Monday, March 25, 2013

Tasmanian Writers Festival - the shock of the now

Saturday March 23, 2013

Shock of the old - Phillip Adams

Embracing the digital, is there a cost? – Anne Summers, Matthew Lamb, Rebecca Fitzgibbon, Damon Young, Tony Birch

Eating people is wrong – Phillip Adams, Anne Summers, John Martinkus, Martin Flanagan, Peter Singer

The 2013 Writers festival offered an ambitious programme that included a mix of accomplished writers of all genres. It was great to see our local Tasmanian poets, fiction and non-fiction authors along-side their peers from outside Tasmania, a reminder of just how well-endowed this state is with talent.

I attended the Saturday afternoon series in the Founders Room in the Salamanca Arts Centre, focusing on non-fiction and journalism, which is where my interest lies.

Phillips Adams was, as ever, an engaging raconteur and full of good stories about his brushes with terribly famous people, Henry Kissinger and Gore Vidal, to name a few. He summarised the many different versions of interviewees he had met during his radio career, my favorite being the person that does not require an interviewer and can talk happily for the duration of the interview without questions. I have met several of those types at parties. Adams described journalist and author Christopher Hitchens as someone that he would introduce and back–announce, and in the twenty minutes in between, Adams could have gone out to drink coffee and make a call. Hitchens would not have noticed the absence as he would blithely talk on.

The panel discussion on the digital environment for writers, hosted by Anne Summers, was interesting but somewhat perplexing.  Among the writers, journalists and editors assembled there was a prevailing acceptance of the omnipresence of digital media, with varying degrees of enthusiasm.  However, there was also a sense of powerless resignation in the face of the associated flaws, such as substandard writing, sloppy editing and vile behaviour. I, like many other members of the digital community, am looking for insight into how to foster the positive and overcome the negative that goes with the digital media, so I was bit disappointed the professional panel didn’t offer any great strategies.  Philosopher Damon Young discussed his own personal mode of quality assurance and it would have been nice to hear more ideas about a broader positive influence over digital culture. However, given the speed with which platforms are evolving, I suppose we are all just running along behind the speeding digital vehicle so influencing etiquette is no easy matter.

‘Eating people is wrong’ played on Peter Singer’s status as vegan ethicist and the way in which the media consumes individuals at any cost.  Sports journalist Martin Flanagan was a perfect member of the panel and expressed alarm at the weekly feasting on athletes and sportspeople by the press. I am not a huge follower of sport but I do feel saddened by the sight of the likes of Ben Cousins and others being pursued by journos and cameras. If you didn’t have a drug problem before the blanket exposure, then you would be pretty justified in developing one to cope with the onslaught!

Again, there was something of an air of doom and disillusionment about the modern state of the Australian media. Flanagan’s assertion that the ABC might not be excellent, but it is a whole lot better than the alternatives was affirmed by the other speakers. What did strike a chord with me was the observation that if we want quality media then we do have to pay for it, so rather than cursing the pay wall, we should buy a ticket to get behind it. Like voting for quality journalism with a credit card.

Tasmanian journalist and university lecturer John Martinkus’ account of life on the ground in conflict zones was a salient reminder of just how much we rely on those correspondents and independent documentary makers.  Given how much of the news content we consume is about war and strife we do have owe a great debt to the hardy souls who gather our news for us, often at a huge risk to their own safety.

Phillip Adams pondered that the proliferation of online media sources poses the risk that we can become informed entirely by self-affirming media outlets presenting only the version of world events that we want to hear, thus feeding political polarity to the point of irreconcilability. In light of this, if a healthy media is critical to a healthy democracy, will democracy manage to overcome the silo mentality fed by online news?

The increased presence of opinion pieces in newspapers was explained as a symptom of the dire economics of news. It is simply cheaper to print opinion than it is to pay and produce reporting.

So, mindful that I am contributing to the glut, I will offer one last opinion. My experience of the Writers’ Festival was really positive and I found it to be a great  success. The event was well-run, everything went to time, the speakers were clever and great to listen to, and from where I sat the attendance looked great.

by Stephenie Cahalan

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