27 March 2011

Talking to Gladys

As a summary of the election result itself, it's hard to go past this. What follows here is just another spitball lobbed in the general direction of Journalism Most High, and of one pit of particularly poor journalism: the NSW state parliamentary press gallery.

For almost all of the last four years, polls in NSW have shown that there was at least a chance that the Coalition might win State government. For most of that time it was a dead certainty. It was incumbent upon the journosphere to get to know the State Libs and ask them penetrating questions over time rather than just accepting Labor's portrayals of them as punchlines in Labor jokes. We are all poorer for this failure.

Silly articles have appeared over this period claiming that the Coalition frontbench are "anonymous" (they're public figures and they adore attention from the media, so why don't you give them some and see how they go?), or that they have no policies (they released over a hundred - and no, you don't just have to accept lazy journalism as "the way media works"). Just because Labor want to frame them that way doesn't oblige the journosphere to present them that way. The articles that need to be written now - firstly, analyses of what the new government must/can do, and secondly NSW Labor picking through the rubble - should have written themselves. Instead, the journosphere is grappling for words to describe a situation that was crystal-clear to anyone who'd been paying attention.

Last night the only live TV coverage of the State election was on the ABC. Kerry O'Brien chaired the panel with stale State politics reporter Quentin Dempster.

O'Brien was doddery and dithery, unsure of state politics and ill at ease with the off-screen technology. There were a lot of Freudian slips where "Labor" had won seats actually won by the Coalition. This is why O'Farrell cut him and spoke directly to Gladys Berejiklian, getting his message through to her (including confirming her as Transport Minister) in a classy manner unfiltered by O'Brien. If O'Brien was so tired of Keneally's bullshit, why didn't he have her on what was then "The 7.30 Report" and just shred her?

If he had, it would probably have brought on a demarcation dispute with Quentin Dempster, a Queenslander who had crusaded against Bjelke-Petersen in his final days and was brought to NSW in the late '80s to do the job in Greiner. Dempster is a caricature of an-old school journo, but his heart is with Labor and he has been poor at disguising it. He would occasionally display irritation at Labor's media management and backtracking on commitments, but I can still remember him interviewing John Brogden and dimming the studio lights so that Dempster looked like he was talking to someone in a witness protection program.

Dempster interviewed the Liberal candidate for Balmain, who referred to inner-west Liberals. Liberals had won the seats of Drummoyne and Strathfield in Sydney's inner west earlier that night, and Dempster look stupid for asking "what's an inner west Liberal?". For the past twenty years Liberals had worked assiduously to break Labor's lock on inner western Sydney, but Quentin wouldn't know this as the non-members bar in State Parliament faces away from the inner west. Like most journalists he disdained the Liberals, and they are right to return the favour. Matt Wordsworth does the heavy lifting in State Parliament for that network, so as of yesterday Uncle Quentin's value-add on state political issues has plummeted.

Antony Green is a pre-eminent psephologist but he's not much chop as a software programmer. Every election broadcast for the last five years has seen a software glitch that makes a nonsense of his contributions, a disconnect between what one sees on the screen and a hasty verbal explanation of why a candidate who is supposedly getting thrashed is slightly ahead, or vice versa, or something. If he's wrestling with his own software it detracts from his attempts to clarify and electorally tricky situation, and only adds to the discombobulation of old-school presenters like O'Brien.

O'Brien looked rattled by the end of the program, a quill-and-ink man in the age of Twitter. The contrast with his aplomb on previous Federal campaigns, and with that of Virginia Trioli in last year's Victorian election, could not be greater. It's time for Kerry O'Brien and Quentin Dempster to give it away.

The only trouble is that the coming generation of journalists ready to take senior roles reporting state politics cut their teeth dutifully reporting bullshit from the Walt Disney Secord fantasy factory. Some may snap out of that, examining the O'Farrell government more thoroughly than 16 years of Labor ever were. Some will just put their brain in neutral and go along with the under-construction Liberal bullshit machine, while yet others will just end up as rain dogs (Brian Robins from the SMH is probably going to be one of these, unless he can be shunted into reporting on something else).

It would be wonderful if NSW state political reporting was so debased that journos were forced to get into policy and treat politics as a sub-set of that: but why would they bother? When your idea of investigative journalism is refreshing your email inbox, or having the new Opposition point out the political versions of IEDs that the new government will stumble upon, once can hope for better journalism out of Macquarie Street - but not too much.


  1. They might have released over 100 policies but I'm still yet to hear one. The only 1 I know of is regional kickstart and that's because I did my research well before the election.

    Beyond that it's all about Sydney's public transport and a closed mouth as far as I can see.

  2. Agree with much you have written, especially with regards KOB & Quentin's peformance. Quentin was stale as 730NSW debate host too. The ABC's coverage was nowhere near what it has been, and Antony Green having to interpret/contextualise incorrect graphics just adds to the mystification for the average punter.


  3. Yes, bringing Kerry down from Byron for the night was a mistake, but it was a strange night all round. The script had been written for months, so there was absolutely no drama: Foley was not devastated; Berejiklian was not triumphant. Kenneally was not downcast in her concession speech; instead she looked relieved that she had completed her side of the bargain.

    I agree that Dempster is well past it, as he's never discussed politics as anything other than a blood sport. Now that the government won't have any credible opposition for at least one term and probably a few more, we are really going to need analytical discussion of the process of government and implementation of policy.

    Other than Matt Wordsworth I don't know anyone in the press gallery who's likely to bring this to us.

    I thought the way O'Farrell cold-shouldered O'Brien to talk directly to Berejiklian was not classy at all. It looked like here was a man who was ready to settle a few scores over years of Fatty O'Barrell jokes. I hope he won't disdain the ABC for his entire term of government

  4. The problem with Antony Green's software would be that he's probably 1. too involved in it, or 2. using uni students to write it. If they're getting funny results, it's because they haven't defined the testing parameters properly.

  5. PeterH, I disagree there was no drama: the finality of it was crushing. O'Farrell was determined but not arrogant: imagine what Kennett or Rann would have done in that position. I doubt O'Brien would have engaged in too many "Fatty O'Barrell" comments with the mic on.

    Chade: never mind the testing, feel the assumptions going into the reqs!

  6. Hillbilly Skeleton29/3/11 10:41 pm

    I agree with Senexx. The majority of the 100 Liberal policies are Mickey Mouse stuff that play well in the media but when you drill down into them they are political flummery. Just one in my electorate of Gosford, to build a railway tunnel under the railway line within 5 years, is so full of holes when forensically analysed, that it will be enough of a 'Broken Promise' of Boffa's Contract with the Voters, that he'll have to resign. Not that he will, of course, as it will probably be one of the projects he has to 'put on hold' as a result of the 'Black Hole' he found after one whole hour speaking to the Head of Treasury, whom he promptly sacked, after promising in the election campaign that there would be no 'Night of the Long Knives'. Maybe because it happened in broad daylight BOFfa can plausibly deny he broke that promise.
    Whoever you vote for, as per usual, you get a politician. Nothing has changed at all.

  7. That's still a policy, HS.

    I recognise that the BBH is an old trick, but I'm not sure why Roozendaal's figures (and Roozendaal's people) are rolled gold while the BBH is just some Liberal trick. There won't be anything like the sackings that Howard did in '96 because for a lot of departments the public servants are keeping it together (lest we forget: a former head of DOCS advised his then Labor minister that a certain action was unlawful, so the minister sacked the head and did it anyway and then blamed the sacked head for it. Won't pretend the Libs are incapable of shit like that, but keep in mind what a low base they're working from).