17 June 2014

Breaking news

Politics involves working out competing ideas about how public services, and the community more broadly, is run. A stable political system is one which can accommodate competing ideas without breaking down, or causing civic violence that requires a response of state violence in the short term, and dispossession of certain groups from the political system over the longer term.

Australia has a stable political system. Some people think this stability requires the absence of debate. They tend to be people who aren't interested in policy processes and outcomes, neither generally nor in particular, and how they affect people's lives, but who get their jollies from the 'horse race' aspect of politics and being 'in the thick of it'. It is hard to credibly maintain this approach at the level of municipal politics, but the scale and isolation of Canberra's press gallery create the conditions for this condition to become endemic.

There are far too many horse-race people as it is, and their presence in positions of power within our political system is to be deplored. Leading members of our political parties and pretty much every member of the press gallery operates from this toxic set of assumptions. It is a vast exercise in self-indulgence to cultivate and maintain this attitude at the public expense, and (for journalists) at the expense of their large but struggling employers.

Almost all reporting on federal politics occurs at the level of the horse-race, with no capacity or interest in explaining how this political to-and-fro leads to certain outcomes in the community. This does the community, and individual readers, a disservice. This disservice explains why disengagement from politics and from traditional media is rising sharply and in correlation (not coincidence). This cannot end well for traditional media, nor for the two-party political system, which includes the student-politics-as-training-ground political elite.

Let's take this story. It is entirely natural that a party losing government will revisit policies, particularly contentious ones like asylum-seekers and why those who come by sea are treated so differently than those who come by air. Yet, because of the limited perspectives and journalistic skills of the press gallery denizens who wrote that piece, all they can focus on is the SPLIT SHOCK aspect:
The move comes just three weeks after Labor immigration spokesman Richard Marles told the National Press Club that he fully supported offshore processing and that the Rudd government should never have dismantled the offshore centres ... The motion was due to be debated about a month ago but it is understood it was delayed so that it wouldn't clash with Mr Marles' appearance at the press club.
What this says is that there was never a good time to debate policy, before National Press Club appearances or afterwards. What the proponents of this policy are trying to do are change the minds of Marles and others in their party's decision-making systems, and hence change what they tell the National Press Club - and even what they might do in government.
"We support offshore processing at Nauru and Manus Island as a step which has saved lives," he said at the time.

But a copy of a motion cites the death of Iranian asylum seeker Reza Berati, the "inhumane, unsafe and completely unsatisfactory conditions" for asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru and a lack of independent oversight of the centres, and the lack of processing of asylum claims in both countries as justification for the move.
There is a debate to be had in the two paragraphs cited above, if only the journalists had the wit to draw it out.

It's one thing for the Australian government to decide who does (not) come into this country. It is quite another for it to decide who lives and and dies among people who are not at war with us, and who are vulnerable people not supported by the governments of the countries they came from. This is the debate being had here, apparently within the ALP's normal decision-making forums and processes.

Let us have no nonsense about priorities or time. These journalists have nothing better to do but get some perspective, and there is plenty of information available within and beyond Canberra to build that perspective. This is a debate that does not improve with repetition. Fairfax and traditional-media outlets generally do themselves and their readers no favours by pretending that differences of opinion is a story in itself.

Differences of opinion are a given, even among people of goodwill who like one another and who work well together. Surely journalists know this. Differences of opinion are not, in themselves, a story, and insistence to the contrary by lazy journalists result in them - and their beleaguered employers - being ignored.
Ms Parke and Ms Burke both declined to comment when contacted by Fairfax Media and it is understood the motion is unlikely to win majority support in the caucus room, with many Labor MPs simply unwilling to re-start debate over an issue that plagued Labor for six years in government.
Ms Parke and Ms Burke both know that Fairfax Media lies outside their party's decision-making processes. Neither want to create the impression they are grandstanding at their party's expense. If you understand politics, and respect your readers, then that's the understanding you'd convey to your readers.

If you don't understand politics, and you condescend to people using journo cliches, you end up dribbling the sort of crap Whyte and Massola have dished up. It is standard political reporting, to be sure, but a low and frankly doomed standard at that.

If you can bear it, here is more of it, this time about the Liberals. There's plenty of information out there about Australia's air defence needs and the strengths and weaknesses of the F-35, and none of the three journalists cited could be arsed going into it - even though the issue has been live for more than a decade. This article covers the cost of the JSF, but misses a number of vital elements:
  • There's more to air defence than mere dollar cost.
  • The cost of these machines does not fit with the austerity model put forward by the government on other issues.
  • Throughout the JSF project, costs have skyrocketed and cost estimates are unreliable.
  • The effectiveness of the JSF can only be judged against a knowledge of Australia's air defence needs and an understanding of other products in that market: neither are present in this coverage.
  • Yes, it is the place of Australians to judge the effectiveness of military hardware purchases.
Political parties should be able to handle discussions about policy. A party that cannot bear to bring up divisive discussions is probably a party that is not ready to return to government. Individuals who are that battle-scarred should be replaced. However, if that party is being denied the information it needs to have a debate and make decisions, and then convince others of the merits of its position, then such a position is understandable. Within political parties, and beyond them, the media cliche of SPLIT SHOCK is a prophylactic to understanding rather than a facilitator of it.

Soon, someone like Katharine Murphy will bemoan the banality of our political debate, with no insight or admission about their own role in that, and certainly no answers: their laziness in coming to grips with complex issues, and underestimating the subtlety of their audience to cover up their inadequate explanation skills.

The Conversation tries to set itself apart from the media by using academic experts rather than journalists. However, they do not engage this expertise with an understanding of political processes, using a ruse whereby journalists are given meaningless academic titles like 'Adjunct Associate Fellow' and allowed to dribble on without having learned anything about politics, or journalism, or much of anything really.

Michelle Grattan thinks politics is all about singing from the same songsheet, and deplores "untidiness and some dissent". She trips over a number of silly images on the way to her story, which fails because she won't/can't engage with issues:
In Canberra the Ides of March has recently come in June
No it hasn't. The examples Grattan cites involve very little actually being resolved as a result of the "special frisson" she describes.
Abbott, after arriving back early on Monday from his around-the-world trip, has found some of the first Senate jabs in the struggle over the budget bills coming from his own ranks, with Liberal senators Ian Macdonald and Cory Bernardi attacking the debt levy (which, however, will have an easy Senate passage courtesy of Labor).
Abbott will almost certainly have been aware of this before and during his trip overseas. Macdonald was cheesed off at Abbott because Abbott promised that all shadow ministers would become ministers, but broke his promise to Macdonald. Bernardi is a knucklehead and is in the departure lounge to leave the Liberal Party. Grattan should be awake to this and convey it to her readers: again, the mere fact of dissent is insufficient to support a story.
Abbott palmed the questions off but more generally the government says the material is out of date and what’s relevant is the future, with the budget numbers pointing to alarming trends.
Does the HILDA study address those concerns? Does some reliable third-party source of information help us decide one way or another? In politics, unlike other fields of activity, The Conversation is pretty much worthless.
Even so, the survey does suggest that, as with other aspects of the budget, the government has been somewhat over-egging the problems.
If criticism of the government is valid, you have to wonder about the journalists, and MPs outside the government (particularly the opposition) who allow Abbott to "palm off" important questions. Grattan doesn't realise that a report like this represents an admission of professional failure on her part.
Bill Shorten - who’s been riding high on the polls and is in a better political position than he would have ever dreamed
Press gallery journalists seek access over all other considerations - you know you've got access to a politician when you can access their dreams.
More immediately concerning for Shorten was a claim on Monday at the royal commission into union corruption that when he was a parliamentary secretary in 2009 he had contributed $5000 to the campaign of a candidate in the Health Services Union.

The candidate, Marco Bolano, was an ally of the union whistleblower Kathy Jackson.
Two things should be said about this, and neither should need to be said to anyone with such experience in covering politics.

First, the whole idea of the Heydon Royal Commission into certain trade unions is to get at Shorten, in the same way that the Fraser government set up the Costigan Royal Commission to go after then-ACTU President Bob Hawke. If Grattan's experience has any value, it is in drawing and testing these kinds of comparisons rather than presenting these developments breathlessly as unforeseeable instances of 'untidiness'.

Second, Jackson isn't a "whistleblower", she and her mate Bolano are part of the problem with the HSU. The idea that she was a "whistleblower" was all very well when she first went to Fairfax, hoping to throw them off her scent and play the once-great Kate McClymont for a mug, but there have been developments since then - or before then - and Grattan has no excuse not to be across them. She is being lazy here.
On yet another front, Labor figures on Monday night were grappling with a controversial motion due to be debated at caucus on Tuesday calling for the opposition to reverse its support for sending asylum seekers to Manus Island and Nauru, and to declare that these centres should be immediately closed.
Yeah, well, we examined that earlier. Grattan's snippy final paragraph contains nothing about the effects of that policy on actual asylum seekers, no qualms about morality, nor better ways of doing things. It is wholly inadequate for describing a vexed issue and how it plays out in the normal course of politics.
Even some in the left argue the motion was ill-advised, which shows how far the ALP’s thinking has changed over the years.
Not really. Detention of sea-borne asylum-seekers was initiated by the Keating government in the early 1990s. The then immigration minister, Gerry Hand, was from the left, which shows you there hasn't been as much change as Grattan would have you believe.

After four decades on the job Michelle Grattan practices a kind of goldfish journalism where every new development is a surprise and there are only ever two choices: the status quo or chaos.

Indulging one old journalist might be a mistake, but indulging two looks like carelessness. Shaun Carney, so acute on the downfall of Howard, floundered with Rudd and Gillard and was rightly let go by The Age. Former editor Andrew Jaspan, now at The Conversation, has let Carney have another go:
And yet, for all the energy attended upon them, experience suggests that budgets can generally not be expected to remain in the national conversation for long. Most years, a budget will have lost its news value by the Friday after its release ... But not this year: the 2014-15 budget is the exception that proves the rule. In political, financial and social terms, this budget has so far shown itself to be a game-changer. It has reset the political debate, sparking a community reaction full of heat.
The reason for this is because the budget was the point where all the hot air from Abbott, Hockey et al coalesced and took tangible form. It was where all that uncritical media coverage was shown to be hollow, where the entire press gallery revealed that it hadn't asked the right questions at the right time.

It's quaint that Carney regards "the national conversation" as the same as "what editors of newspapers, TV and radio stations choose to cover".

If you can't get over the SPLIT SHOCK narrative, it will have escaped your notice that Liberal Senator Ian Macdonald put more cogent questions to Finance Minister than all of the other Senators put together and cubed. The manifestation of all that anti-budget energy as heat rather than light should be recognised for what it is: a failure of journalism.
But with its first budget, the government – or more particularly, its treasurer – has presented a set of policies that attempt to redraw and redefine the role of the state. These policies challenge not just what took place under the previous Labor government but also under John Howard.
If you're going to attempt a massive reorganisation of the way the government relates to the citizenry, and vice versa, then be prepared to take the time and put the work in. This government hasn't done that, despite an easy ride from the press gallery and a more than accommodating ALP.
So the government is clearly experiencing trouble because it said one thing and now wants to do another. And yes, of course, this seems odd because of the way in which Tony Abbott successfully pursued Julia Gillard over her carbon tax reversal.
All governments say one thing in opposition and do another in government - hardly "odd". What's happened in this case is that not only have the Coalition under Abbott been deceitful (and that only blogs were alert to this, unlike the credulous traditional media). They developed a set of ideas that were ill-considered and not debated at any level within the community. They appear to be disjointed bits of policy that the US has since moved away from, like privatising the public health system, not relating to Australia and its social and economic conditions in any practical way.
Others, often more sympathetic to the government, including some Liberal MPs, offer the assessment that a good deal of the problem goes to messaging.
I was a member of the Liberal Party in NSW from 1986 to 2000. The party spent much of that time in opposition on both the federal and state levels, and tended to blame the messaging: we need to get our messaging out, if only we could get our messaging through, blah blah messaging blah. Preselection candidates boasted of their 'media experience'. It's as though all problems were technocratic rather than deeper-seated.
On climate change, the government has specifically rejected the application of a price signal.
Abbott said in Washington last week that raising fuel excise was a de facto price signal.
Distilled, the government’s message on the co-payment is that because there is a budget emergency, the impost must be introduced but not a dollar of the proceeds will go to ameliorating the emergency.
That's a stuffed-up piece of messaging right there. Keep in mind that messaging is Abbott's strength, the reason why the Coalition is in government at all. If Abbott has botched that messaging, what hope can anyone have that things will get better for this government?
Do today’s Australians, many of whom – rightly or wrongly – view their taxes as a form of downpayment on an age pension and medical care in their retirement, think that contributing 8% of their wage to the nation’s welfare bill is so bad?
Hockey complained that opposition to his budget was a throwback to the 1970s.

From 1978 to 1983, the Treasurer was John Howard. Howard's budgets were always in deficit. They trimmed welfare spending, in response to public sentiments that welfare recipients were 'bludgers' after decades of low unemployment (shamefully, this extended to less-than-generous benefits and assistance to Vietnam veterans). There was a lot of talk about 'nation building' but little to show for them. In that sense, Hockey's budget is a very 1970s document.

In a situation where half of Australian households receive welfare payments, and where nobody is living the 'welfare queen' lifestyle made popular by John Laws or Mike Carlton in their pomp - Hockey has played the "dole bludger" card but it sits on the table like a two of clubs, rather than the trump he and Abbott had intended. Messaging be damned: this is a failure of judgment pure and simple, and Carney dares not risk his few remaining contacts by calling this out.
The last time there was such sustained public antagonism to a budget was in 1993 ... That broken promise was the deal-breaker between the electorate and that government ... They were different times, of course
Of course. At least Carney is trying here to understand what has happened with this government, and stopped trying to pretend that everything is "unprecedented", "extraordinary" or otherwise using hype where it clearly does not, as the old saying had it, "sell newspapers".

Our politico-media system seems to break before it can bend.

Julia Gillard's conventional political compromise in pursuit of a price on carbon led the media to stop taking her seriously, and to take her opponents more seriously than they warranted. Hockey will need to compromise to get this budget through, and it will make or break him. The traditional media are following rather than leading new media when it comes to politics; and we will have a new politics created though a new media before the likes of Massola, Kenny, Grattan and Carney can even understand it, let alone report on it.

What they think of as strength is really a kind of brittleness, but they continue to portray flexibility and debate as a deviation from normal business rather than the business itself. For all their experience, they are constantly surprised by foreseeable, regular events. People who are surprised by foreseeable, regular events cannot provide steady and responsive leadership nor news of consistent quality. These people should neither be surprised nor snippy when people stop listening to them.


  1. I think you mean "disengagement from politics and from traditional media is rising sharply"

  2. They're all stunned mullets at the moment, still repeating the familiar catchphrases for comfort. Even Chris Berg was pretending to be a bystander on the Drum, which appears to mean the IPA have got the message quicker than their proteges.

  3. I entreated 'Conversation' not to hire Grattan. They thought, and think, they have hired integrity and experience. They are wrong. She has always been a Ken Howard era caller on the political horse race. Nothing else.

  4. As you say, the failure to anticipate 'forseeable event's' is reflective of the absolute absence of substantive political reporting. For the media, politics has the same character as a sporting match, where every action is taken in a vortex without meaningful precedent, context or perspecive much like a play in a game.

    A good example of this kind of empty, contextless political coverage was 'Media Watch' this week. Paul Barry more than any other presenter of that show feels compelled to throw the Murdoch gulag a bone or two. Thus he praised the journalism of the tele and the Australian for continuing their tired and tedious union/gillard/shorten assault and running massive coverage of yet another dredging up of the 20 year old Gillard/union allegations. He then questioned fairfax's limited coverage. So agenda driven ideological smear campaigns now constitute good journalism. Thanks Barry.

    Its an endless reset default. Political narratives or god fobid 'vision' are manutfactured and promoted by the spin doctors and mindlessly run by the media without any attempt to interogate on the level of coherency, consistency, latent political agendas, or policy substance etc. .Abbott's craven political opportunism, moral and ethical vacuity and lack of any coherent and substantive poltiical agenda has made him totally captive to the ideologues of the IPA/Murdoch right. You get the sense that policy is being stumbled into without any proper research, thought, or understanding. Just the sort of thing that can be expected to happen when the media have basically waved a political party through without any scrutiny. The flagrant deceit of the budget and the fact that the Coalition had the audacity to think they could get away with it is another example. This is a government that has become accustomed to not being held to account and we're all paying for it. The political media should be hanging their heads in shame


    1. Yes I found that a bit odd the only thing NEWS & the OZ in particular deserve is a good kick in the Goolies.
      The TURCs first round was a get Gillard egged on by the OZ through one of it chief conspiracy writers one H Thomas.
      Another is the 2 odd pages of attacks on Media Watch over the tobacco lie,mistake whatever by Kerr the uncredited IPA man.
      Now we have the HSU with the kid glove handling of Jackson which makes me think it is just a political witch hunt as Jackson by the looks of it fiddled more than Thomson ever did.
      The thing I will look forward to is if Labour gets back, the absolute green field the stupid Abbott Govt has left behind in inquiries which were ie that Govts let sleeping dogs lie,Abbott ripped that one up and will pay heavily for it also handing over cabinet papers as well change of Govt will be interesting

    2. the previous Media Watch host made similar comments re the yet as no Gillard bombshell..
      I thought is most odd and perceived it as some sort of sop to "balance"
      Nice analysis by the way- as is Elder's/

  5. Andrew, I expect you have done so before, but which media orgs and journalists do you think are doing a creditable job and deserve recommending?

    1. Laura Tingle is consistently good, though even she lapsed into describing MPs not toeing party line as 'rebels'. Lenore Taylor is pretty good more often than not and deserved her award tonight. Nobody else at Fairfax is any good at all, and where the ABC or News get it right it's an accident. Commercial radio and TV (including Karen Middleton at SBS) are muppets.

    2. I'm surprised you left out Simon Benson. His intergrity and dedication to forensically nutting out the truth without fear or favour is unparralleled. Whenever I read Simons work, I'm reassured that Australia can face the challenges of the future with confidence.

      Also special mention to Michelle Gratton for her long and tireless dedication to forging links between horse racing and political journalism. I don't think she gets the recognition she deserves for this - you know getting up at dawn everymorning, reading the press releases, determining which way the wind is blowing, checking the form, allocating the weightings and calling the race with such memorable catchphrases as "This will score well out in the suburbs', 'the government has outpositioned the opposition on this issue' or the classic "this is not a good look for the govt/opposition". No wonder she's a quasi academic these days.

    3. Not enough to make a list! I don't know how many times the questions that an untrained anybody like me thinks needs asking - aren't. Or, when a passably appropriate question gets put, how often the non-answers and diversionary tactics are counted as good enough. Sigh.

      Thanks for your efforts; I see more journalism here, especially about journalism, than we ever seem to get from the 'real' journalists.

  6. Andrew, I am glad that you consistently call out the mainstream journalists - the old names that have been around for decades that used to have some integrity. I used to read them years back when what they wrote was 'meaningful'. Ought there to be a 'used by date' for jounalists? I include Michelle Gratten and Shaun Carney there. Either I have a deal of political enlightenment as a consequence of turning to blogs (this one and others) or they have turned to writing drivel. I have no patience with them anymore.
    I clicked onto the Conversation way back when they first set up and always found it of interest until they brought Grattan on board. I tried reading her pieces but they were so shallow I gave her and the Conversation away (for political commentary). It's a shame that the editors persistent in believing they have an 'expert' political commentater in Grattan - and now you say they have Carney on board as well. Well that's the 'ivory tower' for you - completely out of touch.

  7. you don't have to look far to see the imprint of Murdoch and his lickspittle IPA on most of this bought and paid for governments decisions.. the unoccupied territories.. the lifters and leaners narrative.. the mining and carbon tax repeal...the dismantling of all clean energy mechanisms and the irrational hatred of wind farms can all be traced back to tweets from the master..

  8. Thanks Andrew for another good post , I agree disingenuous journalism is rampant as your post highlights,It drive me nuts as well . The only thing I can add is that the best thing to happen to journalism is the internet because ultimately it will spell the end of it.

  9. Andrew any trust I had for journalists went out the window during the 1996 election not only the biased reporting but when channel 9 used the big bully Kerrey Packer to pump up Howards tyres during an interview with Ray Martin.
    How can we trust journalists when they are so firmly tied to spread political propaganda Steve Lewis Murdoch, Paul Kelly and others that have sold their souls to conservative politics we can no longer believe them. As for the accredited media in Canberra where to gain accreditation your approval is only given by members such as Karren Middleton or David Speers and none of these will allow outsiders in.
    The pack that make up this group dare not step out of line because they will lose the snippets of gossip that is fed to them so what we are left with is a group of parasites like leeches hanging onto the political carcase for our news.

  10. We need to get the message out...

    Media whores engage in blah ,blah,blah Andrew

    Went to see our new Human Rights Commissioner at a recent event and it was embarrassing to listen to the same tired old propaganda he's been espousing at the I.P.A for the last couple of years.

    I got up and left along with my legal colleague sick of the rhetoric.

    Don't forget that Latika Bourke is the most narcissistic idiot I've ever met in our current media

    Avoid at all costs.

    It's hilarious that Gina Liano from The Real Housewives is engagi g I commentary about issues on the Today Show...

    Shoot me now...the teaching profession is complaining about the lack of analysis in our media .

    Very dangerous for children that don't have the capacity to engage critical in thinking.

  11. Stan Grant on N.I.T.V

    Great journalism about Indigenous issues

    Very well done!

  12. The asking of suitable questions seems beyond the ability of journalists and politicians.

    As I write, the Coalition is demanding the repeal of the Carbon Tax on the grounds that Labor has signaled the end of the Carbon tax. What is not mentioned is the introduction of an ETS to replace the Carbon Tax. What is not asked is the reason why the Coalition will continue to pay compensation for a Carbon Tax even after it is repealed - yet cannot afford, they say, the school kids' bonus.
    We have Greg Hunt demanding the repeal of the Carbon Tax so that some 7.8% will come off the electricity bill, saving each family, it is claimed, $550 pa.. What is not asked is how much the electricity bill will go up anyway, even after the repeal of the Carbon Tax. Nor does anyone ask how much the Coalition's Direct Action will cost taxpayers.
    Richard Dennis and Matt Grudnoff for the Australia Institute (2011) claim that if Direct Action were to work properly it would cost each family $1300 pa - way above the cost of the Carbon Tax..
    When the Coalition talks about Sovereign Borders, we can only ask how long they will be able have the Navy and drones patrolling the north in order to deter "illegal" immigrants. The USA has been patrolling its border with Mexico for decades - at what cost! - and still the border is crossed.
    Clearly the electorate has rejected the Budget, so what will be the response when the the Budget actually is implemented - and with the loss of the car industry still to come?

    It is disturbing to remember how no one seemed to ask deep questions of Abbott when, as aspiring PM, he rode around the country, dressed in lycra and changing his clothes to imitate workers, uttering three word mantras. So we were told one thing before the election, something different after.

  13. Condolences to the convicted Journalist Peter Griste and his poor family at the repugnant court decision today.

    Our media is in a frenzy over this incident. ..

    Ms Bishops media conference was interesting to say the least.

    So public with her response from this 'transparent" Government.

  14. That's why we need more sociologists in politics..

    No don't laugh,, it would be a nicer and refreshing change to the political elite