Here is a bit of a taste – an excerpt from the first chapter.
Chapter One: Thrills and Spills
For as long as the media have had any say in how the news is to be provided to the public, journalists within its warm and self-protecting bosom have adopted the role of gatekeepers.
This is never more the case than when it comes to the Canberra press gallery. Imagine what it is like to be one of those few — well, actually, the not-so-few. The email list of the federal parliamentary press gallery runs to nine pages, and contains nearly three hundred names (The Australian has eighteen by itself, and the ABC’s names run for over two pages). But when you get down to it, the number of them who get by-lines, whose faces appear on television, and whose voices broadcast the news of the day, are few and privileged.
Oh, to be one of those few. Imagine the power — to be able to decide what to write, the angle, the slant, the lead. To be able to head off for dinner in Kingston or Manuka with some minister — either government or shadow — for a little off -the-record briefing (because we can safely assume that not all of those un-named ‘government sources’ are made up). Imagine being one of those who sit in the parliamentary gallery, overlooking the elected and deciding their fates. Oh, mighty Fourth Estate! Gatekeepers of the
news; provider of opinions for us all!
And should you disagree with a particular opinion or with the presentation of the news, send an email, or get hold of pen and paper, and write a letter to the editor — and see the wonders of free speech and freedom of the press combined (ignoring the fact that the media is the gatekeeper of even the public’s views of the media).
Back in 2007, in the run-up to the November election, the world of political blogs in Australia was beginning to disrupt this nice, century-old tradition. The ‘old media’ — The Australian, most particularly — didn’t take it particularly well. This was odd, not only because it was strange that a paper that held itself up as the leading newspaper of the country should care what a few ‘amateurs’ might think, but because at the time The Australian had one of its best journalists doing great work as a blogger.
The late Matt Price would have been perfect for the Twittersphere. A love of politics and sport, and the ability to mesh both with popular-culture references — such as when he compared the voting publics’ declining attraction to John Howard with Price’s own inexplicable indifference to the band REM — along with an ability to see both sides of a debate, and also to find humour in all things, would have seen Price as assuredly the dominant Australian political journalist on Twitter.
In 2007, Price’s output on The Australian was also the only kind of writing that deserved the name of a ‘blog’ being posted on a mainstream-media website by a journalist. Sure, by this time, Tim Blair and Andrew Bolt had blogs running on The Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun websites, but Price’s blog was secondary to his work as a journalist. On news.com.au, Tim Dunlop was showing everybody how it should be done, as he spent long hours responding to comments, guiding the debate, providing updates and links, and moderating the comments.
Dunlop, however, was a blogger from way back, and was an anomaly among the authors of new-fangled ‘blogs’ that News Limited websites were trying to fashion. While the newspapers would occasionally fi re shots at the blogosphere, and journalists would obviously read the blogs — especially when their own name was mentioned — the interaction between the public and the gatekeepers remained as it ever had been. This was a state of media stasis that, a mere five years later, seems quaint. A look back over recent years shows the great changes that have occurred in the way that political events are reported.
On 11 September 2007, news came through from Canberra of a possible leadership spill within the Liberal Party. In the morning, Sky News ran a story that Malcolm Turnbull and Alexander Downer were withdrawing their support for John Howard. Both Tim Dunlop and Andrew Bolt were onto the story quickly on their respective blogs. Bolt ran with ‘Downer, Turnbull give up on Howard’; Dunlop, with ‘The last days of chez Howard?’ But the best place for readers to find answers to their questions was from Matt Price, who was also covering the story on his blog with the tantalising opening stanza of ‘Something is on in Parliament House’.
What we saw this day would not be the end of the Howard prime ministership, but it was the start of social media breaking down the gate-kept world of Australian politics. Throughout the day, Price provided updates of events taking place:
On the way out of questions, Downer walked past a bunch of journalists and dismissed all this as much ado about nothing, declared nothign [sic] would happen with the leadership, and predicted we’d all get sick of idle speculation over the next six weeks or so.
Yes, even the odd typo would get through — something that bloggers and Twitter users know happens, and that only the most miserable of pedants worry about. The social-media space is fast and messy, and is not the environment for as perfect a news article as one that has passed under the watch of a vigilant subeditor (back when sub-editors were employed directly and were valued).
However, Price was doing more than just providing updates; he was also responding to comments and questions from his readers. During the day he responded fourteen times to readers’ comments.
Some of these involved his calming down the hopes of lefty readers:
LukeH Tue 11 Sep 07 (10.45am) looks and smells like D-Day has arrived for the PM. baseball bats ready?! present arms!
Matt Price Tue 11 Sep 07 (12.18pm) Not so sure, Luke. Howard will need to be blasted out.
Or the delusions of the right:
deadcato Tue 11 Sep 07 (11.35am) Matt, a hypothetical: Costello’s unelectable, Howard’s gone, Turnbull hasn’t had much cut-through despite being fairly high- profile: what are the chances of a genuinely fresh face being vaulted in? I’m thinking Julie Bishop- two months to tart her up, election in January?
Matt Price Tue 11 Sep 07 (12.29pm) You’re dreaming, Deadcato.
He also gave insights into how the system works, and how journalists are never passive agents during a leadership spill:
Jane Tue 11 Sep 07 (11.42am) Is this a case of the Canberra press gallery getting too excited or is it going to be one of those historic days in Federal politics?? I guess we’ll just have to stay online (with Sky news on in the background) to see what happens …
Matt Price Tue 11 Sep 07 (12.33pm) Let’s be clear about this, Jane. When leadership battles are on, MPs use the media to pressurise rivals and send messages to colleagues. I don’t believe David Speers is inventing his story on Sky — clearly, senior Libs are attempting to force JWH to quit.
And then a final summing-up:
nomad3 Tue 11 Sep 07 (01.23pm) Matt, someone asked you a question earlier ... please respond … have you ever seen anything like this this close to an election … whats your take ? you think today is the day?
Matt Price Tue 11 Sep 07 (01.31pm) We’re in new territory, Nomad. Right now it seems Howard will hang in, but who one earth knows?
Over on Andrew Bolt’s blog, predictions were being made:
UPDATE 2: .... Costello isn’t stirring any of this, but is ready to lead. He’ll be prime minister tomorrow
And Matt Price was being used as a primary source:
UPDATE 4: No confirmation from Matt Price, but a sense of end of empire …
This was the blogosphere come to the mainstream media — blogs referencing other blogs, readers discussing events with each other, and it all being done in a fluid and (in the case of Bolt’s prediction) messy way.
There is often a messiness to blogs that is tough for the traditional media to accept (except when they make similar errors). But while it is easy to go in hard on Bolt’s error of foresight, it is clear that he was expressing his gut reaction. On some occasions (such as, much later, when he speculated wrongly about the religion and motives of Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik), this can be unwise, and can lead to false conclusions being made that become fact in the minds of trusting readers. But in the case of the machinations of political parties, Bolt’s readers were after his insights and hunches — and they knew they were just that. No one was thinking it was fact that Costello would be prime minister on 12 September.
Such discussions were not new to the blogging world, but what made this day unique was the presence of Matt Price inside the walls — responding directly to readers, and not filtering them through his editor or the editor of the letters pages.
It was an indicator of where the media would be going, because it was where consumers were demanding the media go. Write a letter to the editor? Why on earth would you bother to do that, when you could leave a comment on a blog of the journalist who wrote the very piece about which you wished to comment? While Price’s responses to his readers showed the way, they were still just a taste of what could be. His fourteen responses were written between 12.17 and 1.31pm. Most of them were in reply to comments written at least an hour earlier.
The nature of the moderation policy for blogs on media websites reduces the ability of the blogger/journalist to provide quick responses, and means that there is next to no chance for there to be quick dialogue between the commenters. Those blogs in September 2007 had brought the interaction between readers and journalists closer than ever before, but real-time responsiveness was still beyond reach. Readers could call out their comments, and know that the journalist would hear them, but the distance between producer and consumer was still there, and it could be measured by the lapse in time between query and response.
The cheek-by-jowl closeness of Twitter was yet to arrive.
Even by the time the leadership of a political party next became the subject of urgent political discourse, little had changed in the social-media landscape of Australian politics. On 15 September 2008, when Malcolm Turnbull challenged Brendan Nelson, none of the journalists in the Canberra press gallery had yet joined Twitter.
There were a few early adopters who existed on the periphery — Sky News director John Bergin had joined on 3 September. The earliest joiner of Twitter from among the main political journalists in the country was news.com.au’s Paul Colgan, who had signed up at the extraordinarily early date of 7 April 2007. Political blogger Malcolm Farnsworth and Crikey blogger Possum Comitatus (Scott Steel) had joined respectively in April and May of 2008, but had little cause to use it. Of the over three hundred journalists who covered federal politics or national affairs, only ten were on Twitter at the time of Turnbull’s leadership challenge.
Some politicians were also on Twitter, but little to do with politics was happening or said there — and certainly not by them. The Greens’ Senator Sarah Hanson-Young was the first Australian politician on Twitter. She joined in April 2007, but she would not find another parliamentarian to tweet to until Malcolm Turnbull joined in October 2008 after his ascension to the leadership of the Liberal Party. Thus, for the social-media history of Australian politics, we can move swiftly past this glorious peak for the Member for Wentworth, and move to his awful valley.
Throughout 2009, Twitter — a social-media program that enabled conversations of 140 characters in length that had been around since March 2006 — suddenly became popular in the Australian political-media world. Journalists who would scarcely admit to reading blogs, let alone commenting on them, were suddenly joining up and putting themselves out in the world of the Internet, and ‘micro-blogging’.
At the end of 2008 there were fourteen Canberra press gallery journalists and Australian political bloggers on Twitter: Paul Colgan, Malcolm Farnsworth, Scott Steel (‘Pollytics’), Michael Rowland, Sophie Black, John Kerrison, Tim Dunlop, Andrew Landeryou, Jonathan Green, John Bergin, Joshua Gans, James Massola, and Jessica Wright. By the end of March 2009, there were forty-six. Among the group that had joined were some of Australia’s most high-profile journalists — the ABC’s Leigh Sales (then with Lateline); Mark Colvin, the host of PM; Annabel Crabb, who quickly built up a large following, and remains the most followed Australian political journalist on Twitter; Crikey’s Canberra correspondent and ex-public servant Bernard Keane; The Age’s Misha Schubert; and News Limited’s David Penberthy.
After being badgered by Scott Steel on the Crikey blog Poll Bludger, I also decided to join — putting aside my concerns that not much of worth could be said in 140 characters, and after I was convinced it was not just a mini-Facebook. I joined in June 2009, by which time seventy-three journalists, political writers, and bloggers were on board. Others less political but ready to ride the social-media wave were aboard — Mia Freedman, having discarded the dead-tree magazine life, and finding branches online with her blog, Mamamia, had joined in February.
One of those journalists less well known to the broader public was Latika Bourke — a young reporter for Fairfax radio. She had joined in March, and quickly took to the medium in a manner that would bring her to a prominence well above what someone in her situation would normally command. She would be one of the first to grasp the possibilities that 140 characters afforded, and it would lead to her becoming one of the top-four most followed journalists covering federal politics — trailing, on the Twitter
mountain, only Annabel Crabb, Laurie Oakes, and Leigh Sales.
Australian politicians were also joining in greater number during 2009. Malcolm Turnbull had been joined by Kevin Rudd on 17 October 2008, and they were later followed by others such as Rob Oakeshott, Steven Ciobo, George Christiansen, Joe Hockey, and Jamie Briggs. Other than Rudd, Labor MPs and senators were somewhat slow on the uptake — the concerns of stuffing up in government being somewhat higher than when they were in opposition — but long-time social-media/Internet champion ACT Senator Kate Lundy joined Twitter in February 2009, followed the next month by Kate Ellis and Tony Burke, whose Twitter style would be the source of amusement and notoriety eighteen months
later, during the 2010 election campaign.
This all led to a community of political writers, participants, and watchers who were ready to put the speed of Twitter to use. Twitter denizens who were confident that they would discover the news well before it made it onto a news website or radio bulletin boasted that Twitter was the future of news here and now. All that was needed was an event of such importance that it would galvanise everybody interested in Australian politics.
This event happened in the last sitting week of the parliamentary year in 2009.
The book charts the use of blogs and twitter in the coverage and debate of Australian politics and what happens when the traditional media collides with this world – most notably on Twitter. Rather than focus on how media companies and political parties attempt to use the internet to further their aims and adjust their business models I instead examine how journalists and politicians themselves are coping in this new environment. I look at the problems both blogs and the MSM have dealing with comments and misogyny, the fights that can occur on Twitter and what can happen when those in the social media tweak the nose of the traditional media – including what happened when I was outed by The Australian.
The chapter titles are:
1. Thrills and Spills
2. The Australian Blogosphere: what, what, how, who, why?
3. Where Are All the Women?
4. Never Read the Comments
5. The MSM v Bloggers: ‘let the professionals do their job’
6. How to Become a Twitter Hashtag
7. Journalists All a Twitter
8. One, Two, Three, Four, I Declare a Twitter War
9. How Many Votes Are There on Twitter?
Hope you enjoy it.