I came in like a wrecking ballIt might never have occurred to you to put Miley Cyrus and Jonathan Holmes in the same sentence, but think again. Holmes seems to think that the Australian public and its government are locked in some mutually destructive and co-dependent relationship like that described above, with the media looking on benignly and simply reporting what they see. Holmes' piece, and his work for Fairfax generally, will only improve once he recognises that the current political situation is due to the failure of effective reporting on Australian politics, and that mere reportage is not the solution but part of the problem.
I never hit so hard in love
All I wanted was to break your walls
All you ever did was wreck me
Yeah, you, you wreck me
- Miley Cyrus Wrecking Ball
Tony Abbott told us before the election that he could return the budget to surplus without raising taxes, or cutting spending on health and education, or reducing pension entitlements. He told us he could do it by cutting waste.It was self-evident nonsense. Yet, if you go to the actual media at the time, you'll see that journalists didn't call them on it. They regarded anything and everything that Abbott's opponents said to be nonsense, while the very fact that he stood in opposition to that government gave his words a credibility that they would otherwise have lacked.
It was self-evident nonsense. Blind Freddy could see, by last September, that either he would have to back off his pledge to balance the budget in a few years’ time, or he would have to break most of the other undertakings. But for months before the election, Abbott avoided interviewers who would challenge him to square the circle.
Unsurprisingly, he preferred the soft-soap flattery he could confidently expect from our brigade of shameless commercial radio hucksters.Every day Abbott did a stunt for the traditional media - print, radio and TV, commercial to varying degrees - which they all lapped up. See Tony gut fish! See Tony kiss squirming children! Do we wonder why no Opposition Leader in history got such uncritical coverage as Abbott? No - we just report, or in the case of Gillard and Rudd we just sneer. The press gallery, and other journalists covering politics, were so desperate to be rid of the Gillard-Rudd government that they lent Abbott their credibility. Abbott has let them down. He has let us all down really, even those of us who didn't vote for him.
The Coalition would deliver painless solutions, he told their listeners. There is nothing wrong with Australia that a mere change of government would not fix. And the voters of Australia - or a convincing majority of them - apparently chose to believe him.When you're not involved in complex matters from day to day, you defer to experts. Media organisations represent their political journalists as being totally across all matters political - here's Joe Hockey addressing our reporter by name, there's Penny Wong giving our reporter an exclusive interview.
The experts in politics assured us that Tony Abbott would curb his behaviour and would run the economy better than a returned Labor government - and if you don't believe me, here's an insignificant Labor apparatchik transformed by the power of media into a "senior Labor source" dumping on the government on much the same fact-free basis as Abbott. Can't get any more balanced than that.
As I said in response to Lyndal Curtis' execrable piece the traditional media were too credulous about the Coalition, too cynical about Labor, when it was their job to give us the information we needed to rise above both cynicism and credulity. This is what Holmes misses too: he sees only the electorate that made the Abbott bed in which we now lie, without recognising the role of his colleagues in the traditional, press-gallery-stuffing media in assuring voters that this was the better choice.
Bill Shorten now tells us the Prime Minister’s broken promises are a betrayal of Australia’s egalitarian ethos. Well, so they are. But no hint from Shorten about how Labor would fix the gap between revenue and spending. No acknowledgement, even, that there’s a gap to fix.A clear breach of the What's Sauce For The Goose Is Sauce For The Gander Act, no doubt attracting the usual penalties. It is notable that Abbott was rarely, if ever questioned on that matter, and that journalists never sought to trade the asking of questions for Abbott's desire to transmit only visuals and set-piece lines. When you add to this Abbott's admission to Kerry O'Brien that his statements could not be relied upon, Holmes longing for an old-fashioned grilling is somewhat quaint. As Tim Dunlop said, post-truth political leadership is a real issue for journalists and news organisations, but which Holmes is happy to sheet home to consumers and citizens.
There is another ethical issue to be worked through by journalists - including Holmes - as to why Opposition Leaders since Abbott should be subject to different expectations than Abbott had been. Again, Holmes shirks responsibility for his 'profession' and fingers the ill-informed and -advised voter. More in sorrow than in anger of course, a condescension that adds insult to injury.
The lesson is simple: the Australian electorate will punish the tellers of hard truths, and reward the snake-oil salesmen, the good-news spruikers, the soft-soapers.Sure they will, because that's what the experts said. I was a Young Liberal branch President in 1993. The media - all of them, no diversity to speak of - made Hewson look pretty silly in that final week. People defer to experts, and so it is in politics: against all evidence, political reporters have currency with a significant number of voters, and for some reason they tend to go all one way or all another. This time they went all Abbott. And it's the voters' fault that they believed the press gallery?
Had the Rudd government been re-elected it would have been a repudiation of almost the entire Australian media. I am not talking about editorials; almost nobody reads them and, despite their name, they are not representative of the organ in which they are published. I am talking about actual political reporters in and out of the press gallery, who quoted Abbott po-faced, dismissing any idea that good old Tony would let things get as bad as they had under slovenly Gillard and careless Rudd.
For evidence, look no further than the reaction to the budget on Australian talkback radio. As media monitoring company iSentia told The Age’s Michael Gordon ...You have got to be kidding me: talkback radio as the authentic voice of the people. Even the people who sell ads on talkback radio stations don't believe that. Talkback radio must have been a force majeur in the 1970s, when Jonathan Holmes was starting in journalism and he hasn't questioned it since.
Who has time to sit around waiting on hold for Radio Peanut, and how representative are they of the Australian populace? Why, pray tell, is talkback radio rated so highly by journalists yet Twitter and other social media is so lightly dismissed? Yet more instances of fundamental questions that Holmes and others need to ask themselves, but which they'd rather shirk and shunt.
Here is Jonathan Holmes seeking to demonstrate the triumph of his reporting style, when all he's really doing is admitting its failure:
... Clive Palmer who told us last May that we needed “good programs like the NDIS”, but that “this should not be an excuse to put taxes up”.Firstly, Clive Palmer should be referred to by male pronouns rather than the gender-neutral, regardless of the esteem in which Holmes holds him.
It is the Clive Palmer who told us in June that, if elected, a Palmer United Party government would magically find $80 billion more for health and hospitals, and $20 billion extra for schools.
It is the Clive Palmer who told us during the election campaign that a 15 per cent across-the-board income tax cut would generate more government revenue in GST takings than it cost in reduced income tax. (Fairfax’s Peter Martin, writing for the fact-checking website PolitiFact, found that Palmer’s claims were “False”. Most economists treated them as fantasy.)
It is the Clive Palmer who tells us today that there is no budget emergency, no debt crisis, that such talk is “just more bullshit being fed to the Australian public”.
Secondly, and more importantly, Holmes has rattled off some out-of-context quotes there without bothering to interrogate them. The essence of that last quote from Palmer is supported by almost every economist outside the Liberal Party.
Holmes may sheet responsibility for political choices home to voters, but the role of journalists in helping us evaluate statements and actions cannot be underestimated. Every Australian parliament was built with a press gallery pre-installed, under the assumption that the press gallery had an important role to play in the political process.
When they shirk and shunt their role, circulation/ratings go down and so too do the job prospects of journalists. Holmes sees the declining job prospects of journalists. Holmes sees crappy output like a lazy list of quotes. Holmes fails to make the link. Whose problem is this - the public's, for their philistine lack of appreciation of Very Fine Journalism, as Holmes would have it? Or is the problem closer to home than Holmes (or Lyndal Curtis, or Katharine Murphy, or a host of others) dares admit?
During the campaign last year, I wrote about the people who determine Australian elections - disengaged floating voters who, in democracies where participation in elections is voluntary, probably would not bother to vote at all.Here's a suggestion: why not write for them, or even to or with them, Jonathan?
But apparently, many of us can’t, or won’t [spot a fake a mile away]. Not if the fake is telling us what we want to hear.But if the fake is radiating sunny charm, and the truth-teller is being sneered at by a trusted interlocutor, what other outcome do you expect? Is the political numbers man who sneers at the public any worse/better than the journalist who takes the same attitude? And if the journalist, as Shakespeare wrote, "doth mock/The meat it feeds on" in terms of its/his/her attitude toward the public, why does he/she/it have a job at all? What value are they adding to public discourse, or anything else?
Not if he or she assures us that we don’t need to do anything about global warming ...But journalists pretend that global warming is a matter of opinion and debate. You're not an Australian journalist unless you believe that global warming denialists are as legitimate - if not more so! - than those certain the world is warming. And you blame the public - and politicians - for being confused?
... that debts can be eliminated by cutting waste, and deficits wished away by cutting taxes ...Why not convene a panel with someone from the IPA and someone else to argue exactly that - it'll make great television.
Australians, the polls say, have decided the budget is unfair. They are right about that. They’re right, too, to complain about Abbott’s broken promises. Themes hammered all week by Shorten.And by people other than Shorten, too, if you can imagine such things. There's more to politics than Abbott and Shorten, and Palmer, and it's such a pity that it takes a blog to point this out. It's such a pity, too, that Jonathan Holmes will dismiss what is said on a blog - but if I said the same thing on talkback radio, shut up and listen!
But surely it would have paid Shorten to admit the government is right about one thing: revenue is not keeping up with spending; either taxes need to be lifted or expenditure cut, or both.Did he not admit that in this Budget in reply speech, and other interviews? I think so but I wouldn't know, I'm not a journalist.
Wouldn’t we reward Shorten for frankness, for honesty, for telling it like it is, and what he plans to do about it?Depends who you mean by "we", really. Holmes refers to Australians sometimes in the third person, sometimes in the first; this isn't the sort of error that new journalists make, it is the sort of fundamental communication error that is drummed out of schoolchildren. He gives more credence to Michael Gordon than most people (even most sensible people) do. He identifies as a journalist only at the end of his piece, having clearly tired of the days when he might winnow (or even distinguish) good journalism from bad.
No, we wouldn’t.
Holmes' piece includes a quote from Shakespeare: Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene II. In it, Cassius is trying to talk Brutus into killing Caesar. Cassius is dismissing the first-century BCE equivalents of iSentia and polls, and trying to convince Brutus to do what you can with what you have. Holmes is a journalist: he should do better journalism, and convince those at The Age to do likewise, rather than moan about some general miasma gripping the populace that can only be divined by iSentia but, clearly, never understood. If you're going to use a quote, make sure it works for your argument rather than against it.
Journalists are trying to work out a way of sharing that disappointment without admitting their own role, like a murderer returning to the murder scene after others have arrived and then feigning shock. This is designed to avoid blame and maintain a position of trust that they no longer warrant.