05 July 2015

Doubting Thomas

Occasionally some self-indulgent fool from the Canberra press gallery will complain that they all work so hard and are so put-upon, and all it does is keep in mind why press gallery journalism has failed on every level - including failing its very practitioners. The latest is this joker.

As I write this, I'm overseas and have only seen the first episode of The Killing Season. I thought it would be hard to convey the bureaucratic log-jam of Rudd's office on television, and the show barely even tried to do that. Without the incompetence of Rudd's office you can only explain Rudd's downfall the way Rudd and his supporters seem to do: that Gillard was a backstabbing bitch. The first episode seemed to be a condensed and warmed-over version of the he-said-she-said crap that passed for journalism at the time, but with mood music. I will give those episodes I haven't seen the benefit of the doubt, but let's hope they are corkers.

This blog isn't about a TV show. This blog is about the way politics is covered by the sorts of organisations that employ members of the press gallery. It dealt with the events covered in the show in more detail than any TV show ever could.
The story, told by veteran journalist Sarah Ferguson, will scoop the pool at the Walkleys – the journalism industry’s own award night.
Last year Ferguson hosted the Walkleys. She had to yell to be heard even with a PA system, because members of the industry in which she's a veteran kept talking over her. It might be unfair to assume she's used to this, being married to Tony "Talkover" Jones, but it's undeniable that every pissed hack there owes her an apology - and maybe some consideration about what professional courtesy and recognition might mean.
But it omitted a major angle. The role of the media in the downfall of two Prime Ministers.
I would have reviewed those two episodes very keenly for such an angle, and regard this as a spoiler that no such angle exists. No wonder she's up for a Walkley. You only win a Walkley in two ways: a) gushing about the Australian media, or b) morosely comparing every wanker who rehashes PR emissions to Peter Greste.

Thomas raises an important point, but starts making excuses in the very next paragraph:
Trying to fit months of excitement into an hour of TV means things must be skimmed over.
In three hours (not one) you can get across the salient points. That sentence offers yet more proof that whenever a journalist lapses into the passive voice, they are up to no good.
The political journalist’s job is absurdly stressful and difficult. I doubt many people could imagine how precious time is for a working journalist. Deadlines don’t just loom. They crash down. There is scarcely time for typing, let alone time for reflection.
Oh, fuck off. Fuck right off, you absurdly ignorant twat. And when you've fucked off from there, fuck off from more until ... no, just fuck off.

It's 2015. Everyone's stressed. Everyone's busy. Everyone who does the sort of job for which you need a university degree does the sorts of things journalists do: they gather information (some written, some verbal) and then analyse it, and then present those findings in written/other formats to deadlines that often shift in both time and importance.

Those people - we - need people to tell us how we're being governed, and options for how we might be governed (which involves more than the banalities of the major party not in government this year). If political journalism has a business model, that's it. To do that job, you have to get over yourself and do the best you can with what you have; not plead for special consideration to which journalists are simply not entitled.

The first step toward journalists getting over themselves is to respect that others are busy, and to do the hard work necessary to explaining complex issues "as simply as possible - but no simpler", as Einstein* put it. When you resort to cliche it's like the news doesn't matter, like it's some sort of make-work scheme for you and your silly mates which taxpayers/voters can safely ignore. When you refer to your eructations as 'yarns' it implies you don't even care whether or not they are true.

The failure to take that first step is why the broadcast media is dying. Internet or bonus hogs in the executive suite are secondary to this primary failure. But don't let that stop you whining, Thomas:
Pondering the role of the media in shaping political events is a job for retirement. Their job is to get stories out the door. Now.
And their performance in doing that is a legitimate field of inquiry by those who practice journalism, those who manage journalists, and those who are subject to it. Again, everyone is busy, and everyone could do their jobs differently and better with a bit of reflection on what you're doing and for whom you're doing it (other than yourself). Never mind retirement - even journalists who stagger under the weight of awards and cracker stories find practitioners sneering at them when they proffer advice.
Even if journos wanted a critical reflection on the media, where would it be found?
Never mind what journalists want, this blog and the others linked to at right of this screen give them what they need, good and hard and often. Pearls before swine, but pearls nonetheless.
The mainstream media is not in the business of introspection.
The mainstream media is barely in business at all. If this is to change, it must change its ways. Change is most likely to occur from frontline journalists waking up to themselves; the people currently running media organisations will never be able to reform them to the extent necessary to ensure their survival.
So the press gallery favours a paradigm where they merely observe and report. If speculative reports come true, the paradigm is only strengthened.
Where speculative reports fail, they are ignored - the Young tweet Thomas quotes is of a boy who cried wolf so many times he became a joke. It is worse for a journalist to be ignored than merely sacked, or even imprisoned. The broadcast media has clogged the arteries of its public trust with rubbish speculation to the point where life-giving corpuscles of policy discussion and execution barely get through. Journalists who are risible are not "strengthened", not even in some inside-journalism have-a-Walkley sense.
But of course media practice changes politics. Without the media acting as it does, we’d not have half the policies we do. Boat arrival reporting drives asylum-seeker policy, for example.
Yes. When Scott Morrison stonewalled about "on-water matters", journalists became relieved at not having to do any reporting work and started rewarding Morrison for his guile. When Morrison said the boats had stopped, they believed him. Now it turns out the boats haven't stopped at all, and the journalists can't get past their own narrative to report what's going on.

It's one thing for the government to treat journalists like the ignorant, up-themselves, stress-bunnies that Thomas and I agree them to be. It's quite another for the government to treat us all in that manner, by extension, which is what you get when you embrace the fantasy that journos just observe and report and hold decision-makers to account.
The media’s lens made John Howard trim those eyebrows and Joe Hockey get lap-band surgery.
Not sure those count as policies, Thomas.
But this is not a major subject of the thinkpieces that damn modern politicians’ inadequacy.
We're already across the idea that the broadcast media aren't that introspective.
As in any mob, no individual can be blamed.
This is where Thomas' laughable self-indulgence veers into the outright stupid.

The members of a mob are unknown and unknowable before they appear without warning and wreak their unpredictable havoc. Members of the press gallery are known quantities who mostly operate by turning complex developments into reruns of events that have happened before. Look at any journalist's twitter feed and you'll see genuine longing that some new development was not more like something that happened under Howard, or Hawke/Keating, so they could just cut/paste the old story and call it a day.
Picking on Grattan or Oakes or Lenore Taylor is silly.
Picking on them is. Going back over their record and doing a thorough and professional quis custodiet ipsos custodes job manifestly is not. They are responsible individuals and should be held to account just as individual members of braying mobs in the Parliament are. If you're going to recognise individuals enough to give them Walkleys and other gongs, you can't then absolve them of any blame attributable to any "mob" which they join.
There are around 180 journos in the official press gallery, from dozens of outlets. Then thousands more weighing in from beyond Canberra.

It’s rational behaviour for any one journo to see everyone else reporting leadership speculation, and so to report leadership speculation.
Actually, it isn't. The opposite is true.

Journos hate the idea that their industry is not unique and that other industries are irrelevant to theirs, but fuck that and fuck them. Here's an example: in the suburb where I live there would be a couple of hundred restaurants. They too face regular deadlines, but because they're not drama-queen journalists they just get on with it. Some serve hamburgers, but not all do. Some serve bibimbap and others serve laksa. You can get Coca-Cola at many but not all. The idea that there is only one meal available is nonsense.

If I order a lamb curry, I don't give a fuck of any type whether or not it might be easier to make a peanut-butter sandwich. If it is served cold, I don't want to hear about all of your [food industry equivalent of Walkleys]. It is not the time to harangue me about veganism either. If you're going to package journo yarns as content for consumption, then you set a higher standard than that under which in-house criteria might have been developed.

Consider that restaurant staff often earn less than average wages, while press gallery journalists get salaries and other perks of fulltime employment (not to mention taxpayer-funded parliamentary resources) enjoyed by almost nobody in the restaurant industry. You'd think that the press gallery would get some perspective on their lot in life and shut the hell up - and if they have genuine problems, chances are journalists will have stronger support mechanisms than restaurant staff.

The number of stories produced by press gallery journalists should be at least 180 to the power of 180 (180180), one of those mind-boggling numbers used only by astrophysicists. When the Budget comes out each year, you might be forgiven for thinking it's nothing more than a speech from the Treasurer - it is a document that runs to thousands of pages over numerous volumes, and in it are more than enough stories to keep at least 180 journalists broadcasting for a year. And then they do another one the following year.

If there is really ever only One Story, then 180 journalists is too many to cover it. 18 is an extravagance. Even 1.8 is more than is required. Why not just run algorithms over press releases?

The idea that there's only ever one story at a time is rubbish. It's the opposite of what's true, like the crashing deadlines thing. Thomas' argument is pretty much dead now, but let's shoot the stragglers:
Indeed, the media organisations can throw up their hands too, and say they merely serve an audience. If those stories did not draw frenzied millions of clicks, they would not publish them.
That's crap too.

When this blog was starting, broadcast media carried a lot of content about an individual called Paris Hilton. Serious news consumers like me complained, but broadcast media asserted there was a wide and deep audience for Hilton's comings and goings, and that they were mere servants - if not slaves - to the indomitable public will.

In truth, nobody gave a damn about Paris Hilton. Even people who had sex with her felt that way. All that content - and there was so, so much of it - was supply-driven rather than demand-driven. At some point Hilton's publicists simply turned off the supply of content, and the media stopped reporting about her - much like Scott Morrison did with the boats.

If there really was an audience among broadcast media consumers with a genuine interest in Paris Hilton, that audience was simply abandoned by the very same broadcast media that insisted it was not only real but insatiable.

Over the period between Hilton's bouts of obscurity, the media's reach, circulation, and credibility declined rapidly. It was in no way "strengthened" by this charade of concocting a Paris Hilton audience and then pandering to it.
But having no individual at whom the finger can be pointed doesn’t matter for a meta-analysis.
It's begging the question about journalistic culpability, and that of the organisations which employ them.
The reporters and outlets can be basically innocent ...
No, they can't (see below).
... and the industry very much implicated.
No it can't (see below).
(Much like the problems within Labor don’t end with Shorten or Gillard, or even the people who responded to those polls ‘Dasher’ Dastyari was so smitten with.)
The problems with Labor under Whitlam continued under Hawke and Keating, but the party was not only able to win elections but govern in between. I'm not as bothered by "the problems with Labor" as either the press gallery is, or as some ALP members seem to be. There are other issues to which Labor, and other responsible entities, should address themselves. I hope the press gallery might examine those issues - but they probably won't, given that veteran industry veteran Sarah Ferguson can't be arsed and nobody else in the mob can either.
Having been in the media and seen how much power there is, how lightly governed it is, and how much you can get away with, it’s amazing.
No it isn't. Just because you came down in the last shower it doesn't mean we all did.
What’s the Finkelstein inquiry, you ask?
Not me asking, fella. Some of us followed it, and the coverage of it, and were not nearly as shocked as you were. Another begged question.

The Finkelstein inquiry was a bit like current inquiries into trade unions, or the institutional sexual abuse of children: an institution so powerful, so arrogant, so heedless of the rights of individuals, can appear so vulnerable under examination. Only when you consider that institution in a wider context that went beyond either perpetrators or victims did it make any real sense, and only then can it be governed effectively (whether internally or externally).
But the media is not above reproach.
Just because you regard that as a big admission, it doesn't mean we all do.
The Killing Season included at least two examples of politicians backgrounding journalists with information that may well be fake. Arbib saying he’d reconciled with Rudd in 2013, and the SMH reporting Rudd was checking his numbers in 2010.
So much for "having no individual at whom the finger can be pointed" or "reporters and outlets can be basically innocent".
Reporting off-the-record comment means that the public can’t check its veracity. It requires utmost trust in the reporter. That trust was eroded during the period in question.
Really? Peter Hartcher was Political Editor of the SMH in 2010, and he holds that position today. There is an old saying about how nappies and political offices should be changed regularly, but strangely this does not apply to the press gallery: where is the press gallery journalist who has suffered a fraction of the opprobrium that fell upon Peter Slipper, or Godwin Grech, or Craig Thomson? Even people who thought they deserved it felt sorry for them. No, really, give me more of that journo self-pity please.
But off-the-record comment is just a small moving part in a big machine. The influence of the media on politics is like the water fish swim in – so pervasive they don’t notice it or question it.
They do very little else but notice and question it - another Thomas assertion that's palpably false. It's a fantasy that you can only understand the media by working in it, that you can't reverse-engineer a lot of it and compare it to non-journo activity.

Then, there's Thomas doing what he accuses others of: brushing aside a genuine fact as though it doesn't matter, as though baby and bathwater must both go out if the Narrative says so.
Politicians would be starved of oxygen without the media.
Garbage. There are 226 members of federal parliament, and the press gallery cover a couple of dozen at most. Politicians need a connection with the voting public, even in dictatorships; their relationship with the media is a subset of this, not the whole story. Social media, direct mail, parliamentary printing allowances, even old-fashioned shoe-leather in some cases - all mitigate the political risks that come from over-reliance on the broadcast media.

For example: I'd argue that Chris Pyne would be a more effective politician if he spent less time with the press gallery.
Like a current in the water, we can normally only identify it by the ripples.
Depends who you mean by 'we', really. Experienced specialists should have more diagnostic tools available than having a squiz at some ripples. Focusing on some ripples in one place does not mean that there's nothing important going on elsewhere.

It is not only journalists doing the framing; they too are framed by those who feed them information. Sometimes journalists are aware of this and quite enjoy being duchessed, feeling no need to trouble readers with any narrative but the one they're fed. Mostly, however, they are just gulled - too dumb to see through it but too proud to admit it. These are the people for whom Thomas dies in a ditch, with that looming crashing etc.
Note: I can see the response this piece is going to provoke
No you can't. You'd have to get over yourself to succeed at that. Rudd supporters were few and far between in 2010 but the press gallery told us otherwise. Whatever the "problems with Labor" were/are, the press gallery told us Tony Abbott was the answer. They were wrong about that, too.

Abbott runs a control-freak, policy-hopeless PMO just like Rudd did, but the press gallery still can't report on policy and process. As soon as Abbott attracted a fraction of the scrutiny Rudd and Gillard did, he went to water, promised to reform, but palpably didn't. The press gallery can't report on that either because their "Tony 2.0" fantasy keeps getting in the way (more on that later).

We just don't have the information we need on how we are governed, and how we might be governed. Fuck the press gallery, fuck everyone who makes excuses for the press gallery, and those who keep them in the manner to which they have become accustomed. Never mind that you're a little cog in a big machine - fuck you too, Thomas.

Update 8 July: Thomas, or should I say Jason, has published a follow-up post. Here's why he's still wrong:
  1. I'm not anonymous. I use my real name on this blog, and elsewhere. Jason/Thomas makes the starfucker mistake of assuming that because he's never met me, I must be anonymous. This is pretty rich from someone who can't even agree on what his own name is.
  2. The circumstances/context of the Australian media show that they can't get over themselves, and that their impact recedes by the day. When it comes to the way politics is covered, leading broadcasters have institutional advantages that the rest of us lack, and yet they squander those advantages by interviewing one another, jockeying for drops and other examples of journalistic malpractices that Jason/Thomas excuses.
  3. I understood his blogpost very well indeed, which is why he sought to shift the debate to other matters (body image, structural weaknesses in representative democracy, his CV) where he fely less uncomfortable.
  4. It isn't me who's the hater. I only judge journalists by their output, and his output on that matter was crap and I was right to say so. Journalists seek to "get under the skin" of their subjects, engage in cod-psychology about their personalities and motivations, which leaves little room for fact-based reporting on what those people actually do. The reason why the press gallery are so surprised by Tony Abbott all the time is because he has gulled them with a false persona of reasonableness that belies his red-in-tooth-and-claw policies. When you judge Abbott by his actions, press gallery coverage of him doesn't make sense. Jason/Thomas can't engage with the systematic failure of political journalism, which is why he attempted to play the man (me) and not the ball (the systematic failure of Australian political journalism over the last decade at least).
  5. After admitting to drafting but not sending strongly-worded responses, he makes himself look better than he is by offering an olive branch. He can't admit he's wrong, and gives every indication that he's dull company: unreflective, resistant to differing opinions not deadened by cliche, insistent upon tinkering with failure and respecting those responsible for it.
He can continue to bellow like a steer with its head stuck in a fence for all I care, for he is stuck in a paradigm that all evidence shows cannot be reasoned with and is only bound for destruction. The false appearance of reasonableness might get you places in a newsroom but excusing the inexcusable simply gets in the way of those of us with a genuine interest in being well-informed about our society, our community, our affairs of state.

I met more than my share of dull drinking companions in the Liberal Party, thanks anyway Jason/Thomas. You can regale them with your cliches, and they with theirs, with a good time had by all no doubt. Even his choice of drinks and venue would be cheap and dreary. No thanks.

* Do not ask which newspaper Einstein wrote for. Don't.


  1. thank you once again for your interesting writing.

  2. Einstein wrote for the Skibbereen Eagle. A court reporter.

    I tried to watch the Killing Season but I petered out. I watched the first ep and then two weeks after it aired I caught up with the third episode. I did not see it through.

    It told me nothing I did not know.

    I would not be surprised to learn that many people are unsurprised that politicians battle each other for leadership positions. After all we see it happening often enough.

    I think we will be waiting a long time for the media to examine itself. Those journalists are content to play in the shallows reporting on onion eating, ministerial threats to terriers and a visit to a US battleship by a PM who had kitted himself out like Biggles for the occasion. How funny was that? How long was that flight?

    I wish some reporter would make it his or her mission to plunge straight into murky waters and find out what lurks in the deep.

  3. Brilliant. Just brilliant.

    I linked on your 'this joker' link as soon as I read it without continuing on to read the rest of your essay.
    I read Thomas and thought "OK, its got a few weaknesses but overall its not bad".
    Then I went back to your evisceration of Thomas' piece and saw what I should have seen before.
    Thanks for that, it's why I come here.


    1. "Thanks for that, it's why I come here."

      as do I....

  4. I agree with all you write here 100%.

  5. Hi, thanks for reading my post and linking to it.

    I'd like a right of reply.

    1. I'm not a press gallery journo and never was. Some people might have got the opposite impression from your post. I was a full-time journalist from age 29-32, with the AFR, and then the fairfax business sections. Now I write for Crikey, The New Daily, etc but mainly do other non-journalism things.

    2. My piece, in a rather less sweary way than yours, was an attack on the media for being self-indulgent. All the fuck-yous you included made it a bit hard to follow, but I'm pretty sure yours is too? Are we not in furious agreement?


    Jason (Thomas the Think Engine) Murphy

    1. 1. Your background or current activities don't matter.

      2. You were wrong to make excuses for the dire state of journalistic practice when it comes to politics. Any issues you might have with self-indulgence was buried with pissant excuses about deadlines, and a fundamental misunderstanding of how competition should create divergence rather than uniformity. Those two issues have been covered extensively in this blog for nine years now.

      We are not in agreement that one must simply make excuses for bad journalism and accept the way it is and why it's like that.

      I am frankly amazed that bad language gives you the vapours. Are you sure you spent any time in an actual newsroom? Do such places not resound with blue language?

      Journalism fails when it excuses the inexcusable, in politics and in journalism itself. Never defend lazy, dumb journalism. Never lump it in with the good stuff, which takes guts and brains (and isn't put off by uncouth expression). That was your mistake, and everyone who does it will get the same treatment. I've gone hard after bigger targets than you. Can't ask for fairer than that.

    2. 1. Some of the other pieces on this blog are very good Andrew, and as bloggers I'm sorry we couldn't have got off on the right foot.

      2. You write in your reply my background doesn't matter. That's not the sense I got from your original piece, and I think it's untrue. My post's effectiveness as a piece of media criticism is lifted because of my former job as a journo.

      I see from your bio you've changed political allegiances. But you assume I reflexively operate in defence of my former employer.

      For context, this piece I wrote in Crikey might help you see that I am not a reflexive defender of the media.


      3. Your sense providing analysis of media behaviour is akin to forgiving it is the root cause of our dispute. I spent a few paragraphs describing time pressure and group dynamics that lead us to the problem we have. I feel if I'd written "MPs are these days too busy with special interests to see their constituents," you'd see that as a defence too!

    3. My contention is not that you lack knowledge, but that you lack perspective. That's why your background doesn't matter.

      I make no comment about your allegiance to former employer, but your allegiance to your not-quite former industry and those employed in it is misplaced.

      The media can't be defended. There was a line of defence for the current practices of the media which says that any criticism of it is akin to wanting Soviet-style crackdowns on questioning and expression. This defence no longer holds because even the most clubby and obtuse members of the media admit the challenges facing the media are real.

      So, now there's a second line of defence, and here's where we find you: poor journos are under such pressure, and when you suggest wide-ranging reforms (e.g. shutting down the press gallery and dismissing almost all of its members from the profession), geez you're a big bad meanie.

      I think what you're doing is seeking to imply that at least some of those currently running the media can and should be part of reforming it, and again this is where we differ. This is a matter of perspective, not knowledge.

      You can't reform anything so manifestly inadequate while paying obesiance to its structures and quailing before the very challenges that those culpable shirked unrelentingly over many years. Note the places in your pieces (and those who think like you) where you cut to the passive voice: had you remained in the active you might have been the critic you fancy yourself to be, and we might agree more than we do.

      Your final analogy was a reductio ad absurdum piece. I support representative democracy but disagree with the way it is practiced, and believe there are structural measures that prevent it from being practices as intended (which is why goodwill and hard work arguments go less far than proponents might hope). My baby/bathwater differentiation ability, and your lack of it, is what we're arguing about here.

    4. Thanks for replying and for ceasing the personal abuse.

      Your plan to sack everybody involved in the media and have them be uninvolved with reforming it is without precedent and would pose implementation challenges of the highest order.

      What are the other reforms you'd propose to rectify the structural problems you refer to in the last paragraph?

    5. It is not without precedent, and nor is it a "plan". Nobody involved with setting up Qantas came from Cobb & Co. Those running media organisations in this country have faced "implementation challenges of the highest order" and failed them all. You should be able to recognise a plan when you see one, and recognise the absence of one.

      I think the structural problems I referred to should be developed further, and are too hard for you.

    6. Ought not a man's reach exceed his grasp?

      I'd like to see what you think, even if I am unable to understand it.

  6. Thomas claims you don't understand what his post is about.

    As you said, a joker.

    1. Looks as if a bunch of comments were not yet moderated when I posted mine. Credit to Thomas for replying here. That's something the Kennys, Grattans and Murphys will never do.

  7. Andrew, were you pissed at the time writing? This is one of your best.

  8. John Webster6/7/15 5:23 pm

    Thanks Andrew, how's that application with Huffington going?

    Before I got to Jason Murphy's response I was thinking how badly Crikey does when talking about the industry and profession. I access the New Daily every couple of days and that's turned out to be such a disappointment. It's either recycled stories or recycled reporters.

  9. Hi Andrew. This comment is completely off-topic, but I couldn't find any other way of contacting you.
    Your link to Gary Brecher's War Nerd column (a favourite of mine since I first saw it in eXile) is woefully out of date. His new stuff is at Pando:

  10. Nick McKenzies piece on the mafia in Australia was pretty good..(.cute guy.)

    Four Corners still has it's place.

    It's resulted in a labour man being sacked.

    Dopey governments still have links to the Calabrian mafia in Australia.....I.C.A.C now please

    All is not lost yet.

  11. Excellent analysis AE. One of, if not your best efforts. I reckon you should hit Crikey up for a gig. They could do with a decent reason to subscribe.