Crikey, it's Bernard Keane!

When it comes to interviewing people Skype isn’t exactly the ideal medium to use. If you don’t know the person on the other end there is always that awkward moment when you introduce yourself to a digital interface or pixellated image. Then there’s the risk that the call will drop out and you wonder if it is just the bandwidth playing up or the interviewee has had enough of your probing questions. But when Woroni called Crikey’s Canberra correspondent, Bernard Keane, Skype seemed a fitting setting to conduct the interview.

As something of an internet deity who made the switch from political blogging to full-time writing for the Crikey website, Skype is very much a part of Keane’s natural habitat. Keane has developed a cult following among internet savvy political aficionados and the Canberra political elite. Perhaps part of this appeal stems from Keane’s unorthodox approach to journalism. “It’s rather different to a lot of the journalism you’ll find in the mainstream media”, he admits.

Rather than following the traditional political content found in the pages of the Sydney Morning Herald or the Australian, Crikey’s coverage focuses on providing analysis and commentary that can’t be found elsewhere. This is certainly an approach Keane has embraced, often taking a bold stand on issues when mainstream journalists wouldn’t dare for fear of alienating their readership. In a recent article on the asylum seeker policy debate Keane wrote that, “there is no ‘impasse’ on asylum seekers, there is only bloodyminded evil from the coalition.” He is equally as critical of the government’s role. “Julia Gillard has managed to stuff this (asylum seeker policy) up significantly mostly by identifying asylum seekers as one of the issues she was going to fix and then demonstrably failing to fix it.”

Such bluntness is refreshing to hear in the otherwise stuffy and constrained media coverage of the political debate. Keane goes even further though when it comes to internet freedom and freedom of speech. In particular, he has recently taken a very public stand in protesting against the treatment of Julian Assange and Wikileaks. In Keane’s view there is no question over whether the Wikileaks releases should be classed as journalism. “Good journalism tells you things people in power don’t what you to know and that is in the public interest to know and that perfectly summarises what Wikileaks does.”

Keane is also deeply concerned by what he describes as the Obama administration’s ‘war on free speech’. “It’s probably the primary source of threat to online freedom in the world today”. While this may sound extreme, Keane speaks with the same clarity and conviction that he writes with and he’s not afraid to take a publicly protest against the US’s desire to put Assange on trial, as he did at a recent forum held at the ANU by the Friends of Wikileaks ACT (FOWL). “Its (the US’s) actions in regard to Wikileaks are quite clearly those of an orchestrated campaign of harassment and intimidation against it”, Keane states, leaving little doubt about his belief that the Wikileaks saga has grave implications for freedom of speech around the world.

Although Keane modestly attributes being offered a full-time position at Crikey to “timing and good-luck,” he acknowledges that his ability to critically analyse political issues, developed during his time as a public servant, has contributed greatly to his current journalistic role. “The Australian public service is certainly a very good training ground for thinking critically about issues of public policy”. It’s this different tradition that has placed Keane and Crikey in a unique position in the Australian media landscape. “We kind of rely on the mainstream media being weak,” Keane admits. In his view Crikey wouldn’t exist in its current form if the press gallery was, “full of people like Lenore Taylor, Laura Tingle and Phillip Coorey.

Crikey’s success cannot merely be attributed to filling the void left by the increasing lack of in-depth political analysis. Its pioneering of the online pay-wall model through its subscription email newsletter has placed Crikey in an enviable financial position compared to the loss-making mainstream media outlets who are only now considering pay-walls.

So does Keane believe that the business model that has made Crikey a small yet successful independent news outlet can still work for the mainstream media? “I don’t think it can work under the current mast-heads”, he states grimly. According to Keane the key problem is that Crikey has always had a pay-wall and so, “there is no expectation that it should be free.” By contrast, mainstream media groups have for years provided free content making it very difficult to develop ‘unique content’. “They have to identify specific aspects of the news business that are not easily replicable elsewhere and until they do that their business models are going to continue to falter.”

Keane is also pessimistic about the future of the media. In twenty years time he predicts that, “we won’t have print newspapers… I think print books will be like vinyl records.” But its not all bad news. Keane believes that instead of television we will have “content generation houses” that will bare the names of TV networks and allow those companies to still have value as media brands. Similarly, the divisions between different content types will be broken down. “We’re moving to an environment where we receive a huge variety of content on a huge variety of devices”.

Whatever the future of the media might be it’s clear that Crikey isn’t going anywhere but could it perhaps become the dominant news outlet in Australia? “I should hope not”, responds Keane. And with that the interview is over and he disappears back into the abyss of the internet, less of an enigma than he was before but still a mysterious anomaly in the changing media landscape.