Thursday, 14 August 2014

What Nicky Hager's book really exposes

Let's assume that the whole Nicky Hager Dirty Politics story – 100% of it – is true. From the DDOS attack to the leaks, Whale Oil, National - everything.

The takeaway, so far at least, is that National's press secretary used bloggers to release his information. The secretary knew the established media would have to jump through too many hoops for them to get that information published in a timely fashion.

The information might even be verified by journalists and discarded, or edited and changed. Not to mention all the legalities and ethics surrounding reporting. It was clearly too hard and cumbersome to take the normal route. It wasn't worth the risk.

But moving that information through bloggers neatly skirts all that nonsense. Bloggers aren't under any obligations to fact-check their sources and they can't really be touched by traditional media law.

In the blogging world there's no such thing as defamation, and there's no such thing as a filter. Most people know the difference between blogs and news media, but the average punter probably doesn't. And in all seriousness, the line is probably being blurred too much anyway. 

I remember being told at university after a course in media ethics that the class was now part of the 5% of citizens with such knowledge. We all consume news, but how many of us truly know how it is formed? Not many according to the professor.

That's why many in the established media were so dismissive of Cameron Slater winning a journalism award earlier this year. If he wants to play with the big boys, then he's going to have to be subject to the rules. He can't have it both ways.

Then again, what if those rules have changed? Should the established media be playing to his rules? It's simply not clear anymore. The whole scenario with Nicky Hager's book is a microcosm of what's happening to the information world.

We were told at university that communications and media used to controlled by "gatekeepers". A select handful of journalists and press officers who structured the narrative and released information largely when it suited either party, preferably both.

That's why reporting on government scandals is so impressive, because it disregards the agreed structure and moves outside the narrative. Now, with social media and blogs, the power of information dissemination has been pushed down to the average iPhone user or keyboard cowboy. Everyone is running to catch up, trying to deal with this new world order - for want of a better phrase.

Governments around the world have collapsed after less dangerous accusations than Mr Hager's because of those government official's pathetic inability to control the spread of unverified information at the street level.

Normal people without the keys to the narrative traveling on the bus after work have the power to change a story almost at will. For many aspects of our society this is certainly a healthy development, but there's a clear downside as well.

If nothing in the story needs to be vetted by experts or people close to the events - as journalists are supposed to do - then what's stopping the average uninformed person from sharing a blog post to all their friends? And what's stopping them from inventing something and packaging it as truth?

Bloggers come in various shapes, some respect the process of verification of sources and information, but others just want the clicks or pageviews. Still others blatantly fabricate stories for personal or ideological reasons. And some have no filters whatsoever and release information to satisfy anarchic and other political worldviews. The same could be said of the media, but at least with them there were some measured controls.

How can a reader or Internet surfer tell the difference? How can they know the motivation or accuracy of the information?

It wasn't much easier in the past when the system required journalist integrity and coordination with the truth tellers - people had to trust that reporters were reporting the truth (with a lower-case 't' of course). But things have changed so much in the last few years that our very language on this is different.

What does 'news' actually mean anymore? It can't be assumed that what we read is close to the truth. Government press secretaries understand that their information doesn't need to jump through hoops anymore to alter the political atmosphere. Mr Hager's revelations might be complete lies, or they could be entirely accurate, but it doesn't matter. In the calculation of government spin doctors, just getting the words read by people is enough to plant a seed of doubt.

Mr Hager's new book is actually an emerging result of information and power being pushed down by disruptive technologies. The question that matters is how we deal with this new reality and how our critical and important institutions can cope.

The best thing about democracies is not the personalities but our institutions and mindset. We are adaptable, or at least we should be. If our institutions cannot deal with new technologies, then it is our institutions that need upgrading. Because genies don't go back in bottles.

Information, and its control, was an important pillar in Western democracy for centuries. Perhaps the old structure of established media and verified journalism needs to evolve. Then again, perhaps it has. Maybe the Whale Oils of the world are the natural evolution of power being pushed down through society.

Are we happy with that? 

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