Law & Politics

Foxes, hedgehogs and the death of journalism

The age of journalism is gone, managed information processing has succeeded, and the glory of newspapers is extinguished forever.

This shamelessly Burkean paraphrase is my essential argument and it might offend those of my former colleagues who like to see themselves as defenders of the free and democratic press. But the evidence of decline is clear—never more, perhaps, than in the coverage of the recent Victorian state election by the many Murdoch newspaper and television outlets and, increasingly, in the ongoing daily national ABC breakfast television broadcasts. Of these two organisations, more later.

Much journalism is giving way to what I call managed information processing (MIP) – two very different undertakings requiring different mindsets, skills and motivations. 

The core difference between journalists and those engaged in MIP is reflected in Isaiah Berlin’s famous old (1953) meditation on the difference between the fox and the hedgehog. Journalists are foxes; practitioners of MIP are hedgehogs. The values and attitudes of both groups are incommensurable despite an increasing tendency to try to combine the two in the modern media world.

Let’s start with Berlin. The British philosopher’s insight is based on a fragment from the ancient Greek poet Archilochus, who observed that “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”. Berlin divides thinkers and writers into hedgehogs who see the world through the lens of a single defining idea (Plato, Marx) and foxes who see the variety and complexity of the world in all its buzzing, blooming confusion  (Aristotle, Shakespeare).

Berlin acknowledges the classification is too simple but insists that it “offers a point of view from which to look and compare”. Berlin’s hedgehogs and foxes are ideal types. They can overlap and they are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but they are distinct and broadly identifiable even if there are some who perhaps might be called ‘hedgefoxes’.

So why call journalists foxes? At their best and most effective, they are outsiders, observers, voyeurs.  They prowl the margins of society looking to lay waste to its comfortable and poorly protected hen-houses; they run through streets and fields seeking out and accumulating objects and information that intrigue and puzzle them. They are driven by a desire to share how they see and interpret the world within the limits imposed by defamation laws, the biases of their proprietors, and their own prejudices. They do not, at their best, seek to help or to hinder individuals and institutions and interests, but neither do they seek to protect them from being held accountable for their actions. 

Journalists compulsively gather material from personal and institutional contacts, from observations, books, journals, documents, the internet. They ask questions, gather information. They want to know and to communicate ‘the facts’, whatever they are.  The essence of journalism is curiosity, the desire to know and to tell. The method is empirical and sceptical. Like Berlin’s foxes, journalists want and need to know many things, and they can be manic in their pursuit of those things. 

For journalists, the issue is ‘the story’: identifying and highlighting factual confirmable information, explaining, analysing and commenting on it and seeking and publishing expert and interest-group comment and opinion to provide balance and to recognise that there may be multiple attitudes and interests at play in any state of affairs. The journalist, the fox, wants to make these attitudes and interests known and recognised.

The primary idea is to inform—not to persuade—although informing can, and often does, involve persuasion. Journalists do have a “publish and be damned mindset” which helps explain why media organisations employ lawyers to vet and to check material that might attract defamation writs.  The essential commitment of journalism is to the right of readers to know some truths about their society, to penetrate and to expose some realities of social, political and economic institutions, to shine a light into dark or disguised places. 

Of course, there are good and bad journalists.  Some do their job with skill and integrity; some are stupid, careless and corrupt. Most usually write badly (but seem oblivious to it); all are under pressure to ‘beat up’ the ‘story’ to ‘front load’ the arrangement of the information to ‘give it impact’ and to hold the short attention span of busy readers. Accuracy and objectivity are not always the winners once this process gets underway.

So why call journalists foxes? At their best and most effective, they are outsiders, observers, voyeurs.  They prowl the margins of society looking to lay waste to its comfortable and poorly protected hen-houses; they run through streets and fields seeking out and accumulating objects and information that intrigue and puzzle them.

Moreover, journalists, like everybody else, have prejudices, values, biases; so do their editors and proprietors. What the journalist decides or is directed to write about, and what the journalist highlights (or downplays or ignores), will of course depend on his or her ideological mindset.  But however ill-defined, and imperfect, professional journalists will have some concept of fairness that compels them to try to seek ‘balance’ in what they report. Balance of course is a subjective notion.

Consider now managed information processing. Those engaged in MIP are hedgehogs because they know one big thing. The primary activity of those practising MIP is not to inform as objectively as seems possible, but to promote or to represent and advance a viewpoint, an attitude, an interest. These people may be PR consultants, press agents,  corporate and institutional spokespersons, political and departmental media officers, academic or professional experts on subjects about which there is public debate, and other ideologists whose purpose is to argue for a viewpoint in a contentious public issue. These may be entirely legitimate undertakings, but they are not journalism. Their aim is advocacy, influence, persuasion. For the foxy journalists, advocacy, influence and persuasion are unintended consequences of their work; for hedgehogs engaged in MIP, they are the one big reason for what they do.

The method of the MIP is not primarily empirical. Practitioners of MIP do not rely primarily on evidence, experience and observation, but on instinct, belief, faith and logic, however specious it may be. They are not primarily curious sceptics; they are true believers or hired pens. They do not seek the distance of the voyeur. They are insiders, influencers, participants who seek to repair or to burnish reputations, attitudes, opinions and policies to promote and to advance, to control damage.

Practitioners of MIP, focus, hedgehog-like, on the one big thing – the person, the issue, the idea, the object they are promoting. That is their goal and their purpose, their paid professional skill. They do not want or need to know many things and to hold them to the light. The issue for the MIP is the client’s case.  They aim to articulate and arrange carefully selected  and expressed truths designed to conceal or minimise the impact of unpalatable disclosures. Their aim is to ensure that the client’s best foot is put forward. It is to advertise and not to expose. It is, in the dreadful contemporary word, to ‘influence’.

Naturally, as noted earlier, there are overlaps with journalism.  Journalists and those engaged in MIP can and do influence and act on each other.  They are all creatures of commerce; they are not charitable organisations. But it is only journalists who complain that sometimes they have to carry the douche can when they work in the brothel and play the hedgefox role. For practitioners of MIP, that is an entirely acceptable consequence of their activity whether intended or unintended.

The hedgehog-fox dichotomy was glaringly obvious during the recent Victorian election. The Murdoch empire’s coverage of the election was a paradigmatic demonstration of hedgehog behaviour. Murdoch’s newspaper and television outlets acted openly and ruthlessly in a bid to damage, discredit and to destroy the Andrews government and to promote the Liberal leader Matthew Guy. 

Murdoch’s Herald Sun newspaper has been widely criticised for publishing its frequently bizarre front pages, but it was, of course, its right to do so. When Murdoch’s warriors failed to dislodge the government they turned, in their apparent rage, on their own political allies.

The so-called Nine newspapers and other outlets by contrast tried to present a somewhat fairer picture wrapped around advertisements for Harvey Norman, Domayne and various travel companies seeking to seduce Australians to buy computers, couches and cruises in cold Canadian waters. Holidays, computers and mattresses often seem to trump the fates of nations and governments in Nine media, but some useful journalism is still squeezed in occasionally at the margins.

But perhaps most concerning is the propensity of the national broadcaster, the ABC, to find itself squeezed between the demands of fox and hedgehog on its national breakfast television program. The fox appears briefly on the hour when presenters who call themselves journalists read quickly through what passes for news or speak briefly to reporters in foreign and local cities where crime, natural disaster and tragedy can be filmed and described in a few seconds. But the program is dominated by shameless MIP hedgehog propaganda for four groups: women, Aborigines, homosexuals and disabled people. There is nothing wrong with these emphases; all are worthy issues. But they are emphasised relentlessly and uncritically throughout the three-hour program.

Other equally deserving interests barely get a look in. Even the appalling war in Ukraine rarely rates more than a passing superficial reference with a quick image of ruined buildings.

But perhaps nothing illustrates the triumph of MIP at the ABC more than the breakfast program’s treatment of popular cultural issues. The program is pleased to promote every second-rate obscure pop/rock band or actor pitched to them by anonymous press and publicity agents. These agents work behind the scenes to get some free advertising for usually dopey foreign and uninteresting clients about to embark on tours of the dusty watering holes where Australian morons gather at sunset.

What passes for interviews with these ‘guests’ who ‘drop in’ are inevitably exercises in hagiography by drooling star-struck presenters trapped in long-past arrested adolescent development. The program makes no effort to seek out the many fine young musicians at conservatoriums throughout Australia who truly deserve and would value a few minutes to demonstrate their formidable maturing talents on national TV.

And so as journalism ebbs, managed information processing flows in to fill the space, and a free independent and fearless media is gradually extinguished forever.

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Photos by Tadeusz Lakota and Birger Strahl on Unsplash.

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About Geoffrey Barker

Geoffrey Barker is a former European correspondent and Washington correspondent for The Age, and for Murdoch newspapers. He was news editor and later a columnist and a political correspondent for The Age. He was defence and foreign affairs correspondent for the Financial Review and a visiting fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University.

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