21 October 2016

Under the gun

Tony Abbott is niggling at Malcolm Turnbull again, and much of the press gallery have reported this in terms of its impact on the Turnbull government's agenda. There are three things to consider here, and all of them go to the question of the very point of political reporting and a press gallery.

Firstly, the press gallery seems to value process over product. It likes calm, orderly passage of legislation through both houses, with banal and brief set-piece debates and preferably bipartisanship among the majors; if not, a minimum of mystifying horse-trading in the Senate might be tolerable. It would rather describe how legislation passes rather than what might be in it - even when legislation limits journalists in doing their jobs, it will be actual journalists far beyond the gallery who raise the alarums.

When you discuss policy, and potential changes to the law that affect real people's lives and work, you run the risk of engaging readers/ listeners/ viewers and having them engage in political debate, and maybe work with others to make changes to deals that have already been done in Canberra. Far better to just sit by and describe the passage of legislation in purely functional terms, the way you might sit beside the Molonglo and observe the trickling water, the bird calls, the wriggling and wafting of nature taking its inexorable course.

Note how the press gallery covered the Gillard government. There were more journalists in the press gallery than members of parliament, and yet every one of them agreed that the prevalence of horse-trading in both houses and relative absence of Bipartisanship was Chaotic and the very sort of thing that must not happen again. By contrast, the Abbott government passed very little legislation, but so orderly - when that government's budgets were stymied in the Senate, and passed in the barest terms only to avoid a repeat of 1975, the press gallery couldn't cope with the idea that concerns from outside parliament had somehow made their way in to affect votes in parliament. Instead, they cried chaos, disaster and hoped it would all go away.

Government is only either calm or argy-bargy, according to the press gallery, and in the latter state they overestimate their ability to both describe the situation accurately and engage their public. To give one example - when Katharine Murphy gets excited she loses herself in mixed metaphors, as you can see here (a game of chicken in Gethsemane?).

Secondly, no government has ever been good at managing internecine conflict. The chaos narrative of the Gillard government was fed by Rudd scowling at the backs of ministers speaking to legislation and answering Question Time questions, not how well or badly those ministers performed. There was no real equivalent to that in the Howard government, but there was in the latter half of 1991 when Paul Keating was a backbencher in the Hawke government, and apparently the last twelve months of Fraser, Whitlam, and McMahon were less than stellar.

Press gallery journalists should be able to draw on that history: is the government paralysed? Only Laura Tingle (no link, paywalled) appears to be making the case that it isn't, that in administrative terms (see above) it is starting to hit its straps. Can the government build an administrative exoskeleton to compensate for its obvious weaknesses with personnel and interpersonal issues (if Chris Pyne and Marise Payne are treading on each other's toes, this government truly is finished)? Tingle wisely avoids projection this far out from the likely next election, and my forecasting record speaks for itself.

When it comes to Abbott, though, calm and orderly government (or the appearance thereof) leads us to the third issue with recent coverage.

Have we forgotten what Abbott was like as Prime Minister? Look at that negotiation with Leyonhjelm (if you can hack through the tangled thickets of Murphy's mixed metaphors above, it's as good an account as any). For starters, Abbott was being sneaky, holding out a promise he had no intention of honouring. Then there's the issue of him implying a staffer in Michael Keenan's office acted independently of Abbott's office; the sheer degree of control exercised from the PM's Office by Peta Credlin should have made anyone with any recollection of the Abbott government (i.e. pretty much the entire press gallery) laugh that notion off the public record.

Abbott is overestimating how clever he is by dumping on a staffer, showing the gutlessness and dishonesty that made him unfit to ever be Prime Minister in the first place. The Liberal Party failed itself and the nation by electing such a manifestly unsuitable leader. His behaviour here is consistent with his performance as leader, and believe him when he says (however implicitly) that he will do that again if he were to be brought back up like a bad pizza.

Tony Abbott is not some sort of intelligent, reflective person who adapts his ideas of political leadership to prevailing circumstances. Churchill was Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer when the Depression hit in 1929, and saw the age-old economic law of tying the value of currency to gold crumble under him. He spent the 1930s studying Hitler and the Nazis in far more depth than his Daily Mail-reading conservative colleagues, or the pacifist left of the time. Franklin D. Roosevelt had spent the late 1920s in political furlough, considering what government was for and what it might be, before lunging for the Governorship of New York and the Presidency of the United States. Abbott might have some patter about having been humbled, but there is nothing to back it up - and any journalist who merely quotes him is a patsy.

If you're going to cover Abbott's niggles, don't simper like Leigh Sales did while Abbott talks over you Trump-like, lying and fudging without challenge. Sales, and every other journalist covering this, should have called him out on his inability to delegate and his blithe disregard for those trying to do the basic transactional work that makes complex government possible. Setting broad parameters for ministers, their staff, and other underlings is the essence of leadership. Its absence with Abbott as Prime Minister meant the country was misgoverned. If Abbott returns as Prime Minister, we will be misgoverned again.

Turnbull was right to call him out, wrong to imply such a sound and well-supported policy might be watered down. Shorten is right to finger the dissent within the government, wrong to imply Labor might be above making concessions to gunlosers in pursuit of regional votes. Merely quoting both argy and bargy (which is how the press gallery sees its role) is simply not good enough given the important broader issues of community safety far beyond locked-down Parliament House.

The press gallery is obliged to frame its reporting of Abbott in the sickly light of experience - not to lose themselves in slathering at the prospect of argy-bargy, or thinking that his actual record constitutes 'bias'. Start telling the truth, draw upon experience and apply it, and some of your credibility issues might recede. Hopping excitedly from argy to bargy and back again, projecting your own short attention span onto your your audience, can only confirm the decline of journalism from which notions like "24 hour news cycle" never fully detract - let alone fix.

We have a right not to be misgoverned, which is more important than any press gallery wish to return to a time and place where they felt more comfortable.

16 October 2016

The Game nobody wins

Politicians and political journalists in capital cities across the world have different versions of The Game. The Game involves the politicians feeding gobbets of content to the journalists, and the journalists excrete content that flatters the politicians who fed them, and thus two groups of lonely people prop up one another.

Hillary Clinton will almost certainly be elected President of the United States within weeks*. Many of the profiles of her, like this one, return to a common theme:
[Clinton] has been a presence in American public life for more than a third of a century, and yet for all her ubiquity she remains a curiously unknown quantity to many voters.
That, in its purest form, is journalistic failure. Journalists have been observing a person up close for years, hearing their words, challenging them on their positons and motivations, watching them smile and flinch and empathise and snarl, and yet after hectares of print and hours of blather, they concede the person has been hiding in plain sight all this time.

The same publication conceded the same about Mitt Romney and Ronald Reagan, and yet it is regarded as the pre-eminent news source in the United States. Other organisations make the same admission: after all this time, we don't know who Hillary Clinton is, so what hope do voters/readers have to form an opinion about her suitability for the Presidency?

In the UK too, at a time of great upheaval (the kind of upheaval that will be felt for years, and whose full effects can't be known by deadline), Theresa May has ascended to the top of British politics while being - you guessed it - unknown. Her Chancellor of the Exchequer, who would be the architect of Britain's post-EU economy, is also regularly described as unknown.

In Australia, the current Prime Minister and his predecessor/stalker are both former working journalists. Both understand the need of journalists to have content several times each day to justify their existences and gum up their employers' output schedules. Both were better at The Game before they became Prime Minister, and each was hopeless afterward.

The Australian media was unable to explain how each of these well-known men would perform the duties of Prime Minister, an office established and occupied for more than a century and covered extensively by political journalists. The morsels that do come to them via The Game are so petty they actually discourage people from taking an interest in how we are governed, and this imperils the very media organisations that employ journalists. Merely by doing their jobs they way they've always done them, journalists are not shoring up their own positions or reaching out to the community they serve; they are committing professional suicide.

The doyen of the press gallery, Laurie Oakes, has known the current Prime Minister since he was an undergraduate. It is not at all difficult to dig up glowing profiles of Malcolm Turnbull as a potential Prime Minister. It ought not be a surprise, then, to find him in the office of Prime Minister but without a clear agenda as to what (or even how) he might put the powers of that office to best use.

In the past week we saw Kelly O'Dwyer accuse her Labor detractors of point-scoring, and then fail to accrue any sort of credit for doing so - other than column-inches and airtime minutes by press gallery journalists shunning the readers/ listeners/ viewers whose patronage keeps their employers in business. But this gets us back where we started.

We are at a point where The Game seems to work for no-one. We've been here for years. Part of the reason why I haven't blogged much this year is sheer disgust at this fact, and disgust makes for poor social media practice. This has changed, however, as evidenced by the fact this thread was three times longer than it is, and will almost certainly spill over into posts throughout the coming week.

It's more encouraging than many might like that I only need to apologise to regular readers when I don't post. This is better than having been your average press gallery oxygen-thief, who has helped piss away decades of goodwill accrued by their predecessors and employers by shitposting every single day. I've missed you too. Let us go forward together.

* Keep in mind how bad my predictions and prognostications have been

18 August 2016

Our quagmire

Involvement in Vietnam was not - as the critics were later to assert - a conspiracy of the best and brightest brought into government by Kennedy and inherited by Johnson but the application of principles pursued for a decade by two presidents of both parties. Like his predecessors, Kennedy considered Vietnam a crucial link in America's overall geopolitical position. He believed, as had Truman and Eisenhower, that preventing a Communist victory in Vietnam was a vital American interest.

- Henry Kissinger
Australia's position on the Vietnam war was different to that of the US. When the Menzies government committed Australian troops in 1962 Labor was tentatively opposed, trying to walk a fine line between commitment to the US alliance without slavishly going along with everything Washington said or did. The Coalition won the next three elections. Liberal campaigns combined anticommunism with old tropes of Asian domination. These almost undid the quiet rapprochement Australia had undertaken with newly decolonised Asian countries through the Colombo Plan and Opperman's slow, patient work unwinding the White Australia Policy.

When Labor finally won office in 1972 Australian troops had all but been withdrawn. Labor supporters from the time win bragging rights for being on the right side of history, while Coalition supporters admit returning servicemen should have been treated better, or double down on Cold War rhetoric that was half-baked at the time.

Wars displace people from their homes. In Australia's first wars, ad hoc conflict against Aborigines and then in New Zealand against the Maori, displacement was the whole point. In the wars that followed displaced persons were largely accommodated within their own countries - within South Africa after the Boer War, or within Turkey, Belgium, or France after World War I - or else they joined that vast migration to the United States that ended in 1920. Australia had not needed to accommodate systematically those displaced by war.

World War II was different because of its sheer scale. Many European countries had been smashed and could barely sustain their non-displaced populations, let alone re-integrate the displaced. Asian countries retained their war-torn populations, and emigration to Australia was not an option anyway. Australia developed a postwar immigration program targeted at displaced Europeans, hoping vaguely to grow as a nation rather than trying to re-integrate returning servicemen into the stagnant economic backwater Australia had been following World War I.

So too, the immigration of refugees following the Vietnam war (including those from Cambodia) is a benefit to the nation that goes far beyond multicultural happy-talk about phở gà. It speaks to a recognition of suffering and displacement from war, and the need to provide not mere shelter to its victims but real opportunities as those who contributed to the destruction. This reflects well on Australians generally, and on our political leadership in particular: the Defence Minister at the height of the Vietnam war was the Prime Minister who insisted refugees be admitted, shepherded across the Arafura Sea by the Navy and quietly, slowly accommodated into the community. The then Labor Opposition could have fomented division to its short-term benefit during the rising unemployment of the late 1970s, but thankfully chose not to.

Bipartisanship clearly has its uses. Over the last quarter century it has let us down. The system of mandatory detention for displaced persons seeking asylum is our bipartisan quagmire, in the way the Vietnam war was for the US.

The closure of Manus Island and the Guardian Australia Nauru Files cache shows the system cannot go on. It is as decisive in its way as the release of the Pentagon Papers was to the eventual end of the Vietnam war - maybe not as immediate as those measuring the impact of traditional media might like, but decisive in policy and historic terms nonetheless.

As an aside, in line with a central theme of this blog: that cache of documents was uncovered by investigative journalists rather than press gallery hacks. Once again, the press gallery is clearly the wrong place from which to report about what is going on within government.

Those who want Peter Dutton to go on trial at The Hague for crimes against humanity must accept that any opprobrium on him also falls upon his predecessor, Scott Morrison; and on their Labor predecessors, Tony Burke and Chris Bowen; and so on, back into the past until you get to Gerry Hand, the inner-Melbourne leftie who set up mandatory detention under Keating in 1992.

The whole idea of bipartisanship is that it renders politicians immune from accountability. If there is no partisan difference there is no partisan criticism - quibbling about delivery models or degree rather than any fundamental re-examination. The press gallery can hunt out differences better than it can examine policy; having spent so much time revelling over political division and then bleating for bipartisanship, it tends to regard instances of bipartisanship as opportunities to berate critics who Just Don't Get It, who Just Have To Accept The Underlying Fundamentals of Politics, and that any refusal to do so can only be the work of irrelevant ratbags.

Michael Gordon from The Age has been admirable over the past year or so for recognising the appalling outcomes from mandatory detention: the physical and mental damage to the detainees, the brutality of the guards and the loot that goes into maintaining those camps; and how Australians are all worse off, financially and morally, for perpetuating these disgraceful locations and the policies that manifest them. But Gordon is no workaday journalist: he's federal politics editor, and as such has harangued us all on how there are good people and dills on both sides (and there are only two), and what we need is more bipartisanship. He can't face the fact that mandatory detention is the fruit of bipartisanship. No press gallery journalist can.

He dodges the issue with a well-meaning but ultimately futile call for a summit, the emptiest of talkfests that would succeed only at diverting journalistic resources from actually finding out what is going on. He covers yet another legal action. He dares not go to the dark heart of bipartisanship, though he knows it well. Gordon yearns for more and more of that which would negate journalism while keeping people like him employed.

For all the criticism you can make against Turnbull and Dutton, the simple fact is that you can't make the case Labor would be more effective, or more humane, than the incumbents. This response to the Nauru Files cache is beyond underwhelming, genuinely pathetic in its inadequacy to meet Australia's needs and those of displaced persons.

If detention was a deterrent, all those horror stories about deprivations and depravations would not need to be exposed by Guardian Australia. There would be an aggressive program by BorderForce to revel in every sordid detail. There would be a reality TV style program showing asylum seekers being refouled to those they had fled, suppurating tropical ulcers and other cruelties for the delectation of the sort of people who vote Hanson anyway. The fact is, there are too few of those people to sustain popular support: any attempt to boost support would take the risk of arousing revulsion. Acquiescence requires ignorance. Dutton is happy to supply as much ignorance as anyone could want, and Labor's embarrassment at the Nauru Files shows their reluctance to fight a weak government on this front. Nothing fosters ignorance like censorship (or the output of Chris Kenny, whose output is so anti-journalism you are less well informed after you've read it).


Polls show that Australians hate having their noses rubbed in the reality of mandatory detention, and this hatred obscures simple racism or interpretations of questions like "Do you agree with mandatory detention Y/N". Coalition supporters today are like their forebears during the Vietnam war era: they know they are supporting a doomed, expensive effort but are determined that there is a good cause somewhere: the myth of the queue, the myth of civil unrest that is often threatened but never quite manifests in a nation of immigrants. The drowned-or-detained argument is only waged by those whose only wish is that displaced persons never join our society.

Decisive action one way or another is not possible with ignorance and acquiescence. The incumbent government likes it that way and so does the likely next one. For the press gallery, the flow of appalling stories will continue, rationed out at intervals, as it has for 25 years now. Experience counts for little in press gallery coverage, as predictable events must be misrepresented as unprecedented by journalists yearning for an audience as stupid as they are - one that might keep them in the manner to which they've become accustomed.

The secrecy is a denial of war. We were open about our involvement in World War II and Vietnam (less so about Korea; displaced persons were accommodated internally, or in the US. Australia has received a surprising number of Korean migrants through the normal migration system). Successive governments have restricted coverage of Australian involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and this has diminished acceptance of a postwar migration program. You can only represent asylum-seekers as queue-jumping bludgers if you make no connection between their suffering and displacement and the policies of the Australian government. Only once you make that link do you extend to today's refugees the courtesies extended previously to Europeans and Vietnamese.

The idea that the system might collapse and be replaced by something altogether different would require policy analysis beyond the skill of the press gallery. The party that reversed course would cop a shellacking from an abandoned press gallery, and would probably resist the attempts of that party to paint their opponents as perpetrators of grievous cruelty. They'd regard any serious, anything-you-say-may-be-used-against-you inquest as a witch-hunt, and would fear the random politics that would lie beyond any disgrace and excision of key players in parties of government.

We see this in other policy areas. It's one thing for clouds to hang over Senator Arthur Sinodinos in terms of party fundraising. Any far-reaching inquiry that decimated the political class would leave political journalists stranded. Remember their impotent fury at Ricky Muir and other minor-party MPs who simply refused to engage the press gallery: the collapse of mandatory detention would prompt such a far-reaching change of personnel in so short a time that the press gallery would become like rain dogs, unable to function. As happened for much of the Gillard government, they would simply lose the ability to describe the reality before them.

Let us have no more of Dutton's nonsense that Manus veterans will not be resettled here. This is no quagmire, this is face-saving from a man who has already failed. For all the money thrown at this we could have bought those people fine houses, and may yet have to do so as compensation.

Speaking of nonsense, Pauline Hanson's fixation on toilets as a cultural icons is consistent with a lifetime of Australasian Post articles on the Fair Dinkum Aussie Dunny. It's hard to play up cultural differences with a universal human act. It doesn't matter what colour your skin is, your sexual preference or political views, and religions have little to say on the matter: urination and defecation is pretty similar for us all. These days Hanson is not an authentic political creation of her local community, but a creation of the media that granted her second shot at a lucrative old-school parliamentary pension. The price of that is she will be obliged to comment on every story too stupid for even the biggest media tarts in the major parties to waste their time or dignity. Whenever you see Hanson pumping up a non-story like this, you see a news editor lunging desperately for a demographic that would otherwise slip away from them.

The integration of displaced persons into the community happens at the local level, from which almost all journalism has now been stripped. One minute refugees are being denounced in parliament, the next they are turning up in that parliament as members grateful to the nation and willing to serve it, without any ability to explain the turnaround. The quagmire of the current position means that neither major party harbours any insurgent movement capable of defusing the cruel, stupid, and expensive status quo.

Watch for a quick-n-dirty deal between the two former Immigration Ministers who are now Treasurer and Shadow, to be praised extravagantly by the press gallery which will then soon bury the issue, where:
  • nobody goes to prison;
  • PNG and Serco and Transfield keep their money;
  • the victims vent but receive little if anything (reported as though no-one is to blame, or the victims brought it on themselves) until the generosity of local communities kick in; and
  • we all realise that these are people we can help, and who can in turn help us, out of their quagmire and ours.

22 July 2016

Yesterday's social media today

So she was considering, in her own mind (as well as she could, for the hot day made her feel very sleepy and stupid), whether the pleasure of making a daisy-chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and picking the daisies, when suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her.

- Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

I'm grateful to Katharine Murphy for drawing this to my attention, I suppose; but it is rather more your standard press gallery output and less an exemplar of what it might be, which is what I had hoped and suspect she might have hoped, too. Let's not dismiss it out of hand. Bear with me as I pop the bonnet and take it apart, then consider what sort of reporting an event like this might give rise to, from journalists and media companies that knew what they were about and had some conception of customer value.
The Queensland Nationals MP George Christensen has threatened to vote against Coalition superannuation changes, immediately threatening one of the Turnbull government’s key policies two days after his ministry was formed.

Christensen took to his Facebook page to state categorically: “I hate it when government fiddles with super” and described it as “Labor-style policy”.

“It’s not the government’s money, it’s YOUR money,” Christensen writes. “We in government need to remember that. If the government’s superannuation policy does not change, I will be crossing the floor and voting against these measures.”
OK, I read Christensen's Facebook page in the original, and it says a lot about him as a politician. Basically, George has stamped his foot and delivered an ultimatum, which was probably meant to sound like strong and principled leadership. Canberra deal-makers hate ultimatums and the drama queens who deliver them. Coalition MPs returned by the barest of margins will not thank one of his party's whips for rocking an overloaded boat in this fashion.

That said, there are four issues here.

First, superannuation. It's important, and the details have ramifications that go far beyond Canberra, far beyond this term of Parliament, and we really should pay attention to the details. Any details about what this carry-on might mean, Katharine?
The Coalition policy places a $500,000 lifetime cap on after-tax superannuation contributions backdated to 2007, increases the concessional tax rate on asset earnings from 0% to 15% for people aged 56-65 in the “transition to retirement” and taxes accounts over $1.6m at 15%.
Pretty thin, that. What's really needed here is some context as to what that means. This is not a new debate, and by now specialist writers should have opinions about what might happen if the relevant regulations are changed, versus what might happen if the government's policies are enacted. But for two years a decade ago, every government since 1980 has had to bargain its policies through a Senate it did not control (and in 2010-13, a House with a majority of non-government members too); it is probably more useful to talk about the likelihood of some sort of compromise being enacted, and what that may or may not mean.

Christensen has concocted a sob-story whereby I as a taxpayer will have to subsidise (that is, with MY money) a couple sitting on more than $3m of super. It isn't as convincing as either of them might hope. Just because a politician says he is the defender of the people's money it doesn't mean that he can be taken at his word. Just because a journalist has a quote it doesn't mean they have a story.

Has superannuation policy really reached a state of perfection that is worth bringing down a government to preserve? Is this or any other policy at the mercy of his emotions ("I hate it")? If you couch Christensen's antics position in terms of policy, and leave others to do the horserace crap, you potentially bring an angle that informs debate within Canberra and beyond. You also run the very grave risk of establishing a value proposition for media consumers that is described by Ezra Klein in, uh, this piece.

You could make a case that here's a generalist journo trying to make a fist of a complex issue, but that might have been good enough way back when a quick summary was good enough for the likes of you. These days, there are plenty of superannuation wonks. Some of them can write and not all are hopelessly conflicted. Those people have more credibility than workaday hacks trying to be all things to everyone, and the only traditional media outlets with a future will be those who can tap into real expertise when required.

Second, there's the issue of the budget. Superannuation is taxed lightly in comparison to other reservoirs of money, and any government committed to balancing the budget had to revisit this issue. It makes no sense to complain long and loud about BUDGET BLACK HOLE EMERGENCY DEFICIT SHOCK (as Christensen did) and then complain about specific action to that end (as Christensen did).

Again, this is part of the policy context in which this government operates, and which therefore Murphy, Chan and their press gallery colleagues must also operate, and report on. Nowhere in that piece is there anything about that. No questions to Christensen about the relatively light tax treatment of super over many years - including when Labor was in government - and no questions about what he suggests might be taxed instead.

Third, Christensen isn't a conservative in any real sense. Before the last election he was endorsing far-right groups who would shun Muslims, who were ambivalent at best about anti-Muslim violence. Real conservatives have nothing to do with that garbage, as Ted Cruz demonstrated. Hanson didn't run a candidate against Christensen at the last election: she didn't need to. Now Christensen and Hanson are as one on superannuation too:
... senator-elect Pauline Hanson has indicated she believes superannuation should be “left alone” ...
... and Christensen's Facebook page is full of endorsements of whatever she might say about anything. Why doesn't he stop pretending he's a legitimate member of the Coalition and piss off to the PHONies? Is he playing a longer game like Bernardi, waiting to drop off the Coalition once he has sucked it dry?

The novelist Evelyn Waugh once wrote of one of his contemporaries: "To see Stephen Spender fumbling with our rich and delicate language is to experience all the horror of seeing a Sevres vase in the hands of a chimpanzee". There's a certain element of that in knowing George Christensen, and many others no better than him, holds your retirement income and mine and the fate of the government in his hands. Murphy's fascination is understandable, but misplaced. There less drama than you might imagine in a man who talks big but tends not to follow through.

Lastly, there's the angle that Murphy takes on all this - the same angle every other press gallery herd animal took - on the horserace. The barely returned Turnbull government and the potential disruption to its agenda, etc. I suspect this is the bit that's meant to take my interest.

Um, probably. It's just beside the point. Politicians make deals and break them and carry on - mostly over nothing of enduring significance - all the time. Despite press gallery lore, that's not really where the most interesting story is. The herd are all over that horserace stuff. The story is in what those deals are over, and how the outcomes affect us in ways we may or may not expect.

Christensen isn't going to turn government over to Bill Shorten, not over superannuation or anything else. He's seen how conservatives treat Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott, or the Job of Sippy Downs, Peter Slipper; neither Christensen nor anyone in this government wants that sort of calumny for the rest of his days and yea unto the seventh generation. The idea that conservatives cross the floor without penalty is palpably false. It's a historical artefact that was binned by John Howard. If your twenty years of observing politics up close has taught you anything, that's one of the lessons you should have learned.

If it were no big deal that conservative MPs cross the floor, why even write a story about it?

Cory Bernardi has been threatening to leave the Liberal Party for a decade. Like most people (and many dogs, and even some bits of furniture), Bernardi is much smarter than Christensen. If the SA Liberals punted Bernardi he has a much more solid political base to survive and almost certainly get re-elected to form an enduring presence in Australian politics - but still he waits, and waits, and knows any time he wants to stir the pot the entire press gallery as one will run around with their hair on fire. If the LNPQ punted Christensen he'd be finished, flat out making it onto Mackay Council.

Christensen has his Facebook page: if Murphy Chan thinks the best use of her traditional media platform is to make more from a gobbet of social media than it can possibly bear, then she is selling that platform short. She's not alone in this belief, and strangely many journalists take comfort from following this trend: whether it's an overpaid presenter on live TV cutting to a smartphone, or radio personalities taking to podcasts to complain about Twitter, nothing diminishes traditional media faster than the impression that they are nothing but relays for where the action really is, on social media. If the traditional media becomes yesterday's social media today, it's finished.

This government is less precarious than the one of 2010-13, which Murphy and most of the press gallery reported from up close. The idea that the government might collapse at any minute got very damn boring after months and years where plenty else was happening. It crowded out reporting of actual policy developments every bit as significant as the superannuation reforms under discussion here, developments that could make useful stories today or tomorrow given the right writers. Clearly, the lessons of the abysmal reporting from that time have not been learned.

A focus on policy removes perceptions of journalistic bias: can a policy opposed by the Labor party really be a "Labor-style policy" (even if a politician declares it so)? Leaving policy out of your coverage puts it at the mercy of a bunch of personalities that are far less compelling than beleaguered media outlets might hope.

As a political correspondent, Murphy Chan should know Christensen isn't much of a superannuation wonk, and isn't much of a politician either; she would serve her readers better by saying so and pointing out why. In terms of this event and where the news value is, the fate of the nation's retirement incomes far outweighs the outbursts of another mediocre Jack-in-office. Journalistic inertia in only being able to cover complex stories in tiresome ways that obscure their lasting significance is to be pitied (to be fair, Murphy's this piece was one of the better examples of a doomed genre). We still need more and better information on how we are governed than the press gallery can provide.

Update 27/7: It was remiss of me to overlook the fact this article, while referred to me by Katharine Murphy, was in fact written by Gabrielle Chan. The necessary changes have been made above.

My original point stands about the research: reading a Facebook page and taking a gibbering dupe at the words fed to him is not a vindication of journalism but a failure of it. The paragraph on superannuation should have been the core of this story, not a side-effect; we will be enjoying/suffering the results of this for years, and it is only fair for journalists observing from up close to tell us what's going on.

A NewsCorp veteran, Chan tends to give politicians the benefit of the doubt and believes she has done journalism by quoting them directly and taking them at their word. Her journalism from beyond Canberra is far better than that from within; she should do more of the former and let it inform any political reporting she may turn her hand to. Murphy was wrong to consider this piece anything more than your standard all-sizzle-no-sausage journalism content.

07 July 2016

Taking the cake

In 2013 I was so convinced that Tony Abbott would screw up so badly that he wouldn't become Prime Minister at all. How I laughed at the polls. How I jeered at the press gallery groupthink that sought to convert that pig's ear of a man into a silk purse of a PM. I still remember how it felt, to be proven so wrong, so irrefutably, so publicly.

That's why I have some sympathy for political journalists who did in 2016 what I'd done in 2013: ignored the polls, ignored people with less exposure to traditional and social media than me (that is, pretty much everyone) who actually engaged with political issues and personalities from first principles, and insisted on having access to some secret cache of political knowledge inaccessible to mere mortals.

Some, but not much - most political journalists are simply reeling forward, claiming that a campaign which had them fooled and gibbering with excitement had somehow become 'lacklustre', assuming that their credibility remains intact. These people might think they're getting on with it, but they are trashing their credibility and that of their employers.

It was strange to see, of all people, Matthew Knott start to realise that he and his compadres had done the country a disservice simply by doing what they'd always done:
Those political reporters not too hubristic to engage in self doubt are asking: did we get it wrong? Did we, as a collective, miss the story?
Yes, you did. That subclause "as a collective" is the operative one here, because that stampede always leads the press gallery into bad and dumb stories, and always convinces them that if they all do it then it must somehow be less wrong.

Pretty much all political journalists in 2016 were covering the parliament of 2010-13. They should have told us what we could expect from such a parliament, which is the kind of parliament we are heading into now.

In 2010-13, the then government was spending so much time with crossbenchers in both houses that it didn't have time to coddle journalists, to drop self-serving little tidbits in their laps; they had a lot to do and focused on the doing, assuming (wrongly) that tough and clever journalists could work it out for themselves. It turns out that journalism doesn't cope well with nuance and compromise; most jobs involving nuance and compromise take place well away from journalists. The then opposition spent no time with crossbenchers but spent all the time coddling journalists, to the point where the journalists all said the government was hopeless while the opposition was the Best Opposition Evah.

Again, the "as a collective" was the problem. Nobody considered the well-flagged possibility that Tony Abbott might be a bull in the china shop of government, and not in a good way. He got fairer media headwinds before coming to government than John Howard had in 1995-96, and he still blew it. The press gallery were of one mind that Gillard and Rudd could do nothing right, and that Abbott could do nothing wrong. When Abbott screwed up the press gallery played it down, or made things up for 'balance', but the reality was irreconcilable with their Best Opposition Evah narrative. Today, the actual result of the election is irreconcilable with a tangle of narratives: that Turnbull is cruising to victory while Shorten is battling to hold his job, that everybody's home and hosed in Canberra under the second term of the Turnbull government and it's your shout mate.
The consensus, speaking to colleagues in the Canberra press gallery, is a reluctant yes.
Why even ask them? Does journalism exist for its own sake?
Some insist they got it spot on.
Fuck all of those people. All of them. Any responsible organisation confronted with egregious professional failure by their staff would make them show cause why they should not be dismissed.

Imagine if AFL journalists insisted at this stage of the season that Carlton, Collingwood, and Essendon were the teams to beat this year because they had been back in the day, and the journos couldn't imagine how things might change. Imagine the currency traders who went long on sterling before Brexit. This is the degree of professional failure involved with dickheads who misreported the national mood a week before an election, and who insisted their failure not be called out. Something beyond mere dismissal is warranted here: chucking them into the most algae-infested bit of Lake Burley Griffin, for a start.
But many admit they expected a more decisive Coalition victory than occurred.
Or not occurred, as the case may be.
And they concede this influenced the way the media covered the campaign.
Every time a journalist lapses into the passive voice they are up to no good, and here's yet another example. 'They' (journalists who cover politics) concede that 'the way the media covered the campaign' was somehow affected by their herd mentality and how it differed from the clear pattern indicating the election could go either way. This might be someone's idea of a big concession: it isn't mine.
This election campaign rained polls. Week after week, media outlets published national polls showing a 50-50 tie or at best a 51-49 Coalition lead.

The results barely shifted from week one to eight. Yet, as the campaign progressed, a view solidified that the Coalition was on track for a relatively comfortable victory.
So "a view solidified", "on track", "relatively comfortable victory" - what weasel words, what worthless piffle that all is. The solidification of pure wind was bad enough - but the fact that it was so all-pervasive is just so stupid, and unforgivably so among people their defenders still insist are competitive, diverse, and intelligent people. The numbing collective aspect is what's so stupid, and Knott is trying to use it to hide what's wrong with political reporting and build a future for it.

Go back to that quote from Knott above - a quote that is not intended to make him look foolish, but which would have succeeded had that intention been there. Let's take out that indictment of a last sentence and run the sentence before it into the one that followed:
The results barely shifted from week one to eight ... Yet the Coalition suffered a sizeable swing against it on election night and is struggling to hit the 76 seats needed to govern in its own right.
It follows that consistent polls indicated a hung parliament, and this is exactly the result that was foretold. That "yet" is jarring - it shows that the jibber-jabber of campaign commentary had absolutely no effect on the result at all. It shows that the media would have been better served simply by printing poll results and filling pages/airwaves with almost anything but the hectares of blather chuntered forth by Knott and his disgraced colleagues.
"The commentariat fell into a bubble and were reflecting what each other thought.

"A narrative caught hold and everyone started reporting it."

With hindsight, there's much to support this.
There was much to support that conclusion at the time, but the only support available to journalists was in delusion, and in reporting the wrong stories. Knott was too haughty to realise it, too wrapped up in his and others' bullshit and lacking the tools and wit to snap out of a collective delusion that impeded understanding.

Knott began his career covering inside-media gossip for Crikey. A young fogey, Knott disdained social media (despite Crikey being more like a blog than established traditional media) and Fairfax decided that personalities and gossip provided the necessary depth of skills to cover federal politics in all its complexities. Despite being one of over two hundred press gallery journalists, there was no way Knott had any sort of ability to work things out from first principles and chart his own course through the nation's public life. Those who wrangle journos for a living from the major parties were dead right in assuming Knott could be stuffed with junk food and shuffled off to picfacs and would love every minute of it, offering nary a challenge to the desired narrative nor any departure from the collective.
Several ideas took hold quickly in the gallery's collective brain. That Australians don't kick out a first term government (despite this happening recently at a state level). And that Malcolm Turnbull's personal popularity was a decisive advantage against the less prime ministerial Shorten.

During the campaign, several events became seen as "turning points" for the Coalition despite the polls never really budging. Labor's admission it would increase the budget deficit over the next four years was one. So was the UK's departure from the European Union.
It's one thing for some to hold to conventional wisdom. But for all of them, without exception, to stick to an opinion that could be trumpeted but not justified can barely be believed, let alone respected.
Many had picked up a "vibe" in the community that voters were disappointed in Turnbull, but not sufficiently angry to remove him. There was also the confidence exuded by Turnbull and his advisers.

Many of us even convinced ourselves that the low-energy, small-target campaign was a clever way of "boring" voters into backing the Coalition.

"You got the impression they were confident and confident for a reason," former Media Watch host Jonathan Holmes says of the coverage. "There was very little scepticism of what was behind that".
Very little scepticism by whom - hardbitten, can't-fool-me journalists, trusted experts in the hall of mirrors that is politics.

Confident Labor - delusional. All journos agreed.

Confident Libs - confident for a reason. Again, all journos agreed (baa!).

Who's best place to judge why these people have failed? Why, the noddies themselves. They'd know. You can trust them - well, our hero does.
But if the media were wrong they were hardly alone. Two days before election day the bookmakers - often hailed as more accurate than pollsters ...
Often hailed by whom - hardbitten, can't-fool-me journalists, trusted etc ... you can see where this is going. First you fool people, then you snuggle down with those you've fooled so that you can be wrong together. The difference is that bookmakers incur real and direct penalties for getting their odds wrong - not so journalists.
So, as Insiders host Barrie Cassidy asked, were journalists shown to be "gullible"? Or were they being lied to?
False dichotomy there. Being lied to is a given in politics. If you're experienced and credible, you can pick your way through the lies and show us what's going on. If you're not, then you're no better than Knott and his arse-covering mates. Right toward the end, and doubtless under duress, Knott dove into social media:
In preparing this piece, I asked readers on Twitter and on Facebook for their views of the coverage.

Some dominant criticisms emerged ...
And excellent criticisms they were, too good for our protagonist it seems. Most journalists use social media to follow other journalists, and get all upset when randoms barge into their carefully curated circle-jerks; I imagine Knott's is no better, but he has blocked me. I have given deeper thought to political journalism than he has; Knott wakes up every day and does the same thing over and over, waiting for drops or chewing over press releases, assuming that he's vindicated by following the herd. Knott flinches before criticism and can't evaluate it, spluttering instead from the ill-considered perspective that only journalists can judge journalists:
Journalists may quibble with some points.
If the campaign is light on policy, blame the politicians' and not us.
No. Politicians bear their own penalties from a disengaged electorate, penalties no journalist bears (not even those made redundant, and too few of those come from the press gallery/campaign trail). Political campaign staffers know what journos like: they like it lite, brite and trite. In my previous post I gave two solid examples of political journalism from the small beer and weak tea that was this campaign. Journos and editors are responsible for what journos write/say. If you'd been right, you'd want credit; you aren't, so cop this.
Others might argue that, despite what readers say they want to read, many more will click on a story about a "fake" tradie than a plan to save the Murray Darling Basin.
The declining fortunes of the media demonstrate that they have no clue what people do or don't want to read. That fatuous and ill-considered quote assumes erroneously that any piece on a substantive policy issue is as good as any other, and that a piece that is both badly written and badly received should discourage any attempt at better journalism.
Still, that doesn't mean those in the media shouldn't listen - and reflect.
It does, if you're simply going to dismiss some very good feedback out of hand, or cast those pearls before the swine of the campaign bus/press gallery.

Six years ago, Greg Jericho expressed frustration that he couldn't find any reporting on disability policy because the press gallery were busy making the very mistakes to which Knott referred and tried so feebly to dismiss. Journos at the time were less dismissive than Knott and some expressed a wish to do better. Millions of news cycles later we know that none did, of course. Knott could have studied that and become a better journalist. As Margaret Simons didn't say, but I will: Matthew Knott has much to be humble about, with no inclination or ability to lift his game.

James Jeffrey doesn't pretend to be anything but a writer of colour pieces. Unlike the more precious and dismissive Knott or Annabel Crabb, he doesn't claim his gentle vignettes have a serious journalistic purpose, and he gets upset when others think they should. This is fair enough (and this writer may well have taken easy shots in the past at pieces of this sort), but the bit where his piece doesn't quite work is the bit where his larky tone turns to snark:
For some, I suspect it stems from the disappointment that the paper isn’t, say, wall to wall Paul Kelly — an understandable disappointment. But Kelly isn’t stingy with his words and there’s plenty to go around.

Following my latest “And this passes for journalism?”, I’ll confess to feeling a bit fed up. I thanked my commenter for checking in, but suggested such a comment was a bit like going to a cake shop and getting grumpy because you can’t get a steak.
Kelly mightn't be stingy with words, but since about the mid-'90s he has sacrificed quality for quantity. And this leaves lighter pieces bearing more weight than they were designed for, like ivy straining to hold together a crumbling wall. Or, to return to Jeffrey's analogy, if someone's sold you disappointing steak after disappointing steak, they can never appreciate cakes for what they are.
I’m still in love with the idea of a newspaper being a banquet with plenty of courses. Hard news, breaking news, solid analysis — all of that is important. But it’s not the only reason readers turn up.
For a start, I only read that story because Jeffrey's employer placed it outside their firewall. Like a potplant outside a toilet block, it leavens the overall effect but does not make me any more likely to go in.

Jeffrey might be holding up his side of things with his personable arrangements of bons mots, but his assumptions about the heavier lifting done by others simply do not hold. If you're an urban denizen, as Jeffrey is, where are you most likely to find a delicious cake: in some hole-in-the-wall patisserie, or in some tacky run-down supermarket full of verbose but customer-unfriendly staff and a reputation for crap steak?

Knott's attempt to raise journalistic failure and then dismiss it without proper examination calls to mind the heartfelt but ultimately misdirected lamentations for journalism by Paul Barry earlier this year, and by Jonathan Holmes late last year in The Age. We live in an information age, and information providers should be making out like bandits. Limiting yourself to mere journalism seems to be its own reward. Yes, proper information costs money, but if you don't take a chance on it then you can never make money anyway. Those who are neither informative nor engaging while taking up space once occupied by those committed to being both waste everyone's time and resources. We needed to be told the truth about how we are being governed, and (at a time of election) what other options we have. At a time where the election was so boring that doing some policy-based research actually made the coverage less boring, rather than more so as Knott and his dull-witted herd did, the fortunes of our struggling media could have turned around. A bit of independent thought might have snapped Knott and some others out of the mass exercise of professional self-harm he and his colleagues perpetrated upon us all. It would have helped us form better judgments about how we are governed (and on what Knott and Jeffrey report), because that matters more than the combined delusions of journalists.

Update 8/7: Different/better takes on Knott from:

03 July 2016

Leaving us hanging

Before I start, let me apologise to regular readers for the long delay in posting at a time when you'd expect me to post often and much. I feel like I've said everything that needs to be said about the horrible vacuity of campaign-trail journalism, while the big media organisations keep pumping out the same old crap. Those who think I've said too much already can agree that I gave those drongoes trashing once-proud media outlets more than enough rope.

1972 was clearly a big year for campaign-trail journalism. Whitlam's launch of that year set the template for every campaign launch since: the upbeat speech, the balloons, the camera shots of young hopefuls and elder statesmen. Tony Wright and Dennis Shanahan [writes for NewsCorp, find it yourself] both wrote jaded gobbets about how lame it all was - but if those guys' decades of experience means anything, they had no right to expect any better. The US election of that year yielded The Boys on the Bus by Tim Crouse and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail by Hunter S. Thompson, and every single word written or spoken by every campaign-trail journalist has been a warmed-over take-out from either/both of those seminal texts.

They spent three years wishing they were on the campaign trail, and now they're here they are bored and tired - and nobody cares that they're bored and tired, because politics rendered in a boring way isn't intended to arouse sympathy or any other sort of engagement:

(c) Guardian Australia

Campaign trail journalism had to reach a point of cultural exhaustion at some point, and here we are. All those photo-ops and proto-announcements counted for nothing. When you're engaged in non-work, you can't expect sympathy from those who get tired from working real jobs. The press gallery sat around for three years watching their drinking buddies mess about with policy proposals that had real-world impacts on the lives of their readers/ listeners/ viewers.

They couldn't craft the words and images that could describe what was going on, and how it affects us; easier to comment on pretend-elections and gossip, and the dummies in the editorial suite had no better sense for news than theirs. Popular disengagement is political failure, and it's a failure of journalism too. Both have far-reaching impacts on politics and media which can't be imagined, let alone managed, by those who run either type of organisation. Now they wonder why there's disengagement, and you still can't tell them: the old traditions of campaigning have worn so thin, and campaign-trail journalism goes into the skip along with all the other how-to-votes and hopes and dreams.

What's clearly failed here isn't just campaign-trail journalism. It's the idea that you can only report on federal politics from Canberra, or by flying in clueless pinheads from Sydney like Simon Benson or Peter Hartcher, while cutting out local journalists. Everyone talks about Xenophon in South Australia, but once you get past Sydney/Melbourne condescension to that state the only actual Croweaters the press gallery talks to are other journalists, or Christopher Pyne and Penny Wong - and Xenophon seems to be a reaction to the problems those two caused or failed to solve. Rob Oakeshott explained how Fairfax's centralised ad-buying undermined local editorial in the Port Macquarie News. Sydney/Melbourne media could cover from the suburbs of those cities but not from regional Queensland, or hardscrabble Tasmania - even Windsor vs Joyce in New England was assumed to be a toss-up when it wasn't, because the desire to pose for 'balance' outweighed any genuine journalistic instinct to report the story.

Nobody votes on a national basis. It's why those who complained Tony Abbott or Kevin Rudd were "elected Prime Minister" are talking nonsense. It's why journalists relying on "national polls" add nothing to anyone's understanding: if you can't explain which seats go this way or that and why, you can't explain the result; you can only suck air through clenched teeth and go "ooh, it's close!", and there's no future or value in that. Polls showing minor inflections may nonetheless be valuable for pollsters - but it is poor fare for journalists, and irrelevant pap for readers/ listeners/ viewers/ voters.

Let's remember clearly how the media reacted to developments in this campaign:
  • When Turnbull threatened a double dissolution election over workplace relations, the press gallery all agreed (thanks for the link @boozebum) it was a masterstroke in wedging Labor, unprepared and with a lacklustre leader.
  • Traditional media all agreed that 'Mediscare' was a scare campaign, but seemed to take recent Coalition campaigns against carbon pricing or the Budget deficit at face value.
  • In the last week of the campaign, traditional media were all agreed the Coalition would be returned with a slender majority. When Bill Shorten told Leigh Sales that he hadn't given up, Sales laughed in his face.
  • The same people who believed Turnbull ran a disciplined, on-message campaign now accuse him of being 'lacklustre', a term fed to them by Abbott and Credlin, and which shows they have no ability to assess or qualify lines they receive - so, what they pass on isn't valuable.
You've failed at journalism when you look at something up close for a long time and you can't tell us what's going on. When that thing is an election campaign, where we have to decide how our nation is to be governed and by whom, the stakes go far beyond newsroom japes.

A centralised campaign seeks only the information it wants, and its judgment about what it wants is rubbish. Traditional media insistence that its judgments match voter needs are demonstrably false. No appeal to their good sense or better nature is possible.

We've talked for a long time about the declining social bases of the major parties, and the fact that voters are increasingly rewarding people for trying to work out different options that the major parties dare not attempt. Only corporate donors expect whole-cloth solutions from political parties, which is why major parties pleading for first preferences in both houses sound like they're peddling an agenda other than that of the voters. Minor parties need not seek out traditional media to be electable (except for Pauline Hanson, that unflushable turd and wholly-owned subsidiary of Channel 7), and in return traditional media are constantly surprised by each new wave of minor-party politicians.

Major parties value those who'll toe the line over those who can think on their feet. The Liberal injunction "Stick to the plan" (when there was no plan to stick to) seemed targeted to party members rather than a democratic polity at large. Minors and independents get by on their wits, which the drones from the majors interpret as being all flash and no substance. Cathy McGowan danced around Sophie Mirabella, who couldn't get out of her own way again. Alex Bhatal, Jason Ball and Carl Katter ran rings around David Feeney and Kelly O'Dwyer, and it will be interesting to see what (if?) the latter two learn from the experience. Journalists can't cover three-way splits or post-electoral compromise. Journalism is reductive, and is better at explaining clear differences rather than the messy compromises at the heart of parliamentary democracy. We're going to have more hung parliaments (oh yes we are), so traditional press gallery journalism of facile thrills'n'spills simply won't be able to cope.

The traditional media have lost credibility as their news judgment has departed from what people seem to be seeking in politics. It was not this gaffe or that scare campaign that turned the election - such an analysis assumes the traditional media has more readers/ listeners/ viewers than they have, and that their coverage is taken more seriously than it is. Insiders showed a ten-minute montage of dreck footage, and none of the bastards who followed had the decency to apologise and/or resign. Those who don't understand the result can't explain it.

The fact that they can't explain them further devalues traditional media as trusted, experienced sources of political information. This in turn opens more scope for minor parties and devalues poor muppets like Josh Frydenberg, who would be nothing at all without major parties and traditional media, who then seem to spray themselves with voter-repellent when they breathlessly announce "stay tuned for our exclusive interview", and so it goes down the plughole. In this article Brigid Delaney mocks Liberals who actually believed what they read/ heard/ saw in the media, who relied on insider tips fed to them by Liberals, and who then had the journos eat their hors d'oeuvres, and so on in a self-referential loop that both journalists and politicians wrongly assume will keep them all busy.

I've talked about the death spiral of traditional media and major parties for a decade (apologies again for being so light-on over the past few weeks, I've been busy), but never has it been more obvious than in this campaign. By 2019 there will be fewer journalists employed by traditional media overall, though the press gallery may remain a bloated herd. It's amazing to think that editors and news directors will again send impressionable journalists out to do warmed-over Crouse/Thompson from a school in Cairns, a hospital in Perth, a highway easement in Westensinny, etc. ...

Surely not all political journalism in this campaign was crap?

Mostly it was. Only two exceptions of quality journalism applied to public policy come to mind from this election campaign:
Now that Lenore Taylor has moved to an editorial role, Tingle is the best and most consistently journalist in the press gallery by a very long way. Price is not even in the press gallery; she's a columnist and academic, and seemingly by accident she's done some journalism when all other alternatives were exhausted. Unlike 1972, campaign-trail journalists have the ability to research and knock up stories from buses or layovers or wherever else that are every bit as good as those two above.

If the press gallery and the campaign trail produced consistently good journalism, it might be worthwhile - but it doesn't, and it isn't. Journos often moan that I don't call out positive examples: but when I do it only emphasises what dreadful garbage they have flung at us over the past eight weeks, and for years and years before that.

30 May 2016

We could lose 95 percent of the journalists

Here’s a note to all the news directors around the country: Do you want to save some money? Well then bring home your journalists following Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard, because they are not doing anything of any worth except having a round-the-country twitter and booze tour.

It is a sad thing to say but we could lose 95 percent of the journalists following both leaders and the nation would be none the poorer for it. In fact we would probably be better off because it would leave the 5 percent who have some intelligence and are not there to run their own narrative a chance to ask some decent questions of the leaders. Some questions which might actually reveal who would be the better leader of this country.

- Greg Jericho, 30 July 2010
If there was ever going to be a blog post that had the same lasting impact as the very best journalism, that post was it. Personal without oversharing, precisely targeted in its anger and overly generous toward the media, it shamed the better journalists. The then Managing Director of the ABC, Mark Scott, referenced Jericho's lament that he couldn't find out about disability policy from the media, and vowed to do better in reporting the news rather than second-guessing tactics.

Nothing came of it. Take Gillard's name from the above quote and you could run it today. "Campaign trail" journalism is bullshit journalism through and through, thoroughly debunked by Tim Crouse in 1972 and never bettered, or redeemed. Yet still this waste of resources persists. When parliament is sitting and actual government is underway, the press gallery wishes it was on the campaign trail, and now that they are they realise they are boring themselves and actually shunning readers/ viewers/ listeners with the sheer vacuity, the exhaustion of everything they find thrilling and compelling about their "work".

The abyss stares back at you

Australia's struggling television networks declined to show last night's "leaders' debate" between Turnbull and Shorten because they knew their standard fare was more compelling: cooking shows, the festering saga of media ethics failure that was 60 Minutes, etc.

They were right: the show was not a "debate" because there was no actual engagement with ideas. It was a joint press conference. The press gallery began by asking Turnbull about "the real Malcolm", a concoction they made up and homogenised after quiet chats with Turnbull before he became Prime Minister, to which they cling in the conviction they could never have been gulled or scammed. We saw with Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott how the press gallery develop a picture of a leader which prevails long after they have fallen short of it, and we see the same again with "the real Malcolm".

Surely it would be easier to report on what Turnbull says (and doesn't say) and does (and doesn't), and refer o that objective reality as "the real Malcolm". Instead, the press gallery persists with cod-psychology about "the real Malcolm" and how reality falls short of their cosy image, and how they can't cope when objective reality departs from their narrative.

Press gallery journalists asked press gallery questions and got press gallery responses. Traditional media outlets fear that information is boring, but the one thing people want is tangible information. They think hype and bullshit engages people, when the fate of traditional media shows that it shuns them. The whole exercise is just a make-work scheme for media insider types, shunned by real people who vote and consume and pay taxes. I can remember journalists insisting that Kim Beazley "won" his debates with John Howard; they were pointless exercises even then.

The "leaders' debates" are modelled on US presidential elections. Being President of the United States isn't like being Prime Minister of Australia. Prime Ministers succeed or fail on whether they get their policies through a parliament that is neither fully with them nor (unlike the current US Congress) fully against them. If you're going to have a Prime Ministerial debate, have a debate:
  • Have a debate: instead of Turnbull and Shorten talking past one another, have them engage with the same ideas and even pursue them to resolution for a change. Test what is said against objective reality (e.g. a Prime Minister with a commitment to science would boost the CSIRO rather than cut it).
  • People who will only ever have one shot at asking a question of the actual/potential Prime Minister ask better questions than those who question him every day. We see this with Community Cabinet meetings run by other governments, which have a far lower Bloody Stupid Question ratio than your average transcript of a doorstop/ press release/ other press gallery thing.
  • A debate needs to involve the non-government parties. OK, so the Greens or Family First don't govern, but they do skew what government does and the nature of that skew is one of the great deficits of political coverage. The way that a major party leader relates to them is going to tell us a lot about how they are going to govern. Telling us about how we are governed is the point of the exercise: if you can make it genuinely entertaining, then that would be a great departure from decades of failure.
  • Press conferences are boring. There is no reason to assume a joint press conference with added pomposity would be any less boring, or enlightening - no proof, no positive example to justify perpetuating this exhausted format. Make this "leaders' debate" the last. There is no point going on.

The election with no theme

People just want what people want. Different people want different things. It's possible for different people to see different things and want different things from the same event. We see this in elections: different people want different things from election campaigns, and politicians respond in different ways to those wants. It isn't true that an election campaign must have one overarching theme.

Waleed Aly disagrees. He's a commentator and an academic: he wants the overarching theme so that anyone who departs from it must be wrong. If you don't give a damn about (say) negative gearing, or whether Donald Trump would be a terrible US president, then that's a departure from the official narrative: you must be wrong.

What was the grand narrative of the 2013 election - that Everybody Hates Julia? What was it in 2010? What was the narrative of the 1993 election - a chocolate cake? Grand narratives aren't detectable at the time and they are even difficult in retrospect. Our politics is in transition. The support bases of our major parties have eroded (as Aly has examined in-depth elsewhere) and nothing has yet taken their places. It's silly to be impatient in wishing forward a time when that which is unsettled might become settled.

It's silly to assume status-quo responses like "leaders' debates" might do in the meantime. It's effete to assume genuine concerns about job security or affordability must be "manufactured"; bogus scare campaigns fail if they're not tethered to reality, but they can't fail if they're not bogus (or not tethered to something real).

Michael Lind writes well about his country's emerging political realignment; nobody on the press gallery today could do half as good a job on the similar forces at work on our own country's politics.

Turnbull was never a transformative figure, and everyone who thought he was - everyone, regardless of their experience in politics - was wrong. Shorten isn't a transformative figure either. What definitely does have to transform is the way we cover politics, from the set-piece "debates" to the daily doorstop.


You know who desperately needs to save money? Fairfax. You know which media organisation desperately needs to connect with its audience, rather than cast shade on them/us? Fairfax.

Take this:
Malcolm Turnbull's media minders will plot a course through a supermarket right down to which aisle the Prime Minister will walk down. It rarely involves the fresh fruit and veg section.

Such is the fear that raw onions can strike in an Australian political leader in 2016.

The mastication of a single brown onion was one of the most bizarre moments of Tony Abbott's prime ministership, perhaps even less fathomable than the knighting of Prince Philip.

So Brisbane's wholesale fresh food markets was not without its dangers for Turnbull on day one of the campaign, with its pallets of onions.
There is no evidence that Turnbull, or any other political leader, is afraid of onions. There is no evidence that they might be tempted to eat one. Why would journalists choose to juxtapose a non-Abbott politician against pictures of onions? It makes no sense, except as the perpetuation of some self-pleasuring exercise on the part of the press gallery.

The press gallery had seen Tony Abbott up close for decades. They knew he was weird, but they pretended in 2010 and '13 that not only was he a regular guy but that he'd be a better Prime Minister than Rudd and Gillard put together. When he ate that onion, the gallery wrote it off as "Tony being Tony". Same with the knighting of Prince Philip. It was social media that pointed out how bizarre this was, and eventually even the press gallery fell into line. That realisation hasn't improved the quality of their reporting, though.

Let's indulge risible terms like "fear" and "danger" in this context: the journalist won't and can't admit it, but the press gallery would rather gibber on about onions than discuss policies and other government actions that might affect us in our lives. That's a self-realising fear: even if you avoid the onions, journalists will talk about them at the exclusion of anything else. Why connect with your audience and offer something of value, when you can be snide about an event to which you were invited, and whose point you seem to have missed (yes, the Brisbane produce market is in a marginal electorate. Is that all? Anything else? What do you mean, you weren't taking notice?). Dumb, easily distracted journalists are the "danger" - dangerous to politicians, dangerous to those they represent, dangerous to those who have no information other than rubbish from dumb, easily distracted journalists.

Let's not indulge journalists when they complain about the long campaign. The campaign never ends. When the parliament reconvenes and starts work, these same journalists will largely ignore what goes on in front of them and wish they were back on the bus, gaffe-hunting and giggling at memes.

Then there's this:
Convergence is the new black with more essential agreement on border protection, taxation, superannuation, and even health, than at any time in living memory.

Elections however require difference, real or claimed, so that's where all the attention will be. That, and personality.
Elections don't require anything of the sort. Elections require clear explanations of what each of the parties is likely to do, and not do. Sometimes it is sufficient to simply quote politicians, as most press gallery journalists do: sometimes it is not sufficient, as per this example.

A journalist who can't tell the difference between "real" or "claimed" is not worth their salt. They are not worth your time or mine in reading them, and their employers should have the sense to reassess their ongoing value.

At the last election - well within "living memory" - differences between the major parties in those areas were minor, but beaten up relentlessly by Kenny and other hype-merchants. Didn't do Fairfax any good. Didn't do the audience any good, in terms of telling us what our options were for government.

There is no value in describing convergence or divergence, and even less in fatuous terminology like "the new black". Spare us all the cod-psychology from easily impressed journalists (or, in Shorten's case, those who wrote him off for so long and who are now trying to avoid failing to get on the good side of a Shorten Government).

It shouldn't be my job to tell the Chief Political Correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald what his job is, but I've been doing it for years and the perceptions and analysis excreted by that poor silly bastard have not improved even slightly. He gives us a rundown of the clichés he is going to flog for the next two months, which should deter any sensible reader from bothering to consult him for the rest of this financial year. He can't even remember the last election. He has learned nothing. His perspective and experience add no value - not to readers, not to Fairfax, but seemingly only to this individual's salary and other perks.

There are other examples, so many others. There will be plenty more because Fairfax is a stupid organisation led badly. You know who should know better than to dump this crap on us under the misapprehension it is informing and/or entertaining? Fairfax.

Fairfax owns two media outlets, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, which are the only media outlets represented in the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery since its formation in 1901. You'd think they'd know a thing or two about this journalistic sub-discipline by now, but still they lace their copy with voter-repellent cliché and self-indulgence.

Fairfax has sacked about two and a half thousand journalists since 2011. They have sacked journalists from regional areas and suburban papers, even though those places are where this election will be decided: not the Brisbane produce market, or wherever today's picfac is.

They have sacked journalists with in-depth experience in policy areas who can do what almost nobody from the press gallery (5 percent of them at most) can do: explain complex policy in a straightforward and engaging way. Not a hype-ridden or clichéd way, but one that assumes the reader is as intelligent as the journalist, but who needs information rather than hype and bullshit. For Fairfax, this is the real tragedy: they have sacked the very journalists who might have added value for readers in this campaign, while retaining those who add no value and who ultimately have no future.

Under the Abbott government, there were two examples where journalists held the government to account to the point where a minister's job was on the line. In neither case did the press gallery lead the story:
  • Arthur Sinodinos was stood down from the ministry because of revelations from ICAC about his dual roles at Australian Water Holdings and the NSW Division of the Liberal Party. Press gallery followed this story, it did not lead it; terrible, clichéd reporting meant the press gallery initially couldn't believe Sinodinos could lose his job, and when he did the temptation to seen-it-all-before proved too great.
  • It was Amy Corderoy, specialist Health reporter, who noticed that the government had pulled a website rating processed foods. She pursued the story to the point where it threatened the careers of then Assistant Health Minister, Fiona Nash. Press gallery followed this story, it did not lead it; terrible, clichéd reporting (combined with fobbing-off from Abbott's office) meant the press gallery initially couldn't believe Nash could lose her job. When her chief of staff resigned instead it opened questions about the role of staffers in ministerial accountability; unable to think about this, let alone write in an engaging way, the gallery squibbed the story. Corderoy wasn't even nominated for a Walkley, and has since left journalism.
There are 250 members of the press gallery. It doesn't take 250 people to all fall upon the same (non-)story and all report it from pretty much the same angle. Mass departures and a realignment of political reporting might be eye-watering for some, but hardly unexpected.

The good news

The good news is that political staffers are actively working to render the press gallery redundant. Politicians need a relationship with voters: the media offered to provide the conduit, but it has let both politicians and public down rather badly. When Abbott hired his own photographer, press gallery photographers were all put out: didn't make a difference, and thanks to modern mobile phones anyone can take a picture. Even a press gallery journalist can notice Turnbull's staff doing what journalists used to do, but of course they get the diagnosis wrong: they aren't imitating you, they are replacing you. It doesn't matter that journalists are acting all upset, they should have seen it coming:
  • Did they really think the rolling transcontinental bludge that is campaign trail journalism would go on forever?
  • Who can make the better value proposition for having people photograph and question the leader: the leader's own office, or a failing media organisation?
  • If an editor can get content supplied to their office for free by politicians' offices and by social media users, why do they need to send one (or more, so many more) of their own expensive employees hither and yon?
  • If you can't foresee developments in your own field of work, how are you going to explain tax policy or coral bleaching or schools funding?
Greg Jericho was right in 2010: we could lose 95 percent of political coverage without any loss in understanding how we are governed, and how we might be governed. He's right now, and he'll keep being right until budget pressures force news organisations to put policy at the centre of election coverage. Without policy, election coverage makes no sense.