My first article for Comment Is Free, with The Guardian Australia was published today. I’ve republished it below.
Yesterday, breathless reports hit the wires that Australian foreign minister Bob Carr “doesn’t contribute to his own blog”, and hasn’t read or posted to it since he joined the government in March 2012. This kind of reporting is tiring and does our democracy a disservice. It is a grossly trivial issue and misrepresents what the minister’s blog is.
Firstly, let’s address the main issue. Carr doesn’t, by his own admission, contribute to his blog, Thoughtlines. For the past 15 months, the blog has been used by the minister to publish his portfolio media releases. They cover a gamut of topics, from the conflict in Syria to Timor Sea arbitration updates, as well as copies of speeches made to the Fred Hollows Foundation.
Is it reasonable to expect that the foreign minister spends his spare time uploading ministerial press releases to WordPress? Would Australians want him sitting in his office, or at home, spending time reading through those media releases, or looking at photos of himself meeting foreign dignitaries?
The notion is risible, and makes as much sense as expecting Carr to waste his time writing his own media releases, or reading media releases on the department of foreign affairs website.
I invite you to examine the blog. All of the posts are clearly written as media releases. It is inconceivable that a journalist visiting the blog could mistake them for ordinary blog posts. Is this newsworthy?
The wire reports also refer to two film reviews made in 2012. The reports slyly question his comments that personally written blog posts predate his time as minster. Yet there is a film review of the Mabo movie and A Royal Affair (both released in June 2012), both after his elevation to the ministry. (The wag who wrote the wire report failed to note that in 2012, the minister also uploaded a few book reviews as well).
Did Carr write these reviews? Unlike the other posts, which are written as media releases, the two reviews are written in the first person. Carr’s Mabo review notes “all the films I see these days are on planes” and notes that he no longer watches movies in cinemas because he is worried he would spend all his time thinking about work. You can read the reviews here. Do they look like they are staff-written press releases?
More broadly, this wire report succumbs to the senseless rehashing of celebrity stories about ghost writing.
In 2008, Stephanie Merritt in The Guardian wrote about the boom in ghostwriting of celebrity books. The likes of Pamela Anderson, Gerri Halliwell, Gwyneth Paltrow and Snooki have courted controversy when it was discovered they were not the primary authors of publications in their name. In the US, the ghostwriting addiction even extends to celebrity Christian tele-evangelists like Billy Graham or former jailed Nixon advisor Chuck Colson.
A growing industry of ghost writers for celebrities exists on the internet. The UK-based Ghost Writing Company promotes itself as perfect for a celebrity looking for someone else to write under their name. A ghost written book is presented as an “excellent long-term investment”.
And forget ghost writing books. Some celebrities have ghost twitter writers. In 2009, ABC’s AM devoted a segment to the “scandal” that Hugh Jackman had been caught out having a staff member tweet on his behalf.
In the world of public relations, company officials have statements made on their behalf by professionals as a matter of course. Journalists – especially wire reporters – rarely comment on this, precisely because it is trivial.
In Australia, and elsewhere, it is common place for staff to tweet on behalf of the politicians they work for. Followers of the prime minister would be familiar with the sign-off of “TeamJG” to signify her staff tweets, and the initials “JG” when the prime minister tweets herself. Ministers routinely have their speeches, opinion pieces and other statements written for them. They have press officers to draft their media releases.
The wire reporter certainly “accurately” and speedily reported on the minister’s comments in Senate Estimates. It is not the role of AAP to assess stories, but I wonder how many wire stories reported on other statements made in estimates, perhaps pertaining to Australia’s position on foreign policy or the budget?
The Carr blog issue is a distraction from more important issues. I’m concerned that it trivialises political reporting by focusing on inconsequential stories. The public generate their understanding of political issues through the impressions given by media reporting.
What impression does this story leave? Has this story really informed citizens or animated democracy?