Farrago

Twitter was all abuzz yesterday about the July edition of Melbourne Uni's Farrago because it contains an anonymous article complaining about the culture of the Herald Sun, as experienced by a intern there. There was a fair bit of back-and-forth about how we should judge people in media organisations, whether the intern's complaints were justified and whether she should have written anonymously. I'll get to my view on those questions a little further down.

The first observation I want to make, though, is that Farrago is really, really bad.


The message from the editors for the month is hilariously replaced by some kind of pretend instructions from a presumably dystopian future:
Otherwise, please read our national guide to understand this great economic zone of ours:
Australia is a happy nation filled with only happy, economically maximised, citizen units. In order to maintain our happiness surplus, our elite Happiness Assurance Officers will conduct random spot-checks to determine your happiness level and any irregularities in thought. If traces of dissent or doubt in Our Dear Gina are detected, swift yet appropriate action will be taken.

There are three more paragraphs which are even more aggressively sulky. Of course I don't want Gina Rinehart to take over The Age, but this could only possibly be construed as entertaining by a hardcore band of mean-spirited Rinehart-haters, so it's a bit of a strange thing to put on your acknowledgements page. But oh well.

There are a few pages of university news, which are fine. Then there are some food articles, one of which helpfully suggests appliances you might want in your kitchen, including a microwave. I skimmed straight over most of these pages and the interminable film, music and theatre pages, which I can only hope had some vague semblance of quality. Because nothing else did.

The feature on the state of journalism including a reference to The Australian as "evil" by an (unsurprisingly) former ABC journalist. This article also entertainingly passes on giving any actual information and instead instructs us to "Google Murdoch + Leveson Inquiry", which I think makes it part of the problem rather than part of the solution. But I digress.

The state of journalism feature also include a decent article on journalism courses, a shameless plug for some independent outlet which slags off at other independent outlets, and of course the intern article. Back to that shortly.

Anybody who reads this blog reasonably regularly will not be at all surprised that I'm going to skip through all the barely-funny humour articles and go straight to the frankly stupid politics section. First up, in the true tradition of Australian political media, we have an article on political scandals which flies across several decades of scandal presumably in the name of entertainment. Next, an article about Julian Assange which as far as I can see was published only for its apparent contrariness, at least to the petulant, unthinking left that seems to make up Farrago's target audience. The author has no sympathy for Assange because the law and due process exist for a reason and therefore should be followed. Never mind a) that political asylum is part of that due process, b) that his stated fear is that due process is just going to be trampled by the US, or c) that he might well have actually disobeyed laws which he regards as fundamentally bad, anti-democratic laws, and so marching into court to clear his name might not be as much of an option. Sigh.

An article on asylum seekers is notable for its boring obviousness. We're treated to the ENTIRELY NOVEL AND SURPRISING claims that "people arriving by boat account for a minuscule percentage of our incoming population" and that "it seems possible that the humanitarian rhetoric for offshore processing veils less philanthropic motives, such as media hype, political opportunism and populist exploitation of public fears and prejudice". It seems. Fantastic.

Most frustrating of all, though, is the "Issues Cheat Sheet" on the carbon tax. I've said before that major media doesn't do a good job of policy analysis and often doesn't even try. Farrago at least tries. And the broad outline of the incentives that a carbon tax is meant to create is roughly right. But the last paragraph:
In light of the facts, Gillard did lie to the public before the election; while this sounds inexcusable, many politicians do the same and climate change is a real issue that needs to be dealt with promptly. The carbon tax is a more transparent and immediate option than the Coalition’s Direct Action Plan, but many corporations may simply push up prices and adapt to the tax—and then, where is the incentive to challenge climate change? Perhaps a carbon price is not the answer.
So first, treading boring ground about election promises. Then a vague attempt at comparison to Coalition policy - what does "more immediate" mean, because on most definitions I can think of direct action is more immediate - before the bit that really kills me. Hey, guys, corporations might just pass on prices instead of reacting to the carbon incentive. Oops, looks like I just found a fatal flaw in your policy!

Who can write a single sentence like that and honestly think that nobody in the public service, the political parties, academia or the media in Australia - in fact in the world, because we're not the only ones having this debate - had ever thought of that before? And what kind of editor reads a one-sentence putdown of a massive policy reform and doesn't think that something might be missing?

If this is the kind of policy analysis that people actually do, it's probably a good thing the mainstream media neglects it. I'm pretty sure having this kind of rubbish spouted in newspapers would actually be worse than the analytical silence we have at the moment.

And then directly following the national politics pages, to round out the whole delicious mess, we get a page given over to two columns about gay issues, which is a fine idea except that the columns are basically personal soapboxes and they say nothing about anything.

So, Farrago: reasonable digest of university news, except that it only comes out monthly so it's not likely to be very up-to-date. Pathetic excuse for journalism in almost every other way.

Which brings me to the Herald Sun's upset intern. My impression is that nothing she identifies is actually a problem with the publication. Apart from the bits which are just dumb - they called you nicknames because you're young, so what? - everything complained about is a problem with people and workplaces generally.

Mark Colvin had this to say on Twitter:


I've never known a newsroom where people didn't say insensitive things and use dark humour. I judge them on what they publish, not on that.

I don't think that's very reasonable. It so happens that media companies have a public output. That doesn't mean they should be excluded from the general rule that even where there is good output - sturdy phones, good ad campaigns, whatever - a workplace can still be bad on the basis of things that happen within it. I would judge a law firm if its culture was overwhelmingly racist. Newspapers should face the same test.

But that just brings us back to the problem with the culture charges our erstwhile intern makes. Principally she's annoyed that the Hun doesn't share her positions on transsexuals and animal rights. But I would challenge her to find more than a very small clutch of workplaces that do. Her views are seriously atypical, perhaps not for Farrago readers or even university students generally, but definitely for most people. I actually agree with quite a few of her positions. But I wouldn't be shocked, or write an outraged exposé, if I discovered that a workplace of people from a generation or two earlier that me didn't share them. 

Finally, there was a little bit of criticism over the article's anonymous byline. I actually don't mind this. What this woman was doing (or at least thought she was) analogises pretty closely with whistle-blowing. It so happens that she was both source and documenter, but she was still the source so the same anonymity should be pretty unobjectionable. Of course given the number of unique details she wrote about, it was always going to be futile - the Hun has released her name - but I don't think she was doing anything wrong by claiming it.

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