Insofar as it matters any more, the press gallery narrative on the coming election (due on 20 September) can be summarised as follows:
- John Key, the incumbent PM and leader of the National Party, looks confident and has presided over a united team and economic growth.
- David Cunliffe has presided over a divided Labour Party, even though he apparently beat Key in a set-piece 'debate'.
- There are other parties but they are just political tinsel. Therefore,
- It's Key in a canter, so let's make a National victory inevitable and any other outcome a disaster.
Press galleries shrug off accusations of partisan bias - usually levelled by partisans - but they are wrong to defend themselves as unbiased. Their only agenda is to set the agenda, and that agenda is the politics of tidiness.
This is why political journos are constantly alert for gaffes: a gaffe is verbal untidiness. If you're the shadow treasurer and you speak of "eleventy" like it's a number, gaffe! - or maybe you're the shadow foreign minister and you refer to Africa as one country, gaffe! - then, having made a career from piling on gaffes, you can then write a thoughtful column about how our politicians are under such scrutiny and how trivial gaffes are. Other journos will retweet links to your column praising both your thoughtful bravery and brave thoughtfulness, and will go after bloggers who jeer at you.
Political reporting in NZ and Australia has been hostage to the press gallery and its politics of tidiness. In Australia it still is, but you'd be a fool to bet (let alone stake your career) that it will stay that way. In NZ the election narrative has been hijacked by Cameron Slater, an active member of the NZ Nationals, who runs the blog Whale Oil.
Whale Oil is scabrous and nasty and funny and untidy and partisan, in contrast to the bland offerings of the politics-of-tidiness press gallery. It won Best Blog in NZ's premier publishing industry awards, and it is only a matter of time before a focused site like that beats an all-things-to-everyone pablum like Stuff. Whale Oil isn't focused on policy or outcomes but then neither is the press gallery.
Political parties also succumb to the Politics of Tidiness. This used to mean that they and the journalists understood one another and worked by the same rules. With the rise of social media, where any site is no more or less accessible online than traditional media sites, there is no reason why a politician would take their chances with a capricious media when a trusted partisan will both get the message out and frame it in the way they would like.
In the absence of a comprehensive social media strategy (including a budget), a political party relies on committed amateurs with the purple-squirrel rarity of commitment to a political party and facility with social media. A person with long-standing commitment to a political party will not have a commitment to the party as a whole, but will have opinions about aspects (and personalities) within the party that they like better than others. A political party using a committed amateur in social media runs the risk that it will be presented unevenly, that members of the team who fall foul of the house blogger will not receive the same coverage as those in favour.
This is what happened with the NZ Nationals when they started leaking to Whale Oil rather than to the press gallery. One of Key's staffers was accused of leaking to the blogger, and briefing against a sitting minister. Judith Collins, NZ's answer to George Brandis (if she's the answer, etc), resigned after being found out briefing Slater against the Serious Fraud Office.
Nicky Hager had written about the NZ Nationals in his earlier book Hollow Men (which contains a clearer account of how CrosbyTextor works than anyone in Australia has managed), and apparently he's done it again with Dirty Politics, according to Richard Shaw. When Shaw details Slater's nemesis (known as Rawshark or Whaledump) we get into the hall of mirrors that is political shit-sheeting, turbo-charged by the internet, and screw that.
The whole business has destroyed the Nationals' image as Tidiest Party (and thus deserving the prize of government). Having been sucked in to Slater's drip feed, the press gallery lost what cool detachment it had. Both the government and the press gallery who report on it have lost the benefit of the doubt. Whether the Key government is re-elected, and whether or not NZ's press gallery keep on giving one another awards for excellence or whatever, the gig is up. Beef hooked, indeed.
Whale Oil is the bastard son of the UK's Guido Fawkes, which has had as significant an impact on UK politics today as the 17th century coffee-shop scandal sheets that grew into venerable titles such as Tatler or The Spectator. Fawkes, the brainchild of Paul Staines, exposed Labour spinner Damian McBride and NewsCorp's illegal requests for information on its targets. As with Whale Oil, and Woodward and Bernstein or Amy Corderoy's exposure of Alistair Furneval for that matter, it's instructive that the big political exposes come not from within but beyond the press gallery.
Recently in Australia, we have seen the Labor Party get the rough end of the press gallery for their wanton untidiness. Rudd even looked so meticulous, and as for That Woman with the empty fruitbowl ... people like Michelle Grattan run their fingers along the sideboards of the major parties, looking for smudges. Grattan's befuddlement at how Abbott's tidy opposition became an untidy government is understandable only if you excuse her from having to analyse policy and how it might work, rather than merely how it will play.
It is as though tidiness monitoring is what political journalism is, and all it could ever be:
- In Victoria, the ALP is much tidier than the Coalition. The Coalition used to be all about tidiness when they were run by well-bred Collins Street types, but this too has passed.
- In NSW, the Coalition are getting very untidy, but still less than the post-cyclone shambles that is the ALP.
- Labor won in SA because it was tidy but active; the Coalition could only be tidy through inertia, creating doubts as to what might happen if they had to do something.
- In WA, the Coalition government is starting to get untidy, even after it and the press gallery have stopped making excuses for Troy Being Troy. Same with the NT CLP (chock-full of Troys) and Queensland's Newman government trying to rough up the state's fastidious legal community. In all cases, Labor is yet to make their case for comparative tidiness.
- In Tasmania, Labor spent two decades getting untidy, while Will Hodgman got tidier and tidier. He can only get less so with the demands of governing.
- In the ACT, Katy Gallagher has kept Labor tidy while Jeremy Hansen has made no progress on The Road To Tidiness that all successful oppositions must take.
The major parties are not doing this because they are run by dills. They are spending and raising money with the same wit and judgment they apply to taxation. The Federal President of the Liberal Party is a former Communications Minister, and because we are talking Richard Alston here he never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity when it comes to constructive policy on media and communications. They are blowing all that money on ads that prop up faltering traditional media, on mailouts through the faltering postal service, on Mark Textor, stuff like that.
A decade or so ago my NSW Young Liberal contemporary David Miles set up a blog called Capital C. It could have been as big in Australia as Fawkes or Whale Oil are in their jurisdictions, but Howard was in power then and Miles was unwilling to rock that boat - even (especially!) as it began to founder. Miles could have become the Liberal Party's 21st century media guru. Instead, he's just another lobbyist, simpering away on ABC TV's The Drum, defending Coalition positions without the clout involved in having input, or even the dignity of being an official spokesperson. Like Maurice Newman, Miles is just a red herring in a suit. Both he and The Drum diminish one another.
I'm surprised that disgruntled Labor rank-and-filers, rolled and humiliated time and again in their party's forums, haven't taken to social media more than they have. There will be a social media site that will have the juiciest gossip from within a major Australian political party, and journos won't be able to keep away from it. Too late, they will realise that social media has taken the initiative in political coverage, but will arrogantly insist that the press gallery remains the only crucible in which political reporting and
The press gallery in Canberra is already having the narrative gradually taken from it, what with "on water matters" and its union unsure about censorship. The decline of the press gallery is like Hemingway's description of a slide into bankruptcy: first gradually, then suddenly. By the next election, it will have the narrative taken from it so comprehensively that it starts asking those long-overdue questions of what its purpose is, why should we give them any credence or privilege, etc.
The future of political coverage is unfolding in Wellington. Next year the city will host the Global Political Marketing and Management Conference. You could sit around in Canberra and act all shocked when political reporting goes around and past the press gallery, or you could keep ahead of the game so that the important stuff (accountability in a democracy, one's own job, etc.) survives fast and far-reaching change.