Democracy, by-lines and the cult of celebrity

I have a little theory that needs to be refined.  So I encourage you, dear reader, to comment and correct me.

My theory is that the advent of by-lines and the cult of celebrity have irrevocably changed the nature of democracy in Australia.

When I moved to chilly Canberra to be a neophyte press secretary in the 80s, not every journalist had a by-line.  That honour was bestowed only upon senior reporters and feature writers.  Most Canberra journalists were reporters in the truest sense.  They were required to succinctly, accurately and anonymously report on newsworthy matters of the day.

While most journalists I know have a strong point of view, in those days they were proud of the objectivity they displayed in their work.  Their saw their role as information providers, and had faith in the public reaching their own informed views about the matters that were important to them.

My middle-aged memory fails me when I try to pinpoint the turning point – when journalists became participants in, rather than reporters of, the political process.  But I have no doubt that the advent of the by-line was a contributing factor.

When you are a Canberra operative you tend to notice these things, such as the infectious “title inflation” that has been going on in the print media.  Back in the 80s and early 90s, political reporters clamoured just to get a by-line.  Earlier this decade there was fierce competition to see who could become “senior” or “chief” political reporter.  Nowadays, you’re nobody unless you’re a “political editor” for your newspaper.  Even the neophyte political pundit Peter Van Onselen has managed to procure the title of “Contributing Editor”.

My recollection of the advent of the by-line in Australian print media was that it coincided with the emergence of 24-hour television news in Australia, courtesy of Wolf Blitzer and his CNN coverage of the first Gulf War in Kuwait.  This was perhaps the first time that a serious journalist (as opposed to a glamorous newsreader or TV show host) had become a celebrity in Australian homes.  At the same time, both Laurie Oakes and Peter Harvey’s celebrity status began to rise outside of Canberra political circles.  Oakes was the man of substance, getting the leaks and interviews that no-one else could.  Harvey was The Voice intoning, “Peter Harvey, Canberra” on Australian families’ television news each evening.   Although not based in Canberra, Andrew Olle and Jana Wendt are two other examples that spring to mind.

Hence the cult of celebrity began to infiltrate, and inextricably change, the reporting of Australian politics.

The cult of celebrity emerged hand in hand with reality television.  People became famous simply for being famous, with Big Brother and Idol winners, along with hotel-chain heiress Paris Hilton, being the epitome of this phenomenon.

It’s my recollection that political journalists took this new paradigm much more seriously to heart.  With the advent of the byline and a new focus on celebrity reporters, I remember several Canberra journalists saying that they had taken on a didactic role.  Rather than simply reporting political matters and leaving the public to reach their own conclusions, these journalists began to see their role as having to “teach” the public about the pros and cons of certain political positions and policies.

Certainly one could argue that there is just as much need for teachers to be objective about the information they convey.  However, I believe that the shift from journalists as reporters to teachers was accompanied by a growing self-belief that political journalists know more and therefore know better than Joe Public.  This mind-shift has created the way for journalists’ personal views to creep into their work.

Thus began the infiltration of opinion into political reportage.   Over time, the lines have increasingly become blurred between political reporting and opinion masquerading as analysis.  Canberra practitioners see these comments in the context of the journalist’s opinions and biases, but the everyday newspaper reader and television watcher does not.   Many, and particularly the politically disengaged, tend to take the information provided by their favoured media outlet, or celebrity journalists, as gospel.  This is an unacknowledged but serious distortion in Australian democracy.

Today, there seem to be no bounds to the excesses and influence of some celebrity journalists.  The perceived importance of their opinions has become so inflated that television programs now offer “analysis” in the form of high profile political journalists interviewing or chatting to each other.

I hasten to add that I am not tarring all famous journalists with the didactic brush.  Some have begrudgingly accepted their higher public profiles and treated the responsibility with the solemnity and objectivity that it demands.

Others have become addicted to influence and are now willing participants in Australian politics.  They are the favoured recipients of regular partisan leaks.  Or they willingly beat up or play down speculative matters designed specifically to destabilise opponents or even colleagues.   And most are prepared to willingly hunt with the pack to build up or tear down a politician just for sport.

It’s a truism that voters get the government they deserve.  But what did we do to deserve journalists who truly believe their task is to not inform but to guide us?  Unfortunately we are all disenfranchised when it comes to the participatory role that celebrity journalists now play in Australian democracy.

This post also appeared at The Notion Factory.