27 November 2007

The media pack always missed the bus

In this article, Matthew Ricketson briefly stirs from the slumber of his profession, but rest assured that nothing will come of it.

No journalist has ever written or broadcast anything worthwhile from any media bus in any election campaign ever. The nearest thing that happened to worthwhile journalism was Michael Lewis's dispatches from the 1996 US elections, but that said more about him than it did about the politicians whom the media bus is designed to have cover. Any journalist who refused to get on the bus would face censure from someone at editorial level, like Matthew Ricketson.
given that the gallery is the group best informed about the progress of federal politics.

If you assume that "federal politics" consists of nothing more than what happens beneath Capitol Hill and surrounding restaurants in Canberra, perhaps. If you think there's more to it than that, they are spectacularly ill-informed - and rather than expand their sources to lessen their ignorance, they worsen it by tending to groupthink. The can write the most grievous rubbish on the basis that nobody else dares to write better, and they keep doing it until the crust formed by their inertia becomes the patina of experience.

Ricketson is right. The polling should have caused journalists to ask more questions, of people they don't normally ask. They should have drilled through the cracking-hardy that undoubtedly came from Coalition ministers at the time.

However, it's toward the end of this article that Ricketson shies away from making the big calls and basically rolls over and goes back to sleep.
The problem with Canberra press gallery coverage — a problem not confined to the gallery, I should add — is that journalists become too close to those they write about.

This is a continuing, thorny problem. Journalists need to develop relationships with politicians to gain their trust and to be connected with the humming network of information, gossip and power plays that is the lifeblood of politics.

The problem here, Matthew, is what people like you regard as "the lifeblood of politics". The importance of parliament comes from beyond it, and policy responses are developed by the executive and parliamentary wings of government in response to pressures from outside. It is those pressures, and the responses of the executive and the parliament, that should constitute political reporting.

Let's look at the "information, gossip and power" to which Ricketson refers. The most significant example of this in the past decade or so was the Howard-Costello thing. Vast forests have been culled by The Age and other papers to canvass an issue which we now know never had any substance.

There are other aspects of "information, gossip and power" which exist entirely for the bemusement of Capitol Hill players and have no impact on readers for better or worse. Who's dreadful to work for? Who's a drunk? Who screws around? You can pick up all this stuff in your first week working in Parliament House, but none of it will ever get reported - not even if these qualities have a direct impact on an area of policy, or in an election campaign (or a round of preselections) where this information might serve some public good.

Press gallery journalists rely too heavily on parliamentary sources in deciding what constitutes political news. If the issue is education, for example, the press gallery journalist relies too heavily on the Minister and the Shadow, not heavily enough on actual teachers and educators; those who have forced/opposed the particular issue for a long time, those who'll have to live with the changes. The same narrow focus applies to defence or tax or disability services, or any other issue you'd care to name. Whether or not an issue enhances or diminishes the standing of a particular minister is important in political reporting, but not to the overwhelming extent that it does today. The whole idea of editorial staff is to provide the wider focus that journalists may lack at the coalface.

Proof of the inadequacy of press gallery groupthink comes from all those opinion pieces in the past week (and probably the next week or so) complaining that we naughty voters have knocked over all the cliches by which press gallery journalists operate. There's this from Milney - a sucker for good company and who fancied himself as a gameplayer, who shows no evidence of any knowledge about what "plays" in people's lives and what doesn't. Then there's this from Annabel Crabb, who doesn't quite shriek "my kingdom for a cliche!", but she may as well. She's had to resort to school to get her cliche fix, poor lamb, and it's all our fault. Next time Wayne Swan announces a revamp of dividend imputations or whatever, he should bring his wife just to rattle poor Annabel.

Mind you, people outside the press gallery can also delude themselves like Gerard Henderson.
John Howard deserves to be remembered as one of Australia's two most successful prime ministers, ranking equally with Bob Hawke.

Menzies was easily Australia's most successful Prime Minister, and I'd include Barton and Curtin as well. Henderson does not make the case for putting Howard right up there, which is probably just as well.
It's not quite like 1929, when the conservative prime minister Stanley Bruce was defeated in his seat of Flinders, then on the outskirts of Melbourne, since it was a safe seat. Howard has lost what was a marginal seat to Labor's celebrity candidate Maxine McKew, with a swing against him that reflected the national average.

Flinders is still on the outskirts of Melbourne. Bennelong was not always a marginal seat, it tok years of that John Howard magic (not celebrity endorsements) to make it so.
There was never any point in Costello challenging Howard when he did not have the numbers to win a leadership ballot.

Yes there was. If Costello had challenged twelve months ago and been defeated, he could have retired to the backbench and waited for the party to turn to him about mid-year, which it would have. The most damaging thing Keating did to Hawke was to deny him his services in mid-late 1991: Costello didn't do this, reinforcing Howard's claim to power and making him a poor choice as Opposition Leader as a result.


  1. Great stuff, love what you are doing here.

    Thumbs up


  2. Menzies was only successful from winnning election however the electorates were ahem favourable for him when winning. He did win elections with a minority of votes on more than one occasion.
    In policy terms it was said Menzies did nothing but di it damed well.

    Barton? why he channeled better than any other.

    you really cannot compare wartime PM's to peacetime.

    given all the challenges at the time some inheroted from Menzies Hawke is easily the best PM

  3. Thanks Nick.

    BBCLB, it really is nonsense to suggest that when Holt became PM in 1966 he found the nation little different to the way Chifley left it in 1949. You could say that Menzies did plenty and he cultivated the appearance of calm, which is essential for far-reaching reform.

  4. apart from getting rid of rationing what did he do.

    Afterall It was Keating that had to reform industry which should have heppened under Menzies.
    also resale price maintenance an other uncompetitive pracrices were rife under him.

    What did he do and if there were 'fair' electorates he would have lost in 54 and 61

  5. The most significant reform under Menzies was the trade deal with Japan. Let's not have any malarkey about just jumping on a passing bandwagon - there was considerable public antipathy toward Japan and 'Pig Iron Bob', and he turned it around to the nation's advantage. The mark of a great soul and proof that economic policy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the wider society.

    All long-term governments have a black-sheep result like '54. Peacock shoulda won in 1990 and Beazley in 1998, but part of winning involves knowing how to play the game, and it's not like Australian oppositions had to campaign from jail. I'm really glad that Evatt never became PM, and if you think that he'd have reformed tariffs then you're crazier than he was.

    Yes, Menzies should've listened to Alf Rattigan more. His reform credentials are at least as strong as those of Eisenhower or Macmillan or Holyoake.

  6. Andrew, you are missing the point.

    Whatever in both 1990 and 1998 the electorates were fair.

    They were not in both 1954 and 1961.

    Yes that agreement was good BUT what about the tariff wall. Exports as a % of GDP never increased until Hawke and Keating.

    mind you he did hold down Government which is more than Howard did

  7. I'm not missing "the" point.

    That agreement was more than good (it makes Whitlam in China look like posturing). More could have been done on tariffs but it's not the main game. You keep asserting that two elections weren't fair, and this is a jag of your own: I think that an Evatt Government would have made Australia much less fair and less successful economically - and would not have addressed your particular preoccupations.