30 August 2012

Milling chaff

Never mind the vagaries of the online world. This article from the ABC's Jonathan Holmes could have been written in the 1920s about "the yellow press". John Norton or Joynton Smith or "Inky" Stephenson would have reacted in much the same way to Holmes' scenario as his straw man, Mr P.

My blog, and those blogs that really rattle journalists, are not those which make the sorts of claims that Vexnews or Pickering do; they are not even typical of political blogs. This is one point that Greg Jericho makes strongly in his well-written and highly recommended book, The Rise of the Fifth Estate. The blogs that really rattle journalists are those which analyse how well or badly journalists do their job. In many cases, bloggers point out when journalists depart from existing codes of practice (such as they are). Journos hate that, they hate it worse than being unemployed. They deal with it through laughter: laughing off Press Council adjudications, or stern admonitions from judges, or even the gentle chidings from Uncle Jonathan on Monday evenings.

This analysis is one that journalists will only tolerate being performed by other journalists. The fact is that no profession or trade gets to set and enforce its own judgments - and ironically, no journalist would tolerate any attempt by lawyers, doctors, politicians, or [insert other profession/trade here] to do this.

In a free country, where the press play an important role, it is not on for journalists to seek to exclude non-journalists from participating in and shaping debates about what good journalism is and what it should be. Such EXCLUSIVE behaviour is rude, it's stupid, it's unsustainable, choose your adjective; but know that journalists who cleave to this in the name of tradition are kidding themselves.

Fairfax's ability to sort the wheat from the chaff came under serious question yesterday, as they discarded some wheat (e.g. Ian Verrender, Cynthia Banham) and kept some chaff (e.g. Michelle Grattan, James Massola). The people who made those decisions set the editorial and commercial direction of that organisation's output; they are also people Jonathan Holmes has probably known for years and whose judgment he would regard as the best in the business (for the time being at least). Remember the universal acclaim about Greg Hywood's appointment as Fairfax CEO? I do.

A code of practice would probably mean that we'd all have to be nicer to one another, which runs the risk of anodyne comment limiting the potential impact of debate in terms of actually changing the outcomes that powerful people would impose upon us.

Yes, it's beyond the pale to call Leigh Sales a 'cow'; but it is probably no less hurtful to Tony Abbott to question whether he'd be a very good Prime Minister, or even to assert (as this unregulated blogger does) that he's not even good enough to make it to the top job in the first place. Holmes preferred option, a code of practice where journos look after their own, would focus on the niceties and improve nothing for the wider public in terms of either redress or better journalism.

On the subject of Sales' recent comments about "anonymous" people online: I use my real name online just as she uses hers. The fact that she hasn't met me, and that I don't mix in the media-political circles in which she mixes, doesn't make me "anonymous".

Holmes went into some detail about powerful people suing bloggers and experiencing popular condemnation for doing so. He seems to take Australia's libel laws as given, whereas in the past journalists questioned it and wondered how it might be improved. Has he never heard of The Streisand Effect? This phenomenon is extensively documented and as available to him as any other research he did for his article. If you're going to write about the internet and blogging you have no excuse for reinventing such a fundamental wheel. The editor of The Drum should have spiked his article on the grounds that Holmes has taken a lot of space to say not very much, a big no-no in professional journalism apparently.

It's interesting that Holmes cites Vexnews as his example of a typical blog. As I said in my post on The Herald-Sun Intern, it was Vexnews who put a name to 'Anonymous' and all of a sudden every journalist who rushed to condemn her used the name from a site which it was apparently beneath them to read. Does Holmes really believe that no big news story will ever from Chaff Media to Wheat Media if it's big/good enough? Worse, does he expect anyone else to believe that?

As host of Media Watch, Holmes has clearly decided that bloggers are part of his bailiwick now and is at least starting to take them/us seriously. He started on familiar ground of "the yellow press", which should have been like shooting fish in a barrel - but even so, he missed. Get a copy of Jericho's book, realise that your conceptions about "The Blogosphere" might not be as reliable as you need them to be, and start to rethink your assumptions about what media content is - let alone what it could (or should) become.

29 August 2012

Honourable zombies gnawing at Tony Abbott!

The Howard government now looks like it created a golden age of prosperity which is lost ... Our task, to which we are wholly and solely dedicated, is to recreate those great days for our country and we will.

- Tony Abbott, address to the South Australian Division of the Liberal Party, 18 August 2012
Zombies have made a resurgence in popular culture, and economists such as John Quiggin and Jessica Irvine have titled their books to catch the prevailing pop-culture winds. Also interesting are the political zombies that stagger through Australian politics; the Coalition seem more beset with them than Labor.

Liberals believe that John Howard had found the political El Dorado of a political constituency that represents a majority of Australian voters in a majority of electorates that is sustainable over time. The last two elections seem to put the lie to that, but they can be explained away by a) Liberal exhaustion and b) the comforting notion that Rudd was like a rejuvenated Howard (2007), or lies (2010). Nobody blames Abbott's missteps in both campaigns for them being out of office now. I think this interpretation of history is bullshit and that they are kidding themselves, but to be a Liberal is to believe this; or at the very least, to maintain the facade. A loss in 2013 (made all the more bitter by the evaporation of all those if-an-election-was-held-today wallopings, like holding a heap of scrip in a stock that has soared and crashed) would shatter the myth of that the Howard Restoration was possible or even desirable.

Abbott has been all about the restoration of the Howard government as fully as possible. This has required the Liberals to crack down hard on any dissent.

Firstly, this is what Howard did; the habit is so ingrained they could not imagine doing politics any other way. Howard paid lip-service to the idea that Liberals were free to speak their minds, but MPs who did so were ostracised (e.g. Petro Georgiou). It was John Howard who preached "disunity is death", practicing it as fervently as any lifelong rank-and-file trade unionist.

Secondly, it was the price that Liberals paid for not having to rethink what it means to govern Australia from first principles. The Liberals spent more than a decade doing that, squabbling among themselves until the intellectual direction of the party was taken away from the parliamentarians; initially within the organisational ranks, where enforcers like Michael Kroger and Nick Minchin removed Liberal preselection from troublesome free-thinkers. This was then outsourced to wide-boys like Grahame Morris and Mark Textor, who bluffed many into thinking they were better at the thinking-and-perspective business than MPs, whose role was reduced to relaying pre-packaged and simplistic messages, bums-on-seats and fundraising.

The reward for all this self-censorship (and putting up with unelected drill-sergeants like Peta Credlin) is political success. Clearly, the mirage of polling will satisfy many but actual electoral victory trumps all and soothes all. No leader can maintain strict discipline in the face of declining polling, and as polls plunge the leader will demand line-toeing and loyalty all the more, and get it all the less.

John Howard knew this. He went through low polls and high ones, not despairing at the depths nor getting carried away at the heights. He isn't a candidate for the 2013 election, but for many Liberals a non-Howard election is unthinkable. What he wants is vindication, and the Liberal Party wants badly to give it to him. However, it is starting to bristle at the price to be paid for handing its strategic direction over to history.

What John Howard wants from the 2013 election is vindication. If he had gone to the election without having introduced Workchoices, would he have won? Would he have beaten Rudd in 2007 and then outflanked an inexperienced Gillard in 2010, beating Menzies' record and chewing through a generation of Labor leaders? We will never know, but an old man may be forgiven his dreams.

Howard worked hard to overcome both his race-based conception of Australian identity and Queensland-based rural protectionism. Like Peter Costello he was not going to see his legacy trashed by a bunch of yokels dragging the Coalition up a known dead end. If you're going to return to The John Howard Way, then nobody should be surprised that John Howard will tolerate no deviation from it. You cannot have Falstaff and have him thin.

Abbott has no choice but to accept Howard's admonitions and amend Coalition policy accordingly. It is unsustainable for him to claim that there is no going back, that Howard was two PMs and three Liberal leaders ago; Malcolm Turnbull might have swept Howard aside like that, so might Hockey have, but never Abbott. For Abbott to repudiate Howard, however gently, would be a breach of public perceptions about him as great as Rudd squibbing "the greatest moral challenge of our time".

By cleaving to the certainties of the past, Abbott avoids the thorny questions of the future. The absence of such questions makes for the kind of calm assuredness that conservatives, and journalists, crave. By departing from those certainties you open up a whole lot of questions that have no clear, vote-winning answers. You also accept that some of the measures that Rudd and Gillard put in place are irreversible, anathema to people who still can't accept they were ever in government at all (and that they are there at their expense).

If you're going to depart from The John Howard Way on Chinese investment and workplace relations, where does it end? Abbott has saved the Liberals considerable heartache by mandating that any disputes are to be settled in favour of whatever the Howard government did. He has, however, made a rod for his own back; one he had borne proudly until recently.

Tony Abbott was the most moderate of Howard's four Workplace Relations Ministers. I actually believe him when he says he wants to make minimal changes to the relevant legislation. I do not believe, however, that he is strong enough to beat off Abetz and the other gimlet-eyed fanatics who believe that Workchoices didn't go far enough in nailing the unions.

As someone who has worked on contract for the better part of 20 years you can imagine my surprise at Peter Reith's assertion that there is no legal framework for individual employment contracts. Abbott might be fooling the more gullible members of the press gallery about the purity of his heart on this issue, but nobody with an appreciation for red-in-tooth-and-claw power will give his mewlings the time of day. All Abbott's talk about forming a committee or whatever is just buying time; he hasn't given workplace relations any in-depth thought at all and resents being pressed on any matter that isn't his Issue Of The Day.

Howard is not the only political zombie reaching out to Abbott, in order to hold him back rather than help his quest for government. Peter Reith and Amanda Vanstone have each stuck their oar in; each has their beef with Abbott. Abbott promised Reith his support for Federal Presidency of the Liberal Party (a role that would enable him to hobnob once more with the big end of town, which is not available to underemployed consultants) and then went back on him. Abbott was junior minister to Vanstone early in the Howard government; he went over her head to Howard and she was dumped from Cabinet. They don't want to tear Abbott down (or be seen doing so) but they want him to feel the heat that the media have spared him.

What do Reith and Vanstone want? Vindication is part of it. Like all ex-pollies they assumed there would be this raft of board positions and other honoraria following their years in politics, and like all but a handful this hasn't happened for them. They keep seeking publicity even though they have run out of things to say.  Part of their problem is a failure of the model of younger, machine-made politicians, who end up in middle age becalmed and not much use to anyone: look upon these people, Josh Frydenberg and Tony Smith and Laura Smyth and Jason Clare and Sarah Hanson-Young, and see your future.

Nick Minchin rises from is crypt whenever the far right are feeling rattled. Since 2007 there has never bee a time when Minchin and Abbott disagreed on something, and Abbott prevailed. Minchin just wants to be the Australian Cheney, freed from accountability while making the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party accountable to him.

Grahame Morris (the only one named here not to stumble through life with the prefix "The Honourable ...") was one of the wise heads in Howard's office who tempered the enthusiasms of people like Abbott, now he's a strategist. After calling for the Prime Minister to be kicked to death, and confusing a capable interviewer with a cow, there is serious doubt over the value of this man's strategic advice: you can read equal or better on Twitter, or on the walls of public toilets, for free. He is like Barry Humphries' Les Patterson, and shows that such a character could never be elected today. A man his age should have the feet up, but Morris has teenage children to put through school and no other talents to draw upon. One can understand how flattered he feels when media producers seek his time.

The mistake that Malcolm Turnbull made as leader was to assume that the 2007 election result really was a repudiation of Howard, and to start the process of rethinking what it meant to govern Australia in order to it (us?) to embrace the challenges of the future. At first the Liberals wen along with this, hoping a Turnbull victory would vindicate and ameliorate all and give a corner of public policy that they could shape in their own way. When Turnbull could not credibly promise victory in 2010, they bristled at the repudiation and replaced the man who was Howard in all but name.

Today, Turnbull is not crafting the big visions but stuck selling a zombie policy, crafted in the 1990s with technology that has since been superceded; as though it might be good enough for an ambitious people, as though the NBN was not a superior solution.

Chris Pyne's response to Gonski on schools funding is more zombie policy. It reads like one of his On Dit screeds from the late 1980s, or the stale farts of a shock-jock (even Alan Jones avoids this topic these days, as it only brings up his own teaching career and turns listeners away). It does not even address actual issues like the imminent mass retirements of teachers or the needs to embrace technology, mathematics, personal health and Asian languages within the curriculum at all, let alone show evidence of grappling with solutions.

Abbott will almost certainly survive as leader until the next election, even though his heart is increasingly not in it (Pyne and Julie Bishop have taken on the attack-dog roles in Parliament that seem to bore Abbott these days. For the government, this must be like the experience of encountering a couple of pampered yappy dogs while doorknocking). His leadership would only become untenable under either/both of these circumstances:
  • His lack of popularity, as I've said before, is a prophylactic against the election of a Coalition government. Gillard's popularity only has to rise to about 40% and he's in trouble.
  • He explodes, and reveals some aspect of his character that just confirms people's worst suspicions about the guy.
In that case, the next leader of the Liberal Party would be Julie Bishop. She'd negate the gender issue and has a hint of steel, but is not deft enough or deep enough to parry with Gillard. She would not go back to first principles and rethink things, as Turnbull would, and she would put up with the clowns that preselectors have foisted upon her better than Turnbull would.

Labor has its old hands but they tend to stay out of the way. Hawke and Keating seem largely content both to let Gillard chart a path they would never have charted (but which builds on their legacies to some degree), and to recognise that the impending passing of Whitlam will overshadow them both for a time. Kristina Keneally is doing her time in community service and Anna Bligh is spending time with her family, and even "Media Mike" Rann is keeping his head down. Peter Walsh and Bill Hayden have retreated to vast acres. Richo is the exception that proves the rule.

It is Coalition figures, with political standing but no political future, who won't return to give Abbott such old-time magic as they have and nor will they shut up and leave him to get on with it. Abbott doesn't have a program and he doesn't have the substance or the temperament to develop one; but the zombies don't have sufficient substance to fill the void, either. Abbott has assumed that everyone enjoyed the Howard government as much as he did, without realising that you can enjoy a memory while also accepting that it's over.

The honourable zombies show that using the Howard government as your platform is not the bed of roses it might have appeared to Abbott and his supporters, and that there isn't really an alternative as far as dealing with our country's future is concerned. The next election is about the following three years, not the last ten, and people will vote accordingly.

25 August 2012

Making a fist of it

It might feel good
it might sound a little somethin'
but damn the game if it don't mean nothin'
what is game who got game
where's the game in life behind the game behind the game
I got game
she's got game
we got game
they got game
he got game
it might feel good
or sound a little somethin'
but fuck the game if it ain't saying nothin'


- Public Enemy He Got Game
A senior political correspondent can't tell when he's being gamed:
One of the many intriguing aspects of the slush fund scandal that was revived against Julia Gillard this week is that the opposition had almost nothing to do with it.

In the annals of scandal-based attempts to embarrass or pressure prime ministers, this makes it as rare as a blue diamond, but nowhere near as attractive.

The opposition was not hawking to the press a dirt file on Gillard. It did not promote the story or brief reporters on the key questions to pursue. It did not use question time, not even once, to pressure her on the matter. These are the time-honoured hallmarks of an opposition-led assault; they were missing this week.
Oh, please.

And when Abbott was intimately involved in undermining the Pauline Hanson support movement, and lying about his involvement, Hartcher would not have dug for the real story: he'd have been satisfied with the surface appearances and left it at that.

Had Hartcher been a White House correspondent in 1972, the official denial of any involvement in the break-in the Democrat party headquarters in the Watergate building would have seen the story end there.
Tony Abbott did egg the media on by repeatedly telling reporters, when asked, that the Prime Minister had questions to answer. But he did not specify any, even when invited to. He was a bystander enjoying the spectacle and cheering it on, but not a participant.
Abbott has the most to gain from the political destruction of Julia Gillard. Had the Prime Minister faltered there was a real prospect that he would have been in the Lodge by Christmas.

As the putative Prime Minister, Abbott could have demonstrated some much-sought-after statesmanship by declaring the Slater & Gordon allegations to be some sort of internal Labor kerfuffle and refusing to discuss it. Had this happened, the press gallery would have rounded on those who really are peddling the story (Hartcher used to get feeds directly from Kevin Rudd when the latter was on the ascendant, and this story has that old-time's-sake feel about it), and dusted off their Gillard leadership stories once again. The fact that Abbott, like Rudd, neither put up nor shut up looks weak; they look like those appalling football spectators who love on-field scraps more than the game itself.
There are some obvious questions for Gillard here. Did she know about his alleged fraud? Did she knowingly abet theft in any way?
Thanks to ABC24, I saw the press conference where those questions were put to and answered by Gillard.

I do not know if Hartcher was there (maybe he was busy, y'know it was just before Question Time) but it does not reflect well on Hartcher for him to put those questions:
  • If Hartcher knew those questions were asked and answered, it's craven and dishonest to put them to readers of his article; and even worse
  • If Hartcher didn't know those questions were asked and answered, his reputation as a journalist is on the line.
Even more damaging is Hartcher's sad attempt at the smart-arse thinking that passes for political tactics these days:
It looked like a perfect opportunity for the opposition to embarrass Gillard because it reminds the public of the intimate relations between Labor and the union movement, because it reminds the public of union corruption, and because it allows the opposition a new way to accentuate the old theme of Gillard's trustworthiness.
There is clearly no interest in the Labor-union links and union corruption, otherwise this would be a hotter story for the MSM than it would appear to be. Abbott has pretty much negated the untrustworthiness thing with whether or not he read the BHP announcement over Olympic Dam. Clearly, Hartcher's musings come from outside the Abbott brains trust; from people who think they can second-guess them.
Why pass up the chance? There are three reasons that the opposition chose to sit this one out.
Yes there are, but they aren't the ones cited by Hartcher:
  1. The Coalition have an unrelentingly short-term focus. If they can knock Gillard out with a single blow, they're interested; but to do any in-depth forensic digging (like John Howard did over the Loans Affair in 1974-75) is all too hard;
  2. The Wilson-Gillard thing has already claimed the career of Glenn Milne, whom John Howard wanted as his press secretary, later the most pro-Coalition member of the press gallery; now apparently picking coins out of Canberra gutters. That's why Josh Frydenberg dodged the questions-to-be-answered question when they was put to him on ABC Breakfast; and
  3. They've seen what Gillard is like when she's full of fight, and they can't cope. As with all big beasts, you don't wound Julia Gillard; you knock her off quickly and cleanly or you put the gun down and drive on.
Maybe Hartcher might have been at that press conference after all:
So how did the Prime Minister arrive at the point on Thursday of icily declaring that "I have determined that I will deal with these issues", "given we have got to a stage where false and defamatory material is now being recycled in The Australian newspaper," and taking questions from the press gallery until the questions were exhausted.
Umm, was it The Australian newspaper, perhaps?
The watershed moment was when a member of Gillard's own caucus, Robert McClelland, stood in the House on June 21 ... he committed an act of political bastardry against his leader.
Why the two-month lag between then and Thursday? A gun political correspondent could tell us that, but there's nothing here. Surely McClelland learned the lesson of going off half-cocked in February.
A former industrial lawyer with the old Builders Labourers Federation ... Nowicki and Blewitt are hunting for documents.
Would you lump them in with those misogynists and nutjobs we've heard so much about lately? Why is it OK to make the Federal Opposition and the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery put up or shut up, but these guys can come out with anything as and when they feel like it?
With an entire ecosystem of anti-Gillard activists, dedicated promoters of the Wilson scandal like Nowicki and Blewitt, a split and bitter Labor caucus, and the anti-Gillard agenda of The Australian, this affair is not going to fade away.
If there are no issues of substance to be raised, why shouldn't it fade away? If it does not fade away, it is an indictment of pretty much the entire Australian media. We saw how it pissed away its credibility over Howard-Costello, Rudd-Gillard, Thomson-Jackson and Ashby-Slipper. You'd think these guys would quit while they're behind, but you can't do fearless foot-in-door journalism when your foot is in your mouth and the door is closed.
Indeed, Gillard has now turbocharged this affair. She has elevated it to a legitimate subject of prime ministerial scrutiny.
No, Peter; as with the Rudd Government, she's buried it. There is no new material, champ, and even if there is he sources are so discredited they may as well not bother.

Hartcher has been a Canberra correspondent for twenty years, no longer an up-and-comer but not an Oakes-Kelly doyen, either. Consider the dire financial position of Fairfax against its expensively-maintained non-AFR team at the Canberra press gallery:
  • Hartcher has been there half as long as Grattan and is her logical successor, but Fairfax can't pay out her entitlements and stay solvent;
  • Phil Coorey has a sinecure as correspondent to the Labor Right;
  • Misha Schubert has already gone;
  • Maley and Murphy are expendable and each is almost certainly paid less than Peter Hartcher.
If you're playing a game and you've failed to work out who is being gamed, maybe the player being gamed is you. Why should we listen to you about matters that you clearly can't fully explain or understand?

Update: Bushfire Bill on the press gallery, comment 4468.

24 August 2012

Huzzah to the future

HAMLET:
Hic et ubique? Then we'll shift our ground.
Come hither, gentlemen,
And lay your hands again upon my sword.
Never to speak of this that you have heard:
Swear by my sword.

GHOST:
[beneath] Swear by his sword.

HAMLET:
Well said, old mole! Canst work i' th' earth so fast?
A worthy pioner! Once more remove, good friends.

- Shakespeare Hamlet Act I Scene V
This is quite a long blogpost about how rubbish the Australian media is, and how it can't really be saved, so if you can't bear any more of that bloggy stuff from someone who was never a journalist then what are you even doing here?

Recently a student at the University of Melbourne went on an internship at The Herald-Sun, Australia's biggest-selling newspaper, and afterwards wrote about the experience in the campus paper. It caused a great kerfuffle as pretty much every journalist in the country dropped whatever Big-Time Serious Scoop that they were all working on to denounce the intern for allowing daylight in upon the magic. They claimed this person was irrelevant while intensely demonstrating the opposite; complaining that the intern was ill-informed when this a) wasn't the case, and b) is hardly a barrier to becoming a successful journalist in this country.

Compare the "Anonymous" article above to this, written by someone highly regarded and rewarded over the years for skill and experience in journalism. Is the intern's effort really several orders of magnitude below that of the doyenne? The latter has a byline attached to it, but it (too?) is badly written and tendentious in its logic, the professional pursuing a petty vendetta no less than the student.

Oh, and incase you think I'm being unfair to Ms Grattan with that link: point me to her finest work, go on. Dive into four decades of workmanlike-at-best pap and bring forth the deathless phrase that only she could have coined, the complex development rendered clear and complete by her deceptively simple prose.

It was funny that it followed the path of most media-industry kerfuffles, where such a non-issue became very much an issue, and then quickly became boring; but then again that's fairly typical of the Australian media. I'm not being slow to this issue: it is worth revisiting now that the dust has settled because I think a central lesson has been missed from what should have been a valuable exercise for people who pride themselves on Getting The Story Right and in believing that Stimulating Debate Is A Good Thing.

Mostly the debate went in two ultimately fruitless directions:
  • What happens in the newsroom stays in the newsroom; and
  • Toughen up, princess.
Nobody expected it to maintain the intensity of that week but I didn't expect it to fade away so fast. I thought it would give rise to multiple inquiries and long-form expositions on the subject, as happened at the same university twenty years ago when some female students accused a middle-aged male administrator of sexual harassment. During the early 1990s I can still remember getting onto crowded train carriages in Sydney and seeing several passengers reading The First Stone, day after day.

One prime example - again, highly regarded and retweeted by journalists like Mia Freedman - is this piece by Wendy Squires, who deserves some kind of Germaine Greer Award for Unhelpful Remarks By An Older Woman Toward Younger Ones.
And you seem to have missed the class explaining that losing big mastheads is not a good thing. Not for journalists, the public, or democracy.
Really?
  • The Argus shut down in 1957, and then Menzies attempted to ban the Communist Party - no, wait, it was the other way around, those two events weren't related at all.
  • Then there was News Corporation's decision in 1987 to shut down The News, the Adelaide paper that gave the corporation its name. Within five years of that closure, Communist regimes in eastern Europe had collapsed and so had the State Bank of South Australia. Coincidence? Yep.
Democracy survives the closure of mastheads, and so do the public. As for journalists, depends who you mean: old-timers like Wendy Squires, with little to show for their career and less time to make up for it, or promising up-and-comers like "Anonymous"? The latter will flourish whatever form journalism takes; the former not so much, lacking the sense or good grace to provide useful guidance.

Note how Squires bestows a name upon the "Anonymous" student. The name she uses came from this article, on a website that MSM people regard as the very acme of the nasty amateur online world, all that is infra dig and unprofessional and threatening about the Fifth Estate towards the Fourth. Yet, when it suits them, the MSM can (as LBJ once said about Richard Nixon) turn chickenshit into chicken salad.
But before we get carried away ...
Before who gets carried away, o seasoned pro?
... let me first congratulate you on your courage.
In her fourth paragraph, after a few opening volleys of condescension, Squires gets around to what's "first". Apparently, such structural sloppiness would have earned her a rap over the knuckles which would have been seared onto her consciousness and made her The Professional She Is Today (or isn't, as in this case).

The congratulations serve to hide another nasty swipe that is leavened by the unintended humour of:
Because a newsroom like the Herald Sun's is actually a microcosm of real life ...
No, it isn't. It never was. You're kidding yourself, and those who told you that were kidding you and themselves; you should not be passing forward this self-serving and ultimately unhelpful bullshit.

The newsroom of the Herald Sun is no more a microcosm of 'real life', or even real life in Melbourne, than the things growing under Wendy Squires' toenails are a microcosm of Squires herself. Show me the demographic stats of the rapidly-shrinking staff versus that of Melbourne or Victoria or Australia or [insert your definition of 'real life' here] as a whole. Show me the mature and dignified manner in which the Herald Sun copes with even mild and constructive feedback (never mind the trolls).

The only people who think that "a newsroom like the Herald Sun's is actually a microcosm of real life" are those who entered such newsrooms at impressionable ages, have known no other working environment or intellectual stimulation other than those the job provided, and who face a post-newsroom future with the same dread that "Anonymous" has for the prospect of going into one.
And so, your shock at life outside the bliss bubble of like-minded souls at uni is understandable. It's a cacophonic mash-up of personalities and politics in the working world - as I'm sure your course teachers will explain in due time.
More sarcasm from Auntie Wen, with the hope it will give her arguments a force they don't have. Think about a university, now about a tabloid newsroom: if you had to label one "a cacophonic mash-up of personalities and politics", and the other "the bliss bubble of like-minded souls", which would you apply to which?
You see, a lot of people have found your comments ungrateful ...
At the risk of displaying journo-like qualities, which people? A lot of like-minded souls?
That you had the opportunity to learn at the coalface of newspapers, only to ultimately decide it was all too grubby and beneath you. People who really want to learn can get shitty about things like that.
Not really. I like to learn. I reckon it must have been like going to Sovereign Hill and watching coopers or loom-weavers or COBOL programmers at work. Dying trades are so cute!
Let's look at some examples in your story. There's the senior Hun journalist you recall asking, "Why are they [the gay community] making such a fuss [in regard to gay marriage rights]? It's been this way for millennia, why change now?"

Another affront you mention were comments on a piece about an overweight man who was trying to lose 200 kilograms through hypnosis: "Of course he's fat, look at what he eats" and "How does someone let that happen?"

In being mortally offended by these statements you seem to have overlooked the pink elephant fact that a significant portion of the Australian population is saying the exact same things as the staff at the Hun. Maybe not in your media class, Sasha. But I'm sure any minute your teachers will explain that most journalists don't go into the profession to preach to the converted. The real aim - and thrill - is to educate, enlighten, entertain and inform.
What's missing from that is the example Squires wants to show (what she assumes is there but can't prove) where the dross of oafish comment was turned into  educative, enlightening, entertaining and informative pieces. And printed in the Herald Sun. Squires assumes they are there (you there, stop laughing), but she can't provide any proof. That's a no-no in terms of lofty journo ideals, but you'd have to check with Squires or "Anonymous" as to whether newsrooms are cool with no-proof journalism these days.
But back to your complaints. It appears "white, elitist opinions" were not the only affront you endured during your work experience incarceration. You were also personally slighted - "I was consistently subjected to patronising attitudes, being referred to as 'Little Bud', 'Champ' and 'Kidlet'. Men were also continuously and unnecessarily sexist, waiting for me to walk through doors and leave the elevator before them."
Again with the sarcasm. Kim Powell deals pretty comprehensively with the idea that such people are just trying to be friendly or inclusive, and without being snide like Squires.
But where you disappointed me most, Sasha, is that you missed the very point of your argument, which was a valid one. Yes, the media deserves to be outed and shamed. I have spent 20-odd years in the business and can attest, heart and soul, to experiencing rampant sexism and more. In fact, I wrote a novel about this very thing ... set in the world of free-to-air TV where I unhappily resided for a year. The opportunity to expose the abhorrent treatment my female colleagues and I endured was worthy of not just burning career bridges, but detonating and decimating them. So, I get where you're coming from.

But without sounding like the relative who walked to school barefoot in the snow - it has always been a lot worse than you exposed. There was too much emotion and not enough fact in your argument. The instances you note hardly make a toe-curling point in an environment where women are still sacked for being fat, pregnant, old or, worse, opinionated.
So a student with a short experience in a newsroom did not draw upon "20-odd years in the business" (is the hyphen redundant there?) but upon what was personally witnessed and recorded. This makes her a poor journalist, does it? Surely decimation would be redundant following a detonation? And if Squires' career bridges really have been burnt, why isn't the option of being published in Fairfax closed to her?

Oh, and she failed to write a novel about it, so that makes her a failed novelist as well (Squires may well be a failed novelist herself; I'm not going to rush out and buy her tome either, but having written a novel is no proof or otherwise of journalism)?
I reckon you will make an editor one day. It just won't be on a mainstream publication; that is, one that will reach the very people whose opinions you want to change.
What will "a mainstream publication" look like by the time "Anonymous" is as old (and hopefully more distinguished) as Wendy Squires is today? Who will guarantee that the Herald Sun will even exist then, let alone be classified in that manner? Maybe you could get a youngster to show you how to Google, Wendy, it won't hurt a bit.

It's time here to do what intra-journosphere squabbling will never do, and that is raise the standards of journalism. I am an enthusiastic consumer of media, an industry with declining sales, so whether you have 20-odd minutes of journo experience or 20 years, you need to keep in mind a saying from my profession that should apply to the profession trade of journalism:
Never assume. It makes an ass of u and me.
Wendy Squires has made much, much more of an ass of herself journo-wise in her small-f farrago than "Anonymous" has, and has fewer excuses. But far from being fully condemnatory of the oafs she worked with, and offering pissant excuses for those she didn't (but who Powell and "Anonymous" did), Squires has missed the wider point about such behaviour that "Anonymous" grasps clearly and strongly.

Imagine an experienced journalist and/or a manager of same, and who happens to be male. Imagine such a person presented with a young female intern, making her feel as though the most important thing about her is the shape of her body and her youth: the intern may be guilty of a lack of judgment at having come to such a place, but the senior journo/editor definitely is for creating and maintaining such a culture.

Senior journos and editors who are stuck in that mindset, and who are doomed to propagate that mindset, cannot be said to have otherwise impeccable news and business sense (though this is one of the abiding fantasies of the journosphere). What other misjudgments have these clowns made along the way that have contributed to the decline in sales and sheer damn respect that has beset the Australian media, and sent once-proud organisations to the brink of bankruptcy and irrelevance?

It is a cop-out to say that sexism and harassment exists everywhere; most other organisations have measures in place, and cultivate supportive cultures, that minimise if not eradicate such behaviour. Do you want cop-out merchants running your company and training future staff? What hot stories or business opportunities are going begging because the cop-out boys, the leerers and scoffers, the group-thinkers who all went through the same cadetship program, occupy the commanding heights? What emerging technology have they waved away as a fad, only to embrace something that is crumbling before their eyes? "Anonymous" knows that sometimes the only way you can get someone off their high horse is to shoot the horse.

All that crap that Squires and other experienced journalists go on about how people who've survived long enough in a newsroom have "a nose for news" and that sexism and other forms of social myopia are mere human flaws that can be overlooked (or written about in throwaway novels) is rubbish. If you're running a wilfully dumb organisation, you have no business telling me what is going on in the world. "Anonymous" knows that she is going to have to carve her own main stream in a new landscape, because Squires and her pals are going to bequeath the next generation of journalists pretty much bugger-all.

Alexandra Wake of RMIT and Jenna Price of UTS both administer internship-style programs for journalism students, and wrote pretty much the same article in response to the "Anonymous":
  • We have to maintain good relationships with the people you dumped on, "Anonymous", thanks for nothing!
  • Aww, it's alright and no long-term harm done, thanks for caring!
  • You've got to be in it to win it!
I have some sympathy for their positions, but I despair of the idea that those who run our major media organisations are the same people who can turn things around, including fostering and hiring people who are better than they are.

Price gives an example of how her journo-persistence paid off:
A long, long time ago, in a newspaper far, far away, I was a bossy cadet who called herself a feminist. The blokes on the subs desk would make fun of me endlessly. But we women reporters collectively organised to get the term Ms recognised by the then editor-in-chief. A tiny victory.
In the community which that newspaper covered and served, that battle had been fought and won 10, 20 years before. If the subs or the editor was as across that community as journo-lore assumes they are, then that "tiny victory" would have been won long ago. This isn't to belittle Price's efforts; it shouldn't have been her role to manage upward like that in an organisation that should pride itself on its openness.

The idea that you can only reform an institution from the inside is one with which I have great sympathy: I'm a gradualist by inclination, and in my politics I regard the various flavours of far left and right as irrelevant with their calls for smashing this and that. I took the in-it-to-win-it approach to membership of the Liberal Party, another organisation not lacking in obtuse oafs. Increasingly I'm not convinced the Australian media is as good an example of gradual reform either, despite what Wake and Price might hope. You don't have to become a Muslim to deal with Lashkar-e-Toiba. If you did an internship at Phillip Morris it might turn you off smoking, whether or not Wendy Squires gets pissed off about that. No amount of push-from-within could turn Cobb & Co into Qantas.

However much you might have to work with the sheltered workshop that is the Herald Sun, and whether the people there are naughty or nice (or a bit of both), the fact is there is a duty to prepare students for a workplace where the people who run it are probably running it into the ground. There's little an intern can do to change it; to throw your heart and soul into it might be no less educative or constructive than the good old point-and-jeer.

I am not saying that Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood is anything but a gentleman, but I will wager he has worked with many of the same sorts of people that Squires and "Anonymous" identifies. He may even have such people report to him. He has been in his role for some years now and had to announce these results: when he was first appointed, he was praised for being steeped in the sorts of newsroom cultures that Squires romanticises and "Anonymous" demonises. And yet, if his career had been in merchant banking or something other than journalism, how could things be worse? Has he rooted out the sorts of boofheads that all those quoted above have had to deal with, or are they still running the show and making the sorts of misjudgments whose consequences Hywood had to announce yesterday?

Huzzah to the future indeed. The future may or may not include the Herald Sun, but journalists whose tolerance for feedback is so low that it trips up their bullshit detector have less a place in that future than they assume. An oaf who has been wilfully blind and deaf to changes in our society simply cannot report usefully on it, let alone run organisations that do so: this is the enduring importance of what Twitter called #interngate. When "Anonymous" realises that, the future in journalism may be more assured than it might appear; I'd certainly give her the benefit of the doubt over some of the socially-retarded fools clogging up that industry.

18 August 2012

Diary of a madman

FOOL: Truth's a dog must to kennel; he must be whipp'd out, when
Lady the brach may stand by th' fire and stink.


- Shakespeare King Lear Act I Sc IV
When George Bush II was running for President of the United States, and his reputation for being erratic and not much of a thinker became widely known, Republicans insinuated that he would have the wise counsel of his father to guide him through the tough times in Washington. It was rubbish, of course, but people wanted to believe it and voted accordingly.

The same thing is happening in Australia with Tony Abbott, harking back to John Howard as the steadying influence he can never be. There is a clear implication - never stated openly by anyone with any sort of standing in the Coalition parties, but still there - that John Howard will be part of the next Coalition government without having to go through the tawdry business of preselection and fundraising and campaigning with no-mark candidates, a bit like the role Lee Kuan Yew plays in modern Singapore.

Now the idea is floated by Godwin Grech that Howard will sit atop the Abbott government as Governor-General. If this is an unpopular idea it has easy deniability. If not, you can expect to see it floated more often by fringe players in the Coalition and denied unconvincingly by Abbott.

In order to explore this idea I have to take the prospect of an Abbott government more seriously than it deserves; bear with me, it will not take long.

You can see why Liberals keen for this scenario. They never accepted that their defeat in 2007 meant a repudiation of Howard. Abbott's questionable tactic of calling election after election until he gets the Parliament that he wants would be easier with a compliant Governor-General, impossible without. What would be harder is life for naval personnel deciding against towbacks; the Governor-General is the commander-in-chief of Australia's armed forces, and we would see almost certainly a more politicised military than this country has ever seen.

For Howard, ascending to a role higher than Prime Minister would be a vindication that all ex-PMs strove toward but never attained: remember the hysteria during the Republic campaign over the prospect of President Keating?

Remember also during that campaign, how monarchists such as Howard and Abbott insisted that the Crown was an office above politics: a unifying factor for the nation. A Howard Governor-Generalcy would trash that.

The British monarchy is in transition. The once high-profile role of Prince Phillip is being de-emphasised because of his frailty (and limiting the exposure of the Queen because of hers), while focus is increasing on the generation of William, Kate, Harry and Zara Phillips. These are not fads but structural changes. At such a time, John Howard is the wrong person to represent the Crown to Australians.

The precedents all urge Abbott not to entertain the idea of Howard as ur-leader. Precedents matter to conservatives.

In 1977, pugnacious New Zealand Prime Minister Robert Muldoon appointed his mentor and predecessor, Sir Keith Holyoake, as that country's Governor-General. The perception of Muldoon as his own man evaporated, and Holyoake did not get the multipartisan deference that the office traditionally enjoyed. Neither man could play the leader-as-healer role the country required following the Muldoon government's refusal to condemn racism in sport throughout 1978 (with a subsequent boycott of that year's Commonwealth Games, aimed at NZ)* and the Mount Erebus disaster the following year. Governors-General are traditionally appointed for five years but Holyoake quit after three. The arrangement had diminished both men.

Labor weakened their then leader, Bill Hayden, in the 1980 election by overshadowing him with then-NSW Premier Neville Wran an then-ACTU President Bob Hawke. When Hayden became Governor-General eight years later nobody pretended that he was strengthening the Hawke government by assuming that office (apart from unkind souls keen to see the back of him).

At that time, Federal Opposition Leader John Howard had lost the 1987 election and tried to boost his stocks by associating himself with the popular new Premier of NSW, Nick Greiner.

Howard knows co-leadership doesn't work. He should distance himself from efforts to prop up Abbott in this manner. If Abbott isn't good enough to be Prime Minister, the Liberals have no choice but to replace him with someone who is. Abbott's had a fair go at the job. If the Liberals really want John Howard back, they should say so and get him back in harness.

No Liberal branch member in Bennelong would choose the current member, John Alexander, over Howard if they had the choice. Alexander is nice enough but a human placebo. He adopts a largely passive, old-school approach as local member, acting both as a local relay station to pass messages onto Canberra and localising policy announcements from Tony Abbott's office. He smooths the dying pillow over policy ideas with a wan smile and the phrase "That's a very interesting suggestion".

Bennelong is increasingly made up of knowledge workers, people who apply their brains to big challenges every day. Over time Alexander's model will be less and less representative of the electorate. There's little he can do about it.

But all of this is to build castles in the air. Let us look instead to Grech.

Grech's piece first appeared in the Murdoch publication Australian Spectator, which aims to bring the wit and erudition of the British publication to Australian conservatism. A political movement that eschewed and was suspicious of culture or style, it is bogged down in the dour Quadrant or the wacky fringe publications that are only entertaining when they aim to be most serious. One does not simply appear in Australian Spectator; one is inducted after having passed tests of conservative soundness such as being a Liberal staffer and Murdoch journalist (e.g. Tom Switzer, Christian Kerr) or having been a Liberal MP of many years' standing (e.g. Peters Coleman and Costello), or - no, that's pretty much it.

The last we saw of Grech was as a mental health patient, crushed by throwing away his career in a folly over a fake email and setting up an Opposition Leader to fail while pretending to serve the government. He avoided punishment because of his frail mental-health state: please let this not be some sort of ruse. Grech was close to Eric Abetz, and the Coalition appeared to drop Grech once he became a national punchline and brought down a leader of the party of which Abetz was supposedly a leading member. At the time I thought it was gutless of them to desert Grech like they appeared to, but it appears they have cruelly kept him dangling with a promise of Lord-knows-what and the piece rates at the OzSpeccie.

You could be justified in saying that I'm playing the man here, but I am not going to pick apart a piece of creative writing from someone whose path back to wellness is not yet complete. I am much more angry at those who have ruined this man's career and life and who lack the decency not to drag him further beyond his competence simply for their sport. Instead, I shall fish out some corkers of begged-questions that clearly aren't his alone, and which have no business appearing under his name, leaving them flapping and gasping on the riverbank as follows:
  • "If the Coalition is to improve the way we are governed, it must provide solid leadership, a healthy respect for due process and a much more accountable public service."
  • "Tony Abbott will quickly become an effective prime minister in the John Howard mould."
  • "Turnbull's days as leader of the Liberal Party are over."
  • "Joyce or Warren Truss will only need to invoke the memory of Black Jack McEwen to deliver the stable leadership vital for good governance."
  • "By any objective measure, Howard would make a first-class head of state"
  • "creating a more transparent and accountable public sector"
Poprishchin couldn't have done better.


*Amended, thanks to @argumentalist and Barry Gustafson for setting me right

17 August 2012

You must be disappointed

Channel 9 copped a lot of criticism for the way it covered the London Olympics, much of it deserved. To be fair, it covered the Olympics using the same bag of tricks it has always used:
  • Insistence on gold from Australian athletes, especially in the pool;
  • Deployment of network stars on the coverage;
  • Referral to female athletes as 'girls'; and
  • Aussie-Aussie-Aussie ├╝ber alles.
It didn't work. There were no new tricks being tried, let alone succeeding or replacing tried-and-failed ways of covering multiple sports with compelling claims to viewer attention. If Channel 7 had "won the rights", they would substitute Bruce McAvaney for Karl Stefanovic, and if the ABC had won it they would have anchored it with that Vesuvius of Sporting Cliches, Gerard Whateley; but otherwise little would have been different.

It didn't work because coverage always starts off assuming that if an Aussie ain't competing, we ain't interested; and every single time viewers show this isn't the case. The first Olympics I remember was Montreal 1976, where Australians performed below expectations but Nadia Comaneci made it transcend nation and even traditional sport-following habits. That sort of thing has happened at every single Olympics, every one; and every single time the media have been caught out, gobsmacked that their Aussie-centric assumptions about the audience failed yet again.

It didn't work because:
  • Cutting away from a sport just before a juicy bit will enrage more people than will be pleased at the cut from one event to another;
  • Nobody wants to hear footy commentators jabber on about a sport they don't understand;
  • We all have access to Wikipedia and expect more from Voice Of Authority commentary than recitations from that;
  • Referring to female athletes as "girls" was designed to turn off female viewers, wasn't it? Why else would you do that unless it was to shun their involvement and interest?
  • Commentators who do know what they're talking about, and can describe what's in front of them, aren't part of the lead-up to the Games and play no part in the lead-up to the next one (or an event like it).
Even after a tactical maneuver in pole-vaulting was explained to Karl Stefanovic in clear English, he claimed not to understand it - no further proof is required that the man is a dunce. The Stefanovic brothers are proof that if you suck up to people in television then the opportunities will open up to you; whether you show/tell people any more than that when your doughy head takes up the screen is another matter.

That said, I was impressed with his humility in interviewing Linford Christie, Michael Johnson and Daley Thompson. I was sure he'd insert himself into proceedings more than he did, and like the best interviewers he drew out each of these great and interesting men and made the interview about them. How long can this last? When will YouTube feature his reddened face through the window of a restaurant/nightclub/other venue shouting "Don't you know who I am?".

The best coverage and commentary came in the hockey. The commentators were former players and professional broadcasters, providing the right mix of nitty-gritty description and context. Lucinda Green in the equestrian events, with the right blend of sport knowledge and broadcasting skill, was also very good. The next best commentators were a long way short of those high standards.

Greg Jericho reckons that pay TV coverage is better and I'll defer to him because we at the Politically Homeless Institute don't have an account. I'd watch marginally more TV if I had pay TV but I'd resent the rest of the bundled dreck with which I'd be lumped. Eight Olympic channels might be better than one (certainly more than one) but it still relies on a 'director' to decide what the viewer does (not) see and hear.

Jericho had sympathy for this person but he should consider whether or not the very job is doomed. There is also a question as to whether the owners of Channel Nine, who have increasingly common interests with those of the owners of Foxtel, are not running down the less profitable free-to-air offering in favour of the more lucrative pay TV.

One media commentator who should have been sacked and sent home was Ray Hadley, for his petulant refusal to learn long foreign names. If you're being paid to commentate then you have to learn how to pronounce players' names. If you can't be bothered then stay at home. You don't prove you're an Aussie by ducking the challenge; there are plenty of Australians with non-Anglo names. If you can wrap your gob around names like Civ-on-i-ce-va, Peter-o Petro oh-can-I-call-you-Pete, then you can extend the same courtesy to other no less gifted athletes: and to the audience that wants to hear about them.

Another who deserves no sympathy is the oaf Phil Lutton. On a day when his paper trumpeted disaster for Australia and failure on the part of individuals, Lutton had the temerity to blame people for rising to the bait set by his colleagues and managers - and to blame everyone else but them:
Twitter came out swinging and web stories started groaning under the deluge of comments.
Twitter is just another media platform, a bit like being in a pub. When something happens you might get some marvellous responses, or you might get some stupid ones; if you arc up at the stupid comments, does that make you any better than those who made those comments in the first place? Stupid commenters disappear from my Twitter feed, and Phil Lutton doesn't even make it into mine. It's hard to make generalisations about Twitter users, but not hard or unfair to assume that the wit and wisdom of Twitter users would beat those of any pack of journos hands down, every time.

See his weaselly reference to Giaan Rooney, channel 9 commentator and former champion swimmer:
That's not to say Rooney, a former top-level swimmer herself, has been at fault here. She seems to be a bright and happy type and obviously knows her stuff.
Nobody gets a job in media by being "a bright and happy type". They get those jobs because they do what they're told. Rooney has forgotten more about the tactical games of swimming than Ray Warren has ever learned, yet it was Warren who chuntered away at us during the race leaving Rooney to instruct exhausted and emotional young swimmers, "you must be disappointed". I hoped James Magnussen would have told her to get stuffed, but no.
When asked for comment by Rooney, [Magnussen] had little to offer. He looked completely stunned at what had just transpired.
Well, yes. Every weekend, cricket and netball and football commentators thrust a microphone under the noses of losing players who are not in a position to reflect on what has just happened to them, and who therefore fall back on their 'media training' (a practice performed by failed journalists not very different to Lutton) in spouting cliches. People like Lutton then blast them for spouting cliches, which is his way of deflecting blame for their own dull stories.
When the Wayne Bennetts of the world are short and dismissive of the media, they are often applauded for giving it back to the hacks. What do they owe a bunch of journos? Magnussen, still just 21 and our best freestyler by a country mile, wasn't afforded that sort of latitude.
I don't even know what any of that means, and I suspect Lutton doesn't either. Who didn't afford Magnussen any latitude? Who applauds Bennett for being dismissive of journalists, or expects that he might react any differently to the way he does? If an experienced sporting figure like Wayne Bennett is dismissive of the journalists who attend to him, then surely those of us who are interested in what Bennett might say aren't well served by such people.
[Emily] Seebohm's raw emotion, the thought that she had a gold in her grasp only to not be able to replicate her Olympic record heat time, was just too much. Twitter trolls let rip in her direction and comments on stories which quoted her post-race weren't much better ...
You should have seen the groupthink among the so-called professional journalists that wound people up, Phil! Complete crap. I saw the Twitter messages telling Seebohm to ignore the media, that they weren't representative of Australia at all, and that everyone was proud of her. Did you see them? Did you dare?
That she partially blamed a day spent on social media probably wasn't the best call. But she's only 20, and that's what kids do. Some football clubs won't let their 20-year-olds conduct a single interview in their first year of top-level competition.
 20 year olds can handle social media, but so-called professional journalists are such pricks that it's best to steer well clear of them. Got it.
Even Leisel Jones wasn't spared. She had been defended to the hilt all week after stories questioning her fitness, but when she proclaimed delight at finishing fifth in the 100m breaststroke final at her fourth Olympics, she was taken to task about why we sent her in the first place if she was happy to finish out of the medals? Where is the love?
Stories by the so-called professional media, Phil. Swimmers in a practice session before the Olympic Games are not the same as swimsuit models on a catwalk, but a half-witted media forced to cover events they didn't understand could not tell the difference. Have a look at Dawn Fraser in her prime. Hell, have a look at Giaan Rooney in hers, doing a Sally Robbins* at a medal presentation. Then look at Jones again; a few days before the Games began there was nothing to report on really, and so the journalists decided to make observations about Jones' body.

You'll note that much of the Twitter storm surrounding that was directed at journalists, and their lack of sense about what constituted a real news story.
The post-race live grilling has become a Star Chamber for a swimming team already under pressure for not producing in the London pool.
Sure it has, because it consists of journalists who hunt in packs, who don't do the necessary research that might yield different and better stories, and who are hired and managed by morons just like them.
Social media has given Australians a forum to unleash without fear of retribution.
No retribution for journalists either. If Leisel Jones refused to speak to any of the journalists who called her fat, or to Giaan "you must be disappointed" Rooney, people like Phil Lutton would accuse her of sulking. The time and resources that sports administrators channel toward media management is time and resources drained from actual coaching and competing, an arrangement that suits the Phil Luttons of this world and which never quite makes it into their half-baked coverage.
The irony that the barbs lack any sort of grace themselves I would assume has been lost.
Another schooner of grace for Mr Lutton. My 20 year old self was a lot more awake up to media scrummaging, and the sheer lack of reward for all that effort for the reader/viewer/listener, than Lutton is now (or will ever be, one suspects).

Australians used social media to try to tell journalists what sort of coverage they/we want of events like #london2012. There is no evidence that any mainstream media outlet, nor any journalist, has taken the slightest bit of notice of how such coverage might be done differently or better. The BBC and Canadian television apparently served their audiences better than the Australian media did theirs. It will be interesting to see whether subsequent sporting events learn from this experience, or whether they cling to formulae that simply don't work, and whose failures cannot be dismissed Bennett-style by media executives.

Interspersed during the Olympics coverage were ads for a TV miniseries about Kerry Packer's takeover of international cricket in the 1970s. I thought such nostalgia jarred with the running of a modern sporting event, especially one with fewer international competitors than the Olympics, until I realised: the people who run Channel 9 yearn for an age where people just watched whatever people like them bloody well felt like putting in front of them. The nostalgia is on the part of Channel 9 people, not for those of us who aren't surprised that Ian Chappell was as daring and as obnoxious off the field as on.

On social media and elsewhere (and who knows, maybe in his quieter moments even Phil Lutton might agree), two people keenly missed in coverage of the London Olympics were Roy and HG. It needed some perspective other than Kenny Sutcliffe's sad references to rugby league matches played at the same time as the Games, matches where Australians could at least be counted among the winners. That perspective is so sorely needed that the technology, and ultimately the coverage of events like this, will surely adapt to meet it.

The International Olympic Committee exerts tight control over the images that come from Games events. It is only a matter of time before it takes its own footage and sells it at a premium. What it can't do is the commentary: the explanation of who comes into a particular match as favourite, who might the dark horses be and why the game is unfolding as it is.

Like any puffed-up organisation, whether other sporting organisations or governments or corporate gabfests, the oral and written output of the IOC alternates between facile soundbites and turgid officialese. This is language designed to obscure meaning more than reveal it. Such language is the opposite of what is required in sport: because all the action in sport takes place in front of the viewer, you have to call it as it is. Commentators will be forgiven for omissions or gaffes if that is the end to which they are striving at the bow-wave of adrenaline in the event itself. Diplo-speak like "the Singaporean has performed commendably" will not do, and nor will reading from the internet about passing landmarks.

The commentary is where the intermediaries, media execs and commentators and journos and Tweeters (but I repeat myself) add value. The background, the lead-up, and the drama of how it all plays out - that's what people will tune into, and ultimately pay for. Vietnamese-Australians want to hear how well Vietnamese athletes did, and it should be possible for them to get that coverage without the heavy-handed nationalism of official Vietnamese broadcasters being their only option. The facility with language describing complicated situations under pressure with wit and style is where the action is, now and into the future. Whose is the brighter future in sports journalism: the knowledgeable and erudite Lucinda Green, or clowns like Lutton and Eddie McGuire?

As a result of Olympic pearls cast before low-tech Ausmedia swine, the Olympics brand can only suffer, in a country that has traditionally bought it wholesale and done more than most to burnish it to a high sheen. The old ways of covering sporting events - regarding the director's choice to switch to this event or that as a challenge in itself, and getting any old commentator to say any old thing as the event unfolds - will not do. The director and the Stefanovic-style host is as redundant as those who swept city streets of horseshit in the age of the motor vehicle. This sort of coverage had no heyday, merely a lack of coherent audience voices for media execs to hear and none but their employer's to heed.

We're all media employers now. We are not wrong or even particularly unreasonable to ask for more than what the established media is prepared to deliver. It isn't my fault they are not up to the job, I'm just pointing it out long after my shouting at the television has faded (and there was no mechanism for getting those messages across, either). If Australia has such excellent athletes and coaches, if we can pull off short-lived excellence in sporting accessories such as Speedo or Billabong once enjoyed, why can't we get some excellent sports reporting? Why do clowns like Lutton or the people who put Rooney up to her "you must be disappointed" performance confuse their stale performances with competence in this field?


* Don't ask.

13 August 2012

The no-win situation

On the release of the Report of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers I am in no position to make legal or practical judgments on what it might mean for asylum seekers, or for Australia. I did, however, laugh at the position in which the Liberals have put themselves. It isn't only asylum seekers who stand to lose no matter what they do.

Contrary to the hopes and opinions of many, there are Liberals who aren't stupid. They know full well that the patterns of refugees heading toward Australia by boat is influenced more by push factors (i.e. the reasons why people abandon the lands of their birth) than pull factors (i.e. gold and soil and wealth for toil). They know that Nauru and TPVs-in-all-but-name and all that were all just security theatre; expensive, but electorally effective while it lasted. They know that the current rise in asylum-seekers has little to do with anything the government might do - but because that government isn't a Liberal one they are happy to create the impression that they have all the answers, and that the messy compromise under which the government operates is some sort of endemic failure on their part.

When Liberal journalists like Chrisses Kenny and Uhlmann paint the background on asylum seeker issues, they ignore the push factors and contrast Coalition firmness with Labor floundering. This helps the Liberals get their message out but it also reinforces that message as though it were true. It has dampened their efforts to think through asylum-seeker policy and consider what might happen if the old ways don't apply to new conditions. This does them a disservice.

The Panel have largely recommended that the Howard government's policy for most of the last decade be reintroduced: Nauru, Manus Island, boat-arrivals being prevented from family reunion, pretty much the whole Ruddock-Vanstone deal. The Gillard government has no alternative but to swallow its pride and bringing the recommendations into being, good and hard. This leaves the Liberals:

  • Doing their usual pantomime of appearing to agree with the government, then raising a few quibbles and qualms, then eventually saying no (this strings out a story over days, which journos love); or
  • Claiming credit and noisily denouncing Labor for backing down.
Nobody believes the Liberals when they go on about UN conventions and breaches thereof. It's legitimate to attack the government and its policy on those grounds, but Abbott and Morrison have no grounds to do so. In the same way, nobody thinks Tony Abbott building a Potemkin Village in the Top End will make a blind bit of difference to Aborigines. If they take the former path above it will only reinforce Abbott as someone who can point problems out but can't solve them. 

The latter will see Labor demoralised initially, until the Coalition realise what it feels like for a government to steal an opposition's policy. If the policy succeeds, government gets credit and opposition is just me-too. If it won't, how will the Coalition scuttle away to the moral high ground (and where, exactly, might such ground be)?

If? The proposals won't succeed because:
  • Facilities in Nauru and Manus Island won't be fully operational by the election this time next year; 
  • The key role of Indonesia has been dodged altogether; 
  • There will be half-baked G4S-style execution issues; and 
  • There will almost certainly be a successful legal challenge because of fundamental sillinesses such as the cruel folly of waiting times.
Labor has room to move - an internationalist approach building on the Malaysia agreement and the re-emergence of Burma into the international community, bringing in the UN, producing a large-scale joined-up policy that the mean reductionism of talkback radio can't beat or even match. The Coalition has no room to move if when the Pacific Solution is discredited.

Gillard's flexibility has counted against her - but having come through on other issues and with room to move on international agreements, she can change policy tack without any loss of standing. Abbott is stuck with the Pacific Solution; if asylum-seeker boats keep coming in the face of such a policy he has no answer, he can't get an answer, he is finished. Gillard will get credit for trying while Abbott becomes just another whinger. Gillard lives to fight another day while Abbott is left with if-onlys an I-couldas.

If Abbott offers anything other than a return to Howard-era policy - in general, and on this issue in particular - he is finished. If he sounds like an echo of the government rather than an alternative, he is finished. This invidious position is another curse of the latter-day Coalition not thinking through policy from basic principles, and using the nostalgicised past as not just a platform but a hammock. It's the difference between creating the impression that you have the answer, and having your bluff called and watching helplessly as "the answer" dissolves before your eyes.

Chris Bowen's credibility is shot with this change in policy. He should go to the backbench and rethink things, but he won't. Scott Morrison will one day attempt to slink away from the position he's held to for years now, and he will fail too. It is the tragedy of the modern political class that they are so identified with their roles that they cannot resign to save themselves.

At a time where options appear inflexibly directed toward Liberal policy, it is Labor that loses less in this no-win situation. It means the election will turn on issues other than this, as voters turn to other issues to make their decision.

After all that, I looked up this picture and it just made me sad.

11 August 2012

The price of power

Tony Abbott can't be Prime Minister because he hasn't made the case that he'd do that job better than Julia Gillard is doing it. In recent weeks we have seen Abbott flick the switch that should have displayed the power he has at his command - the power he would exercise on our behalf, if only we vote in the way that the empty refractions known as polls might indicate.

Let's start with the domestic: electric power, the reliability of its supply and the price thereof.

This has been a major issue in Australian politics for at least twenty years. Only people who know nothing about Australian politics, such as members of the Canberra press gallery, would have failed to miss:
  • NSW, where the current Foreign Minister was embarrassed by his party for failing to privatise electricity assets, the largesse from which was apparently going to fund anything but actual renewal of electricity assets (or even, heaven forbid, new ways of generating and distributing and consuming electricity);
  • Victoria, where the Kennett government succeeded in privatising electricity assets and failed to get re-elected because there was no discernible impact on the state for this political triumph. The state's schools, hospitals, roads and public transport were no better off, there were fewer jobs in the communities that generated electricity - and as for law-and-order, for much of this period a drug-dealer considered himself "The Premier" because all the rhetoric about cracking down on drugs and crime made no difference to him either;
  • South Australia - as in so many things, just like Victoria only much less so;
  • Western Australia, where the money flowing into the state might mean they would need a better power generation and distribution system than the jerry-rigged one they patched together during their povvo years, only there isn't as much demand from industry in the south-west as had been imagined (and as politicians had promised). This absence of vision and effective policy is another reason why Collier's "cane toad" statement was so silly. We'd better not even think about other ways of generating electricity because it might damage confidence in key commodities markets;
  • Queensland, as above but substitute SE for SW; and
  • ACT and Tasmania have the hydro, so once again here is a pressing national debate in which they play pretty much no role.
It is foolish to assume that this stuff, so complex and unresolved for so long, would never make it to the federal arena. When state governments come to Canberra with their begging-bowls, a core part of their problem is stuffed-up electricity policy. It was crazy to assume that such a key aspect of national economic infrastructure would never confront those who deal with Australia's economic policy - the Treasury, the Productivity Commission, Infrastructure Australia, and yes, the government.

Members of major political parties and professional journalists have no excuse for not seeing this issue coming at them. People who have worked closely on the issues arising from the generation and distribution of electricity and who understand it intimately have largely disappeared into the banks, because if your best efforts are going to be ridiculed, scapegoated and/or ignored you may as well be paid well and have a nice office. The federal bureaucracy, the policy advisory ranks of major parties, and the still-bloated ranks of the press gallery sorely need such people; those who make hiring decisions over such people should have taken more interest in such qualifications and background than they have.

The generation, distribution and pricing of electricity was a major political issue when Tony Abbott was writing Battlelines. It isn't exactly a go-to text on that subject. It falls to blogs like evcricket to pick up the slack of actually informing readers what this issue is about and how it affects you. Journalists would grumble if such a person were invited to contribute for their outlet, fancying themselves capable of all that and more besides. The truth is the most senior of them can only produce guff like this. Compare the two links in this paragraph and weep, those who reflexively defend Australian journalism, and let us have no more risible concessions that a good blog is rare while quality journalism is so commonplace and self-evident that it can and must always be defended.

You can use the facts Benson raised to make a number of different, and much better, stories:
  • Gillard is finally rising above NSW ALP politics to introduce economic reform of national importance;
  • Gillard is, once again, delivering on a policy that Rudd squibbed. This is a pattern that poll-jockeys cannot see, let alone evaluate, and which largely explains why Rudd-fans are kidding themselves about a restoration;
  • Chris Hartcher and Barry O'Farrell have long had a difficult relationship - O'Farrell has put Hartcher into a bastard of a portfolio, which neither man is handling with the aplomb that they brought to bear-pit tactics back in Opposition days; and most importantly
  • Abbott has nothing useful to say on this issue.
Earlier this week Abbott looked like every other pathetic opposition leader, feebly accusing the incumbent of "gold medal hypocrisy" like some time-server e.g. Eric Ripper or John Robertson. It's too late for that, really it is. First-movers on long-festering issues get accused of hypocrisy for not moving earlier, and eventually they get credit - see Howard and GST, Keating and Aborigines, Hawke and industrial relations reform, or Fraser keeping many of the Whitlam government's reforms. Only partisans think that charge has any sting; it's more than compensated for by the acknowledgment among the disinterested that a long-overdue issue is finally being addressed.

Lenore Taylor is wrong: there is no split within the Coalition because there is no policy over which to split. There is no excuse for this. Shadow Energy Minister Ian Macfarlane could and should have made life hell for his government counterpart (and his successor in the energy portfolio), Martin Ferguson. Rather than allowing Gillard to take the initiative, a bit of effort from Macfarlane might have made it a running sore for the government and proof-positive of Ferguson's intellectual and policy laziness.

Abbott tries to represent the experience of his frontbench as a positive thing. Macfarlane's inertia in taking it up to the government shows that it isn't. There should be a tangible policy direction on electricity reform - with abatement of carbon emissions as part of it - and the fact that there isn't is the reason why Tony Abbott isn't in the race.
Tony Abbott had been pondering how he could get [carbon tax] back on the agenda. Voila.
And in doing so, Simon, he sounded like a plonker, a Johnny one-note who can't change his mind and therefore can't change anyone's nor anything else either. Notice how Abbott disappears from the rest of your article after that, and rightly so. Voila, my arse.

Abbott brings nothing to the table in negotiations on electricity reform. He can't offer the states a stack of cash because, apparently, the economy is stuffed and so is the budget. He can't identify the sticks-and-carrots that he'd use to drove state governments in the direction he wants to go, because he doesn't have a clue what do to and where to go on this issue.

Talking up "the carbon tax" rebounded on him when the sky failed to fall on poor Whyalla and the debate shifted to other factors driving up electricity prices - other factors about which Abbott has nothing to say, nothing to contribute.

The decision to go light on policy development has hurt Abbott. He should be shuttling between state capitals to bring about the solution that Gillard can't deliver and making the case the he should be in the job she occupies today.

Renowned by journalists for his verbal skills, Abbott isn't capable of making the sort of substantial speech Gillard made earlier in the week - not on that issue, nor any other really. Because she's in there trying and he isn't, she's in front on an issue she has neglected and on which her long-serving minister is no help at all. 

Gillard's success in getting bills through parliament and other deals done is negated by a perception that she's a cold technocrat with no vision for the nation. The absence of a policy direction means that Abbott cannot contrast that vacuum with any vision of his own. This, combined with the pervasive and arrogant Coalition attitude that Labor is as good as defeated, means that the next election is shaping up as one of the great tortoise-and-hare contests.

Let us have no nonsense that the Coalition will have a policy all in good time, as and when blah blah. You can get an idea of policy direction without a formal policy document, which is just vapid dot-points these days anyway and hardly telling electorally. It's a year until the election is due: by this point before the 1996 election, Keating government ministers were on the back foot with thoughtful pieces emanating from the opposition which steadily built a perception that it deserved a chance at governing, at dealing with issues that had long been put on the back-burner or junked altogether.

In his second term as Opposition Leader, Howard showed that powder is not always best deployed when simply kept dry. Sometimes you've got to detonate a bit of it from time to time, to blow a minister out of their job and show the government that it might be in office but not necessarily in power. Rudd in 2007 was similar to Howard, but better at running the government ragged and daring people to imagine it as an alternative government. Abbott's popularity falls when people seriously contemplate the prospect that he might be Prime Minister, and that their vote may be implicated in getting him there. All this journo-talk that Abbott is the best-ever Opposition Leader overlooks Rudd's more considerable success, vindicated by an election victory that has eluded Abbott before and which will elude him again.

Abbott's sweep through Washington and Beijing was meant to be a triumph, but it was a fizzer. Conservative foreign policy commentators like Tom Switzer or Greg Sheridan have no case to make that Abbott, or his shadow foreign minister, would be competent at administering this country's foreign policy. The idea that they might be better than the incumbents is demonstrably false, whatever may be said of the government's policies and performance.

Rather than atone for this disaster, he made it worse. The newly elected Queensland government wasted its goodwill and momentum with a series of culture-war spats that have nothing to do with the problems they were elected to address, and which made Queenslanders question whether they were right to elect an LNP government. What does Abbott do but wade into a culture war of his own, winning no support from swinging voters but reinforcing their doubts.

Abbott is proposing to change the law of the land to favour one of his mates: all of Andrew Bolt's avid readers are Coalition voters anyway. Abbott explicitly stood with conservative churchmen at a time when Australians are ambivalent at best about the leadership of churches, and about their relationship to government policy. The conservative base are wrong to seek reassurance at a time when people are not yet won over to what Abbott is offering.

Far more substantial than any policy achievements as Opposition Leader have been Abbott's dirty-tricks campaigns against the admittedly flawed Peter Slipper and Craig Thomson. Bloggers, not MSM journalists, led the campaigns to expose Ashby and Jackson-Lawler, which means that neither the sleaze nor the perception of Coalition distance from them are assets for Abbott.

Now Abbott should be on a winner with electricity, and he isn't. No amount of PR glitter-rolling, no amount of parliamentary theatrics can give him the credibility and the gravitas he has frittered away.

It was understandable that they should give him the benefit of the doubt but now the press gallery embarrass themselves when they simply take him at face value. I talk a lot about the politico-media complex but increasingly, if nobody listens to Abbott on the big issues at the crucial moments, eventually journalists have to stop taking him seriously.

Abbott hasn't paid the price for power, the consideration about what it means to govern this country well and what you might offer toward that end. The humility of the great responsibility of office is being diminished by conceited prats like Chris Pyne who take victory at the next election as given. Oh, yes, Battlelines; more honoured in the breach than the observance in terms of actual Liberal policy directions today. Isn't electricity pricing (and associated issues such as generation and distribution) such a signal issue for Australian families today? Isn't it as important to Abbott as "the greatest moral challenge of our time" was to Rudd (and if not, what is)?

Abbott is committing the worst offence possible against the modern media - providing dull copy - without the gravitas and seriousness of considering the future of the nation and preparing for government. Ironically, any shift by the Liberal Party away from his leadership is made harder, not easier, by the absence of any thought about what a Coalition government might mean (other than winding back anything and everything Rudd and Gillard ever did and pretending the future is 2005). Abbott is to blame for this, and so are those who sold their party out to him so comprehensively, and so cheaply.