08 May 2014

Consistent and clear

Katharine Murphy has tumbled to the Peter van Onselen scam of writing basically the same article every three months or so when you have nothing useful to say.

In van Onselen's case, he trots out a shopping list of his backgrounders and posits them as ministers over incumbents who wouldn't give him the time of day. In Murphy's case, she runs a piece assuring us that she's able to see through spin while also confessing that she's more than a bit of a sucker for it, and hopes you are too.

She did it here and at Fairfax, and now she does it there. It's sad schtick and an indictment on editors and others who fall for it. Murphy practically begs to be sacked and nobody ever does it.
The government wants you, the voters, to blame Labor for the new taxes and the nasties it intends to impose on you in next week’s budget. Not them – the people who told you solemnly, hand on heart, before the last election that there would be N-O new taxes – then proceeded to impose them anyway.

This is to be Labor’s fault. Trust me, says the finance minister, I’m breaking my promises not because I’m awful, but because those guys are awful.

Now, before you roll your eyes, let me assure you I’m rolling mine too. As spin and pantomime and rank political cynicism goes, this one is off the charts.
No it isn't. It's entirely consistent with what Abbott was like before the election.

Murphy didn't roll her eyes when Abbott said that the Gillard government was "a bad government". She didn't roll her eyes when Abbott promised to take responsibility. She faithfully reported it and didn't question the assumption that any government could do better than Gillard and/or Rudd simply because Abbott said so. She went to press conferences where "people [told her] solemnly, hand on heart, before the last election that there would be N-O new taxes", and didn't have any basis to challenge such statements. She didn't go digging into policy or into Abbott's record and consider what they meant, whether the Coalition really could be trusted when they said (for example) that funding for pensions and schools and public broadcasting wouldn't be cut.
But the past few years in federal politics have taught me a rather grim lesson: maximum audacity often wins. I’ve seen the Coalition over the past three years carry off more outrageous transactions than the current one, and largely get away with them.
What she's confessing here is the failure of her judgment, and that of her colleagues. Experienced journalists should have been awake to this and called it out. The Coalition gets away with this because the press gallery - Murphy especially - is lazy and stupid.
Whether they get away with it this time depends on the following factors.

It depends on their storytelling capacity. Tony Abbott’s ability to tell a political story with aggressive simplicity was one of the hallmarks of his success as opposition leader. Whether you liked what he was selling or not, the message was consistent and clear.
Journalists are meant to have that capacity and draw together facts to tell a story of how we are governed. If politicians have such storytelling capacity, and you leave the storytelling to them, journalists are redundant. It's sad that Murphy's first consideration of Abbott's words were whether or not she liked them. Abbott's message was only "consistent and clear" because nobody called him on it.

The idea that the budget isn't in crisis was bullshit two years ago, it was bullshit last year, it's bullshit now and it will be bullshit next year, and every time Katharine Murphy professes to roll her eyes about another professional failure on her part. That message was "consistent and clear" because Katharine Murphy had no basis for assessing the budget other than what the then opposition said about it.
He seems to have comprehensively lost this art in the transition to government.
The Coalition's message hasn't changed. There is, however, plenty of objective evidence about the budget and the economic assumptions behind it, as there is every year. Murphy and other press gallery journalists have decided to take heed of that to a greater extent than was the case with, say, evidence relating to last year's budget or the budget before.
And he cannot deliver the simple world that existed in opposition, because the simple world does not exist.
It didn't exist for the previous government either, but they were not accorded this level of understanding. Note that Murphy makes no reference to the current opposition or its leader; it seemed to have been impossible to write about the previous government on its own terms without slipping in a reference to Abbott, holding the government's coat and snickering.
There was always going to be a reckoning, and we are seeing it now.
There is no good reason why that reckoning had to come after the election, rather than before; this is entirely due to the failure of judgment - and the laziness and stupidity - referred to earlier. All of it was foreseeable. All of it was preventable.
As a consequence of the Abbott storytelling black hole, there is no coherence in the Coalition’s messaging, no hope horizon to point to.
It's every bit as coherent as it ever was; it has failed to hold up under the pressures of government, and this was foreseeable. Press gallery journalists should have called Abbott on that while he was in opposition, as they did with Latham, to avoid making his problems the country's.

To borrow from Tim Dunlop, this coherence thing is just Murphy's way of saying she can't handle complexity. Given that her job involves getting to grips with complexity and explaining it simply, she is clearly and consistently in the wrong job.
Let me put this more directly. We can’t know whether this budget is a turkey until we see it. Right now, it looks like a turkey, but I’m reserving final judgment until I see the sum of the parts.
You saw the Coalition's policies and non-policies. You saw Matthias Cormann and Joe Hockey defend the indefensible and assert the absurd. You didn't call them on it, and now here you are assuming that the sum might be more than the parts? To do otherwise would be to admit that this government was always going to do a worse job than its predecessor, and should therefore never have been accorded the credibility necessary to get it elected.
To turn the corner the Coalition has to have a reason to govern, and to articulate its reason for governing.
It needed that before the election. The Coalition said it wouldn't cut cut cut, and if you believed them (as Murphy and others did) the rationale for electing them disappeared. If you didn't believe them, as people like Tony Shepherd and I didn't, then their rationale for government was clear enough. The question here is the quality of perception and the strength to call it.
Thus far, the reason for governing has been manufactured culture war, manufactured border emergencies, flirtations with the notion of itself as small government, appointing mates and fellow travellers to boards, and various revenge fantasies against Labor.
And you expected, what? This time last year, it was obvious the Coalition would be like that. This time last year, nobody in the press gallery investigated or even considered the eminently foreseeable current predicament as a possibility, and sneered at those of us who did.
That combination has landed the new government waist deep in quicksand. I gather if you find yourself in quicksand, the best prospects of survival stem from not moving. Stop thrashing around. Develop some first principles. Start thinking. Start visualising the way back.
You do that before you get into government, not afterward. Standing still (or "slowing down", Textor style, in the way that telcos shape internet access for those who've exceeded their download allowance) is not an option. "Thrashing about" might be indistinguishable from purposeful activity if you have learned nothing from Kevin Rudd, despite years of observing him up close.

The nature of this government was foreseeable before it took office. Yes it was. Asking them pointed questions was and is not the act of a partisan, but failing to do so was gutless on the part of the press gallery and injurious to the public good.

That quicksand metaphor applies to Murphy, the press gallery and perhaps to journalism more broadly. Stop thrashing about, get some principles and act on them. If the exhibited behaviour of the press gallery really does reflect its principles, then not only is it done for but this is no bad thing.
The budget presents risk, certainly, but also an opportunity for the Coalition to finally grow up, settle down, focus, desist from the student politics – and develop the courage of their own convictions.
The "student politics" is the essence of this government and the sum total of its convictions. To argue otherwise is to be deceived, to be unable to understand a government that has been closely followed but little scrutinised. It is a journalist's way of admitting they have been played for mugs and dupes, and that intelligent readers are right to shun them. Too much rolling of eyes, not enough focusing and reporting what they see.
We are all watching. I wonder whether they will take it.
We are watching the press gallery to a much lesser extent. I do not wonder whether or not they will take more crap from this government; they've done it before, they'll do it again. To add insult to injury they will try this I'm-with-you pretence in the hope their audience won't continue deserting them in disgust at their inability to challenge power-seekers as to whether they are up to the demands of office.


  1. Fantastic work, Andrew.

    It never ceases to amaze me the way in which the MSM doesn't connect their ongoing downward spiral with their modus operandi of reporting in the eternal present, and of failing to call out cynical bullshit even handedly.

    1. None of their other problems - falling ad revenues, whatever - can be solved until this basic judgment about what is and isn't news is fixed.

  2. Brutal, but true. The character of the current government was all but shouted from the roof top and yet now everyone wonders around with this shellshocked look on their face. It's sad on so many levels. Not least because it shows how little nouse you need to complete a journalism degree.

    What's even sadder is we have three yrs of putting up with this boys club to go.

  3. Andrew
    We the general public have been let down by the press gallery and the press in the lead up to the election and during the 3 years of the Gillard government.
    I believe the journalists had made up their mind to undermine Gillard but that the press did not want lose their favoured position with the conservatives but now what we get is them reflecting on why nobody believes journalists now.
    Andrew I may view the news or current affairs but I just do not believe or trust any of them and that goes for even long serving journalists.
    To name them would be too numerous so i wont go to that length.
    My main information comes from reading blogs and sorting the oats from the chaff. So thank you for your most informative response these lightweight and unskilled people.

  4. Liberal campaign management understands that modern journalism takes the path of least resistance.
    See Tony drive a forklift. See Tony in a hair net. See Tony at the football. You know who else likes football? Ordinary people. See how down to earth Tony is?

    Now that the gallery isn't getting a steady drip feed of fluff from headquarters, they're having to dig a little deeper and have suddenly worked out that Tony's promises don't add up. But in shouting about that now, they're still embracing Abbott's bullshit that we can have an election at any time. We can't. We're stuck with this mob for at least another two and a half years and they can pretty much do whatever they want.

    Then six months out from the next election, they'll start feeding the chooks again.
    See Tony on a helicopter. See Tony icing a cake. Hey, remember that bloke who broke all the promises? The economic illiterate who lied a lot - what was his name? Oh look! See Tony eating a pie.

    1. I take offence at suggestibg the stupidity of The Australian polity.

      I'm not immune to being sucked in by a media that has their C.E.O's engaging in an idiotic brawl

      What goes around comes around...

      Melbourne has a pretty good b.s detector here.

      We sue idiots like Bolt to screw their egoes and set standards and decency for the thinking man ...

      All isn't lost yet...

  5. Cracking article, once again, Andrew! Well done.

    I, for one, was surprised when Ms Murphy was employed by the Guardian when it set up shop in Australia. I generally try to avoid reading her articles/efforts.

    Do you remember how before the election, the journalists/media were constantly telling us that the ALP government struggled to find or did not have a 'narrative' (or some other corporate gobbledy-gook term)? I haven't heard that one said of this government yet and wonder when of if it ever will. Given the current shenanigans involving the budget, it's difficult to comprehend the 'narrative' of this government.

    In light of the current politics/governance of this country, when I reflect on the last election, I constantly imagine the wonderful scene in Dr Strangelove when the Slim Pickens character is riding the H-Bomb to oblivion a-whooping and a-hollerin'. Trouble is, with Abbott/LNP, Rudd/ALP, the journos/media and the electorate as characters, I cannot work out who is riding whom to oblivion!

    Keep up the good work and all the best.

    1. "Narrative", like "Post Modern" before it, seems to have slipped from the Columnists' vocabulary without trace

    2. Tim Dunlop rightly belled that cat when he said that 'no clear narrative' really means 'I cannot cope with complexity'. If they can't cope with their jobs, there are others

  6. Great column Andrew, spot on observation on a herd of sheep.

  7. I just cannot read this stuff anymore! Like the itch that used to give satisfaction to scratch, it is now all raw and red and infected and just causes me pain every time I think about it.

    Stupid people elected this government out of habit and out of pre-conditioning by the same media that is acting all surprised now. Fuck them all!

  8. Yep, brilliant, full of quotable stuff and resplendent with its analytical denunciation of the putrid mess that passes for journalism in this country.
    If journos did their job as they claim they do instead of playing the tune of their bosses we and they wouldn't be in the mess we are in now.

    Great stuff Andrew, more please.


  9. Andrew

    Great article which appears to be well researched unlike many journalistic efforts. Although I'm not sure why you single out Ms Murphy when other journalists were far worse, Gemma Jones springs to mind.

    I also think that you have left out an important fact, that is the Editor or more importantly what the Editor thinks his paymaster wants trumps everything. We all know (Rupert Murdoch admitted it at the Leveson Inquiry) that papers reflect their owner's views. So Ms Murphy et al can try and be hard hitting but the Editor has the power of veto and if you keep going against your Editor's wishes, then you are almost guaranteed a DCM on your desk.

    It was clear that Rupert wanted the Coalition in government and with ICAC digging up more dirt than BHP, in my opinion, I would be very surprised if all that money and support from Rupert didn't come with a price tag attached.

    And in this current age, it's not only journalists who are conflicted with doing what is ethically right and what their employer wants. Many workers in both public and private sectors live with this everyday. It's the lay of the land these days and you either have to accept it and keep a roof over your head or you can stand on your soap box with only the shirt on your back.

    Ask any whistleblower what it's like to rock the boat?

    1. Murphy did not work for Murdoch

    2. Editors decide who goes to the press gallery and who doesn't, too. I have dealt with them in earlier posts.

      Murphy doesn't try to be hard-hitting, and it's neither here nor there that she hasn't worked for Murdoch. She is at her best when transcribing what is said, a task done already at public expense by Hansard. Sometimes you can be too close to a situation to fully understand it, and that's what has happened to Murphy and her colleagues.

      I don't regard Gemma Jones as a real journalist and have no interest in picking easy marks. I used to go after Annabel Crabb and Niki Savva but they are a waste of time.

  10. Andrew, you mention "fellow travellers" in your post. Could you clarify whether you're referring to people of the same ideological background, or the use of the phrase as used amongst Masons?

    1. I'm quoting Murphy, ask her.

    2. It is also rather hilariously, the name of the 'in-flight' magazine on all Chinese high-speed rail.


  11. I read this article gobsmacked at the inanity of it, the shameless reduction of political substance to the level of spin. With her obsession with 'narratives' Murphy, like a whole raft of current 'journalists', seems unaware that she approaches politics in the same way as a Textor or Credlin.

    Her response to this would no doubt be to say that narratives are how people process politics. The problem is that her journalism rarely seperates the 'narrative' from the substantive policy component. Her world view is representative of a contemporary mentality totality penetrated by short termism, PR spin, marketing psycho babble and push button responses, all of which feeds a collective attention deficit disorder. The potency of the narrative in her fairytale political world dictates the 'success or other wise of the govt. Thus she says, despite the overwhelming weight of evidence and substantive policy screw ups, we should wait and see how it turns out after the budget- as if we're watching a football match and despite every bad play that Abbott has made, he can miraculously turn things around and come up triumphant.

    Its the kind of mentality typical of PR merchants and poker machine players. Just the right buzzworld/slogan/pitch/narrative/pull of the lever and everything will be miraculously transformed. The political troglodyte will be recast as the visionary statesman.

    Pity the society that is served by a fourth estate as abjectly complicit in power games as this one.

  12. You are spot on Andrew. Political commentary should not be written by people trying to gather their thoughts and make sense of it all. Regular space to report on matters which have a direct bearing on lives should not be an opportunity for self-centered pondering. I read very little these days unless a link is provided. I listen to the ABC news and even then I am struck by the careless partisanship. The government's view/position on most things is presented as fact. The reporter rarely attempts that basic distancing technique afforded by those simple words: According to. Half the time it is total ignorance at work I suspect. Journalists let us all down before the last election, some deliberately. The latter camp will continue to cover up for this government. They others need to take a hard look at themselves.

  13. It is a long time since I took much notice of mainstream media people. I now have to find all my intelligent commentary from sites like this. Sad situation, but the intelligent future is not to be found elsewhere.

  14. Niki Savva had a go at Credlin in The Australian recently. ..

    Does that count at all?

    She's a bit peeved that the Star Chamber is quite protective around Abbott when the shit hits the fan.


    Ms Credlin sounds like an educated yet polished version from The Real Housewives Series in Melbourne.


    1. Why not Andrew?

      Please elaborate in a more detailed response .


    2. I have no love for Ms Credlin and am horrified by the way in which our current PM is used as a sockpuppet by an unelected staffer. However, I have to ask why people react to this enormously (illegitimately) powerful professional by comparing her to a Real Housewife. Really? Really??? Would you talk about Max the Axe or Mark Textor in those terms? Of course not.
      Credlin is terrible, but you will not get anywhere by making shallow sexist observations of her terribleness.

    3. Helen...

      I'm a female who wrote that entry.

      The women in that series have qualities I see in her as well.

      Selfish, , manipulative and opportunistic with an obsession for power and status.

      It's also a tacky stereotype of Australian women that have an over inflated sense of their own importance with zero qualifications to match their nasty propaganda.

      That's why Helen.

  15. Terrific, Andrew. Over the last four years I watched in growing amazement amounting to horror, as Abbott and his merry crew got away with one outrageous claim after another. In the meantime the msm,,in particular the meretricious Murdoch media, slandered the former government mercilessly. Many of us who actually observed these processes knew what a total disaster Abbott would be and how miserable the years after the election would prove. Keep writing Andrew; your analysis is a beacon in the gathering gloom and an example of what political writing should be about.

    1. It was the same in the years leading up to 2010 election. The Coalition got an armchair ride from the media.

  16. It's sad isn't it. Marius Benson on the Drum is already doing the reframing and thinking up excuses for them. His subtle one about Gough putting up government share of GDP and Hockey bringing it down again. I wonder if that came straight from the L/NP spin doctors.

  17. I've found that if you ever try to engage Ms Murphy on twitter about the open mouthed credulity of political journalist reporting on (self confessed liar) Tony Abbott, all you get back is snark

    1. I found the same thing when I criticised this very article. Got back the 'well, what do you do for a living' followed by, well you mustn't be very good at it.

      For a moment I thought, well, that's fair enough. She's a professional journalist, who am I to criticise people doing things I don't know how to do?

      And then I thought, Ms Murphy is a political journalist and member of the press gallery. Sniping from the sidelines about people doing things she doesn't is pretty much her job description.

      When Guardian Australia launched I was thrilled. Greg Jericho's presence is a boon, but then he also contributes to the Drum and SBS. Lenore Taylor occasionally rises above the 'narrative' crap to write something insightful. Gabrielle Chang does an okay job. Katherine Murphy though is just as awful as Andrew suggests. She may not be as partisan as limited news' contributors, but the arched eyebrow above it all schtick grates almost as much as her profoundly limited ability to actually, you know, ask a penetrating question once in a while.

    2. ...which is kind of like a waiter saying "Well how many restaurants have YOU worked in?" if you send your meal back for being undercooked.

    3. Marty, she reports to you on matters of public interest, and you are entitled to call her out when she does the wrong thing by you. She thinks she's done her job when she's filled a blank page with whatever; you are right to insist that she provide you with knowledge you need and can use.

  18. Lenore Taylor, Mark Kenny, Peter Hartcher and others did the same thing, they rammed the moron Abbott down our throats day in and day out without questioning one single thing.

  19. Pedro of Canberra11/5/14 5:35 pm

    Hear, Hear!

  20. They are still at it.
    The new narrative goes like this.
    Once upon a time a terribly wicked witch called Juliar told a big, big fib of the nastiest nature. That lie became known across the realm as the Great Carbon Tax Betrayal.
    Sir Tony of Manly lived up to his title by driving the wicked witch from the realm.
    Then he sat on her throne. And guess what kiddies he told the people that he wanted to bring in a back door carbon tax in the form of a fuel levy. Yes he did. Yes he did. And what's more he wanted to take more money from mums and dads and sick people and yes, old people.
    The people were angry. Some were sad. Many were worried. A smaller number were very suspicious.
    Then something strange happened.
    Sir Tony's town criers went out and told the people that their leader was very brave, 'crazy brave' even and that he was forcing all of us to take the horrible medicine which would make us better.
    His lies were good for us.
    The people cheered.
    The suspicious ones wept and went home and shut their doors firmly.

  21. On Murphy, I have always been annoyed by the unthinking banality of her reporting. As another poster mentioned, it would be marginally more credible if she just stuck to reporting and left the commentary and analysis to others. She compounds this flaw by defending what she does.

    The self-revelation about her came in her praise of Grattan, who taught her everything she knows. That explains a lot: another who was obsessed with process and unable to see the wood for the trees.

  22. The comments on the second linked Murphy article make me think the readership has seen through her too.

  23. Sarah Fergusons budget interview with Hockey was GOLD.

    His hand movements under the desk during the interview was very revealing

    Now that's journalism.

  24. Andrew, I have regularly looked at your site, especially with its nomenclature of "politically homeless".

    But I have short memory. Please list your blogs which thoroughly analyse the unworthiness of the Coalition to be in government - and especially those which expose the idiocy of Abbott.