04 September 2014

Where the press gallery beef hooked

The Parliament of New Zealand has its own press gallery, and it falls prey to the failings of all press galleries. It has its doyens (Colin James), its pack mentality (there's only ever one story and we're all going to write it no matter what) and the unshakeable conviction that the way it is must also be the way it has to be. The way the gallery reports on politics is, even now apparently, the only way to report on politics.

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.
This is the politics of tidiness: the political party that presents the most couth, affable and easily summarised front to journalists wins. Their reward is to have their statements reported without serious challenge, while their competitors are either not reported or framed such that their words are to be mistrusted. Incumbent governments tend to win the tidy politics prize, with their extra resources and the higher stakes involved in decisions taken, but occasionally oppositions make a convincing case when incumbents let things slide.

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.
Some organisations are setting up their own media operations, including social media, to outflank moribund traditional media. The AFL is most advanced at that, relying on Channel 7 while preparing to screw them in a few years. If the major political parties were smart they'd do likewise, replacing press releases with their own pre-prepared grabs. You might say the press gallery would never cop that, but what choice would they have? This would be the only valid explanation for the major parties' insatiable lust for fundraising.

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 agenda-setting context are forged.

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.

15 comments:

  1. Labor is indeed already working on setting up their own news/commentary site (the Labor Herald).

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  2. I did enjoy your observations this morn.
    I laughed out loud at the image of MG running her fingers over the sideboard, although she would have been on the look out for dust, not smudges. That is a man for you, never seen in a pinny and therefore, not to know.

    I loved the description of M Newman as a 'red herring in a suit'.

    In particular I share your ennui at the gotcha moments presented by tongue slips like 'eleventy' and Africa being a country. We could add Canadia here and Leigh Sales moment of glory when TA tripped up and she was hailed far and wide as an insightful interviewer.

    I have just realized that I have not had a newspaper in my hand for six months or more and the on button on the TV's remote control could well be frozen. I will watch 60 Minutes on Sunday night for the first time in 10 years to see if they really deliver the goods on that Slippery affair on the Sunshine Coast.

    Ms Yossarian

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  3. What are the chances of a concomitant "slide into bankruptcy: first gradually, then suddenly?" for the LNP?
    I think they might be on the gentle slope already.

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  4. I do like "tidiness" as the G.U.T. of politics as practiced by the courtiers of the press. I also think that the honest disruptors, like you, Mr Denmore, Clarke & Dawe, the Chaser mob, and some from Crikey, the Gruniad, IA etc are already eating the supports beneath the NewsCorpse facade. I look forward to the collapse of tidiness.

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  5. Andrew, over at The Drum Barry Cassidy is singing the praises of Tony Abbott and has been soundly put in his place by the commenters.
    It's good click bait but to me the MSM narrative is becoming harder and harder to sell.
    To sell something these days the product must not only be reasonably good but get reasonably good reviews on the web. It's normal to trawl the web before buying.
    Therein lies the problem for the press gallery.

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  6. No mention of Hillary Bray?

    The prospect of a Young Labor version of FuckedCompany.com is a remote one. Shit sheet sites like that are the exception rather than the rule, even in America. Australia is too small a town, and it's difficult to bypass libel laws.

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    1. Are you kidding? Landeryou used to open his page up for any YL cadre that wanted to hang shit on their rivals.

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  7. Bushfire Bill5/9/14 9:08 pm

    Let us not forget Leigh Sales' famous call to arms directed at young journos on their first federal election campaign: witness a gaffe and you've made your bones.

    Sheesh.

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  8. Forgive me Andrew but you have turned into my Wailing Wall.
    I have scanned some of the on-line MSM commentary today and I have snapped the tablet shut with a snort. THEY who supposedly illuminate have woken up to the idea that Abbott is ideological.
    How could THEY have failed to notice.
    Abbott is a man of extreme character. It was not enough for him to be a devout Catholic. He had to enter a seminary. He needs a doctrine for which to fight. Whatever it takes. He told us so himself. Why wasn't he heard?
    He is an ideologue. If he steps back it is a matter of timing. His reputation as a middle-of-the-road pragmatist can be traced back to his caution over Work Choices while as a member of Howard's cabinet. A false reading in my opinion. Abbott had sniffed the wind and knew that the time was not right.

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    1. The Press gallery are courtiers in the service of King Rupert: Abbott thinks he's the Chancellor, but is actually the Fool.

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  9. Inertia is becoming political gold in Australia as change is a frightening proposition for the Australian electorate and that is the Prime Ministerial bread and butter for Abbott's diet of staples that nourish his lust for power. I don't see any ideology from Tony who is increasingly learning the merits of pragmatism, the magician who made the push to bigotry through 18c just disappear and replace it with a push for bigotry and no one could see the slight of hand, they were hypnotised, mesmerised by his spell.

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  10. Ideological or not? Tony's whole life has been as an alcolyte to other powerful figures - god, Santamaria and Howard being the foremost ones. He's a pragmatist first and foremost because that is the obvious mode for someone so lacking in personal strength amd convictions. Pragmatism is the default mode for the chronically vacuous. Like any diety worshipper Abbott no doubt is keenly aware of his fundamental inadequacy. His maniacal exercise routine is just a form of self flagellation that attones in some way for this inadequacy. The lack of empathy for the disadvantaged is just another expression of this - in Abbotts world, people are disadvantaged for a reason - usually of their own making.

    As PM, he is pretty much identlical to George Bush Jnr. Not very bright, priviliged, and easly dominated.. This makes him easy prey for the hard ideologues (just as Bush was firmly in the grasp of the neo-cons), who have rushed in to fill the void. WIth the IPA and Rupert as the latest focus of his ingrained sychophancy, the rudderless ship was only ever going to veer hard down the path of ideological extremism. Abbott, like Bush, is just a puppet.

    What he'll be banking on is that, as with other powerful father figures in his life, including god, the sun king's media reach and propoganda will get him through. It must be reassuring to know that spineless mediocrities like Hartcher and Gratton will usually fall in with whatever political narrative the murdoch hacks go with. With a MSM of this quality, and God and Rupert willing, he no doubt goest to bed everynight with a hail mary that he'll be vindicated as one of the chosen ones.

    Sean

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    1. Good comment, Sean.

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  11. Royton DeAth9/9/14 9:28 am

    Andrew as a long time lurker and admirer I'd like to thank you (albeit late in the piece) for the above post.

    The Hager expose is essentially about the NZ National (RW) party using a "two-track" system, imported from the USA to maintain plausible deniability of dirty tricks used by its party elites. This has resonance for a number of revelations in this neck of the woods (e.g. ICAC, Slipper, Thomson etc. etc. ad nauseam).

    The NZ MSM, by and large, by their own account, have been "gamed"; some reporters have had the grace to be moved to mea culpas. But. This volte face by the Press would not have happened without Hager's investigation. In short, it didn't matter until it did. (Shaw's article, which you reference, is somewhat light on about the ramifications of what has occurred).

    I know. I know. Understandably, the domestic affairs Across the Ditch don't have much interest for many Australians. But. Want to see/know how labour relations policy, deregulation of health, education and so on - as currently pushed by the Abbott crew, works out? Check your neighbour out. Carefully. (Also note who are "advising" politically. The Smartest Boys in the Room: C and/or T).

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  12. I don't ascribe to the either/or argument about Abbott being either an ideologue or acolyte of the rich and/or powerful. I do not think the two descriptions are mutually exclusive. I think Abbott is ideological and that he is drawn to people who share that outlook and for whom he can deliver outcomes.

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