We are now 4 months away from an election many of us dread – not necessarily because of the possibility of an Abbott Government, but more because this may well be the dumbest, most intelligence insulting election in living memory. Even more so than 2004, where the entire campaign seemed to be about Mark Latham’s history on Liverpool Council, that taxi driver incident and who “kept interest rates low”. Four months of headless chickens, slowed down footage of Abbott, deep voices from the Liberals, female voices from Labor – you know the rest. Those awful debates with asinine questions and answers as well as the ubiquitous worm. Yes, can you feel the pain already?
The bulk of the election coverage on television and radio will almost certainly about the “bipartisan” element of the campaign, all but shutting out the alternative voices. By alternative voices I mean the ones with credibility like the Greens, independents and other parties serious about serving people – not colour and light merchants like Bob Katter and Clive Palmer. It is little wonder, therefore, that there would be many in the community who will tune out or cry out for genuine alternatives. In that sense, this election should actually be interesting to cover – but outside the usual areas.
In that, I’m suggesting that there will be very interesting election campaigns going on in a variety of areas not often heard about in media outlets. People have heard of Lindsay ad nauseam – and we will see the news trucks zooming down the M4 and parking in the Panthers carpark. Again. We will also no doubt see Corangamite and Greenway until we are sick of them. None of these seats are particularly interesting however, because many people have said that they will have gone very early to the Liberal Party on September 14. The seat of Werriwa in South West Sydney is the new bellwether seat, with McMahon west of Parramatta close behind. There will also be the New England, Batman and Richmond battles that we should be hearing more about. But I wonder whether we will hear about them from media outlets loath to venture away from their inner city offices without a damn good reason.
It is for this reason that so called “citizen journalism” should really take a lead in this election campaign. For the first time, we have viable news hubs with solid reader numbers and reach that can report the news and views from areas that previously we have almost never heard from in previous elections. By people from those areas. I put that expression in bold because if we haven’t learnt anything else from the last three years, there are writers from a variety of areas who are willing and able to write about their areas in a way that shows insight borne of living the issues first hand. This is not to say that they have the most valid or objective view of these issues, but that they offer a different perspective than that provided from journalists going out to a region for a day or two.
It for this reason I was encouraged to see the creation of Australians for Honest Politics and Independent Australia – two hubs that expressed an interest in publishing journalism from sources that we hadn’t seen. In addition, we have seen that having a former journalist like Margo Kingston helps such projects in terms of publicity – insofar as Kingston has been able to attract funding from Macquarie University for her project. Certainly, I was also hoping that IA, for example, would follow through on this mission statement:
Independent Australia believes in a fully and truly independent Australia, a nation that determines its own future, a nation that protects its citizens, its environment and its future. A country that is fair and free. IA is also opposed to partisan politics and supports Independent politicians.
The problem that has developed for both of these projects in citizen journalism has been a reputation for partisan Labor Party support. This is especially the case for Independent Australia, which does not evince the air of independence with its tone or story choice. The style of IA is to assert often, overuse of high modality phrases and not allowing for another point of view to creep in. An example of this is its focus on issues like the Ashby / Slipper matter and in defending Craig Thomson. On the latter issue, IA has published 51 articles about it with its main writer, western Sydney Labor figure Peter Wicks choosing to frame the stories around the title “Jacksonville” – which he seems to believe gives him licence to including childish sets of jokes at the expense of Kathy Jackson. It has also lead to some poorly composed work in that campaign, as is comprehensively addressed by Matthew Hatton. IA’s continuing focus on such matters makes it look like a Labor Party publication that is seeking to tell readers that the Liberal Party and fellow travellers are conspiring to bring down the ALP. The publishing of the writing of Labor Party campaigners, former MPs and candidates also doesn’t help that reputation.
It is something that its editor, David Donovan, seems to admits to but doesn’t want to fix, as is evidenced here, in a very comprehensive piece about the rise of non mainstream blog sites by Gay Alcorn:
Donovan, 42, disputes the suggestion that the site risks preaching to the choir, limiting its influence to those who share its views.
“I’ve heard that before [and] there’s certainly some validity in saying that. We’re a progressive outfit. We’re not going to appeal to people who like reading The Australian, for example .
“Rather than looking at things through a false balance, we quite often take a view of what is the right and the just avenue to take, and we go down that path. In terms of the environment, we’re anti-nuclear. If we aren’t sure we’ll try to present very equally both sides of the story, but our motto is ‘Not Left or Right, but Right and Wrong’.”
In other words, IA is being characterised here as the polar opposite to the Australian, doing for Labor leaning readers what the Oz and the Daily Telegraph does for Liberal leaning readers. Denigrating opponents and presenting one side loudly and proudly. One that is interested in “right and wrong” – according to it. It is a curious position for something that says it’s “Independent”. IA hasn’t, as far as can be seen through their archives, featured very much about the activities of independent politicians, parties or political parties outside the ALP. Aside from a piece about the “Free Party” and caustic pieces about Clive Palmer, there’s been one article about the Greens – a generalised critique by someone outside the party. Not even progressive in that sense.
This is not to say IA doesn’t serve a useful purpose. There are some very good articles in it, especially about the environment, the opponents to wind farms as well as some good investigative pieces about the Liberal Party and the media. It isn’t, however, Independent. Or a publication that is particularly persuasive in its political commentary. It serves a good role, however, to fuel campaigners and give a rallying call to the fighters for the Labor cause over the next few months – they certainly need it. IA, in order for it to gain a reputation for truly independent citizen journalism, needs to walk away from obsessions with minor matters and partisan shouting and get into the meat of the issues and politics and therefore become a reliable and respected source for more than just their crowd. I suspect, however, that it won’t do that – Donovan is happy with the direction it has taken and that is fair enough. I just wish it was called something like “The Light on the Hill”, which would be a more accurate name.
In regards to No Fibs, Kingston’s project in its early days had the same issue as IA with the types of writers published – some of them in common with IA – Labor members and campaigners who write in a definite, high modality way, rather than a spread of people without partisan links. This was especially seen in the work of well known Labor spruikers @geeksrulz and @vic_rollison for the site. This is not to say that people with partisan links should not write anything – after all, I am a Greens member and campaigner. There should be, however, a range of people writing for this particular citizen journalist site that write in a style that is less “my way or the highway” – or the “we are right, you are wrong” style that we see in conservative organs like The Australian and the Daily Telegraph – and their polar opposite IA. We shall see if the project changes with the addition of university money, possibly attracting that wider range of citizen journalists interested in pursuing “no fibs” from all sides rather than just repeating the idea “Liberals tell fibs, here they are”. I personally have a lot more hope for the success of that project to succeed at that role, due to the presence at No Fibs of people like Nancy Cato, Joan Evatt, Pascal Grosvenor and Tom Cummings (the latter being one of our better writers going around). What that project also has in its favour is that Kingston herself seem less interested in controlling the work of the citizens – that should be the spirit of citizen journalism – it’s not old style, professionally rounded work. It’s journalism with flaws and problems because it’s done by enthusiasts who work in other fields but have a desire to speak for those people in the community who didn’t fit into a journalist’s preset expectations.
The role of these citizen journalists is crucial and needs forums and platforms – let’s hope we really do see things written about this election that surprises and enlightens us all. It will make for a nice change away from the horrible ads and facile 2 minute news reports.