16 June 2009

The bubble and the babble

Over the past 36 hours two memes have died - Peter Costello and Des Moran. Two feared operators who have mellowed in recent years but whose enemies have increased, both in number and intensity as the very mellowness and predictability of these old warhorses made them easier marks.

This is not to compare Costello with a petty criminal, but to explore the half-witted way that that the media covers both the worlds of organised crime and organised politics, where information and methods are hidden and revealed for the tactical and strategic benefit of various players.

For a decade and a half, journalistic careers have been built on speculation that Costello might challenge John Hewson, Alexander Downer, John Howard, Brendan Nelson, Malcolm Turnbull; nothing whatsoever came of it. All of it was sheer wind, all of it. Every single journalist and "senior source" who participated in this, every reader/viewer who took it in, all of them were wasting their time and effort. All of the effort that Glenn Milne and Annabel Crabb spent in brown-nosing Costello in the hope of some "insider knowledge" has been utterly, utterly wasted. Any claim they might have to be "Canberra insiders" is now bogus - if they didn't know Costello was going, what do they know about anything? Why bother reading their output, or anything else sold by the organisations that employ them? How stupid does this guy, and everyone he's quoted look - not merely mistaken, but flat-out too-dumb-to-run-anything, too-dumb-to-trust stupid.

Yeah, Costello achieved less than he might have - but that can be said of anyone really, after it's all said and done there's usually more said than done. The issue here is that so, so much was said, to the exclusion of so, so much else.

Pick an issue, any issue you like: the fate of refugees, individually or severally; climate change; corporate regulation; infrastructure; any issue at all arising out of the period 1996-2007. Consider that the issue you've picked has been starved of attention, of analysis, of other options simply because some journalists and their employers decided that chasing wisps of Canberra fog was more important than your issue.

The standard counter is that the news that's covered is that news that sells, with the clear implication that news editors have an uncanny and unerring knack both for what's important and what's lucrative. Plummeting circulation data shows this to be wrong on both counts. Anyone claiming (and implying) that sales/viewing/other indicators of popularity rose on the basis of a Costello Challenge piece is lying.

Costello said that he was looking for a post-political career, and so it has proven. Costello hated it when Malcolm Turnbull put a rocket up him over tax in 2005, so four years later he returned the favour over the leadership, until the Victorian Division of the Liberal Party complained that it was incurring collateral damage and somehow forced an end to this latest piece of self-indulgence. He was never that interesting and everyone who thought he was has finally been proven wrong. Now that Fairfax is reorganising their Canberra bureaux, those who have most column inches on this matter should, in any well-run organisation concerned for its future, have the most to fear from outplacement (farewell, Annabel).

This piece, and pieces by Shaun Carney and Peter Hartcher, show that the best political reporting is done far from Canberra.

In recent days those who parsed and slavered over every non-announcement from Costello have distinguished themselves by missing the point with Kevin Rudd's fake ockerisms. Silliness and poor reporting actively discourages people taking an interest in public policy, and when that policy so intrudes in their lives that they take an interest they don't know where to start. The fact that political reporting isn't entertaining, well-written or constructive is important, but it pales beside the sheer awful damage that this counterproductive profession does, ironically, in the name of informing the citizenry.

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