Thursday, April 14, 2011

Future lies ahead

Last week, we heard that the New Zealand Press Association is closing. One of its joint owners, Fairfax Media, is no longer willing to support it.

I find myself conflicted. On the one hand, I've been moaning about the quality of journalism in this country since I got here. (Honestly, it's pathetic.) But now I'm pretty sure it's about to get a whole lot worse.

To explain why, I'm going to have to go into a little context.
  • Fairfax Media is an Australian-owned company that bought into the NZ newspaper business in 2003
  • Fairfax owns the NZPA jointly with its (also Australian) rival APN
  • Fairfax publishes the Dominion Post, Sunday Star Times, and a motley bag of local and suburban newspapers
  • APN publishes the New Zealand Herald plus sundry other titles, and also owns a handful of widely promoted radio stations
  • The NZPA, which has been in business for 130 years, provides news feeds indiscriminately to whoever will pay for them.
The important point to note here is that NZPA is a relic from the days of actual newspapers, whereas its owners are both modern transnational corporations.

But why should that matter? Give me a chance, I'm coming to it...

The reason Fairfax gives for taking its ball home is that it's not happy with the NZPA's output. "Often those stories aren't investigative, they're not stories carved out by the NZPA", says Fairfax's "Group Executive Editor", Paul Thompson.

But isn't that the point of an agency? They're supposed to provide facts, not "stories". Investigating, and writing stories, is the newspaper journalists' job. What an agency provides is the raw materials for this process.

There is, however, no money in facts. Facts aren't protected by copyright; it's impossible to 'own' them (barring a few special cases, such as trade secrets). The only type of information that you can monetise is the type you've made up.

And that's why the most successful media organisations of our time would rather not report news; they prefer "comment", "analysis" and outright fiction. Because we ask to the free market to provide our news, but - now that information is no longer tied to a physical object, or even a persistent medium - we have completely failed to provide any incentives for it.

And that's why Paul Thompson is, quite rationally, doing away with the supply of facts. Oh, I'm sure the decent journalists - of whom there are a few, although criminally overworked - will do their best to be truthful. But fact-checking takes time, which is in ever-shorter supply nowadays; and worse, it often derails the train of your story.

Much easier just to go with what seems likely. Worst case, if anyone calls you on it, it'll just drive more traffic to your website. Win-win.

(Incidentally, I saw this news story on TV3, owned by yet another Australian consortium. Oh well, at least none of them belongs to Rupert Murdoch.)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A question of lies

Has anyone but me noticed the very odd form of code that politicians speak, when talking about Libya?

There's "the Libyan army", which as far as anyone can tell consists mostly of mercenaries from Mali. There's the "rebel leadership", who seem to lack even the most basic qualification to lead anything, viz. a sense of their own aims.

(Hint, fellas: read this.)

There was Col Gadhaffi's "ceasefire" on 18 March, which was clearly a signal for "Finish them off quickly!"

When NATO, or whatever they're styling themselves currently, first started bombing, they said it was "to protect Libyan civilians from their own regime. Not, we must stress at length, not to force Colonel Gadhaffi out." So - after all the rejoicing at persuading the good colonel to give up on his weapons and terrorist training programmes, NATO was going to all this trouble to antagonise him, only to leave him in power to live out his days as "the man who beat NATO"? Yeah, right, and I've got this beautiful bridge to sell you...

A few days later, President Obama wanted to "hand over operational leadership from American to international authorities". And so, after days of trivial wrangling, the American operations commander signed over command to a NATO commander, who continued using the same (mostly American) planes and missiles to fly the same missions.

A couple of days ago, it was the African Union's turn to say what they clearly didn't mean. When they triumphantly announced that the regime had accepted their "ceasefire" proposal, it didn't take much of a visionary to foresee that the rebels would refuse it. And thus that this "proposal" had more to do with the need for the AU to be seen to be doing something - taking the initiative, not letting NATO have everything their own way - than stopping the fighting.

Today's headline is "Former (defected) Libyan foreign minister says Libya could become 'next Somalia'". In other words, he's also afraid of the possibility that NATO will fail to finish the job, and so he wants to stiffen their resolve.

In short, everyone and his dog is talking about Libya in these curiously coded terms. It's not hard to see what they really mean. My question is: who are they lying to, and why?

It's one thing for tinpot African dictators who control their own media to talk like this. But in the USA and Europe, surely the Free Press is supposed to keep some kind of a check on what is really going on. And yet, as far as I can see, nobody is being called on this bullshit.

Do we all take it for granted, that politicians won't say what they mean? Are we so numbed by the 24 hour news cycle that we don't even notice? Or are we just comfortable with the pretense, so we don't want to discuss reality? Seems to me that none of these options reflects well on "democracy"...

Monday, April 11, 2011

As seen from the windows

Everyone loves pictures.

A pigeon gathers its thoughts, if the word can be applied to pigeons, after mistaking our bedroom window for a low cloud.

The silvereye is possibly New Zealand's most beautiful native bird. But sadly, also quite shy.

The tui: uglier, but more iconic.

I don't want to point fingers, but this might have something to do with why we don't see more silvereyes around.

And finally: our upwardly Møbler dresser.