Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 11, 2022

This Is Not Journalism, by Margaret Simons, in Meanjin, Winter 2022, Vol 81, Issue 2, edited by Jonathan Green

Meanjin is a quarterly magazine which began in 1940 in Brisbane and is now based in Melbourne with Melbourne University as its principal sponsor.  Its cover essay is by Margaret Simons, one of Australia’s best, most thoughtful journalists.  I’ve read and reviewed a fair bit of her work, most recently her bio of Penny Wong.

Over the last couple of years, even the most rigorously curated Twitter feed couldn’t avoid the recurring hashtag #ThisIsNotJournalism.  The essay by Simons interrogates the hashtag and the problems facing journalism in the age of social media.  As the Jonathan Green puts it in his editorial:

We thought, not so long ago, that we’d entered a new age of freely flowing facts and ideas, one in which the power of gatekeepers had been diminished, bringing ready access to new informational tools that would empower us all.

Then came the undertow of social media and the piling of attitudinal silos.  And worse: the gaming of that polarisation and the fluid notion of the factual that fuelled it, by both media and politics.  The gatekeepers learned to study the direction and impact of the flow, sensing commercial and political opportunities. (p.iv)

Simons begins by dismissing the hashtag as either indignation from keyboard warriors encountering ideas with which they disagree, or the work of conspiracy theorists who just want to spread their own nonsensical ideas.  Well, she’s done the research, and I’ve barely engaged with #ThisIsNotJournalism, but FWIW while a lot of the hashtag looks to me like political partisanship, some of what I’ve seen points to legitimate concerns about the trend towards tabloid journalism and gotcha interviewing on the ABC. As deplored by Lindsay Tanner in his book Sideshow (2011, see my review.)

The users of the #thisisnotjournalisn and #fakenews hashtags have clearly internalised a notion of the profession of journalism, and its ideals.  It is extraordinary that they have managed to gain this, given the disruption in the profession for the last 30 years—its lurches, missteps and betrayals, and its current hollowed-out nature.  Yet still, there is the belief that journalists should deal with facts.  (It’s just that the followers of the hashtag don’t agree on the facts, and don’t trust the journalists to report them.)

They agree that journalists should be objective, but they don’t agree on what that should mean.  They believe journalists should hold the powerful to account, but with no agreement on facts or objectivity, that can only be a nonsense.  Here we have an artefact of our times. The idea of journalism is being turned against the mainstream media.  And journalism is in rotten shape to respond.  (p.68)

Well, yes, it is in disarray.  But Simons is only briefly side-tracked by the keyboard warriors. The rest of the essay is a call for reform.

Simons deconstructs the nexus between democracy and the need for journalism.  I myself have often pontificated about this ideal in the public interest, so I was chastened to learn that the US scholar Michael Schudson debunks this idea.  First of all, there have been democracies without journalism, starting with ancient Greece, and including Al Jazeera, one of the best journalism outlets in the world, which is based in an autocracy (i.e. Qatar). And, something else to be aware of:

There is journalism in Russia albeit under challenge.  There was an upswell of investigative journalism in China in the 1990s, accompanying the free market reforms of Deng Xiaoping. (p.78)

Schudson lists ways in which journalism might be ‘useful’: 

… political news; political analysis; investigative reporting; ‘social empathy stories that inform citizens about neighbours and groups they might not otherwise understand; hosting public conversations; and ‘mobilising citizens for political life by advocating candidates, policies, and viewpoints. (p.78)

#Digression: Simons doesn’t say this, but I will.  The commercial stations have never done much of this ‘useful’ work, but the ABC used to.  Now, however, generational change at the ABC has resulted in half-baked ‘analysis’ from a team of wonderfully diverse but inexperienced journalists, and underfunded resources for investigative journalism have been displaced into an endless stream of resurrected cold cases originating from a podcast.  These are all predicated on claims of police cover-ups or incompetence; unsubstantiated allegations and red-herring clues that the police ‘ignored’.  There are interviews with tear-streaked family members accompanied by ponderous sound tracks with violins.  The exploitation of these bereft people for tabloid purposes sometimes results in an inconclusive re-opening of the case or a coronial enquiry, which must be heart-breaking for those still hoping for an answer which — tragically — is not forthcoming.  (Which is probably what the police concluded all those years ago.  It must be hard for them, too, when they have done what they could and failed to have a culprit convicted.)  Perhaps worse, sometimes these programs and the social media commentary that they are designed to provoke compromise a trial…


Simons notes that early newspapers made no claim to be objective, but that regular publication ‘domesticated them.’  Her quotation from the historian Michael Stephens made me think of a certain celebrity anchor who has just ‘moved on’.

‘Once journalists have investments, good wardrobes and networks of friendship with the powerful, then they will probably be satisfied with an occasional exposé.’ (p.79)

Depressingly, Stephens concludes that despite all appearances, the role of the media in relatively free Western societies is mostly cohesive, and supportive of the status quo.  Simons concludes that the professional rhetoric of high public purpose and journalists’ own remarkably consistent idea of what journalism is, was difficult to defend against some media coverage in recent years.  (Her examples include the blatantly racist reporting about non-existent ‘African gangs’ and uncorrected errors in attacks on chief health officers during the pandemic.)

It is extraordinary, really, how blind we have been to the gap between our professional self-regard and the real, messy history. (p.80)

Most interesting of all is Simon’s discussion of Hallan and Mancini’s 2004 analysis of how media operates across different European countries.  They identified a North Atlantic Liberal Model (as in the UK, Canada, US and Ireland); the Mediterranean polarised pluralist model (as in places where democracy arrived late); and the North and Central European Democratic Corporatist Model (as in Germany and Sweden).  Hallan and Mancini found that contrary to assumptions we might make, Australia was an ‘outrider’, not belonging to any of these models. We don’t have proper regulation of accuracy and impartiality.  We have patronage given in return for benefits (e.g. appointments to the ABC Board based on political loyalty rather than professional criteria). Journalism education arrived late here, and we have an audience divided into an elite—who are knowledgeable about politics and the workings of democracy—who watch the ABC; and—in an almost different social world, those who watch commercial TV.

In many ways, Australian media more closely resembled the semi-corrupted, elite clientelism of countries where democracy is less than a lifetime old. (p.82)


Simons concludes that there is a need for ethical self-regulation and how it might best be constructed and enforced, now that the industry has at least accepted that it is a legitimate accompaniment to privilege.  (This is in the context of legislation forcing Facebook and Google to pay for news content that they use, which also requires media organisations to subscribe to minimal ethical standards.)  She also recommends that journalism could become braver, acknowledging the problems of the profession, rather than hanging back, reluctant to criticise our peers. It’s also time, she says, to construct the kind of professional associations and forums for regulation and reflection and dialogue that we see in almost every other profession and trade, from medicine to plumbing. (p.85)

There are organisations that will claim they already do these things.  They need to be rebutted, or entirely remade.  The press clubs in capital cities are self-congratulatory lunch clubs. The Walkley Foundation gives out awards and hands out the congratulations, gouges sponsorship money from self-interested players, and never criticises.  The Australian Press Council is hopelessly compromised, as successive enquiries into its own sad history confirm.  None of these will do. (p.85)


Wouldn’t it be great if the Canberra Press Club invited Simons to speak to this essay at one of its broadcasted sessions, eh?

There is lots of other good stuff in this Meanjin.  Subscribe here.

Author: Margaret Simons
Title: ‘This is Not Journalism’ in Meanjin, Winter 2022, Vol 81, Issue 2
Editor: Jonathan Green
Publisher: Meanjin, an imprint of Melbourne University Publishing, 2022
ISBN: 9780522878486, pbk., 224 pages
Review copy courtesy of Melbourne University Publishing



  1. I must read this.


  2. Yes, to your last question … and I have bought the odd Meanjin, but don’t subscribe just because I can’t keep up, but maybe I will again.

    BTW Clearly I don’t use Twitter enough because I’ve never seen that hashtag! I don’t think it’s that I well curate my Twitter so much as I only occasionally glance at it. I don’t find it a “user-friendly” platform to use, and by that I mean navigating myself around. I hate the structure of the page: I see your Tweet, say, and then rather than seeing all the responses, I see Who to follow with a few suggestions, and then I see More Tweets. I just want to see the discussion on your tweet. So, I click on your tweet and get taken to the page for your tweet. Then, I see one or two responses and then I get Promoted tweet or some such before I scroll down to see more responses. It is just so infuriating. Can’t stand it.


    • I like Twitter for the chat that goes on around UK and European books, by people who visit my blog.
      By the sound of things, what you see is different to what I do using my PC. (Apple maybe, or using your phone? What I see on my phone is annoying too, in the way that you describe.)
      On my PC there’s a RH side which shows me what’s trending, and that’s where those hashtags lurk, and when a certain celebrity anchor trends at the same time, I take a look at why. So (unlike Simons, who researched it properly) I get a skewed view of how the hashtags are used, but it does confirm that there is considerable disquiet about ABC journalism, especially during the pre and post election period. And especially about presenters who used to work for Sky.


      • Ah yes, I really only do Twitter and Instagram on my phone. I’ll try the laptop … though I spend too much time on it as it is!


  3. It sounds like a well thought out essay. I don’t think Australians realise how far we have slipped from what we once thought of as democratic norms. We really are on the slippery slope of crony-capitalism.
    I don’t watch TV, but I do follow the commentary on the ABC. I was once a big RN fan but it has followed ‘local’ radio into tabloidism and is nearly all gone now.


    • The ABC needs a good clean out, going right back up the food chain to the people who commission and schedule the programs to the bottom where they add the clickbait headlines and add the soppy music.
      Honestly, I never dreamed I would say anything like that, because it’s what critics of the left and right used to say in response to their perceptions of bias. But it’s not the bias that I mind so much, though I miss the days when you really couldn’t tell what a presenter’s position was — it’s the shallowness of it. If it’s true that it’s only an educated elite that engages with the ABC, it can’t be true that they are satisfied with it.


  4. So many questions to wrestle with here. As a former journalist I despair of the way the profession has deteriorated – there are of course exceptions but too many so called journalists just regurgitate press releases and pronouncements from govt/companies/pressure groups with little if any attempt to question those statements.

    Then we get the problem of the high profile broadcast journalists who essentially want to push their own agenda.

    Al Jazeera was a surprising find during one of the many UK lockdowns – it was straight and to the point


    • Yes, that problem of agenda-setting is here too, though IMO it’s more a case of the celebrity journo being in tune with an agenda that pervades the newsroom. There seems to be no one to say, we’ve heard enough about that for a while, (or we don’t need to devote so much bulletin time to that issue) we need to cover other issues of significance.


      • We had one celeb journo of long standing who retired finally last year to my great relief. He was so enthralled by stories about political in-fighting and couldn’t see that it turned the rest of us to sleep


        • Yup. Same here!
          And at the same time there is no analysis of the real differences between the parties.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. I have not read this periodical though I see it in the book shop regularly. So much out there to read there is no way I can keep up. I couldn’t agree more with this and your remarks re: the ABC are spot on . Just so disappointing at times.


    • I miss the old ABC, I really do…
      These days I have to hunt around to find any intelligent news reporting and analysis.

      Liked by 1 person

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