Changing of the guard

Thoughts on a media meltdown

This is a free edition of The Terminal. If you’re not a subscriber and you’d like to be, smash the button below.


Former Australian attorney-general Christian Porter’s 1,600-word statement announcing his resignation from the ministry mentions Twitter multiple times. “Having set in motion its trial by accusation,” the statement reads, “the ABC unleashed the Twitter version of an angry mob.”

“The target of the Twitter mob then extended to anyone who contradicted the narrative of guilt by accusation,” he goes on. “So fierce and vengeful is the response of the Twitter mob to anyone who dares say anything contrary to the narrative of guilt that those people then come to be deemed to commit a form of social crime for defending the subject of the unproven allegation and the mob turns on them.”

For Australian politicians, the ‘Twitter mob’ is a helpful shorthand which also occupies a weirdly prominent space in their collective mind palaces. It’s cancel culture but with a distinct flavour, where the participants are not only illiberal and unreasonable but also totally unrepresentative. Only a small percentage of the country’s population uses Twitter, the argument goes, and yet for whatever reason they manage to wield serious political power, and do so unjustly.

As part of his 2019 Sir Robert Menzies lecture, Prime Minister Scott Morrison managed to somehow integrate Twitter into a redux of Menzies’ famous mid-century paean to the middle-class ‘forgotten Australians’. It’s genuinely a funny clanger at the end of soaring, salt-of-the-earth rhetoric for the Liberal Party base:

All of those people, Sir Robert called the forgotten people, I call them quiet Australians. You won’t find them among the angry, shouty voices on the fringes, pretending to speak for all Australians. You won’t find them there, those shouty voices telling us all what we’re supposed to be angry and outraged about every single day. They haven’t got time for that. They’re too busy paying taxes, raising kids, helping with homework, running their businesses, going to work, paying power bills, caring for their parents, looking after their grandkids, putting out the soccer nets on a Saturday morning, doing their patrols for the local surf club or working at the roster at the RSF, or working at the school canteen, the list goes on. That’s what they’re busy doing. They haven’t got time for armbands and all the rest of it, trolling people on Twitter and all of that nonsense.

In conjunction with numerous mentions in his official speeches and media appearances of ‘keyboard warriors’ and other generally disrespectful malcontents on social media, it’s safe to say that Morrison is psychically troubled by the thought of unrestrained online posting, and what it might augur for his prime ministership and the future of the Australian federation more generally.

You can see easy parallels between the Twitter mob decried by Porter and Morrison and much older notions of the chattering classes; the metropolitan liberal elite existing at the fuzzy intersection of politics, academia and media who spend their days dreaming up useless outrages to bicker over. If you want to find that sort of person on Twitter, you won’t have to look very far. The last five or so years have been dominated by discussion of the apparent distance between loud online opinion and actual democratic outcomes — with Trump’s ascension, the Brexit referendum and the 2019 Australian election often held up as examples of how badly out of touch the Twitter-facing media elite actually are from regular people. (Of course, the general class composition of the Western media is probably a better indicator of this disconnect than their favoured social media echo chambers.)

None of this is particularly novel, and most of the conversation is very boring, paint-by-numbers stuff. But Porter’s letter came by coincidence at the end of a week occupied by a flurry of discussion of Twitter abuse against Australian journalists. ABC journo Leigh Sales wrote a piece decrying the “vile, frequently unhinged” harassment of journalists by “politicians' acolytes, lackeys, fans and proxies”. This was followed by a feature in the Sydney Morning Herald (helpfully filed under the ‘Harassment’ vertical) describing a looming exodus of senior journalists from the platform thanks to the non-stop abuse from a blob of largely anonymous posters.

These hostile commenters are named in Sales’ piece. She says they are largely the left-leaning Twitter users who are often designated ‘water drops’ or ‘drips’ because of the tell-tale emoji in their names, which references a now largely forgotten, pre-Covid water tender scandal surrounding energy minister Angus Taylor. They are often, but not always, older Labor voters who are fiercely defensive of popular Labor leaders like Victoria’s Daniel Andrews, and vituperative when it comes to journalists who they believe are unfair or biased in favour of the Coalition. The pandemic, which has more aggressively kicked the tyres of federation than any event of the past few decades, has intensified their struggle.

The names Sales throws out in her piece as those who have been subject to particularly vicious abuse are almost universally of a class of well-compensated senior journalist who carry the torch of a very 20th-century vision of a media professional — those who veteran journo Laurie Oakes would have celebrated as gatekeepers. They are the ones who see their mission as taking the chaotic information from out in the aether and transmuting it into balanced reporting for a mass audience. And, almost without fail, they are the ones most publicly incensed about the reciprocal nature of social media.

I thought this piece from Margaret Simons in The Age made good points, in arguing that these stories conflate genuine feedback and critique from an active and responsive public with abuse:

Journalists and media organisations need to do better when dealing with social media. About 23 percent of Australians now use social media as their main source of news – and that figure is growing fast. That means dealing with it is a professional imperative.

Sales spends a lot of her opening paragraphs emphasising that journalists are not thin-skinned. It’s true that we learn very early to be robust in dealing with furious reactions in private phone calls and emails from the subjects of our journalism.

But as those of us who report on media know, that is not the whole story. Journalists ARE thin-skinned, sometimes ridiculously so, when they are criticised in public.

What I think is being described here is not just journalists in general, but specifically what will probably be the final generation of gatekeepers who operate on that old model of journalism. That model was simply not built for a media environment where someone (or a critical mass of someones) can easily reply to a journalist’s story or instantly provide a contrary narrative. It feels like the last decade or so of the media has been a struggle to contend with this in various ways1.

I spat off a couple of tweets about the conflict between the old guard and the new over the weekend:

The current generation of journalists and content creators at various digital outlets (including myself!) feel like a hangover from that period, attempting to create sustainable digitally-native publications and content while upholding the values of our forebears. The upcoming generation of creators, operating for entirely new audiences, platforms and economic models, are running roughshod over that naive attempt to marry the two worlds. At his newsletter Garbage Day, writer Ryan Broderick asked a question: How is your digital media company better or different than Logan Paul?

Logan Paul also appears to be actually doing several things that digital media companies like VICE have never figured out how to do: he has a clear editorial point of view (which sucks), a very good understanding of his audience (who all suck), and a podcast that actually seems to make money directly without it being subsidized by iHeart Radio or something. You can clutch your pearls about the host or the content (it all sucks), but, hell, even Paul’s TikTok, which seems like an afterthought for him, has 12 million followers. Meanwhile, VICE’s, which is literally central to their new editorial direction, has under 100,000 followers.

Without getting too bogged down in the weeds, I want to make the point that the freewheeling, deeply contested and frequently combative space of Twitter and social media is perfectly representative of the future of this stuff. It is not an aberration which can be stamped out in service of a return to some mythic pre-Twitter journalism, when everyone crowded around the TV box or read a newspaper and then went on with their day. This is it. People have the capability to seek out the content that reflects their desires, and the barrier for entry for creating that content has never been lower. The lefty drips Sales complains about can collectively generate their own narrative online, without the need for gatekeepers to pass it down to the them, and creators will emerge to serve that audience.

I don’t think a monolithic media institution like the ABC is under immediate threat from Logan Paul. But they’re playing in the same sandpit now, and I think a lot of angst from elite journalists about social media and the new order comes from a fear that they’re no longer the gatekeepers, and perhaps never will be again.

This isn’t just one for the journalists. I opened with Christian Porter and Scott Morrison’s broadsides against the powerful Twitter mob as being unrepresentative of the broader Australian people, and I think these conversations are all very much connected. They all seem to be part of a broad and ongoing legitimation crisis which, while not entirely driven by the internet, is certainly aided by it.

Our institutions no longer seem responsive to our input, but the internet and its constituent communities often do.

1

For example: in Harper’s, Joseph Bernstein writes about the anti-disinformation and fact-checking enterprises as being part of a “war of restoration” for traditional media and other such truth-bearing institutions.