13 March 2011

How not to cover politics

First, there was this superb dissection of how The New York Times published only the story its journalist was able to write. This is an excellent takedown of standard political reporting.

Nikki Barrowclough started out writing profile pieces on herself living in France, or with a Frenchman, or something like that. For some reason The Good Weekend commissioned her to write a profile piece on Mark Arbib.

Arbib is one of those figures in politics who doesn't have a high profile, but who has a considerable impact on those who do and on the way politics works, and in a way that isn't fully explained in Politics I courses. To do a profile like this you need to be able to explain how a kid from Bondi got to wield such power, not just describe his ascent through Young Labor and Sussex Street as though he rose smoothly in a balloon, or on some sort of escalator, like it was inevitable. There was the odd anonymous, bitchy aside, but no real explanation of why this guy can kybosh the career of two Premiers (and much else besides).

It is anti-democratic and patronising to suggest that politics can only be understood and explained by a specific caste. Yet, someone who doesn't understand politics can't really explain why senior people in responsible positions within government fear to do things that he doesn't like. Barrowclough mentioned that two NSW Premiers have gone down because they fell foul of Arbib - but you have to ask what areas of policy would be different were it not for Mark bloody Arbib.
... Arbib replies, "I have always done what is in the party's and the national interest, even when it has been detrimental to my career. All I'm going to say is that much of what has been reported in the media is incorrect and not factual. That's it. Full stop."

There is no evidence of him doing anything that was detrimental to his career, whether in the national interest or not: Barrowclough's job was to test that, not just transcribe it. I would suggest that helping Barry O'Farrell become Premier of NSW was also in the national interest, but I accept that thousands hundreds quite a few Labor supporters would disagree.

Mark Arbib undertook "work experience" as Minister for Employment Participation Minister and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Government Service Delivery 2009-10, and it is unclear what fraction of bugger-all he achieved in either role (especially when you consider that government service delivery was one of the reasons Labor was hammered at the last election).

He is Minister for Social Housing and Homelessness, and it is unclear what he is doing in that role. Barrowclough acknowledges that she doesn't focus on policy but doesn't really explain why anonymous bitchiness and childhood memories are enough of a substitute (the childhood stuff might be worthwhile in a colour magazine but it is possible to write about public policy in an engaging way. The fact that people in leading NGOs working on housing think he's a great guy/a fool/a bastard/never around and takes no interest would be significant.

Arbib is Minister for Indigenous Employment and Economic Development. Given that policy in this area over a hundred years has ranged from half-hearted to half-arsed, how does Arbib rate? How often does he travel to Aboriginal communities (not just picturesque remote ones, not just Noel Pearson's people, but grungy settlements in urban areas)? Do his professions of deep concern, combined with his sheer clout within the ALP, lead to policy outcomes that help Aboriginal people seeking meaningful work? Are the policy people you quote in passing major players in that area, and is a Parliament House internship worth much more than window-dressing?

He was and is Minister for Sport. The old dilemma of sport policy is the extent to which it should foster elite performance or community participation: what's Arbib's take on that?

He gave $45m of taxpayers' money to a bid for the FIFA World Cup that went nowhere at all, including at least a million to the sort of spiv NSW Labor specialises in; if he was such a master fixer he would have done better than that at a world-class numbers-crunching event. The fact that he hasn't been filleted by the relevant Shadow Minister, Luke Hartsuyker, can only be attributed to:

  1. Hartsuyker being lazy and stupid;

  2. The Coalition not wishing to embroil Frank Lowy in a partisan spat (or not being smart enough to target Arbib without collateral damage falling on Lowy); or

  3. A combination of the above.

Seriously, what the Coalition needs to do now is start knocking off some ministers. Peter Garrett survived everything they could throw at him - but imagine if the Opposition were to knock off Mark Arbib. It would be the scalp of scalps, the biggest loss to a government since the air disaster of 13 August 1940 on the Menzies Government. It wouldn't alter the numbers in the House immediately but it would take a while for the power vacuum within Labor to subside.

The fact that Arbib stood down from the Federal Executive of the ALP in 2010 is significant, and Barrowclough missed that too. He'd been on that body for six years, and membership of an club like that is not given up lightly for anyone who takes politics seriously. Gillard and her Cabinet must have resented answering to a body that included a junior minister who wasn't across his portfolio: yes, he would have said that he would have spent more time with his portfolio or career or whatever, but a good journalist would push through that.

What's his Master's thesis on, Nikki? It would be in the UNSW Library if you asked for it.
Former NSW federal Labor MP Michael Hatton feels great enmity towards Arbib. He says that debate in the NSW branch of the ALP was stifled after Arbib took control as general secretary in 2004, and that it has been that way ever since.

To what extent is Arbib to blame for that? Is it a good thing (after 2004 Labor won a State and Federal election) or a bad thing (Labor's policy ideas on State and Federal level since then have been dire, and their polling in both arenas is way beyond ups-and-downs and heading for the abyss)?
Still another source says, "The Left and Right haven't had serious wars for a long time ... Mark saying that he stopped the wars simply isn't true. The wars were long over. He did deals with the Left in order to screw over his enemies in the Right, and to assist the hard Left against the soft Left. His [machinations] infuriated everyone in the Right."

Again: good thing or bad? Never mind the ALP, what about the impacts on state and nation? What policy ideas were nurtured and championed by someone who fell as chaff before Arbib? What stupid, wasteful and unnecessary policies have been foisted upon us simply because this joker decided to flex his muscles?

No politician is entitled to be taken at face value. Too much of Nikki Barrowclough's Arbib profile is a non-political profile of someone who is entirely political; a profile of (say) Nicole Kidman that paid no attention to the craft of acting would be considered too trite for The Good Weekend, but that's what happened here. From the start of the article Arbib knew he was dealing with a lightweight, and so we have seen; but we might yet hope for better from the journosphere.

Arbib is not a policy detail guy and I hope he'll be hammered again and again whenever he exerts the clout that Labor seems unable to resist. He supposedly joined the Labor Party because he cares about people and issues, but there's no evidence of that. He has supposedly put the interests of party, state and nation ahead of his own interests, but there's no proof of that. This was a poor piece, neither an in-depth study of a man nor a study of his (seemingly crucial) place in the political context. If Nikki Barrowclough was paid well for this piece at least one good thing will have come from it.
Mark Arbib initially declined to be interviewed when I rang his office in December, the same month The Sydney Morning Herald broke the story about him. His change of heart doesn't mean he has forgiven Fairfax for what he regards as the newspaper's malicious treatment of him. He hasn't. But he's also media savvy.

Maybe that's it: a soft piece like this, peppered with a few anonymous quotes to maintain a perception of "balance" without anything that will really wound him, is designed to build bridges between a key politician and a news organ that feeds on political gossip.

As with the New York Times piece referred to above, it's one thing for a journalist to write a story about politics without any real understanding of politics; it's quite another for a serious MSM brand to not be able to tell whether or not a journalist really understands the subject matter they're covering.


  1. And another missing question from the Barrowclough article — what power will he have when NSW state labour is soundly thrashed later this month? When his power base is gone will anyone listen to his ideas of what is in the national interest? Maybe someone will decide it is finally in the party's interest to move him on.

    Yet another good piece Andrew.

  2. Johnny Rotten14/3/11 12:13 pm

    So you don't like Arbib. Now what's your take on the poisonous Minchin who seems oblivious to the damage he causes to his party.

  3. Quite so, PeterH, and thank you.

    Johnny: do a search for "minchin" on this blog. The climate stuff with the guy from Alabama is pathetic. As your namesake might say, I think he's a f@#$ing #@nt: but he's a far better minister than Arbib will ever be.

  4. Anthony Morgan14/3/11 8:32 pm

    I enjoyed this article, and the reason behind it. Why on earth you thought THE AGE would be yielding good journalism is beyond me. I get the Australian on Monday, Wed and Sat, do the puzzles, and use the rest to clean the barbeque, so I'm not promoting that rag either.

  5. Well, if one is looking for (approximate) pigeon pairs, what about Mark Arbib and Scott Morrison? Though Senator Arbib also shares an alarming number of ... erm ... qualities with my erstwhile fellow-student and soon to be ex-Senator.