08 September 2014

Smears from nowhere

The 'view from nowhere' is a principle in journalism where the journalist affects an impartial perspective and appears to be stating facts so objective that those who speak/write them cannot be held responsible for those facts, or for having stated them in that way. The US observer and academic Jay Rosen has written extensively on 'the view from nowhere' and its use for journalists denying responsibility for their output.

Throughout Julia Gillard's Prime Ministership, it was alleged that renovations on her home were paid for from a slush fund linked to the AWU. She helped set up a legal instrument which led to the opening of a bank account, and all before entering public life. The nation's top journalists were set onto the story and found nothing to corroborate wrongdoing on Gillard's part. On one occasion she fronted a press conference for over an hour and dared them ask anything they liked; the nation's toughest press gallery journalists asked and asked and got nothing.

Despite the absence of evidence linking Gillard to wrongdoing, Anna Patty and Paul Sheehan insinuate that she has something to hide from the Royal Commission set up to investigate this and other matters.

If the Royal Commission uncovers new information that shows Gillard received benefits improperly, then this is an indictment of journalists who kept insisting for years that Gillard had questions to answer, without their being able to uncover any information that required her response.

If the Royal Commission does not uncover any significant new information on this matter, other than that already chewed over by journalists, then this is an indictment of journalists who kept insisting for years that Gillard had questions to answer, without their being able to uncover any information that required her response.

In other words, journalists have let us down either way. In the latter instance, Patty and Sheehan are going to look stupid. They will diminish such credibility as they have in later dispatches.

They (and other journalists) could have spent their time more usefully by investigating what an Abbott government might look like, and whether there was any supporting or countervailing information on their policies beyond their press releases and their set-piece statements. What Gillard may or may not say, or what might be put to her by various lawyers, is less important - especially now that she is out of office - than the systematic failure of the fourth estate.

They are trying to present wrongdoing or negligence by Gillard as given, unproven but detectable and waiting to come to light any day now ... any day now. They would, similar to Rosen's example above, shrug off accusations of bias; but one aspect of bias is the maintenance of a position in the absence of proof. Neither Sheehan nor Patty - senior journalists - will put up evidence of Gillard's wrongdoing, but nor will they shut up about it. Theirs is the smear from nowhere.

If you can accept that Lindy Chamberlain didn't kill her daughter, or that Julie Bishop really feels for asbestos victims, or that Mark Kenny is a journalist deserving your respect - you can accept that Gillard paid for her own bathroom.

Another aspect of journalistic failure is the inability to see discussions on public policy as anything other than political conflict. The issues are lost in such coverage, which only reinforces the idea that the way the press gallery frames political conflict is the only way to do so, under the dual misapprehensions that public policy conflicts are both extraordinary and exciting in themselves.

This is a minor issue but a solid example of fundamental journalistic failure. Is this application 'appropriate' or 'inappropriate'? Do families not live in multi-dwelling units? These are important questions but Henrietta Cook cannot handle them.

Instead, she insists that Victorian Liberal State MP Elizabeth Miller "has been accused of breaking party ranks after she opposed a proposed development that sits within new state government residential zones". She does not say who has made these accusations; she even quotes the state's Planning Minister, a Liberal often mentioned as a potential leader, endorsing Miller's actions. The reference to the mother-in-law of a former Premier is clumsy.
Ms Miller denied she had defied the party line. She said she had been overwhelmed with residents opposed to the development and had simply taken up their concerns with the council.

"I believe residents' concerns are warranted, so I have written to council. It's an inappropriate development for the area," she said.
This might be a worthy piece for the Glen Eira Bugle but it hardly warrants the state and national prominence Cook and her editors are giving it.

A local MP is representing her constituents' views: does Cook not understand how politics works? Does she assume her readers are equally ignorant or more so? Where are the party control freaks giving Miller a hard time about the way she does her job - or are they all in Cook's imagination - and either way, why do they set the frame through which all policy is reported? Who decided that Cook should be denying someone else - anyone, really - a job as a journalist?

Cook is implying that Miller is not being an effective member of the government. In fact, getting involved in issues like this is Miller's best chance of ensuring her continued place in parliament and government. Her use of the passive voice and avoiding quotes on the key issue of division shows Miller isn't breaking anything or defying anyone. Cook and her editors have, in short, written a bullshit article, dishonestly attempting to blow up a standard suburban planning issue into one with wider importance.

The 'view from nowhere' is an attempt by journalists to insert themselves at the heart of an issue while denying responsibility, both for the issue itself and the way they report it. Journalists should be held to account for their failure to understand issues. They should be culpable for attempting to inject hype, bullshit, or blame where the facts of the matter fail to support the thrust of their offerings to the public.

These failures are far more damaging than internet, or 24-hour news cycle, or imaginary goblins that journalists invent to explain away their professional decline. Hype and slant work against journalists, not just (or even) for them.


  1. Thanks Andrew. Hopefully the inquiry into the Gillard matter will be the end of it.
    As you have suggested the pursuit of Gillard seems to have been conducted along the lines of 'keep digging, something may turn up'. Except those leading the charge are not digging, they are simply turning over well-raked soil.
    You are right, if the inquiry finds Gillard has a case to answer then the investigative skills of journalists will be seen to be very slight indeed. Not that that will be acknowledged. Columns will be filled with crowing We Told Ya so stories.
    But they haven't and are not telling us so. They write story after story maligning a person without offering absolute proof of wrong-doing.

  2. VoterBentleigh9/9/14 7:17 am

    One of the reasons that the Victorian ALP lost Bentleigh (Elizabeth Miller's seat) at the last state election was that the previous Government pushed through two developments for social housing, by-passing the normal processes, so that the residents had no say in the nature of the developments which took place. Even though he was generally well-liked, some residents did not believe the local member, Rob Hudson, when he claimed that he had not known about the proposed developments.

    Since the seat is currently on a wafer-thin margin and was instrumental in the Victorian LNP gaining Government, both the ALP and LNP recognise that it could go either way and planning issues are a regular issue in the electorate and could affect the outcome of the State election.

    Elizabeth Miller has been more ineffectual as a local member than the previous Liberal member proved to be, so you are right to say that she could gain votes from supporting residents on such an issue, which is precisely why the ALP shadow minister is suggesting that she is breaking her party's ranks, questioning whether she genuinely supports the residents or whether her advocacy is just a PR exercise to save her job. Given that the LNP has only a one-seat majority, their new state planning regulations may loom large in the minds of voters in many other seats too, since, if the regulations work to lose Bentleigh, they could also work to lose seats elsewhere.

  3. Other appalling failures of investigative or even responsible journalism are the Peter Slipper case and Craig Thomson. There was no reporting in MSM anywhere (that I read) that questioned the truth or lies being fed to the public in either of these cases. In one case the Fairfax journalist (so memorable I fail to remember her name but others undoubtedly will) actually got a Walkley award for her coverage of the Craig Thomson case. She willingly, stupidly or duplicitously accepted Kathy Jackson's lies and helped to 'hang' Craig Thomson. The award should be taken from her - she has degraded it.
    Now we have James Ashby coming out with a minute particle of the truth re the Peter Slipper case. There is a whole tsunami of truth ready to envelope the Coalition if the MSM media were to get off their backsides and start doing their jobs part of which is to protect the democracy of this country that is, and has been, sorely trashed by the people? - don't what else to politely call them - currently governing this once wonderful country.

    PS In your paragraph re Lindy Chamberlain - by linking her name with those other desparados it reads that you believe Lindy did kill her baby. I hope I read that wrong. From the first magistrate's findings I never believed she did and she has been exonerated. Yet another failure of resposible journalism in which Lindy was found guilty by the press because she wore a different outfit every day. Maybe someone ought to have handed out copies of Camus' 'The Outsider'.

    1. I believe that Lindy Chamberlain didn't kill her baby. I used it as an example of what was once a matter of public debate which is now settled.

  4. For an example of just how pathetic our MSM is, you can't go past this effort from Aaron Patrick (whoever he might be). http://www.theage.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/five-questions-julia-gillard-should-answer-20140910-10eqra.html

    The questions are breathtaking in their stupidity and irrelevance. Paraphrasing slightly:
    . Why didn't you realise your boyfriend was a crook earlier on?
    . You said something in your exit interview with SG that I think incriminates you. Does it?
    . Why didn't you do your paperwork properly when you were at SG?
    . Did SG sack you?
    . Is union corruption a problem in Australia?

    I mean, honestly. No wonder the MSM is in decline.

    1. Patrick didn't do his research. And he won't six or twelve months from now, when he writes the same piece again

  5. So I listened through Ms Gillard's evidence today waiting intently for the gotcha moment. Details I haven't heard or fresh revelations of wrong-doing. Nothing. The only excitement came when Mr Stoljar almost weed his pants when Gillard used the term invoice rather than receipt - but much to Stoljar's disappointment she had actually used the term in her written statement. DAMN, swing and a miss.

    Nothing there, pathetic, truly pathetic.

    1. Trapped in their own narrative

    2. Matt and Andrew. So true.
      I sense the Australian will pull their heads in on the Great Renovation Scandal. I thought yesterday's heading: you be the judge, indicated retreat. The Ditch the Witch chorus will continue shrieking though.

      I did not see JG being questioned yesterday but I have heard and read the highlights. What struck me, and, it appears, many others, was how impressive and dignified she was.

      What a contrast.

      Ms Yossarian

  6. That Sheehan piece was the one of the biggest turds that Fairfax has dropped on its readers in memory. It was so bad that they preemptively turned off the comments.

    He leads in with big calls in the first paragraph about how corrupt Gillard is, then backs right off by the end of the article, cowering about hints of this and whiffs fo that, so as not to get his pants sued off. He should quit just for being such a pansy about it or tell us what he really thinks.

    Sheehan's only value to that masthead is as rage-bait. They hope that people would be so incredulous at how terrible the article is, that they might actually share it just so that others can know what a fuck-wit Paul Sheehan is.

    And they expect people to pay for that. Not in today's internet, Fairfax.

  7. I think it should be called "The Vanstone/Grattan Test": Can you prove yourself innocent? Of what: it doesn't matter. If you can't, we'll call you "tainted" and smear you for ever

  8. Paul Sheehan look stupid?
    I think you mean stupider. He is a waffler of the first order.