As Harold Mitchell proved in delivering this year’s Andrew Olle Memorial Media lecture, it’s not just what you say, or even the way you say it, but also who says it. Since Mitchell only runs the media agency that controls a fifth of all advertising dollars spent in Australia, his comments grabbed less media attention than last year’s man at the stand, News Corp scion Lachlan Murdoch, who at the very least could count on dutiful coverage in his own papers.
As it was, what few reports there were on Mitchell’s speech were mostly confined to the business pages, with a business-like spin that missed most of the bigger picture to which he drew attention – which was that the media needed to concentrate on the bigger picture.
The Australian led with Mitchell’s comments about media laws needing a “complete overhaul” – a view I dare say the proprietors of that newspaper would endorse. The Sydney Morning Herald ran with his warning that the federal government should keep cultural industries off the table in the free-trade talks going on now with the Americans – a view I dare say the editors of that newspaper would endorse.
The report from wire agency AAP – a service with a certain reputation for variability – provided a better sense of the occasion, getting things mostly in their right order and having the nub of Mitchell’s speech – the need for the media to engage in the long-term issues that face Australia and to “seek out the visionaries and make heroes of them” – up the top of the story where it belonged.
“In many ways Australia remains a very lucky country.” Mitchell said. “Since the beginning of the European settlement in Australia it has been the way of each generation to ensure that they built our country so that their children and their children’s children lived a better life than they did.”
“But tonight we can draw a line,” he went on. “What we know is that the parents of Australians in this room will be the last to see their kids having more than they did. Our children and their children will not have what we have had.”
Baby-boomers – “the wealthiest, happiest, healthiest generation in history” – were about to leave to their kids five very great burdens.
First, an inability to get a job the way the previous generation did.
Second, an unsustainable health system, as a lower proportion of young people had to pay for those living longer. Three decades ago health cost consumed 1.7 per cent of government expenditure; now it is 4.3 per cent; by 2040 it is forecast to be 8 per cent.
Third, the education system was not turning out enough, smarter, better people for Australia.
Fourth, a housing and land crisis was moving the Australian dream of owning your own home beyond the average young family – “and in the big cities, of course, it already has”.
Finally, environmental problems like dry-land salinity would take expenditure nearly 10 times current levels – about 2 per cent of gross domestic product – to fix.
“We are OK – but our children and their children may not be.”
Two big things needed to be done.
“First, we need to decide that we want our children to have an even better life than us, and their children to have a better life than them.”
This meant creating good jobs, filling the universities with students who would stay around to contribute to Australia; making housing affordable; and putting money into the environment now, rather than leaving it to the next generation.
“Second, realise that this won’t happen unless we change. The important word is we. Don’t wait for the politicians to do something. Their focus must be three years, not 100 years.”
The media’s part was powerful and pivotal: “Sure, cover the daily news, but not at the expense of great trends of today that are defining our tomorrow.”
Mitchell’s point wouldn’t have been lost even on readers of the daily business pages, an area of journalism as prone as any to acting, as Melbourne Magazine publisher Steve Harris has put it, “a bit like a magnifying glass under the sun – it actually focuses more heat and more short-termism into the subject matter at hand.”
Consider what Harvard Business Review editor Harris Collingwood calls the “fetishistic attention to an almost meaningless indicator”, the reporting of quarterly earnings.
Collingwood says such a short-term focus distorts corporate decision-making, reduces securities analysis and investing to a guessing contest, compromises the integrity of corporate audits and ultimately undermines the capital markets. “Yet many investors treat the quarterly number as significant, at least in part because the amount of media coverage these earnings receive make them appear significant.”
Did someone say something about covering the daily news at the expense of greater trends?
- Tim Wallace is a freelance journalist – [email protected]