shit happensThere is a very old joke that asks “what is the definition of an oxymoron?”, to which the snappy response is “military intelligence”. I can only trace the attribution for this as far back as George Carlin, but really, it must be older than that. It would not surprise me if Roman Centurions whispered it to each other while in hellish campaigns into northern Europe millennia ago. I would be interested in case anyone knows.

We have cultivated a more up to date equivalent response for this joke, which while amusing, is even more depressing – “journalistic integrity”. The Fourth Estate has fallen into disrepair and is overrun by the Yellow peril who are squatting in it, panhandling product placement and shilling focus group opinion, the journalist code of ethics torn up into handy strips and left hanging in the latrines. The last of the great journalists have all but abandoned the craft, retiring to the leisured life of the public intellectual or syndicated monthly columnist. Others simply get cancer. Depress your self some more – try and make a list of journalists1 still out there you respect and trust at their word. You can probably count them on one hand. Make it simpler – a list of journalists that are simply doing the job they are entrusted with doing. You’re probably still on one hand.

Just as one round of ritual humiliation catastrophising trivia settles, the hunting dogs are out and it is no time before a new victim can be cornered and entrapped. The first trickle –

Federal Opposition leader Tony Abbott caught making insensitive comments about fallen soldiers

FEDERAL Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has been caught on tape making insensitive remarks about Australian soliders killed in Afghanistan.

The footage, obtained by Channel 7, shows Abbott engaged in a conversation with a uniformed army officer in Afghanistan about the death of an Australian solider.

The officer explains some of the details leading up to the digger’s death, before saying “”Was everything done perfectly? Absolutely not. Was it tragic? Absolutely.”

Abbott then replies, saying to the officer: “It’s pretty obvious, that sometimes shit happens.”

More soon.

This is the speck of dust which has since prompted saturation headline media coverage. The important details omitted here, and omitted continuously by the journalist that birthed this nonsense, is that the “uniformed army officer” was Major General John Cantwell, Australia’s senior commander in the region and, most critically, the very next second of the footage where Cantwell replies in a matter of fact manner, without hesitation or any indication of offense –

“It certainly does. Yeah”.

It was a candid discussion, unfortunately recorded, between two professionals at the top of their respective trees, about a grim reality that occurred in what is ultimately a pointless conflict. It was a discussion not dissimilar to that which countless other Australians have had at some point in time when dealing with tragedies that are difficult to comprehend. The remark, far from being either callous or flippant, reveals a characteristic Australianism – that of gravity by understatement. I know that and the bulk of my countrymen know it.

Unfortunately for all concerned, the recording fell into the hands of a media whore who’s bread and butter is selective editing and the sound bite.

Mark Riley - his journalism lecturers must feel so proud.

The dumpster diver in question is the Seven Network’s Mark Riley, who with a quick cosmetic video snip to remove Cantwell’s response (which would have lessened the impact), has ensured the footage of Tony “shit happens” Abbott is national, stop-the-presses headline news. The result as it stands now, the Fairax newspaper stable is offering 30 unique articles when searching for “abbott shit happens” and News Limited not far behind on 28. Each free to air channel news service is also featuring the story in their opening headline collage. And Riley, believe it or not, is the Seven Network’s “Chief political reporter”, and not some celebrity gossip / human interest tripe monger. Seriously. But when viewed in “context” (a concept Riley seems to have trouble with) this is the network that also brings you the open sewer that is Today Tonight, so it is not all that surprising.

It is an odd position for me to be in – sympathising with Tony Abbott, a vulgar caricature  of the classic god-fearing conservative hard man. A catholic pro-life monarchist devoid of policy or direction and who’s career is built upon sophistry, dogma and political cheap shots. The shape of Abbott the progressive thinker was captured in a piece he contributed to the Sydney University student newspaper, where he was studying economics in the ’70s –

I think it would be folly to expect that women will ever dominate or even approach equal representation in a large number of areas simply because their aptitudes, abilities and interests are different for physiological reasons

It is a beautiful line that captures the archetypical establishment bullet-head and not a lot has changed since then. Unlike the candid camera video, this is a premeditated and conscious statement, and as such, fair game. But, like it or not, people do have the right to be stupid, and no one, not even Abbott, deserves the kind of prime time hatchet job Riley sprang on him.

Shit-happens-gate has not been allowed to rest with the simple sound bite though. Followup humiliation of the “please explain” variety, as always, followed –

Reporter denies Abbott ‘ambush’ amid anger over Digger remark

Channel Seven reporter Mark Riley has denied he ambushed Tony Abbott during an interview in which the Opposition Leader responded with silence to questions about his comments over the death of a soldier… Mr Abbott yesterday claimed he was quoted out of context by Seven. But when Riley asked him to explain the context, Mr Abbott offered only silence. [full article]

The exchange was, of course, captured on video and is truly excruciating to watch, and in itself spurring a fresh batch of headlines and teevee followups. Again it was pared down to deliver the desired effect and that effect only. The unedited exchange will never be seen unless there is some compelling commercial justification to air it. But try as I might, I slip into Abbott sympathy here too. The stunned mullet silence is indicative of a man that would rather be anywhere else at that point in time and who can blame him? The silence could have one of two immediate causes to my mind –

  1. Without having a properly prepared response that has been rigorously tested against journalistic bastardry, it was probably best to say nothing, or
  2. Just being stunned and flabbergasted that such point blank stupid questions would be asked at all. All of us have experienced being exasperated beyond the brink of belief in this manner and been stunned into silence.

There has been a respite of sorts from all of this idiocy though – it is nice to see that a majority can still call bullshit for bullshit. Subsequent opinion polls have shown a pretty negative response to both Riley’s conduct and the story, prompting him to justify his actions on Seven’s Sunrise program. The video won’t embed here but can be seen here or at this direct link. He tries a number of get-out-of-jail cards, amongst them –

  • That it was not a private conversation but a public one because it was recorded on camera.

Well, kind of. It was recorded for the military by a military camera crew that record such events as a matter of course and is military property. It was not a pre-arranged set piece and it was not publicly available footage. Riley even admits that the video had to be specifically requisitioned by him via FOI. The audio on the finished product is so poor, Riley even has to add subtitles.

  • “All I did was get the vision and context of…”

No you didn’t you asshole. You got the vision and stripped the context.

There is more self-justifying nonsense, but at no point did Riley even remotely address the actual question that needs to be asked –

  • Why is this even considered “news” to begin with?

And more to the point – why is it considered more newsworthy than the Egyptian protests or the ongoing story of the Queensland floods? The answer is that it is cheap and easy, and it doesn’t entail any of that boring stuff that real journalists actually do. Just a quick video edit and an outrageous sound bite – more and more this is the subsistence staple of trash tabloid news desks such as Seven’s. It spans what passes for news across the board in mainstream media. One only has to cast their mind back to Gordon Brown’s Abbott moment when he was caught daring to call a bigoted pensioner a bigot in what he erroneously assumed to be a private moment.

Politicians often get accused of being distant and not “of the people”, yet when they are trapped in an awkward moment behaving just like you and me, as ordinary people saying ordinary people things, they get crucified. It is hard to see how much further journalism can degrade. I liken journalists like Riley to the horrid little child that sits at the front of the class near teacher, snooping on all of his/her classmates and ready to report any trivial indiscretion for short term brownie points. A cheap snitch and little more.

The role of the professional journalist in greater society must not be allowed to degrade. They are are eyes and our ears, their importance parallels that of the medical professions who diagnose our illnesses – they are here to diagnose illness with the government and business worlds. Our political systems are allowed to erode because of lack of diligence from our journalists – “journalists” like Riley that allow themselves to be distracted by cheap nonsense and worse, exploit it for shameless self-promotion. And our journalism is being allowed to erode because of lack of diligence from its readers. We have to start demanding standards – because the rot begins with us.

1 – This is much harder than it sounds. For me, Kerry O’Brien is semi-retired. Max Walsh abandoned regular “news” to the jackals a long time ago, retreating into financial reporting. Robert Fisk, old faithful, is still chugging away in the middle east. Michelle Grattan is likewise an elder stateswoman. And Glenn Greenwald is a young blood and lone beacon of hope in the US. After that it gets real thin, I have to start straining and depression really sets in. John Pilger? No. Green left pop star and poor man’s Michael Moore. Janet Albrechtsen? Well, until she started dropping clangers about climate change and the Tea Party (and if you’re reading Janet, I no longer want to have sex with you). Piers Ackerman? I won’t even dignify that with a response. Our press is runny gruel and our society is the result.