Good Journalism: Good Luck Citizens, We’re On Our Own

Today’s post is from Sally Baxter, via The AIMN.

If you want a little more about her dad, the Big Baxter, read here.

I hope Sally will forgive my borrowing her truly timely post.

Australia’s rush to embrace sweeping powers to access the digital footprints of its citizenry has raised the existential age-old question: What is a journalist?

The development of the government’s data retention bill and its implications were woefully under-reported by those most obviously fitting the description until we got to the pointy end of the law-making.

One honourable exception to prove the rule was Bernard Keane at Crikey who has been writing extensively on the issue for months, if not years.

For the rest, it wasn’t until the 11th hour that journalists started showing some concern and then, predictably, it was how the new laws would impact them rather than the rest of us which caught their attention.

As Crikey’s leader column put it on Thursday, 19 March:

Well, that’s journalists looked after.

Once they discovered, almost too late, that data retention posed a significant threat to one of the core aspects of journalism, Australia’s media have spent the last 10 days up in arms about mass surveillance, after, with one or two exceptions, ignoring the issue for the last three years.

Journalists will be protected from having their metadata examined in order to identify their sources by a special warrant involving a “public interest advocate”. But what about lawyers? Where’s their protection? What about doctors? For that matter, what about ordinary Australians? The media, apparently, isn’t interested in anyone else but itself.

The journalism information warrant is a good idea. So good, it should be extended, to everyone. If the government wants our data — anyone’s data — get a damn warrant.

But if journalists are to be looked after in this brave new world, who are they and why are they special? Having won this small victory for themselves, have they conceded the war once waged on our behalf?

What is a journalist? It’s a question being asked internationally, not just in Australia, and not for the first time. The debate goes back at least to the invention of the printing press but could arguably stretch even further into history – as far as Socrates, according to Mark Pearson, a self-described ‘press freedom worrier.’

I grew up among journalists, including my father the Big Baxter, but I’ve struggled to recall a single moment when the existential question of what is a journalist was even raised.

It was someone who worked for a news organisation of course, but when Bax worked for no-one as a stringer, selling stories to whoever would take them, he was no less a journalist. If he failed to find a market for a story, was his work on it less ‘journalistic?’

In his day it was most definitely something you didn’t learn at j-school, as they call it in the US, so it wasn’t a piece of paper which made you a journalist. It was something you learned by getting beaten to a story by a gun reporter and having your words torn to pieces by a grizzled old sub.

And if you were smart you learned from how the gun reporter got his stories and what the old sub did to yours.

He was both gun reporter and grizzled old sub to your Girl Reporter when I joined him on the computer magazine he had started in the 1970s, long before the rise of the citizen journalist and the blogger.

But I believe he saw them coming. The thing which consistently excited him about technology related to its potential for ordinary people to tell their stories.

Since I must guess how Bax would define a journalist I imagine he would say that it’s someone who represents those ordinary people, who seeks answers to the questions they would ask.

Nothing in what I can remember of anything he said about journalism precludes the work of many distinguished bloggers, but they are not protected under Australia’s new laws.

In terms of specific advice to your young Girl Reporter I recall more on how to tell a story than what makes one. In my favourite lesson Bax as grizzled old sub held up a piece of my work, with something akin to disgust, and asked me, “What’s the story here?”

I struggled to explain what was right there in black and white until he stopped me and said: “Look, you’ve got to the bus stop just as the bus is pulling away with me on it. Quick. I’m leaning out the window. What’s the story?”

When I told him he flung the sheet of copy paper back at me and said, “There’s your intro. Take it away and do it again.”

In Bax’s day, freedom of the press belonged firmly to the people who could afford to own one but the freedom of journalists themselves has always been less clear-cut. In the laws of many countries – most prominently the US – there is no distinction between the rights of the journalist and that of the citizen.

In the 21st century publishing is more akin to the 17th when pamphlets and penny dreadfuls were distributed in coffee houses and on street corners. Freedom of the presses, as argued in 1644 by John Milton, rested in “… the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience” and it applied to all citizens, above all other liberties.

Today, in Australia, that liberty does not extend to all. Asked how he defined a journalist, attorney-general George Brandis was clear the term did not include bloggers although he conceded that ultimately the definition would rest with the courts.

Most bloggers are happy to splash about in the warm waters of free expression with our carefully considered and well-argued opinions. Deep Throat will not be dropping us a DM anytime soon.

But there are also bloggers who are doing the serious work of journalism and reporting on issues with more clarity and dedication than many of their accredited cousins.

Deep end or shallow, Australia’s data retention laws are a reminder that if you’re going to swim in the publishing pool at least know where the hidden objects lie.

The arguments for free expression today are remarkably similar to Milton’s. He resisted the licensing of journalism. As citizens, so should we. Even more so when our journalists won’t.

Further reading:

Press freedom, social media and the citizen – Mark Pearson’s 2013 UNESCO World Press Freedom Day Lecture includes an excellent examination of John Milton and his argument for freedom of the presses.

How do you define journalism? Five questions about Abbott’s metadata deal – Paul Farrell, The Guardian 17 March 2015

No protection for bloggers from metadata laws rules George Brandis – Jared Owens, The Australian 17 March 2015 (paywall)

Online Privacy: A Basic Guide – Rob Marsh, the Australian Independent Media Network 25 March 2015

At the mercy of the state – Jennifer Wilson, No Place for Sheep 25 March 2015

Mandatory metadata retention becomes law as Coalition and Labor combine – Daniel Hurst, The Guardian 27 March 2015


Victoria magnificently  did it.


Queensland spectacularly did it


Now its New South Wales turn.

Have a go kick em out.


Kill two birds with one vote

Send a message to the born to rule class

A big ask I know ,but as it’s Friday Night lets be optimistic and happy



Raffles are to be won

Drinks to be had

And laughter and music to be heard.

Have a great night and let’s look forward to tomorrow.


A New Yes Minister Script

Gorgeous Dunny has provided today’s Guest Post, with one possible antidote to the slings and arrows of modern living. Many thanks, GD. Fellow Pubsters, please enjoy!

(Image Credit: Yes Minister)

Bob Ellis observed that, in the old Cold War days, many American writers cited the long queues at Moscow stores as proof of failure in the Soviet Communist system. If so, he said, then modern capitalism is also failing if our telephone queues are any guide. We can no longer be connected to a bank, a large business or a government department without going through a tedious computerised screening system.

Delays of 10-15 minutes are regarded as pretty normal. My own personal record is 75 minutes before even my patience ran out and I hung up. It was to the Tax Department – so I couldn’t even realistically complain. I have had a delay of 35 minutes waiting to talk to someone at my credit union in Melbourne. Credit union? Aren’t they supposed to be run for the benefit of members? Most readers would have similar nightmare delays to disclose.

At least in the old Moscow queues, the customers got the chance to joke and complain to each other. With the phone queues, you are entirely alone, just occasionally hearing the sound of recorded messages. The only humour is in the odd message such as, “We’ll get to you very soon. Please don’t hang up. Your call is valuable to us!” But after a few repeats, even that attempt at black humour wears a bit thin.

As a way of coping, I wrote a short script for a revised version of the old Yes, Minister TV series. I hope readers may be inspired to do similar.

“Minister, good news! Calls to government departments have dropped by 80% since we completed the new call centres.”

“How can that be good news, Humphrey? I thought the idea was for people to use them to get government information.”

“Not at all, Minister. The aim is to give people the illusion they can get government information. The computer screening barriers are designed to frustrate them until they give up. You know of the Henry Ford Customer Axiom?”

“Axiom?? … Hmmn. … Oh, I know! You mean, the customer can have any coloured car they like as long as it’s black?”

“Very good, Minister! Very sharp today! What we offer is a modern variant. Anyone can inquire any time about government business just by ringing that toll-free number. Nice touch, that. They know they’re not paying much for the calls. But we don’t say anything about how long it’ll take them to get an answer, or even if we ever answer it.”

“But shouldn’t we be offering a better service by talking to them?”

“To a point, Minister … and very brave, too.”

“B-B-B-Brave? Did you say brave?”

“Well, Minister, I ask you, would you really want taxpayers, who are voters after all, to know how little we can actually do for them? Should we tell them how quickly we’re outsourcing and privatising everything?”

“Um, … er, … well, … I see what you mean. But … but, what if somebody found out nobody uses them? Why not just close the call centres down? We have trouble getting staff to last at them anyway. How do the banks manage theirs?”

“Minister, … Minister. It’s better to continue the automatic systems, set up additional barriers at the second and third points. That way, enquirers are bound to give up before they get connected. And they’re none the wiser about what we’re doing.”

“But, … but,… what if somebody needs really important or life-support information?”

“Websites, Minister. Expand the websites. And I wouldn’t think too much about the banks for a model. Do you know their call centres are in India? A sing-song voice at the other end won’t impress voters. Well, what would you like us to do, Minister?”

“Um, er, ah … Set up additional automatic phone barriers and expand the websites.”

“Yes, Minister.”

(Image Credit: Yes Minister)