16 May 2010

At face value

Probably the single greatest failing of the journosphere is their reliance on press releases to tell them what they should be reporting. The importance they place upon a press release or an announcement which bears no responsibility to what actually happens to people beyond Canberra is lame. Lazy journalists get one story when the announcement is made (i.e. when the straw man is set up), another when the straw man is knocked down (circumstances change, someone who knows about the issue calls bullshit on it, or the politician in question was never serious). This creates a situation where what journalists care to report and what readers/listeners/viewers consume are different, which causes the journosphere to wring their hands but plough the same old barren ruts.

Take this:

Last year Wayne Swan was so desperate to distract attention from his $58 billion deficit, he didn't even mention the D-word in his budget night speech. This year he was so keen to focus attention on the early return to surplus he announced almost all the rest of his budget beforehand.

All but a couple of the new spending ideas had been preannounced or leaked. So had the new mining and cigarette taxes to pay for them. Left as the big news on budget night was that the budget was returning to surplus in 2012-13, three years before schedule, and that net debt would peak at about half of where we thought it would just a year ago.

In case we missed it, the Treasurer spelt it out. "The main story tonight is the fiscal story," he said.

Swan's predecessor John Howard had his 1980 budget pre-announced by Laurie Oakes. The idea of the nation's leading political correspondents any bunch of self-respecting journalists having some politician instruct them how to report it should have led to an uprising, or some other display of character. Instead, the media reported the budget exactly as Swan hoped.

Remember opposition leader Kevin Rudd who made a television ad to tell us that when it came to government finances "economic conservative" was a badge he wore with pride. It's him again.

And he's back to talking about how to manage runaway economic growth - with spending on skills and infrastructure and hospitals and railways and roads. Kevin the Nation Builder, just like in the 2007 election campaign.

You know what, Lenore? It's entirely possible that this is bullshit. It was bullshit the first time around and it's probably bullshit now. I supported Rudd because I thought he'd be Mr Infrastructure, but if he can't even lance the boil of Sydney's second airport then what are his chances of doing anything in subsequent terms? Calling bullshit might cause Labor media wranglers to yank away your drip feed of Chinese whispers and quasi-facts, but this could well be the best thing that happened to you. Try and compare press releases with what actually happened, how policy developments actually take in the communities on which they're afflicted. Stuff the narrative and call it for what it is.

Then there are the pluralities of reports in which Tony Abbott advocates small government. Tony Abbott is for government bloat: every ministry he took under Howard was smaller than it was when he left it, in budget and headcount terms. He is no more committed to small government than he is to nuclear disarmament or same-sex marriage. There was a DJ in Melbourne called bullshit on him, and then again Laurie Oakes on Dutton putting his money where Abbott's mouth wasn't - both times, the supposedly media-savvy and combative Abbott went to pieces. The journosphere has largely ignored these, calling them "gaffes" and assuming that Abbott knows what he's talking about when he talks about government.

He doesn't know about economics, he doesn't know about the government he opposes (as opposition spokesman under Nelson and Turnbull he spoke about anything but his portfolio, on an assumption that he knew about other portfolios: he doesn't know anything but stunts that impress the MSM), he doesn't know about the government of which he was part (he gives WorkChoices too much credit and Howard government handouts too little). The polls showing Abbott and Rudd at parity were an aberration because Rudd has the capacity to lift, Abbott is firing on all pistons and starting to blow smoke.

Rudd has the capacity to lift because he has a credible team. Swan can tell the media what the economic story is, and that's the story that gets published (cemented in place by a lazy and insubstantial opposition response, which Abbott described as his most important speech ever). Abbott had momentum before that speech but he's blown it. Conroy, Roxon, Tanner, and Gillard: all have higher announcement-to-action ratios than Abbott has, or had when he was a minister. Look how useless Howard's ministry was at carrying him when he stumbled, or in failing to pole-axe him when it turned out he was no good.

Look at the Opposition frontbench now: dud Dutton, lazy Smith, Spongechris Squarepyne. This rabble can't make their presence felt where the Liberals are riding high, and when Labor press their momentum these clowns won't have a contribution to make when their party needs them. It is of no consequence that such people might feel slighted when you ignore them. On a weekly basis Tony Abbott is having the sort of crisis that John Hewson had over chocolate cakes: the Liberal campaign could well be over before the parliament is dissolved.

When a policy is dropped on a "busy news day" it stays dropped; media campaigns against broken promises are therefore exercises in self-indulgence when circumstances change, because no allowance was made for such a development when the announcement was made. The journosphere should be more skeptical of announcements than they are, and keep the focus on the gap between announcements and on-the-ground reality.

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