07 October 2011

Where journalism fails

The whole idea of journalism is to go to people who have varying kinds of power and influence over our lives and tell us what they're up to, because we don't have the time to be everywhere at once like big news organisations can.

There are plenty of examples where mainstream media organisations execute this magnificently well. As with other fields of human activity, journalism is done very well very rarely, done well-to-average-to-somewhat-below-average most of the time, and done appallingly more often than is acceptable. Even more unacceptable, poor journalism refuses to lie still and be buried as with other types of human waste, but will go and wrap itself around lofty principles like Freedom Of Speech or Excellent Journalism in order that its sheer crapness might not perish from the earth.

Bolt's been done and he doesn't care anyway. Here are two examples from award-winning journalists who should know better, who don't know or care that you can't complain about journos having too little time or resources when you produce imaginary bullshit from real events.

Earlier today ABC journalist Helen Tzarimas used her Twitter account to advertise her role in a non-story:

It was just as bad as it looks. The Foreign Minister was overseas engaging in foreign policy, and instead of being asked what he is doing Helen and the gang report chew up time and resources with what he's not doing.

Kevin Rudd wasn't running for Prime Minister yesterday and he probably won't run tomorrow. You think the media would have learned from Peter Costello - he spent 19 years in parliament not running for Prime Minister. Whole careers in journalism have begun, lived and died in producing the thousands upon thousands of radio and TV and newspaper things about how not Prime Minister Peter Costello was. When Costello quit in 2009 the supposedly serious Australian media couldn't believe it was all over.

The comeback of Kevin Rudd is exactly that kind of non-story. What's worse is that, for all their "insider" pretensions, you can bet that the parliamentary press gallery will be the last to know if Rudd takes his former job back; the guy who weeds the gardens at the US embassy will have a much better idea than all of the doyen(ne)s and other rabbits who make up the Australian media.

When I called Tzarimas on this, she replied:

That's right: an experienced journalist seriously wanted me to believe that I can tell the Foreign Minister what to do from my phone. Was she trying to deflect criticism or did she just not get it? I want to know what the government is doing, not what it isn't doing. You can make up crap all day really:
  • Kevin Rudd refused to rule out a tilt at the Bathurst 1000 this weekend;
  • Helen Tzarimas refused to rule out something she never really mentioned;
  • etc.

When the news is full of bullshit like that you make it harder to defend good journalism and freedom of the press. All sorts of bullshit rumours floats and swirls around in the crevices between journalism and politics; very few of them get an airing so there's no excuse for this crap.

Crap leads us almost inevitably to Annabel Crabb. Ken Henry spends his life in the interface between government and the economy - you have to work hard to belittle such a man but Crabb succeeds. She does her usual trick of starting with a small anecdote in the hope that it might illustrate a wider point; she either chooses the wrong anecdote or draws the wrong conclusion from it, or both as she does here:
"I don't like change," he confided to the patient tillmaster.

At the time, I thought it fascinating that the man responsible for so much Australian money should harbour a personal distaste for having it in his pocket.
Henry's tax reforms are all about increased efficiency: more money collected requiring less work for the revenue-raisers and the effect on economic activity in the economy either unaffected much or enhanced in some way. If you can have a $2 coin in your pocket this is to be preferred to a dozen jangly silver coins - it doesn't mean you have less money, simply fewer coins. Efficiency: Henry lives it. It's a hallmark of genuine leadership that people in exalted positions live their values. Yet again, Crabb has a firm grasp of the wrong end of the stick.
This week, he was back again in Parliament House's Great Hall, once more rehearsing the arguments for the sorts of reforms he advocated in the review of tax that was commissioned at Parliament's last big think-in.
No, he wasn't rehearsing - you don't rehearse for an event that has passed. Henry was reiterating the case for a proposal to a different audience, after events had changed perspective on that proposal.

"It can't be very easy, being Ken Henry", she patronises, then compares a government revenue stream that adapts to the nation's future economic development to a piece of jewellery and a fancy car. She then gives a perfect demonstration of the pearls-before swine nature of journalists being present at important events and misreporting them:
"More important though is the general point that good policy outcomes are more likely where there has been high-quality debate. Good policy outcomes are much more difficult to secure where visionary ideas, big challenges and creative approaches are floated for the first time in the announcement of a policy decision."

Dr Henry's patience demonstrates why he is a hit with Northern hairy-nosed wombats.
If that was a parody nobody would believe it - what should have been a bracing slap in the face for every sorry excuse for a journalist was, for Crabb, just a pretext to talk about wildlife.

She then goes and blames on "politics" what is more properly the fault of the media. The following two paragraphs should have been collapsed into one.
"I mean, let's not forget, the GST in the first place was meant to be applied to food and services," Mr Briggs observed. "I think it has to be discussed ... if you're serious about having a tax forum."
If you're going to have a tax forum of indefinite duration and resources, yes; if you've got two days with a lot to talk about, you have to draw the line somewhere. As it was, the sheer breadth and depth of the debate made the heads of Crabb and Professor Judith Sloan spin. Every single Coalition MP (and Professor Sloan) said exactly the same thing about the Tax Forum, that because the Tax Forum just past covered only 99% of taxes levied in this country, it was some sort of sham - and to say so is "uncontroversial"?
Having authored this - under the circumstances - fairly uncontroversial remark, Mr Briggs spent the rest of the day being kicked about by Wayne Swan and disowned by his leader
No, this was the story of the day: those who dealt with 99% of the nation's taxes were drowned out in the media by part of the 1% that wasn't up for discussion. It was a joke. Briggs' leader has no right to disown any sort of specific proposal given his own vacuity, but once again the journosphere failed to call him on it.

Speaking of vacuity:
The Member for Bennelong, John Alexander, suffered a similar fate a few months ago when he expressed the opinion at an electorate function in August that weekend penalty rates could do with some fiddling ...
The whole idea that penalty rates are some crippling impost on Australian capitalism is an idea that was fairly feeble in the 1970s. You show me a business whose success or failure depends upon penalty rates and I'll show you a badly-run business.

Members of Parliament - even newbies like Alexander and Briggs - have vast resources at their disposal. They've had months to prepare for the Tax Forum. Both men claim they got into politics to make good things happen. And all they can come up with is GST on food and bloody penalty rates, neither of which are within the fairly broad remit of the event. God help us. I wondered why Crabb referred to the Tax Forum as a "think-in", until I realised that thinkers will be abandoning Parliament House to the likes of Briggs and Alexander in a matter of weeks.

Someone like Crabb should be calling out these dummies, as well as the media auction of fatuities that arose from their comments. Is she doing that, though? Is she hell:
When did we stop thinking it was a good idea for backbenchers to have opinions on things?
As Greg Jericho tweeted today, it depends who you mean by 'we'. Backbenchers go all boring and rehearsed so that you don't get Annabel Crabb and Helen Tzarimas making up crap about what you're not doing and ignoring what you are doing.
And as far as the GST goes, it's not as if there aren't reasonable arguments to be had about it - the thing's 10 years old, after all.

Perhaps if the tax summit had been allowed to discuss it, we'd have heard them.
And if those discussions had been "allowed", Annabel, you'd have ignored them, like you ignored and belittled everything else that went on.

Are you suggesting Briggs was "silenced"? Go on, you know you want to. Briggs is a Member of Parliament. He has no shortage of small-f forums* on which to address GST generally or GST on food. The idea that by circumscribing the Tax Forum from 100% to a mere 99% is a dagger at the heart of Jamie Briggs and that his chance even to speak has forever gone, is rubbish.

Mind you, the comment about Alexander and his tennis racket is fair comment. Alexander is more significant as an ex-tennis player than as a contributor to public debate. The man has clearly peaked at the age of [insert Alexander's age when he won that really big tournament].

Journalism fails in the insistence that what isn't there matters more than what is. Genuinely crappy journalism, the kind that props up dictatorships does this all the time. This week we saw a real shift to real news with real things to report and analyse - and two experienced journalists, Helen Tzarimas and Annabel Crabb, couldn't handle it. We look to the ABC for the real news but this week they were appalling. Feed us crap, they insisted, and if we don't get the crap we expect then we'll make some up. We are all impoverished by journalism like this and the editors who make it possible.


  1. Andrew, I am not a journalist but I can recognise a media beat up. The speculation about krudd and the position of PM is causing journalists to froth at the mouth is bizarre. The Drum ran an online poll yesterday asking the very important question "Are you convinced by Kevin Rudd's denials of leadership aspirations? Yes/No". Outraged, I sent them a tweet asking why there wasn't a third choice of "Who cares?". As you can imagine, there was no response.

  2. Didn't read Crabb's piece very carefully but why would anyone look to AC for an assessment of an economic forum? This is surely not her patch. Anyone wanting informed commentary on the content of such a get together would be better served by journalists who understand what is under discussion. Tim Colebatch, Josh Gordon, Ken Davidson, Ross Gittins come to mind. Annabel Crabb does fine adding color and movement no-one should look to her for considered analysis of – well anything really.

  3. There is nothing to add, you have nailed it. I am heartily sick of the snide and pretentious lightweight Crabbe and the other also rans in the msm and particularly the ABC.

    You expect lies,distortions and flummery from the Murdochracy, why must we be be subjected to it from the national broadcaster?

    We should rise up on rubbish night and shove these seat warmers into the largest rubbish bin we can find and drop them in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

    Creatures like Jones, Dolt, Hadley et al should be shackled to the Parliamentary Liars Party and chucked in a hessian bag together with a liberal amount of burley, before being dropped on a great white highway.

    I'm not really hopeful of a positive outcome; great whites are notoriously fussy about their food.

  4. Spot on. This crap makes me so mad. And ashamed to call myself a journalist. There is so much group-think in the media that I honestly don't believe they've even noticed how clueless they are being. And all that "refuses to rule out" nonsense makes me want to scream. And send them the bit of Tanner's Sideshow that perfectly ridicules this stupid journalistic habit.

  5. Hillbilly Skeleton8/10/11 7:33 pm

    As I only bother to read Crabb's trite treatises via happenstance these days, and because they are such classic examples of fairy floss for the mind(certainly not dental floss), I usually multi-task and ruminate while I read.
    I have thoughts like, "She sure has parlayed her gamine looks and way with casually cutting put-downs to good effect since emigrating from the UK and then South Australia." Also, "Hope she makes heaps o' money and retires youngish because, as the beauty inevitably fades those smart alec snarks she specialises in are going to start looking increasingly tawdry." All thoughts which have as background music, Jarvis Cocker's version of 'The In Crowd'.

  6. Casablanca9/10/11 2:59 am

    Annabel Crap would be the more accurate by-line. What a light-weight. Excellent critique Andrew.

    George Megalogenis in Breaking the other drought http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/breaking-the-other-drought/story-fn59niix-1226161553821 states another truism about our gutless journalists and their herd mentality:

    "The gravity of what Abbott proposes for the political system is not properly understood outside of policy circles because the media doesn't want to get caught on the wrong end of a landslide".

    Lenore Taylor in Carbon deals mired in jungle of complexity http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/politics/carbon-deals-mired-in-jungle-of-complexity-20111007-1ldgh.html succeeds reasonably well in informing us what she learned at the Australia Indonesia Leadership Dialogue. However, she (or was it an editor) could not resist a gratuitous reference to the Coalition's position, namely it's claim that "all the international carbon markets are dodgy get-rich-quick schemes for carbon traders and [that it]opposes all offshore purchases, a stance most economists say would make Australia's abatement task exponentially more expensive".

  7. Another great analysis, Andrew

    Journalists as 'pearls before swine' wilfully misreporting events - sums it up for me.

    Thank you

  8. Mickster, the Drum really is a curate's egg.

    Doug: makes me wonder why she was commissioned to write the piece in the first place.

    Anon, newswithnipples, HS and Anon2: well said.

    Casablanca: the Megalogenis piece was excellent. You have to get around the media somehow; good on him for reporting it but you know there is not an editor in the country who can remedy the situation. I will read the Taylor piece.

  9. Great critical piece. It's a pity that one of your commenters has called for the bagging and feeding to the sharks of several of the commentariat. While I understand the sentiment perhaps it would have been better just to call them stupid?

  10. Perhaps, Mal, especially when you consider how thin-skinned said commentators are. I suspect the comment was designed to illustrate the fact that these guys can dish out that sort of thing but feel immune from copping it back.

  11. The Herald is clearly still obsessed with Rudd. You know, today's the day the historic carbon price legislation is going through, Sophie Mirabella has been thrown out of the chamber for being Sophie Mirabella, and apparently the biggest headline of the day is Rudd answering a question in Parliament. Gasp! The actual article is pretty shithouse too. Apparently we all should welcome Rudd back into office because otherwise "Labor is resisting the irresistible, the logic of the polls." And the only reason anyone in Labor dislikes Rudd is because he's so popular. *bangs head on desk*

    There's also this brilliant bit of logic:
    "The same poll showed that a Rudd return to the prime ministership would transform politics. Labor would move from its lowest support level in the four-decade history of the Nielsen poll to being positioned to win an election against Tony Abbott's Coalition."


  12. Annabel has more gravitas than Nikki Savva, deeper insight than Chris Berg, reads more books than Samantha Maiden and is better looking that either Michelle Grattan or Lynda Curtis.
    Journalists only have do as well as their colleagues and she does not need to try hard to be mediocre.

  13. Shane: substitute "Peter Hartcher" for "The Herald" and I'd agree with you.

    Notus: she's definitely backsliding, for a while she was in serous danger of getting some perspective.