28 February 2014

How to report on politics

News organisations used to advertise their services on media other than their own in the following basic way: you need to know what's going on, but you're too busy to do the spadework yourself. We here at [insert news outlet name] employ hundreds of journalists to find out and report back to you. Cut to pics of journalists standing outside Parliament House, celebrities being photographed on a red carpet, sportspeople running around, shots of foreign locations and celebrities. Reiterate that [insert news outlet name] is the only news outlet that you need. Close and fade by reinforcing the brand.

Today, no news outlet provides the full scope of what's going on. Yeah yeah, I'm sure they have their reasons and thought they were clever in trimming costs, and you could spend all day making excuses for them I suppose. Those who continue to shill for those organisations insist they're turning the corner to a bright new future, but when you're in a downward spiral you're always turning the corner, and increasingly doing so in a way that appeals to adrenaline junkies with no sense of perspective. For the majority of us who aren't journalists, the fact remains that if you need to know what's going on you have to hunt for it far beyond [insert news outlet name].

Journalists from still-large and once-proud media organisations insist that only they can provide that combination conducive to consumer trust that comes from both the busywork of journalist activity and the stolidity of reputation, fact-checking, and a well-staffed pool of lawyers. Self-deception is always sad and an appreciation of this must temper the brittle assertiveness with which this self-evident truth simple fact hollow bullshit plea is made.

When someone like Gay Alcorn writes something like this, I accept that she has a genuine and general concern for the state of the polity in this country. Pretty much everything Jonathan Green writes is in a similar vein, and there are others, but here I'll quote Alcorn and probably make her feel that she's carrying the can for others, when that isn't the intention here. When you reach such a state of despair, the question you have to ask is: what can you do? To answer that question in the negative is to invite further despair.

The aspect of our political system which is most deserving of disappointment/ anger/ calm but firm corrective measures is the media, and the way it reports politics. Fix that, and other aspects of our political malaise (parties' poor selection of candidates and leaders, and the statements they make, and the things they do) will either fix themselves or be much diminished. The media, and the way it reports politics, is the very area over which Alcorn has the greatest influence, because it is also that area where Alcorn has the most experience.

Because it is also that area where Alcorn has the most experience it is the area she is most reluctant to criticise, after decades of friendships and career mentors and more than a little (I suggest) of the adrenaline-junkie aspect of having been in an old-style newsroom. Lacking that experience myself I scorn it for its sheer lack of helpfulness in the current debate and how it gets in the way of decisions that have to be made about the way we relate to information and our system of politics.

What I won't do is pretend that such a sentimental approach is even a useful way of thinking about popular disengagement from the political system - and from the traditional media - and that it must be respected and left in place while the search for answers dances around it. That sentiment is not the spur for the solution, it is the problem.
A few days ago, columnist Andrew Bolt was furious about the abuse of Tony Abbott ... Julia Gillard was subjected to demeaning, sexist, brutal abuse for much of her prime ministership ... Bolt wasn't calling for civility in politics generally, or warning about the dangers of abuse.
No he wasn't, and nobody expected any better from such a man - unless you overestimate the importance of his professional background. Bolt was, as was Alcorn, a journalist from The Age who was not taught to write about how outraged they were but to collect facts about what the event was - and that "facts" went beyond mere statements. If Bolt sells articles praising Tony Abbott, and Clementine Ford sells T-shirts saying "Fuck Tony Abbott", these are equally valid statements/ selling points, with a receptive public for each. If no fact-check is possible, two conclusions may be drawn: there is no story, or access to the facts is being covered up and the story should focus on that.
That's where we are in Australian politics. Vilification and scorn. Little common ground, even about the basic facts of difficult issues.
Of course, because of the nature of he-said-she-said quote-alone political journalism. The fact that a politician has said something assumes more significance than it has. Political journalism should check what is said against what is done. If a politician denies the science behind climate change should be a basis for government policy decisions on, say, farm assistance, journalists should not merely transcribe and transmit but ask why. The story is in the conflict between the politician's words and the facts of the matter, not in one set of words against another.

Vilification and scorn is where we're at in Australian politics because vilification and scorn are what's in the quotes, and in the background briefings received but not transmitted by the press gallery.
Zero allowance for error or human frailty.
With Reza Berati dead, and Scott Morrison and Angus Campbell ready to subject others to the same fate by omission or commission, how much "frailty" or latitude do you want? Did Senator Nash commit an error by letting Furnival run her agenda, and does/can criticism of her constitute only "vilification and scorn"?
A race to the bottom? We have reached the bottom and it's hard to see where we go from here.
No it isn't. News from Ukraine, Egypt and Syria show what systematic political failure looks like. The media in each of those countries just takes ministers at their word, too; they at least have the excuse of dreading a fate worse than not being able to meet a mortgage in Manuka. The question is how far you want to go down that road, and whether fact-free he-said-she-said empty journalism gets you closer to those abysses.
Most Australians, understandably, have turned off. A quarter of young people failed to enrol to vote before the September election. A major Scanlon Foundation study released last year found a collapse in public trust in government - in 2009, 48 per cent of those polled thought Canberra could be trusted "almost always" or "most of the time". By last year, it was 27 per cent. An Essential Media report in 2012 also noted trust in government declining, and found something else. Faith in institutions such as the High Court and the Reserve Bank, as well as businesses and trade unions, is sliding.
Do Fairfax mastheads count as "public institutions", even though they are assets of a private company? I think they can and should have been included in Alcorn's list of declining institutions, and the degree to which newspaper-reading is as unusual an activity among young people as, say, crocheting. Journalists shrug and say that they are merely passing on what is said; but even if that was true, it clearly isn't working for them or arresting the slide in civic engagement. Journalists apply their hype and cliches, assuming This Is What Sells or This Is What Gets The Punters In; but they're wrong about that too, they obviously have no clue about a central assumption of their very occupation.
And so we turn inwards. The minority of Australians who are interested in politics for the most part seem to be talking among their own kind ...
When was the golden age of civic engagement, from which we have declined (nay, fallen)? World War I conscription, where the protagonists are now as silent as the soldiers they fought over? How jolly, or even gentlemanly, was the Labor split in the 1950s?

My earliest memories of politics was in 1975; I was in primary school, but I remember heated arguments and sly digs among the adults in my life. 1975 was when Fairfax mastheads were in their pomp and well before social media. Was Australian politics really less heated then than it is now? For years after he left office, on a street in central Sydney, there was graffiti referring to former PM Malcolm Fraser that replaced the 's' in his surname with a swastika: vilification and scorn to be sure, and my Twitter app doesn't even have a swastika key.

See if you can find a swastika on this blog, go on; bet you I could find one in The Sunday Age. Alcorn has made the sort of generalisation with which everyone agrees until they think about it.
Tony Abbott said his mission after the last election was to "restore trust" in government after three years of Labor leadership treachery and policy missteps. But it's too late, Tony.
Tony Abbott has said a great many things that are bullshit, and journalists should have called him on it more often that they did and do. This business about "too late" implies that we are going to have a bit of accountability and that nobody is better placed to do that than the press gallery; but that's bullshit too. The press gallery only call events "predictable" after they have happened, rather than before. Alcorn should call it and work to fix it, but too many toes to tread on.
Trust has gone and you [Abbott] played a fair part in its destruction.
Indeed he did. But simply transcribing and broadcasting Abbott's claim that "this is a bad government" did that. It would have been fair to question whether or not Abbott might provide a genuinely superior alternative to the previous government, for all its flaws. Mark Latham criticised the Howard government too, but with two important differences:

  • In 2004 the press gallery challenged Latham to say how Australia would not just be different, but better, with him as PM. In 2013 they took Abbott at his word and waved him through.
  • Latham shares most of Abbott's weaknesses but offered more of his strengths.

It should have been possible for people like Alcorn to show the way rather than merely lament its loss - shit, any old blogger can do that.
Trust is essential in a democracy. Politicians will spin, put the best gloss on things, and even deceive at times. But it's gone beyond that in the past few years - the very basis of our system seems to depend on deliberately misleading the public.
The very basis of whose system? We pay journalists to de-spin and un-gloss, and if they don't then we stop paying them in both money and attention.
When Abbott declined to spend $25 million as part of a co-investment in fruit processor SPC Ardmona last month, the main reason given was that conditions and allowances for its workers were "way in excess of the award". That wasn't true, meaning the only conclusion to be drawn was that it was a false claim designed to bolster the government's desire for industrial relations changes.

It was a fellow Liberal MP, Sharman Stone, who said the Prime Minister had lied. "What they said was, 'We're not going to help because it is the amazing wages and conditions that have knocked this company for six', and that is just wrong," she said.
Interesting how Stone apparently referred to Abbott with the royal plural, eh?

What happened was that some people - whether or not employed as journalists - actually checked the provisions of the agreement (not an award - yes there's a difference), and compared them against the PM's words. That happened a day or so before Stone's observations. Those journalists who reported Stone as 'off message' or 'disgruntled' missed the story, and the point, whatever their fealty to journalistic tradition.

Those reports made it hard to determine whether or not we have a Prime Minister who can be trusted on important matters, as nuance and complexity can all simply be written off as undifferentiated argy-bargy.
If politicians mislead, not occasionally but routinely, people harden. They assume the worst. Even when someone is trying to level with them about why a tough decision is made, they won't believe it.
My assumptions are my business. Good reporting provides the basis against which assumptions can be tested. Sloppy reporting panders or confuses, and isn't a good basis for anything - including the job security of the journalist.
Similarly, what was most offensive about Immigration Minister Scott Morrison's news conference last week announcing that asylum seeker Reza Berati had been killed during a riot on Manus Island was that before any details were clear, his first instinct was to all but blame the dead man for his fate. "People decided to protest in a very violent way and place themselves at great risk," he said. Several days later, the minister corrected key errors, but to use a man's death to twist the knife into asylum seekers at such a time was cruel politics.
And the fact that nobody in that press conference called him on it was dumb, worthless journalism.
Labor has played its part in this, too. Its support for former MP Craig Thomson in the last Parliament ...
And had Labor treated Craig Thomson any differently, would Reza Berati be alive today? Would Morrison? No, the very suggestion, the very linkage here, is monstrous. What Alcorn is striving for here is the pose of balance, the idea that she sees all but is above it, the voice from nowhere.

Firstly, it's disgusting in itself.

Secondly this is what's called a tactical feint. This is what politicians do: when they get caught in a position that's embarrassing and can't be resolved quickly, they change the subject. Alcorn has no excuse not to be awake to this, no excuse not to stay away from a matter that is still before the courts, and about which little new or insightful might be said. Let Murdoch papers pile on Thomson; whenever Fairfax follow one of those Holt St pogroms they always look stupid and ninth-rate.
... the now convicted fraudster ...
Thomson has been committed for trial by a magistrate. The distinction is a technical one, but it matters and it is stunning that an experienced journalist didn't know and couldn't be arsed.
But blaming all job losses on the government is as misleading as blaming the unions.
Do go on - no, really, that's where the stories are, not in the back-and-forth between the PM and the Opposition Leader.
It has been said that we're in the era of post-truth politics, when facts don't matter, when evidence doesn't matter.
Fuck everyone who says that. Facts are never futile; the more a journalist has, the more attention they should be paid. Journalists have chosen to quote what was said and leave it at that, floundering or bloviating or otherwise embarrassing themselves while we have to dig and scrounge for facts against which to measure this slippery government.
But without these things, there can be no trust at all, no fragile but essential compact between citizens and their government that respect is mutual.
Without these things there is no role for a journalist. They are simply redundant, and increasingly their employers recognise them as such. Journalists who bring the evidence create their own place, a highly valued one. Facts are never futile: fragile and essential, like a newspaper used to be.
If trust goes, where does it lead us? To exactly where we are.
I know that I'm doing what I can, but much of what I'm doing you can see here. If you have more experience in media than I do you could do more to fix it. A repaired media would stop reporting gibbering stooges, who would lose currency with their parties for their media-relations skills. Trust, elevated debate and good things generally in politics start with up-ending the media. Alcorn couldn't go there, but she's happy to go where we are - which might be why she's so disdainful of facts.

Update 4 March: Thomson was convicted, in a Magistrate's Court.


  1. You've said it before and you're saying it again but it is worth repeating.
    All I'd like to see is journalists calling bullshit when they see it. Abbott is notable insofar as he cannot cope with it when someones does cry bullshit and challenge his assertions (think lateline and the meeting with George Pell). It's what makes a show like 'the Daily Show' so compelling - a program dedicated to refuting so much crap. Newspapers here could do it too - albeit without the humour - but choose not to. -sigh-

    1. I think I'm starting to refine my message a bit, replacing the blunderbuss with the sniper rifle to a greater extent. You're right about 'The Daily Show'

  2. OK that's scary.
    Somebody put Alcorn's article up on our Facebook several hours ago and altho' I like the person who did so I wrote this in response:
    "Hmm, pot and kettle? Lets share the blame around where it fits. I strongly distrust journalists employed by Murdoch and Fairfax who fail to communicate the truth and blame, excuse themselves and blame easy targets like pollies. Just look at the spin of the Daily Telegraph during the election and how Fairfax has joined in climate change denial".

    I shall now read your effort to see how it differs.
    I'm sure it will be better.


  3. Sigh. So true.

    The epitomy, in recent weeks, of the parlous state of our media was a few weeks ago, watching the coverage given (in print and on TV) to the "oncer" and "cocky" exchange between Shorten and Abbott. FFS.

    It beggars belief that print media, like Fairfax, insist that the dumbing down of content is aimed at delivering "what people want". Chicken and egg anyone? HOW, oh how, do they stick with this strategy in the fast of the huge decline in readership (roughly 20% in the last 12 months). Why do they blame the digital age, when thousands have abandoned them because of content, not digital convenience?

    Cost cutting aside, sheer laziness and lack of creativity is evident. Commentators comprise the same old hacks, spewing the same old bile.....while so much young talent, in many areas, is available to them!

    When they do break a good story, they spend weeks crowing about it....this is how far removed they are from their original raison d'etre!

    So many, including me, are grateful for social media, which can cherry pick excellence and present it for readers. For all its flaws, we would be lost without it.

    Many of us find it hard to attack an industry which employs our friends. But it is even harder to watch the denigration of debate and its impact on our polity. So attack we will, just as we will attempt to cut through the crap to presents FACTS,to encourage real DEBATE and critical thinking.

    1. Worst of all, they are learning nothing. They bring nothing, with all their experience, to developing something good but less chaotic.

      You only get real debate when there's the prospect of real change as a result. In Sydney in particular, when you go to talkfests there is always an air that the fix is in before it even starts.

  4. Bravo Andrew.

    I find it enlivening that some important information about the operation of the Manus detention centre and the recent blood shed, has come from social media.

    Asher Wolf (nom de plume) and Tara Moss have both brought to light information which have been taken up by the mainstream media.

    Meanwhile important questions about the mayhem at the Manus camp fail to be asked.

    One would have expected that a journalist would have asked about the condition of the injured asylum seekers and the exact nature of those injuries.

    Surely too the media should have been asking questions about the description provided by interpreter Azita Bokan that she saw a victim with such severe head injuries that his skull was completely crushed.

  5. One journalist who stands out is Oliver Laughland from the Guardian.

    In today's on-line edition he has provided the first video of the aftermath of the Manus mayhem which shows the injured being brought to makeshift emergency.

  6. Further to above Oliver Laughland is a stand-out because he is an old-fashioned gatherer of facts and evidence.

    What is wrong with journalists these days that they seem to have lost their nose for a story? Why are some of them doing the job?

  7. Andrew this article leaves me despondent as what can the average Joe blow do about the journalism we being delivered with not only from printed journalists but I would some in the ABC and the conversation often if you read Michelle Gratten we may as well be reading the press release that was circulated by the press secretary of a minister.
    The Drum on ABC is not worth a tinkers curse it is full of waffle.
    I have stopped purchasing any news papers because I do not need journalists opinion rather than information.
    Please Andrew keep up your work because I find real value in reading your articles.

  8. Again further to above ...
    You have got me going this morn Andrew.
    The question about the injuries incurred would shed light on the types of weapons used and the savagery of those attacks. It would illuminate too to see a corresponding list of injuries to security staff. If there were none then that piece of information is useful also.
    Of course the government would deflect such questioning but that does not mean it should stop.
    And it is obvious to me that when Reza Barati's body is returned to his family, the nature of his injuries will be clear.
    So far we have heard that he suffered multiple head injuries but refugee advocates are also claiming that his throat was cut.
    It is important we know what has happened and we rely on journalists to make sure we know.

    1. That it takes Tara Moss to expose the truth is unbelievable. ..

  9. There is a workplace culture that values being 'nice' and everyone getting along above all else. Asking hard questions, challenging the status quo, rocking the boat, is strongly discouraged. And I'm talking about a media organisation! And this in an economy and an industry where there are few job alternatives. No wonder real journalism is in decline.

    1. Most journalism involves a trade-off between getting access and investigation. Press gallery journalism is all about access, no investigation.

      Journalism does itself no favours, with the insistence that a) the only valid criticism of journalists comes from other journalists, and b) journalists never criticise one another. This is the ailment that Alcorn has in spades, and the fact that she can't snap out of it means she can't help fix what's wrong with journalism.

    2. I don't agree Andrew. Bolt is always sounding off against Fairfax and the ABC. In turn he is roundly criticised by colleagues in the trade.

      I would suggest that there is a tribal war going on between News Corp scribblers and the others.

    3. I agree Andrew and journalists of Alcorn's experience and seniority have little excuse. The trouble is that the problem is only going to get worse because younger journalists coming through are actually being trained on the job to maintain the status quo.

    4. Anonymous, Bolt is sounding off to the point where he has little to add on the subject, and it is part of a wider Murdoch jihad against those two organisations. There is at best a bit of feeble tu quoque, and occasionally a thundering defence of the ABC's bushfire alerts, but nothing more. Bolt is not "roundly criticised", or even squarely criticised, but accepted for who and what he is.

      Does anyone believe the quality of journalism will improve if Murdoch triumphs, or if he fails?

    5. Bolt was sued in a court of law and lost.
      His credibility was further diminished when they tried to set up M.T.R in Melbourne and it failed.

      Melbourne has a good b.s detector and are pretty good at responding to quality journalism and diversity.

      Morry Schwartz has just opened a new Saturday paper here.

      Go and read it Andrew!!

    6. Bolt...

      His opinions are from The University of bumcrack..


      By the way in this area of Marriage Equality..Mr Bolt's sister also happens to be gay.

      Google her Crikey article and see her response about the governments stance on Marriage Equality.

  10. "Facts are never futile: fragile and essential"

  11. VoterBentleigh2/3/14 8:50 am

    I agree with every paragraph you have written.

    The media still fail to scrutinise the Abbott Coalition or explain to the public how good government should operate. When I read or watch some commentary on politics, I learn only about how the journalist thinks, rather than gain any insight into the issue.

    Abbott claims that the Furnival affair is finished, but Nash and Dutton were opposed to the health star rating website from the start, so the "not ready" explanation is untrue. The media have failed to challenge Abbott on whether the health star rating will ever appear.

    Lenore Taylor intimated in 'The Guardian' that a backlog of correspondence is waiting to be signed off in the Prime Minister's Office. Ministerial correspondence is given high priority in the public service. However, depending upon the Minister and his Office, the correspondence may sit in the Minister's Office for weeks or longer before it is signed off. An efficient office would ensure that the correspondence is signed off quickly. However, if the Minister or the Minister's office do not consider the matter of much importance or they do not want a particular issue to go anywhere, they will simply sit on it. The media should be asking questions.

    In Question Time, Plibersek asked the PM about a cut to a health program given that the Coalition promised no cuts to health. Despite having been a health minister himself, Abbott was unable to answer (compare that with Gillard) and said that he would check and respond "if there is anything to say" (!) . Following the televised segment of QT, he responded by claiming the program had been a commitment by the previous government and he was only obliged to honour Coalition promises. It was not clear from the answer whether the program had already been budgeted by the health department and accepted as a committed program by the states. Again, the media should be asking questions.

  12. Mr Denmore has a TED talk link up at his site which directly addresses the topic of 'duty of care' of media to its consumers. Within a minute or so it makes the point that in the UK consumers of tabloid media are twice as likely to be disillusioned about politicians than others who do not read tabloids.
    So what attitude does this does this Age article promulgate?


  13. To understand, journalism, and to stop expecting anything beyond the superficial from it, I would recomment this wonderful article from 1976 from Alexander Cockburn, (Its published in Corrupotions of Empire (Verso books, 1987?) How to Be a Foreign Correspondent.. It begins with an analysis of the "Big Foot" CL Sulzberger. Cockburn sums up the approach: THE FIRST LAW OF ALL JOURNALISM, WHICH IS TO CONFIRM EXISTING PREJUDICE, RATHER THAN
    So, armed with Sulzberger's Maxim, Never Shun the Obvious, let us see how the foreign correspondent should address himself to the world.
    There are certain blank areas one should simply keep clear of.
    Australia and New Zealand for example: vast territories covered with sheep.
    Nothing of any interest has ever been written about New Zealand, and
    indeed very little is known about it. In Australia, if it becomes absolutely
    necessary to go there, one can touch on (a) convict heritage of the
    inhabitants, (b) tendency of prime ministers to drown themselves,
    (c) philistine nature of Australians - see (a) above - and (d) erosion
    of Great Barrier Reef. Do not get into discussions of the Japanese invasion and Australian race laws, or even the future of the Australian Labor Party.

  14. All it would take is a mindset of the economic theories of "value-adding".

    Regurgitating press releases, and door stop interview statements does not create anything of value. Sure, journos get to ask their shitty questions which is more than I can do, but Politician responses are no different to the answers they give to dixers in Parliament. If Pollies really want to hammer a message or go off course, they go and do an interview which is broadcast. Newspapers then write about the broadcast, like it creates value when you can bloody well watch all of the above yourself and extrapolate what it all might mean. If they think that is where to create value - reading between the lines of publicly made speeches - they are very wrong. Notwithstanding, they do a shit job anyway. Obeid pulled the strings in NSW for years and no journalist called that one until the writing was on the wall.

    The real value is in facts and the truth. Journos are scared to explain the truth, like telling it betrays their golden rule and brings them into the fray and they are no longer simple observers. I say bullshit to that.

  15. Andrew,

    I found Ross Gitten's piece today interesting in relation to your piece again for what it didn't mention. Gitten's is almost certainly the best on offer for journalism about political economy, and his piece that we are becoming a nation of rent seekers nails all the important players, bar one.

    What is critically missing from Gitten's critique is an acknowledgement of the fundamental role the nation's debased media plays in not merely allowing, but encouraging this rent seeking behaviour to flourish. When our media has become nothing more than another group of rent seekers themselves this is hardly surprising.

    A properly functioning media that put the nations interest and the such for truth at it's core would have plenty of copy exposing the rorters and rent seekers. But of course it's much easier to simply regurgitate the pr releases and much more profitable to accept the advertising revenue. That they behave like this should surprise no one, they are just another commercial entity after all. That they get away with it whilst peddling the falsehood that they are required to hold the powerful to account and so need their special 'freedoms' protected is galling however.

    That a journalist of Gitten's quality shares the same blind spot to the culpability of his own industry as the lesser lights demonstrates that the hopes for the media companies and corporations to reform themselves is surely wishful thinking. They just don't and can't get it. The truth will have to find another way to out.


  16. Thanks Andrew. The obvious question to these journalists is: when presented with a statement from a self-confessed liar, why aren't you looking back at him incredulously, saying: "really? I think I'll just check before I quote you". The trouble is, they spent so much time applauding this kind of ratbaggery as "good politics" when Abbott was in opposition, they can't bring themselves to admit they were gulled now he's in power

  17. Was disgusted at Patricia Karvelas "performance"on The Drum

    Calling a minister an idiot on air is beneath her.

    She used to be a good egg.

    Correct me if I'm wrong here.

    Thank goodness for Emma Alberici.

    1. I always thought Karvelas was a goose, but there you go.