05 November 2015

Ecco journo

Australian political journalism is abysmal. Very Serious Journalists tell us that deeply inadequate politicians really do have the answers for our country, Light Bright and Trite ones insist that they're not so bad against all the evidence, and then they all unite to describe the inevitable demise not as an indictment on their experience and judgment, but as fickleness and ingratitude on our part.

Curb your enthusiasm

I could pile on to the criticism of Annabel Crabb, which of course can never be anything more than pathological hatred of Australia, and everything and everyone else really, because what sort of monster goes around criticising Annabel Crabb? Or sits at a computer, criticising Annabel Crabb?

In May we learned Crabb has ascended to a high clear place where she is absolved of any and all criticism, like Remedios from One Hundred Years of Solitude. Now she has gone one better than your highfalutin' think-mag, she is down with the cool kids at Buzzfeed to show just how you brush off online whinging. If they call you a Nazi, they must have already lost the argument, right? So yeah, anyone who's ever criticised Crabb is a Nazi, or something:
“I think I’ve been called ‘Nazi’ more in the last 48 hours than ever before, it’s been bracing,” Crabb said, referring to the outpouring of tweets accusing her of “humanising” treasurer (and former immigration minister) Scott Morrison.

“I get all sorts of helpful feedback all the time,” she joked.
Like most journalists, Crabb is more than happy to accept unqualified praise. What she won't do, owing to the shallowness of the ideas she brings to any examination of politics, is engage with any ideas people may have. While she undoubtedly cops what could only be called mindless abuse, I doubt very much it is the only feedback she gets. In fact, it isn't. There are some real ideas in here that Crabb should have engaged with, and didn't. There is no sign of her actually engaging with different ideas about how she might go about what she does, or whether there's any difference between what she seeks to do and what actually happens.
But she was unapologetic.
Has she ever been apologetic, really? About what is she supposed to apologise? Crabb misrepresents McQuire and sets up a straw man made from newspapers to knock down:
“I think we owe an obligation to the great central tenets of democracy to try and engage as many people as possible. I don’t think with the rather snobbish view that you can’t be interested in politics until you’ve consumed The Financial Review and The Sydney Morning Herald and every daily newspaper,” she said.
She's unapologetic about a criticism nobody is making? She thinks democracy is not something that comes from people themselves, but is some sort of outreach program from the powers-that-be? You can see why she's going onto a site that won't question her too closely.
It’s all about broadening the appeal of politics to more people.
No, it's about telling us the politicians we have are the best we can possibly expect.
“I like to think that if you publish and broadcast different kinds of content about politics, and give people different access points to politics than you’re working to include a greater proportion of the population.”
Here we get into a difference between what Crabb likes to think, and what democracy needs from political journalism.

Democracy needs reliable information about how we are being governed, and options for how we might otherwise be governed. That information can be presented in a densely earnest way, or in a breezily engaging way, or somewhere in between; but without that information it pretty much fails, regardless of the format. It's much like a meal: a fancy meal can be more or less nutritious, and so can one that's cheap and quick to prepare; but let's not pretend disdaining fancy cookin' makes you some sort of providore to the starving masses.
And in the end, getting a look into their personal lives of politicians actually makes you understand more about the decisions they make.
No, it doesn't.

Nothing about that episode with Morrison makes you understand why he took the decisions he took. In other interviews, Morrison spruiks his Christian faith but when asked to consider it in the context of his treatment of people in detention centres, he shrieks that faith is a private matter and he is not to be questioned on it. He touted on-water operations as core to his job - and then when he insisted that he did not comment on such matters, none of the fierce lions of the press gallery so much as demurred. Unless he wanted to, that is. He promised to get children out of detention centres by December 2013.

I'm still none the wiser about why Morrison took/didn't take those decisions; unless there's some pearl of wisdom curled up on the floor of the editing suite, neither is Crabb.

Crabb wasn't humanising Morrison, because she can't; the very verb is a nonsense. Crabb is no more human than Morrison. Humans do all sorts of things; they are human when they hug their children, human when they brutalise others. Morrison has spent his life appearing to be nice and reasonable, and then acting in ways that is neither of those things - all too human, hardly the first to do that. In a democracy we judge representatives by whether they serve us well or badly - not by how human they are. All politicians, all public servants, are human (or acting under command of humans, like police dogs).

If the Morrison episode was the first episode ever of the show, there may be some slack to cut Crabb in the hope things might get better. Sadly, this isn't the case:
  • In the very first episode, Christopher Pyne avoided going one-to-one with Crabb (and does so again next week). The death-knell of the Abbott government was sounded by Pyne weeks after it was first elected, when he declared bipartisan commitment to Gonski education funding was a lie non-starter and the press gallery called him on his lie agreed that he'd be a witty dining companion.
  • The first episode of the second series features the man who delivered the 2014 budget, without a trace of the document that came to define him. We see Hockey's eagerness to please, but it would have taken real insight to show that quality actually negated any principles that he might have brought from his upbringing into public life.
  • The one after that is on Bronwyn Bishop, who greets Crabb in the way that a card shark greets a wealthy but frequently unlucky gambler. Crabb has a weird fascination with Bishop that has never yielded any insight into her at all. She never asks the question we'd all like to ask Bronwyn Bishop ("why don't you just fuck off and die?"), but instead indulges her in her delusion that obstinacy is the same thing as principle and strength of character; that partisanship and personal advantage are tangible and important while balancing national interests are to be disdained.
  • At the end of Series 3, Crabb does Tony Abbott and he does her back, gibbering about the emptiest thing in recent Australian politics - his record, and what it might mean in government.
  • The nearest thing the show has ever gone to any actual depth was with mental health, featuring Mary Jo Fisher and Andrew Robb. This government has continued the bipartisan approach toward mental health - talk about it, appear concerned, discourage any initiatives and limit funding.
Her show doesn't work even by her standards, and there are more than thirty episodes. But she don't need your stinkin' feedback - so long as Mark Scott is blowing sunshine at her, other people can make mistakes and learn from them. She's learned everything there is to know and will go on until she stops, and a well-informed democracy be damned.

If you're talking to me, your career must be in trouble

The Abbott government became politically constipated when it could not pass its agenda through the Senate. That government's leader in the Senate was Eric Abetz.

Eric Abetz achieved nothing as Employment Minister but an increase in unemployment. Abetz has spent what passes for his life sneering at moderates. Ian Macphee, the epitome of moderate liberalism who held the equivalent job in the Fraser government (who believed in centralised arbitration and conciliation long after Bob Hawke had given up on it), has a stronger record of achievement in that portfolio; so does Julia Gillard.

The late Michael Hodgman was designated "the Mouth from the South" because journalists thought he talked too much and achieved too little. Compared to Abetz, Hodgman was a Caesar.

This is quite the record of failure Abetz has earned for himself. Press gallery journalists are usually pretty good at latching onto winners, but on the day after the Melbourne Cup Latika Bourke did to Abetz what Annabel Crabb does to Bronwyn Bishop:
But Senator Abetz has told Tasmanian newspaper The Advocate that he would "of course" take a ministry should he ever be offered one but said he was in politics to "serve [and] not to succeed."
Nowhere in that piece is there any actual journalism from Bourke, not even her usual trick of sticking a recording device under a politician's nose and simply transmitting their remarks. She's re-heated journalism from elsewhere, under the mistaken impression that her readers are gagging for news about some loser from Hobart.

Now that politicians have their own websites and broadcasting capacities, it defeats the old media excuse that anything a politician says must be newsworthy. Bourke destroyed what little news value her story had with anonymous-quote work. Then came this:
The party's "right", as it is known[sic], has lacked a recognised leader ever since former senator and Finance Minister Nick Minchin announced his retirement in 2010 and has remained splintered ever since his departure in 2011.
And yet, in that enfeebled state, it still propelled Tony Abbott into the Prime Ministership and bent supposed moderates Christopher Pyne and Joe Hockey to its will. If I was a political journalist, that's what I'd be investigating rather than doing the expensive collage "Latika Bourke" (as she is known) is doing here.
Senator Abetz said Mr Abbott, whom he described as an "opinion and thought leader" should stay in Parliament because he would have an important role in guiding conservative allies in the party.
On what basis is Abbott an opinion and thought leader? On what basis is he anything but an example of what not to do? Bourke's journalism is as dead as Abbott or Abetz in their capacity for thought leadership.
Mr Abbott ... has been seeking the advice of friends and supporters about whether he should stay of go [sic]. The advice provided to Mr Abbott is understood to be mixed with some urging him to retire while others, like Senator Abetz, want him to continue serving.
Neither Abetz nor Abbott could command anything like the incomes they are on now elsewhere in the economy. There appears to be no thoughts on which they offer any leadership worth the name. These are not people who can be entrusted to run any organisation well or to have constructive opinions about it. Again, Bourke here proves one of the key rules of bad journalism: that the passive voice is a sign the journalist is up to no good.

It would be cruel to quote the final two dribbly pars of this piece. One speech from last month is not a hit circuit, and you can command nothing if you are a hostage to demand (or lack thereof).

Bourke reports to Peter Hartcher. Guys like him and Mark Scott think pieces like this are the sort of thing that's good enough for the likes of you in your quest to understand how we are governed.


  1. It's interesting that in the face of massive competition Fairfax has decided that the winning online combination is a mixture of trite click bait articles (best chips for dips / dating no-nos), stuff that we're meant to give a shit about (house prices/boom/crash/Xavier kid posts dumb shit on facey) and dribbling crap from it's own crop of obtuse hacks (Malcolm awesome/Tony a joke/Shorten seen with satan). I've given up. It was costing me $15 a month and for months I've only been reading the letters and the occasional oped. They offered me $7 a month, but it's not even worth reading in for free (anonymous mode in Chrome if you need to know).

    The sooner they fuck off the better. I'm sure the electrons have something better to do.

    1. Today's headline in the SMH: "Bindi Irwin told to prove her father is dead."

  2. Must remember not to read this column while eating lunch:
    "Crabb has a weird fascination with Bishop that has never yielded any insight into her at all. She never asks the question we'd all like to ask Bronwyn Bishop ("why don't you just fuck off and die?")..."
    I nearly choked and died with laughter.

  3. Like all 'reality' tv programs, Kitchen Cabinet is a contrived confection with politicians performing as their 'real', cuddly selves.

    And so we have the hostess: vintage frocks (gorgeous), killer dimples and curls a-bounce. She reminds of red Riding Hood approaching the Big Bad Wolf with her basket full of cake. Rat-a-tat-tat. 'Come in Little Red Riding Hood'.

    The door opens. A flash of big white teeth. Come in my dear. Come in.

    And we all troop inside, eyes scanning the decor. Always immaculate and generally as bland as a hotel room, the natural setting of these politicians who often cannot locate the chopping board let alone cook anything sizzling enough for the masses who watch Master Chef.

    Political cookery. Who would have thought. What next. Political carpentry? Political bee-keeping?

    What is certain though is that the long session at the table with a glass of chilled white reveals nothing about these people. They are actors. Wooden stage actors with exaggerated gestures. Big hugs. Cries of 'Annabel!' as if they are So surprised to find that charming little person on their door step.

    That show is popular because it is as powdery as a Crabb meringue. One bite and there is nothing there except the sugar zing with makes my molars ache.

    1. A genius reply. Cheers.

    2. While Crabb can be extremely witty, she's pretty shallow. The only thing I got from the ScoMo show (which I was half-hearing in the background whilst I was doing something else) was yet another demonstration (as if it were needed) of the banality of evil.

  4. I never understood Annabell Crabb's ascendancy.I cant see what she has actually got except a really annoying lisp . Why have they made her a headliner on the ABC ?, Sarah Fergusson I could understand because of her ball breaking passion even Jones has a certain skill about him but Crabb ? is such an amateur shes always so star struck like a political groupie a self promoter shes more in the tabloid vein.
    When you see the reverence she receives from people like Julia Baird you wonder what is going on over there at the ABC - You have the sister of a liberal premier who is chairing a daily political talk show ? who treats Annabell Crabb as though shes some sort of political genius ?

    Just imagine if Woodward and Bernstein had a cooking show - how absurd...

    You know how they have phases ? like the horse phase the photographer phase the fashion designer phase I think this is Annabels journalist phase. Lets hope she grows out of it ...
    Cheers Andrew

  5. I agree with all the above, well I have to don't I, it's all pretty self evident.
    But what makes it worse, yes it can be worse, is that Crabbe actually has some potential to be a reasonable journalist rather than what she is - see all above.
    For example, I'm moderately sure [although open to correction, my memory being fallible] that it was Crabbe who spotted or at least announced the Rooty Hill debate fiasco back in 2010 where Gillard and Abbott fronted a public who were, so we were informed, neutral.
    Yet a prominent Young Lib, son of a Lib polly, was presented as neutral and his fawning love-in with Abbott was chosen to represent a sample of public reaction and replayed on Fran Kelly's RN Brekky the next morning.
    Some time later the media took to Gillard when she was overseas and presented her as being the object of censure by EU heavies for daring to tell them how to run things. Many headlines.
    But they were wrong.
    The EU actually praised Gillard and the object of the particular censure was someone entirely different - Harper of Canada from memory.
    And Crabbe was the journo who spotted this misrepresentation and announced it as such.

    So she can do journalism as it is meant to be done.

    Which for me anyway, heightens the disconnect with her general performance.

    1. That brings back memories of how the media treated Gillard: mostly with the utmost disrespect.

      What a sad chapter in Australia's political history. I can only hope the truth will emerge - eventually.

  6. I think both the Morrison and Pyne interviews showed them up as very limited individuals with limited life experience. Morrison at uni not understanding why people go into politics and marrying his christian youth group first squeeze. Pyne not knowing about Albanese's favourite song ( That's Entertainment by the Jam) and having absolutely no curiosity or intent to actually wanting to find out about it. I'm sure La Crabbe misses these issues so prevalent in the conservative psyche as she lets so much shite go unchallenged.

    1. I found Pyne on that show to be uninterested in just about any subject other than politics and money.

      What a boring soul he must be.

  7. I understand that simple abuse is hateful, hurtful and not very helpful and I avoid it. Still it's irritating to see people in positions of influence, trust and responsiblity use it's presence to dodge real criticism. Journalists ought to be adept at separating content from crap but clearly not. My own recent favourite example of journalistic fail was this from Ian Verrender -

    "The Coalition believes in climate change. Even Abbott believed it was caused by human activity, despite occasionally saying it was "crap". Why else would he have committed so much money to reducing carbon emissions?"
    Whereas I thought they missed by the unexpected vote of one mining magnate the much anticipated pleasure of having no emissions policy and the opportunity to blame that on The Greens and Labor. Fallback being a policy "win" that will let them funnel emissions reduction funding to major agriculture, mining and energy companies who are the stauncest opponents of climate action, for things they would probably do for other reasons anyway.

  8. If Burke was any sort of journalist, when Abetz said "he was in politics to "serve [and] not to succeed" she should have stopped him right there and said "thank you very much Eric, nothing more needs to be said."

  9. The fact that people like Annabel Crabb and the unctuous, pinguid Chris Ulhmann are now regarded as senior journalists in the ABC shows just how far the stocks of our national broadcaster have fallen and how froth is seen as an adequate replacement for substance. But if you really wish to gauge the extent of the ABC's decline as a serious contributor to coverage of news, politics and culture you should examine the once insightful local ABC news in SA. With the ABC now it seems to be a case of the blind leading the blind..Crabb is and always has been a total lightweight and embarrassment and she, like a number of others, should have been put out to pasture years ago (and should never have attained their current eminence in the first place.)

  10. Thank you for another interesting article. I greatly enjoyed the section on Bronwyn Bishop. I used to think Annabel Crabb was OK when she wrote for the SMH before going to ABC but then she decided she wanted everyone to like her, including politicians, and I lost interest. I think sometimes on Kitchen Cabinet she tries to be tough in a tin fist in velvet glove style but she backs off if the politician gets tough back. Kevin Rudd and Clive James come to mind.

  11. She responded:


  12. Wow, Mark Kenny has woken up and actually called a spade a spade about the lies and hypocrisies of our current Federal politicians. This is such a rare day from a press gallery stalwart (not that he's acknowledged his own hypocrisies and backflips, but one thing at a time) that it ought be celebrated.