03 March 2013

What have you learned?

This morning on the ABC's Insiders, Malcolm Farr mock-lamented that Tony Abbott had a bad week but nobody reported it.

In the final week of Parliament last year, Farr mock-lamented that there were 11 pieces of legislation under discussion that went unreported because of the focus on the ancient and ultimately insubstantial allegations against Prime Minister Gillard and the AWU.

Farr, a senior reporter for News Ltd in the press gallery, could have covered those neglected issues himself but he chose not to. Farr was guilty of what he claimed to lament: the suspension of a reporter's individual curiosity in favour of The Narrative.

The Narrative is the idea that there can only be one story to be reported at any one time, and that any story that doesn't fit The Narrative doesn't get a run.

The Narrative seems to have become necessary because of the vacuum that the press gallery has created for itself, well articulated by esteemed social media presence Bushfire Bill. The Narrative has written off the Gillard government, and so any announcements, legislation or other action on its part is writ upon the sand. The Narrative holds that an Abbott government is inevitable, but they won't release their policies yet, so in the meantime they will fill their coverage with stunts and wait politely until the Coalition is good and ready.

The fallacy of this Narrative is apparent to those of us who consume a lot of media, less so to content providers. The Gillard government has not slumped into a puddle of defeatism and backbiting like truly failed governments do. Journalists regard it as an insoluble puzzle that the government is managing the best economy in the developed world while also being a failure, rather than a opposition talking-point deserving more investigation. As long as they continue drawing a paycheque, who cares?

The Abbott Opposition are playing The Narrative. Is their northern development plan, with lots of little Monartos and publicly-funded infrastructure for the benefit of large private enterprises and a non-existent mass workforce there currently unemployed, part of Coalition policy or not? For those who like that plan, the Coalition get political benefit; for those who don't it has easy deniability; and for those yet to make up their mind, the journalists can't and don't help understand what's going on.

The Narrative must be a comfort for journalists. Those who are part of setting the narrative must feel really powerful. It must be so disappointing for them to face an audience that is less passive than it was, and which challenges the idea that there is only one way you can report politics.

One example of someone who's been comfortable to the point of indolence within the Narrative is Katharine Murphy. This blog has said plenty about her over the years, almost all of it unflattering to her pretensions at being an effective journalist. This week, however, she has strained against the limits of the Narrative, and this deserves further investigation.

On Wednesday she wrote about how hard journos work to construct the Narrative (or, as she calls it, 'context'), and that we should all be grateful, even though we're not:
But I suppose what I'm saying here is there are benefits to old-fashioned "gate-keeping". Imposing judgment is a much derided custom - but sometimes readers need an over-arching framework as much as they need what the last person said.
Benefits to whom? What benefits the journalist is not necessarily what benefits the reader. Is Katharine Murphy really smart enough and hard-working enough to rise above the "gate-keeping", or "framing", as described here and here?

Seeing as Murphy is talking about the Labor leadership aspect of the Narrative, let's talk about that. Julia Gillard is not the first Prime Minister to be disliked by her backbench. Even leaders who have since passed into history as essential pointers to the present, such as Howard or Whitlam, were heartily disliked by some members of their backbench. If you're going to have gate-keeping and judgment and what have you, let's have the good stuff. Let's have it based upon facts, upon political realities and informed by what has come before.
Audiences have never been more hostile to the journalistic filter. They don't trust us.
There cannot be only one Narrative, the same from Murphy as from every other journalist in the press gallery. If 20 journalists are writing the same story, then 19 of them are redundant. The idea that the economy is both rubbish and great at the same time does not make sense.

When someone in a position of authority is telling you something that doesn't make sense, you have to focus on the people narrating to you and wonder what they're up to. Someone talking nonsense has one of two agendas: they're trying to make you laugh, or they are trying to manipulate you in some other way.

Katharine Murphy isn't funny. The Labor-doomed-Abbott-inevitable thing doesn't make sense, but it is all she and her colleagues are offering. It's not good enough, but they're not offering anything else.
They want information without the narration, the calculated ellipsis, the bias, the back story. I can understand the impulse, because there is a lot about the modern media cycle that is toxic and random, even if the intentions are to be otherwise.
Given that the Narrative is inadequate, a just-the-facts approach is a useful way of rebuilding trust. And make no mistake, rebuilding that trust is vital to Murphy's stated aim of building a community of trust with her readers.

Last October, in a debate about then-Speaker Peter Slipper, the Prime Minister made this speech about sexism and misogyny. It was electrifying and made many people see Gillard in a new light. Murphy was one of those who insisted on imposing Narrative onto that speech, and she was rightly derided. Here we are, less than six months later, and she's insisting that the gate is kept as well as ever, and that the Narrative she adheres to is the only way we can understand our national politics. Murphy has failed to understand that hers is not the judgment, but a judgment; and if you have to run down journalistic shibboleths to make that point, that isn't quite the unfathomable act of vandalism Murphy (and many others) considers it to be.
I love reporting live. I love the purity and the discipline of it - it strips the art out of journalistic practice. There's a rawness to live that feels very honest.
If you're focused on every word you need a pre-digested Narrative, you don't have time to question it. One day, the Department of Parliamentary Services will develop the ability to relay verbatim quotes just as Murphy, and other press-gallery relay-stations like Latika Bourke do today. Chances are the broadcast media will fall about in shock when that happens, if they are run by the same sorts of dills who run those organisations today.
Federal Labor is busy right now fashioning its own peculiar hell. This is no media fiction - but the rolling news cycle is itself a factor in the current leadership woes. The cycle cheerfully amplifies dysfunction. The cycle is relentless and it has no dog in the race except the next update.
The same dogs that have been barking for three years are barking again. Rudd didn't stand against Gillard in June 2010, nor did he do so after the election. He ran against her last February and got slaughtered. There is no story in continuing to insist that a dead challenge is alive, just as the Howard- Costello thing was an extended confidence trick against the public by the journosphere. The story cannot disappear simply by being bullshit, because an explanation would be required and that would reveal those who build and maintain The Narrative as bullshitters occupying jobs that create no value.

Yes, that's my opinion - but if yours is different, there is no proof that your opinion on this matter is any better informed than mine.

In an attempt to be constructive, I went to the Parliament House website and noticed that the NDIS was under debate in a Senate committee. I sent Murphy a suggestion about the issue thus:

Murphy wasn't obliged to take up my suggestion, of course, and she was too busy replying to congratulatory tweets to acknowledge mine. Perhaps Senate committees are less than scintillating, but how scintillating could it be listening to Joel Fitzgibbon whinge? Then again, by taking up my suggestion (or another made to her by someone else) she would have spared herself the embarrassment of having written this tendentious crap.

It's not well written and the logic of the Hollywood-Canberra leap is weak. It is, however, sort of related to politics, and Murphy gets paid to write about politics, so the people to whom Murphy submitted that article decided it was good enough for the likes of us. This is another example of the sort of cack-handed value judgment that makes close and regular readers of Australian broadcast media refuse to accept gate-keeper Narrative judgments by Katharine Murphy and her ilk.

If she continued down the same path the following day I would have bagged her as I usually do, but this was a genuine surprise.
Do we really want a repeat of the 2010 federal election campaign? Does politics want a repeat of that campaign?
Depends who you mean by 'politics', really.

Journalists like having information spoon-fed to them. Simple, inverted-pyramid press releases; colourful backdrops; wacky actions and/or phrases a bonus. The 2010 election campaign was not a departure from politico-media trends over recent years but a perfection of them. When Katharine Murphy simply reports what was said and done at stage-managed events, and applies the predictable Narrative to it, then she she is helping - to use her own words - "play voters for mugs".

It is not possible to talk about politics without also talking about how the media covers it. Katharine Murphy reports the way she does not because she's a fearless, intrepid reporter, but because people within the government and other parties want her to react exactly as she does.
Dear politics. Please don't play us for mugs.
The trouble with that defiant-sounding assertion is, if 'politics' does exactly that, Murphy will have no choice but to do exactly what she did last time - namely, play along with 'politics' and treat us all like mugs. She might grumble a bit in the process but she will not, cannot, push back or depart from it. When you realise that the people she airily dismisses as 'politics' are people known to her personally, people she speaks to in the course of her day; when she broadcasts her findings, which are little different to those of others in the press gallery, she is talking at us and not to us. Katharine Murphy has no right to address 'politics' in the third person: she is 'politics' too.

What was different about the 2010 election was the emergence of specialist media (e.g. in ICT) and social media. Social media kept, and keeps, journalists honest in a way that the MEAA, Media Watch and other feeble mechanisms of a shrinking industry could never do and will never do. It is a lie that journos keep journos honest.

Broadcast media coverage of the 2010 election was dire. A few senior journalists, like Murphy, admitted as much but just couldn't snap themselves out of it. Walkleys were bestowed rather than being cancelled, hurled or inserted. The criticism by Greg ("Grog's Gamut") Jericho cut through like no mealy-mouthed self-referential journosphere nonsense ever could: we're here for the policies, you've got access to the policies, so give us policies and do the other stuff in your own time.

After journos got over themselves there was some grumbling that Jericho might have a point. The 2010 election campaign did not end with the re-election of the Gillard government because Abbott threw an extended tantrum like the US Republicans. The press gallery was happy to treat every day as though the election campaign never ended, with a stunt from Abbott and regular polls and a government that refused to play along with The Narrative.

Recently former Sunday Age editor Gay Alcorn claimed that she and other journalists were "duly chastened" after that election, but people who are truly chastened actually change their minds and behaviours. I dealt with that piece here. The solution she calls for has already been done by AusVotes 2013, leaving the press gallery to wallow in polls and what Twitter calls #leadershit (i.e. deliberately overstating Kevin Rudd's ability to become Prime Minister again because they pretty much missed his departure three years ago).

So Labor is upset about the polls while the Libs are exultant. There is more to the government of this country than that, more to politics than that, despite Katharine Murphy's insistence that There Can Be Only One Narrative, and that if she wants to write tendentious crap within that Narrative then that's all you deserve, dear reader. Instead of complaining that 'politics' could be better, why not show us how 'journalism' could rise above it (rather than insisting, unconvincingly, that it does so).

Compare Murphy's and Farr's work with this. The Labor-doomed-Abbott-inevitable Narrative is there but it's in deep background, like Jane Austen's references to the Napoleonic Wars. It's policy-focused but not dull like an academic/wonky journal paper. Journalists seriously believe that their servings of stale cliche soup are actually zippy and engaging, bless 'em. If Farr and Murphy and other press gallery journalists dared depart from The Narrative more than they do, they would be more engaging and informing than they are. Any grumbling they might do about 'politics' would have more purchase than it does.

If I were Malcolm Farr's employer I would ask him to explain why he decided that eleven key pieces of legislation were overlooked because of an exclusive focus on a non-story in the '90s. When it came to his non-reporting of Abbott falling over, physically and politically, I would be asking him to show cause why he should remain employed at all. But I'm not his employer; his employer is as guilty of Narrative building and maintenance as anyone, and seems happy enough to keep Farr doing what he does. It's disappointing that he and Murphy are free-spirited enough to grumble a bit about the Narrative but not enough to actually change how and on what they report. Murphy is soon to get herself a new employer, and will she use that to break free of the Narrative? Will she bollocks.

*  *  *

I've been running this blog for almost seven years. I have despaired that so little has changed in the broadcast media: that the PM's speech to the National Press Club was reduced to the election date and glasses, that The Situation does the same old stunts and doesn't get called out or even questioned, that journalists have the hide to claim that social media can only ever be inferior to their own offerings. This isn't the end of this blog but I doubt I will have much to say (that I haven't said before) between now and the Budget in May - unless provoked. You'll be seeing more of my work on other sites, linked from here.

My career outside of writing about politics/media has taken off sharply and, potentially, powerfully; other parts of my non-blog (meta-blog?) life are crowding this out too. Even so, I repeat: this is not the end of the Politically Homeless blog. There is plenty of powder and it is being kept very dry, and planning is underway to deploy it most appropriately (and in the same "good time" that Abbott is using for his policy releases).

I still think that Julia Gillard will be Prime Minister this time next year, and that Tony Abbott will not be a viable political force at that point.

Having said that, if you're the sort of person who's pleased about the prospect of this blog coming to an end, you should know that it will pop back up when you might least expect or appreciate it. If you're a valued reader and contributor you can take comfort from the preceding sentence. There's something for everyone here at Politically homeless - but you knew that already.


  1. Andrew,

    I have always enjoyed this blog. I am hoping it isn't too long between drinks but wish you every success for your other endeavours.

  2. Continue to keep the bastards honest Andrew, you are a loud voice in a wilderness of journalistic ugliness.
    Write on, yes write on.

  3. Andrew I may not always share your political ideals but to read your thought on politics is a relief from the crap that is out there from the major media organisations including the ABC. I do not think journalism has been this discredited at anytime in my life time and the future will show unless these organisation change no one will buy the rubbish that is published or presented.

  4. Katharine,

    Have I got it right, that you have been signed up by The Guardian? Lots and lots of us will be looking to The Guardian for independent journalism that's a change from the uniform pap of the embedded media. Please don't let us down.


    Glad to hear you won't be a total stranger, even as your 'other life' takes away from your time to blog. Will look forward to reading your future pieces as much as I've enjoyed this one and your many previous.

  5. Andrew
    I have never commented on your site but I have lurked for years.
    I hope you continue as you have insights that I never think of.
    All the best in whatever you decide and you are always welcome over at
    <a href="http://pbxmastragics.com/</a>…

    1. I have only commented a few times over the years but like j6p I've been a lurker that really enjoys your writings, analysis and insight. And hope to be reading more from you one day again soon.


  6. Andrew, thankyou for the time you have taken to write what many of us think but cannot articulate, will be looking out for your next article whenever and where ever it appears.
    Kind regards Sandy

  7. Thank you Andrew, I've enjoyed every one of your pieces as well as sharing them with my friends. Good luck in what you're doing and I also look forward to seeing Julia Gillard as PM this time next year.

  8. So glad this is not the end - and glad for you of course - but will miss your refreshing and pointed regular contributions.

  9. The Prime Minister speaking at UWS just now certainly gives the lie to the narrative of her as loser we were all fed on Insiders today. She looks and sounds every inch a winner to me. Surely the reality of a sound economy, grounded government and our international reputation is bound to win out in the coming months over Murdoch's miserable media message and Abbott's desperate declaiming of all his good intentions. We all know where those are bound to lead.

  10. Andrew,

    Congratulations on the exciting career developments - I wish you all the best with, and much satisfaction from, them.

    Please please keep writing from time to time - somewhere (and tell us where) - you are one of the few dispassionate, rational voices around, and thus to be cherished.

  11. Laura is a sadly rare breed but one who will survive the collapse of the self-indulgent MSM approach to politics.

    Another good post as always, looking forward to seeing more of your work this year. You'll be linking to your posts on twitter etc i assume?

  12. Good to have you back Andrew, was wondering over at The Pub where you had gone. Some even thought you had been suspiciously 'silenced'

  13. You know, it's a pity. Not just that we will be reading less from you from here on but it's a pity that I only discovered your blog about two - three months ago. It got to the stage where I would check your blog every day and became disappointed if there was no new offering. So, I was very much saddened to read you are tapering off so soon after discovering you. Keep that powder dry. I can't wait for the explosion, whenever that may be. Cheers, Mal

  14. Thanks Andrew for always providing a thoughtful piece and a good read. Much appreciated.

  15. dear andrew thank you for your wrting and thoughts when days where dark and full or worry about our future i would come here and re read i always go away feeling confident that julia will stll be our pm at years end.
    thank you
    for doing what you do so well

  16. Good luck with your new adventures. I do so enjoy this blog and will look here for the links.

    I wonder if Malcolm Farr realised how fatuous he was this morning on Insiders.

    After naming 4 issues that were bad for the Libs, then blamed the readers/punters that they didn't see all the chaos that HE and HIS paper never highlighted, never headlined and whipped out of the news quick smart.
    Trouble is Malcolm Farr, the previous readers of your news papers have realised your caper and have fled to other sources.

  17. I love your stuff and will be waiting for whatever happens next. Best wishes for you new endeavour.

  18. Bushfire Bill3/3/13 11:15 pm

    Good luck mate, we'll miss our twice-weekly dose.

    At least try to make it monthly!



  19. I, for one will miss you during your sabbatical. Whilst we are all getting a bit anxious about the outcome in September, there are only a few (it appears) who are able to communicate the political situation as it is. It is NOT a narrative - it is a fluid set of circumstances that are going to affect our lives forever. I think this election is possibly one of the most important. The stark differences (yes, the media try to paint it as two very similar sides)between what will happen post election is frightening. What appears to be a total giving away of any government-run enterprises will have devastating effects on employment, provision of services etc. Gee I hope you come back soon and spread the word.

  20. New narrative...

    Post Script: Yes, there is some breaking news… Tony Abbott has lunch at News Ltd HQ every week. Incredulous I asked the person to repeat it.

    “EVERY week, in private,” to discuss the latest “Get Gillard” strategies. No wonder there’s such a seamless segue between what News writes and what Abbott parrots. He’s dealing with the enemy. They’re writing the script for him.


    1. I saw that, great work by the Pub team. News have cultivated Abbott since he was a student. He's the nearest thing our politics has to a Manchurian candidate.

  21. another element of the narrative that's too much for editors to handle is that democracy can function effectively outside the accepted norm of a parliamentary majority.

    That a party can still govern despite huge practical disadvantages, install difficult, complex legislation and manage all this against the odds.

    can you imagine!

  22. Excellent yarn, sorry, blog. The sad fact is we as a nation are now talking constantly about journos, many do take pride in being the least admired/trusted profession.
    Lazy, copy and paste journalism is here to stay and the Murdochs of this world will maintain control.
    Australia's National Broadcaster has been infiltrated, conspiracies prevail, very sad, perhaps it is to late to turn it around.
    I have the power of ONE vote and intend not to waste it, even my local radio station announcer has suggested people should "vote informal and they might go away".
    I love my wonderful country, Australia and believe I should support it in every way.

    1. What do we need to make radio dickheads go away?

    2. Litigation and creative pranks......

      I want a Jon Stewart type of show please especially this year...

      Speaking of media .......

      I see that Murdoch is visiting our shores next month for an I.p.a. dinner

      Interesting to say the least

      Heres a glass raised to you and your successful career...clink

      Thanks for the blog much appreciated

      Australians are bloody amazing!!

  23. Thanks for the blog. it has been a great read.

  24. Best wishes Andrew, thanks for all the fish.

  25. great article thank you

  26. Murphy is up there with the best for ignoring the reality for the sake of the Narrative. Tony Abbott spins a good yarn and that's way more important than what he does or how he acts (take the supposed New, Nice, Tony's reaction to Morrison's nasty efforts, for example)

    The jaw dropping final plea in that "Dear Politics" article: "keep it simple" said it all, really. Silly me, thinking the role of a political journalist was to analyse the the complexities for us mugs

  27. Thanks Andrew. I look forward to your assessment of the campaign later in the year. Best of luck in your other endevours.

  28. How are we meant to get through this long pre-election period without your caustic observations Andrew?

    I'm pleased that you're busy in your non-blog life, and the amount of effort you obviously put into your posts has always impressed me greatly, so I can see that it would be hard to keep up. Anyway, thanks for the blog, and don't spend too long away – we need you.

    I've tried to avoid Murphy's pieces for some time, but I wonder if she will or can change for the grauniad (if that is indeed where she is off to).

  29. Disappointed that we will not have your perspicacious comments so often but good luck with you expanding other life.

  30. Sort of related: yesterday morning on Insiders on ABC Newsradio I heard them lament that last week the coalistion managed 4 signigicant gaffes, but none were reported. Had it been the government, they said, it would have made headlines.
    Then the decided this was actually the government's fault! Nowhere did the clowns make the slightest acknowledgement that it might have been the media failing to report what's actually happening instead of "the narrative", that they make up! Breathtaking...

  31. Andrew, please run for PM or do something that will shape this country of ours. Your talents are much needed at this time in history...


  32. Andrew - In spite of the fact that quite recently you likened me to Katharine Hepburn (certainly not because of her looks or talent but because you thought my spats on Twitter with the Melon @watermelon_man rather like hers with Spencer Tracy) you still have my devoted attention. Of COURSE your career is taking off again to new, dizzying heights. But if I don't find a piece of yours to read too far into the future, I shall come and find you and bring you back down to earth with an unladylike thud. Thank you for all you have taught me.

  33. Andrew - have been mainly critical when posting here, always appreciated your replies. For good or ill I felt antidote was needed to the tendentious luvvie adulation being outpoured in comments.

    The very best wishes for your future endeavours, and keep your perspective, it is so valuable in this day and age.

    Coincidentally (or not) this column of yours dissecting the groupthink really floated my boat. You have probably read it - but for me only recently - Niki Savva's "Go Greek" where she merrily reveals how the Canberra press gallery holds the politicians, of any persuasion, hostage
    and how they go about putting the gun to their heads. Even boasts how she and 3 others exploited their power to force Mick Young to resign and even seems to profess herself surprised that Mick, who had regarded her as a friend, never spoke to her again. Unreal..

    For Mick, you can read any government minister of either political persuasion at the mercy of journos exercising power without reponsibility. The salient point being öf.either.persuasion.

    Gotcha journalism all started in my day in the '60s when Laurie Oakes first went to Canberra. We were all revolutionaries then. When realised the way it had gone, I got out of both journalism and politics. But it is the main reason I like your blog.

    So, the best of luck, Andrew, and keep on keeping on.

    1. bb, your input has kept me honest. Thank you, and regardless of the valedictory tone of some of the replies above I will be around.

  34. Martin Spalding5/3/13 7:56 am

    Andrew, thanks for your scintillating posts, mixing devastating facts with a rapier wit and v healthy skepticism. I think some will even come to be seen as prescient in this election year. Best of luck in the new endeavours - I will be sure to seek them out.

  35. You're a diamond in the rough Andrew.

    Looking forward to your pieces in the future, but thanks for all your insightful pieces to date.

  36. Just my luck to discover you a month or two before you wind things down! Hope everything goes well and you can manage to fit in the occasional blog for us between now and the election.

  37. Good luck, mate. We need more voices like yours.

  38. Another great read. Am so glad to hear that it's au revoir and not goodbye, we need some kidney function to sustain us. Enjoy the greener pastures

  39. There"s a niche that needs to be filled and this blog has demonstrated that quite well!

    A thoughtful libertarian analysis with wit.

    I don"t like using right-wing as it doesn't really exist in today"s political context so that term is non-existent

    Those dickheads end up employed as warm up guys for television shows, The comedy festival Andrew....

    Their in their thirties and are emotionally stunted adults that have issues...don't worry about it...they drift off there eventually

  40. Andrew I hope your right about Julia and Tony, this time next year.

    The narrative will not allow it though!!