31 May 2012

Politics, the media and you

Two articles today by Jonathan Green and Tim Dunlop and the prospect of no articles by Fairfax staff tomorrow set me thinking about how useful the media could be and are, for those of us who don't own it but who are more important in many ways than its owners. Without committed, active consumers the newspaper proprietors are just left with a whole lot of propagandistic arse-wad. Without committed, active citizens Australia would be harder to govern effectively than it is, to the point where the shortcomings of today's politicians would be more obvious than they are. They need us, we need them, and we all need to be more on our toes than we are.

Politicians need media space and media organisations give it to them. The question for the media is to set the conditions for granting that access.

The problem with current affairs programming is its circular, self-referential nature. Morning radio picks up what was printed in the papers, questions are asked in parliament about what was in this morning's paper/radio, and the grabs of that debate make it into the TV news. Rinse and repeat, well beyond the point of mere nausea.

It defeats the purpose of electing politicians to shut them out of public debate, and media debate is part of that public debate (not all of it, as arrogant/frightened journalists would assert). For all politicians' engagement with the media, they have never been more disconnected from the communities they are supposed to represent. This is not just the politicians' failure, but the media's too. What should happen is that media organisations should play more of a role in setting the terms under which politicians take up time and space within media content.

Cows go moo, the sun rises in the east, the Pope is a Mass-going Catholic and politicians make announcements. Of this list of equally mundane events, the first two never make the news, the third does occasionally, but the last is always considered the very essence of what news is and should always be forever no matter what.

It ought not be a news story that a politician has made an announcement. Part of the poverty of media in totalitarian states is the simple and uncritical reporting of announcements - as though the execution in full on time/budget of the announced plans, and the satisfaction of the public at large resulting from said announcements was given.

Media organisations should limit politicians to participating in actual debates on actual issues. Take the chance on people in the street and on experts of different levels of articulateness, but if they "don't work" on radio/TV don't rely on them too heavily - then, and only then, wheel in the politician to ask what they are (not) going to do. Then, have them back and back again as the announcement works its way through the system and explore the effects (intended and unintended).

In the absence of that context, political debate is just so much argy-bargy. It's hard to distinguish a debate on how best money should be spent for maximum effectiveness given agreement about the aims of a proposal, and a fundamental disagreement about whether the proposal is even necessary, and again from a debate between two people attempting to dress up their mutual dislike with reasons drawn from public policy. Media's value lies in making the distinction.

There is an argument that context-free argy-bargy is "good radio/television". This seems to be a self-referential and hard-to-define quality among people who have worked in media a long time.

There is another argument that worthy media of the type just described is and must be dull. To believe this you have to accept the idea that media people are bound by cliches and incapable of arranging elements in an engaging way. There is scope to reconsider just how much viewer/listener/reader engagement there is in context-free argy-bargy, too, or the simple passing on of assertions not backed up by evidence. "The devil is in the detail" is the signoff of the lazy and worthless journalist (the ABC's Mark Simkin is just one example), as though anything with a lot of detail must be devilish and is to be shunned. The detail is where the stories are, and while there are no doubt devils to be found they need not be the whole story.

Many things happen all the time and people turn to the media to make sense of those things, drawn together and put into context. Sometimes that involves politicians and other times it doesn't. Just because a press secretary is eager to get their boss onto the media does not mean the media are obliged to comply.

Chris Pyne is the Shadow Minister for Education and the Member for Sturt. There is no reason why he should appear in the media unless he is discussing his portfolio or his electorate. Everything he says outside those matters is vapid, fatuous and utterly unmoored from any content. Of course he thinks Nicola Roxon isn't up to being Attorney General, but he would say that wouldn't he? How would he know anyway, and why just accept his word at face value? If he gives the predictable answer, why bother asking him? Where is the fool who thinks predictable-question-predictale-answer is "good reporting", and can we sack them without everyone going on strike?

Green gives the example of Q&A. The show is not like other media events involving politicians; the dullest moments of that show occur when less imaginative politicians trot out the same lines they would on any other current affairs program, or when Tony Jones inserts himself in proceedings as he would on Lateline. The whole point of Q&A is the unscripted moments between guests that yield the kinds of insights that interviewers rarely succeed in drawing out.

An example of that is the interchange between Joe Hockey and Penny Wong on gay marriage. The question on gay marriage is whether or not you regard gay relationships as real and as valid as heterosexual ones, and thereby deserving of that package of social recognitions tied up in marriage. When Joe Hockey and I were in the NSW Young Liberals, we knew plenty of gay people and there is no reason why he should not support gay marriage as I do; no reason, that is, other than the fact that he's a shadow minister on Tony Abbott's frontbench.

It's all very well for Hockey to spout the nonsense that he spouted on Q&A in the party room, or before some other audience where e might receive support for it, or in the abstract; but when he confronted Penny Wong with it, the empty words of policy came up against the reality of an Australian lesbian in a stable relationship into which a child was born. I'd be surprised if Hockey hadn't congratulated Wong privately and genuinely over the birth of her child, but all sorts of things happen in Canberra that don't translate into policy, and unless they call a press conference the supposed newshounds of the press gallery never find out.

Hockey could have applied the policy to the reality, or announced that he was open to consideration on the topic. On Q&A he was stuck, and he reverted to the context of the modern Liberal Party, which is set by the far right and Tony Abbott. He was subjected to a test of character that simply would never have arisen in other current affairs formats, and he was found wanting. I rarely watch Q&A but it's valuable for all that.

The questions surrounding Craig Thomson's behaviour at the HSU are not a debate, and they are not news. I don't have all details to hand of what I was doing five to ten years ago and I doubt that you do (I wasn't doing any prostitutes with my money or anyone else's, I hasten to add, but then again I didn't have to work with Kathy Jackson either). These are matters for investigation and some of those investigations are underway right now. Katharine Murphy thinks it's her job to ask the same questions everyone is asking and get the same answers everyone gets, and pass them on like everyone does. As I pointed out in the comments attached to that article, she's wrong. Her job is to anchor statements to objective fact, as her colleague Kate McClymont is doing; once you look at the context of the media as a whole Murphy's role looks redundant.

Dunlop's article deals with the question of engaging with government as citizens. In other articles he has a lot to say about the media and the way that it engages with politicians and citizens.

Part of that answer lies in Government 2.0/Govhack work, where media organisations, interest groups and individuals will be able to crunch huge amounts of data and produce results that may lead to action that can't be foreseen today. This will mean that politicians lose control of the narrative, because the current model of the media advisor will become inadequate. In Australia, control over data will be a huge issue, clouded with privacy and security concerns that may not be entirely bogus, and such progress as there is will involve baby-steps down paths trod in the US and Europe.

Part of it, however, doesn't. Local members have a role in explaining how government works at the community level, rather than just pictures of them cutting ribbons &c. Major party MPs are monitored for how much money they raise and get into trouble if targets aren't met. This leaves little time for genuinely working where people are at, only the sort of tokenistic bullshit that only fosters disengagement.

A media that focused on policy, from the high-level to impact at community and individual level, could be more than just a conduit for bullshit (monkey-house behaviour and talking points from parliament and vapid vox-pops straight back at ya!). It would lift the political system and add the kind of value to people's lives that would make the media more compelling and more valuable than it is, much more so than bean-counters could ever make it. It's the media that has to change first, mainly because it is subject to the speed and heft that IT and money can give to capitalist organisations (yes, Virginia, the ABC is a capitalist organisation). The politicians would come last, with one eye on the media and the other on those who vote for them.

People, we need a better media and a government that is worthy of us. Now we need to be clear about what that means ...


  1. Andrew:

    "There is an argument that context-free argy-bargy is "good radio/television". This seems to be a self-referential and hard-to-define quality among people who have worked in media a long time."

    Well, that was the first bit that I grabbed - but there were many others equally or more grabbable.

    Instead of doing my usual adulatory acclaim of your work, I shall try to do an in-depth analysis - though it won't be submitted immediately!

    From where I sit, this is close to being the best piece that you have ever written: many thanks, plaudits, etc etc etc.

  2. This strikes me as very similar to Jay Rosen's arguments about the failures of media reporting of politics today, and his ideas about where to find solutions. As I understand it his main suggestion to get away from "racehorse" journalism is to set media not as an unbiased regurgitator of what politicians are saying/doing, but to structurally place the media organisations as representatives of the public. The media should be finding out what issues (not politics!) are important to the public and following up on what the context for those issues are and THEN drawing in the political response and assessing the political response in terms of the public interest in the issue - does the political response make sense, does it address the issue, is one proposed solution better or worse than another to achieve a good outcome as far as the public are concerned, what are the strengths/weaknesses of a proposed solution costs/benefits etc.

    I'm probably not summarizing his position accurately, and I realize Jay Rosen is seen as a bit "faddish" depending on who you talk to, but I've been impressed at pretty much every interview I've seen involving him.

    1. What little I've read of Rosen, I've liked. I agree with the summary you've described and journalists who insist that it has to be boring lack imagination.

    2. Hey anonymous & Andrew Elder, that's what the startup thenationalmonitor.com will be doing.

  3. A bit of content would make their product worth buying. As the number of opinion pieces in papers climb, what can you say, opinion is cheap to produce, but every one has one, they are not worth paying for.

    You can read as many opinions as you like in the comment section of many blogs for free, further, the range of views expressed (in the blogs not ran by the media) is much wider.

    As things are, it really isn't worth putting your dollar on the counter, the whole thing is now in a death spiral. Have you noticed, News agents are becoming betting shops, service stations are reducing the floor space devoted to newspapers and such. It's truly is over.

    1. Lachlan Ridge2/6/12 2:05 am

      Advice is free, and it's worth every cent.

  4. A really interesting read, Andrew. I think you have canvassed fresh perspectives on media-politics through 'softly spoken' insights amidst all the noise.Thank you.

  5. It is not just the politicians who need to be scutinized about what they are saying against logic and facts, but also the paid industry commentators. Last night on SBS a mining industry representative bemoaned the fact the PM had told the industry that the minerals were owned by all Australians and not just them as something they already knew, but said it was great that she had told them they were doing a good job, something I would have thought they also already knew. A good question would have been why does the mining industry feel it needs to be patted on the head and not told the harsh reality of life. This sort of question would have got him out of his comfort zone and made him think rather than deliver his prepared pap piece to camera.

  6. "Chris Pyne is the Shadow Minister for Education and the Member for Sturt. There is no reason why he should appear in the media unless he is discussing his portfolio or his electorate."

    But then he'd never appear in the media ... oh, I see what you're saying.

  7. Your comments on the media cycle are interesting in the light of evidence given to the Leveson Inquiry in Britain by veteran Tory Ken Clarke. He offered the view that politics is whole lot less interesting to the man the street than people in Whitehall and the political journalists and their editors think. He offered the view that among former prime ministers Gordon Brown should never have been allowed to read a newspaper, so obsessed with image he had become, and Margaret Thatcher would not have read a newspaper from one week to the next. It is an interesting comparison as I am not aware of any great achievement by Brown (he was probably too frightened to do anything) and while I hold no brief for Thatcher she just got on with what she believed was right and answered for it at the ballot box. A few Australian politicians would do well to follow her lead instead of worrying about tomorrow's front page

  8. It is unbelievable how pathetic it has all become. The media are making it worse by bizarrely feeding it as well. Why, I do not know. Don't they understand that the vast majority of Australians couldn't give a shit about inconsequential politics for politics sake? The best way to kill a conversation in this country is to talk about what's happening in politics, unless its election time. The press pack seem unable to actually investigate anything. All they have to do is do a few Google searches, think a little, construct a supported argument, and write 1000 words or so on a policy. We have higher expectations of year 12 students. And they wonder why newspapers are dying.

    Example 1: Does anyone know who wrote this pile of crap over at Fairfax?


    Sorry for making you all stupider for reading that.

    1. That shows what happens when the managers run the paper and show what they regard as news.

  9. Where is the fool who thinks predictable-question-predictale-answer is "good reporting", and can we sack them without everyone going on strike?

    Politicians appearing in the media with their predictable answers gives us no additional information. Similarly, allowing people like Reith and Costello opinion pieces serves no useful purpose.

    But as anonymous implies, it's all much easier to get an ex-pollie or a shill from one of the funded lobby groups to spout their crap. People believe it and the media doesn't have to do any work, thereby saving money.

    I wonder what they pay Michelle Grattan?

  10. "I wonder what they pay Michelle Grattan?"

    They pay her? I thought she was some work experience kid whose dad fixes the photocopier.

    1. No that's Miranda Devine, the Take Your Daughter To Work Day kid who never went home.

    2. Don't be too hard on the bloke who fixes the photocopier ... in my workplace he is a very valuable member of staff.

    3. Lachlan Ridge2/6/12 2:11 am

      Miranda Devine is opposed to everything except nepotism.

    4. In fairness to her father, you can understand why she wasn't taken home.

  11. It's illustrative that as Fairfax journalists go on strike, the net result appears to have been a reduction in opinion pieces. We are no less informed for their absence.

  12. Great piece, Andrew, and reflects a growing view (I hope) in the public that they don't have to watch the political-media sideshow. They can start talking among themselves and imagining a different future. Your blog is part of that.