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.

Author: Drag0nista

Political columnist at The New Daily | Editor of Despatches & AusVotes 2019 | Author of On Merit, a book on the Liberals' *women problem*. Former Liberal staffer and industry lobbyist. Studying the entrails of federal politics since 1989.

7 thoughts on “Democracy, by-lines and the cult of celebrity”

  1. Great, thought-provoking post.

    I’d add that the rise of citizen journalism/blogging/generic wank term for the internets has also contributed to the distortion in reporting vs opinion.

    And yet with such a packed news cycle, and with the capacity to inform and misinform now readily available to everyone, and with traditional media outlets under siege, I don’t think there has ever been a more important time for journalists to be good at what they do.

  2. Great stuff – I found myself nodding the whole way through.

    (One interesting – perhaps related aside – artists’ signatures have been steadily growing in size over the last few centuries / decades / years. Don’t know what that means, but it seems that the glory of ‘the author’ is something deeply embedded in modern culture, and becoming more so).

    But perhaps if you flip it around, the emergence of the by-line (alongside the whole emergence of social media) might just be a recognition that the traditional authority we’ve given to mastheads (The Times, The Australian etc) was flawed – that newspapers always, if subtly, carried an opinion.

    Perhaps? Hmm.

  3. Yes! I agree with you about the by-lines. When I was training as a journalist, these were reserved for articles in which the writers expressed their own views, in addition to providing the objective facts of the story. Stories without by-lines were deemed to be “by the paper” and were thus required to be factually correct -verified by other sources- and without any kind of subjectivity. This preserved the paper’s credibility.

    Another factor in the demise of journalism has been the abandonment of the cadetship system in favour of university journalism courses. Reporters used to consider themselves “craftsmen” rather than “professionals”.

  4. We had bylines in the early eighties – and I was just a lowly cadet then. My own view is that bylines became easier to get when the pay scale of journalists slid against the pay scale of other professions. It was a way of discouraging alienation – you didn’t get paid much compared to your friends, the lawyers, doctors, architects; but you were publicly acknowledged.

  5. mrdenmore – Sydney – This isn't me. It's the great NZ prime minister Michael Joseph Savage who led the reforming Labour government of the 1930s. Australian- born, Savage was a wise and moral man who had a gift for communication. Someone to aspire to, not to compare oneself with.
    Mr Denmore says:

    You’re right on the byline arms race. My theory is there is an inverse correlation between pay and conditions in the mainstream media and the grandiosity of individual journalist’s titles. Fabricated ‘celebrity’ becomes the payoff for working in a low-paid industry with little future.

    1. Drag0nista – Political columnist at The New Daily | Editor of Despatches & AusVotes 2019 | Author of On Merit, a book on the Liberals' *women problem*. Former Liberal staffer and industry lobbyist. Studying the entrails of federal politics since 1989.
      Drag0nista says:

      I thought the rush to become Political Editor was pretty funny. But the recent abuse of the term ie. Contributing Editor, is a farce.

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