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‘New Media’ with George Negus

  • September 8th, 2006
  • Posted by 7thmin


George Negus has an inside perspective on mass media, being for over thirty-five years one of the dominant figures of television current affairs, and here he steps out of his familiar world to take an over-all look at media in its social and cultural contexts. He is first and foremost a current affairs journalist, with plenty of field experience, but most familiar to television audiences as a studio presenter and interviewer with a good natured and persistently questioning style. At the ABC he was among the team of young journalists who revelled in the relatively new medium of television, among them colleagues like the late Richard Carleton, confronting recalcitrant Ministers of government, and many others, in ways they had never encountered before.

Goerge NegusThose interviews and investigations on programs like Today-Tonight produced a great break-through in public accountability. Negus today considers it all hinged on the determination of the journalists to get answers to the one persistent question – why?. He told me, for M/C Dialogue, that’s “the best question any journalist can ask, and it’s not asked enough”. He is persisting with the why question in his current work on SBS, arguing that where news reporting leaves off, the current affairs programs step in to fill in with the explanations.

From my own perspective of a long background in journalism with the ABC, mostly radio news and current affairs, it looks to be a fair argument. With the news you find the best indication you can for the reason why, and you make sure it goes in, but very soon you have to move on. In the current affairs show later you get more time; you do not have to cover everything any more, so there is more time to look at stories you choose, and more time on air; which brings in a tough and persistent questioner like George Negus.

The interview takes in Negus’s observations on media and society going into the 21st Century, with a main theme: more consideration is needed of strictly social values and cultural meanings in the news: “These days at the moment you are some kind of limp-wristed wuss if you talk about society’s needs as distinct from the economy’s needs … It’s a sign of economic obsessiveness and technological preoccupation.”

The discussion moves on to ideas that will be not-unexpected but heart-felt, the television commentator and the social observer being fairly restless about the future but prepared to give it a go.

He sees domination of the social and economic scene by efforts to live off new technology is “obsessive”, blotting out ordinary social concern, at least until things change once more. Democratising media, where everybody can be a journalist, may not make much difference, because “journalists get it wrong; there are a lot of people who are going to be wrong occasionally”. Content providers for media like George Negus himself will continue at work while the flow of information surges confusingly, because, “the information being available to you, you’ll probably require assistance sifting it”. Re-enter current affairs, the leading portals and leading exponents of that art.

At the heart of this work as he sees it is drawing attention to the real world and its crises, like the issue of sexual abuse in aboriginal communities, which he identifies as a field of failure and neglect by news media that makes him “furious”.

To George Negus, journalists have not been standing back to scrutinise, to identify the roots of a burning national problem, centuries of harm to aboriginal culture: “What is more important than crime and punishment, law and order, and traditional versus British codes of justice, is why these things happen.” That concern is consistent with the questioning style and image of the kindly buccaneer.

Cultural Thinker

So here is the view of a self-declared humanitarian in the mass media, believing that individuals can make commitments and make a difference, and asked now about becoming a “cultural thinker”.

Question: Does doing so much journalism and media work over a long time in an exposed position turn you into a cultural thinker?

I suspect I was a self-styled cultural thinker before I became a journalist. So much of my journalism, my social or even political activity, I see as being fundamentally “cultural.” To me it is all part of this complicated mess we call society…

As a classic example, I am furious about a particular story that’s in the news right now and the way it is being handled. The cultural aspects of this whole aboriginal sex abuse issue are being ignored.

The whole thing stems from the protracted destruction of aboriginal culture. That’s why these indigenous blokes do what they do. I’m angry. It’s very hard to find anybody in the media – who love getting involved in these slightly soiled things – who’s standing off far enough to deal with the issue in a socio-cultural way.

Question: Give it more analysis?

Yes. So, I see that, in a way, everything I do journalistically can be placed under the broad title of culture.

Question: Looking at the Century we are going into, it seems that all economic production and social life also will have a huge component of communication or information in it. If forced to declare your feeling about that situation would you be optimistic or pessimistic?

Well it seems to me that despite all of our best and most persistent efforts to stuff up our entire existence, we always fail. So I’m optimistic. Nothing surprises me when we get things wrong. That said, I’m always delighted when we don’t. Thinking over the time I’ve been an adult – say, forty odd years – somehow we’ve managed to make it through the decades.

George Negus on being overwhelmed by new communication technology …

The obsession we currently have with all things economic and technological bothers me. But it would bother me more if we have not thought about other times in history and, thinking over the time I have been an adult, forty odd years, I think what we have now, everything we do, is driven almost beyond our control by economic rationalism and so-called technological advances, so that we are in grave danger of losing the point of the whole exercise. That’s the stage we are going through – economic and technological “advancement” almost for its own sake, as distinct from a better society.

And that last word – society – is so important even though it hardly ever gets used by the media these days. At the moment, you are some kind of limp wristed wuss if you talk about society’s needs, as distinct from the economy’s needs. It’s a sign of economic obsessiveness and technological preoccupation…

On handling generational change …

Humanitarianism, social or cultural issues, or proper international perspectives, such issues are off the radar; but it will come back, because when the media gets bored, it’ll swing; it’ll swing back. None of the things it will swing back to will have the same names, but there will be a swing back away from economic rationalism, and technology, and back to things we might call more humanitarian and social.

Question: There are people who say that to manage the confusion of the new Century, what counts is wetware; it’s what you learn, what you carry inside your head is the really powerful factor.

Exactly. A lot of people are like me in the media or the communication game; I’ve never been accused if being out of date. I actually think my wetware is still viable and relevant. I can plug into any aspect without trouble.

The thing that bothers me about the younger generation of thinkers or journalists is they think we haven’t moved – my generation- they think they are the people who are the guardians of everything that’s modern, new, or technological, et cetera. Bullshit; it’s not (so). We’ve always been there. It is just a different phase we’re going through. I can’t remember the last time I wrote something, where people have said: “What’s he talking about, that’s old stuff.”. I’ve never got that said and that makes me feel encouraged that what I’m saying, writing, doing is not outdated.

On learning for life …

Question: Just talking about yourself for a moment. What influences on you were most important in building up your professional skills and identity?

I think my own identity is the most powerful thing I called upon. I’ve never seen the media as being anything other than a vehicle for expressing ideas, opinions, analysis of what’s going on around us. I’ve never been terribly interested in the factual side of journalism. I’ll leave that to other people, but I’m quite happy to use their facts if I trust them, to develop my own ideas.

My intellectual maturation was a pretty interesting one, from Brisbane working class, to high school, to be the first tertiary educated person in my family, and influenced me…One thing that affected me hugely was doing political sociology at UQ, having to do an essay on my own political sociology, and when I worked out what that meant, I looked at my own life, where I had come from and where I was going, my own family… and I learned a lot about society by analysing my own upbringing.

On the question why …

It made me realise at the time, because I was still teaching school and doing university part-time, that I wanted to be in the ideas business. I wanted somebody to pay me for asking the question why.

Question: That was the main question.

It’s the only one. All the rest of them flow from that … Why is the only question that really matters to me. Why some things happen, why some don’t; some people seem to understand what is going on around them, and others don’t. I think I’d regard my self as journalistically having made a profession out of that question, and having made a living out of it.

I think it’s the best question any journalist can ask about anything, and it’s not asked enough. The classic example is the aboriginal sexual abuse issue. I’m sure there are thinkers out there doing the right thing and asking the question, but what is more important than crime and punishment, law and order, and traditional versus British codes of justice, is why these things happen. The question why plus an analytical approach to things; it makes things make sense.

Question: The point about analysing your self and the family situation; do you find your way in life by stopping to ask where George fits in?

In a way. I’ve gone from Brisbane working class to a globe-trotting middle-class professional. My situation has changed. I do it often when I’m rabbiting on about interest rates, mortgage rates, and tax levels, tax breaks or tax thresholds, the sort of thing that is absolutely preoccupying Australian society, media, and Australian politics.

I use my own situation as a benchmark. What are my problems, my advantages, and why? So I have a different analysis from when I was working for $50 a week as a young school teacher or a cadet journalist.

On new media, and media democratisation …

Question: There are people who say you can find out why in this new media situation where we can give up on the gatekeepers, and everybody gets to be a journalist. If you trawl through the blogs and wikis and see the independent sites, one way or another you will come around to a truth that suits you.

(Laughs) I don’t think so. I think the push button information is not a great deal different from information we had to gather far more laboriously in the past. We went to libraries, we read outside the textbook, we would read not just newspapers or magazines only from this country. Anybody who wants to go beyond the obvious will always go beyond the obvious source.

Who controls the gatekeeper when the gatekeeper is keeping watch? I am sceptical of the so called democracy of the Internet for that reason. Half the time you don’t know who or what the people are, providing the information. In the same way as before you could always find information to substantiate your own point, pre-internet. You can do it quicker now, but the amount of it is so much greater. I think the possibility for error and misjudgement is greater …

Everybody as a journalist? Well, journalists get it wrong. There are a lot of people who are going to be wrong occasionally. ..It’s possible to allow ourselves to be snowed by the technology to the point where we believe it’s better because it’s more vast.

Question: Considering the way you have learned to manage ideas, information, people, and present it. We are going into a century where communication technology is a reality; you’ve got all the main organisations looking at ways they can put up new carriers, new channels. Does that make you excited about having a go at it, or, like a lot of others are you saying: “I’ve learned all of this, and this now will obliterate a lot of it, and put me on the back foot?”

(Laughs) As a content person I don’t think so. All these new forms of communication gathering and dissemination of information need content. I was baffled by the typewriter, then by the TV camera, then by the computer. .. and I’ve managed to be deliberately ignorant of the technology to a large extent. I was once told when I went to television: “Don’t worry about the technology darling, just think of something bloody smart to say” … Now I’m computer semi-literate. I can handle it. It does not frighten me, and I can see that like I’ve seen all the other things, like a tool. I know it’s become a contemporary cliché but we’ve still got to see that stuff as a tool, to make use of, not something which is the master of our being, the master of our information gathering. Some people believe too fervently in it.

On the “negative aspects of the multi-media world” …

Question: If I can pursue you a little further on the future and platforms for television news and current affairs, or their successors on new formats; how about so-called narrowcast or internet journalism? If it is not about to take over, can you see many players generating niches? Can you see which way this can go?

It depends on whether we are talking about the developed world like Australia or the world generally, because one thing about the Internet is that half the world still cannot make a telephone call; so for the Internet to be so influential, a lot more people are going to need many more telephones. In this country it may or may not have an effect; in most of the world it may have no effect whatever.

Question: In this country the new “media framework” announced by the federal government in July is promising bundles of channels for special uses like services to mobile phones, or “in home” services, instead of a fourth commercial free-to-air network. This could be thirty more channels. We could see a new order of current affairs in there somewhere?

I doubt that very much. People have been predicting the demise of current affairs and of television; they’ve been predicting the demise of newspapers, all sorts of things in the name of social and technological progress, and it hasn’t happened. These things find their appropriate level. The whole idea of thirty more channels specialised or otherwise is just about impossible for the mind to comprehend when you consider how much garbage there is on the existing television. What do we need thirty channels for? I’m not absolutely sure. If you bother to pay for Pay TV at the moment and you go through the “999” channels available on Austel or Foxtel or whatever they are called, you would guess just about everybody’s needs are already being met. Why would we need thirty Australian versions of the existing European, Asia and American programs that are on Pay TV already? We need not thirty more TV stations; what we would need for that are thirty more hours in a day. When are people going to use these things?

Question: And how to pay for it I guess.

Indeed. I think what happens with every technological development we generate, we finally get carried away and at the end of the day it becomes overkill, over-expectation, ridiculous “aspirationalism” where its values are concerned. I can remember when the audio cassette was invented and came into use in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Time magazine had a cover, which I think said: “The Cassette Revolution”. Life would never be the same again as a result of the audio cassette. Now we use it, those of us who are too sensible to give our children digital toys to play with, we use it to keep the kids quiet in the back of the car. That’s a revolution? I think these developments need time to find their rightful place in society, let alone the media with its use of new things. I think it would be crazy for people to be predicting the demise of anything or replacement of anything by hi-tech media equipment or facilities until we work out what actual value they have.

We tend to forget, even we in the media who are supposed to be smart about such things, that the whole multi-media thing is a gigantic money-making exercise, invented not for the benefit of humankind but to make a lot of dough. That’s at the bottom of it. If we’re not careful the media – which I think would be a shameful thing – the media like most should not allow itself to be snowed by the subtle marketing that is the basis of all this. We are almost being convinced that we need these things. I was in a bottle shop, which is my wont, the other night, when the computer went down and a queue of about thirty people formed within five minutes. They couldn’t process the buying of a bottle of wine or a six-pack of beer. The cash register wouldn’t open without the computer telling it that it could. Now that to my mind is not progress it is regression. I am sure there are equivalent examples we could give of the negative aspects of the multi-media world.

I just think we need to keep our heads. If we keep our heads it’ll be fine and like everything else that has become part of the media’s daily hardware it will find its rightful use and its rightful purpose as a tool, but if we start seeing it as a necessity as distinct form a tool, we are in big trouble. I mean, these things are untried; they’re untested, and the motivation of the technological fraternity is open to serious question. The media should be questioning the worth of these things not automatically accepting that they should have them.

Question: So-called “information management” has taken many forms since the birth of public relations, and critics have identified an intensification of efforts to withold, dole out, refashion, or separately publish information through controlled channels. To what extent is sophisticated management of information, and management of the actual people in the news (from politicians, to celebrities, to rescued coal miners) a serious impediment to media playing its watchdog role?

Good point. It’s always been there. It’s just that the information management industry has just blown out – grown like Topsy. That’s the problem we face. It has now become a career path. It used to be sort of, information management, press secretary things, spin doctoring were for people who couldn’t get real jobs in journalism. Now it’s a career path in its own right and for another thing, the plethora of media and communications schools – your own being an outstanding example of a good one- has made PR and information management a career path in itself, and that’s a bit of a worry. I think the media need to be educated about the fact that information is being managed, and I think the public, the clients for the media, the customers, listeners, viewers and readers ought to be made very, very familiar with the fact that there is a lot of information being peddled for reasons that go way beyond information for its own sake.

On futures of mass media …

Mass media this Century will still need content. Nobody told me what I had to say when I went from print to television. I just did what I normally did. I just happened to do it in front of a camera instead of in front of a keyboard. My preoccupation is going to be with the content. I do think that the opportunities presented by the new technology, for us who have to learn it, who did not grow up with it, are there to be aware of – otherwise we could miss opportunities.

Question: Which way do you see the mass media going? Are we going to see more fragmentation? Do you think the familiar, like big scale live television events, like the Beaconsfield coverage, will still be there?

They do that because they can, not because they have to, and that’s going to be a big debate. A lot of these big, major news events happen like that because technologically they can. Add to that the competitiveness in television, or all media in general, nobody will say, “no I’m not going to do it”, as they all have the wherewithal to do it – for the instant gratification as it were. How many of these things require asking ourselves whether it was really necessary; what that circus was all about? It’s because, (a) they could do it, and (b) not one of them was game to say “we’re not going to.”

Question: Meantime, how about these thousands of production efforts, people talking with them on line, special interest things too? You can see a future where there will be a lot of dispersal and it is hard to keep track?

I think in terms of the specialist, special interest areas, the potential is enormous. That’s a good thing. I think a lot of these specialist things would be satisfied far better by the new media than they ever would be by old media.

This is something I find fascinating. Here we are talking about the new media and the new media is using the old media to propagate itself. People go to these funny inserts they see in the newspapers every week, but television hasn’t done that, nor radio; I don’t know why. Even though we’ve become obsessed by the new media in its many forms, dotcoms et cetera, there’s no television program I can think of in this country about how to use the new media, or how to use the internet. We have become obsessed … You’re a second class human being if you are not on top of it…but you don’t come home to watch your TV program, like the “E Thing” , telling you, say, how to avoid spam.

Question: It’s not as interesting as gardening I guess.

Exactly. So this is why I think we have almost gotten ahead of ourselves in how we assess its importance. But I don’t think it is anywhere near as important as we think it is, when gardening’s got its own programs, cooking’s got four thousand, sport is everywhere, music is everywhere, and this new technology thing which is supposedly taking over our entire existence, doesn’t even rate one bloody program.

On hopes of putting technology in its place …

Question: So “social” is important and technology is just the tools; you’re back to what you started saying.

I hope that is the case. I think the disproportionate attention and preoccupation is because it is about an almost totally commercial thing. People are making a lot of money out of somehow or other infiltrating our existence to the point where we feel totally obliged to jump on this new bandwagon; and I’m not a Neanderthal; I’m not against it. Where there is a commercial element to the whole thing you’ve got to be a little sceptical about its real worth and its commercial worth.

Question: You would not be surprised that here we are interested in teaching people how to do journalism and how to do media, and of course we are confronting the proliferation of media. If everybody is setting out to be a journalist would you agree there is some reasoning and some hope in teaching everybody to be a journalist to some degree?

Yes I think we are our own news gatherers. What people always have a need for. I think what the information age will do is make analytical and opinion journalism even more important that it always has been, because the information being available to you, you’ll probably still require assistance in sifting it, assessing it, evaluating it, working out what use it is to you … I think the great paradox will be that as information journalism becomes less important, because the information will be so freely available to any one of these gatekeepers, self styled journalists, the opinion journalism, and commentary and analysis will become more important – because most people don’t have time to do that; they’re too busy doing other things.

Question: If somebody being a self-styled journalist was not just looking up information, but has tried to do writing and reporting, it would kit people out to be better at understanding it.

That’s true. It does, but I feel we should, I hope we should never lose our innate scepticism. If we become mindless disciples of this stuff we are asking for trouble. In the same way we are always told, don’t believe what you read in newspapers; there is definitely a new media equivalent and that is, don’t believe everything you pick up anywhere else either.