Anything outside the media's frame is invisible and doesn't get reported. In the days when the mainstream media was more powerful than it is, what didn't get reported went unnoticed by voters; which meant that political activity has increasingly been geared around what happens within the media frame.
The perfect example of the issue built by politicians for the media frame was the attack on Julia Gillard regarding the corporate entity set up for for Smokey and the Bandit. It has everything that's compelling to attention-deficient journalists: politics! Sex! Missing loot! Politics!
Michael Gordon described the irrelevance of his own profession perfectly:
THE question came from one of the federal Coalition's less experienced press secretaries when they gathered on Tuesday for an upbeat briefing from Liberal director Brian Loughnane on the state of play. Asked if they had any issues to raise before the meeting broke up, he innocently inquired: "How long are we going to go on with this AWU stuff?"Three cheers to you, nameless junior staffer: talk about lions led by donkeys. I've asked questions like that to dickheads like Loughnane. If that had been me I'd be seeking Loughnane out on election night and throwing him from the top of whatever hotel the Liberals will be holding their wake. Then again, I'm not innocent or even "less experienced".
His point was that people outside the bubble on the hill that is Parliament House were heartily fed up with the Opposition's singular focus on the minute detail of something they have no, or very little, interest in - when there were real issues affecting them that don't even seem to be on the radar.
The question wasn't asked when Coalition MPs gathered for their party room meeting the same day, but the answer was clear. As the MPs sat mute, Liberal deputy leader Julie Bishop explained that Julia Gillard's conduct as a lawyer at Slater and Gordon two decades ago went to fundamental questions of credibility and character.
The applause as Bishop sat down was effective endorsement of a political strategy that was about as subtle as an unexpected punch in the nose, but not nearly as clean or conclusive.
Michael Gordon is even less so. As an editor, he participates in daily meetings at The Age to decide what will or won't be published in that organ the following day. There was nothing stopping Gordon, or one of the other Editors, asking the same question. It would have been fascinating to hear what the answer would have been.
The Gillard repudiation was not, however, in the same league as the misogyny speech that became a global social media phenomenon. Not only did that speech trigger a jump in Gillard's approval ratings, it gave her the confidence that she has Abbott's measure. It smacked of authenticity.So that's the benchmark, is it - anything less than a global phenomenon is a failure? How do we define this "smacked of authenticity" (more than, say, her speech in favour of the NDIS? Less than her acknowledgment of the retirement of Ricky Ponting? Is this the best we can do from a National Affairs Editor?
To many in the crowded public galleries, or who watched it on TV, this performance would have appeared shrill, even unbecoming. One person I spoke to likened it to witnessing a domestic argument; another saw unflattering parallels with student politics."To many"? "One person I spoke to"? Next time journos get all sanctimonious about protecting sources, remember that drivel.
Any journalism student who submitted that would get panned, it is totally unworthy of a National Affairs Editor. Was it Loughnane? Was it your mother? Grow a spine and own your opinions, Gordon. You mightn't be able to explain or justify them in any way, but your opinions are yours. Why is it that the response was the stuff of student politics, while the question somehow has a legitimacy of which the answer was unworthy?
Viewers of Today can be excused for being unaware that this week saw the government introduce legislation to launch the National Disability Insurance Scheme, reform school funding, recognise indigenous Australians, and deliver the Murray Darling Basin water plan - as well as passage of laws on pokie reform.Readers of The Age are in the same position, thanks to the collusion of their National Affairs and Political Editors and all their other equally dopey editors. Each of those deserved the wall-to-wall coverage that was wasted on the bullshit identified here. While it is a legitimate journalistic exercise to report on debates in parliament, wall-to-wall coverage of inconclusive trivia is not the only other alternative to not reporting it at all.
How is the job of National Affairs Editor different from that of Political Editor (Grattan)? I don't know either, but I bet the answer could be part of Fairfax's cost-reduction strategy.
The mainstream media has two imperatives: first, the high noble fourth-estate duty to let us know what is going on with those who govern us, and second (for all organs outside the ABC and The Australian) to turn a dollar. The wall-to-wall coverage of the AWU scandal fails on both counts. It wasn't more important than overlooked issues such as Murray-Darling, or even Australia's response to Israel-Gaza, or NDIS. Nor was it a story over which readers slavered; people can sometimes profess to disdain smut and sleaze while avidly consuming media that carries it, but this is clearly not happening here.
When it comes to entertainment figures, an interest in their personal lives is an extension of fandom for their work: if you are a fan of someone's movies or music, you may take an interest in their personal lives and consume media that covers this. This doesn't apply to Julia Gillard, however; those who take the most avid interest in her life away from work are not rusted-on Labor types, or even people who admire her guts - but people who would never, ever vote for her.
The market for news about Gillard's personal life is not larger or more lucrative than the market for news about issues of substance such as those that largely passed the media by this past week, thanks to the collusion of people like the National Affairs Editor of The Age. Peter Hartcher, another Fairfax editor, differs about the relative importance of the Gillard-AWU story over other issues - and does so on the basis of 'democracy':
Several people, non-political types, remarked to me this week that it was embarrassing for Australia's political system to be in a frenzy over the long-past personal conduct of its Prime Minister.Not to the point where it crowds out issues which are supposedly affected by leadership and character. The Murray-Darling solution affects a vast geographic and demographic swathe of the nation. The NDIS and changes to Medicare (including dental and mental health) affect a high proportion of the population. The issues in Israel-Gaza and Syria are substantial even though the conflicts take place outside Australia; the Gillard-AWU thing took place within Australia, under Australian law, but is much less substantial. The decision to lavish scarce and overextended journalistic resources on the latter was stupid and wrong.
But this is a standard part of any democracy. The searching public examination of a leader, exploring evidence and testing character, is routine.
Remember the outrage over John Howard's alleged conflict of interest when his government handed ethanol subsidies to his brother's firm, Manildra? Remember the parliamentary convulsions over Paul Keating's piggery? The accusations were tested in public; the leaders passed the tests.Yeah, I remember. Howard's brother wasn't involved in Manildra, his was a manufacturing outfit called National Textiles which also received government subsidies.
People need information to engage with the issues of the day. Where a people is starved of the means to engage, politics becomes a passive process which you can observe but not influence (except by howls of inarticulate, uninformed rage from time to time, which mostly can be and is brushed off by decision-makers). If the mainstream media did a better job of bringing people into public debates through informing
As it happens, people can and do get information about the great debates of the day - you just have to go around the MSM to get it - to online sources or social media, or (according to Peter Hartcher) foreign media:
Sure, the delegation of visitors from China who witnessed the stinging public attacks on the Prime Minister in the house this week might have puzzled over how this can happen, but it is more a strength than a weakness of parliamentary democracy.Hartcher seems to be saying that if you want information about impacts on pokie regulations or aquifers in the Barwon Basin, you're going to have to wait until The New York Times or The People's Daily are good and ready to cover it, because The Sydney Morning Herald is bored with covering actual political issues (other than those featuring sex! Stolen loot! etc).
In China, it took a foreign newspaper, The New York Times, to disclose the accumulation of $2.7 billion in wealth by the family of the outgoing Premier, Wen Jiabao, during his tenure. Wen, after denouncing the American newspaper, has now asked for a formal investigation into himself and his family.
There is also the perfectly reasonable argument that time spent on scrutinising the private affairs of a prime minister in Parliament carries an opportunity cost - time on this means less time to debate big problems of policy and national affairs.All political systems, democratic or not, test their leaders and purge their systems. Traditionally, this involved bloodshed. Recent cases of Bo Xilai in China or the imprisonment of the press advisor to the President of Iran by that country's Ayatollahs are examples of leader-testing within political systems very different to ours.
And that's true. But this is how democratic nations test their leaders and purge their systems. Gillard has survived the test. The long-festering rumours have been put into the light of day and been scrutinised. The opposition has had a full opportunity to make its case and to hold her to account. In the absence of serious new evidence against her, the opposition should now move on to debate the big issues.
There is no reason why this country's political agenda, and that of its media, should depend so heavily on what the opposition may or may not decide (as Jonathan Green pointed out). The opposition's tactic of blocking or diverting from every positive piece of news must be taken as another feature of our political system deserving of scrutiny, rather than as a given which the press gallery and the voters have no choice but to put up with. Hartcher's assessment that the Prime Minister has merely "survived" her most recent test, rather than passing it, is telling; so too is the absence of even putting the opposition to any test worth the name, rather than a recognition that it failed.
Peter Hartcher has no right to assume, as he does in his final sentence, that the Coalition is even capable of debating big issues. They don't have it in them. Press gallery veterans must know this. Simply insisting that the Coalition must flick the switch to policy substance is a bit like lecturing a broken-down junkie that heroin is, like, really bad, and you should stop doing it, OK? Even if that incorrigible lot did make the switch, the press gallery wouldn't know. They need to pretend the Coalition is more than capable of matching the government to keep them in the frame. To accept reality is to reframe the issue.
It is true that the government employs lots of press secretaries to push its agenda. It is not true, despite Jack Waterford's assertion, that the failure of the nation's editors to distinguish shit from clay when it comes to political coverage can be sheeted home to government press secretaries. Large corporations employ plenty of marketing people, and they have not necessarily failed when you stroll past their products without making a purchase. The question here is the discernment of the customer - and the mainstream media seem to have made a wholesale investment in the opposition's media strategy that the rest of the country is not yet ready to make.
That is why Laurie Oakes can fuck off with this sorry shower of shit. When you dutifully report that the Opposition Leader has accused the Prime Minister or being a criminal, and press gallery journalists get to ask her whatever they like - and don't have the research or the guts to put the question - then your faith in the press gallery is misplaced. So too is the idea that the press gallery holds anyone or anything to account with its insider knowledge - maintaining that insider status causes press gallery journos to pull more punches than they throw.
Look at the questions people ask at Community Cabinet meetings. They're not all parish-pump local issues or silly conspiracy-theory questions. Many are better than the questions asked at press conference by Walkley-winning veterans. If you could ask the Prime Minister of Australia any question you like, almost nobody would ask about her relationship with Larry Loser way back when; yet, MSM throw millions of dollars at journos to do just that.
The Australian media frames political debates as though the government and opposition were equally valid and perfectly balanced, with the mainstream media holding the fulcrum and weighing the balance. The current political debate has disappeared from the frame because the Coalition isn't substantial enough to counterbalance the government. It overreached by accusing the Prime Minister of illegality. For a long time now it has had no effective response to the great issues of the day, which is why the MSM focus away from those issues suits them perfectly.
Together with Abbott's admission that he'll say anything under pressure, this means that the Coalition is losing credibility with everyone - except those who need to believe Labor and the Coalition are equally balanced and cancel one another out, and that the MSM judges who'd make the better government. The Coalition, led by Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop, is fading as a credible alternative government - this is not despite the efforts of Hartcher, Gordon, and other cogs in the MSM, but because of them.
The MSM are fading in relevance because they shirk the big issues and the big debates facing our country. There are no dull topics, only dull journalists and dull editors with dull ways of presenting The News You Need. Peter Hartcher and Michael Gordon are confident of their ability to cover non-issues in Gillard-AWU but not of the much bigger issues raised in legislation this week, not the least of which was those surrounding school funding.
What should happen is that issues should go back into the frame. Let us tolerate no journo-wittering about constrained time or resources, as though that only happens to them (my time is limited too, that's why I need easily-accessible media to tell me what's going on, rather than hunt for it due to their increasing inadequacy). Let us instead look at how the MSM should use existing resources better, if only its editorial ranks consisted of fewer idiots with herd instincts.
There are many very good articles in the mainstream media about all of those important issues overlooked in the past week. Having covered those issues extensively and in depth, the journalists concerned should have been brought to Canberra to follow the legislation through the parliament. Their reports should have judged politicians according to the issues and how well/badly they react to those; the press gallery could cover the same issues from the insider point of view. That would be a better use of existing resources than demarcating issues reporting from politics.
The only alternative is that the MSM continue to cover bullshit non-issues, shun their audience, lose credibility with politicians, and spiral into oblivion.
In Britain the declining media and an unpopular government have gone into cahoots over media regulation - if the Cameron government loses office the Conservatives are stuffed and so is the media which supports them so cloyingly. The UK media have staked everything on the survival of the current government, which is unfortunate.
In Australia, the media is in decline and the government is unpopular. The government is not regulating to prop up papers but it is warming to a Levenson-style solution; it is bringing in an NBN that will force media companies to get innovative, fast (which will be more than their current leadership will bear). The current Opposition Leader grabbed an inaccurate story on
If the current government retains office (as has always been maintained here at this superior organ of record), it will be proof that the newspapers have lost all influence. This time next year we will start to see the complacency of Gordon, Hartcher et al have real impacts on the companies that have indulged their whims and witterings for far too long. Suddenly discovering that a much-derided PM actually has some positive qualities, as Hartcher and Gordon have, won't cut it.
The MSM need to help us into those complex debates, and help us decide who's doing well or badly. This isn't the same as telling us and framing stories accordingly; the MSM need the respect of an audience that doesn't agree with them, which they don't have. This time next year it will be too late. There are lots of Summer Bumper Specials coming up where you can write intelligent discussions for intelligent readers about hitherto neglected issues; let's see all those dime-a-dozen editors earn their money. Let's see what, if anything, all that journo-experience is really worth.