There’s a French movie round the traps right now called Lost Illusions that manages to nail the Australian media landscape despite having been written about the same industry in 19th century France.
It’s based on a “systems novel” by Honore de Balzac and it takes real delight in spelling out what a cynical cash grab the journalistic profession was at the time. The hero of the piece is a hot twink who bursts onto the scene in Paris on the back of the period equivalent of a viral OnlyFans. He then becomes a “journalist” but in 21st century parlance, “influencer” would do just fine to describe his work: the production of clickbait.
Australian journalism is brimming with such creatures. Uber-networkers with enough pixel ink in the rear-view mirror for them to be considered writers and enough cash in the bank of their stylish, workshare-space business in Chippendale or Fitzroy for them to be considered professional.
Every Australian newspaper and website has a Google spreadsheet brimming with the names of these clickbaiters. They’re usually over 50, white and distinguishable for being ready and willing to burp out content on a host of off-colour subjects at a moment’s notice.
Each week, the editor of the journalistic treadmills of Sydney and Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth (the worst offenders in that order), bear the heavy burden of choosing which dog whistle to blow and when.
Divining this gruesome business can take the form of hours spent pouring over media monitoring, Google SEO’s, TV ratings and social media stats. Or it can be what Bevan Shields chatted most memorably about with Nan over Sky News after dark last night. At some point, the Ven diagram of maximum impact/minimum effort comes together, and the Google Drive is dragged out to see which of the stable of clickbait influencers is first in and best dressed to unleash their poison pen.
What is most mystifying is the readiness of the considerable readership of the same publications time and again to take the bilge spewing forth as the genuinely held opinion of expert folk. Realistically, its the result of a quick email strand and 30 minutes Google research. Then Andrew’s your uncle, Ghislaine’s your aunt, Nine / NewsCorp / SevenWest has a new piece for tomorrow’s Opinion page.
Funny thing about so many of Australia’s most uncomfortable political backwater subjects, you can publish almost anything so long as it sits in the Opinion section. So much harder to sue for defamation. And so many more people willing to shriek about “cancel culture” to drown out any suggestion the writer may have done real damage to humans who were otherwise trying to get on with their lives.
Victimless crimes dear reader!
Take the Opinion published by the Sydney Morning Herald yesterday by “regular columnist” (synonym: clickbait author) Kate Halfpenny. It begins with the poetic pearler:
“Asking for a friend: is there a way to revoke Nick Kyrgios’ Australian passport and kick him off the island, so we can stop being linked to this grub?”
Having a browse through Ms Halfpenny’s available work for the Herald from the last sixteen-ish months, there’s not a single piece of hard news or actual reporting to be had. Taken on face value, Ms Halfpenny would also appear to hold some long-running issues with people of colour in the spotlight. They seem to be the target of her most biting criticism.
In the world of Kate Halfpenny’s prose, Australians still regularly have a tea, a bex and a good lie down, and Meghan Markle has a lot to answer for! But to suggest Ms Halfpenny is some form of closet racist rusted onto a worldview that expired with the Menzies administration would be overthinking her genre and her skillset. Her Opinion is commissioned from pure vacuum and written to make the average Aussie rouse themselves off the couch and in their fury, click share.
So far as SMH was concerned, here was 650 words of articulate clickbait. So far as Ms Halfpenny was concerned, here was enough cash for a few of slabs of West Coast Coolers to stock up the bar in Ocean Grove for the weekend. Purely transactional. Two thumbs up on the SMH Slack chat for promptness and yet more snappy prose for a national masthead to add to the resume of another Karen-for-hire.
But to the rest of the vox populi…
Here is a tirade telling the neurodiverse and people of colour their failure to lead anything but exemplary lives is enough for them to be shunted off to Nauru. And all from a writer with no apparent experience at doing anything but successfully rousing a rabble. Cut to Bevan Shields sitting in his corner office on Denison Street stroking a white cat and sipping another glass of artisanal RTD vodka and yuzu as the retweets (and the profits) come rolling in.
“Good! Good! Now let’s see if we can raise a pulse about Kirilly Dutton…”
A hundred and eighty years on, Balzac could pick up the latest copy from Andrew Bolt and instantly know what the old buffer’s scam is. Where has the readership missed the memo about clickbait along the way?
It’s the laziest form of journalism from the laziest form of writer for the laziest form of audience and it’s dominating the news. Clickbait has become the time-out articles written to raise a pulse from an audience sick of a news cycle too often reminding them of decades (centuries) of easily avoidable socio-political neglect. It is the jam-filled carbs of a press industry all too happy to suckle at the teat of the lowest common denominator.
As the great Llewella Gideon put it in Absolutely Fabulous: “Spoiled. Stupid. And lazy…”