14 July 2011

Liar! Liar! Liar!

Michelle Grattan has been a press gallery reporter for forty years. With such time comes experience, but in her case also a lack of perspective that makes her unable to report effectively on what is going on before her, and who her audience is meant to be. This is not an article from an experienced observer that helps you understand federal politics, it is an admission of professional failure.
PEOPLE want an election, according to one poll on the carbon price ...
Which people? What poll? Only journalists and political hacks like elections. Early elections rebound on governments that call them (and you'd know that if you have as much experience with politics as I have). This is a weak hook for a story.
... but what they're getting is an election campaign without the vote.

With both leaders on the hustings - talking endlessly, appearing in shopping centres and workplaces, visiting hand-picked families whose views and circumstances support their side of the argument - we seem to be right back to July-August a year ago.
Who do you mean by "we" (given that she refers to her fellow Australians throughout the article as "they")?

The long-festering issue of a carbon price now has a tangible form that it didn't have this time last year, or two years ago, or ten. Gillard has finally realised that the issue of a carbon price is bigger than her. She has put her negotiating skill to use in coming up with a deal with people who owe her nothing. Only journalists, who think they're gainfully employed by traipsing around after politicians wherever they may roam in the hope that they may say something, think that we're still in an election campaign.
Voters settled nothing in the polling booths then, installing a hung parliament.
Voters, Michelle, set the terms within politicians work. It was the politicians who put together a government and an opposition, with their respective strategies, and the media. It isn't the job of voters to settle public policy disputes, that's for politicians; politicians are judged as to how well or badly they settle those disputes, and the media reports back to us.
They're paying the price, having been forced to endure endless hype ever since, which has now become fevered.
You only have to endure that hype if you get paid to do so. If you don't, you switch off.

The esteem in which politicians are held is almost as low as that which journalists must bear. Journalists could get around the hype if they wanted to - but they can't be bothered. They may even reflect on their own role in the "fevered" state of debate. Those who manage journos lack the wit to redeploy them in a way that would make them more effective in explaining public policy disputes to those most affected by them: taxpayers and voters.
Julia Gillard is in a bind. Being accosted yesterday in front of the cameras by a voter accusing her of lying before the election and lying now touches a damaging electoral nerve. The TV image just reinforces the "trust" problem that is so serious for the PM.

But she has no choice - she has to be out there with Tony Abbott. By playing on his ground, however, she elevates his status, which in itself is useful for an opposition leader.
If the current predicament of Australian politics is dysfunctional, why validate it by saying that it has to be this way? Only if you accept the idea that the Opposition frames public debate, Michelle. Tony Abbott admits that he will say anything when the pressure is on, and when he's caught out he simply pulls out another stunt that the journos will lap up. His last roll of the dice is to frame Gillard as a liar.

Julia Gillard got her job by giving undertakings to Labor factional heavyweights, then to the independent MPs and Greens. Without trust, that all falls apart. Putting together a carbon price with appropriate compensation was seen as Gillard's last chance for credibility, and now that she's done that, the Opposition has two choices: put up a better package, or call Gillard a liar in the hope that the qualities of the package simply evaporate and are never realised.

It's lazy to see the above and say that Grattan is biased, or even that she's not smart enough to see through the Liberal spin effort. It is true, however, that Grattan has too little respect for policy debates, having seen 'em all come and go over time and clearly living the sort of life that isn't affected much by the sorts of public policy issues that lead to far-reaching change and upheaval outside of Canberra (and occasionally within it: but not in those parts of Canberra where you'd see Michelle Grattan, busy as she is in shopping centres and other people's workplaces). In that sense Grattan is not terribly helpful in helping you understand what's going on in Australian politics, for all her experience.

Grattan is using the narrative that the Coalition is handing her because Labor wants to be so flexible that its narrative is only apparent in hindsight. Flexibility is all very well but you can't have a cogent narrative and absolute flexibility at the same time. Grattan should be able to find a Labor narrative if she really hunted for one, but she can't be bothered: the Liberals have handed her "JuLIAR" and like everybody else in the press gallery, she's running with it.
For a while, the political atmosphere has felt rather like that of 1975. There is of course one dramatic difference: unlike then, the opposition is not in a position to block supply (does anyone think that if it could, it wouldn't?) Barring an unforeseen event, the election is two years away.

At the electorate level, things seem to be quieter. Labor MPs are apparently not being inundated with emails and phone calls about the carbon package.
In other words, there's a disconnect between what the press gallery wants to report on and what is really important to readers/ viewers/ taxpayers/ voters. Go and talk to people in Fairfax responsible for circulation and ad sales and ask them how fascinated people are with the sort of horse-race journalism that keeps you going.

In 1975 it was said that the Liberals had no policy to speak of except to remove Labor from office. An experienced journalist would assess whether or not the Liberals were in the same position today. The press gallery on 13 October 1975 expected there to be an election two years from then, not two months: those who experienced that time and are in a position to make comparisons should be wary of being caught unprepared (or worse, leaving readers/ taxpayers/ voters unprepared).
While this could be taken as an encouraging sign, it may also be that many people are simply not listening to Gillard.
Or the press gallery, or the whole issue of framing obscuring what is or is not in the picture.
They may also have become exhausted with the carbon debate.
What debate? People calling one another liars or making wild claims of doom-and-gloom isn't a debate. Real journalists would have gone after members of the Multi Party Committee on Climate Change and got them to reveal some of the behind-closed-doors discussions that have become so important.
The politicians might have been eagerly awaiting the details but ordinary people may now just want to know how they will be placed (which they can find out via the ready reckoner on the web) and wish to be spared the rest of the argument.
What you mean by "rest of the argument", others might consider "tendentious bullshit". Why would bullshit crowd out issues important to readers/ taxpayers/ voters/ etc.?

Smart of Fairfax Online not to link directly to that ready-reckoner; instead, you'll have to Google it, which may lead you away from Fairfax's websites. Nice one! In all of what Grattan said, though, it doesn't occur to her that what she does as a press gallery hack and the way she chooses to do it is pretty much pointless.
Labor complains Abbott is getting away with all sorts of wild claims, and with abandoning positions when they come to be seen as demonstrably false.

That's true.
You bet it is. In another political jurisdiction, the bankruptcy of "ferocious" opposition is clear. And what exactly is Michelle Grattan, doyenne of the parliamentary press gallery, going to do about a situation that is such an indictment of what remains of her profession?

Absolutely stark raving bugger-all. Worse, she seriously thinks she has an excuse:
It's mainly because he has all the benefits of a phoney election campaign against an unpopular opponent, but little of the intense scrutiny he'd face if this were the real thing and he could be PM in a month.
What scrutiny?

Seriously, would that be the same degree of scrutiny applied in the last election campaign? Why is the prospect of an election more important than far-reaching changes to the ecosystem, the economy, and the world in general? If you really regard the interval between elections as so boring, it could well be that you don't understand what's going on in politics as well as you and a few others might hope. Worse, you overestimate your ability to switch to proper investigative journalism (and indeed your judgment in choosing to switch off your analytical capabilities).

In a debate where so much is at stake, horse-race journalism has no value - regardless of how long it has been practised. There is no election foreseeable and the independents who merely declined to support Abbott last time now recognise him for the wrecker and a policy lightweight that he always was. Simply reporting that waves of Liberals are flying at the Prime Minister at every opportunity shrieking "Liar! Liar! Liar!" isn't sufficient to tell us what is going on and what we need to do to deal with the new reality. It has failed as journalism, and to venerate the person producing it entrenches poor habits and makes the journosphere unable to deal with changes in the media and political environment that require politicians to be judged on how well they deal with real issues - not the other way around.


  1. A really good analysis when analysis is not usually practiced. Thanks

  2. Excellent post Andrew...as incisive as always.

  3. Hillbilly Skeleton15/7/11 10:09 am

    I'm no lawyer. However, I suspect that you may know one or two. Therefore, I was wondering if you could find out whether Tony Abbott is breaking some Law of Commerce when he says, as he did last night at his forum, and which has been reported in the media today(though not widely as some lawyers at the ABC may also have twigged to the fact), that if he threatens finance providers for Renewable Energy projects and tells them to seriously consider not providing finance to those projects in the 12 months after the Climate Change policy becomes the law of the land, because, as Prime Minister he will be canning the $10 Billion ARENA, and thus they will be left high and dry and out of pocket.
    Surely that sort of posturing and statement will have a material effect on the market and those companies in the meantime? Thus would be wrong and illegal in some sort of way?
    Then, if so, could not some sort of 'Cease and Desist' notice be given to the slimy operator to stop him talking down the market in this way?
    I would appreciate your thoughts.

  4. Grattan is at it again in todays piece:

    "She can bet on Tony Abbott coming under more scrutiny closer to the election."

    Why wait until closer to the next election? If she and her compatriots of the press gallery had an ounce of nous, they would/could have taken Abbott and cohorts apart many times over since the 2010 election. She should heed the PM's words at the NPC: "Just don't write crap."


  5. I stopped paying attention to Grattan a long time ago; seeing her running after other journalists during the real election campaign reminded me of screaming 'groupies'. Silly !

  6. I have read and watched Gratton for many years and can relate to your comment "It's lazy to see the above and say that Grattan is biased, or even that she's not smart enough to see through the Liberal spin effort."

    It is sad but I think she is not as mentally sharp as used to be a few years ago.

    Time for her to retire methinks.

  7. Notus: can you remember a single time when Grattan wrote such a telling piece that really made you think about things differently? Even a telling phrase?

  8. Its been quite a while, but a few years ago she was worth reading. Our Prime Minister at the recent National Press Club answered a question from Mark Riley on what was a journalist's responsibility, she said don't write crap.
    Well I refuse to read crap any more. There is only a handful of quality journos worth bothering about, sadly Gratton is no longer one of them.

  9. Hi Andrew, not quite sure where you sit on Gillard's plans to price carbon, but I've just finished putting together a carbon tax facts site at http://www.carbontax.net.au to help cut through the mire of media misinformation and obfuscation.

    if you'd consider adding it to your blogroll, that would be amazing. Cheers!

  10. This is a very useful, insightful piece of analysis. I agree with Notus, she used to be good, but seems to lack focus these days, which is a shame - she used to be worth reading.

    We have far too little good analysis of the media, please keep it up.