26 June 2007

Why the Press Gallery is a waste of time

In Crikey both Mungo MacCallum and Christian Kerr attempted to defend the role of the Parliamentary Press Gallery. They failed because they only reinforced its main problem: it claims to inform readers/viewers about that which it covers, but doesn't.

Christian Kerr (you'll need to be a Crikey subscriber) started out with a bold defence of the press gallery, and spent the rest of the article undermining it.
The vast majority of its members are level headed, conscientious types - good men and women doing a good job

Where have I heard this before? The same is said of another beleaguered group of whom Kerr and I have some knowledge, moderate liberals. Like press gallery journalists, they are prone to groupthink and petrified of standing out and getting picked off. However, the question as to whether they can really be said to be "doing a good job" is separate from whether you are fond of them as individuals.
Bias can provide original takes on the issues of the day - issues that are all too often repeats or variations of issues that have come and gone and come and gone and need some new interpretation.

It is to be expected that certain issues of government will require constant management by the legislative and executive (or even the judicial) branches of government. The power that government has can be, and should be, used to provide ongoing and improving service to the community, and the whole idea of parliament and the media is to scrutinise how well this is done.

The challenge of political reporting is to focus on those issues and to treat their occasional appearance before the-powers-that-be as developments in those issues, rather than subjecting complex and long-standing issues to analysis by jaded hacks with short attention spans and no real interest in the issues themselves. Most parliamentary reporting - and Michelle Grattan is particularly guilty of this - is limited to theatre reviews of Australia's dullest but best-subsidised theatre. Worse, the reviewers have personal feelings about the actors affect reviews much more than happens with crits of plays or movies.

It is true that governments increasingly control information to the point where the only official source of information

Let's examine an issue that came up recently as an example of poor reporting: the purchase of new frigates for the Navy. In reporting this issue as a political issue, the media make a number of mistakes:

  • Assuming that the minister's signoff is a matter of moment rather than one event in a long process

  • Assuming that the functionality of these machines is a matter of "boys' toys" rather than part of longterm trends arising from naval operations in recent years (e.g. Australia operations in the Persian Gulf and East Timor, as well as recent operations by allied navies).

  • Assuming that the personality of the current minister, and his prospects of leading the Liberal Party, are more interesting to readers than broader issues of defence or questions as to whether taxpayer funds are well spent.

  • Assuming that experts other than Hugh White cannot write for a broader audience, and that any attempt to do so would be less interesting than indulging the self-delusion of an old woman from Sydney's northern beaches or some wire-fed shit from Los Angeles.

This is also true of every other issue, state or federal.

Media outlets should have specialist reporters who concentrate on these issues. They should remove journalists from the Parliamentary press gallery to concentrate on issues. There should only be two types of press gallery journalist: those who at least mention matters of principle in describing the hurlyburly (e.g. Grattan, Laurie Oakes) and those who are unashamedly gossip columnists (hose who use the word "punters" to describe those of us who are citizens, voters, taxpayers, and yes readers/consumers of media, e.g. Glenn Milne). Parliamentarians who complain about the lack of room for a childcare centre should take room from the bloated, flatulent press gallery, and cost-cutters in media organisations should be grateful.
It's only bad when it becomes dull - when it becomes predictable.

Political reporting in this country is, by this definition, regularly bad. Not good Christian, and certainly not good enough - just bad. Imagine a restaurant reviewer stuck in a town where every restaurant only served porridge, or a music reviewer that only does emo, and you have some idea how piss-poor Australian political journalism is. A journalist who says nothing with razzle-dazzle might impress the hell out of Holy Grail barflies, but so what?

No more need be said about the Howard Costello thing until it happens. No more. It is just not possible to be interesting about this issue. If this story were banned, consider how many other stories might have been released and examined. The Peter Reith phonecard story, one of the bigger stories in the charmed life of the Howard government, was broken by a 26-year-old journalist who did patient, old-fashioned reporting and was not contaminated by press gallery groupthink. Where is she now? She could take Jason Koutsoukis' job, he's not doing anything with it.

Then there's Mungo, who has even less excuse for not knowing better:
a great deal of what was dismissed as bias was actually judgement [sic]; a careful and (usually) sober evaluation of the participants, their performances and their policies.

And, let's face it, the press gallery was and is in a far better position to make such judgements than the city-based columnists who deride them.


Distance doesn't just lend enchantment, and does more than make the heart grow fonder. Whitlam was an economic moron in 1969, he was an economic moron in 1979 and every single day in between and since. Anyone who covered him should have twigged to that in the lead-up to 1972. The Cabinet papers, and even some of the pollies of that era acknowledge that all the signs were there. What wasn't there, despite their presence, was the press gallery.

One of the key rubrics of contemporary politics - that Labor can't manage the economy - is based on clowns like Mungo ignoring economics until the country got comprehensively mugged. The city-based columnists never took their eyes off the economic ball, and so when Keating came in they were the ones who explained the floating dollar and interest rates and all that flowed from that. The press gallery just wittered on about Keating's natty suits.

People like John Howard get away with perspectives that are fifty years out of date because the reporting of Aboriginal issues allows this: a problem that comes up from time to time, is ignored and replaced with something else, just like any other. Nothing special aboout that? It is if you have to live it, long after the press gallery has moved onto something else. Better reporting could lead to better policy: just a thought. Make numbnuts feel uncomfortable and out-of-their-depth on the big issues and perhaps we'll have fewer numbnuts, rather than indulging them once their press secs bully you. Give it a go.

A robust, diversely opinionated media is not a sign of a vibrant democracy. It is a sign that pre-packaged lameness and running with the herd is more important than thinking differently - genuinely differently - and making waves.

Instead of hiring more press-gallery-stuffing with pinheaded biases, why not have people prepared to confront their biases and themselves? The last press gallery journalist to do this was Margo Kingston, with her odd combination of inner-city and agrarian socialism, and she left a while ago. Fuck the press gallery I say, and leave the timid not-standing-out to the oligarchs who have to curry favour with media regulators. Journalists and commentators should be made of sterner stuff. They should find out, not only what Australian readers/ citizens/ taxpayers/ viewers/ voters are interested in but what effects us - and talk to us (not "at" us, Christian) about that.

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