The news cycle is now an opinion cycle: Malcolm Turnbull

8 December 2011

Written by: Matthew Smith

‘The fundamentals of journalism have always been the same, and will remain intact,’ said the Shadow Communication Minister Malcolm Turnbull. ‘It needs good design, clear expression and accurate reporting. The delivery methods might change, but the craft will remain the same.’

Turnbull’s lecture to a crowded Basement Theatre at the University of Melbourne was a formulaic ‘paint by numbers’ break down of the state of the journalism industry.

It outlined a predicament that most in the room were likely familiar with: journalism is in troubled times.

A former journalist himself,  Turnbull’s talk was comprehensive and detailed, with occasional glimpses of opinion. He was quick to emphasise the importance he placed on journalism.

‘As a politician, I have a keen interest in the media. Without it, Australia would struggle to remain a free society and democracy.’

Of the current media inquiry, he believed that it would do little harm but not much good. ‘It’s aim is to take a swipe at News Limited, but we shouldn’t be complacent about the lack of phone-hacking in Australian media.’

‘Does the inquiry need to happen at all? We should be looking further into the future. The whale in the bay is the very future of journalism itself.’

Turnbull outlined how newspaper revenues were changing, and that while circulation numbers were dropping, newspapers had more readers than ever thanks to their online audience.

‘Print has declined, while the online readership has exploded. But the problem isn’t a lack of readers, but a lack of revenue.’

This led Turnbull to his main concern, the effect that lower revenue would have on the quality of journalism, and by extension, on Australia.

‘Too many important matters of public interest are either covered superficially or not at all,’ Turnbull said. ‘There is less research and investigation, and this comes at a high cost.’

‘Political journalism is now about the personality and game of politics. Millions of words are written about the soap opera that is Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd. Just as much about Tony Abbott and his budgie smugglers.’

‘What we need is rigorous analysis and cut-through, but that takes time and effort. What we used to call the 24-hour news cycle is now just an opinion cycle. Opinion is cheap, and is changing the nature of what we consider news.’

‘Everyone will obtain the opinions and facts they want to hear, which will support their preconceptions.’

Turnbull refuted a common argument that citizen journalism will make up for any shortfall experienced in the decline of media.

‘We must ask ourselves, is there a risk in this proliferation of opinion that we lose sight of the reasonable point of view in the middle? What sort of democracy would we have if the great newspapers are replaced by a sea of blogs and tweets?’

To demonstrate how much bad journalism can affect politics, Turnbull pointed to the example of the United States.

‘Political coverage in America is overwhelmingly about “the game”,’ Turnbull said. ‘They have a dysfunctional political system in the United States. No matter my opinion of the Gillard government and hung parliaments, we are a lot better off than the U.S.’

While presenting the challenges the media face, Turnbull offered few words of encouragement. ‘I didn’t come here with a range of policies and solutions.’

Instead, he left that responsibility squarely on the shoulders of student journalists in the lecture theatre.

‘I imagine many of you here are students of journalism and no doubt worry that you are stepping into an industry which is about to expire. Well it’s not that bad. You are not signing up as cabin boy on the Titanic’s last voyage.’

‘The young and the enterprising have the chance to take what is enduring – objectivity, accuracy, fearless independence – and build new platforms from which to launch their journalism.’

‘Embrace the brave new world – we are counting on you.’

No pressure, then?

Malcolm Turnbull’s lecture was presented by the Centre for Advanced Journalism at the University of Melbourne.

Matt Smith is a Masters of Global Communications student at La Trobe University, and is upstart’s co-editor. You can follow him on Twitter: @nightlightguy.