Since 2009 I’ve handed out an end of year award for my media person of the year, or sometimes personalities, or sometimes multiple personalities (as was the case in in 2011, 2012 and 2014). There is only one winner this year but it is the first posthumous winner. It also follows the lead of the Nobel Prize for Literature and awards it to a musician: the late, great David Bowie.
Bowie barely lived ten days in 2016 but they were enough to make a profound impression on the year that followed. On January 8, it was his 69th birthday and his birthday present to the world was his 25th album, ★ (Blackstar), released that day, and his first ever without a cover picture of Bowie. Its oddness captivated and for two days reviewers crawled over ★ soaking every last slice of meaning out of it. The 10-minute title song was on everyone’s lips but songs like Lazarus also spoke about an artist groping with mortality.
Just how close to the truth, few realised. Lazarus was also a musical Bowie co-wrote with playwright Enda Walsh, inspired by Walter Tevis’s book The Man Who Fell to Earth, about a humanoid alien who comes to Earth to get water for his dying planet. Bowie starred in the Nicholas Roeg movie based on the book in 1976. Some 39 years later he made a rare public appearance on 12 December, 2015 outside a performance of the play Lazarus at New York’s Theatre Workshop, where he greeted fans and signed autographs.
He was never seen in public again. On January 10 2016, just two days after the release of ★ came the shock news the Black Star himself was dead. Bowie had liver cancer, but managed to keep it a closely guarded secret for 18 months. He struggled to make rehearsals as illness closed in but he got his album out before he died and the media had never picked up on it. Early January is a slow time for news but this was shocking. Bowie was 69 but surely had many years still to give us? In 2015 his life work inspired museums to host “David Bowie Is”, here we were suddenly with David Bowie Was.
It affected me like a death in the family. I’ve never met him and only saw him perform twice (oddly within three days of each other at concerts in 1987) but he composed the soundtrack of my life. I was in a daze for days comprehending the news. It wasn’t just me. Bowie’s death profoundly impacted many and his death almost framed an entire year. Paul Bethany expressed the phenomenon best on June 24 when he tweeted “In January I dismissed my mate’s theory that David Bowie was the glue holding the universe together but I don’t know man… I don’t know…”
June 24 was a day after the stunning Brexit result, a week after the particularly shocking murder of Labor MP Jo Cox, a month after the death of Mohammad Ali (who have won this award multiple times had I been giving it out in the 70s) and barely two after the death of another musical great, Leonard Cohen. With Europe in crisis, terrorism rampant, the Syrian war spiralling out of control and Trump menacing, Bethany’s distress was palpable. The “mate’s theory” that Bowie’s death unravelled the universe sounds like a plotline of a Bowie song but it also reflected dangerous times, allied to a string of famous but coincidental deaths (British celebrities were badly hit). The same feeling persisted in the second half of the year, before I expressed my exasperation for people to “stop being so arbitrary” in a Tweet saying the “2016 was bad” idea was skewed to singers and British cultural figures as well as two election results which not everyone thought were disasters. Then I remembered minutes later I am equally arbitrary with this annual award.
I don’t often think of Bowie’s music as media but it is, just as Dylan’s music is literature. Media covers a multitude of sins and the awards have reflected my interests of the year each year. I started in 2009 giving it to then ABC boss Mark Scott for taking up the fight to Rupert Murdoch, who had far too much power in Australia and English-speaking world. The 2015 government learned their lesson by appointing a Murdoch hack to lead the ABC, while Scott this year became boss of NSW’s education department.
In 2010 my fascination turned to the possibilities of Wikileaks and audacious founder Julian Assange. In 2016 Assange remains powerful with his strategic leaks against Hillary Clinton playing a major role in the US election. But Assange is compromised goods and will remain so as long as he stays in the Ecuadorian embassy, a now ridiculous four years far longer than any sentence a Swedish court might have imposed.
In 2011 my focus switched back to the pervasiveness of Murdoch. The Guardian’s editor Alan Rusbridger and reporter Nick Davies won it for exposing News Ltd’s frightening links with government and police and even more frightening conspiracy to howl down – and hunt down – anyone that might expose them. News’s search for the “story” trampled on all human rights but the Guardian’s dedication to the truth brought them down.
Their work was reinforced by 2012 winner judge Brian Leveson who patiently let all the evidence flow through his court. It led to countless shocking revelations and Rupert’s most humbling moment, a problem 10 years in the making. Labor MP Tom Watson and journalist Martin Hickman wrote Dial M for Murdoch about the wide extent of the conspiracy. I read the book at the start of this year thinking, that in 2016 the Sun is as bad as ever. British media is now worse than it was in 2011 with The Sun overtaken in infamy now by the Daily Mail for its single-handed anti-immigrant push. Unlike most immigrants, the Daily Mail doesn’t mind stealing, with the paper internationally notorious as a plagiarist of other people’s journalism.
My stand-out winner in 2013, Edward Snowden, took the Wikileaks concept to a logical conclusion with his voluminous leak of NSA files. Snowden remains a fugitive from American justice and the leaks did not help Clinton in 2016 even though they showed her as competent. But their existence is a reminder for politicians, corporates and the rest of us, it is in our interests to be truthful. Our lies will always be found out.
I awarded my following year’s media personalities to Al Jazeera journalists Peter Greste, Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and Basher Mohamed. They were three brave journalists, imprisoned in Egypt on trumped up charges for over 12 months for just doing their job. They were in Kafka’s The Trial, unable to to be prosecuted but nightmarishly unable to get off the hook either. Their employer Al Jazeera was not blameless as a player in Egyptian politics, but Greste, Fahmy and Mohamed behaved with great dignity through their year long ordeal and were deserving winners in 2014.
By 2015 I was aware of a glaring anomaly in the awards: no woman had won it. As I admitted last year, this reflected more on my male-dominated influences than on a lack of suitable female candidates. When I started to look at women in the field, Clementine Ford stood out for her uncompromising stance in publicly outing misogynist behaviour, bravery attracting praise and hatred in equal measure. Ford sharply called out the problems that lie in our language as much as in our attitudes. Her book Fight Like A Girl was well received this year.
When I started thinking about this year, I was convinced the winner would be another woman: Hillary Rodham Clinton. Clinton was as much an outsider as an insider, and her fight to become president shows the additional challenges women face as a pure result of their gender. Despite misgivings, she was infinitely preferable as president to Donald S Trump. I shared the view of the New Yorker which used the analogy of the air steward offering a choice of “chicken, or a platter of shit with broken glass in it”, only for the customer to pause and go, “how is the chicken cooked?”
Southern fried Clinton was better than shitstrewn Trump by almost any measure but it wasn’t enough. Trump didn’t play by the rules, he rang rings around traditional media and played into its sexism. While I admired successful unorthodoxy in Assange and Snowden, I detested most of what Trump said (the only relief is we are not talking about President Ted Cruz) and maybe he’ll even stimulate the economy with new infrastructure. But Time can do what they like, I could not award him my person of the year. Of his many lies “Crooked Hillary” was the worst of the lot, a projection of his own aura as Crooked Donald. Had she won Hillary would have been a steady hand at the tiller, though would have struggled to get her agenda through a hostile House and Senate.
But she didn’t win. Even before the election, she was “deeply reviled” and her strengths was less interesting news than his failings. She had failings too – not least, not heeding the warning signs in the rustbucket states Mike Moore pointed out though even Moore thought she’d get in in the end. President Obama too thought his legacy was safe. But Clinton didn’t land a killer blow in the debates and the CIA news about her email investigations a few days before the election hurt badly. She comfortably won the national vote but easily lost the electoral college. Like Gore in 2000, Hillary disappeared off stage left in mid November despite doubts about her opponent’s legitimacy.
Among other crises, Trump left me in a panic about my person of the year. Thinking elsewhere it was another poor year for media. The year Buzzfeed almost matched New York Times in the value showed the contraction of the industry. There was the clickbait obsession of those that remained surrendering their social license, leaving the field for social media networks to promote “dialogues of the deaf” using fake news tailor-made for the purpose of people who want it to be true so to fuel their deafness.
The Prince of Social Media, Mark Zuckerberg is either the personification of evil or proof the singularity has arrived, depending on your beliefs. Yet there were good things even out of his tools. A woman used Facebook Live to broadcast the death of her partner at the hands of American police. The Media Centre in Aleppo got news out to the world the Syrian government did not want people to know and produced one of the most memorable images of the year of the boy in the ambulance , all through Facebook.
But in the end I had to go back to the “2016 is terrible” meme and remember how it started. Bowie was ahead of the curve in many ways, constantly reinventing himself musically, bending the rules on gender, quick to see the possibilities of digital and a pioneer of social media and online music streaming. In 1998 he said “If I was 19 again, I’d bypass music and go right to the internet.” A year later he told a prim Jeremy Paxton he supported the ideas of artists like Duchamp “that the piece of work is not finished until the audience comes to it and adds their own interpretation, and what the piece of art is about is the grey space in the middle. That grey space in the middle is what the 21st century is going to be all about.”
★ was his final interpretation. The song’s 9:57 length reflects the 10 minute maximum posting allowed by iTunes.I still listen to it from time to time and I comprehensively enjoy his 1970s and early 1980s back catalogue. But to go with the sentiment, here is Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy in the first Christmas both Bowie and Bing Crosby are dead.