17 April 2011

Concerns of the Fourth Estate

Mike: Some chick from Canberra reckons that people just accept what they see and hear in the media as gospel truth, and don't really think about it at all.

Bruce: That's unAustralian.

Katharine Murphy has become very concerned about the poor public but, unfortunately not concerned enough to practice better journalism.
Influence peddling used to be a subtle art. In Canberra, lobbyists walked softly, their footsteps muffled by the plush carpet of the ministerial wing of Parliament House. The object of the exercise was massaging the news cycle. If you could (discreetly of course) generate news stories in the interests of the client, you could influence the politicians, and that was the ultimate aim of the exercise.

It's not always necessary to "massage the news cycle", whatever the hell that means (if anything). Thousands of decisions are made by government every day that affect commercial interests for good or ill, and almost all of them are ignored unless someone puts out a press release (or performs some other action that might fall within the broad and slightly salacious term "massage").

It isn't always necessary to tell journalists what a lobbyist does; in some cases it's desirable not to. The better journalists get a whiff that something is up, ask questions of different sources, and run a post-facto story which at the very least plays catch-up and at worst comes too late to be reversed. The typical journalist ignores the lobbyist register, notes some ex-MP/staffer strolling by and fails to make the connection between the lobbyist, the client, and some piece of policy that is deemed totally too boring by the entire parliamentary press gallery.

Rather than play "gotcha" with well-drilled politicians, it would be better if journalists started drilling lobbyists on what they were up to: "why this story, why now, in whose interests is this?".
The practice is not quite extinct. The fingerprints of expert influence-peddlers can still be seen on the pages of newspapers whenever far-reaching and contentious reforms hit.

We are at precisely that point in the carbon price debate. Interest groups for and against action are fighting through the newspapers, sometimes by owning their views explicitly, sometimes by providing helpful "background" to frame the daily coverage.

Katharine Murphy is not some remote, academic observer of the press gallery who can talk in generalities and remain credible. She's an active participant; she may even have written some stories based on such "background". I can understand a reluctance to pint fingers at other journalists but what about naming some lobbyists and clients, give some examples of journalistic pieces that were basically unpaid ads. A mea culpa and a pledge not to get sucked into that vortex too much to ask? Come on, give us something to work with.
But the game overall is changing in ways that have profound implications for the polity. In Australia we are drifting into an influence-peddling arms race, and we are doing it with limited public consciousness.

Another bland generality, but this time she's revealed some of the sloppy thinking that has rendered her profession pretty much useless as a watchdog of poor public-policy practice or even as an explainer of complex issues.

People are well aware that there is influence-peddling going on. Journalists could give us examples if they wanted to, but instead they present stories as though they thought of them all by themselves, when all they're doing is following a crib sheet thrust under their noses by someone else, for whatever reason. Any limits on public consciousness is put there by lazy journalists - like, it must be said, Katharine Murphy.
Consider recent history. The ACTU started the trend with the Your Rights at Work campaign against John Howard's WorkChoices. With a big budget, effective advertising and a crisp marginal seats strategy, the trade union movement helped finish Howard.

Consider the big budget that the Howard Government itself was lavishing on promoting WorkChoices, and you've got to conclude that a big budget doesn't always guarantee success.
Then the miners all but finished Kevin Rudd with a $20 million blitz to pulverise the super profits tax. Those companies got a brilliant return on their investment - a few million bought them a backdown that saved them $60 billion in tax over the next decade, according to Treasury.

Nobody reported this at the time. At the time, the commentary was totally focused on some sort of equivalence between the Rudd inner-circle (which then included Gillard and Swan) and everybody else. One report balancing the PR strategy against the tax-concession gains, one story might have tipped the balance. Why didn't you write it, Katharine?

Consider also that industry regards a carbon price as inevitable: just because there's not one in America doesn't mean that other parts of the world can and do apply such a mechanism without some sort of collapse in capitalism.
Now we have the pubs and clubs. In some respects, this is the most interesting case study of all.

Fearing the impact of pokies reform, the clubs have produced an advertisement designed to belt Labor in its heartland. It's not on our television screens yet, and the ad is not so much a means of public persuasion as a calculated threat to the Parliament: produce policy we don't like and we will unleash this in response. Apparently, you can now just produce the threat - you saw what the ACTU did to Howard, you saw what the miners did to Rudd, you know what we can do to you.

Oh, please. You can only believe this if you've had your head stuck in the Canberra politico-journalism complex. Step outside the ACT in any direction and you'll find yourself in NSW. In NSW the pubs and clubs have staged this mock war with the State Government where each got access to more access to more pokies, and the government that bent over for them and let this happen has been annihilated.

Conclusion for Federal Labor: stand up for good policy (the capacity to set limits on gambling, not some 1984-style mandate to impose limits) and you'll be OK. Those people are taking money off addicts to run ads against you so that they can take more money from addicts. People will respect you if you help people break that cycle, and nobody votes for people they don't respect.

Conclusion for clubs and pubs: sack all those geniuses you picked up from the last Labor State Government in NSW, lest your own members go the way of that outfit.

Conclusion for journos: don't just cut-n-paste press releases handed to you by lobbyists. There is plenty of info out there on this issue so go find some and report back to us what you find.
Why have the influence peddlers progressively switched course, from the subtle suasion of the back room to full-scale frontal stabbing?

I'll offer a couple of hypotheses.

The first one is that life has gotten harder for the Canberra lobbyist. It's difficult to ply an invisible trade.

Lobbyists are now regulated. They can't get access to Parliament without first registering and disclosing all their clients.

Yeah, but journalists never refer to that register, they don't do stories saying that Lobbyist X met with Minister Y representing Client Z (and when Minister Y's press sec begs them not to ask about "alleged" meetings with Lobbyist X, they always comply).

To use another case study: Paul Howes was all over the media recently calling for a re-examination of nuclear power in Australia. It is total bullshit that Howes is acting purely on the behest of the 130,000 manual workers who ostensibly make up the AWU. In the same way, very few of them were agitating to get rid of Kevin Rudd. When Paul Howes speaks, ask yourself on whose behalf does he actually speak? Stop taking him at face value, it's non-journalism just to transcribe what tumbles out of his face. Go behind and above Howes, find out what's going on and let us know.
Industry associations - facing less strictures than the lobbyists - are more powerful these days in terms of professional communication. They can co-ordinate their members, pool funds, determine joint strategy and, if warranted, enter the public discourse in a very big way.

Gerry Harvey and the retailers were not so successful in getting GST taken off online sales. A co-ordinated strategy is not always an effective one. The miners overplayed their hand; the "winners" are at one another's throats with Don Argus and Andrew Forrest not exactly sipping Bolly together at the Weld Club, and Gina Rinehart seriously thinks she's Dagny bloddy Taggart. If you were going to snatch back the phantom $60b, now's the time to do it.
The second significant shift is the media cycle.

Whenever I hear "the media cycle" or "the 24 hour news cycle", I reach for my gun - but I don't have a gun and am wary of Nazi quotations, so I just go blog instead.
In a very short period, the news cycle has become both surround sound, and passe. Point-of-view is now king.

Point-of-view can be passe, too. Opinions are like arseholes, everyone's got one. A point of view backed up by facts cuts through in a way that verba-not-facta can't; it's why Lenore Taylor and Grog's Gamut cut through with topical, well-researched pieces and why neither Katharine Murphy nor I do.
Influence peddlers are moving with the times. They want to capture and generate strong opinion.

But it, too, is a crowded market, so if you want to be heard in a ceaseless clamour of blogs, tweets and talking heads, you need a huge billboard. If emoting is the imperative, then advertising is the obvious recourse.

Billboards. Advertising. Really?

It's all very well for the characters of Mad Men (a fictional TV series set in the early 1960s) to talk like ad campaigns are "moving with the times" but fifty years later it's absurd. Interest groups have always run ad campaigns and attempted to out-populist the politicians. Sometimes they've been successful, often not. End of.
It's potent, and the best thing is that if the ad is political, it isn't actually required to tell the truth.

Lobbyists aren't required to tell the truth when talking to politicians, or to journalists - but when the journalists report what is said in an uncritical way, it lends those statements the sort of credibility that journalists like to think they have. It lends those statements what Stephen Colbert called "truthiness", a quality that journalists will happily trade away for "access" and invites to cocktail parties.
Freedom of speech is not only a right but a responsibility. Say what you like, sure, but for the good of the polity make sure the terms are equal. In a battle between vested interests and the potential losers, the corporate dollar will always win out. Can problem gamblers match a $20 million ad blitz by the clubs? I don't think so.

They don't have to. Plenty of products have died in the marketplace with ad budgets of far more than $20m: I'll bet you a Crystal Cola on that. Clubs don't vote, gamblers do: and even non-addicted gamblers aren't going to side with the crowd that takes all their money. That leaves you with overpaid club managers and gullible old clowns who rally to any "attack" on their club - the same gullible old clowns who are neutered politically anyway. So much for your twenty mil.
The US is currently debating the relentless rise of so-called political action committees. Two conservative PACs have a reported goal of raising $120 million to defeat Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential race. As The Wall Street Journal reported recently, if they meet their goal, they will be the biggest players in the 2012 race apart from the candidates themselves.

The Democratic Party is considering ways to counter this power. A Washington Post report this week suggests several liberal groups will band together to try to neutralise the spending from the conservative PACs.

The first sentences in each of the above two paragraphs is false. There is no debate. When you are considering ways of beating the other guys at their own game, you cannot claim to be debating or reconsidering the very game itself. What sounds like decisive action is the very sort of hand-wringing ineffectiveness that saw non-entities like Harry Reid fritter away the enormous goodwill Barack Obama had built up in less than three years. If Murphy can't tell the difference between action and posturing from a distance, you can't rely on her to do so up close in Canberra.
Government can always advertise in support of its agenda - although that practice has been a casualty of overuse in the Howard years, then a symbol of desperation from the last months of Rudd, when Labor panicked and made a joke of its accountability agenda in an inept effort to try to match the miners.

The Gillard Government doesn't "own" limits on pokies in the same way that it does other aspects of public policy. It realises, as Katharine Murphy doesn't, that a big ad campaign does not equal political success. The real story here is that a government that used to cut and run from big issues no longer does. It is the very sort of story that you'd wish someone in Katharine Murphy's position would actually write.
PAC-style frontal stabbing certainly has this to recommend it: at least it's an overt practice. Most people would know it's the miners behind the mining ads, or the clubs behind the pokies campaign, whereas the practice of ''backgrounding'' is much more covert.

You don't need journalists to tell you that mining companies sponsor pro-mining ads - but journalists do it anyway. This causes citizens/voters/taxpayers to limit or cease their take-up of mainstream media: and that, Katharine, is how people limit their exposure to the big bad ad campaigns: they switch off the media that carries such bullshit, whether as paid ads or as badly written stories produced by lobbyist-addled journos.

It's the journos themselves that need help discerning between spin and fact, not those who would be - but increasingly aren't - readers, viewers and listeners. What's bad news for journalists isn't necessarily bad news for the rest of us. Talk about special pleading by self-interested jobsworths trying to rope the public into an action that's against their wider interests.

I admit, however, the romantic in me held out some hope when I read this:
We have a choice. We can either bump along and slide into a combative political environment where vested interests set the agenda, or we can stop, think and consider the alternatives.

Yes! Yes! She's going to talk about journalism! She's going to bust out of the press gallery like Chief Bromden from the asylum in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and cultivate a wider set of sources! She's going to start with her own motivations and outcomes just like Mr Denmore said!

I should be grateful, I suppose, for being disabused of my reckless optimism so quickly:
Should there be full public funding for elections, ensuring that politics is left to the politicians?

You can't be serious.

Politics isn't left to the politicians: politicians are accountable to voters. If we had better journalism we'd have better-informed voters, and hence better government: instead, we have silly pieces by people like Katharine Murphy who review parliamentary proceedings at though they were theatre.

You saw the drivel that constitutes political advertising: like journalism, but worse. There is no cause to make taxpayers pay for that, and to pay for it at the expense of other more pressing social issues.
Should we require truth in political advertising?

Who do you mean by "we"? If a minister junks an election promise and doesn't put out a press release, you guys in the press gallery never find out or follow up. One day a government is going to impose draconian restrictions on the media and a campaign against it - well funded or no - will fail because the media are such rubbish at working out and reporting what is going on in government.
Or should we do nothing, and wake up in a decade to find that politics can't do anything; that politics is now solely about carving up the spoils, that reform has become impossible?

Keep on doing what you're doing and we'll end up in the same place. All that is required for evil to triumph is not only for good people to do nothing, but for journalists to give good and evil equal coverage and/or focus on trivia. But you can't tell journalists how to do their jobs, oh no: it would be an infringement on free speech, and besides you don't understand how politics and media really work.

Katharine Murphy is ill-equipped to do think pieces. She would be better off if she stuck to the giggly politico-media space-fillers that are her stock in trade. If she's determined to go against that, however, she can get to work examining issues that can't be covered quickly with a couple of press releases garnished with some quotes. There's nothing wrong with backgrounding, or being backgrounded - but there's everything wrong with not asking questions of the information you're given. Readers, viewers and listeners do it - why don't journalists? Just because journos are easily duped it does not mean the rest of us are.


  1. Great piece - showing the navel-gazing tossers for what they are.
    Murphy is clearly desperate to be taken seriously yet can't get past her need to be popular and cool, to be the perfect mix of considered intellect and still one of the common people. Even in her giggly space filling, common touch pieces we see her need to portray herself as both career woman and supermum.
    Why do we need to know about her private life - look at twitter and various pieces about her children etc - if what she wants to be is a serious political reporter????
    May I suggest that her ability to get these crap pieces into the paper has to do with who she knows, the gallery family mentality and not any ability......

  2. Do you have Murphy confused with Crabb?

  3. I think Murphy would be delighted to be confused with Crabb but no I'm not confused.
    At least Crabb can be funny and self-deprecating.

    Why does Murphy taking her boy to his AFL game have anything to do with the debate about her article? Unless she wanted to send a message about herself. Or perhaps a convenient excuse?

  4. "Lobbyists are now regulated. They can't get access to Parliament without first registering and disclosing all their clients"

    A ridiculous statement. The only thing that people need to get a sponsored pass in Parliament House is the agreement and signatures of two MPs or Senators to sponsor their passes. The only people who need to go on the lobbyist register are those who belong to an official lobbying firm and lobby on behalf of a third party client. There are dozens of lobbyists from industry and community organisations that have lobbyist passes and none of them appear on the lobbyist register. I doubt the woman has even looked at the register's website.

  5. "If we had better journalism we'd have better-informed voters, and hence better government".

    Oh yes. More of this please.

    Journos always blame the "news cycle" for why they don't have time to check the claims being made by politicians, but it's only journos who think people care about the news cycle. Everyone else would just prefer better quality news.

  6. DaveB, it's an absolute treasure trove and journos are too stupid to refer to it.

    NWN, this whole site started off criticising politicians but has increasingly gone after lazy journalism and groupthink surrounding the "news cycle", which serves as a cover for all manner of stupidity, moral deafness and sloth. There's plenty here, dig in.