02 October 2010

What happened in Canberra this week

If the only thing you knew about Federal politics this week was gained by reading the output of the press gallery, you'd have no idea what went on. Feel free to skip most of this post down to the last four paragraphs in this post.

First there was Marieke Hardy's lame effort on Chris Pyne. Pyne is not particularly rightwing and there is no evidence that he was ever a moderate. He's not anything but annoying: won't go away, can't say anything interesting, a bit like Michelle Grattan or even Hardy herself. The standard anti-Pyne meme is that he's effeminate, which is where you get expressions like "poodle" and "mincing" and "flouncing" etc. in describing him.

Hardy, of course, can't go there; her whole world lies within five kilometres of Lygon Street and even Collingwood supporters would be leery of her if she started the sort of poofter-bashing her grandfather would not have hesitated to use. Hardy doesn't have any political analysis skills to speak of, so she's deployed the kind of overblown, devoid-of-wit ranting prose that is often deployed in football commentary. It really does not matter what she thinks of a politician who is almost unknown and has certainly had no impact beyond Capital Circle ACT and a few chi-chi suburbs in Adelaide (i.e. so far from Lygon Street that it just doesn't matter).

Frank Hardy campaigned his whole life for a regime where a denunciation from someone like his granddaughter would have propelled the victim into oblivion. The fact that Pyne receives an apology while Hardy gets punted, doubtless to pop up somewhere else at the ABC - and Green has his "old-fashioned news sense" vindicated - shows that the failure of the sorts of ideals Frank Hardy held was no bad thing for anyone, really.

The editor who commissioned Marieke Hardy to write that piece, Jonathan Green, moaned on twitter that his news values were "old fashioned". More like non-existent: Crikey was better before he became editor and it's become better since he left. All that focus on being an old-fashioned "scoop-hound" was laughable in the context where there was more to be gained by going through the mullock-heap of news and picking out the nuggets that had been missed by the clowns in big traditional media. His latest effort, The Dump, is a less earnest New Matilda and the fact that he has hired both Annabel Crabb and Glenn Milne shows that he is simply not, wait fort it, a sensible person. But more on that later. It is significant that Green advertises his site with a picture of a writer he has declined to publish (and not because she appears to have foliage growing out of her very head).

If Green was an old-fashioned journalist he would have realised that Pyne was not a minister, and hence did not warrant the attention lavished on him by the journosphere this week. He would not have encouraged the idea that the best way for attention-starved politicians in Opposition to get coverage was to misbehave. The only possible case for commissioning a story on Chris Pyne was a standard profile of the guy: Who is this person that so fascinates the journosphere, and why does he fascinate them?

For the most part, however, the commentary consisted of excrescence like this. Some part of Maley's reptilian brain knew she was out of her depth in reporting on a political situation that she simply does not understand, and her editors should have the sense to remove her. In however long she's been in the press gallery, a few phrases from flat-track bullies are all she has to show for what should have been a job telling we readers and voters how we are governed.

Here's what should have happened. This and that contain the issues that politicians are actually in the process of addressing. Each of those bills has a cluster of interest groups that has been pushing those issues for years, so there is no excuse for not having followed those debates to the point where here they are before Parliament. The idea that they are too lofty or complex for the journosphere is a nonsense, a failure in understanding both the political process and what it means to be a journalist.

One of the few tangible reforms of the Rudd Government was the lobbyists' register. I have not seen one journalist make use of it, in identifying Lobbyist X in representing corporate interest Y in pursuit of public policy issue Z.

With reporting on what actually happens - whether this is old-fashioned or impossibly new-media, you decide and get back to me - you'd get more of an insight into the processes of how government actually works. This market does not yet exist, but it is far more substantial than the market for, say, camp euphemisms about Christopher Pyne.

Reorienting the entire way that public policy journalism in this country is practised would be far-reaching and a crucial reform, but not without cost for old-fashioned luggards like Maley and Green. If you regard journalism as the last craft practised for the delight of those employed in it rather than the utility of those consuming it, this is a terrifying prospect and see you at the Holy Grail!


  1. Hillbilly Skeleton3/10/10 11:29 am

    Nitpicking time. Instead of 'Maley' you were meaning to write 'Hardy',weren't you?
    Other then that, if there was someone, such as yourself from the 5th Estate who was willing and able to go to Parliament every day it is in session and then tell the world what was really going on there, behind the veil that the Press Gallery draws between the punters and the parliamentarians, then that person would have a ready-made audience. Are you up for it?

  2. HS, no nit to pick. Note that the last word in the first sentence of paragraph 7 refers to an article by Jacqueline Maley, as does the commentary that follows it. It requires more work than I can do, let alone am prepared to do. You need a complete reworking of the idea that public policy is all run from parliament, and that you can only get around spin by going out so wide that ministerial press secs can't cope. Just as restaurant reviewers can take down second-rate food and service charged at first-rate prices, so too I'm doing what I can against the politico-media complex.

  3. Reporting what actually happens to me seems old fashioned.
    Im sure in my younger days when I read the newspaper I learnt something I had not known before.
    In Sydney on the way to work in the train I would read the Telegraph [before murdock] on way home it would be the Sun & when I got home dad would have the Mirror and on Saturday the Herald then Sundays choice and while some of these papers were biased they all had different biases so pretty much evened out.
    Few journos were stars . The job in those days seemed to be to write well and provide knowledge on the topic being discussed .
    There is also the possibility that I am looking on those days through rose coloured glasses but for five decades I have been reading newspapers and I find them, today ,annoying and no longer at all interesting or enjoyably to read.
    Dad,who has spent seventy years buying a paper a day wont even take a free Tele from the supermarket . Why waste the time reading it?
    This is a whinge on newspapers but does extend to online journalism which to often follows the uninteresting dross these lazy self important pretenders serve up as quality reporting.

  4. I agree, my problem is what is being reported on.

    Rather than have the parliamentary press gallery as the source of all news about public policy, there is a role for specific areas of public policy to have their own specialist reporters. Those people have a role in explaining what's going on as well as what to think. Old-school journalism merely said that Minister X said this, Opposition Leader said that, and end of story. I agree that old-school won't do, particularly when you see the disconnect between The Narrative and what actually happens.

  5. Spot on. I used to lionise Hardy's grandfather until I started meeting people who testified to his own delusional and relentless sense of self-importance - but at least in his prime, his work was coloured with some political acumen and insight. Marieke was better when she stuck to writing episodes of smug self-referential TV drama catering exclusively for Melbourne's faux-BoHo set.

    As someone who lives within sight of Lygon Street it shits me to no end that people like Hardy, Catherine Deveny et. al. have their vain brain-farts mindlessly defended by people more cloistered than the supposed ignorant masses of outer-suburban families that they define themselves against. Their contribution to the public debate is facile and redundant, in old age they will still be shadow-boxing in the same Howard-era culture war, in the same manner that Gerard Henderson and Robert Manne are still fighting their university battles. It certainly takes a special kind of literary incompetence for an attack piece to engender sympathy for Christopher Pyne.