10 December 2010

Relationship breakdown

If you want a simple explanation about why bloggers are different to journalists, and not some distasteful threat or parasitic e-form of that declining profession, read Tim Dunlop's piece on old and new media. I was so ready to agree with the whole damn lot until I re-read the first two paragraphs under Section 2. Then I was happy enough to say that I agreed with it but for those two paragraphs, but they kept irritating me while I was playing defence in soccer and my team lost 0-1.
The other problem the mainstream has (and here I largely mean that part of the media that reports politics), is that they are a part of the process of the stories they themselves cover. You cannot separate the tactics and strategy of politicians from the way the media reports those tactics and strategies.

To put it simply, for many in the audience, the media are as much a part of politics as the politicians themselves, and you can’t understand the behaviour of one without examining the behaviour of the other.

This isn't so in political reporting today, and the difference matters because the journalists are insecure about their relationship with politicians - social media only opens up a new front and makes this insecurity rampant paranoia.

1. A short history of the Federal parliamentary press gallery

Since the Federal Parliament was first convened in 1901 it has featured a press gallery. Three Prime Ministers - Deakin, Scullin and Curtin - had been journalists. When Scullin lost he did what politicians do when condemning their parties to years in opposition: he said that the government had a great message to sell but complained that the press was against them.

Until Menzies' time the entire press gallery could fit into the billiards room at the Lodge. The journalists of this era, such as Alan Reid and Ian Fitchett, were heavily partisan but they could fake apolitical reporting really well: when old people flinch at modern opinionated reporting, that's the era they want to return to.

The first Prime Minister to really make use of the media was John Gorton. Gorton was a cabinet minister under Menzies and he liked journalists, and they liked him. When he ran for the Liberal leadership in 1968 following Holt's death he used the media to reflect favourably upon himself as a potential Prime Minister with real popular appeal - popular appeal being synonymous with press gallery appeal, apparently.

Gorton's opponent in that contest, Paul Hasluck, had been a journalist himself before and during World War II, an era where to be a journalist meant keeping secrets and boosting morale rather than hard-hitting exposés (bombs and bullets hit hard enough). Hasluck had been a minister for long enough to disdain journalists for their ignorance and putting questions from the tops of their heads rather than as a result of in-depth research. He eschewed the media, and his party eschewed him.

The then-Leader of the Opposition, Gough Whitlam, did the same in outmanoeuvring Arthur Calwell: he got to know young journalists, schooled better and for a more technocratic age, and spent time with them. He set up choreographed moments of banter in Parliament, usually copied verbatim from nineteenth-century badinage in the House of Commons, and let selected journalists know when the show would be on. Journalists felt like they were participating in something big, an impression reinforced by Whitlam's rodomontades about urban planning, ancient Greece or whatever.

Gorton continued doing his share of cultivation too. Even after losing a record number of seats in 1969 journalists liked Gorton, but the momentum was with Whitlam. Then, in March 1971, a press gallery journalist named Alan Ramsey wrote a story that forced the then Defence Minister, Malcolm Fraser, to resign and ultimately brought down Gorton himself. A journalist brought down a Prime Minister!

The Liberal Party elected Billy McMahon as leader and PM even though they knew the press gallery hated him. McMahon had not cultivated journalists at all, and they in turn made fun of his ears. In this period journalists began releasing books about Whitlam. They were mostly so replete with religious terminology that Graham Freudenberg, Whitlam's press secretary, may as well have been credited as co-author.

In 1972 the press gallery's favourite, Whitlam, beat Mr Funny Ears. Each minister in the new government got a press secretary, and their jobs were to write stories for journalists so that they wouldn't go after any nasty scoops. The journalists increased in number and got nasty scoops anyway, about loans and stuff, and the Opposition played on what was in the press and then the government fell again, in a hugely spectacular fashion that would keep Paul Kelly in pocket money for a generation.

Every Prime Minister from Whitlam to Rudd had to cultivate the press gallery in order to get that job. Leaders of major parties who sucked at dealing with the press gallery (Bill Hayden, Alexander Downer, Simon Crean) never got to be Prime Minister.

2. Julia Gillard and the 2010 Election

The people within the ALP who were undermining Rudd were pretty assiduous in building contacts within the media, but that isn't the same as wanting to become Prime Minister yourself. Gillard had a strong media profile but there was not a lot of in-depth schmoozing of the media like Rudd had done, and Howard before him, etc.

One day, that all changed. One morning Julia Gillard decided she would roll Rudd and become Labor leader and Prime Minister. The next day the Federal Labor Caucus met to confirm her as leader. There was no time for schmoozing journalists; from a press gallery point of view it was like Lady Macbeth, one minute she disappeared off-stage and the next thing we know the king is dead.

There was lots of technocratic stuff for Gillard to do behind closed doors, a bit like the first days of the Whitlam government. Soon afterwards there was an election. Journalists teased Gillard by filling every press conference with insider-drivel like "are you frustrated at not being able to get your message out?". Gillard hadn't bothered to schmooze them, and now she expected media attention, just because she's the Prime Minister? What about that guy who used to schmooze us all the time, let's ask about him! Yeah, let's make fun of her ears!

If journalists covering the 1983 or '84 elections had done this to Bob Hawke, he'd have ripped them a new one and the editors of a different era would have sacked them.

Meanwhile, former journalist Tony Abbott has done the traditional schmoozing of the press gallery over many years.

3. Julia Gillard since the 2010 Election

Ms Funny Ears somehow remained as Prime Minister, despite "not being able to get the message out" via the journosphere.

Today, the journosphere never gives Gillard much credit. Her approval ratings are neither strong nor weak: she's there to do a job and she's doing it. Journalists who bag her are ignored by Gillard and by the public. Media fads (e.g. "Is Mark Arbib a spy?) pass her by without her looking insouciant. No journalists are fawning over her because there's no reward for doing that: not from Gillard or the media. Gillard is perfectly polite to journalists but she just doesn't need them to stay as PM.

Journalists claim that Australians disdain politicians, but only those who read journalists' output and can't look past it do that. Australians disdain people who make a big deal when they are just doing their jobs: highly regarded professions like nurses don't big-note themselves but journalists and politicians do. Gillard has not experienced the media love-in that usually accompanies the rise of a PM, which suggests that she'll ride out media disaffection more easily than her predecessors could.

4. People who play by the rules and do the right thing

The Opposition Leader, with his no less funny-looking ears, played the traditional media game. He was praised for curbing his effusive personality and reciting dull lines like someone talking in his sleep, saying the same lines over and over until the journosphere reported it. For all that, Abbott lost the Prime Ministership: yeah, he came close but so did Billy Snedden.

Abbott just looks skittish when he plays the traditional media game (Question Time theatrics, stunt press conferences). He can't seem to bring disparate criticisms of the government (Turnbull on the NBN, Hockey on financial sector regulation, Bishop on Assange, Morrison of Nauru on immigration) into a cohesive whole; but no journo is looking for that, and none want to dissuade such a try-hard player from playing the game the way they feel it should be played.

When Abbott calls the government to account and demands inquiries and investigations, he gets equal-time coverage but no journalist wants to follow him down the rabbit-hole. They're quite content with the information they get spoon-fed, thanks very much, and of course Mr Abbott would clamour for openness: he was so open in government, but that was several media cycles ago. When he says he wants transparency it's apparently best to take him at his word, especially if there's no countervailing response from the incumbents.

5. On top of that, the twitter

Fancy slaving away all day to put together 600 words, and then answer a phone call from a radio station where you read half what you've written down the line, and then on top of all that you have to go on the twitter with the sort of things journos write there, e.g.
@latikambourke: oh, me too!!

@journostudent: Thank you so much! Takes a skilled journo can do that ;)

@awelder: You can't criticise journalism without being a journalist yourself.

This article from The Guardian says that all Australians are racist bogans: arseh.at/0mgWTf

Phew! Talk about hard work.

There has always been feedback to journalists' work. Newspapers have a Letters to the Editor page; fervent correspondents had and have zero impact on the news. Likewise, radio stations have talkback, which they open, control and close at will while giving the impression of breezy engagement. The least amenable medium to popular input, television, has also been the most popular medium.

The idea of a 'fourth estate' is that it holds the powerful to account. It is not geared to being held to account itself. It transmits, and to receive feedback only clogs up the transmission. Social media is all about feedback and conversation, and while journalists are happy to receive praise they can't distinguish between constructive criticism and destructive carping. They are used to journalism as a small world where practitioners know one another: they are not used to a big world where they don't. When journalists complain about 'anonymous' bloggers, they don't just mean people with names like '@$i9'. They mean: how can I accept personal criticism from someone I've never met?

Information exchanged in blogs and on Twitter looks like journalism. It can even be better researched and written than journalism, particularly in specialised areas which journalists encounter regularly but struggle to come to terms with (e.g. psephology, economics, law, war), particularly given a professional culture of shunning research and winging it.

Journalists can get all shrieky about how you need years of dedication and training to do journalism properly, but you don't really. I can tell you it's not hard to write a press release - and so it's not that hard to rewrite one or splice a couple of them together, which is what most journalism is.

Most journalism involves reporting announcements (or even pre-announcements: "X will announce today that ...", followed by the soupçon of substance that the article is built around). Announcements are made for the benefit of journalists. They can be light on detail and even lighter on any link to the subject matter (e.g. "The Government will spend $50m on [whatever]" - well gol-ly, that's a lot of money! Is it enough? Is it too much? Are they spending it on stuff that doesn't matter? Which lobbyists pulled that off? Journalism rarely answers the questions that need to be asked, and thereby devalues itself). Announcements don't impress people, only journalists are impressed by announcements.

You can go on about Zoe Daniel dodging bullets to report from Bangkok, or Paul McGeough being raided by Israeli commandos en route to Gaza, or Sally Sara explaining the intricacies of politics in Pakistan - we all agree that's real journalism (well, almost all: none of those people were nominated for Walkleys). That sort of journalism is all too rare and is probably the sort of journalism that will survive the technological change afoot at the moment. High-value journalism is the one area that hasn't been tried, whereas bean-counting and hype has been done to death and journalists can't imagine any different environment in which to work. Being subject to incompetent and tyrannous management themselves, they can't understand why voters and taxpayers complain about it from government, or sporting organisations.

The idea that journalism can be knocked out by hordes of non-professional journalists writing for free in a declining market freaks out the journosphere. They're insecure and lack belief in the value of their product. They've lost the ability to critique something like federal politics because the clichés of old do not work (the last hung parliament of 1940-43 was subject to restrictions on reporting and all of the journalists who covered it are dead). Of course they're going to lash out, or meekly toddle off into PR jobs where they can mess with the heads of frazzled journalists. What they're clearly not going to do is change the way they work, because insecure people can't admit they were wrong without a collapse of the collective ego. When your ego collapses, your relationships with others inevitably break down.

They can't admit that those of us outside journalism can dictate terms to those inside, or that you can have a Prime Minister who is well regarded for not truckling to the media. Watching an edifice collapse from inside the edifice must be frightening, but from the outside it can be beautiful and impressive. With a bit of perspective you can see that the destruction of one thing can lead to the creation of another, and that to adapt to change you have to get over yourself. Social media can teach you to get over yourself and deal with people who read your output, journalism might teach you to deal with input providers but it can't teach you to relate to people who need information.


  1. Hillbilly Skeleton11/12/10 9:28 pm

    I don't know why no-one else hasn't commented yet...oh, yes I do, you're an exacting critic of anyone who does. Nevertheless, I just feel that I should make an allusion that might add to your above critique.
    As in the decay of the Roman Empire, it is usually the case that the courtiers within the walls of the halls of power spend too much time in calculating the quality of the clothes that the Emperor is not really wearing, and so eventually it comes to pass that they lose the skills to critique properly and effectively. Thus, when the Barbarian hordes gather outside to storm the ramparts because they are disatisfied with their lot in life, it is usually the courtiers with their inward focus, who are the last ones to see them coming. Thus, they too end up being swept away by the tide that consigns their clothesless emperor to history's dustbin. I mean, they usually only got there because they knew how to work the system, didn't they? As opposed to being particularly talented, per se.
    The 5th Estate, who are watching the courtiers, as well as the court, are today's Barbarians. We're storming their citadel, and it's a good thing too.

  2. Geez, Hillbilly, it's Saturday. It was a lovely day outside and people are going out having fun rather than reading blogs.

    I do agree with the idea of journalistic complacency but the "5th Estate" idea is wrong. The Estates were accountable: the Fourth Estate isn't accountable, which is why it's falling apart in the face of social media. I take commenters seriously, but I'm not accountable in the way that an elected representative is.

    Mind you, I'll take my chances against the staffers and journos and lobbyists, as you suggest. But in contrast with the downfall of the Roman Empire, civilisation need not end with the demise of the politico-media complex.

  3. Did people really think Alan Reid was non-partisan? I'm not old enough to remember his journalism, but I've read three of his books and they strike me as fascinating, informative, and with a grasp of both the policy and human sides of politics, but they also strike me as incredibly biased!

    I want to get work as a journalist, and one of the things I've realised from reading your articles this year is just how many good, substantial stories are out there that aren't really that hard to find. So many Bills before Federal Parliament have had Senate enquiries which leave long paper trails showing you who wants the Bill and who doesn't, which seems like a good start for writing public policy articles. And it's not as if this info is secret!

    One thing I disagree with in the Dunlop article is that it is a bad idea for media outlets to have a political agenda. The only problem is when that agenda drives you to ignore or conceal inconvenient facts. And since there's no way to guarantee people won't do that, having bloggers, Twitterers etc who can bring out hidden sides to a story sounds like a good thing.

  4. Reid's journalism is pretty straight-bat: I was referring to the era rather than Reid specifically.

    Good luck with the career, you'd do it well. A vertical approach to policy enables you to trace an idea through to the Bill stage: the only example I can think of where this is happening is with gay marriage. The other untapped source of info is the lobbyist register. I'm amazed that there are no stories about Lobbyist A representing B fronting up to the office of Minister C to lobby for/against D.

    I'm with you on the final par. All the best.