Today I want to talk about something quite big and complex. In order keep it light and easy, I plan to take a leaf out of the conservative playbook.
Basically, take any big idea and say it’s just like something else. So, when talking social policy, ethics and the law, I can say something like: “The nation: it’s like a family, right? We all just have to get along.”
This way I can not only complete two whole sentences (no mean feat for some of our public figures); I can also avoid having to discuss anything at all to do with social policy, ethics or the law. “The economy – it’s like chip-shop, yeah? And our relations with the rest of the world – well, they basically boil down to [insert sporting metaphor].”
Brilliant! It doesn’t matter that, say, a chip-shop bears about as much resemblance to the economy of a medium-sized Nation State as a cap pistol to a thermonuclear warhead, despite the fact that they can be said to do roughly the same thing. What’s important is that people know what a chip-shop is. That way, when I stop talking, they’ve understood all the words I’ve used, and therefore believe I’ve said something which sensible.
So today I want to talk about our relationship with mass media, its effect on our perception of what we know, and, more importantly, what we actually end up knowing as a result of engaging with it.
Right. Here goes.
The Entirety of the Mass Media can now be understood if we say: “It’s like the Manly Daily, isn’t it? That’s a newspaper, right?”
The People (all of them) of the Commonwealth of Australia are reducible to whoever it is that gets the Manly Daily on a regular basis. People are all the same, basically, right?
Happy? Okay, neither am I – but let’s go ahead anyway.
For those of you who ended up in the wrong parts of Sydney, The Manly Daily is the organ of communication for ‘the beaches’. Whilst it rarely goes so far as to run an actual news item, it does do an excellent job of keeping us all informed about various happenings within our community. Council meetings, house prices, art shows, gigs, locals who have done well – all of it prompt, accurate and cheerful. This is seasoned with a bare minimum of court news and the occasional opinion piece. As a means of staying connected with the wider community, it really is a publication of considerable merit (no, really – I mean it).
There are however, some things at which the Daily has always been utterly crap. Like news, for example. Or social commentary.
Case in point – yesterday’s paper carried the front page headline “Sleaze on our beaches (videos of sunbathers uploaded to social media website)”.*
What’s basically happened is that somebody’s been recording and posting videos of women on the beach. Just like those blokes in Cancun, Ibiza, Ipanema, Miami – you get the idea. The videos go up under the tag line “Sexy Girls”. Mr Kay, the man behind the copy (or at least with his name above it), is outraged. He states that it is unacceptable to ‘secretly’ film people in a state of undress and then publish that footage without their knowledge or consent. In support of this contention, he even went so far as to consult an academic specialist in the area of social ethics. Unfortunately, all that he seems to have got out of her was a quote containing the words ‘creepy’ and ‘pervy’. Equally unfortunate is this person’s apparent lack of authoritative knowledge in the areas of ICT, philosophy of technology, media law, copyright law or privacy law.
Which I guess is just as well as, for some reason, the decision was made to print three screenshots from the actual video right next to an article complaining loudly about the existence and publication of these images. Sure, the Daily has made some effort to hide faces but, considering how much else of them I can see, this makes no sense either. As far as I can tell, this journalist has ‘secretly’ surfed the net to find these images and then published them without the knowledge or consent of the people who are in them. Which is an outrage, right?
Now, Mr Kay knows his stuff. He’s put in legwork and done his diligence, researching Youtube and looking at women in bikinis in a spirit of outrage. He spoke to a lawyer, who informed him that taking pictures of people in a public space and then publishing them online is probably not illegal. He also spoke to the Department of Justice, who pointed out that there are laws against filming people’s private parts and private acts. He also pointed out that it’s difficult to call voluntarily stripping half naked in order to loll about in a public place a ‘private act’.
So the more we think about this issue, the less it seems to deserve the name. This, in fact, is exactly why asking me how I ‘feel’ about an issue will get you a five minute rant. Issues are too important – they should be thought about first.
In this instance, thinking and proper research would have raised the following three points.
- Every famous beach in the world has similar videos associated with them (and their women) on Youtube. In a twisted way, we could perhaps see it as a positive that we have joined a club that includes Cancun, Ibiza and Ipanema.
- The article suggests we should ‘demand’ the removal of the material in question. This would indicate a lack of awareness with regard to what Youtube actually is. They will generally remove content on the basis of a single, pro-forma complaint. If there is to be a fight with anyone, it won’t be with them.
- Most critically, he seems to fail to understand that the Youtuber is doing, albeit more crudely, what he himself has presumably been doing for a significant portion of his life. Getting pictures of stuff people like to look at and putting some words next to them in the hope of generating some interest.
These failures in understanding lead me to my point.
We talk airily about having ‘discussions’ and ‘conversations’ based on issues that are highlighted in the media. I contend that this simply isn’t likely, or perhaps even possible. So often, issues that arise in the media are being written about by people who don’t actually understand any more about them than you or I. And then, in order to generate interest, the tendency is to frame the entire issue, whatever it may be, in the strongest emotion possible.
Think about it – how many of us are experts on Middle Eastern power politics and history? Very few. So think about the last conversation you had about Israel. I’m willing to bet it ended in a flurry of ad-hominem insults, some very dodgy history factlets and some even dodgier statistics. And, most importantly, lots of angry shouting. Every conversation seems to end up emulating, on a very small scale, the conflict. Why?
It’s simple – the data that is coming in to us is many things: brilliant, rubbish, insightful, idiotic, accurate and ludicrous. Which means we can’t really trust it. Problem is, though, that the sheer amount of it also means we’re generally disinclined to check it. So the end result of all this information input is that we are no longer certain very much at all. What we do know, however, is exactly how we felt about stuff. In the case of Israel, the emotion that sells is generally outrage, and that’s what we end up retaining.
Is this the media’s fault? Hell no. At no point in the history of the written word has a journalist’s role been to do our thinking for us. They record and interpret, and that’s that. Is it the government then? Once again, that would be an emphatic no. They’re supposed to speak for us – enact our will, so to speak. This doesn’t really work if they’re also telling us what that will actually is. So who, in fact, is responsible for keeping us informed? Whose job is it to ensure that we actually understand the world that we live in?
Or, to put it differently, who is ultimately responsible for the shape and contents of your mind? Obviously, it’s you. Mr Bryn Kay, fearless hack for the Cumberland group, is responsible for his own failure to view his story intelligently prior to publishing it and it is my responsibility – mine alone – if I decide to react as stupidly as he did.