23 March 2014

Weighed in the balance

In the 19th century, it was widely believed that there was in the centre of Australia a vast inland sea. Some went motivated by greed, others by a quasi-religious search for a new Galilee too seek it out. In the process, some died, some disappeared, and some went crazy. Eventually technology improved to the point where it could be established that no such inland sea existed, and an educated population came by and large to accept that evidence. Those who continued to feel otherwise frittered away their money and credibility by asserting their case in the absence of evidence.

In the early 21st century, Australian political journalists still believe there is a 'left' and a 'right', at a time when fewer and fewer of their readers/ listeners/ viewers do. They spent each day on a quest to can negate any opinion, fact or thing so long as you can find another opinion - anyone, anywhere - to countervail any other, and then impose whatever you reckon as The Voice Of Balance. At the same time, they present daily evidence of the sheer uselessness of these notions in describing anyone or anything (how 'left' is Doug Cameron? How 'moderate' is Christopher Pyne? How 'right' is John Madigan?). Yet, when political journalists feel themselves under siege, these meaningless terms group themselves automatically into the familiar dreary pattern in much they same way that Jacqueline Maley does here.

This article is this year's equivalent of the appalling press gallery follow-up to their efforts in November 2012, when it asserted that Julia Gillard's speech against misogyny was really about Peter Slipper and could in no valid way be interpreted as about that aspect of womanhood which involves copping misogyny. People like Peter Hartcher, and yes Jacqueline Maley, engaged in jowl-wobbling outrage at the very idea that it was even possible to interpret any utterance by any Australian politician that didn't accord with their interpretation.

Her original March in March piece (to which the later one refers) reads like one of those sniffy and unkind contemporary reviews of, say, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band or A Farewell To Arms which dismissed them as having no lasting value. She covered it the way she covers Parliament, as a theatrical production put on for her bemusement. It is telling that she noticed the puerile and offensive slogans and ignored the polite and whimsical ones - so much for Pembroke-style politeness as the way to get your message through.
When I rang the national convener of the rallies on Sunday, he ... launched into a speech about how his group was used to being overlooked by the "MSM" (mainstream media).
A real journalist would have sought independent corroboration.

A real journalist would have recognised that reporting tens of thousands of people on the streets of your town is actually the meat and potatoes of your 'profession', rather than what looked like Maley sulking that her bosses had set her an assignment that she didn't want to cover.

A real journalist, or anyone who cares about journalism, would have recognised that March in March is the latest in a chain of significant community events whose significance the traditional media organisations have entirely missed. Two other examples include the outpouring of grief following the death of Jill Meagher and the seemingly spontaneous memorial services for Reza Berati. Significant numbers of people organised events on the streets of our cities which journalists underestimated both before and while they were taking place. The idea that such events might have a longterm significance and impact is one to which Maley and her superiors simply cannot come to terms, let alone report.

The unnamed national convenor of March in March did pretty much the same as what Pembroke did, except that Maley had to chase him rather than wait for Pembroke's letter to drop into her lap, and that organising a multi-site protest for tens of thousands is more of an achievement than writing a letter in Annandale. Regarding all criticism as abuse, Maley follows this by saying (sniffily and unkindly as you'd expect):
It is strange that people who despise the MSM so much are so angry at being ignored by it.
It's fairly standard. Fancy living a 'life' where you are insulated, isolated from that stuff. I wasn't involved in March in March at all, but I'm perfectly happy to go through the 17 March edition of any Fairfax broadsheet and nominate which stories should have been cut or dropped to accommodate more and better coverage of March in March.
I was abused on Twitter for my online story, and also for the fact that it didn't run in the paper.
See how journalism works? You can park an idea, find a countervailing one, then you don't have to deal with either. It's disappointing reading, but Maley is like that. She overestimates the extent to which she's covered by refusing to engage with actual ideas about what is actually going on.
Even though they were offended by the comparison when I made it, many of the Twitter/internet critics complained that while the "Convoy of No Confidence" rallies got plenty of coverage in the traditional media, their left-wing protest didn't.

These people overlooked a few key facts - those right-wing protests got largely negative coverage
Rubbish. Alan Jones didn't give them negative coverage. Those rallies were organised within the traditional media, and got coverage accordingly. Alan Jones did, however, give Jacqueline Maley negative coverage at that event. It is strange that Maley does not appear to regard the Jones-Maley spat with equanimity, and does not simply believe that two countervailing opinions can simply negate one another.
... and many of the participants complained of bias in that coverage.
They would, wouldn't they.
Also, those protests were of greater news value due to the attendance of Coalition MPs and senators, including the future Prime Minister, who famously stood next to a crude sign about Julia Gillard.
And the very journalists who breathlessly covered that event were stunned, stunned I tell you, that people would regard Tony Abbott as a rabble-rouser and a misogynist when they didn't even know him. Bloody internet!
Their presence lent legitimacy to a ragtag bunch of extremists, homophobes, nutters and anti-carbon tax protesters who should never have been given any.
Whereas what should have happened was that the extremists and nutters should have discredited the politicians, and shown us what sort of government we'd be in for if we voted to replace the then government with this one.
That became the story, particularly because the atmosphere of the last Parliament was so precarious and febrile.
Here she is describing the limitations of how the media cover events, rather than the events themselves. Note the switch to the passive voice as a way of deflecting responsibility or even consideration of the media's role in the last parliament.
(remember how Alan Jones, enraged by the poor showing, claimed that hordes of would-be attendees had been stopped at the ACT-NSW border? Adorable!).
Remember how no journalist actually checked with either the NSW or ACT Police until days afterward to see whether this was true? Ridiculous!
The lack of coverage of March in March probably had something to do with the fact that, like so much left-wing protest, it was unfocused. The speakers and protesters had a grab-bag of complaints, from asylum-seeker policy to gay marriage to fair trade.
By contrast, open any edition of The Australian and what will you find - "a grab-bag of complaints, from asylum-seeker policy to gay marriage to fair trade", and not much journalism to speak of in the 'news' space.

Maley confronted a swirl of ideas that couldn't be adequately boiled down to simple slogans, people with so little respect for her pampered press gallery ways that they didn't even maintain message discipline. Part of the trade-off for mobilising tens of thousands of people is that you have to cast a wide net to fit everyone. If you look at pictures of big marches from yesteryear, like the Vietnam Moratorium of 1970 or the protests against the Greiner government's cuts to NSW education in 1991, you will see placards that had nothing to do with the supposed focus of the protest.

You show me an organisation that maintains a strict message discipline, and I'll show you an organisation that has a large and proactive operation dedicated to keeping journalists happy. And by 'happy', I mean a predicament situation where the journalist doesn't have to work for their living but has stories spoon-fed to them; where quoting someone's words is all you need do to remain 'employed'.

Maley showed us nothing about March in March, but plenty about her sheer inadequacy at the fundamental journalistic skill of having to forage for a story. She doesn't even have the excuse of having been a 'kid reporter'; you can imagine how 'unfocused' an event with a name like "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom" would have been.
The whole thing was interesting because it demonstrated the widening gulf between what is popular on social media and the internet, and what traditional media organisations consider newsworthy.
See, it isn't true that everything Jacqueline Maley writes is drivel. In that line is one of the central questions of our age. Watch Maley botch it, though:
Sometimes the two overlap, but whether the bloggers, tweeters and other internet denizens like it or not, newspapers still get to make that call.
Almost every article of hers I've ever read has been read online; does that make her an "internet denizen"? Yeah, it does.

Given that Maley's original article was published online and not on wood pulp, and that for every wood-pulp reader there are five to seven online readers, why is it significant that her superiors shunted it from the wood-pulp version? Why did her headline-writer claim the story wasn't 'run', when clearly it had been? She diminishes the piece herself ("sniffy and unkind", which hardly distinguishes it from the accumulated dead weight of her efforts). After all that, this much diminished piece, its writer and publisher(s) are apparently pivotal to agenda-setting in this country.

Is Timothy Pembroke's open letter responsible for more hits on Maley's article than the article to which he referred (and the various inducements that Fairfax brings to its articles) could manage beforehand? I wouldn't be at all surprised. Where is the evidence that Maley, or her superiors, have engaged with the ideas that Pembroke put forward - at all, let alone in comparison with those who put their positions more stridently.

The last blogpost piece yarn article thing bearing her dinkus that I read and commented on sent her into a flurry of tweets which can fairly be described as "unpleasant", but far from deeply so. She hated what I said and has never met me, but insisted on calling me "buddy". Polite Timothy Pembroke never got called 'buddy', possibly because his very civility has been used against him, with Maley using his very good manners as justification for dismissing the point he was making.

One thing on which you can agree with Maley: people who edit newspapers definitely decide what goes into newspapers.
Newspapers, edited as they are by humans, do get it wrong, and the Herald should have covered the marches.
Note that this admission had to be made by a middling employee who can't even get her stories inked onto wood-pulp. It has not been made by one of her superiors who confuse never admitting you're wrong with never actually being wrong.
Contemporary newsrooms have constrained resources, papers have fewer pages due to declining advertising, and the increasing clutter of the internet and the 24-hour news cycle makes news selection confusing.
Oh, fuck off - and I mean this sincerely. This is self-interested mewling by people with no idea about their own jobs, or anyone else's.

We're all busy. We all face constrained resources and a deluge of information. Media organisations used to present themselves as the people who'd sort through that deluge and present the news you needed to know about what was going on: that was what we would now call their business proposition. Now, they are sniffy and unkind, blowing up non-stories and ignoring real ones, and their opinions and judgments are no better than mine or yours. You have to forage for news like an old-school journalist, and as old-school journalists do it's hard to maintain respect for those who have it all handed to them. That lack of judgment is what really killed the traditional media - the internet has been coming at them for decades, and the fact that it went from irrelevance to menace so quickly is evidence of news organisations' lack of judgment and bad management. The employment of Jacqueline Maley is another.

There is no such thing as "the 24-hour news cycle" when it comes to federal politics. Whether you're a press gallery journalist or not, you can listen to AM and read the newspapers online from home. Press gallery journalists maintain Canberra hours, rolling into the office after 9 and furiously drinking coffee; their working day is over by about 2.30/3pm when their employers' daily deadlines close, and they watch the nightly news or Lateline along with the rest of us. Watch how Maley and her colleagues (particularly those who have been around a while) bellyache when somebody puts out a press release at 5.30pm. I've had to work late from time to time and so have you; I still need to know what's going on, which means that Jacqueline Maley is among the last people I consult for said knowledge.

Press gallery journos who confuse themselves with people who work hard can and should jump in the Lake - no, they should all just fuck off. Just because something buzzes around a newsroom like a blowfly in a dunny, it doesn't mean that it should displace actual news on the public record. People who edit newspapers should recognise their own limitations and reorient their output to what interests non-journo people - writing by journos for journos isn't even working for the journos.
But the left does itself no favours if it resorts to insult, vitriol, and mad muttering in dark corners of the internet.
Take out the reference to the dreaded internet, and 'the left' has been doing that for a century at least. Tony Abbott wouldn't be where he is without "insult, vitriol, and mad muttering in dark corners of the internet", along with simpering deference from Jacqueline Maley and her colleagues.

Defenders of corporate journalism claim that big news organisations can afford lawyers and stand toe-to-toe with other powerful organisations. One of the downsides of corporate organisations, in the media or not, is that they foster drones and jobsworths with no initiative. An obtuse journalist should be a contradiction in terms, like a taxi driver who barely understands the city they traverse, but they exist nonetheless. Jacqueline Maley is an obtuse journalist. Whatever comes out of March in March, it will have more of a future than she does.

Her fulminations carry no weight, they reminded me of the French taunter from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. She has been weighed in the very balance she would impose on others and has been found wanting. The quest goes on.

33 comments:

  1. Kate Durham23/3/14 11:53 pm

    terrific,simply.

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  2. Thanks Andrew for being on the money as usual.

    You have expressed why I averted my eyes from the March.

    I knew it would be ignored or trivialized. The event would be covered superficially and not placed in context of community disquiet.

    The march itself was pretty predictable, a bit quaint. Here we go again. Maybe that is less to do with those marching than with the manner in which it was covered.

    If, for example, a reporter had asked the young man carrying the Resign Dickhead sign to expand on that blunt entreaty, he/she may have received that interesting, cogent and eloquent explanation that young man has posted on-line.

    No, it seems reporters stood on the sidelines with their world-weary, mocking eyes and watched another march go by without asking Who, Why and When, the staple questions of their craft.

    I think they have ceased to be reporters and are jostling to become celebrity opinion makers. They bore me rigid.

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    1. It simply didn't occur to me last Monday to find out what traditional media, or Maley in particular, might think about it. You're right, Lyndon Morley's article was the best commentary I've seen yet.

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    2. I doubt they have no idea why we don't read their stuff every Monday the children would look forward to read the sports results from junior football hockey and summer athletics
      u see junos people yes communities who make us up like to read good things they have achieved
      so now u have lost 100K more readers no praise for people who are concerned about our country your country.
      but when I read a lot of things must say I have stopped reading most msm.
      I often wonder if the junos are on another planet some where the disconnection to real Australians is something they don't they don't understand perhaps they need some time out to mix with us in ordinary street that goes for liberals as well.
      that's why I would give Newspapers may be another 3yrs and good riddance

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  3. I once emailed Jacqueline Maley on the superficiality of her articles on Federal politics. Surprisingly, she responded arguing that that was how she saw her job. Maybe it was and is: writing puff-balls about who won the political points for the day - what I think of as the Michelle Grattan approach. As journalism it is possibly one grade more worthy than being a royal-watcher for the London rags. I've actually met one of those. Appalling. FK.

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    1. Her coverage of the rally showed that she can't even do basic journalism properly. From what you've said, her lame and half-witted output actually represents her firing on all cylinders.

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  4. Thank god somebody somewhere is properly calling out Maley. She's as vacuous as Annabel Crab without the humour - which is amusing in itself because Maley was shoe horned into the gig at the Herald as a Crab clone following her resignation to do light comedies on the ABC. Maley epitomises to me everything that is wrong with the MSM.

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  5. So now I'm no longer a citizen, according to Maleyspeak I'm now a mere denizen. Waaaah.

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    1. I actually really hate the citizen or "denizen" of the internet label. It pretends that the internet isn't ubiquitous. That there are those pale, keyboard-tapping troglodytes who scurry around the "dark corners" of the internet, and there's everyone else who dips in for a quick tweet, or a bit of facebook time, but spends the rest of their day in happy sunshine.

      Like what person who consumes information, who has a -modern- job doesn't use the internet - constantly.

      Thanks for another great article Andrew

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    2. Helen, to me that looks like News having a cheeky jab at Fairfax, I note that they don't mention the sweeping cuts to their own staff. Also - DVDs, photo development, record stores and erm secretaries? No shit, really?

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  6. Terrific piece Andrew.
    I sometimes think that Maley might be able to see clearly. She was one of the few journalists who stated that perhaps the press gallery group-think was wrong – published, it must be said, a day or so after the misogyny speech.
    But most of the time, nah – her writing is as worthless as you have portrayed.
    Why do these owners of newspapers think we only want opinion – is it really cheaper for them to run, or are they trolling?

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  7. Simon Musgrave24/3/14 11:35 am

    Great piece, Andrew. Just one query:

    What did this refer to?

    "Note the switch to the passive voice as a way of deflecting responsibility or even consideration of the media's role in the last parliament."

    The preceding quote (That became the story, particularly because the atmosphere of the last Parliament was so precarious and febrile.) is not in passive voice. The following quote (remember how Alan Jones, enraged by the poor showing, claimed that hordes of would-be attendees had been stopped at the ACT-NSW border?) does include a passive clause, but it's not obvious that this is the one you mean.

    (I'm a linguist, I can't help myself!)

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    1. It is, the preceding quote describes 'an atmosphere' which Maley helped create and for which she is dodging responsibility or examination.

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    2. Agree, Simon, it's not strictly passive voice, but I think Andrew has justified his use of the word.

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  8. Like mammoths trapped in a tar pit, the old media's struggles and bellowing are only speeding their demise.

    And like the extinct mammoths, their extinction won't mean much to the world at large.

    The Press gallery are the biggest pachyderms on the block, so expect the biggest bellows from them.

    They are so caught up analysing their own entrails for portents that they can't understand the reason why the protests are so diverse is that the only real plan that Abbott & Co. have is to antagonise everyone who isn't a LNP lickspittle.

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  9. Another great piece. In time to come your posts, assuming they are preserved, will serve as an outstanding chronicle of the failure of media scrutiny through this era.

    At another blog I dealt with Maley's answer to Morley's public complaint. While she did seem to admit her original piece was petty and petulant, she has done little better in her attempts to engage with Morley.

    On the contrast of the Convoy and the Carbon Tax rallies coverage compared with the silence on March in March she has missed the most crucial point, and re-written history in the process.

    She claims that the bigger coverage given to the two earlier ones was due to the attendance of Abbott and some of his frontbenchers in among the offensive signs, making it a news item. And she has the gall to claim that the news coverage was because of that. Well, I'd like to have references to the news items pointing to the appalling lack of discretion and judgement shown by Abbott and his frontbenchers in appearing in front of those signs. I can't remember any. Certainly nobody dared raise the issue at his various stunts/announcements.

    You have reinforced it even more strongly in making the point that nobody really challenged Jones's Convoy lies about being locked out by the police. This is a public broadcaster with a large following, blatantly lying his arse off. The same one who made a career decision to label Gillard a liar. He could have been exposed for the bootstrapping humbug he was, even well before he finally blew the gaff at the Sydney University Liberals affair.

    If it's so important to have 'real' reporters, that would have been the perfect time to differentiate Jones from the rest of the pack. He uses that as an alibi when he is caught out that he's not really a journalist, just an entertainer. It was a perfect time for the Press Gallery to move beyond the Jones-Hadley bile by exposure. But they were as silent as they were all along about Abbott's fault-lines. It was no more newsworthy to them than Gillard's Misogyny Speech, which as we now know lacked what the Press Gallery called 'context'.

    Maley at least acknowledged that bloggers and protesters were out there, but she has shown a blindness equal to Murphy and all the rest.

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    1. Journalism. What a great idea.

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  10. There's also an element of hipsterism in all this cynicism. It's fashionable at the moment to be a world-weary cynic, rolling one's eyes and putting down any attemt at activism, anywhere, ever.

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    1. I thought the Hipsters were the Activists.

      Bloody hell!

      How smug and selfish have we become Andrew.

      Status Quo is corrupt.

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  11. "She covered it the way she covers Parliament, as a theatrical production put on for her bemusement."

    Andrew, this - when generalised to apply to the coyly conceited posturing of contemporary journalists - is lapidary. Annabel Crabb is, in my view, the most insupportable (and increasingly unwatchable and unreadable) practioner of this form of faux-analysis: the strategy is to reduce (and therefore to distort and misrepresent) the objective seriousness of any topic or proposition either to the level of personal history and predilection or to entertainment, and then to commend oneself smugly for the superior perspicacity of having seen through the whole game. It is not an effort at understanding and communicating the result clearly and with adequate complexity, but an attempt to exercise power. The process is risible and the outcome negligable as political commentary because the power is entirely unearned.

    In what healthy and robust political culture would such journalists have the profile and explosure they do in ours?

    Thank you for your thorough diagnostic insights. Please continue wtih them.

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    1. Yes, the descent of political journalism into the realms of infotainment to amuse and pacify the comfortable, insular and smug middle classes.

      Maley astonishingly assesses the right of an event to get media coverage on how easily digestable, 'on message' and simple the message is. This is why the PR spivs are effectively running the country. "Journalists' like Maley appear to believe that public displays of dissaffection should be like some orchestrated performance piece - unified, homogenous, consistent, relentlessly polite. The Patronising treatment of Mr Pembroke is truly cringeworthy. Its like some stepford wives conception of the body politic. And this from somebody entrusted to capture, analyse and represent the political realm.

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  12. I believe our media are useless and have been saying so since the absurd beat up of the kids unthrown in 2001.

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  13. Oh Andrew, so many of the comments on your April 2013 blog about Maley, the press gallery and Abbott have come completely true.

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  14. In a shocking twist after reading this article Michelle Grattan actually wrote a fairly effective piece on the absurdities of our outsourced program of deliberate cruelty on Manus.

    If she can manage a half-decent article every now and then maybe there's still hope for some of the other press gallery lightweights!

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    1. Yeah, she surprised me with her radio spot this morning - she almost sounded nuanced and considered!

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  15. I went to my local MiM (not in a capital city) and as an above comment suggested it was predictable and quaint. There weren't any offensive signs being held up at the event I went to. The attendance was an interesting mix of hippies (old and young), single parents, people with disabilities, refugee advocates, anti-Campbell Newman conservatives, trade unionists, and a few socialists and anarchists. With such a diverse attendance, the event was never going to have some kind of focussed 'narrative' (gawd I have come to hate that word)


    I was trained in journalism, and feel this was all another victim of the constant desire to find an angle or a hook in every story. Rather than report what happened and the variety of reasons people had for being there, the limited coverage of MiM went for the easy hooks of picking out offensive signs and criticising the event for not having some kind of single focus.

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  16. Goodness, Journalism is number three on this list of dying industries. I hope it's wrong.

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  17. ..aaaaand the link (sorry about that)
    http://www.careerone.com.au/watercoolertalk/5-dying-industries

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  18. While we are on the subject of jernalisms .... A related matter.

    I was amused to see Terry McCrann and the crew hail the appointments of the Murdoch boys x 2.

    Hark! Am I confused? Are we not meant to worship appointments of merit, no matter how dubious the merit or if it is merit at all?

    Is the advancement of Lachlan and James an example of merit? A stunning manoeuvre to use the almost-words of T McCrann.

    Or ladies and gentlemice of the jury could it be considered plain old nepotism?

    Sort of goes with knights, ladies and dames doesn't it?

    Interesting too that News is now a public company in which lots of folk have non-voting shares. They have non-voting shares because the company believe that ensures stability and forward long-term planning.

    Yikes, I thought, I hope that company does not start promoting its corporate ethos as a cure for our political woes.

    All hail ye King Anthony, the Manly on his 30th year of ascendancy to the Bunyip throne.

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  19. Speaking of Maley, her latest "Downtown Abbott" is a vacuous concoction.

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  20. Andrew

    You silly old "Whitey"

    It's my right to be a bigot according to Brandis.

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  21. Under Maley's name on her articles, it states she is a "Parliametary sketch writer for the Sydney morning Herald".

    I sent her a tweet asking whether that meant her articles were supposed to be jokes. I added a :-) after it indicating that the tweet was tongue in cheek.

    Her response - she blocked me.

    LOL. Her job depends on people like me reading her crap.

    My job doesn't depend on her reading anything I write.

    Guess who is more secure in their job.

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