When is the media interested in architecture, building and planning?
BY CRISPIN HULL
My first encounter with building planning and architectural matters came when I was doing legal reporting for The Canberra Times.
Before then, my involvement with building architecture and planning had not extended much beyond helping my father with the construction of a chook pen .
In the halcyon days before self-government, when the National Capital Development Commission ruled Canberra, there was a fair amount of media interest in the planning construction and architecture. But it was of a very different kind from what pertained after self-government.
Before self-government, the interest was in what new splendid things the National Capital Development Commission were going to do for you. The city was relatively new. Land was plentiful. It was purely a matter of allowing the Federal government to pay for the infrastructure, set out the blocks of land for the masses to buy and let them build. The only real constraint was the setbacks. But these were not very odorous given that the block sizes were extremely large by today’s standards and that the size of houses were naturally constrained by matters of cost.
Moreover, such was the power of the National Capital Development Commission that there was little possibility for developers, architects, or owners to push the envelope.
After self-government, some real contests emerged over planning, architecture and construction. In this environment, and the media became much more engaged.
This was not because of a sudden emergence of interest in architecture, construction and planning by local journalists. Rather, there were other elements in Canberra planning and construction that excited media attention.
Before talking about them, I would like to explain a little bit about how the media works.
Most people think that the media is an essential part of the democratic process because its role is to provide information to voters who can then make up their mind on who should rule them and how they should be ruled.
It is a common misapprehension that the media’s role is there to provide information. That is not its role. Its role is to provide news. And the news is often a very different thing from information.
Like most businesses, and indeed public-sector entities, the media’s primary aim is self-preservation. Self-preservation is a potent force in human affairs, certainly since the beginning of the industrial revolution and the decline of religion. Adam Smith was one of the earliest and best exponents of the theory of economic man — a person who acts in his own self interest.
The media is very much a Smith-style economic man.
So it does not act out of a philanthropic desire to see humanity well informed. Rather it acts in a way to see people to buy its product so that it can stay in existence.
It may well be that in doing this it realises that there is an economic advantage to providing information that readers like and are willing to pay for. But make no mistake, the raison d’être for the provision of information is not altruistic, rather it is a mere byproduct of the self-sustaining process of providing news for profit.
So what is news? And how does it differ from information?
News has been variously described. Dog bites man is not news; man bites dog is news. News is what someone somewhere wants suppressed all else is advertising. But more generally news is what readers will read, listeners will listen to, or watches watch.
The things which drive decision-makers in news organisations are geared around that quest — to provide consumers with what they want.
This is not totally cynical. If a news organisation realises that its audience is highly educated, well-meaning, hungry for information on which to base informed decisions and so on, then it is in that media outlet’s interest to provide the news of a very high standard.
Nevertheless, let me suggest a few things — called news values — which usually drive the decision-makers in the media. They look for impact, consequence, importance, currency, prominence, proximity, appeal to hip-pocket, novelty, celebrity, emotion, timeliness, malfeasance, secrecy uncovered, conflict, exclusivity, entertainment, packaging skill.
It means that something that happens in Canberra is going to be more newsworthy than the same thing happening in Melbourne. It means that something happening yesterday is going to be more newsworthy than the same thing happening last week. Or in the case of the Internet, something happening 10 minutes ago is going to be more newsworthy than the same thing happening a day ago. Something happening to a celebrity is going to be more newsworthy than exactly the same thing happening to a nonentity.
Something reported by a journalist who has the story on his own is going to be more newsworthy than if the same thing has been got by many journalists from different organisations.
Something written with wit, charm, and emotion is going to be more newsworthy than the same thing written turgidly and dispassionately.
Something about which there is great conflict and dispute will be more newsworthy than if the same thing is the subject of general agreement.
Notice that each time I say “the same thing”. That thing is the information value. But notice that its rating as news changes according to other values.
So now let us return to post self-government Canberra. Several news values came into play which were either absent or low rating before self-government.
The most important was conflict. After self-government there was far more conflict over planning architecture and construction than before self-government.
Partly this was due to a mere coincidence of (a) land being less abundant; (b) a greater requirement for user pays and (c) Canberra’s first early housing stock reaching an age where for a lot of it renewal became an economic proposition.
But most of it was down to the new government seeing economic opportunities in fairly numerous pockets of vacant land within the existing city footprint that could be used for housing. This pitted existing residents against developers, residents who wanted to redevelop, and politicians and bureaucrats who were trying to set a balance between them.
This is where my legal and political interests began to coincide with what was happening in development and building. The great conflicts over development and planning were often fought out in the political and legal arenas.
For a journalist, conflict is almost bread-and-butter. Where ever there is conflict the news values go up and the likelihood of the story going towards the front of the paper is much higher.
An architect, builder or planner would see high information values in any new town plan or new building plan. They would be interested no matter what. The average reader, however, might only be peripherally interested. Their interest, however, would be more greatly excited if it directly affected them — the news value of proximity. And there is nothing more proximate than the backyard. Also we have the new value of the hip-pocket – and there is nothing more hip-pocket than land values.
So any new town plan or construction plan involving conflict will naturally excite media interest. Usually, the journalist or the media outlet does not greatly care about the outcome as long as there is conflict in getting there.
A critical question in this is how does a journalist get material (and a note I say material, not information) for publication?
As soon as Canberra got self-government, it got voters. Even in a place like Canberra politicians cannot hope to personally meet even a significant number of their voters. They therefore rely on the media to get their message across and the voters rely on the media in their assessment of their politicians. It means people who need politicians to make decisions about their property rights will inevitably go to the media.
(Incidentally, most of these disputes are between people with different property rights. The common law position was always that you could do whatever you liked with your own land. The law also recognised that the owner of land was entitled to quiet enjoyment. In the past couple of hundred years these two sets of rights have often come into conflict and various statutes have put limits upon them.
The quiet enjoyment argument has been expanded into an argument for residential amenity. It has asserted rights of sunlight, privacy, density limits, and Heritage conformity. Meanwhile, the right to do what you like with your land has been increasingly impinged upon by a growing body of statute law.
Obviously, between the two there is a fairly broad and fairly hazy grey line. In this area the battle is fought out in the courts, in the Parliament and in the media.)
In these fights, clever proponents to latch on to news values to ensure their stories and get covered and to get more prominence.
On the development side, a favourite tactic would be to give a journalist an “exclusive”. The journalist may well go breathless back to his or her newspaper and say I have this wonderful exclusive story and news editors often fall for it especially if it comes with glossy artists’ impressions of the new development and the wonderful amenity it will give to a segment of the publication’s readers. In reality, it is little more than an advertisement.
On the side of residential amenity, appeal to the news value of emotion is a frequently used tactic. Destruction of vegetation, heritage value to buildings, and endangered species will always tug at the heart strings.
They also often appeal to the news values of malfeasance and secrecy uncovered. Bureaucrats and developers are often accused of “cover-up”; “failure to consult” and breaches of planning rules. Often these accusations are really matters of interpretation and of little information value, nonetheless they have high news value and are therefore likely to get a prominent run.
Both sides will try to get to journalists who they think will package their story in a more saleable way. I do not necessarily mean spin or gloss. Usually it means good writing whether in print or broadcast, though most of these debates are argued out in print rather than on the airwaves.
Self-government has added its own news values to these debates. The first is prominence. Before self-government there was little or no accent on personality. Usually some anonymous bureaucrat in the National Capital Development Commission doled out the latest development news. After self-government, the Chief Minister or Minister inevitably became a central point in the debate. Indeed, they actively sought out the publicity.
These tussles are not usually liked by architects, planners and builders. Rather they would like to air publicly good things they are doing. But good things, of themselves are not especially newsworthy. The only news value that runs in their favour is novelty. All too often, after one architect has been given a run, or one developers estate has been given a run, the others form an orderly queue to suggest or demand equal treatment. It displays a complete misunderstanding of the media. Once one has had a go that is the end of novelty.
In all, as land has become scarcer, the environment more demanding, population higher, and the electorate more testy, architectural, construction and planning issues have had a greater coverage in the media.
The days of builders, developers and architects quietly getting on with their job are over. As, indeed, are the days of quiet enjoyment.