Sunday, February 21, 2010

The shape of the new...s

I don't know why, but this past week seems to have resulted in something of a revelatory moment for some of the leading op-ed writers in the news papers that the probligo reads in a week.

First, and most directly, came Tracy Barnett.
Our priorities are whacked.

We will stop to read about one Haitian man found alive after 27 days, yet stories on ten of thousands of other survivors won't see the light of day more than two months out of this news cycle.

You may read about the United States choosing to cut funding to the manned space programme, but how many of us have even heard about the 32 new planets that have just been discovered this past October?

We jumped up and down about John Key having shares in a uranium mining company this week. Yet we spent relatively tiny amounts of media focus on Key's proposal the same week to mine our national parks, though the decision to do so may have decades-long consequences on the perception of our country's brand and the scars it may inflict on a precious resource, our national parks.

The nature of the beast, right? New will always trump important.

But it was only after I returned home from a self-imposed news blackout for a month (which I highly recommend) over the summer holidays that something hit me that I never expected.

My profession suck at what they do. Let me be very specific. Commentators, pundits, columnists, people like me who get their little heads put in a box on the left side of the story, are myopic sheep - on a good day.

She concludes -
You don't notice it when you're a daily reader. But when I returned to it with fresh eyes, I saw entire waves of news narratives that felt hopelessly unimportant to any sane man's idea of the big picture.

Around Christmas, Barack Obama was the compromising statesman buried in the whitewater of political reality, but pushing through. Most thought some form of the healthcare legislation was "likely" to pass and he had a chance at being the only president since Lyndon Johnson to get something, anything, done on the issue.

Cut to six weeks later: One former naked Cosmo centrefold gets elected as a Republican senator from Massachusetts and the whole narrative changed overnight - not just on healthcare either. The new dog-pack mantra for February: Obama's presidency is toast.

Last week's Listener teased an otherwise excellent article by Jon Johansson with, "As President Obama stands on the precipice of failure just one short year after his resounding presidential victory ..." like he was God's American Idol contestant just spat out by Simon Cowell.
You can blame editors for trying to pull in eyeballs by deferring to the new. But commentators don't have that excuse.

We have a huge luxury. Our job should be to pull back and describe the entire landscape, not just the dog poop on the corner.

Who really loses this battle? All of us, because we start to see the world like its one continuous action movie.

We get so sucked into the vortex of the endlessly hungry daily news machine, we begin to think every story is about the fight, not the resolution. Suddenly our job becomes declaring momentary winners and losers.

Which begs the question, how many commentators do you read that don't chain themselves to the weekly news cycle and truly look above the parapet?

If you find them, let me know. Because that kind of bigger vision deserves everybody's focus.

All of which prompted the probligo to write the editor in the following terms-

“Calloo! Callay! Oh frabjious day!” as Lewis Carroll might well have said. At last there is a journalist, an op-ed writer, Tracey Barnett saying exactly what I have been trying to get through the Herald’s reader panel for about the past three years now.

Take as an example this morning’s front page. It covers –

- Bill English talking down the prospective top tax rate; old news from the last week and more.

- A woman whose treatment at the hands of the “Justice system” deserves front and centre.

- Bill English’s wife in an action against the Medical Council and abortion counseling. What is it with Bill English this morning?

If I were putting the page together, it would have –

- The second of those two, for sure.

- Britain’s “threat” to Israel over Mossad’s use of British passports. They could well have been NZers too!

- Changes to the regulatory processes in NZ investment markets.

It will be interesting to see if Herald ever follows the suggestions Tracey Barnett has made.

No, I will not hold my breath on that last sentence. But it has not stopped there either. In this morning's Sunday Star Times Rosemary McLeod asks the question "Is [a celebrity's] love life any of our business?"
THOSE WHOM the gods wish to destroy they first make pretty, obviously, and turn into newsreaders.

Then they set bold and brave young journalists onto them to find out who they're sleeping with. What could be more important in a world of so many catastrophes and disasters?

Alison Mau was formerly famous for being half of a novelty salt-and-pepper set of newsreaders with her equally pretty husband, Simon Dallow. Now she's famous because she left him and apparently has a girlfriend. And I don't care what this probably uninteresting woman does with her, or to her. I don't care if they do it while listening to Mahler's Ninth, or if they put on silly wigs and play the Ronettes in the background. It's none of my damn business, and none of yours, either.

She might also have used as examples the Beckhams, the Woods, the Clintons, and for the really petty minded any of the strange people who inhabit the most southwesterly city in the US.

Her conclusion, coming from that fairly constrained beginning -
I dislike the way we live vicariously through these marketed tales of other people's lives, collectively creating identities that bear little relation to the banal or possibly ugly truth, and I detest what it means about the evolving practice of journalism.

We've entered an era when sniffing around celebrities' clotheslines is considered an acceptable way to earn a living as a reporter, and where there's plenty of money to pay photographers for harassing people in their day-to-day lives because of their public profile, not because what they do really matters.

I wouldn't mind so much if at the same time serious investigative journalism was going on, about stuff that really matters.

Have we really reached a point where news of an actress's weight gain, or newsreaders' love lives, matter more than examining the power structures of the world we live in, and exposing the genuinely powerful people who abuse our trust?

For every one of these fake "stories" there's a sharp lawyer working overtime, using our stifling libel laws to stop the truth coming out about someone who really deserves exposure. That is the true scandal we should be thinking about. That's what we ought to mean by public interest.

To that end, the SST has this story well hidden on the front page of the business section -
KIWISAVER PROVIDER Huljich Wealth Management has been slammed for misleading investors after admitting using related party transactions to manipulate its investment performance.

The firm's managing director, Peter Huljich, described the transactions as "compensation" for poor investments that made little difference to fund performance figures, but Morningstar analyst Chris Douglas said the effect was a major distortion of fund returns.

Instead of reporting a -0.74% return for its Conservative fund for the year to March 2009, Douglas said the transactions allowed Huljich to report a return of 7.39%. For the Balanced fund the deals improved returns from -8.8% to -1.4%, and for the Growth fund from -12.55% to -3.68%.

"It's a massive difference, quite frankly," he said.

"For an investor who's looking at past performance it has a huge bearing on their impression and interpretation of those funds."

Late on Thursday Huljich issued a statement confirming allegations revealed in the Sunday Star-Times two weeks ago that Peter Huljich used his own money to boost the performance of Huljich KiwiSaver funds. The deals occurred in the year to March 2008 after the funds suffered losses on an investment in the float of Diligent Board Member Services, of which Peter Huljich was a director, and the following year after unexplained losses from inadequate diversification.

And does that story feature in the most read 15 stories on the webpage (and probably on paper as well)?


UPDATE - 28/2/10

On Thursday, dear old Garth (D.O.G.) George got his knickers all in a knot over the comments made by Barnett and McLeod's outburst, pointing out just how wrong they were, and springing to the defence of journalists everywhere. He completely ignored the fact that the time and money required to do any investigative work is allocated by Editors and other managers. He spent most of his column pointing out the difficulties being experienced by the news media - the press in particular - as a result of competition for readers' attention from the likes of the internet, dumb television programmes etc etc.

In fact he sounded quite old and wind-baggy; rather likes yours truly sometimes.

In this morning's SST Gareth Morgan gets stuck into the Huljich affair.
Peter Huljich has admitted to manipulating returns figures. What he did was tell lies about his performance in order to instil confidence in prospective investors in the Hiljuch KiwiSaver funds. As such, in my opinion, he is totally unfit to be a KiwiSaver provider. The only issue really from here is whether the regulators between them have the gonads to deal with him appropriately. So far they have demonstrated a decided lack of bottle. And we wonder why New Zealanders have so little confidence in our financial markets.

When it is possible to manipulate figures and get away with it like this, New Zealanders are absolutely rational to shun our capital markets. They are not free markets at all, they are stacked in favour of men such as Huljich.

Consider this reported comment last week.

"Managing director Peter Huljich said the clarifications did not alter the scheme's overall top-ranking with research house Morningstar, although it did affect two of the funds' rankings." (Dominion Post, February 20, 2009).

The point being that the dearth of investigative reporting is not just due to journalists, or the lack of funding from employers as pointed out by Barnett and McLeod; it is not just due to the need to provide what the market wants as D.O.G. points out. Between the two we end up with all of our major news media serving up the usual mix of smaltz and spritzer out of the womens' magazines. Stories that are worth the salt are usually buried in the "specialist" pages, well away from the light of day.

The biggest fault lies in society itself; when matters of local to international importance are merely noted, whilst the various mistresses of a "person of current fame" are given personal in-depth interviews with accompanying commentary.

Because that is what "the market" wants to hear.

Garth you are right, but no more so than Barnett and McLeod. It is all the same pie.

1 comment:

Eugene Tan said...

The Probligo is bitchy today.