25 July 2011

You've been had

Well, you knew that already, and so did I. But why didn't anyone tell Katharine Murphy? There we've been, railing against the insular Hole In The Hill Gang and they've just ploughed merrily on, churning out the stuff that they want to write rather than what we need to read/hear/see. Now, Katharine has a glimpse that not everybody does things the same way as they do in Canberra, and she comes over all shocked. The only possible response to Murphy and her water-cooler pals is: Der!
There is no more grinding and time-wasting ritual in federal politics than the rubbish inflicted on the public between the hours of 2pm and 3.30pm. I know this is a very big call, but I'm going to make it anyway.
It is not a very big call at all. It is like saying that rugby scrums take a long time to pack down or that water is wet or the sun is very sunny: it is so obvious that Question Time is a waste of time that it doesn't bear mentioning. Imagine if Katharine Murphy turned her journalistic talents to other parts of her employer's operations:
At ANZ Stadium last Saturday night, the Springboks scored 20 points and the Wallabies scored 39 points. Not only did the Wallabies win the match, but they were the home side and scored almost twice as many points as the visitors from South Africa. I know this is a very big call, but I'm going to make it anyway.
The forecast for Sydney tomorrow is 18 with a "possible late shower". This means that it might rain, and it might not, at some point later in the day. In Brisbane the forecast is 22 with no rain at all. I know this is a very big call, but I'm going to make it anyway.
Moody’s Investors Service has cut Greece’s sovereign credit rating three steps, saying the European Union’s financing package for the debt-laden nation implies "substantial economic losses" for private creditors. I know this is a very big call, but I'm going to make it anyway.
Question Time is so pointless and banal that you wonder what sort of people participate in this spectacle (not only the members of whatever house has chosen to humiliate itself by broadcasting its QT that day, but here we rope the journalists in to the whole sorry event). Now you see that the entire careers of people like Annabel Crabb, Michelle Grattan, Jacqueline Maley and, yes, Katharine Murphy have been utterly, utterly wasted. There is no connection at all between what they write and what we need to know about what government is up to.

For those of us not in Parliament watching it live, Question Time is broadcast on the ABC before the afternoon re-run of Play School. One of the basic language skills that you teach small children is how to answer a simple question: it is possible to answer a simple question with a simple answer, especially if hundreds of well-trained and resourceful people have written answers for you in a folder. After watching Wayne Swan fumble and bumble his way through a straightforward question about the economy, combining a straightforward if dull answer with a lecture on economic theory, a glossy interpretation of recent economic and political history, a few digs at people which are not fully understood even by people who follow politics closely, then an anecdote that is beside the point at best and topped off by a 'dad joke' or euthanased by a point of order ... after all that, the dulcet tones of, say, The Wheels On The Bus Go Round And Round really is like cool water to a thirsty soul.
Question time in its contemporary manifestation symbolises everything that's wrong with political discussion in Australia — an exchange of manufactured sound bites and confected television "moments" signifying nothing at all. It is at once uncomfortably aggressive, spiteful and gladiatorial, and completely soporific.
So: the basic idea that a banal spectacle can be set up so that it produces compelling television is false. Viewers don't believe it, the smarter politicians don't believe it, people who work in television don't believe it - only staffers and nongs like Abbott actually believe that carrying on like chimpanzees makes for the very opposite of entertaining and informative television. Finally, Katharine Murphy has realised it.
Given the absence of hope for a better reality, a radical person would conclude we should just dump it.
Hardly. Senator Alan Ferguson, who presided over more than a few Question Times and was one of the least radical politicians we have seen in recent years, made that very call a few weeks ago.
Our elected representatives owe the voters a better process.
No, what the voters are owed is better information, which should be available from (amongst other sources) web-accessible reporting engines. Journalists should go and find that information, wherever it might be, and report on it to us; instead, they bellyache:
As a mechanism for genuine accountability, it's a joke. As a spectacle, it's pathetic ... In an attempt not to go mad, Canberra political reporters have lurched into the practice of cracking jokes and effectively talking among ourselves until some kind person blows the whistle at 20 questions.

Its sheer awfulness has a strange lulling effect — like the victim of an abduction, you slowly develop Stockholm syndrome, becoming too worn down to hope for something better.
Get off your arses and go elsewhere in Canberra, or even outside it, in order to find the information that we need. Witter ye not about Stockholm syndrome; journalists are not trapped in parliament, and ought to consider it a failure of their occupation to report non-stories, rather than the vindication that it is today. True, journalists report to crusty old editors who love their clichés and who clearly consider Question Time as a necessary chore for journalists to sit through - but in an age where even media companies are hunting for efficiencies, smart journalists would keep one step ahead and sharpen their information-gathering skills beyond jumped-up staffers and dreary pollies.
This was my state of being until last Wednesday night, when I tuned in to the House of Commons question time-style debate in Britain convened in the wake of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal.
If you were any sort of political junkie you'd have watched several PMQs. They're on the 'net, not only with Cameron (a loaf of white bread in a suit), but Blair and Thatcher. You understand why such a nuf-nuf as Gordon Brown could rally his followers once you say him at work in PMQs. Thousands of Australians have been to London and seen the Commons in full cry; to call yourself a press gallery journalist without understanding how other parliaments (and yes, other press galleries) work is a joke. To borrow from Kipling, what do they know of Canberra who only Canberra know?
The exchanges, moderated by an adroit Speaker with well honed reflexes for containing frippery and grandstanding, was fast, free flowing and informative. Oddly, given the high political stakes involved for Cameron, the tone of the debate was respectful; striking a functional balance between persistent interrogation, critique and basic civility.
Yep: those of us who have travelled and who forage widely for information know that indulging pollies' wank-fantasies as the politico-media complex does is pathetically, ridiculously inadequate. It forms the basis for blogs like this, which insular journalists simply blow off by equating any and all criticism with the musings of Graeme Bird or Anders Behring Breivik.
Did you see politics actually working?

Most intriguing for many observers was the apparent freedom of the discussion, symbolised by Cameron's tendency to speak and react like a human being. At one point, the Prime Minister simply growled in frustration and sat down. (Imagine Julia Gillard, in minority government and, like him, under siege, having the confidence to do that.)
If Gillard starts to cut loose and stuff Alan Jones into his own chaff bag, Katharine Murphy would be the first one to complain that she was departing from the script: the journosphere loves its clichés and hates politicians who depart from it. Worse, imagine if Gillard's approval rebounded as a result, leaving the journosphere bagging a Prime Minister who was becoming popular. The irrelevance of the media would be exposed.
We shouldn't be too credulous, of course. Presumably there were tactics, presumably there was discussion and war gaming by the brains trusts of both government and opposition about lines of attack, about what would be owned and what would be "finessed"; presumably Cameron delivered carefully prepared formulations for the most serious questions.
This is so dopey I don't know where to begin.

Yes I do: wait until Murphy finds out that the Poms actually have political commentary media, and that much of it has canvassed the very issues which she speculates here. Imagine her reading it, and finding out that Andrew Sparrow or Simon Jenkins or Janet Daley on a bad day are far, far better than Michelle Grattan standing at the full height of her experience and misplaced stature. Then you'll realise how badly we've all been had by sloppy journalism covering beef-witted politicians who all get huffy when we call them out for being second-rate.
Politics doesn't change its spots just because it occurs in a different hemisphere.
No shit! Here, have a Walkley.
And at one level it's completely unfair to compare a special sitting of the British Parliament in some extraordinary circumstances with a routine question time in Australia ... The culture of the British parliamentary system apparently allows the legislature to cut its jib to fit the circumstances; parliamentarians there must be a more flexible bunch than their counterparts here, folks who like what they know and know what they like — the opportunity to declaim with limited interruption, not necessarily the opportunity to interrogate one another.
Particularly when they suck so hard at interrogation. It must have been wonderful to watch two of the country's top advocates, Menzies and Evatt, go at one another: an experience wasted on the journalists of the day. By contrast, Whitlam, Daley and Killen reprised set-piece routines from nineteenth-century debates in the House of Commons and were acclaimed as the great wits of our parliamentary history. To regard Peter Costello as some sort of lion of Question Time, as people like Katharime Murphy did, absolutely did my head in.

The myopia and stupidity of the press gallery in not only transmitting the banality of our Parliament, but hyping it, has locked them into a co-dependant relationship of mutual decline. The pollies could snap out of it - but, if Sideshow is any guide, they won't; now it's up to the journalists, and they won't either. Two weeks from now, pounds to peanuts Murphy will have forgotten she ever doubted Question Time or that she dared imagined a world where she could just go and do something more productive.
Truth is, the occasion in London was highly significant, and the British Parliament rose to it. Optimists argue the same would be true here: when questions are being raised that go to the very heart of power, whether significant institutions are healthy or corrupt, the Australian Parliament would also rise.

You'd hope so.
Based on what?

The very future of the planet and the economy is at stake in the carbon debate, and Katharine Murphy and her pals are out covering Chris Monckton or Tony Abbott. Aboriginal people are withering under the Northern Territory intervention, which people like Katharine Murphy are ignoring because Barnaby Joyce might make an announcement this afternoon. The Australian Parliament faces real and pressing issues every time it sits, issues far more important than watching Jimmy The Idiot Boy perform at the helm of a global corporation in much the same way as Phaeton apparently did at the reins of the sun-chariot.
The Australian Parliament would do well to study the British example last week.
On a regular basis, delegations of Australian politicians toddle off to London. Clowns like Katharine Murphy write these off as junkets and don't bother to ask what they learned from their so-called "study tour". It's a cop out to admit what everyone knows:
We who report on politics have to share culpability. We enable the rubbish we witness by not declaring it rubbish.
... and then to confess that you can't do anything because you've got Stockholm syndrome, that you can't not report on Question Time, that sitting around having a whinge is somehow more productive than getting out and getting real information some other way.

Remember: the only people who are impressed by announcements are journalists.
It might be a downpayment on bringing a frustrated and disenchanted community back to politics.
Or it might not: you know what journalists are like, anything you put before them would be pearls before swine. That way journalists can write articles like we get the representatives that we deserve, which only leads to further disengagement and getting representatives so bad that only journalists deserve them.


  1. Yeah. I wonder if the Australian media has always been this bad or if the Internet, through blogs such as yours, has exposed its shallowness, its laziness, its incompetence.

    I'm inclined to think that it has gotten worse. I'm sure The Australian wasn't as bad in my twenties (the '80s) as it is now. It always had a point of view, but I'm sure it didn't do what it regularly seems to do now - ignore the facts in favour of the story it wants to write.

    I can vaguely remember Killen and Whitlam. Coming from a Liberal (as in Liberal Party) family that took an interest in politics I remember the oratory of those days as something to treasure. Menzies I was too young for.

    Although he spoke for the other side, one speech by Mick Young will stay with me forever. He was lambasting the Liberal Party over the Bottom of the Harbour schemes. "When we get into power you will have to open a branch of the Liberal Party out at Long Bay gaol."

    Perhaps you had to be there. Nevertheless, when you compare it with the crap the inarticulate nonentities come up with these days, it was like Demosthenes.

  2. Gee Katharine, maybe you should look at how question time is analysed over at Grog's Gamut. Then ask yourself, why am I being paid as a "journalist"?

  3. Lachlan Ridge26/7/11 7:39 pm

    I have of late been reading a lot of newspapers from the early and mid eighties as part of private research I am doing.

    Mainstream media discourse is certainly getting dumber. I recommend people compare the media commentary surrounding the consumption tax debate of 1984 with the carbon price/tax debate of 2011. I blame three primary factors but am willing to entertain more.

    1. Journalism training. Journalists these says are tertiary educated through "communications" courses. Formerly there was an apprentice like system of cadetship where journalists were mentored from ignorance and learnt the full processes (the basics) of news gathering, such as assembling facts in a coherent and relevant order. The idea of journalism as anonymous craft seems to have morphed into a vehicle for ego-satisfying celebrity and self-importance that emphasises the primacy of the author. Many political 'commentators' see themselves as players in some great game, gatekeepers, who get involved in the dross and minutiae of interpersonal relationships - like a work gossip - rather than as an explainer of facts relevant to a largely wage earning and asset owning population. Post modernism hasn't helped.

    2. Media management. The Fraser government was excoriated for setting up a sub-committee of cabinet to try and smooth its message into the mainstream media, an activity that is commonplace today if not the central business of government. Whitlam's Foreign Minister, Bill Morrison, had a staff of two. That's right. How many would Kev have today? This media management began in earnest with the Hawke government and has also been outsourced to a plethora of entrepreneurs trading on the government's management of a gullible public. Exhibit A in this regard is Hawker Britton for the ALP, but there are many others: Crosby Textor, Jackson Wells Morris, essential media communications [small caps means you're hip and cool, like some kind of post modern e.e. cummings]. On top of the private organisations working for parties there are the army of departmental and ministerial media advisors. This explosion in parasitic life has all the fingerprints of Peter Barron (a former journalist) and Graeme Richardson who worked for the Hawke government. This blurring of party/government roles appears to have accelerated greatly under the Howard administration. Needless to say, millions of Australians do not have access to media managers to ensure that their concerns are adequately canvassed by those holding the microphones.

    3. Lack of resources. Media organisations are like any other business, they have to turn a quid, even the ABC. To do this they have to keep costs down and the easiest way to do that is to Hilmer an organisation by cutting staff to the bare minimum. Another striking thing about modern v 80's newspapers is that there is much more hard news in the latter. Modern journalists do not have the knowledge or the time (see point one) to command the intricacies of policy so they rely heavily on the persons introduced in point two. Any "news" article starting with "New research shows that [insert assertion here]" is simply code for "Some joker with a press release employed by some outfit seeking a dollop of corporate dole has sent me a press release and given me a phone call saying their client believes that [insert assertion here]". The tourism industry are past-masters at it. In an information based organisation knowledge and time is critical, yet the mandarins of the mainstream media seem to think these two qualities expendable for their limelight seeking minions.

    I do recommend people seek out the work of Ramnsay (before he got too bitter), MacCallum, Fingleton, D'arcy et al and see the contribution they made to the public's understanding of issues. It stacks up a lot better than the third rate personality based gossip we are dished up by Grattan, Oakes, Cooney etc.

  4. Be kind, at least she worked it out in the end, she should be encouraged.

  5. PB, see Lachlan. Anonymous, see Notus. I always read Grog's pieces on QT and was glad I didn't have to sit through the real thing.


    1. The journos had to train themselves in tax policy, rather than be, like, too cool for that stuff (read: lacked confidence in own ability to research complex issues and explain them simply.

    2. re yr last sentence, I thought that's what MPs were for.

    3. I still think journos are looking in the wrong places for info, and have the wrong attitudes, and I blame the current generation of editors.

  6. Lachlan Ridge26/7/11 10:07 pm

    Re point two Andrew, MPs have been outsourced (with rare exceptions) to the machine men (and they largely are men) of all parties, including the Greens. These rabbits wouldn't know what to do without being given their marching orders by the Walt Secords, Michael Krogers, Lachlan Harris' of this world. And, of course, nobody votes for them. I doubt Wayne Swan has had an original idea since High School. They get away with it because seven out of ten Australians cannot name their Federal MP and the media is happy to go along with this presidential style bumph that is all sound and fury signifying nothing. The real political stoush in Australia is not between the ALP and the coalition - who more or less agree on most things - but between Treasury/Reserve Bank and the rent seekers from the ASX top 200 and devil take the hindmost. A brief glimpse of sunlight is that treasury doesn't make policy by press release a-la Shorten and Conroy, the downside is that they may not necessarily have your interests at heart. If you're interested in democracy then I suggest history may interest you, for there is precious little in this country today. That is the Realpolitik. Any attempt to bust this cosy club leaves you looking like Latham (or worse, Hanson) through the lens of Australian media.

    Agree with you re editors. They are disengaged and in thrall to advertising/marketing gimcracks and spivs, even (or especially) at the ABC. It's not bias, it's incompetence which is stultifying democracy.

    The fact that such intellectual pygmies as Abbott can cast such a long shadow shows how late in the day it really is.