Stealing the News


Here's one for how complicated Australia is in a technology-powered world.

In an Australia where news organisations howl that Google stole their news by providing links to it, erect paywalls to secure content behind a revenue stream, then howl that nobody is reading their news, the profitability of journalism in Australia is an interesting topic.

News is complicated and it's expensive but the principle behind it is simple enough; traditionally you spend resources to find things out (journalism), that people want to know (news), and give it to them along with some things your customers (advertisers) want them to know (advertising).  New models are emerging like spend resources to find things out then directly sell access that news to your customers who are news consumers (rather than advertisers), but for now it's the advertising model.  Or a mixture of the two.  Or public relations professionals outright pay news outlets to run advertisements that look like news.

OK maybe the principle behind it isn't that simple.  Maybe to put it very simply we need to go back a step further and summarise journalism's business model as "spend as few resources as possible to publicise things that are as interesting and unique as possible."  Under this elemental description the ideal scenario would be if you could have somebody saunter up to you with a highly controversial and compelling story which they give you for free, allowing your to reveal it to your readership amongst quite a bit of scandal/outrage/sensation without having to do the expensive bit of getting an inkling about something, asking some people who know about it what they think, reading up in a bunch of journals to confirm that something is what you think it is, lodging formal requests like Freedom of Information requests or legal challenges etc.  Of course that could never happen.  Who goes around finding out who has done the wrong thing, confirming it, double checking it, then gift wrapping it and handing it to news organisations?

Meet Asher Wolf.

Asher's a Melbourne-based nuisance of the highest quality.  She has been involved in a wide range of social justice issues around Australia.  The former ALP government's proposals to censor the Internet from 2007 to 2012?  There.  The cryptoparty phenomenon intended to teach cryptography and privacy to layfolks?  There (successes and challenges).  Wikileaks, Pirate Party, surveillance, privacy, hacking, cracking, legislating and arguing, it seems Asher Wolf is either in the middle of it, at the front of a Twitter crowd yelling at it, providing expert commentary to contextualise it or most deliciously, making those responsible for it look silly or inept.

Today ABC News published, and I use the term tentatively, a story where the acting head of the Manus island refugee prison camp is a former Sri Lankan military commander.  This is obviously beyond astonishing; some of the refugees on Manus Island are there as a consequence of fleeing the Sri Lankan military.   The byline of the article says Jeff Waters, but Wolf asserts that she investigated the story - complete with scouring Sri Lankan government journals - to confirm that the person is who she thought they were, and then gift wrapped the story to three news outlets, the first of which was unable to get the in-house silks to sign off on the legal risk to running it, the second of which delayed discussing it and ran the risk of running the story stale, and the third was the ABC which initially agreed to attribute the story to her, but then ran it without crediting her.

If this is true - and speaking personally I have a great deal of trust in Wolf's integrity - the national broadcaster outright lied in order to release a story to its readership which had a near 100% profit because it hard to do none of the work but would get all of the value out of doing so.

It's a pretty ugly business model even in a group of very ugly models, but "take someone else's hard work and present it as your own" appears to be joining "put all your articles behind a paid login" and "arrange inconsequential factoids into lists of 10" as the way to make money with journalism.

As/if more information comes to light, Any Any will update.  If it's someone else's revealing, Any Any will check with them if it's OK, and credit them where appropriate.


Image:  carolina terp