02 January 2012

The information you need

The mainstream media isn't giving us the information we need. It is giving us what they think is good enough for people like us, gathered by people that mainstream media organisations regard as competent; but this is not the same thing at all.

One of the best analysts of public affairs in the Australian media is George Megalogenis. We all have our blind spots, and Megalogenis' is the role that the media plays in public life, as seen in his Quarterly Essay and also in this more recent article:
ONLY one organisation in Australia is viewed, statistically speaking, as totally untrustworthy: the media. The scoop in the 2010 Australian Election Survey, published this week, wasn't so much that the messenger finished last but that the gap between us and the political institutions we are supposed to hold to account was so wide.
There are two major errors in that paragraph, and they bode ill for the rest of the article:
  • No idea why it's a "scoop", George; this is a commonplace that has been known for some time, and much commented upon in this blog and other outlets. When the weather report announces that it's a lovely day here in Sydney, or that Australia won the Boxing Day cricket Test against India, this is not a "scoop"; and
  • The gap between the mainstream media (assuming that's who Megalogenis means by "us") and the political institutions isn't wide at all. It's so close as to be symbiotic. The gap is the one between those who are supposed to be explaining what's going on and those who are to be explained to: media consumers, taxpayers, voters, citizens generally. People who in their different roles are affected by decisions of government but who are too busy to keep close tabs on what's going on (and who, in bygone days, had no means of doing so) relied on the media to find out what was going on. What is reported is irrelevant (monkey-house antics at Question Time, Abbott playing at jobs other than the one he's paid to do, gaffes) and what is relevant isn't reported (don't get me started).

After such a poor start, surely Megalogenis picks it up a bit? No, he quibbles with definitions:
The term "the press", like its twin in generalisation "the media", can mean anything. Obviously, the fence-sitting professionals at The Australian, the ABC, Fairfax and elsewhere should not have to answer for the celebrity hecklers on commercial television and radio. But we all should, nonetheless, take the public rebuke on the chin. (And, perhaps, be grateful that the question wasn't asked after Hackgate in Britain, because the proportion of voters who had confidence in the press here might have fallen to single digits.)
fence-sitting professionals at The Australian ???

Would you regard Laurie Oakes (News & Current Affairs, Channel 9) as part of the press/media? If so, why not Tracy Grimshaw (News & Current Affairs, Channel 9)? Regardless of what he may say, whenever Derryn Hinch (a celebrity heckler on commercial television and radio if ever there was one, and at the same time a journalist) is penalised for breaching a court order, where is the journalist who does not rally to his cause? Is Andrew Bolt, who is paid by the same employer to do a job not very different to what Megalogenis does, part of his press/media? In the following three paragraphs Megalogenis is surprisingly concise as to what constitutes the press/media/whatever; criticism can be quibbled away but job losses focus the mind.

His point about "the banality of the doorstop" is well made:
The doorstop is the fax machine of political communication. We know it is out of date, but no one has the guts to throw it out.
It's part of a wider problem, one that Megalogenis can't bear to confront:
The media's error at the last election campaign is easy to acknowledge. Australia almost had a change of government without serious scrutiny of the coalition's uncosted policies.
The error is perpetuated every time the opposition gets "equal time" to accuse the government of financial irresponsibility, without being called on it (but more on that later). It's a structural problem with the way that the Australian media covers politics: the idea that if you have a quote you have a story, regardless of whether the speaker has any credibility or even how a statement may fit with other factors in the subject-matter of their statement. You can bet that the next election will be covered in the same banal and facile way as the last one.
... the government we wound up with had very few policies of its own to begin with ...
It had very many policies that were mishandled by the immediate past Prime Minister, and these policies should not have been regarded as "yesterday's news" but as issues that affect the same Australians that consume media offerings and are subject to laws etc.
So the bullet dodged of an unready coalition was followed by the let-down of a minority Labor government that had lost its beliefs.
No, this was a government that had to compromise to stay in office. It is possible to compromise without losing core beliefs; the Coalition was unwilling to compromise, and as a result remains out of office.
In any fair analysis, the press contributed to the systems failure of 2010.
Note that this admission appears two-thirds of the way down the article. It is immediately followed by an equivocation:
Nevertheless, the media can't fix the problem of its subject matter.
Depends what you regard as the subject matter of reporting on the activities of government, really. The "political institutions we are supposed to hold to account" ought not be limited to the announcements and antics of parliamentarians. The "fence-sitting professionals at The Australian, the ABC, Fairfax and elsewhere" find it convenient to limit their coverage of government and governance to what's accessible to the press gallery, and they present this to us as the be-all-and-end-all of what politics is.
It is too much to ask of the media to ignore the mutually reinforcing character flaws of the two leaders.
It is not too much to ask to shift it from front and centre to minor features of much, much wider issues.
Gillard and Abbott are a mix of stubborn and flaky.
So are all politicians; you could apply that to Howard and Latham, Keating and Hewson, Hawke and Peacock, Menzies and Evatt, Cameron and Miliband, take your pick really. The same could even been said for journalists. Banality clearly isn't limited to doorstops.

Banality appears to be house policy at Fairfax, according to associate editor Shaun Carney:
And the media also have a role ... Because the economics of the industry have changed, the media have had to go out chasing audiences, knowing that the audiences are distracted and seeking quick gratification. Complexity and considered assessment of difficult issues sometimes have to make way for instant judgments, simplification and plenty of conflict.
Not sometimes: pretty much always. Consider what it is that 'distracts' people from avid consumption of the mainstream media, then set yourself the challenge of describing the day's news in ways that relates to those 'distractions'. If there is no way of describing fatuities in ways that relate to policy outcomes, leave them out of media content. Conflict is a media construct rather than a public demand; people will appear to conflict when there is substantial underlying agreement, or pretend to be in accord when there are significant differences (and this applies to situations other than the Gillard-Rudd relationship).
As the parties have found ways to tailor and target their messages with the intention of seeking a short-term advantage, the community has grown more cynical. What is lost is the sense of connection between voters and the citizens they elect.
And the media we consume, Shaun. You need us more than we need you.

When you're talking about banality and missing the point, though, you have to talk Jacqueline Maley:
During a wide-ranging interview presaging the new year, Mr Swan talked up the government's economic credentials - a perceived Labor weak point according to the polls - arguing that Australia has "a set of fundamentals that just about any other developed economy would wish to have".
Imagine you could have a wide-ranging interview with the Treasurer. Would you do your research on Swan and the economy and get some information that no other outlet had before, or would you just do the sort of standard bullshit that you could do if you'd never met Swan? If you were Jacqueline Maley, you'd trot out the same lazy bullshit: Rudd challenge, the surplus.
But the Treasurer stopped short of using the word "guarantee" in relation to the slim budget surplus the government has promised for 2012-13, which was downgraded from the $3.5 billion forecast in its May budget ...
Never mind the economics, feel the semantics. Swan isn't going to guarantee anything until the 2012-13 budget is actually released. The fact that he won't tie himself to a guarantee is standard practice for politicians, really. Even though it's tiresome bullshit, Scoop Maley is going to plug away at the same dry waterhole. After four paragraphs on the same non-topic I'm starting to wonder how "wide-ranging" this interview actually was.

You know that if there is a surplus in next year's budget, Jacqueline Maley will dismiss it as a political fetish rather than an economic imperative, and claim that there are accounting stunts involvd (as though no Treasurer has ever done this).
China's usually muscular manufacturing sector, which is heavily dependent on exports to Europe, this month contracted for the second consecutive month.
That's just clumsy writing. You don't have to interview Swan to get that. If you're going to quote that, however, consider how it relates to what Swan said (in that interview or elsewhere) and factors in the Australian economy dependent upon China's manufacturing sector in particular.

If you're going to interview the Treasurer, or do the Fourth Estate thing of holding pollies to account, you really need a basic understanding of economics. It's an old journosphere claim that people aren't interested in policy, but what they mean is that they can't write about it in an engaging way. Maley got an interview with the Treasurer but couldn't convey what he said except through banalities.
Mr Swan said there was no update on the asylum seeker impasse the government has been seeking to resolve through talks with the opposition ...
There is a whole story to be written on that, why aren't you writing it?
... but [Swan] refused to concede [the government] had made blunders on the issue.
Well he would, wouldn't he, especially in contrast to the unalloyed success of the Howard government's policies.

Maley didn't add much with a second story from the same interview:
But the shadow treasurer, Joe Hockey, said the reforms were "stupid policy"
He would say that, wouldn't he.

Why are they stupid, Jacqueline? Are there any aspects to banking reform other than mortgage exit fees? These are questions that a real journalist, rather than a space-filler, would have asked.
But Mr Hockey said Mr Swan was "clutching at straws" drawing a link between the changes and the banks passing on interest rate cuts. "You would think the acting Prime Minister would have more integrity than to lay claim to things which are unprovable," he said.
Maley lets this go unchallenged.

It would be easy to bag Hockey personally, but I won't; the Joe Hockey I knew was a person of integrity and I doubt that being Shadow Treasurer has corrupted him in any meaningful sense. It is perfectly appropriate, however, to say that Hockey's shenanigans with costing his economic policies last year does not give him any sort of 'right of reply' to Swan. Maley is being lazy in getting a quote from Swan and a countervailing quote from Hockey, and thinking that she's done her job; yet she has layer upon layer of Fairfax management (including Carney) who reinforces her in that position.

If I was Swan I'd wonder why I bothered with clowns like Maley at all. She could sit at home and write that stuff. No insight, no correlation of what pollies say with any objective reality, and cliche after cliche. She'll probably get a Walkley for that series of articles but it is the very sort of stuff that makes the mainstream media such inessential reading.

The mainstream media isn't giving us the information we need because it can't be bothered. Any slapped-together crap from Jacqueline Maley is good enough for the likes of you, and certainly doesn't cost much. In the new media environment you'll have to spend money to make money and take some time to find the information that people really need, rather than what you feel like dishing up in line with journosphere heritage and standards. The future of the media belongs to those who don't flinch at the inadequacies of the current system. Just as Qantas didn't grow out of Cobb & Co., so you'd have to bet against the journosphere getting over itself in time.


  1. ernmalleyscat2/1/12 9:40 p.m.

    I read Megalogenis' piece and I think the gap between what he and you are saying is smaller than you think.
    I took it that the 'gap' he was talking about was the statistical gap in the figures for confidence in the press (17%) and political parties (31%) and political system (53%).
    I also took his 'fence-sitting professionals' as a wry dig at partisan colleagues. I'm sure he's not immune to the reflexive defensiveness that many of the non-wingnut News Ltd employees display when lumped in with the Evil Empire, but he's obviously aware of what the rest of your blog criticises.
    I'm with you on all the rest, but I feel an urge to defend Megalogenis (and also Mike Steketee) because of their steadfast refusal to drink the Oz Kool Aid.

  2. Bushfire Bill3/1/12 8:10 a.m.

    The January 1st introduction of increased Family Benefits for the over-16 year olds was a case in point.

    The Telegraph and the Oz ignored it. They ran an "Overseas Junket" story instead, using Rudd (the Foreign Minister) as an example of excessive amounts of money being spent on airfares and plush hotels. What do they want him to do? Fly Tiger and stay at the YMCA? They didn't mention that, if it was a rort, then the Oppos were snouting the trough just as greedily as the government, until the second-last paragraph when it got a passing mention. Only government members were mentioned by name.

    On the same Family Benefits story, the SMH wrote up how Gillard "touted" the changes. They probably wish they'd used the word "trumpeted" instead, upon reflection. It would have been more in line with their style sheet. No listing of the actual benefits, just that (in the SMH's opinion) they were spun.

    Only Angela Catterns and Wendy Harmer, doing Summertime ABC Breakfast, got Arbib in and let him rip with the details, including urging listeners in the target bracket to get onto Centrelink and find out more about the fine print. They even asked clarifying questions... on the details.

    The extra benefits are worth $4,500 per teenager, i.e. real money. They're designed to encourage keeping kids in school up to Year 12. They require the parents to know the details and to take steps to have their families included in the scheme.

    Yet Murdoch ignored it. The SMH mocked it. Only a couple of part-timers went into it.

    And then today - as night follows day - we see Gerard Henderson in the SMH, sitting in his personal Way-Back Machine, the dial set to "1965", still going on about "Leftists" at the ABC.

    It's heart-breaking.

  3. The mainstream media give us the propaganda the 1 per cent need to manipulate the 99 per cent into supporting a political philosophy contrary to their (99 per cent's) own interests.

  4. emc, politicians know they have to stay close to the public, and that parties argue their own corner. The journosphere ignores - or thinks it's dangerous - to have public input. You might be right about the dig, and I agree with your take on GM and Steketee - but I found that when Fairfax's Lenore Taylor falls off the wagon a gentle nudge puts her back on track.

    Bill, good to see Arbib mastering the detail for a change and it's a great example of disconnect (and another reason to have confidence in a Gillard victory regardless of the media) between what the media want to say and what we need to read. Ignore Henderson.

    Anon: no, it can't even do that right.

  5. And lo, it came to pass, as the ink was barely dry on the journalistic slapper, Jaqueline Maley's story, that Chinese Manufacturing rebounded in the 3rd month. :)

  6. Thank you for all of the New Year posts - a terrific start to 2012.

  7. "The media's error at the last election campaign is easy to acknowledge. Australia almost had a change of government without serious scrutiny of the coalition's uncosted policies."

    That needs to be tattooed on the forehead of every journalist in Australia.

    We can start with Patrick Lion, preferably just after we unplug his computer to stop the biased garbage that constantly appears under his name. I've yet to read one article by him that passes the most cursory of analysis.

    Here's a hint, Patrick: use facts to back up your opinion, not quotes from the Opposition.

    And how does Maley even consider contacting Joe Hockey without asking about the non-audit scandal?