PJ-gate: citizen journalism at the ABC

In his book Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life And Beyond, academic Axel Bruns talks about the concept of folksonomics, wherein traditional hierarchies of knowledge have been flattened by the empowerment of the online community. The rise of social media (including blogs such as this one) and the drive towards interactive news environments, in particular, has meant that journalists have lost their once-coveted status as both the gatekeepers and disseminators of information.

This is not entirely a bad thing, but the drowning out of expertise in favour of the hum of audience chatter has its limitations. As the ABC has just discovered, after sending a citizen journalist (actually, a staff audio engineer) to write a live review of one of the most revered songwriters of her generation. PJ Harvey is not a woman to be trifled with, and nor are her fans. In the interests of full disclosure, I’m happy to add that I am one.

Ian Church’s piece for the website of Perth’s local ABC radio 720 is now flagged (after a couple of hasty edits), as an “audience review”. He paid his own way to get in, so at least we as ABC consumers didn’t pay to be edified by the following bon mots:

“I, like many of other males have been introduced to PJ Harvey by my partner. And after just two minutes of being at the concert hall, a guy and his wife pick up on our West Country English dulcet tones.

“We talk about her music, and how although we as men are not massive fans, we both have great respect for her and her song writing.

“After seeing PJ Harvey perform at festivals, I know this lass can hold her own with the boys. For research you only have to look at songs from the Desert sessions where she performs with the likes Mark Lanegan, and Josh Homme.”

And that’s just for starters – literally. It’s the introduction.

The ABC didn’t allow comments on the piece, but PJ Harvey’s Facebook page was apparently flooded with complaints and the ABC had a bucketful also. Well, I sent one, anyway. To Aunty’s credit, she has since amended the egregiously sexist bits, without taking the time to render the rest literate.

In fact, this is not Ian Church’s only review. In many ways, his piece on Gary Numan’s Perth show in May last year (which has not yet, by the way, been deemed an “audience review”) reaches heights/plumbs depths unexplored in the Harvey travesty, veering into so-bad-it’s-good territory with all the demented certainty of a bung shopping trolley:

“I had never been to a concert before at the Astor Cinema and to be honest I was unsure on what to expect.”

Never fear, Numanoids:

“I enjoyed this concert amazingly. The only thing that let it down was the cheap merchandise, but if you were wearing that to look cool then you really need to take a look at yourself.

“I know me and my 30-something mates all had a whale of a time. Gary Numan has been keeping it real, and for that I thank him.”

No, Ian. Thank you.

My beef is not really with Ian or his opinions. It’s with whoever thought it was a good idea to commission him. A good editor would have at least, you know, edited his thoughts into something that vaguely approached readability. A better editor would not have published them in the first place. PJ Harvey certainly deserves more (and I don’t mean favourable treatment; she doesn’t want for that); more importantly, the audience demands it. We are not idiots. Neither is Ian, I’m sure – but please, stick to your day job.

Even more than journalists, editors are gatekeepers. They are the bullshit detectors and the quality controllers. If you want to imagine a world without them, reading Ian Church’s reviews will give you a pretty good idea of what it looks like. I could accept such amateurism in the annals of the street press. But the ABC? Hopefully, the savaging they’ve received will discourage a repeat.

I’m all for a plurality of voices. The more the merrier. But if editors want to commission citizen journalists, let’s make them good ones. Let it be an opportunity to expose vibrant, articulate, passionate new voices. If they’re worth listening to, they’ll rise above the chatter.

Really, there’s already enough noise in the world.

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