McKenzie Wark on Wed, 27 Oct 1999 19:21:54 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Pauline Hanson and the Press

[published Wed 27th, The Australian]

Margo Kingston: The Motel Sex Theory of Journalism
Friday, 22 October 1999

The strange thing about Margo Kingston's book about Pauline Hanson, Off
The Rails (Allen & Unwin) is that it isn't about Hanson at all. Its about
Margo Kingston.

Given that Kingston is the brightest, bravest, most forthright of our
political correspondents, she is quite justified in writing a book about
herself. The strange thing is that someone so committed to writing
objectively, to separating the personal from the public, should
unwittingly write such a personal book. 

In the very act of trying to separate out her feelings from her rational
judgement, Kingston shows how tightly bound together they are. As Kingston
herself admits, the classroom theory about "objective" journalism seems to
assume that there is never anything very interesting to observe. Or that
journalists write about rocks or fish rather than living, breathing
people. Or that journalists are frogs themselves, rather than hot blooded

For Kingston, the struggle for truth, for objectivity, for good
journalism, is a moral battle to be fought to the last breath. This
passion is what makes Kingston stand out as a journalist. But it never
seems to occur to her that this struggle might also be a struggle about
language, about how to use words. The book uses the same stylised language
as daily reporting.  This might do for speedy updates, but not for
reflecting on what goes on in the rush.

There is the usual mindless, meaningless jargon one comes to expect from
even the best Canberra press gallery writers. How can Hanson be a
"maverick underdog", when a maverick is an unbranded cow, and a dog is a
quite different species? How can Hanson play the "race card" or the
"anti-media card" when the whole thrust of the book is to argue that what
went on in the 1998 One Nation election campaign was something without any
rules -- be they for card games or croquet -- at all? Kingston never fails
to scrutinise and criticise her conduct, and this is exemplary, but it
never seems to occur to her that there is an ethical responsibility to
choose words well.

Kingston is clearly fascinated by Hanson, even though she finds her views
repugnant. What they have in common, besides both being Queenslanders, is
a passion that cannot fully or clearly express itself in language. Words
fail them. They keep trying to make distinctions, describe things, but the
jargon of the press gallery proves as inadequate as the truisms of the
provincial vernacular.

Something is happening out there, but nobody can quite *translate* it. "I
think we are all so unused to each other", says Hanson, while Kingston has
"the shocking sense of being in a foreign country." Both may be talking
about the same thing, but not in a way the other can grasp. It's less
about One Nation than Zero Nation, an unknown terrain for which there is
no lingua franca. 

To the hard core journo, the unknown, the as-yet unreported, appeals with
an almost sexual thrill.  The chaotic cavalcade of the One Nation election
campaign was in these terms pure seduction. Kingston talks of bureau
chiefs "mesmerised" by Hanson. "The idea of a door-knock that wasn't
carefully pre-arranged was a journalistic turn-on." The media are
"fixated" and "fascinated" -- its a "wired experience." 

And yet this is a constant source of anxiety.  "Established codes of
conduct between the major parties and the media had suddenly be replaced
with a void." Whenever Kingston 'fesses up to a personal investment, a
pleasure, in messing with the unknown and trying to report it, she pulls
back and starts talking about "duty" and "roles" and "rules" and
"principles" and the "pact" between politician and reporter. On one page,
she says in a radio interview that "I am literally a force for order on
this campaign" and on another: "I was completely taken aback by her lack
of facade." Journalism, real journalism, is more like motel sex than a
scientific experiment.

The title of the book, Off the Rails, seems at first to refer to Hanson's
amateur campaigning, but after a while it is clear that it is Kingston,
and journalism in general, that is off the rails here. Kingston is off the
rails and loving it -- but hating the fact that she loves it.

This is the ambivalent desire of journalism. One desire is to get up
close, to get news of the new, the unknown. This blurs your sense of self,
your boundaries. So the other desire is to remain objective, to know the
boundaries, the protocol, to remain detached. "For all my outrage over
Hanson breaking all the standard rules of engagement, her campaign was a
constant adrenalin high because of its sheer unpredicatbility... we were
doing real work for a change." 

Hanson provoked, for the media, a "a crisis in news judgement" -- and no
wonder. This was all just too hot and heavy. And it made journalism self-
conscious, something that the affectless burblings of Howard and Beazley
are never going to arouse.

And of course it all ended in tears. When One Nation promises costings of
election promises and their fails to deliver, Kingston and other
journalists get mad. (In gallery jargon, a "dummy spit".) Which was
probably not a wise thing to do in a room full of One Nation types who
hate the media "elite" enough already. Suddenly, this tiff between One
Nation and the press pack becomes the story.

"How do you write a story when the party you're reporting on has
personally attacked your role in it?" It's a strange question, if you
think of it in terms of what it implies about the usual state of things in
political reporting. It proceeds seamlessly on the basis that the party
being reported accepts the role of the reporter as legitimate -- and
unquestioned. Journalism asks questions on the premise that there will be
no questions about journalism itself.

How can journalism even dare to talk about "ethics"  if there isn't to be
a questioning, even some attacks, on its "role"? No wonder talk about
ethics in journalism is so often infantile talk about "rule books" and
"codes" -- as if being good was just a matter of obedience to something
decided by someone else.

What makes Off the Rails a fascinating book -- at least in terms of what
turns scholars on -- is how close it comes to being self-aware. It is
almost reflective, attentive to the problem of the flux of subjectivity,
as one goes about one's business, as a bundle of desires and prejudices,
alternatively drawn toward and repelled by the events that happen to us. 

Off the Rails is almost a book about ethics, about having to make, on the
spot, judgements that can't be based on fixed rules. Judgements that have
to be made case by case, where there often isn't a common yardstick by
which to measure the competing claims to what is just, to what is the
right thing to do.

"No one had been in this situation before", Kingston says. No "rules", no
"game" -- just the effort to learn, grow, change, and record the process.
Kingston may have failed her own high standards sometimes, and committed a
few misdemeanours against the English language -- but then don't we all?
The fabulous thing is that she risked herself, on the road with Hanson,
and again in writing this book.

McKenzie Wark lectures in media studies at Macquarie University and is the
author of Celebrities, Culture and Cyberspace (Pluto Press).

"We no longer have roots, we have aerials."
 -- McKenzie Wark 

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