Time-poor journalists are sitting ducks for press release hoaxes – expect more

5756126865_90a674e31d_mThe hoax ANZ/Whitehaven Coal press release sent out by environmental activist Jonathan Moylan this week not only exposed the fragile mind-sets of nervous investors, but highlighted the challenges facing time-poor journalists in the internet age of the 24 hour news cycle.

As has been pointed out by many different commentators including Eric Johnstone from The Age, a little research, a little consideration, even a little time spent mulling the press release over, should have alerted journalists and editors that it was fake.

“The press release read like the real thing. However there were several red flags. Banks don’t usually go about advertising the fact they have pulled a financing facility. They leave that to the company,” Johnstone writes.


The fake ANZ press release

Despite these red flags,  respected publications like News Limited’s Business Spectator, Fairfax’s metro papers and the Australian Financial Review all bought it hook, line and sinker.

And yet while everyone has been focusing on the impact a press release written in a forest by a 25-year-old translater with basic Photoshop skills and dodgy internet connection had on investors and share prices and possible breaches of the Corporations Act, the bigger story is one about the challenges facing journalists expected to bash out stories in the time it takes to sip a cup of coffee.

Spend time in any online newsroom (as I have done for the past 10 years) and you’ll instantly understand the pressure journalists are under to file copy.

“I need that copy in 10 minutes

“I need it in five minutes.”

“Just file what you have.”

These are the exclamations that ring in the ears of journalists every day uttered by anxious editors.

In the brave new media world, where commercial success is measured by number of ‘hits’, ‘unique browsers’, ‘tweets’ and ‘likes’, there is hardly any time for journalist to sit back and take a moment to think.

The day begins. You turn on computer, put fingers to your keyboard and write, write, write. The day disappears in a flash.

Government reports running to 300 pages must be digested in a few hours, sometimes less, meaning journalists must resort to reading the executive summary and skimming over huge amounts of information.

Intricate legal judgements, deep economic analysis, complex new government policy – its all about finding the story as you skim the paragraphs (keyword searches are especially useful).

And always there is the pressure of time.

Sure there were (and still are) tight deadlines in the past for those journalists working on daily newspapers (I have not worked on one myself) but more than likely – when lucrative print advertising funded newspapers and magazines – they were manageable and editorial teams were large and well resourced.

Today, if journalists want to wear the mantle of true investigative reporters, they must devote their own time, outside of work hours and sometimes their own money to put a deeply researched story together.

And many do.

Jonathan Moylan may have been surprised at the impact his quickly hashed media statement had – wiping $300 million of value off Whitehaven coal and incensing investors and embarrasing editors – but he shouldn’t be.

As an online journalist myself, I have been all to eager on a few occasions to write the story based on research or a press release, which while not a hoax, was based on incorrect information and if I had taken the time to consider the facts before me, would have realised that it clearly was a load of nonsense.

But, a juicy headline as concocted by Moylan, more likely while he rested against a tree and listened to the birds tweeting, would have been impossible to resist for journalists and editors thinking about readers, hits and revenue.

Certainly, at a glance, it looked convincing enough.

(Here’s a copy  of the scam press release and you can find numerous genuine ANZ press releases on their website if you want to make your own comparisons.)

Make no mistake, there will be others that will attempt similar guerrilla tactics, considering the enormous impact this hoax has had and the success of other stunts in the past (see this hoax involving Dow Chemicals, this one that caught out Harvey Norman and this recent one targeting MacMahon Holdings ).

Yes, journalists and editors will attempt to be more vigilant, but with the passing of time and the pressure to keep churning out story after story, their guards will slip and we will be easy pickings for activists, trouble-makers and those with more time on their hands than we have.

Book review: The little Welshman who made Sigmund Freud a giant

freuds wizard“Freud’s Wizard” by Brenda Maddox is a biography tracing the life of one Ernest Jones, a Welsh doctor and psychologist who almost single-handedly promoting Sigmund Freud’s ideas of psychoanalysis to Britain and the world.

He also orchestrated the rescuing of Freud, his family and many other prominent Jewish Viennese psychoanalysts when Hitler invaded Austria in 1938. Jones secured the difficult-to-get visas and flew into Nazi-occupied Austria to bring Freud to London.

Maddox’s book could easily have been subtitled: “The man who made Sigmund Freud”.

And given the Jones was a short Welshman and Freud a behemoth of modern psychology, it might have been more elaborately sub-titled: “The little Welshman who made Sigmund Freud a giant”.

Ernest Jones was Freud’s champion and close confidant for 30 years and wrote what is considered the definitive (three-volume) biography of the father of psychoanalysis – ‘The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud’ – considered to be among the greatest biographies ever written.

Maddox, an anglophile American resident in the UK, who has written a number of noted biographies (including those about DH Lawrence, WB Yeats and Rosalind Franklin) has certainly picked an interesting and influential figure to write about in Ernest Jones, one of those figures in history who stand in the shadows of greatness, but were great in their own right.

The book begins with Jones’s birth in a small town a few miles from Swansea in Wales and follows his progress through school, medical school and the start of a very chequered medical career in London and then Toronto, before meeting Freud in 1906 and beginning his life’s work.

I have read some of the reviews of “Freud’s Wizard” which remark that Jones comes across as not a very likeable man – he was controlling, manipulative and devious, someone who tells his own son that he has a “hell of a superego”.

However, these character flaws pale into insignificance compared with disturbing accusations made against Jones alleging indecent behaviour against children while he was a young doctor in London (similar accusations were made later in his career).

Jones was found not guilty, but his innocence – as explained by Maddox – may have more to do with the epoch in which the incident allegedly occurred – that children were considered “mentally unreliable” while there also did not yet exist the technology to test DNA, which may have been conclusive in proving Jones’s guilt or innocence.

Maddox does not overlook this behaviour – she finds it perplexing and disturbing – nor does she overlook Jones’s infidelities or his womanising, but she clearly admires Jones too much to let them get in the way of portraying him as a hero of Freud and of psychoanalysis, which undoubtedly he was.


Taken in 1909: Sigmund Freud front left next to Carl Jung (on his right) with Ernest Jones in the middle of the back row.

The axis of the book is Ernest Jones’s relationship with Freud and his efforts to establish psychoanalysis as a recognised medical treatment rather than a quack, devious treatment with its emphasis on unconscious sexual motives (the Oedipus Complex) and other controversial theories such as penis envy.

The book catalogues the different psychoanalytic societies and journals that Jones founded, his insatiable appetite for writing essays on different psychoanalytic themes (he even wrote a book on figure-skating) and his tireless devotion to the cause of psychoanalysis.

While he fails as a doctor – no London hospital will take him on after his record is blackened – but he ultimately thrives as a psychoanalyst, liasing with all the great psychoanalytic minds (apart from Freud) as well as the famous Bloomsbury Group, a collection of English writers, some of whom helped translate Freud’s ideas into English.

The book also chronicles Jones very important role in keeping the American psychoanalytic movement onside when it threatened to split from the Freudians – Americans believed only medical doctors should be allowed to practice psychoanalysis while British and European psychoanalytic societies believed non-medically trained people could become practitioners provided they were properly trained and underwent psychoanalysis themselves.

The passion of Ernest Jones in this endeavour and others is probably one of the key reasons why so many Americans (especially in places like New York ) undergo psychoanalysis today.

And consider this, without Ernst Jones there might never have been neurotic, anxiety-written comics like Woody Allen and his many jokes and references to psychoanalysis.

As Allen’s character Alvy Singer remarks in “Annie Hall”:

“I was depressed…I would have killed myself but I was in analysis with a strict Freudian and if you kill yourself … they make you pay for the sessions you miss.”

Ernest Jones, who considered himself something of an honorary jew given his close friendship with Freud and other Jewish pyschoanalysts (cemented by his marriage to Kitty Jokl, a jewess) and fond of using yiddish words, would no doubt have found this joke amusing.

Ironically, it was Ernest Jones’s non-Jewishness which helped give Freud’s theories legitimacy in an age when anti-semitism was rife.