27 November 2014

Media and politics today

All media organisations fancy themselves as political players. In 2013 the traditional media ganged up on the Rudd-Gillard government and levered it from office. Now, the traditional media don't really understand politics, can't report on it, and can't influence it. The ABC's response to politics takes this to a whole new level.

Stop me if you've heard this before

Traditional media organisations represented in the press gallery came to dislike the previous government. Big reforms that had not been extensively canvassed in the media created the impression that the government didn't need traditional media - an impression reinforced by its flirtation with social media.

Traditional media panicked responded in two ways. First, the sorts of grievances and disgruntlements that occur in all governments was misreported as extraordinary, and magnified in importance.

Second, the Coalition was given a free pass; coverage like no opposition had received before, its often inane and occasionally hypocritical criticisms given credence they didn't warrant. No consideration was given as to what an Abbott government might do in office. Coverage of the government was framed by the criticism from the Opposition.

No Opposition Leader before Abbott or since received such uncritical coverage, or so much of it. He got what all politicians want: to be taken at his word. He got the 'green light', in much the same way that dodgy NSW Police in the 1980s gave the 'green light' to career criminal Arthur 'Neddy' Smith. Abbott even looks a bit like Smith at the same age.

The traditional media were aiming to preserve the two-party system. Detailed and cogent criticism of the previous government from the Greens, or Andrew Wilkie, received much less coverage than white-noise like "Well this is a bad government" from the then Opposition. Minor parties and independents tended to be framed as freaks, an unstable rabble, a framing that extended to the ALP itself.

The two-party model cannot be maintained in reporting politics today. The errors made by the government have largely been unforced, their own inadequacies more important than pressure from the now Opposition.

The government has lost the political initiative. The Opposition does not have it. The political initiative is not coming from the major parties, but from minor parties and independents. Political journalists can pick that it's been a bad week for the government, but their usual frame is that must mean a good week for the opposition. They can't admit how few good weeks this government has had, or is capable of.

Having painted Labor as so hopeless, day after day for years, they cannot credibly claim they now have the answers. Nor can they claim, given the polls, that Labor are so hopeless that the shortcomings of the government should be overlooked. Because they don't understand politics today, they will eventually respond by giving Labor's leader (whether Shorten or someone else) the green light that they gave Abbott. That won't help the public decision-making process either, and nor will it help sell advertising space - depends on what you regard as the main game.

Traditional media is trapped with a set of templates on how to report politics that just don't relate to the reality before us. Regular readers will know I hate this more than I can describe, but describing is necessary as a first step to working out how to break it. A man has to have a hobby. In mid-life this beats the hell out of hair plugs and sports cars. It is cheaper, more engaging, and ultimately more constructive than trying to get a girlfriend half my age. And unlike many other hobbies, collateral damage is not worth worrying about.

Mark Scott, the ABC and 21st century politics

An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile - hoping it will eat him last.

- Winston Churchill
Mark Scott is giving 21st century politics a red-hot go, mainly because he's out of options. He's playing a longer game than the government, and even the Murdoch press.

Abbott, Turnbull and the gang thought that instead of letting media organisations play politics, they'd have politics play media. As with pretty much all this government's most cunning plans, it has failed irretrievably within hours of being announced.

Former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser denounced the cuts to the ABC, and to SBS (which his government established). ABC broadcaster Mark Colvin recalled the Bland Report and jeered at what he called Fraser's "double standards". Yet, Colvin and his colleagues at ABC News and Current Affairs thought they were so clever in reporting on the Gillard government in the way the Coalition hoped they might, and for not being 'even-handed' in speculating what an Abbott government might be like. They gladly fed the (contemporary) Coalition crocodile.

Colvin still can't believe he or the ABC would ever be guilty of double standards himself. He can't imagine such an accusation even being made. Such high-handedness and selective blindness makes him the exemplar of not only what's right about the ABC (when he's on song) but also what's worst (when he's not). The extent to which the ABC relies so much upon so few makes the case for cuts stronger, not weaker.

Today, we have a government that disdains to provide journalists with any real information, and to be fair only very few actually bother seeking it out. Today we have a government that can send journalists to prison and spy on their sources. These is what happens when your first priority is maintaining journalists in their pose of balance, to the point where their actual research and story-telling skills wither from disuse. This is why merely reversing the cuts would restore nothing worth having, and increase scrutiny of government not one jot.

Spare us this 'Hunger Games' crap. Honestly. Everyone works in insecure environments these days. Get over yourselves and shut up.

It would be asinine to say that Scott is banking on Labor and the Greens to come through for him, as this shows. It's beyond wrong, it's beside the point. It's just so 20th century.

The two-party system has broken down because communities not considered 'marginal seats' felt neglected, and so are changing their politics to avoid the majors and become politically contestable, getting things done that wouldn't be done if you leave things to the 'professionals'. Denison had been a safe Liberal seat and then a safe Labor one; now it's held by an independent. Indi had been held by 'Black Jack' McEwen and by a putative minister in the current government; now it's held by an independent. Senior Labor MPs Anthony Albanese and Tanya Plibersek face little threat from local Liberals, but are forced to maintain constant vigil against the Greens. Chris Pyne won the safest Liberal seat in South Australia in 1993; now they've stopped listening to him and will chuck him next time.

Community is a thing, keenly missed when it is absent, exulted in when present. Everybody wants their community to be a marginal seat, but it takes hard work and skills that not everyone has.

The ABC builds communities, and maintains them during emergencies. Mark Colvin is a community-builder. So too are Geraldine Doogue and Robin Williams, Tim Cox and Macka. Communities gather around Peppa Pig and The World Game and Australian Story and Q'n'A. Politicians don't represent those communities. They only make their presences felt when they try to knock them over.

Scott has targeted cuts to the ABC in regional Australia. This has flushed out silly Nationals and Liberal MPs in those areas, who have all responded with the much-derided tactic of the Open Letter. They all go something like this:
Dear Mr Scott,

When I voted for swingeing cuts to your organisation, it never occurred to me that you would cut services in my community, or that my constituents would complain so much. It's easy to outmanoeuvre me, and all I can do is squeal like a stuck pig because my persuasive abilities are more limited than you'd expect from someone in my current job. Peta never warned me about this; but to be fair, if she had I probably would have ignored her.

Please, please reverse those cuts, you bastard! You are so not coming to my Christmas drinks.

Yours etc.
In the old way of reporting, where bad news for the Coalition means good news for Labor, this would mean Labor's vote in regional Australia would skyrocket and ... look, it's all too silly. Restoration of ABC funding to rural Australia will not be achieved by the Coalition. It will not be achieved by Labor. It will be achieved by a critical mass of politicians who owe nothing to anyone but those who elect them.

An ABC journalist who has given long and loyal service to a remote community - and who is about to receive a big payout, right in the middle of the parliamentary term - is a potent, direct threat to even the most well-entrenched Coalition MP. The smarter ones know this all too well. ABC presenters are welcomed into homes, vehicles and workplaces far more than even the most affable politician. They cover the gamut of local and national issues, while the Coalition MP is hamstrung by talking points. If they don't run as actual candidates themselves, those people have greater appeal and credibility than those thrown up by parties.

Imagine you're living in a regional area, and you know more about climate change than all the nose-ringed baristas of Fitzroy and Enmore put together. Imagine you're concerned about fracking. Who are you going to vote for?
- a) the incumbent Coalition MP, and Tony Abbott.
- b) Labor, oh yeah.
- c) that ABC journo who did all those 30-minute specials on fracking, teasing out the subtleties of the issue and who stands to win or lose.
- d) a Green who couldn't win preselection for their local city electorate, but who comes with a big recommendation from Senator Lee Rhiannon (whoever the hell he is).

The late Peter Andren, a commercial TV journalist in rural NSW, kept Labor and the Coalition at bay throughout the 1990s. Tony Windsor regards Andren as a role model, and even after his death he has more to offer ambitious regional candidates than, say, Luke Hartsuyker or Joel Fitzgibbon.

The social base on which the major parties were founded is wasting away. The initiative is with community-organising movements, which must necessarily be small-scale. There may come a revival of mass politics later this century, but it is hard to discern from this angle. The smart money is on independents and minor parties, with diminishing majors negotiating terms to enjoy office.

If Scott had wanted to go after the current political class, he would have axed Insiders and smashed the other mirrors in which they regard themselves. But he is playing a longer game.

The majors look silly in their denials that they will (or that they have to) negotiate with minors. They get the legislative composition that the voters set for them, and their challenge is to make the best of that. Labor is better able to get over itself in order to strike a deal than the Coalition. Not only federally in 2010 but in every state over the past 20 years, Labor has won office through a deal with Greens and/or other independents.

This is the future, baby: thumping wins and inviolable mandates will be fewer and further between.

What Scott has done is to mess with the majors, and to ensure that while they might gang up against public broadcasting, they will have to work within a political environment where maintaining and extending the ABC is a given.

Labor underutilised public broadcasting in its pitch for the NBN, and if they do so again (they'd have to resist Murdoch, and the NSW Right in particular could never stay mad at Rupert) they should talk about public broadcasting - not allow the Coalition to witter about hi-def sport and movies. Labor has an advantage in talking public broadcasting, but not much. A future version of the Coalition could peg them back if they really tried, and wanted.

Social conservatives have shown the way, clogging Labor and Coalition parliamentary ranks with churchy freaks implacably opposed to same-sex marriage and to investigating sexual abuse in the churches and the military. This makes minority-held positions look bipartisan - and to be bipartisan is the best politics can be, right?

Issues like political donations, a federal ICAC, euthanasia, gaming reform and biodiversity look scattergun and untidy to those who can only imagine politics as a duopoly. They look like a laundry list of issues which clever manoeuvring and cosy deals can sideline effectively. The recurrence of those issues in public debate looks to such people like a failure of issues management, political reflux; not an authentic expression of democracy.

In the late 20th century, the issues that became crystallised as the Whitlam agenda were like that. Urban planning, no-fault divorce, acquiescence to communist governments in China and Vietnam - I mean, I ask you. Labor only took them up in the vacuum from being squeezed by Moscow and Rome. Labor can't be relied upon to truly embrace a laundry list of issues like that, but they are better prepared to entertain them.

Labor's fading branches, and those of the Coalition parties, aren't discussing those issues - and if they are, the wide boys in those parties ensure they don't get past Conference. The initiative is coming from independents and minors. Mark Scott has pitched the ABC as one of those issues that is always with us - not batted back and forth every time there's a change of government, and neglected in between.


  1. Good one, picking up Scotts long game. Shorten won't have to do anything as this Government is a shambles and will tear itself apart. Abbott has no clue and his advisors must be a group of complete nongs. What competent CoS would let the Prime Minister front G20 with that silly speech? I was a public servant back in the day when in the tradition of 'Yes Minister', Senior Public Servants would save an Abbott from himself by writing relevant speeches and prop him up with a few treasured policies when he'd run out of ideas. Hey now. larks and sprites.

    1. this time around i see the alp as quite achievers,, am hoping the election will have sprinkling of IND as this keeps the mp s on their toes and reminds them who they represent,

  2. Very thought provoking as usual Andrew.

    I think you are right about potential future involvement in grassroots politics in the regions by former ABC staff. I don't live in rural Australia but I feel resentful about this government's belligerence towards the National Broadcaster. I can see how an independent candidate could harness such feelings of grievance in the bush.

    There is certainly a distaste for the two major parties' preoccupation with the marketplace at the expense of community. Attacks on the ABC only intensify feelings of unease.

    It seems to me that as we become more and more part of a global network, people find the comfort of familiarity in the small-scale. We are growing our own vegetables, shopping at farmers' markets, thronging to handcraft fairs. We are even reading political blogs like Politically Homeless rather than reading predictable churnalism offered by the MSM.

    And so I share your view that a local candidate who can harness and give effective voice to local concerns could give the big parties a run for their money. The future of the ABC and fracking could galvanize the regions as would planning and transport issues in certain metropolitan areas.

    It seems to me that when people are constantly being hammered about the large scale and international many of us want to retreat under the eiderdown and focus on the small scale and familiar.

  3. Your form letter to Mark Scott is priceless, Andrew. A couple of coalition MPs have foolishly put these up on Crackbook, and the 4000-odd comments they garner are mostly along the lines of, "Well, you pricks voted for the cuts. What did you expect?"

    I salute you.

    On a tangent, I'm moving to the country in the next year or so, and (despite my age) will consider carefully what you've said about local members with a local focus.

  4. ernmalleyscat27/11/14 10:31 pm

    Good one again. The LNP letter to Mark Scott is spot on.

  5. Great article Andrew, very insightful. Social media and alternative news sources are definitely playing their part in the current media landscape, and they are here to stay.

    I think another aspect of the public turning to independents is that they won't have any "baggage" - the general view these days is that politicians on both sides of the fence are all the same, are in it for themselves, and are likely to be corrupt or corruptable in some way (eg: the latest ICAC investigation in NSW which flushed out 10 Libs, previous ones that have resulted in further proceedings). Independents on the other hand, can be quite nimble, can represent and pursue the views that matter to them and their constituents, without having to resort to "Cabinet", branch meetings, and other forms of centralised control.

  6. I was wondering what the biz was with the regions. Your analysis, Andrew, makes a lot of sense.

  7. Andrew, please don't give up your hobby, we need you.

    I live in rural Victoria so I know how much the ABC means to us.

    We will see what transpires after tomorrows state election, could be a very interesting time politically.

    I look forward to your take on the result.

    1. Prahran result amazeballs!

      So proud to live in this city.

      Complex and interesting

      Clem Newton Brown resigned apparently!

      Historic result in Victoria.

      One term government first time for Victorian Liberals.

      Clearly a frustrated electorate with both parties especially inner city

      Melbourne is the most liveable city as it's about being progressive.

      Wake up Liberal party!

  8. Saturday's Victorian election should be won very easily (at least 5% 2PP I'd reckon) by the ALP, in large part because the coalition has, here too, ignored its election promises (to improve public transport - particularly the Frankston suburban line, but regional lines as well) and alienated teachers, nurses and ambos as well as thousands of people opposing development believed to be inappropriate for their area.

    I'll be voting informally in the Assembly, as I can no longer preference either of the majors, and the Greens can't win in my electorate. I hope to find 5 candidates to vote for in the Council.

    As long as people keep voting for the major parties, I can see nothing changing. Why would it?

    Thanks for your column Andrew, it is a bright light in a very dull landscape.

    1. If the ALP does win it will be interesting to watch the blow-back. It has escaped no-one's notice that Abbott was not wanted on Denis' bus.

      There are obvious rumblings but I think Credlin will be the sacrifice.

      Btw I think the govt will be returned by a sliver.

    2. The Greens will never win if you vote informally #facepalm
      The point is, you can't complain about the major party paradigm status quo if you vote informally.

    3. On the contrary, you can never complain about the major party paradigm status quo if you continue to 'prefer' one of the two over the other, despite the overwhelming evidence that they govern with very little relationship to their pre-election platform/promises.

  9. Wherever I find myself in the world I always read you (currently UK) - don't ever stop writing this blog; I'm completely addicted to your take on Australian politics ... brilliant

  10. Peter Andren is without doubt the model to follow.

    Building on his career as a well known local radio and TV journalist he knitted together an amazing alliance of supposedly opposing groups, without ever being slippery or dishonest about it. He was a monarchist for the Nationals, his greenness was framed to appeal both to greens and farmers, he defended traditional welfare policy as support for country towns and he never faltered in opposing Howard's militaristic opportunism. Each group found smething to like enough to forgive him the bits they didn't like and you could often sense that many of them felt relieved that he facilitated them all working together for local issues that transcended the things that normally separated them.

    I lived in his electorate at the time and knew him personally and of the many politicians I have known and worked with he was by far the most impressive. It has always been disappointing that the greens have never broken through the tribalism to build a rural base but there has never been a more viable time for that than now with CSG threatening to destroy or poison water supplies, bulldoze through farms etc. The greens as a party still may not do that but you and Andren make it obvious how a cadre of recently "liberated" ABC journalists might be able to pull it off.

  11. "Stop me if you've heard this before" - an apt description of your writing Andrew. I've read some pretty good online analyses of politicians' relationships with the media, but you, (almost) uniquely as far as I have seen, go further. You correctly identify the causes of the public's mistrust of both politics and the media, and the difficulties both face due to changes in society in remaining relevant to most people. Now if their eventual demise stems from a failure to understand those changes it will surprise only them.

    Nobody else (as far as I can tell) writes like that ( I used the word 'almost' above because Dorothy Parker aka Loon Pond also identifies the cause and effect, but gives up on trying to predict anything other than the ensuing of hilarity and scorn (not that that's such a bad reaction if you want to retain your sanity).

    Your posts really make be feel better, because I'm happy that there is somebody who understands all this and can write lucidly on it. You comment on Tim Dunlop frequently. As far as I can tell he's the only one who comes close to you. On other subjects there are usually a few who stand out; in writing about politics and the media, you do.

    And as Anon said above, please don't give up your hobby, we need you.

  12. Nailed it :).

    Am I wrong in thinking Mark Scott was an ex-lib and that a good part of the ABC board is also? If I'm remembering correctly then that makes all his maneuvering all the more interesting.

    I was in a sad place today Andrew. I picked up The Saturday paper and had to skim most of the articles because not only had your articles been saying the same thing months before them, in most cases you'd said it better.

    In their main article about the cuts there's a few paragraphs devoted to how unfair the senior staff cut where and how the junior staff survived almost intact. Having been though, and survived, similar circumstance I can tell you the ABC is taking the right approach. If there trying to restructure themselves to be a nimble, online orientated services then digging out the ones who can remember typewriters in favour of the young who live and breath the netz is probably the best course of action.

    As you said, the old hands can look after themselves. I'll give you all the hint: loved community figure + Pozible = new radio station/ newspaper/ community driven media. Don't believe me? Andrew Haug. Triple J sacked him a few years back because metal wasn't connecting with the hipsters. He gave them the bird and started his own online radio station. This year he ran a Pozible campaign that broke it's goals. He took his global music connections and his star power and made it not only work but better then anything that's on offer here or overseas.

    Gen Y is use to death and rebirth, the X's will have to catch up.

    1. Scott was a staffer in the Greiner government when I briefly held more junior roles in the same outfit. I loved the Haug story, a great pointer to the future in both cases.

  13. Hear, hear Anon.

    Btw I was wrong about the Vic govt winning by a 'sliver'. Interesting wash-up ahead.

  14. Andrew, I have just posted a response to Peter Hartcher in The Age stating just what you have argued in your first couple of paragraphs - that had mainstream journalists done the job the media is supposed to do we would not now be burdened with a self confessed liar as PM and a viciously mean and meanspirited bunch of absolutely moronic 'born to rule' elitists running this beautiful country of ours. I would imagine my post will not get past the moderator.
    I will now go back and read the rest of your article. Thank you.

    1. Much to my surprise my comments were published!!

    2. A further thought/rhetorical flourish if I may, Andrew. One of the journalists who seems to be sniffing the wind is Laura Tingle. She just said on Insiders just now that "something really fundamental is happening in Australian politics" and that the Liberals need to understand that claiming they were beaten by a "clever campaign" in Victoria simply doesn't wash.

      Is Laura perhaps the journalist willing to voice this further?

      - Joe.

    3. Yes, read her Quarterly Essay from about 3 years ago. Maybe she'll move on from the idea of a greedy populace.

  15. Not to mention Mark Kenny's idiotic piece this morning. Having just come across the word 'palimpsest', he must use it, inappropriately, in arguing that the Victorian election was really all about federal politics. Mark, the only thing that is clear is that you're either too lazy or too dumb to see beyond the petty world you inhabit. Canberra is not the cynosure for everyone here in Victoria, even if it is for you. Please feel free to use 'cynosure'...

  16. Following Andrews' win last night, the commentary on ABC's Insiders is the usual palaver of nonsense.

    Labor, they claim, won because of its "disciplined campaign" which remained "on message". They pointed to "distractions" caused by Geoff Shaw and the "perception of chaos" about Liberals.

    "Distraction" and "perception" are code words for claiming that voters are empty-headed children able to be dog-whistled. It's much simpler - which for many in the media means "more complex" - than that. The Liberals made promises that Victorians liked back in 2010. More public transport, for example. They then broke those promises.

    If, as I suspect the Federal Liberals will, the "narrative" about this election becomes about Geoff Shaw "distracting" Victorians, it will just entrench their difficulties.

    - Joe