Transcript of Alliance Centenary Lecture by Laurie Oakes
"The future is anybody's guess"
Welcome to Canberra. As you know, one of the reasons the Walkley Awards are here is because the national capital is about to celebrate its centenary in 2013. A hundred years since the foundation stone was laid and the city named. Of course, Parliament didn’t start meeting here, and the Press Gallery didn’t move here, until 1927. So we’ve had 86 years of political drama in Canberra, and 26 years of equally dramatic events in Federal Parliament’s temporary home in Melbourne before that.
And dramatic events, together with the larger-than-life characters who made our political history, have provided material for great journalism.
More than most journalists, I suggest, those reporting politics really can claim to be writing the first draft of history. Just think about some of the events covered by the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery since Federation. The creation of a nation in the early years - all the institutions from a defence force to the High Court - for a start. The decisions, debates and disagreements involved in two world wars. (Due to John Curtin’s frankness, a dozen or so senior journalists in the Gallery were said to know more about the secret history of World War II than members of Parliament.) There was the Great Depression and the political dramas it created. Epic battles over conscription,bank nationalisation and an attempt to ban the Communist Party. Political party splits. The rise and fall of leaders. The dismissal of the Whitlam government. And so on. And on.
I want to be optimistic about the future of political journalism and the Press Gallery if for no other reason than that its past shows that it really matters. But I have to say I’m not as optimistic as I’d like to be.
Through all the years since Federation, the relationship between the press and the politicians has been tense and adversarial, which is the way it should be. My favourite anecdote about this is from the late Clem Lloyd’s book, Parliament and the Press. It involves a novel twist on the art of spin, and it dates back to 1901 - the first year of Federation.
Sir William Lyne, Home Affairs Minister in the Barton Cabinet, boasted of how he fooled a Sydney Morning Herald journalist named W.R. Pratt, who - according to Lloyd - was known as "a very determined and successful ferret".
Lyne said: "We held a Cabinet meeting in Sydney to discuss proposals which, for the time being, we were anxious to keep secret. How was I to outwit Pratt? When he came to see me I told him what the Government had decided to do, truthfully revealing every important fact. Next morning there was not a word of my statement in Pratt’s paper. He knew me and disbelieved all I had told him."
In other words, Lyne knew that Pratt knew he was a liar. So he conned the pressman by telling the truth, knowing that Pratt would assume he was lying. The story says so much about politics and the media, doesn't it? Even the truth can be used to deceive. And poor old Pratt must have felt like a real prat.
For 111 years Australia's federal politicians and members of the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery have been matching wits. The politicians have used every trick they know to try to control what the journalists report and how they report it. Gallery members have used every trick they know to get behind the spin and try to dig out things the politicians want to keep hidden.
But the bottom line is that the two groups have needed each other. Journalists have needed politicians because of the news they create and the information they can provide. The politicians have needed the media to get their message to voters, and to provide feedback from the electorate. As someone once said, a symbiotic relationship - "like the great apes that sit around and pick the fleas off one another".
That relationship, however, is now changing. In an internet era that is fragmenting the media as we’ve known it and making new communications technology easily and cheaply available to anyone—including politicians, parties and political interest groups-- the Press Gallery’s role seems set to decline, which obviously has implications for the health of our political system.
A month or so ago, a Press Gallery journalist reported the name of the Canberra hotel where Kevin Rudd stays when Parliament is in session. A Labor MP commented to me at the time that journalists might need to be a bit more careful about this sort of thing in the future. Rudd, he pointed out, can be sensitive about his privacy - and had the means to retaliate, if he wanted to, by publishing information that would breach the privacy of the journalist.
There’s no suggestion the former prime minister would do that. But the point is he could. Which signifies a subtle shift in the power balance between politicians and journalists. With 1.1 million Twitter followers, 75,000 Facebook friends, and his own YouTube channel which he knows how to use to considerable effect, Rudd can get information to a substantial audience without having to rely on journalists or media organisations. That includes material that might be considered news.
Other MPs, lacking the advantage of having been prime minister, might not have quite the same Twitter army or Facebook following. Not being the subject of leadership speculation, they might not arouse the same interest. But, in principle, what he can do they can do too.
The underlying message from my discussion with this MP was that modern politicians are assuming journalistic functions. Or at least they have the ability to do so, and increasingly will take advantage of it. In the process they will reduce their reliance on, and the relevance of, those of us in the media who report on politics. A former political staffer puts it this way: "Every politician is now a media entrepreneur." And he adds: "A political party is a media company."
This is something I suggest we haven't thought much about. While a diminishing number of journalists tries to cover the activities of politicians, politicians and political operatives are going to be engaged in do-it-yourself political coverage. DIY journalism. They'll be our competitors, if you like, as well as our subject matter. They'll be providers of news content in various ways, including via mainstream media outlets.
It's not going to happen immediately. The process will be gradual. But it is happening.
As strapped-for-cash media organisations try desperately to do more with less, politicians and political parties will push out their own content with the invitation: "Here is our footage. It's on YouTube and it's high definition. Use it if you want to." With the digitisation wrecking ball continuing to cause havoc and their resources dwindling, media organisations will find themselves less and less able to be proud or principled about this. They'll get to the stage where, if there's content and it's cheap - or, better still, free - they'll grab it.
Like it or not, that's where we're headed. It's already started. Among MPs, Rudd is leading the way. Look at his YouTube channel and you find that some of what he puts there undoubtedly amounts to news content - even if, as you’d expect from any politician really, it's mostly news about himself.
With Labor leadership talk in the air, Rudd goes for a streetwalk and is mobbed. The media wants vision and - What do you know? - one of his staff has filmed the event and vision is available on YouTube. Rudd gives a speech. If it contains something newsworthy, vision is available of that, too. He meets someone interesting, or gets involved in something amusing. Ditto. That the mainstream media has access is one benefit, but also - and perhaps more importantly - Rudd gets to the constituency he wants direct. He goes to a local school then tweets about it. Everyone interested can see the event on YouTube. He talks about China, or health, or any other subject. People with an interest access it on his channel.
Rudd has made no extra investment in staff or equipment. He uses a digital video camera supplied through his normal stationery and fit-out entitlement as an MP, the same kind of laptop that is supplied to all parliamentarians, and software available to any office in Parliament House. Members of his normal staff shoot and edit. Rudd might be the master - the most advanced and media savvy - but any MP or Senator can do the same thing, and gradually they’re getting into it.
For years politicians have searched for ways to go around the media - to avoid the so-called gatekeepers in the Parliamentary Press Gallery and elsewhere and present their message directly to voters. As we all know, John Howard used talkback radio with this in mind. But now the digital revolution has not only knocked down the gates. It has also provided a host of new ways for politicians to reach out to voters. They can present material, including news material, in the way they want it presented, without pesky journalists getting in the way.
And - here's the most important thing - without having to answer questions. The further this goes the less accountability we have in the system.
In the US, half-way through President Barack Obama’s first term, his communications director was taunting members of the Washington press corps that eventually they could be rendered obsolete through the use of presidential messages posted directly onto YouTube and other internet sites. It was no idle threat. And members of the Canberra Press Gallery have as much cause to be worried about it as correspondents covering the White House.
Technology had already reduced the dependence of news consumers on political journalists. As Annabel Crabb said in a speech to the Sydney Institute last year: "Anyone can watch Parliament. Anyone can read press releases. Anyone can read budgets, legislation, Senate reports, inquiry submissions, party platforms. Anyone can listen in online to an interview that a politician gives in Brisbane or Launceston." In other words, courtesy of the internet, anyone anywhere can now go directly to many of the same sources that political journalists use.
Assuming they want to. Apart from genuine politics junkies, most people don’t bother, of course. But bloggers, tweeters, others in what is sometimes called the fifth estate now readily access, interpret and report on a massive amount of political information that was once the Press Gallery's domain. Ort the domain of professional journalists.And if something unusual happens, a whole lot of news consumers will go on line and check it out personally. Julia Gillard’s "sexism and misogyny" speech showed that.
The Press Gallery no longer has a monopoly over much of its source material. And now technology is reducing the dependence of politicians on what we do as well.
Sidestepping political journalists is getting easier and easier, at a time when - like all in the news media - they are facing growing pressures and uncertainty. Malcolm Tucker, the foul-mouthed Scottish spin doctor from the TV show The Thick Of It, got things pretty right. He said: "These are hard times for print journalists. I read that on the internet. One day you’re writing for the papers, the next you’re fucking sleeping under them."
The Thick Of It is a comedy, but there's nothing funny about what’s happening to newspaper journalists in real life. Or to broadcast journalists, for that matter. Talk to those news people who no longer have jobs at the Ten Network. We’ve seen it coming for a while, but 2012 was the year when the grim reality hit home. The loss of an estimated 1055 journalism jobs. An annus horribilis was the royal phrase Mark Colvin chose to describe it in his Andrew Olle lecture last month. And it's obvious to everyone that worse is yet to come. Probably much worse.
Philip Meyer, author of "The Vanishing Newspaper", put it starkly when he wrote that the Internet effect is as disruptive to today's media "as Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type was to the town criers, the journalists of the 15th century."
Political reporting has not been spared. Jobs in the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery have been disappearing too. You could fire a canon in several of the once-crowded offices there and not hit anyone. Malcolm Turnbull calls it "the shrinking Press Gallery", and there's every reason to believe that the shrinking will continue for a while yet.
When I gave an address last year about the future of journalism I referred to an overseas trend towards more predictable news presented in more uniform formats in the name of efficiency and economy. This had been dubbed "McJournalism" or "bite-sized McNugget journalism", and I expressed concern that tomorrow's Press Gallery might find itself serving up journalistic Happy Meals.
Now, following the 2012 shake-up and all the redundancies, we're starting to get a better idea of how digitisation, convergence and the rest of it will affect the Canberra Press Gallery and the reporting of politics. In that same speech - my 2011 Andrew Olle lecture - I spoke about how White House correspondents complained that they were becoming no more than wire service reporters. Recently one of the senior political correspondents in Canberra used exactly those words to me. "We’re just wire service reporters now."
According to this person, in the new era where material has to be constantly updated and replaced on line, it is getting to the point where correspondents in the Gallery no longer have time to do the original work or produce the thoughtful analysis they used to. They can't take the time needed for proper investigation of a subject. "We’re constantly running, just doing the routine stuff."
It's the same story you see throughout the media - fewer journalists with fewer resources chasing more news. "Do more with less" is the catchcry. One consequence is that the PR industry is becoming stronger as news organisations become weaker. As far as political journalism is concerned, that means spin will become more powerful and pervasive.
More fundamentally, to get back to my central theme, groups from outside journalism and the media will see in this situation both a need and an opportunity to move in and become content providers themselves.
Corporations are already doing it. Qantas, for example, is setting up its own newsroom, including a full-time videographer. News content about the airline will be produced - obviously in a way most favourable to Qantas - and offered to media outlets. The assumption is that the battling mainstream news media, short of staff, will be eager to use content that Qantas provides. And if they don't, people will be able to access it in other ways via the internet anyway.
Qantas has a particular incentive because the ability to control how operational incidents are reported is important to an airline. Once an inaccurate story is out, it’s very difficult to reel it back in. The first story is the killer. Qantas wants to be in a position - with its own newsroom team and television live cross capability - to make sure the first version that reaches the public whenever an operational incident occurs is the Qantas version.
The same kind of argument for getting into the news business can be applied to those engaged in politics, or to organisations that are set up by interest groups to influence politics. And it’s not hard. All you need is a laptop, fifty bucks for a video camera, and you're away.
Lachlan Harris, prime ministerial press secretary under Rudd who now runs the consumer advocacy organisation One Big Switch, said in a speech at Macquarie University recently that he had no doubt political parties as well as groups such as the Business Council of Australia and GetUp would become retailers of news in the new media world. Blogs, tweets, email newsletters, podcasts and YouTube channels were early stages of the process, Harris said. But there would be full-blown news services eventually.
This was his prediction about timing. "I believe it is likely that, by the end of the decade, both major political parties in the US and Australia will, partially or fully, fund comprehensive news services."
I don’t know if things will move that quickly, but they could. A Lachlan Harris equivalent on the other side of politics says that, by the time the 2024 election rolls around, parties will get more value out of money spent setting up a newsroom than from spending the same amount on political advertising. For the moment, TV advertising - specifically negative advertising - is still king, as the US presidential campaign showed. But that will change as financial pressures on conventional media increase. Also, he says, there is an increasing number of young people who never watch television. "In 10 years time they'll be voting, and I don't think their behaviour is going to change," he says.
It would cost The ALP or the Liberals very little to turn the material they already gather and the research they already do and the media appearances their spokespeople already make into news bulletins that they themselves, or associated groups, can put on a website or whack up on YouTube or disseminate in other ways. Running your own TV channel on the net is only going to get easier.
A senior Liberal, discussing the future of political journalism, said to me recently: "There’s going to be a diffusion of sources. Eventually, instead of five TV networks and a couple of newspapers in each city, you’re going to have the rudiments of that plus 50 or 100 other providers of various kinds." And he agreed the Liberal Party and the ALP will be among them, doing their own thing alongside the Press Gallery.
A final illustration of what I’m talking about…
In recent years there has been occasional discussion among Government staffers about the idea of Labor producing its own chat show after Question Time every day. A couple of backbenchers would sit down in front of a camera with, say, leader of the House Anthony Albanese, and they’d discuss - in a light, chatty way - what happened in the chamber, what messages the Government got across, where and how it scored over the Opposition, and so on. There’s no reason it won't happen. Watch out David Speers!
So, this is the kind of thing we can look forward to. There’ll be no pretence of objectivity or balance. It will all be unashamedly partisan. But that doesn't mean there won’t be an audience. A lot of journalism these days is heavily opinionated. In fact, it's often claimed we've got more of an opinion cycle than a news cycle. And it's clear many people like a forceful, opinionated approach - preferably one that reflects, even reinforces, their own views. In the US these days it's the right wing Fox News and the left liberal MSNBC that are the successful cable news networks, not middle-of-the-road CNN.
I notice, incidentally, that a University of Washington researcher has developed a browser app that enables you to monitor the level of partisan news you consume on line. That's another sign of things to come.
The emergence of politically partisan, even ideological, news outlets with their own committed audiences would be perfectly in synch with what's been happening on the Internet for some time. While it was once assumed that the Internet would help the democratic process by providing broad, diverse forums for discussions, there is concern now that it can actually narrow discussion and produce what American legal scholar Cass Sunstein, calls "group polarisation". He wrote about it in the Boston Review in an article headed "The Daily We".
Sunstein argued that television networks, newspapers, magazines and the like "expose people to a wide range of topics and views and at the same time provide shared experiences for a heterogeneous public". They are, in effect, public forums "where people will frequently come across materials that they would not have chosen in advance" but which might influence their thinking. On the Internet, however, "many people tend to choose like-minded sites and like-minded discussion groups" - or have such choices made for them. Google News offers to select stories for you that best represent your interests. Other aggregators offer similar personalised filtering. The result, again in Sunstein's words, is "numerous small republics of like-minded individuals" insulated from alternate views.
Sunstein writes that "a well-functioning system includes a kind of public sphere, one that fosters common experiences, in which people hear messages that challenge their prior convictions and in which citizens can present their views to a broad audience". But, he says, there are serious dangers in a situation where newspapers, magazines and TV networks are weakened and the internet increases the ability of groups with distinctive identities to wall themselves off from topics and opinions that they would prefer to avoid. Among those dangers is that group members move one another toward more extreme points of view.
It is hard to disagree with Sunstein's analysis of what is happening, or with his conclusion. It has huge implications for social cohesion; huge implications for the democratic process. Democracy relies on an informed citizenry. You don’t have that if there is no common platform for discourse - provided until now, at least, by the mainstream media - and if people isolate themselves in "small republics" where opinions and information contrary to their pre-existing viewpoints don't penetrate.
It also has implications for political journalism. All that stuff about fairness and objectivity is not going to mean much to people who want to live in their own little world, hearing and reading only material that they agree with or which reinforces their prejudices. In this context, the idea of people getting their news about politics from political operatives or activists assuming a similar role to journalists will seem perfectly natural.
There is another side, though. Something that provides hope for the future. Consider this.
On the day before the American presidential election, an astonishing 20 per cent of The New York Times' online traffic went to Nate Silver’s blog, FiveThirtyEight. Silver is a statistician who developed a system for tracking polls and making projections. FiveThirtyEight is about rigorous analysis of politics, polling and public affairs, largely based on statistics. Not much is sexy about it. There are a lot of graphs. Yet it attracted one in five visitors to the most trafficked news site in the US.
Philip Meyer has said there will always be an "educated, opinion-leading news junkie core" that will want what he calls "evidence-based journalism". But I don’t believe hard-core news junkies account for Silver's popularity. That kind of response suggests that, despite the rapid growth of the opinion cycle, there is still a large appetite for fact-based journalism. Perhaps even a bit of a swing back from a desire for opinion to a desire for facts. Some political pollsters seem to back this up.
In July an American pollster, David Winston, who has Republican Party connections but did not work for Mitt Romney in the campaign, was quoted by the Columbia Journalism Review. He said issues of central concern to voters were being treated in the media as no more than a sideshow, and added "This coverage makes it difficult for voters to decide whom they want to give the responsibility of governing to." Winston did not actually say this was the message from voters in his polling, but it was implied.
In Australia, the Liberal Party’s pollster, Mark Textor, took up the same cause a few weeks ago in a column in The Financial Review. He attacked what he called the "practice of comment on comment" in the media and ridiculed TV panellists who "make money by chewing up simple issues and spitting out increasingly nuanced analysis at an ever accelerating rate". Voters, Textor said, want simple, unfiltered information and are looking to the traditional media to do better. "They nominate as an example the excellent print coverage typically given to budgets. Yet only once a year, it seems, do publications devote real resources to the detailed examination of facts."
Textor added: "Voters lack basic information they need to form considered opinions... Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott have both had their true positions on issues obfuscated by gratuitous commentary... Voters want real experts talking to them. They don't want more opinions on opinions." Voters are in desperate need of compelling primary information, Textor said, and he quoted from focus groups to back his argument.
Is there any other evidence of an appetite for facts rather than opinion? Well, some people point to the continued high ratings of television news programs. They argue that, despite all the criticism of TV news, it is still fundamentally about telling stories and getting facts across to viewers. It's not about opinion.
There's also an unorthodox argument that I find persuasive. A practitioner of the dark art of spin, whose views I respect, said when we discussed this recently: "Look at the 2010 election campaign. That was a spin campaign, and people didn't buy it on either side. They were screaming 'We want someone to tell us what's happening. We want facts.' Neither of the parties was giving that to them." It can be argued - and it was argued fiercely in the blogosphere at the time - that the media wasn’t doing the job either.
There has been a fair bit of debate about this sort of thing in the US in the last month, following the presidential election. Journalists and commentators who predicted a Romney win on the basis of "gut feeling" or who tipped a close result in a misplaced striving for balance have been criticised for not making proper use of data, as Silver did. In other words, for not relying on fact.
I saw a delicious comment that coverage on American cable networks had "a snake-eating-its-own-tail quality". You see a bit of that here, too. Another critic of the US media's performance in the election said: "It is not the job of political correspondents, pundits and commentators to sit around tables and predict elections in the same way that retired athletes get to make a living by speculating about the outcome of sporting competitions." Does anyone suggest we don’t see a lot of that in Australia these days?
If the market for fact really is holding up against the march of opinion it can only be good for journalism - particularly for political journalism. This should be our raison d'etre anyway. It requires, though, that members of the Press Gallery resist the lure of the opinion cycle and the temptation to make "gut" judgements. To go back to what happened in the last election campaign - if people don’t want spin, then they won't want it from journalists any more than from politicians.
And certainly a concentration on providing facts - simple unfiltered information - would be a real point of difference in the coming contest with the new kind of political journalists - the ones who’ll be players in the political game reporting on themselves and using the media access that technology has given them to push their own political interests.
As I said, I want to be optimistic about the future of my craft and particularly the field I’ve specialised in. And every now and again I read something that kicks my optimism along.
Amid all the gloom and doom after the Fairfax job losses, Katharine Murphy - who does the live politics blog The Pulse - produced a piece that did just that. She wrote: "I find myself increasingly energised by the fantastic journalism I can now consume online from the best media outlets in the world... These days I hoover up blogs in London, New York and Washington, scour the American political website Politico (one of the great success stories of this period), admire the methodical journalism of ProPublica, watch live politics coverage on The Guardian and New York Times, and use Twitter as a brilliant aggregator as well as a breaking news channel in its own right. These options at my fingertips provide daily overage with such authority, clarity and technical innovation it’s hard to conclude decisively that we’ve entered end times."
I was cheered by that. I go through much the same routine as Katharine every day and feel much the same way about it. Digital technology has done a heck of a lot to enrich and enliven journalism, even as it undermines the economics of the system that has sustained it until now.
I was cheered, too, by the journalism I saw during the judging process for the Walkley Awards. The industry might have been in turmoil, but the number of entries did not fall away and the standard was high. When you see among the finalists such names as Hedley Thomas, Kate McClymont, Richard Baker, Nick McKenzie, Sarah Ferguson, Mark Simkin and Chris Uhlmann you have to be encouraged. Despite all the difficulties, Australian journalists are still producing very high quality work.
I'm also reassured by the added richness that I think social media and the blogosphere are bringing to political journalism. Some bloggers bring special expertise to the table. Some are thoughtful and perceptive writers. As Greg Jericho points out in his excellent book 'The Rise of the Fifth Estate', when it comes to research bloggers can often do a better job than journalists because they have more time. That’s especially the case as the mainstream media steps up attempts to do more with less. And bloggers and tweeters provide a red-hot fact-checking service. If you get something wrong as a journalist you find out about it very quickly these days.
The professionals and the amateurs (American academic Jay Rosen talks about "pro-am" journalism) complement each other. Jericho is absolutely right when he says at the end of his book, that the combination has created a better coverage of politics for those who seek it.
So it's not all bad news. And, like Katharine Murphy, I’m not prepared to say we’ve entered end times. We have entered hard times, though, and there’s no point being Pollyanna-ish about it.
A worrying issue that you’re all well aware of is what happens to investigative journalism, accountability journalism, in the situation we’re facing? With media organisations getting smaller and poorer, how will it be funded? News Ltd and Fairfax are still doing quite a bit, but it’s obviously getting harder to sustain. And without this kind of journalism the health of our political system would certainly be under threat. The search for answers is on...and there don’t seem to be any easy ones.
In the UK, a House of Lords committee looked at the idea of public subsidies for investigative journalism, but decided it would be inappropriate because of the "strong independent character" of the British press. The same argument would apply here, if you take seriously the debate that followed release of the Finkelstein report earlier this year.
The idea of philanthropic support for quality media has more going for it. An outstanding example of this is Pro Publica, a non-profit US corporation backed principally by the Sandler Foundation, which has already won a couple of Pulitzer Prizes for national reporting and investigative journalism. Also in America, the Ford Foundation has awarded a two-year grant worth more than $1 million to the Los Angeles Times for the hiring of reporters.
In Australia we have seen the establishment of The Global Mail, backed by Wotif entrepreneur Graham Wood. The Finkelstein Inquiry suggested that tax deductibility should be considered for philanthropic donations to news ventures, and shadow Communications Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has said there would be merit in considering it for non-profit newspapers or online ventures - as long as they "committed to a code of conduct analogous perhaps to that subscribed to by the ABC".
Turnbull also said, though, that the coalition at the moment is looking at ways to cut expenditure, not provide new tax breaks. And there’s a much more serious problem in my view. The US has a tradition of philanthropy, but that’s not the case in Australia. In fact, Australia has one of the lowest per capita rates of philanthropic donation in the developed world. I don’t see philanthropy solving the problem.
Then, of course, there's the ABC. The public broadcaster is seen by many as the big hope of the side when it comes to the survival of investigative reporting and quality journalism. If the rest of the media is fragmented and broke, the assumption is that Auntie will still be there, still with a comprehensive news coverage and programs like Four Corners and 7.30 and Foreign Correspondent pumping out quality journalism and investigating their hearts out. In this scenario the ABC would be much more important than it is now. It would be much more powerful.
A senior Labor politician summed it up in a conversation we had about what I proposed to say in this lecture. He said: "To state the bleeding obvious, you require a safety net. The safety net is the public broadcaster for the foreseeable future. It’s now more seriously required than ever as the private business models for the rest of the media collapse."
Malcolm Turnbull seems to have a similar view. In his Melbourne University speech - titled "The Future of Newspapers - Is It the End of Journalism?" - he said: "The ABC’s importance in Australian news and journalism grows apace - partly because the rest of the industry which is funded by diminishing advertising dollars is in decline”. He added: “It is far from perfect, but it does have an obligation to be balanced which it takes seriously."
But many of Turnbull's Liberal colleagues don't agree that the ABC takes the balance obligation seriously. They're convinced there’s an anti-conservative mind-set. I'm not at all sure that a coalition government would sit idly by while the ABC became the one media super-power in the nation. In fact, I'm pretty sure it wouldn't.
If that situation loomed, you could certainly expect a debate over whether the ABC should be forced to introduce the kind of paywalls commercial media companies are either introducing or contemplating. That would reduce the national broadcaster’s advantage in the new media environment.
It's likely there'd also be a debate over whether government should provide funding for accountability journalism via grants to battling commercial media organisations, instead of putting all its eggs in the ABC basket. Which brings us back to the House of Lords proposal. It would seriously test the contention about a fiercely independent media being opposed to accepting government handouts.
As I said, not end times… but hard times.
Here's something to think about, though. The last time the Walkley Awards were held in Canberra was in 1990, at a lunchtime function at the National Press Club. Julia Gillard is not attending tomorrow night's awards, but in 1990 the then Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, came along and gave a speech. Here's how he started…
"At face value, it’s not exactly the best time to be a journalist. “Financial difficulties” is hardly an adequate phrase for an industry where two out of three TV networks are in receivership; where the Fairfax chain is in receivership; where News Corporation has its own share of debt problems, where commercial radio and some regional media are struggling...
"Unfortunately many employees, including journalists, have paid the price, with their jobs, for their employers’ mistakes and those still in the industry are having to do more with less, as financial resources available for news gathering dry up…."
Sound familiar? Déjà vu all over again.
Hawkie continued: "I am not trying to put any false gloss on what have been traumatic events for the news industry over the past couple of years. Jobs have been lost, outlets have been closed, programs have been axed, and editorial budgets have been trimmed."
I Googled that speech, and I read it, and I thought… well, at least it shows that we've survived hard times before.
And that is about as hopeful as I can be.
Except to say that, if things continue to deteriorate and we find ourselves with nowhere else to use our journalism skills down the track, at least we can go into politics.
Laurie Oakes is Chair of The Walkley Advisory Board and Chief Political Correspondent for the Nine Network