Interview with Catherine Lumby

"The Dichotomy of Pleasure and Power is Too Simple". Critiques on Contemporary Media Moralism

The Australian cultural commentator Catharine Lumby is one those rare academic scholars, equipped with the ability to make theory accessible to a broad audience without simplifying or losing any of the points she wants to make. Passionate of the Differences, weary of the Homogeneous. Besides her work as a journalist she published two books. “Bad Girls” from 1997 deals with media, sex and feminism in the nineties and critiques the moral stand of some feminists in their unholy alliance with conservative censors. She explains why feminists need porn and calls for an active engagement of women in all issues related to both old and new media. Women should no longer take the position of the outsiders. They are inside and should deal with that new position, so Lumby. “Gotcha, Life in a Tabloid World”, which appeared in 1999 was partly written in New York and digs into cases such as the O. J. Simpson, the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, the death of princess Diana again from an engaged, amoral position. Taking popular culture as it is – both a billion dollar industry and a fractured mirror of society – might be common sense these days. Still, we somehow can’t get rid of the same old complaints about vulgar sensationalism which stand for our Sin and decline of civilization in general every time we find ourselves in the middle of a millennial scandal. I visited Catharine Lumby in her office at Sydney University where she was recently appointed as Director of Media and Communication where she was in the middle of her next project, the protective, paternalistic media images of teenage girls.

GL: I suppose it was not your aim with “Gotcha” to convince the general audience to consume tabloid media. They will do that anyway. Is it still necessary to debate with the last remaining intellectuals about the legitimacy of popular media?

CL: The polemics of “Gotcha” is addressed to a group of media commentators who represent the interests and values of middle class educated liberals and their hidden elitist ideas in relation to class. My concerns is the way in which the public broadcasting service (ABC) defines who “the public” is. Do they speak to the long-term unemployed, to women? Do they understand the diversity of publics that make our society? Liberals see all commercial media as irrelevant. They judges these media by standards which they see as universal or neutral. Sometimes commercial media is able to speak to people in a language that is accessible to them, addressing issues that are important in everyday life, that are ignored by elite or quality media. I am very suspicious when anybody claims to speak on behalf of “the public”. I began this book because I wanted to investigate my own prejudices, coming from a middle class educated background. We need to bear in mind that many interests and values are colliding, which may be incommensurate. There is no universal position from which to judge the quality of information. I am a pluralist, very interested in diversity, supportive of public broadcasting. Often the liberal model is very authoritarian, paternalistic.

GL: What is the reason why this liberal class in Australia still holds such important power positions within the media?

CL: Australia has a relatively small population (19 million inhabitants, GL). The range of media commentators is rather small too. The baby-boom generation tended to have a smugness about their politics. They are satisfied with themselves, convinced that they are still radicals. In “Bad Girls” I looked at feminism, as a feminist, admitting that feminism has become part of mainstream. It has become an institution. Once something becomes mainstream you cannot assume it remains always radical. For me feminism has to be a constant questioning. Some of the more prominent senior feminists in Australia don’t recognize that they have power themselves. Admitting this would undermine their position. Some members of this generation are so convinced that they are always radical that new ideas, from new generations are easily dismissed. With others from my age, I am in my late thirties, I find that is very difficult to even have a debate about these things. You must be aligned with the right if you are dare to disagree with the old left. Speaking positions in the media and the knowledge and cultural industries became quickly occupied and the baby-boom generation hung up to these jobs. Sometimes it is that simple. For younger generations there is no such a thing as a secure job, with a secure speaking position. They are forced to work in-between academia and the media, or in-between the mainstream and alternative media. There is much more flexibility and a tendency to see power as contingent and relational, not as something you unconsciously inhabit.

GL: Let’s move to the tabloid world. In “Gotcha” you looking into four cases, Diana, Clinton, O.J. Simpson and Pauline Hanson, the Australian populist right wing politician. Have you noticed any developments on that front over the last decade?

CL: When I am use this word “tabloidization” I only looked into broad shifts within mainstream news and current affairs media, both in content, the formal shifts such a the sheer competition to attract audiences and the collapse of entertainment and information. These shifts have been intensifying since the eighties due to global capital flows and technological changes. Apart from ethical considerations there are also positive sides to these scandals. The O.J. Simpson case is sometimes dismissed as just a voyeuristic story about a terrible killing. Why do we have a year of coverage of this on CNN? Hang on. This is also a very important case about race relations in America, domestic violence, gender politics. It mirrors society on a deeply symbolic level. The verdict itself split the nation. 96 million Americans watched the highlights of that trail. People could see the trail, make up their own minds and act as a jury. 86% of black Americans thought the verdict was fair. Almost an equivalent amount of whites agreed, which tells you that white and black America are two different countries. All in all an important, iconic event not to be dismissed as non-political voyeurism.

GL: Sensational reporting has been around ever since media were invented. After the Frankfurt School dismissal of popular culture which dominated the seventies, and the Cultural Studies response of active, engaging consumer of the eighties, what position has been developed over the past years?

CL: That dichotomy between power and pleasure, or manipulation and resistance, is too simple. The media sphere is very diffuse and defecated. People don’t belong to one demographic and inhabit different audiences at different times. The consumer in the way market research would like to carve people up doesn’t make any sense. People are constantly negotiating their personal, social and political identities in and through the media. They are producing, interacting at the same time as they are consuming. It does not make sense anymore to distinguish between the producer and the consumer. Media literacy has grown. A broad understanding of how images and text are being put together that you did not have with television in the sixties or seventies. You can see that in advertisement which targets at youth audiences. Advertisers are very aware how clued in young people are. Media buy people’s attention. At the same time, if they were able to do that, Hollywood would never make a bad movie. They spend millions of dollars on market research and continue to have turkeys. The audience remains allusive and does not exist in a mass manipulative form.

GL: Despite numerous attempt to overcome and deconstruct the division between high and low culture, that distinction still is in place.

CL: I think it absolutely is. Not because it is natural. Many people are invested in this distinction. There is a certain level of fear about the rapid changes in popular culture. The other night I did a radio program on ABC, a quality program, and they asked me about television. They had people calling in, and at least three of them began by saying “I don’t own a television set, but. ” and then they would talk about television. How would they know popular culture being bad for everybody? There is a claim here to have some highbrow taste but in reality, how people negotiate culture in the everyday, these distinctions are increasingly meaningless. It is also class-based. Of course you can see some really bad opera and first class Hollywood films. Not all European films with subtitles are good. It all becomes laughable.

GL: Internet has come out of its stage of infancy and hype and is rapidly becoming a mass medium. Do you see possibilities for the Net to develop itself in an interesting way or will it go through the usual phases of corporatization, like all other media?

CL: The Internet is offering more possibilities for alternative spaces. Because of the rise in media literacy the issue of government control is being debated on such a higher level. Look at the Microsoft case and the level of suspicion amongst users it is causing. As governments and large commercial entities take over or dominate spaces on the Internet, there is still always a possibility for new spaces opening up. It is rhizomatic, in that sense. There are structural reasons to be more optimistic. A little movement in one part of the Internet can force public recognition on a much broader level. You don’t have to be able to produce a glossy magazine or a documentary to make some public space.

GL: Despite all this we can see a “tabloidization” of the World Wide Web happening, as we speak. It is an ideal medium for rumors of any sort. Would a code of conduct make any sense in this context or should we just except the fact that all information on the Net is potentially unreliable?

CL: We need to rethink ethics. What might an ethics for this diverse media sphere look like? It would have to radically critique the liberal concept of ethics which is about imposing an code. This is right and this is wrong. My politics are probably radically democratic. Any attempt to regulate this sphere I would like to come from the grassroots up. We need to give citizens and media consumers access to inexpensive forums where they can have their concerns about the media expressed, like invasion of privacy and unfair reporting. A system of simply fining media organizations does not work very well. What is required is a forum where consumers can negotiate with producers. The sanction would be publicity. Mainstream media often pretends it is outside society, that it is not a powerful institution. It does influence events and people’s lives and so not merely reporting. We are dealing here with powerful institutions which need to be under permanent scrutiny. The European inquisitorial model, where you look at things case by case is better than the Anglo-Saxon model which is about an abstract code that you apply. Right across the Western world consumer groups have these concerns. We saw the anger at the media, after the death of Princess Diana. The journalist is the evil person now and has replaced the Russian in popular culture. It needs to be a flexible system of conciliation, bringing parties together, and this includes the Web.

GL: Where do you stand in the debate about taboos? If there is a taboo, it needs to broken, reported about, displayed, at any cost. Some critics have started to question this blind response and long for a moral climate in which society can protect, and care, its own taboos, against the inherent tendency to break them.

CL: There is no issue that should not be examined. There is always the question of context. There is no absolute line. It is always a negotiation, the balance between public and private interest. Unethical reporting can escape any code. I don’t have some fantasy that we could prevent the abuse, also because technologies to spy on people have exploded in such a way . You could be anarchistic and say that anyone can publish anything. That’s fine for the Net. My concerns are more targeted towards large media corporations. For instance when you have unbalanced reporting in a situation of war or geo-political conflict, it would be good to have an international body, a forum where people could be heard. If you look at CNN, on many occasions people have raised the question: What is the other side of this?

GL: The trend of media reporting on media is on the increase. But that’s not exactly what you mean.   The programs we have here in Australia, like “Mediawatch”, are grounded in traditional, liberal journalism. They look for spelling errors. Journalism has been largely unreflective about its own practice. Objective reporting is given as a given value, rather than a concept that was invented in the twentieth century. In some sense investigative journalism can be seen as the highest form, like Watergate. There is an interesting similarity to tabloid reporting on the private lives of celibrities. Both forms can serve the community well. When I used to work inside parliament as a journalist, I was struck by how stories were put together there, very much like gossip. There would be a rumor, you would call someone to confirm it, they would deny it, but talk to you off the record, thereby adding gossip to gossip. Mostly it is about who likes who. Still, this information is regarded as very important. If you would use the same techniques to bring news about Pamela Anderson’s marriage breakdown, it would be seen as the worst form of reporting. The distinctions between high and lowbrow are artificial. They have more in common than recognized. There is a gendered split between trivial and important and what matters to people.

GL: Would you be in favor of unrevealing the edutainment industry, reversing the infotainment paradigm, into serious information on the one, and true entertainment on the other hand? Or should we further intensify, radicalize concepts like reality TV?

CL: The latter. You can’t pull anything back in this rapidly changing environment. It is much more interesting to radicalize media concepts. We are still in a transitional period. Television and even radio have been influenced by the model of printing press. Maybe I am too much of an optimist. I think we heading somewhere much more interesting with multi-channeling and the collusion of the professional and the amateur, the public and the private, information and entertainment.

GL: Media and communication studies have become the largest departments inside universities. How do you think all these students should be equipped, knowledge wise?

CL: Critical thinking. I am not teaching them what to think. Instead they should be encouraged to want to think., helping them to discover their own curiosity. To recognize that knowledge within universities is just one discourse. There are many points of access to information and ideas. Learn them how to navigate certain discourses and how to speak to different audiences. That’s a question of genre and rhetoric. This should be based on a broad humanities education. And perhaps a familiarity with sciences too. You want to equip people for lifelong learning. The information revolution and the intellectual flexibility which is demanded of people is increasing exponentially. Rather than training people vocationally to deal with one piece of equipment or another, you want to give them access to broad skills so that they can think visually, able to manipulate words as well as image and sound. Training only for print or television is old media thinking.

GL: How would the new media critic look like? The concept of criticism itself has come under pressure. It has been declared dead by post modernism. It has been associated with cultural pessimism.

CL: If critical thinking is posed from a position of authority, from which to judge, that’s very problematic. There is no outside. You hope people will be skeptical, which in the best sense means to question everything, including your speaking position. Being suspicious about everything you see and read. An ungoing skepticism.

GL: Your new research is dealing with youth culture and youth policies.

CL: I am particularly interested in teenage girls. They are a category of people about whom a lot is being said. There is a lot of protective anxiety around them. There is so much said on their behalf but you never hear from them. We hear that they are anorexic, caused by super models and magazines, that they are sexually vulnerable because people want to prey. They are closely monitored in the ways they dress. Despite all this fascination there is this denial that this group has any agency. What is they relationship to this protective discourse and where would we hear the voices of teenage girls? If you simply go out as a media researcher, put them in focus groups and ask them questions, you are replicating the thing you try to get away from. They will tell you want adult researchers want to hear. I don’t really buy the idea that any group is voiceless, or powerless.

Catharine Lumby, Bad Girls, Allen & Unwin, St. Leonards, 1997
Catharine Lumby. Gotcha, Allen & Unwin, St. Leonards, 1999