If ever we needed proof of the public's complicity in the News of the World debacle, it came on Wednesday when Wendi Deng defended her husband, Rupert Murdoch, against a foam attack.
It was just the thing to distract an easily-bored public from the rigours of a Parliamentary inquiry: the beautiful, much younger wife sitting stoically by her husband, pouring him a glass of water, stroking his back, and then inflicting a fierce blow upon the interloper who tries to land a plate of foam in his face.
This incident should have been nothing more than a brief disruption to an otherwise sombre hearing in which the contrite Murdochs defended themselves before a parliamentary committee. Instead, it became the lead story, electrifying the Twitterverse, blog sites and online newspaper forums even before Deng had returned to her seat.
'This should put an end to the trophy wife talk' Tweeted @tommynak. 'Hear me roar! Mess with my husband? Oh no you don't!' said the Wendi Deng: Kickass Facebook page, one of many tribute sites that cropped up within hours of the incident. 'Murdoch's wife is an Internet sensation' declared the Hindustan Times online.
Even as Murdoch tried vainly to restore his media empire's credibility in the eyes of a sanctimonious parliament and public, condemning the culture of phone hacking at his now-defunct NOTW, here was the public setting the agenda for tonight's news bulletins, declaring its priorities so that editors of the popular media were in no doubt as to which angle they would follow.
Never before has the public had more say in what material it consumes, more influence over which stories it would like to read, or a greater choice of outlets from which to source its news. Thanks to the digital revolution, there is now a well-established interface between journalists and their readers, politicians and their constituents, celebrities and their admirers.
Despite this, the public was quick to claim ignorance and roundly condemn the theft of private information by NOTW: the intellectual elite implied that it had been acquired for the consumption of 'low class' readers, despite the fact that 39 per cent of the newspaper's readership fell into the middle-class demographic.
And the 2.7 million people who were known to have bought a copy of the newspaper each week, consolidating its status as Britain's top-selling Sunday newspaper, were conspicuous by their absence, unwilling to acknowledge that their appetite for lurid gossip and scandalous stories had effectively guaranteed the newspaper's success.
These were people who'd had the chance to voice their opposition to phone hacking when the practice first came to light several years ago; and if not then, at least in early June, when actress Sienna Miller received a payout from News Corporation as compensation for the hacking of her voicemail.
Ignorance is no longer an excuse, especially in these post-Princess Diana years where the role of the paparazzi, traitorous friends and dodgy journalists in obtaining 'Diana exclusives' is well-known to any consumer of news.
But the instant availability of information on the internet, and society's regular incursions into domains that were once private — family photographs on Facebook, sex tapes on Youtube, streams-of-consciousness on Twitter — have given rise to an appetite for soundbites that will deliver an instant, deeply gratifying hit.
Consequently, readers are gaining the upper hand over journalists when it comes to shaping and interpreting news, especially online. Their preferences have resulted in a dumbing down of popular media, where trite articles (Masterchef eliminations, Miranda Kerr's post-baby figure) are given more prominence than serious reportage and analysis (Africa's famine, Pakistani police executions).
There is no doubt that readers influence the ongoing coverage of events, as evidenced by the hugely popular 'Vancouver riot kissers', and the Sydney toddler Rahma El-Dennaoui, who is virtually unknown despite the fact that she was abducted from her home in 2005 and, like Madeleine McCann, has never been found.
The 'customer' is always right, and this tendency to empathise with one story and ignore another is proof that readers will shape their own agendas and their responses to news, often limiting themselves to a small — and dubiously-obtained — range of content in the process.
'How do we understand why people around the world found themselves in solidarity with the protesters in Tahir [in Egypt], when they pretty much missed the protests in Tunisia, which ... had some very similar causes, but which were almost invisible?' asks Ethan Zuckerman, incoming Director of MIT's Centre for Civic Media, on ABC Radio's Future Tense program.
'And how did it [happen] again so that by the time we're in Bahrain or Syria a lot of that interest has fallen off? Can we figure something out about the way the media works and how our interests work?'
These are good questions, and ones we might well ask of the people who are happy to consume tainted material as long as no-one tells them where it came from.
Catherine Marshall is a journalist with Jesuit Communications and a contributing travel writer for The Weekend Australian.
Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.
22 July 2011
I do agree with you Catherine to some extent. Then I remember how I seethe at the political bias, sometimes twisted logic and selective reporting of our national newspaper and I say, what are we to do when we have such slim pickings to choose from in terms of our own Australian newspapers. Yes, we can stop reading them but how then do we so easily keep a connection with the global community. Journalists should recognise their moral obligation and stop hiding behind the tired old mantra that they are just giving the people what they want. And yes, we should stop reading those papers that can't present a balanced picture for us, honourably. I'd like to think that the pendulum is swinging back, let's hope so.
22 July 2011
I find it hard to believe that someone in your position would start a commentary claiming Murdoch's wife "delivered a vicious blow to someone with an innocous foam pie aimed at an aged person"
I also wonder whether phone hacking is any worse than a continuous array of adverse comments re Cardinal Pell and the Vatican that flow from Eureka Street.
Catherine if you were my wife and you just sat there in a similar situation then maybe we would need to have a talk.
It's unfortunate the more intelligent things you say are lost because of para 2.
22 July 2011
Catherine, news cycles have been short ever since newspapers came into existence. Likewise, intrusive forms of journalism have existed ever since there was a door in which a foot could be shoved, a family photo that could be pinched, a letter that could be intercepted. Sure the public is complicit in the process if they buy the product; therefore, why the gratuitous headline "Murdoch's evil empire"? To get our attention possibly?
22 July 2011
Thank you Catherine. After many years of investment in the education of young Australians, we seem to have inherited a generation of first-stone throwers. Perhaps we need to examine of what value is TV to our young.
22 July 2011
I agree with Catherine Marshall that the media is often led by the public's lamentable taste to the trivial, vacuous and inane. However, I cannot agree with Carol's conclusion that we should stop reading publications that we don't regard as presenting a balanced view.
For starters everyone is biased. We all have a particular viewpoint. Those who say they are value neutral and are just presenting the facts are deluding themselves. Individuals and groups, to some extent, naturally filter out arguments and opinions contrary to their own and include those that support them. I myself have had posts exlcuded from this very site for what I judge to be no other reason than I challenged the author's content.
However, the most important reason to read contrary opinions is so that we can challenge them, and allow them to challenge us. If you regard something to be biased, write to the editor, contribute a post of your own, include a link for further reading. People have a right to wrong, to write shoddy articles and to be selective. Others have a duty to challenge them through reasoned argument. Ignoring them, or even worse banning them, will not raise the tone of public discourse.
22 July 2011
There was a time when the genetive "Jesuits'" as in descriptions such as Jesuits' Bark, Jesuits' Drops, Jesuits' Nuts and Jesuits' Powder bore eloquent testimony to the exemplary missionary and scientific work of the Jesuits in South America.
The ability of Jesuit philosophers and theologians to conceive and articulate subtle distinctions in arguments drove their opponents to distraction, so much so that these dumbfounded foes conjured up the word "Jesuitical". They couldn't beat the Jesuits so they blackguarded their name.
For me the adjective "Jesuit" still carries the prestige that the great Jesuit scientists, theologians and missionaries earned for it over the past four/almost five centuries.
So I am disappointed that an article by a journalist with Jesuit Communications lacks Jesuit subtlety and perspective.
May I suggest the writings of Marshall McLuhan and his protege Fr Walter Ong SJ would provide an abundance of concepts and lines of enquiry that would help us understand better what is happening in the media today and in society generally, at least in the affluent West?
22 July 2011
The only thing that the self-aggrandising fool who assaulted succeeded in doing was to divert attention from the criminality of the culture of News International.
Remember, it was News Corp and its US subsidiary FoxNews that so shamelessly spruiked the false premise upon which the invasion of Iraq was based.
This matters because the diversion of military resources and public attention from Afghanistan allowed the Taliban to regroup and rearm, just as an incompletely treated primary cancer metastasises. The ongoing tragedy in Afghanistan, including deaths and injuries to Australian personnel, can be attributed to News Corps' propagandising of a decade ago.
Similarly, the forthcoming tragedy of rising sea levels, and the billions of human deaths through famine, storm and disease that will mark the history of this century may also be attributed to the work of Murdoch and his corporation.
22 July 2011
Thank you Catherine Marshall for drawing our attention to our combined responsibility for what we read and watch!
I think it was Beckett who wrote "I'm waiting for me pap." or words like that in End Game. Well we wait for our media 'pap' and we get it.
22 July 2011
Some years ago my 17 yr old daughter in her final year at school came home and said, "Dad, I got zero out of 20 for my English essay today. I'm sure you will be proud of me!" The essay was on the exploitation and degradation of women by the women's press in publications such as WHO,DOLLY,CLEO, ETC and those newspapers which attracted sales through the page 3 models in swim-suited, seductive poses, and titillating "scandal" stories of no news importance . She argued that women were not being exploited, that the magazines existed only because women wanted to read them, were the exclusive purchasers of such material and that the press thus did not lead the public but simply responded to what the reading public wanted. 0/20!
Sadly, so much of our press no longer leads but simply follows the public want which translates into dollar income. Integrity is difficult to find in some journalism today and NOTW is the perfect example. Until the press becomes a societal leader for a better world,there is,sadly,little to be found in so much of today's journalism that could justly describe what has become a trade as a profession.
22 July 2011
How can anyone keep abreast of a broad range of views, however distasteful they may seem to our sensitivities, unless we dip a toe in and read it? I'm not advocating illegal hacking or offending victims of crime, but blaming the consumer seems a bit far-fetched. In this age of blogging and digital technology, it's a jungle out there and the real perpetrators of violence are not the phone hacking journos trying to earn a quid but the spin doctors who manipulate public opinion in our very acceptable and genteel broadsheets.
22 July 2011
The worst free press is still a better then the best censored press. Nobody is forced to read anything and if you want to destroy a tree to read yesterday’s bad news, then you are free to do.
I think to call “Murdoch’s evil empire” is as stupid and simplistic as calling a church as evil. A small number of people in both organisations have broken the law and have done evil things. The large majority of people working for Murdoch and most churches are decent honest people and do not deserve a cheap slur.
22 July 2011
I agree with you Patrick but its this opinion that leads Catherine to say that we encourage gutter journalism. So if reading something I don't agree with encourages journalists to hack phones for salacious stories which is the message Catherine is delivering in this piece, then I will have to limit myself to newspapers that support my world view! And I don't want bans either, I just want journalists to have more integrity, like some of the rest of us.
23 July 2011
Thank you for your article. As a child of the 60's and 70's I have long believed that the product I choose to buy is an extension of my personal beliefs. I refused to buy the Melbourne Sun once they became so blatant in their Climate Change denial. I consider their stand as intellectually dishonest.
Unfortunately it is hard to find the in depth analysis you champion and so rely on publications such as Eureka Street.
23 July 2011
Compared to her stablemate Andrew Bolt, Ms. Marshall's dissertation on her awful boss, Murdoch, seems more lucid and a tad reasonable. Nevertheless, Ms. Deng's elevation to an almost heroic status by the world's media suggests their preoccupation of trivial matters. Instead of focussing on the corrupt practises of News Corp and the danger it poses to democracy, the mass media concentrates on the irrelevancies of a wife coming to the rescue of her ageing wealthy husband. Why shouldn't she?
What we witnessed on that fateful day was a pair of wealthy, arrogant billionaires who claim they saw nothing or hear nothing and are therefore innocent of the evil deeds done on their behalf. They remind me of the accused at Nuremberg who claimed that they were only following orders.
On personal note,what is a seemingly intelligent journalist doing working for News Corp. You really have to draw a line in the sand, dear Ms. Marshall.