Extra, extra!

John Loebenstein, the occasionally outspoken IT chief of St George Bank, was indignant. At the completion of a presentation of Year 2000 research during the recent CIO Informat conference, Loebenstein stood up from the conference floor and let fly.

For him, the whole issue is hype -- a media and analyst beat-up designed to sell services, and he didn't care who knew. Planes won't drop out of the sky and the country won't go to wrack and ruin. If the Government stuffs up his tax assessment, he is just going to send the damn thing back and refuse to pay it.

For a few moments it looked like we were in for an old fashioned humdinger of a debate on the conference floor, but then the organisers intervened to get things back on track.

Later that afternoon in a panel discussion, Frank Liebeskind, the IT chief at MMI took a contrary view to his St George colleague. Liebeskind said he thought the industry owed a debt to the journalists. He said they had done a reasonable and responsible job alerting the community about the problem.

So which view is correct -- media hype or reasonable reporting? Actually they are both right. There is no doubt in my mind that Australia is a world leader in correcting the millennium problem. And likewise the media deserves credit for pushing this issue to the very top of mind share.

It's also true that the media ran its Y2K campaign for purely self interested reasons. News sells newspapers and bad news sells best of all. That was certainly one of the things which motivated me when I ran ComputerWorld, and I bet it's what motivates all my colleagues in the media today.

The deeper issue here relates to the role of the media.

You might be interested to learn for instance that there are only about 250 IT journalists in Australia, and within that group there is an elite core of about 30 to 40 very experienced reporters who really matter on a day to day basis. Unfortunately there is a PR and marketing industry of about 2000 people whose job is to massage the egos of this tiny group with predictable and unfortunate results.

Many of the journos are young, most are under 30 and very few of them have any hands-on experience in IT. For some it's their first job out of university, and it's a rare thing if they last more than a couple of years.

But for all their faults they recognised how much damage those two little digits would do to this country a long time before many managing directors, or IT managers or government ministers had even given the matter a minute's consideration.

And if they overstepped the mark and slipped from advocacy into zealotry from time to time, well that's the price you have to pay.

Just remember, some countries don't have journalists to annoy them.

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