On January 31, 2018, I celebrate half a century as a scribe, albeit in different directions and with different perspectives during 50 years. I say celebrate advisedly as while I experienced many trials and tribulations as a writer, with an assortment of appellations as journalist, publicist, researcher and currently, editor of my own online magazine The Femmosexual, I am still writing and even being published occasionally in the media.
As I reflect on these past decades, my recollections are inevitably shaped by my personal experience; however as I endeavour to understand what’s changed or not in that time, my perusal of many books, articles and journals about writing, the media and PR among other things, all contribute to my present opinions about the scenario as a scribe.
It was only about six weeks into my journalism cadetship in March 1968 that I first realised about the propaganda of the press, when a published letter to the editor of the opposition newspaper to the one I worked on nearly had me sacked, not for writing the letter, but it’s political nature. This experience underpinned my appreciation about the media since and certainly in 2018. Many journalistic pundits postulate about objectivity, impartiality, balance and fairness in reportage, damning ‘fake news’ as antipathetic to ethical journalism and implying ‘misinformation’ contradicts journalism per se and is dangerous to democratic values and social and psychological well-being. Many adherents of this attitude believe these stories, mostly online it’s alleged, via Facebook and other websites, imperil our lives by inspiring potential terrorists with venomous, hateful diatribes and downright mistruths; lies well-written ensnaring unsuspecting innocents into beliefs and choices contrary to the public good. This seems particular to the Russian conspiracy theory that believes ‘fake news’ was deliberately posted online to influence the outcome of the 2016 American presidential election. Robert Mueller’s investigation will verify or refute that belief. Moreover, consequent of the fear generated by the proliferation of ‘fake news’ in social media, Facebook has employed 10,000 checkers to eradicate these stories from its website; blatant censorship that I find far more frightening than the stories themselves.
So is there a difference between ‘fake news’, misinformation, propaganda and supposed ethical journalism that I confronted 50 years ago? How can readers ever really know what’s a “real” story compared to fictitious make-believe? A letter to The Australian on Tuesday, January 30, raised that exact issue; Peter Rendle of Carlingford, NSW, wrote: “How do readers differentiate between authentic news and that provided by foreign powers to destabilise Western society?” Past media history attests to the reality of fake news with journalists fabricating facts to fan their fame and/or fortune, one such story was published in the pages of the prestigious New York Times which garnered a Pulitzer Prize in journalism. Shortly thereafter, the story was exposed as ‘fake’. There was also the female writer who was initially awarded the Miles Franklin Award in Australia for her non-fiction book about a young migrant woman which she later admitted was totally fictitious.
More significantly, albeit more subversively perhaps, is the journalistic manipulation of stories by selecting and/or jettisoning certain facts to manifest a perspective that the journalist, either consciously or unconsciously, wants to convey. This process, as well as the choice of interviewees, is inextricably part of traditional journalistic practice as I experienced it and continue to read it, inadvertently perhaps contributing to news that is as ‘fake’ and misleading as any conscious, fictitious creation. The concern and assurances of Facebook to ‘cleanse’ fake news and malevolent messages, pressured by who knows who, is an anathema to me, despite censorship always being part of media practice despite western idealists cherishing some unrealistic notion of a free press. While some of my recent articles have been published, what is more pertinent is what hasn’t been published, presumably because my perspective does not align with the newspapers’. Censorship is just as alive and well and thriving as it’s always been; the difference as I understand it is that it’s currently justified by believing it’s for the public good. This is frighteningly not dissimilar to censorship practised in totalitarian countries and even in Nazi Germany where my studies enlightened me about the power of propaganda albeit well-disguised and well-orchestrated. The sin of omission, a not so subtle substitute for censorship, is exactly that, testified by my own experience and my education, travels and reading.
First reading about the military junta in Greece in the mid-late 60s, the books, music and intellectual ideas ‘outlawed’ by its governing elite was also the modus operandi of Franco’s fascist Spain when I lived there in the mid-70s, further reinforced more recently by a Chinese dissident who claimed that his government could only accept people saying “nice things and agreeable words”. Horrifyingly for me, it seems many of my articles, even letters for which I do not receive any pay, are similarly excluded or censored because they do not ‘fit’ comfortably with the publishers’ political agenda. A conspiracy of control is as much an aspect of Australia as China, Russia and many other countries. The reality is that in some of these countries it’s more obvious and blatant where journalists are either murdered because of their dissent and/or exposure of corrupt or illegal wrongdoings by politicians and governments or else thrown in prison with the keys mistakenly misplaced. I’m just persona non grata; alive thankfully to write on my website and not in prison again. I have dutifully learned to say “nice things and agreeable words” to some people and/or just “shut the fuck up!” I have been silenced in some ways and choose silence sometimes to stay alive and relatively free. So what’s changed?
Over the past few years, there is apparently increasing distrust of the media, argued by many it’s the proliferation of ‘fake news’, misinformation and post-truth journalism engendering this distrust. Yet, the fourth estate has never been top of the list for respect in the professional ranks, particularly compared to doctors and lawyers even 50 years ago. Maybe, it has just become more overt, where Joe Blo’, public citizen, can express his distrust online instead of in private and millions of ordinary people seem in agreement. Social media has united many in one voice internationally while in yesteryear, no one could hear their fellows complain. I’m unsure as to whether this is a 21st century development or simply more in the public spotlight. Distrust of the media is something I was aware of decades ago.
The salient fact is that many working journalists seem reluctant and or unwilling to face the limitations of the media, failing to understand or appreciate its quintessential propaganda imperatives. Be they naïve, ignorant or even delusional, they applaud their professionalism as objective and impartial, regarding ‘fake news’ as a Trumpian diversionary tactic to the main game, without recognising their own prejudices and biases in their fact-gathering, interviewee selection and/or even in the questions they ask and the information they choose to impart. I know because on rare occasions I followed that practice, suffice to say having learned that when I didn’t, I got into ‘trouble’ for actually trying to write the truth instead of what was more convenient, albeit safer!
In the mid 70s in the UK, I read “The First Casualty” by ex-pat Australian journalist, Philip Knightley, a non-fiction account of war reportage from the Boer War to current times. The title of his book comes from a famous quote: “When war comes, the first casualty is truth”, Knightley detailing how governments involved in wars manufactured purposefully and consciously information for the masses. While he called it propaganda in his book, in today’s parlance one could label it ‘fake news’ and misinformation, with sins of omission justified by the need for secrecy to ensure security. I contend that ‘truth’ has never been enshrined by political powers since kingdom come and while the US and even Australia are not “at war” exactly with another country, the international realpolitik dictates a ‘warlike’ mentality in the media with journalists, who while they have media degrees, are abysmally ignorant of how politics is played, even within this country. They also seem ignorant about the nature of journalism and how it has been practised and the potential for abuse throughout history; the “children overboard and Tampa affair” but just one example where the Liberal Government fabricated the facts to win an election. Truth didn’t seem relevant to the dissemination of misinformation when maintaining government was at stake! Fake news is not just a Trump phenomenon or social media malice.
This critique if I may call it that is undoubtedly negative, but there have been positive changes in the media over 50 years especially about and for females. When I started in journalism, the media in Melburbia was about 90 per cent male dominated, today it’s more like 50-50 although males still dominate at the top. Why? This is a hard one for me to answer without real evidence and facts as I don’t know how many female journalists aspire to be editors, foreign correspondents and/or in executive positions, only conjecturing when I peruse newspapers’ roles with mostly males in senior positions. I believe the increase in female numbers studying media and those working in the media have been attracted by a superficial notoriety of stardom, glamour and megabucks whereas the reality is it’s a fuckin’ hard slog, little money comparable to IT, science or business, and with scant respect from the public. Many women I knew just 20 years ago as working journalists jettisoned their jobs for more lucrative and less demanding PR portfolios, with even greater glam glories than being a TV Lisa Wilkinson.
Another positive is the increased number of comment, news and opinion articles about females, highlighting many of the complex issues I tried to write about decades ago with limited success. Certainly, there are diverse views about feminism, equal pay and opportunities, workplace practices, sexual indulgences, social, political, psychological and philosophical attitudes about women of all ages as well as their physical behaviours, needs and misdemeanours publicised more frequently over the past 10 years, attaining prominence, well almost, across media outlets in this country. Similarly, there are many stories about the male experience, problems and issues too, thank goodness. However, what I find sad, even disappointing for wont of better words, is that a gender divide still dominates the dialogue with virtually no focus on being human and what we share in common as males and females, simultaneously acknowledging we are all different irrespective of gender.
While in the 70s females were being implored to be more like men, competitive, aggressive and unemotional, wearing pin-striped suits with big shoulder pads for power-dressing as it was dubbed, the pendulum has apparently swung to the opposite extreme where males are now being encouraged to be more like females; replacing competitive, aggressive and resilient behaviours with more sensitive, caring emotionalism. Let men express their feelings, let them cry, let them stay at home and be house-husbands, more co-operative and collaborative as females are, etc etc…. This 21st century male exhortation is as fallacious as the 70s female focus was; more to the point would be highlighting gender as irrelevant with people, individual and unique humans, able to live and be as they are without social, stereotyped prescriptions putting them in a strait-jacket of any kind. Media articles articulating that more realistic and humanist approach don’t seem to make it into print, certainly not the ones I’ve penned, yet to read any that even raise this as an issue to dissect, dissemble and debate.
Understanding 40 years ago that these stereotypes were inherently “fake news” and misinformation as many women I met were not at all caring, sensitive or kind and many men were not confident, resilient, aggressive or that competitive either, I tried to write about this in my novels, realising depressingly a few years later that publishers did not want a story about women and men that did not conform to the socially-accepted stereotypes of the new, liberated superwomen supported by a strong man; indeed a woman struggling to assert herself despite personal conflicts, insecurities and fears was infra dig. Aware of my strong masculine traits I appreciated they were as much part of me as my sensitive, caring nature, but my out spoken and confident aggressiveness was a threat to the status quo, not that anyone, male or female, would confront that.
However, a female journalist, aged 50 something, wrote an article in The Australian just last week acknowledging she was no longer the person, woman (?) she was in the past; a self-described “workaholic” without empathy, compassion and who was also unkind. She didn’t use the word “bitch” about herself, but way back in the early 80s I actually met and talked to her, forming the opinion she was a nasty snob I didn’t like. She wasn’t a nice person as far as I was concerned, her attitude arrogant, condescending and dismissive. Indeed, working in the media in the UK in the 70s, I met too many women like her as well as many men. Moreover, I have since met, and continue to meet, women like that across all walks of life, likewise men too. According to her article, she is now a very different person, so just how do these stereotypes of caring, kind women persist and resilient, aggressive, strong men? Why are so many psychological professionals and our society generally, still adhering to these invalid and untrue ‘images’ as the basis for supposed understanding? Moreover, the disturbing, underlying implication is that these male and female extremes, opposite by assumption, illustrates an artificial superficiality with no realistic understanding at all about the complex nexus of personal and individual traits innate in most of us as human beings.
In my 30s and 40s I used to jokingly jibe about ‘real’ change coming in the 21st century; all I can say now is maybe in the 22nd century except that I won’t be alive to feel it. I can only hope it happens one day so men and women can genuinely feel as ‘one’ as John Lennon sang in “Imagine”. I make no apology for oft writing about this song as it resonates as one truth I do believe.
It’s a truth that may be fake news and misinformation now, but who knows 50 years on?