09 August 2010

A firm grasp of the wrong end of the stick

Katharine Murphy is another one of those journalists on the bus, drinking the Kool-Aid and trying to do the Annabel Crabb thing of being at once up with the gossip and spin while implying (falsely) that she might have better things to do than be up with said gossip and spin. Murphy is of no consequence except that she's trying to defend the indefensible, and assert the relevance of a once-important profession that prefers its own irrelevance to the possibilities of Australia's future.

Before we all embarked on the campaign about a campaign, there was much worthy analysis about 2010 being the "new" media election.

The political parties pondered it. Journalists pondered it.

So that's who's meant by "we all": the politico-journalist complex. Random pensioners at shopping centres, kissed babies, cranky bloggers - all backdrop to the paso doble of The Campaign, which is done for the benefit of the politico-journalists and you can tune in or out as you please. If you must participate, at least be colourful!

At the top of the allegedly unfashionable terminal structural decline heap sits Nine Network journalist Laurie Oakes, who has been as much a player in recent events as Gillard or Abbott; not only by being an influential commentator (although there's been some of that obviously), but by being a news breaker.

Really? Thirty years ago he leaked an entire Budget, and the then Treasurer seemed to have survived the experience. What journo magic has Oakes wrought that so impressed the easily impressed Katharine?

Oakes's argument was: 1. Latham is not a journalist. 2. He is not objective, and makes no attempt to be. 3. His conduct in recent days reflected poorly on the network.

It is hard to argue with any of those points.

Latham is a great polemicist, but his conduct of recent days just underscores the Oakes critique.

What Oakes's employers made of his live-to-air indictment of their judgment is another story, but he makes a point of putting viewers and readers before the bosses who have come and gone over a career spanning many decades.

Oakes is the most powerful journalist in the country.

Laurie Oakes can state the bleeding obvious and he's a hero? The first time he's ever stood up to his employer, only after Kerry Packer was dead? That's not a critique, it's a whinge.

Laurie Oakes cares nothing about viewers and readers and voters and taxpayers. The kid who cleaned his house used to be Prime Minister. He doesn't give a toss whether or not you get sound healthcare, pay a reasonable amount of tax, or what happens in East Timor or Afghanistan. The current Prime Minister hasn't done nearly enough to butter up Laurie Oakes and now this upstart Latham has thrust himself into the Gillard-ambushing business. Oakes is raging against his own irrelevance, but all he's doing is confirming it.

And so are you, Katharine Murphy. His, and yours.

You might not agree with him and you might not love him, but he takes the use of his power seriously. He brings decades of context and experience to his analysis of issues and events.

And what does he do with it, exactly? Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones have more substantial records in shifting public policy than Laurie Oakes. Both have probably broken more news in the last decade than Oakes has (especially since Sunday was canned).

This correspondent is fortunate to work alongside, and have been mentored for many years by, Canberra's other doyen, The Age's political editor Michelle Grattan, who exhibits similar professional values.

And what might those values be, Katharine? Schoolgirl giddiness over a lightweight who has nothing to say, and wasn't that convincing in saying it.

This correspondent though would also urge the critics to engage constructively with the values exhibited by a professional such as Oakes.

What he has done in this campaign is show leadership and aggressive independence.

These are old fashioned journalistic values.

What he has done is bleat about his own irrelevance, and thereby reinforces it. If the ALP had complained about Oakes, nobody should doubt that he would have shirtfronted the Prime Minister exactly as Latham did - perhaps without the physical menace, but it's the thought that counts.

These values are under sustained attack from the spin doctors and from commercial pressures and from politicians who seem to think they no longer need to answer legitimate questions; just punt out their messages to a pliant press pack and a pliant public.

What 'legitimate questions'? Questions about 'media coverage' and a Brisbane backbencher who's had his gallbladder out?

Here are two questions for Katharine Murphy:

  1. What are the ten most important issues to readers of The Daily Fairfax?

  2. What are the opinions of the major parties about those issues?

If you can't answer those questions, you have no right to be in the press gallery bus. If they're not the questions you're asking - and they're not the questions that Oakes or Grattan are asking - then, stuff them. There's nothing aggressively independent about insisting on your right to drivel, and your insistence that your readers deserve nothing better than what you will dish up to them.

I'm sorry if the process looks messy and combative and deeply flawed.

Oh, piss off. It looks incompetent. It looks like you don't know what your job is. It looks like, when you ask a silly question, you deserve nothing better than a silly answer. You don't know clay from chocolate and when politicians accidentally tell the truth you and Oakes and Grattan call it a 'gaffe'. This is passive-aggressive self-pity at its worst.

But what Oakes has done in this campaign is lead at a time where it is increasingly hard to lead, and to remind his viewers, our critics, the politicians and the public, that a bit of new fashioned, old fashioned journalism can still matter; that it can still be worth the time you invest to read and watch and listen and then debate the merits of what the profession has delivered.

It isn't worth the time because the press have become not a facilitator of political messages, but a prophylactic.

That independence still has value in an age in which the currency of almost everything is eroded.

Value to whom? Value for what? I'm an avid consumer of Australian media and I'm still left guessing about what is going on. The journosphere is on a giant wank and won't come back until well after the things it could be warning us about are already happening. Stuff your self-pity and get off the bus. You might find some information that we can use, and that you might turn into a real story. Don't wait until it's too late, like it is for poor old Laurie and Michelle.


  1. Andrew, did you see Tony Smith literally *sweating* when he was getting grilled at the Coalition's communications policy launch? The Coalition's utter unsuitability for Government has been the great unmentionable in this campaign, and people like Katharine Murphy are too preoccupied with narcissism to hold them to account.

    I love that Peter Costello can still come along and bugger up their campaign, whether it's a string of faux pas or the meatheads he stacked into Parliament.