15 December 2012

You can't handle an Abbott government

JESSEP [played by Jack Nicholson]: You want answers?
KAFFEE [played by Tom Cruise]: I think I'm entitled to.
JESSEP: You want answers?
KAFFEE: I want the truth!
JESSEP: You can't handle the truth!

- from the screenplay to A Few Good Men, by Aaron Sorkin (1992)
The press gallery seeks to bring about an Abbott government by overreporting the failures of the Gillard government and ignoring narratives to the contrary (particularly if they emanate from the dreaded social media). The Gillard government does not court the press gallery like previous governments did, or like Abbott does in Opposition; the press gallery is keen to see the back of it, and keen to exercise what power it has left to secure that result. The press gallery should not seek to bring about an Abbott government because it could not handle an Abbott government.

The overreporting was shown this week with the dismissal of a sexual harassment case brought by James Ashby against the Commonwealth and the former Speaker, Peter Slipper. Allegations arising from the plaintiff's submissions received prominent and salacious coverage in the media, while the judge's findings did not.

The findings hinted at and set up basic facts that would have sent previous generations of journalists scurrying in pursuit of a big story: the idea that senior Coalition politicians conspired to bring about not only the downfall of a Speaker, but of the government, through the fabrication of a scandal. That story remains to be told, but no journalist employed by mainstream media outlet will or can tell it. No mainstream media outlet will devote resources toward that end; you will have to go to social media and spend time to piece together all those links and hints and allegations to piece together a story.

Let us have no more insistence from mainstream media outlets that Mal Brough must face the media. After the insipid efforts by the press gallery to nail the Prime Minister over the Wilson-Blewitt thing, after their simple acceptance of assertions by Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott that the Coalition has no case to answer on a conspiracy, the only thing worse than Brough not answering him questions would be him making the pretence of doing so. Imagine Brough waddling down his driveway, fielding a few badly-researched softball questions and pulled punches from the hacks there assembled, and then turning tail when he'd had enough.

News Ltd journalists set the agenda but not only running spurious stories but insisting that other outlets share the burden of running such stories, which they do. Here (do a Google search on the headline) is one of Australia's most experienced political journalists setting the scene for media coverage of Brough:
But the real political victim is now Brough, who stands accused of working with Ashby and co-worker Karen Doane in an underhanded political scheme based on disloyalty, political preferment, duplicity, and lies - all aimed at bringing down Slipper and promoting Brough.
The "real victim" is a perpetrator: when applied to other crimes this is the sort of thinking News Ltd outlets decry as namby-pamby attempts to frustrate due legal processes.
After sustaining months of allegations about the AWU slush fund scandal the Labor government is keen to hit back and threaten Brough and by extension Tony Abbott and Christopher Pyne with an inquiry of their own into a political scandal.
This is sloppy writing: the allegations on Gillard-AWU have not been sustained. There is also the question of judgment by Abbott, Pyne and Brough: did they seriously expect that they could go at Labor without fear of reprisal?
Of course, the government does not come out of the judgment without its own questions to answer: the judge said there was evidence of sexual harassment but upheld Slipper's claims for an abuse of process, which the commonwealth spent $750,000 working on and then withdrawing after paying Ashby $50,000 in compensation.
There would have been evidence of sexual harassment were it not for the other facts of the case, Dennis. The government does have to spend money in defence of spurious legal actions otherwise everybody would just line up for their chop.
The judge describes the payout given when Attorney-General Nicola Roxon was trying to kill off all the legal cases against Slipper as more than Ashby could have expected even if he had succeeded against Slipper and the commonwealth.
Easy to say in hindsight. A journalist would have taken the trouble to be wise before the event rather than after it. Note also the non-reporting of the fact that Ashby's little windfall is far outweighed by the costs order against him.

Instead of an earnest desire to tell the story before them, the wish of journalists to appear "balanced" at the expense of the story remains. On one hand, we have the carefully weighed findings of a judge; on the other we have denials by Tony Abbott, a man who admits to lying to journalists on the rare occasions when they put him under pressure. Abbott will provide press gallery journalists with daily stunts while a judge can only offer one-off judgments.

That desire for false balance can be seen in mainstream media coverage of climate change, of immunisations, and - despite Proverbs 11:1 - the teaching of religion (and religious notions such as "intelligent design") in schools. It can also be seen here, where a "Political Editor" gleefully falls upon a dubious and ill-examined study that appears to prop up his biases.
TWITTER users lean to the political left and talkback radio callers to the right, but both form part of the mainstream of opinion, according to a study.
Those fateful words, "according to a study", preface great swathes of bad journalism. Wacky diets, black-is-white denials of corporate malfeasance, all manner of superstition and bullshit has the appearance of backup by spurious studies that are examined badly (or not at all) by supposedly sceptical truth-seeking journalists. Part of the decline of both the credibility and patronage of mainstream media is the rise of silly "according to a study" stories.
An analysis of political sentiment in Australia by an independent firm compared how views expressed on Twitter and talkback radio moved in comparison with the mainstream, as measured by a conventional national opinion poll, Newspoll.
"Independent" of whom? Newspoll isn't "independent", it is part of the organisation that employs Dennis Shanahan. The only polls with any integrity whatsoever are those produced a week or so before an actual election; with every finger-in-the-air prognostication Newspoll diminishes itself. Journalists like Hartcher diminish themselves by hanging stories on polls, telling us what we think rather than reporting on politics so that we might form opinions.

Polling can be assessed scientifically; the total number of electors is a known quantity, so assessments of a sample of voters and the questions they are asked, the methodology used etc., can be made and validated. Sentia cannot, however, make any sort of assessment of Twitter users with the same degree of confidence. Sentia's sampling can therefore be said to produce the result that would help Chambers' spruiking efforts. Imagine the poor bugger tryiung to sell a picture of social media like this:
There are rightwing ratbags on social media, like Larry Pickering and Mike Smith. There are leftwing ratbags too, and people with all sorts of opinions really.
Not even Peter Hartcher could conjure an article from such mealy-mouthed dross.
In the case of Twitter, it also confirmed what has long been remarked of social media: "It really is antisocial media," according to John Chalmers of Sentia Media.
John Chalmers is the guy who drums up media interest in Sentia and who fields enquiries from them: he would say that, he'd say anything to get publicity for his employer and its wares. Mainstream media people and other client representatives buy Chalmers coffee and lunch, while Twitter users don't; that's what Chalmers means by "anti-social".
Sentia is the author of the study, the owners of Media Monitors, and the first to make such a comparison.
Sentia is a corporation that used to be known as Media Monitors. The person or persons who might be more accurately described as "the author" is/are unnamed. This is like describing Fairfax Media as "the author" of The Sweet Spot.
While both avenues allowed anonymity, personal attacks on Twitter were harsher because comment was not moderated, Mr Chalmers said, while talkback callers were vetted by producers and presenters.
This is fine if you regard "producers and presenters" as voices of moderation and reason, and the vetting process as filtering out extreme positions and/or personal attacks. Anonymity is a straw man; I use my real name online but because Hartcher has never met me, he regards me as anonymous.

Talkback hosts are not anonymous, and outrageous attacks shapes and reinforces their reputation rather than diminishing it. They are no more or less vitriolic than anyone on Twitter. The difference between them and Twitter users is that talkback hosts attract advertising revenue with their outrageous attacks which more than compensates for any penalties (meagre fines or defamation payments) that they may suffer. Peter Hartcher has no excuse for not understanding the media business well enough to know this.
Twitter is also more volatile in the aggregate expression of political sentiment, and prone to be what Mr Chalmers described as "superficial".
I would love to see Chalmers' objective qualification of such loaded terms as 'volatile' and 'superficial'. I wish a journalist would have questioned this and reported their findings. Hartcher must have been so giddy at being vindicated by an actual study that it never occurred to his forensic investigative reporter brain to look that gift-horse in the mouth.
When Ms Gillard stumbled while walking on soft lawn in India, for instance, Twitter users reacted sharply against her, "in a way that probably doesn't represent voting intentions".
Assuming that quote came from Chalmers, it pretty much buggers his thesis that Twitter users are pro-Gillard. Whether this is the exception that proves the rule or scuppers it isn't clear: Hartcher should have called Chalmers on it and used questions like that to examine whether Sentia's "study" was strong enough to support a story like this.
In the US, the conventional wisdom is that media audiences are retreating from the broad community into increasingly narrow, closed, self-selecting political worlds.
That applied until last month's election, when rightwing US media led rightwing US voters to not merely hope but expect that their preferred candidate, Mitt Romney, would be elected President. The reality is that Romney lost the election, and that rightwing people felt let down by media that pandered to their beliefs rather than informing them. Perhaps an International Editor could examine this phenomenon; you won't get this from Hartcher, nor from his supposed competitor Greg Sheridan.
Sentia found Twitter and talkback "both reflect the same overall sentiment, to varying degrees", said Mr Chalmers. "Both are reasonably sound bellwethers of public sentiment, to a greater or lesser degree."
A breathtakingly weak ending to a weak article about a weak study.

When Tim Dunlop describes the Twitter evisceration of Mark Baker's spurious article, he is neither being rightwing or leftwing. Had Baker written a similarly tendentious article against Brough or Pyne or Abbott rather than Gillard, it would have suffered the same treatment from Twitter and not been examined at all on talkback. Hartcher's and Chalmer's left-right designations just don't work, they don't apply to what is actually happening or how it is covered - but hey, Chalmers got a run and Hartcher met a deadline, and if you think that's sufficient you are part of the media's problem (which Sentia can observe but not diagnose, and which people like Hartcher will only make worse).

Here we have seen the most senior press gallery journalists simply quote and fail to examine weak and dishonest assertions. Given that:
  • the Abbott-led Opposition makes weak and dishonest assertions (e.g. promising "inquiries" into issues that it can't address while opposing whatever the government does, or anything/everything it has said about Ashby-Brough-Slipper) that are not challenged by journalists; and
  • dismissing criticism ("hyperventilating") that is merely quoted and noted and not pursued by journalists; we can therefore assume that
  • the Australian mainstream media will not be able to cope with an Abbott government.
The mainstream media would not play any fourth-estate accountability role. In totalitarian regimes media acts as simply a repository of quotes from politicians, and this is what many see as the role of the press gallery. ABC Twitter stenographer Latika Bourke asserts that transcription is where her job begins and ends, and she is not the only press gallery denizen who feels this way. Journals of record that record unqualified bullshit are far less valuable than those employed by them can bear to accept.

An Abbott government would so discredit any remaining value proposition that the Australian media might have. If there's one thing worse than a government that (apparently) can't do anything right, it's one that (successfully!) insists on being reported at face value. An Abbott government might dismantle the NBN (but what if it doesn't? Can you guarantee that it, alone in the history of politics, will match its promises with action in full compliance - particularly when led by Tony Abbott?), and it might butter-up self-important press gallery grandees like Hartcher and Shanahan. It might not do much else. This is not enough to put to us as a worthwhile government, or even better than the incumbents.

Imagine if the Opposition had dismissed Gillard's misogyny speech as "hyperventilating". Hartcher and Shanahan would have agreed, and Chalmers' study would have supported them both - but so what?

The Australian media can't analyse itself and can't ask the hard questions of politicians. This means it is less valuable to citizens and consumers wishing to know how we are governed, who are then forced outside the mainstream media to get those answers - far beyond the reach of Hartcher, Shanahan et al, to the point where Johnny Chalmers might have to start not only buying his own lunch but eating his own dogfood. The idea that this is a bad thing, let alone a threat to our democracy, is laughable.


  1. A nice present first thing on a Saturday morning!

    Grattan's attitude to Gillard compared to her attitude to Rudd & Abbott seems to bear out your early point about the relationship: Grattan isn't necessarily politically biased but is biased toward preferred sources

  2. Bushfire Bill15/12/12 9:20 am

    Andrew wrote,

    "Journalists like Hartcher diminish themselves by hanging stories on polls"

    True, and especially so when Hartcher is one those pin-stripe suited types who claims to eschew polls, while quoting them extensively.

    The erstwhile "Associate Editor" of The Age, Shaun Carney, used to do the same thing.

    He'd try arguing his point, in a lazy patrician sort-of way, looking down from his lofty, tenured balcony to the grubby streets below, and when pinged for it would shout, "LOOKATTHEPOLLS! LOOKATTHEPOLLS!"

    The polls were their bread and butter, their night and day, their Spring, their Summer, their season of mists and yellow fruitfulness. All the rest was dressing-up.

    When, against all predictions, the polls started levelling out, efforts were redoubled to make them go back to where they were, with some success of late. They had no narrative without polls to use as a blunt instrument in reply, when all else failed.

    The polls have been cycling in roughly six monthly intervals, with the cycles between peaks becoming shorter, and the troughs between the peaks less deep. They'll be back again for the government around April, or maybe May.

    What'll they say then?

    1. Tell us about the role Murdoch plays Andrew and Bill ...had enough of the foot soldier talk

  3. Chris Grealy15/12/12 2:47 pm

    To be fair, ABC news linked to the full judgement, and wasn't that an interesting read! Fairfax online have published a number of stories delving into aspects of the judgement. OK, the usual cheerleaders for the conservatives are doing the usual apologies, but that was to be expected. And TV news on the day (which I so rarely watch) gave a good summary of the more scathing criticisms the judge made. All in all, a very embarrassing time to be conservative.

    1. For heavens sake, saabra Lane has spent the week insinuating that the whole problem here was something to do with the government, both in an interview with Craig Emerson and then with the PM.
      And tonight we have yet another example of the abboot broadcasting situation giving the LOTO a free kick because he made a speech?
      Some of us do pay attention, and when we do we do not like what we both see and hear from a public broadcaster who behaves like the media arm of the liberal party.

  4. Well today for reasons unknown Lenore Taylor has a piece claiming the voters of Fisher will not re-elect Slipper, who she asked is unknown.

    They are worse than useless our media and Shammers should be embarrassed by his nonsense but won't be as they try to protect Steve Lewis from another bullshit story.

  5. Nice article. The tragedy is that, the one potentially independent force on which Joe Public depends upon for unbiased, critically appraised information and investigative journalism has so traduced itself with huffy puff, editorial bias, and atrocious reportage that it no longer represents one of the cornerstones of democracy.
    Increasingly social media is taking its place, and the sooner the better.
    Those who denigrate and ridicule social media fail to see its real potential. Yes is early days, and yes there's some shonky stuff floating about but it will improve. With that improvement will go the mainstream media's last remaining relevance, what little there is of it.

  6. an abc journalist today was speaking to J bishop
    many posters on pollbluder remarked that the abc reporter did not ask j bishop one question on the ashby matter.

    is the abc neglecting its charter.

    andrew how do we get this all out there i find it very scary , any suggestions
    have a read of pollbludger for sat morning around 10am
    to 11 am there is apost there that wlll alarm you

    andrew your captions are so har d for old eyes to read

    1. I have given up on the abc, they are indeed neglecting their charter as they work overtime to ensure that abbot will be the next pm.

      You are not on your own in finding this frightening, I am terrified of the prospect of a abbott govt. who will run rampant against every disadvantaged group in this country.

    2. To Anonymous 1 and Anonymous 2: I have two words for you. Mark Scott. He worked for the New South Wales Greiner Liberal Party Government, yet he claims that the ABC does not lean to the left or the right. Funny that!

      Janet Albrechtsen comments that "the ABC “thinks it appropriate, week in, week out, for the program to have a three-to-one ratio in favour of progressives". I'm sure she can't wait to sign up to CANdo.

      To Andrew, thanks for another great article. An excellent way to end 2012.

      Merry Christmas to you and all of your loyal readers! Best wishes for 2013 :-)

  7. New media

    Just watched the new indigenous channel and an interview with our pm

    A breath of fresh air especially the panel forum with Marcia Langton and her scathing analysis of mainstream media and how she gets treated as a dragon by News ltd

    Wonderful and honest debate!!

    NITV is an example of how a community can make and present issues that have a balanced viewpoint with integrity

  8. Anon

    Go to a blog that is named

    ABC gone to hell

    You might find a home there with like minded people

    There should be a mock funeral for the abc

  9. Andrew

    Your first paragraph is both true and frightening.

  10. does this mean you are entertaining the idea that Abbott may actually win next year?

    (not trolling, serious question.)

  11. Andrew et al

    Watching Sky News with David Speers and their "expert" panel is interesting with their yearly wrap up of 2012

    Toeing the company line is bloody obvious especially with Chris Kenny


    PVO is growing on me and his analysis is cute at times

    We need a classier version of Sky in Melbourne!!

    Small l liberals live here peeps and many despise Mr Abbott

    1. PVO has a level of decency by comparison but, when push comes to shove, he toes the party line

    2. Additionally, PvO generally displays Grattan-like levels of insight ...

    3. PVO certainly didn't toe the company line when speaking with Liberal powerbroker Michael Kroger about Alan Jones (if you haven't seen it yet, watch the interview). Both Henderson and Akerman have shamefully defended Jones to the hilt.

      PVO also does not toe the company line when it comes to asylum seeker policy.

  12. PVO also defends Same Sex Marriage

    Frangopoulos must adore him

    CEO Sky News

    He is a cutie and Tim Wilson loves to hit on him

    Classic moment this year was the tie show

    PVO told him to do his shirt up when he opened his collar

    PVO replied

    Thats enough!!

    Hilarious look on their faces...

    Silly season Andrew

    Sorry peeps for that piece of shallowness but seeing two men politicos have a bromance on tv is a rare event

  13. Yep!!

    Saw that interview with Michael Kroger


    I have heard PVO on radio national and hes a really smart,lovely young man

    Sky News must pay pretty well to do that b.s

    Hes a cutie and the next gen so take notice