News & Commentary

Handout for arts journalism ‘misses the mark’

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The Copyright Agency and Judith Neilson Institute’s support for arts journalism is a handout to two big media companies disguised as a gift to the nation, ROSEMARY SORENSEN argues.

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It is an idea that’s been kicking around for a while, according to the Copyright Agency. And the announcement of what they are calling a “significant new investment in arts coverage” was met this week with little bursts of effusive joy on social media.

However, given both News Corp’s The Australian and Nine’s The Age and Sydney Morning Herald’s apparent lack of commitment to arts journalism and reviewing over the past decade, the announcement that $150,000 is being given to those newspapers for a year-long boost to their arts coverage is puzzling.

It’s not the money in itself that is surprising. In the scheme of things, this is a paltry amount. The Copyright Agency and the Judith Neilson Institute of Journalism and Ideas, which is partnering with the Agency in funding this, deal in millions, so it would be unlikely spending $150,000 would give either agency too much pause. And it’s not just that the media release announcing this funding is an odd mix of vague posturing about “quality arts review and criticism” and butt-covering repetition of words like “investment”.

What’s surprising is the effrontery of wrapping up a handout to a couple of big media organisations in a bit of tinsel to make it look like a gift to the nation.

What’s surprising is the effrontery of wrapping up a handout to a couple of big media organisations in a bit of tinsel to make it look like a gift to the nation.

Apparently, this $150,000 “will enhance and be in addition to the considerable spending by News Corp and Nine on arts and review coverage”. This would be laughable, if it wasn’t so sad. To suggest that arts coverage is some kind of philanthropic gesture on behalf of these media companies is dangerously naïve, and it’s why Australian arts and books are still considered a middle-class indulgence rather than an essential part of a healthy functioning society.

Rather than try to turn back the clock to when the Saturday capital city paper was a good, accessible and, ABC aside, almost solitary source of news about books, theatre and art shows, surely there are better ways to provide not only information about cultural events and products, but also to encourage that form of thinking and writing that is dwindling to extinction: criticism.

But you’ve got to believe that criticism should be as independent as possible, and that it is ethically important for publishers not to delimit ideologically the critical content of comment and writing for any such journalism to be worthwhile. Such ethically robust commitment is not immediately discernible from within the media organisations thus gifted.

The release quotes Copyright Agency CEO Adam Suckling as saying their job is to “support Australian creativity by ensuring that the rights of publishers, writers and visual artists are respected and that they receive fair payment for use of their work.” Good call Mr Suckling, but in this context, what’s your point?

According to the information provided, the $150,000 will be spent by The Australian on a weekly column by “poet, editor, critic and academic Sarah Holland-Batt, who will review new books and cover key issues within the writing sector”. That’s fine, and Holland-Batt is a respected poet, the recipient of a number of prestigious fellowships, residencies and honours, and an Associate Professor at Queensland University of Technology. While she may be very good at writing a weekly column that seeks to “review new books and cover key issues”, it is hardly likely to make a significant dent in the dull wood that is that newspaper’s contribution to arts coverage. (Unless she can uncover a Demidenko-style scandal, of course, because THAT’S the kind of arts coverage that News Corp believes in.)

Over at the four Nine newspapers (The Age, SMH, WA Today and Brisbane Times), the money will be spent on “an additional 100 reviews”. Then, there’s this waffle about how they’ll go about gathering these additional reviews (presumably two a week, across the year covered by the funding): “The mastheads will soon begin a search for some ‘critics-in-residence’ for books, visual arts and theatre. These emerging critical voices will add to The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age’s existing teams of highly-respected critics.”

This might come as a shock to those who sit on the boards of funding and cultural institutions, but the influence of the once-dominant mastheads is somewhat diminished.

How a masthead searches is for you to ponder, but do note the use of that buzzily worthy “emerging”, as though the masthead alone holds the awesome responsibility of finding, and nurturing someone who can write a bit, print their stuff in the once-great newspaper, and pay them for that privilege. Too little, too late, actually. They reneged on any claim to that kind of cultural custodianship years ago, which makes this gesture of financial support so pathetic.

Finally, the summing up, so limp it makes you wonder if anyone at the Copyright Agency – let alone the ‘mastheads’ in receipt of this windfall – actually believes any of it: “This initiative will help foster opportunities for emerging arts writers and critics by offering new perspectives on contemporary Australian works that will spark interest, curiosity and debate in the wider community.”

Fostering opportunities by offering new perspectives? Whatever. If indeed someone writing for these newspapers does have a “new perspective”, it will likely only be new for that newspaper and its loyal readership. And let’s hope that these new perspectives on offer will be accessible online to non-subscribers of these pay-walled publications (the Copyright Agency was not aware, when asked, if this was a condition of the grant)

So, first point: this $150,000 grant is neither significant nor much of an investment. If it comes with a commitment from the newspapers that they will maintain this small increase in what they print and run online beyond the year’s funding, then possibly it could be called an investment, but otherwise, it’s simply a bonus, without impact beyond the few extra words that are written and read this year.

Second point: while a column and a couple of reviews is insignificant as a way to “increase the number and range of nationally published reviews and criticism of new Australian books and writing, plays and art exhibitions”, what is significant is the old-fashioned, indeed retrogressive, thinking behind it.

Let’s put aside for the moment that this money was granted without an application being necessary, despite there being a whole range of grants for which media groups can apply to do similar things. This announcement suggests that the Copyright Agency thinks The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, along with The Australian, are, in this day and age, more national in their reach and significance than a multitude of other arts “outlets”.

Surely there are better ways to provide not only information about cultural events and products, but also to encourage that form of thinking and writing that is dwindling to extinction: criticism.

This might come as a shock to those who sit on the boards of funding and cultural institutions, but the influence of the once-dominant mastheads is somewhat diminished. It’s possibly why their front pages are more screechy and provocative, to shore up the idea that they not only report the news but make it.

While publishers, galleries and theatre companies will take anything given, and clap hands with unmitigated delight that a couple of reviews will now appear in places they don’t bother to advertise because it’s a waste of money, is anyone seriously swallowing the line that this is a game-changer? We surely haven’t become that submissive.

Final point: if the Copyright Council and the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism are serious about “sparking interest, curiosity and debate in the wider community,” can you please have a think about why you imagine arts and culture is separate from the “wider community”? That’s a belief entrenched in Australian society that continues to slow us all down, as though being interested in books and writing, art and theatre, words and everything we think of as culture is what posh people do, with assistance and approval from rich people.

And if you think someone writing in The Age has any more chance of “sparking interest, curiosity and debate,” unless it’s a nasty attack on a writer, say, rather than what is written, then I’d say that’s wishful.

Editor’s note: Daily Review has previously approached the Judith Neilson Foundation for funding, but was unsuccessful in its application.

3 responses to “Handout for arts journalism ‘misses the mark’

  1. None of this is surprising given Mr Suckling’s early career as a PR shill for Murdoch’s News Corp when they were at their very worst. What’s most depressing is that when there are a heap of excellent new initiatives focussing on arts criticism (such as Naomi Riddle’;s excellent Running Dog site, to name but one), the lame old agency decides to throw money at a couple of lame old conventional media dinosaurs. But Australia was ever thus… thanks for the piece, Rosemary.

    1. Disappointing to read this from afar but not surprising. Arts criticism in the Australia and elsewhere has been in decline for a very long time, but particularly in Australia where writers/journos get frozen out and vilified if they write a tough review or a critical piece.

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