09 June 2011

The herd mentality

As you'd expect from a veteran journalist, Barrie Cassidy has looked into the eye of a media storm and found the journalists have acted impeccably, particularly when it comes to reinforcing preconceived ideas that might otherwise be challenged by facts.
It's hard to identify a more popular decision taken by the Gillard Government than the suspension of live cattle exports to Indonesia.

Yet even that has been awash in an ocean of negativity.

The overwhelming sentiment of most of the graziers in the far north has fallen somewhere between philosophical and supportive. One quoted his son saying that he would rather go broke than put his animals through such cruelty. Another - Paul Holmes a Court - one of the biggest exporters of live cattle to Indonesia - says the government had no choice and the ban should only be lifted when proper surveillance is guaranteed.

The first and third paragraphs read as though there's some sort of coincidence - if not alignment - between government policy, stakeholders and the community at large. So far, so good: but that middle paragraph is puzzling. What could it mean?
Yet barely anywhere in the media, not in print, on radio or television, on the ABC or the commercial outlets, or online is there any real reflection of how the community would have wanted the government to respond to the horror of the Four Corners program.

Right, so the journalists are trying to create a story where there isn't one. The poor buggers probably think this is what is meant by "adding value". Time for some leadership from this press gallery veteran (not yet a doyen in his own right for pandering to Paul Kelly). The answer here is simple: get the media reporting the story rather than making stuff up - right Barrie?
It's easy to blame the media, as many will.

Well, yes. The question is not how many will, or how easy it is, but whether it is right or fair to do so.
The media treatment was compounded early on when the introduction to many of the reports - even on the ABC - spoke of fury and anger in the north over the decision, while the reports themselves contained nothing of the sort.

The media are responsible for making up non-existent fury. The media are responsible for elevating ideas that did not previously trouble them to centre-stage ("Why wasn't this done months ago?", "What about the graziers whose businesses could go to the wall?", "This is going to dramatically increase the price of meat for Indonesia's poor" - oh, please). Yet, according to Cassidy the media can't be held responsible for its own actions.
It was almost as if the media couldn't comprehend that maybe the industry itself would take the view a problem existed that needed fixing.

In other words: the media failed to do some basic journalism and find out what the industry's views were, and reporting that.

If it is true that Meat & Livestock Australia were aware that animals exported from Australia were mistreated in Indonesia, what we have here is a cover-up and a lax attitude to risk management. Just as wheat farmers were badly let down by AWB's shenanigans in Iraq, so too graziers can rightly feel aggrieved at MLA. There is a wider question to be asked about rural industry bodies and those they purport to represent, and I wish we had some journalists looking into that.

Instead, journalists whinge about issues that don't really relate to the topic at hand.
The circumstances of a hung parliament and minority government has created unfamiliarity and uncertainty around the issues, whatever they are.


This is an issue that could easily have arisen ten years ago, when the Coalition was securely in government, or a decade before that, when Labor was. The maltreatment of cattle in Indonesia has many causes - the composition of the House of Representatives in Canberra at any given point is not one of them.
The Government's history, on insulation, school halls, and the East Timor solution invites instant scepticism on everything. A government decision controversy crisis. They can't even give away set top boxes to pensioners without a furore.

When you've been involved in politics and journalism as long as I have, Barrie, you understand that every time the government does anything there will be someone out there who criticises it. Sometimes the critics have a point, sometimes they don't; but criticism itself is a given. Part of the job of journalists is to help people assess whether or not particular policies and criticisms thereof are valid.
The media has its faults, but a lot of the blame rests with the Government itself. In this case, there was nobody other than the Government to sell the positives; not the animal welfare people because they wanted tougher action; not the graziers because they had to have one eye to compensation; and not the cows because of their obvious limitations.

This is pretty standard, Barrie. Grifting farmers out for a handout, cranky animal activists, and the government developing a policy in the national interest. Cows have never had much of a voice. The government has done its job - it has banned live cattle exports to Indonesia, and made announcements to that effect. If only the media had reported what was announced and looked into how the announcement was received and applied, it might have been different.
It was up to the Government, and they blew it.

The Minister for Agriculture (yes Australia has one) Joe Ludwig had been warned about the problem for months but handed it back to the industry to fix.

As opposed to what - having the RAAF strafe Indonesian abattoirs? You can imagine some oily lobbyist from the livestock industry assuring the minister: no worries mate, it's fiiiiiine. Every other industry is self-regulated (look at the stick Bill Shorten is copping over financial planners), why not livestock exporters?
Then when the Four Corners report went to air he astounded many of his caucus colleagues by taking a half way measure and calling for an inquiry.

It's standard practice, really. Nobody expects government ministers to be paralysed with horror when things happen. It would not have done for Ludwig to leap into action with a pre-defined course of action: it would have been rash, or if carefully planned then surely it could have been done before the ABC chose to broadcast that report.

It's also interesting that journalists played a minimal facilitator role in bringing about the Four Corners report on the brutal treatment of animals in Indonesian abattoirs. Lyn White from Animals Australia won't be eligible for a Walkley award, but the person who sat in a studio and did the voiceover work is. The non-journalist got the story straight, but the journalists reviewing the fallout (Cassidy included) stuffed it up.
And finally when the sensible decision was taken, the minister talked about "appropriate animal welfare outcomes" and "supply chain assurances".

To the prospect of resuming the trade in six months, he said "We need to put in place that supply chain assurance so as soon as we can move to a supply chain assurance then we can transition for the longer term."

In other words, when we're satisfied the Indonesians have stopped brutalising the cattle, we'll resume the trade.

But these days gobbledygook is not the only problem. It goes way beyond that to a failure to tell the public the truth about anything.

It is unclear why Ludwig has been singled out here: I've see worse examples of ministerial gobbledygook. Ludwig's wording is fairly typical PR-speak (is this a departure from normal practice? Does Joe Ludwig usually speak in the hard clear prose one would expect from, say, David Mamet? Only an insider could answer such a question), but the meaning of Ludwig's statement is intelligible by people who are used to hearing and analysing government announcements. Barrie Cassidy was a press secretary to then Prime Minister Hawke, it is a pity that he can only recognise "gobbledygook" when practiced by others.

Cassidy hasn't really made a case against Ludwig or the government, but he does attempt to clamber up to the high moral ground (a bit like some self-serving politician):
Ross Gittins hit the nail on the head in the SMH when he wrote: "One thing I despise about life in Australia today is the way power chasing politicians and self promoting media personalities seek to advance themselves by encouraging people living in the most prosperous period in our history to feel sorry for themselves.

Indeed he did, Barrie, but this doesn't really fit a narrative of people feeling sorry not for themselves but for cattle, for whom economic prosperity or otherwise does not spare them from inhumanity at the hands of humanity.

Neither does what follows:
The Government folds itself into the Opposition's narrative that cost of living pressures are weighing down the nation.

Announcing that Australia is banning live cattle exports to Indonesia has nothing to do with cost of living pressures. If Ludwig and the government were concerned only with turning a dollar, they would have defended fulfilment of the contracts and said that humane treatment in the abattoirs was for Indonesia to deal with. Instead, they took a decision that was popular without being populist, and announced it.

Oppositions always go on about cost of living. The accusation that this government is rubbish at promoting its policies is more than fair, but you have to go into issues other than banning live cattle exports to Indonesia to make that case. Cassidy is not giving the government credit for making a good decision, in a case where it clearly has done so.

The Gillard government is taking the risk that if it introduces sound policy this will be self-evident, and either the media will come around or their opposition won't count for much. This is a sensible approach. It can come unstuck where you have a populist opposition who actively courts the media, and who makes the most credulous and foolish among the feel like major players in the public affairs of our nation. We'll see about that at the next election. This government faced a challenge, it did not squib it but rose instead to meet it. It deserved better media coverage than it got.

The Shadow Minister for Agriculture (yes Australia has one) is John Cobb. He's been very quiet at a time when there's been a lot of interest in the portfolio. Shadow ministers usually complain that they don't get equal coverage, ad if the hung parliament is so important you'd expect journalists to be all over Cobb, asking what he, in an Abbott government, would have done in Ludwig's place.

Grizzled old journos can complain about youngsters with their Masters degrees and their Twitter, or even about bloggers; but if this is what veterans come out with then it's time for a change of journalistic guard (and who guards the guardians when the guardians ... oh, never mind). It's a poor piece, and the editor of The Drum should have asked Cassidy to rewrite or pull it altogether: an old-school editor would have flung the copy in his face and threatened to sack him for writing such utter shit. If Adam, Myf and Alan can decide that it's time to walk away from Spicks and Specks, surely Barrie and the gang should do the same to their piece of ABC light-entertainment on Sunday mornings.

What Cassidy is doing here is exactly what shock-jocks do: taking an announcement and disregarding what was said, and loading onto it a farrago of hopes, fears and other irrelevancies.

The government is the victim of poor media coverage, not the perpetrator of it - and according to the Insiders' insider, the perpetrators get off scot-free. If you can't blame journalists when they get it wrong, then they can't expect any credit when (if?) they get it right.

Update 11 June: This is the article Cassidy tried to write. It still skates over the culpability of the media:
It's just that, well, that's the way it swings for the Labor Party in 2011. Even when [the government is] taking action that's popular, somehow it still fails to attract expressions of support or endorsement from the media and the wider community.

Why is this happening? Some of it is due to the unforgiving and impatient nature of contemporary political discussion.

Spare us this self-serving bullshit. The view(s?) of the media is not synonymous with those of "the wider community".

Carney does, however, do a better job at explaining the role of the risk-averse ALP in hobbling its own future. Yes, Ludwig is probably a dull man, and not your standard attention-seeker pollie - but there has always been a place in every government for the grey technocrat in amongst the show-ponies. Still, "contemporary political discussion" covers a multitude of sins, and it isn't the job of a journalist to be covering up.


  1. Indeed, Andrew, it so apt that this bit of bilge written by Cassidy (which he had the temerity to regurgitate almost verbatim to Jon Faine on ABC Melbourne this morning) was published the same day as Elizabeth Farrelly's excellent piece on shock jocks in the SMH.

    All sound and fury, signifying precisely nothing...

  2. Nice work Andrew. How the hell can Cassidy say the media is not at some fault when his own argument points out where the media is at fault?

    That takes skill, that does.

  3. The media congratulating the current lot for doing some thing right?
    Must be Mars.

  4. Thanks, Andrew. This issue more than any has clarified exactly where people like Cassidy and others in the media stand vis a vis this government - it won't be allowed any PR wins at all, not even when it does the incontrovertibly right thing.

  5. Barrie Cassidy like so many of his ilk is a waste of space.All of them are just working on their CV to become News Ltd hacks.

  6. ...or the incontrovertibly Right thing.

  7. Thanks again, Andrew.

    The number of reaction categories is rather limited at the moment. Can you add 'Fucking brilliant!' to the current three?

  8. What is amazing is that most of these jourmos seem to have as much self awareness as a cardboard box, and are about as interesting.

    Hacks like Barry Cassidy must have gigantic egos that blind them from the reality of what a crap job they do.

    Keep up the good work.

  9. Thanks for the excellent referral piece, Fiona.

    Greg, the article was like the arc of a boomerang. Cassidy cast it forth and it swung right around and smacked him in the face, without him even realising it. I realise you need a thick skin but when you can't tell the difference any more, you've had it.

    Thank you, David and the Anons.

  10. Patricia, it's getting silly now. Gillard is the first PM since McMahon not to have needed the media to get where she is, and they're more than a little miffed. That, along with the technological changes looming over their "profession", makes this all a bit pathetic.

    Sean, stopping the boats (exporting live cattle to Indonesia) is small-r right I reckon.

  11. It's a nice detailed analysis and I suppose that is better than stating the bleeding obvious, Barrie Cassidy's article is piffle from one end to the other.

    Please excuse me, my steak is cooked. As I eat it I will probable reflect, Barrie Cassidy doesn't want to accept the state of his industry, and many don't seem to like to face the production of a steak. It would seem however the steak production industry has now got a level of management that is smart enough to realise that.