A race to the bottom

It would take only a single inspirational politician to change the media and political landscape, according to one of Australia's pre-eminent journalists, Kerry O'Brien, who delivered the flagship Wallace Wurth Memorial lecture.

A single inspirational politician could change the political and media landscape, according to one of Australia's pre-eminent journalists, Kerry O'Brien, who gave the flagship Wallace Wurth Memorial Lecture this week.

The former host of The 7.30 Report has called for politicians to resist needlessly filling the news void, which he says has become more focused on entertainment than on news.

"I firmly believe, as has occasionally happened in the past, that one, well-centred, substantial politician with the capacity to articulate an inspirational vision and the determination to put it partly into effect could change the landscape. And a landscape can be changed like that," he told a packed audience.

While he stopped short of attributing those qualities to the Queensland Premier, Anna Bligh, he did point to her performance during the floods and the cyclone as "real" and unscripted, which people responded to, turning around previous disapproval.

In his far-reaching address on "Politics and Journalism: the race to the bottom", Mr O'Brien said the quality of public debate in Australia was "dismally poor", a comment which drew applause from the packed Clancy Auditorium at UNSW.

Media and politicians are stuck in a "love-hate" dance which is spiraling downwards, he said.

While he acknowledged the unprecedented changes in technology and the increased output, he questioned the outcome.

"It might be more flexible reporting, but is it better?" he asked, adding that new media can be easily manipulated.

Mr O'Brien said news outlets have fewer resources, leading to PR and marketing organizations having unparalleled impact on public affairs.

He said younger journalists are being required to produce more stories than in previous generations, without the mentoring from older colleagues.

But the winner of this country's highest award for journalism, the Gold Walkley, and the winner of six other Walkley awards remains confident that quality journalism will survive.

"Journalism has always faced challenges," he said. "The key is to know why the story is important."

Media contact: Susi Hamilton | susi.hamilton@unsw.edu.au | 9385 1583