Journalists talk about moving to the 'dark side' when they make the inevitable transition - usually by middle age - between journalism and PR. The dark side pays more - much more - but as one would expect, there is a price in this Faustian bargain.
Traditionally for the journalist who makes the leap there is a nagging sense that one has given away something valuable. 'Selling your soul' is the easy descriptor, but it is more a feeling of leaving the tribe, of joining a grubbier world (like a priest who swaps the dog collar for a shirt and tie) and the loss of more than a shred of pride. After all, one is swapping a role that involves revealing the truth to one that is dedicated to hiding the truth, or at least to constructing publicity and selling it as the truth.
For the journalists who stay behind inside the crumbling citadel of the Fourth Estate, there traditionally are mixed feelings as well - usually a combination of envy that their colleague has found a way out, but also a grim determination to go down fighting alongside the remaining scarred members of the priestly tribe against the dark, soiled corporate PR forces camped outside.
I say 'traditionally' because the 'dark corporate PR forces' are no longer camped outside. They broke through the editorial walls long ago. The copy written by publicity agents, corporate communication flaks, advertisers and political minders now makes up the bulk of what is sold to the public as 'journalism'. (A university study undertaken and published last year by a team led by respected former journalist, lawyer and academic Wendy Bacon showed just that). This really isn't surprising, given the white spaces that keep the ads apart have increased as the number of journalists has dwindled. Something had to give.
But now the PR agents are so far within the gates that they are dictating the transformation of the industry itself. Look at the work that spin doctor Sue Cato has done for Fairfax Media in massaging its message over the axing of more than 80 sub-editing jobs as an "investment in quality journalism". So embarrassing has this makeover of the message been that it has been commented on New York's Columbia Journalism Review.
One sympathises with Fairfax's commercial position - this economy after all has been a long time coming - but it's not clear that the Australian people yet understand the price for journalism and democracy of these cuts at our second biggest news organisation. For one, it outsources editorial judgement and discretion to a much less able organisation - in the form of Pagemasters. For another, it destroys the unique voice of the Fairfax broadsheets - the last quality for-profit media company standing between Rupert Murdoch and a monopoly over the Australian print media.
And onto Mr Murdoch. It is a rhetorical point and obviously does not apply to every individual, but a case can be made that when a journalist leaves News Ltd for PR, they are really just swapping one publicity role for another. In their new job they will be representing a dozen or so corporate clients. In the old, they were representing the interests of one - the world view of Rupert Murdoch, as constructed by the harried editors he appoints to sell that world view in the public realm in countries around the globe. And, as we repeatedly see, when the facts clash with the Murdocrachy's agenda, the facts must be amended to fit.
Examples of this Orwellian world can be seen in Murdoch's papers every day, but a classic recent case was The Australian front page splash that had Westpac CEO Gail Kelly "joining the carbon tax revolt" by business leaders against the government. As Kelly herself said, and as ABC's Media Watch showed, the truth was quite the opposite. But that version simply did not fit the Murdoch agenda to wreck the minority Labor government and engineer the election of a friendlier one, so the story was appropriately altered.
Or look at the biggest "news" story out of the recent Federal Budget. News Ltd papers - which represent 70 per cent of our metropolitan print media - decided that the angle was the government's alleged assault on the "new Aussie battlers on $150,000 a year". Leaving aside the fact that News Ltd itself just two years before had led calls for an attack on middle class welfare, the story was a beat-up anyway. The budget had merely extended a freeze on indexation of family benefits to those on more than $150,000 that was first applied in the 2008 budget. But News Ltd wanted the budget to serve its purpose of building a sense of outrage over the government's alleged incompetence so great that it forces another election.
So what happens next? Well, of course, the Murdoch papers run a Newspoll which discovers that Labor is experiencing the worst reaction to a federal budget in 20 years. The poll finds 41 per cent of people feel they will be worse off as a result of the budget; 11 per cent better off. Now ask yourself how people came to this view; based on what information and whose version of the truth? Meanwhile, the prime minister in waiting gets a free pass after delivering a address in reply to the budget which was essentially another attempt to to shout Labor out of office as one would punters at closing time
None of this is to deny the Gillard government is damaging itself (as Peter Hartcher and others have argued) by jumping at shadows of Tony Abbott's making and by limply buying into the agenda framed by the Opposition and its media agents. But Gillard and Swan have been aided in their communications ineptitude by a Murdoch empire that clearly decided last year that the government is illegitimate (insofar as its proprietor's business and ideological interests are concerned). Now his serfs are doing everything in their power to foment an atmosphere where an election comes to be called.
That the Australian people - waiting for another government handout to meet the payments on their flat screen TVs, mortgages and margin loans - apparently haven't woken up to this conspiracy by a US citizen and his paid employees to decide our government highlights the difference between journalism and PR.
The dark side is now inside.
(See also Bernard Keane in Crikey: Media Bias Vs Political Substance in the Budget - subscriber)