the ellipses which are in Kelly’s text) after this nonsense, it all leads to one definitive conclusion. “Frankly, in my view,” Kelly says, “only twits tweet.” Take that, all you 2.8 million Australian users of Twitter, you’ve been told. Though frankly, in my view, Ms Kelly ought to be careful about what she says about Rupert Murdoch in one of his papers.