09 February 2012

Jumping at shadows

Contrasting articles by Lenore Taylor and Ben Eltham aren't about the prospect of a Rudd challenge to the Labor leadership. They are about what the purpose of political journalism is: what it's for, and who's it for.
Is the Labor leadership issue a bizarre beat-up entirely confected by the news media? Certainly not. Is it an unstable and shifting situation, which may lead to a challenge, and which is notoriously difficult to report? Absolutely.
Have I spent too much of my life listening to Kevin Rudd's rhetorical questions, thinking that it's a telling way of making a point? In a word, Lenore, yes.

It might not be confected, and Eltham was mistaken to say that it was. Where Eltham is right, though, was to say that there's plenty more important news and people like Taylor are wrong not to focus on that. Taylor's piece is a solid blast of outrage from a wounded but self-righteous profession: you'll read whatever we bloody well write and stop whinging.
Apparently contradictory things can be simultaneously true. The 103-strong caucus is divided into three camps - those backing Gillard, a growing group who used to back Gillard but who are now unsure what to do, and those backing Rudd. So when Gillard's supporters say Kevin Rudd doesn't have the numbers, that's technically right. And when Kevin Rudd's supporters say support has drifted away from Gillard over the summer, that's true too. Both sides claim more of the undecided camp than they definitely have, meaning when each says the other is inflating their numbers, that's spot-on as well.
As Eltham points out, we've been here before.

In 1990 Peter Costello first entered Parliament and was touted as a future Liberal leader. In 1994 he became Deputy Leader of the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party, a post he went on to hold for 13 years without challenging for the leadership. In 2007 the leader of the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party, John Howard, lost his seat; Costello declined the chance to become leader unopposed and declined it twice thereafter before retiring in 2009.

It isn't being smart after the event to point out that many journalists - including Lenore Taylor - wrote many, many articles claiming that Costello was going to challenge Howard and become Prime Minister any day now. The situation about the numbers in the Liberal Party were not very different to the situation Taylor describes above - some supported Howard, some Costello, others in the middle, with numbers shifting from time to time.

These articles tended to be as vague as they were numerous and regular. They relied heavily, if not entirely, on anonymous sources in the way that a drunk relies on a lamppost: for support not illumination. They contained nothing about how a Costello government would be materially different from the Howard government (with the exception of some hazy idea about Aborigines being treated better, the sort of thing that makes Aborigines who work in policy areas laugh bitterly as though they've heard it all before). They were run so often that the machinations about who said what about whom came to seem futile even to hardened politics junkies.

Eltham ends his piece with a quote from Niki Savva, who worked for both Costello and Howard, and appears to have learned nothing from the experience as far as vapid "leadership speculation" is concerned.

At the time, the media seemed to run Howard-Costello challenge stories for the same reason they run stories about the missing Beaumont children, or the Bogle-Chandler mystery: the story you run when you don't have a story. By the time the Howard-Costello story really did come to a head in September 2007, it was too late and nobody cared any more. The story had become the politico-media equivalent of the boy who cried wolf. All the hype and hoopla that the media brought to bear about those late-night meetings in Sydney could not get readers/viewers/listeners back into the story. One reason why Rudd was embraced so enthusiastically at the election a few weeks later is that he brought an end to an intrigue that had long ceased to be intriguing.

As Mr Denmore points out, the Rudd-Gillard story has already reached the point where it is no longer intriguing, despite the insistence of journalists that there is intrigue and it is real. Go read it, see you when you get back.
All of this means it is a difficult situation for journalists, requiring caution, judgment and the testing of what is said by sources who won't be named.
It also requires a sense of perspective, which Taylor clearly lacks.

On Twitter I was challenged to define what a sense of balance might look like. I rejected the challenge because journosphere groupthink says that any attempt to suggest, however humbly, that journalists do their job differently is to hobble freedom of speech in all its forms for all time. One minute there's a suggestion from a guy sitting at the computer in an alcove between his dining room and back deck, and the next thing you know it's Nineteen Eighty-Four or Nanny State is careening through the nation's newsrooms like Aunty Jack, or something. You're not pinning the death of free speech and democracy on me, oh no.

Even Michelle Grattan, who has been in Canberra since McMahon replaced John Gorton, is all breathless and giddy at the prospect Gillard might go. Neither of them has any defence to this summary from Eltham:
The leadership non-story that has developed over the last few days represents one of the worst collective failures of the Canberra press gallery in recent memory. In the pursuit of a juicy potential story with important political implications, most of the Canberra press gallery seem to have completely abandoned sensible standards of perspective, judgment and craft. Stories have been run in which the only quotes that appear which have been sourced from people with real names are statements contradicting the point of the article. Because the very idea of "leadership speculation" is itself so usefully nebulous and hazy, journalists have apparently felt absolutely no compunction about simply stating there is speculation, with no support, and then speculating wildly themselves. At the very least, it's a case of media group-think. At worst, it's all made up. Not to put too fine a point on it, the leadership speculation reporting has been rubbish.
I would love to see The Australian, for example, print a table of MPs who have spoken to journalists off the record since the start of the year. Can't see it happening either, but I'd still like to see it.

Nowhere does Taylor offer any justification of the idea that this is the only story in town, or that her right and standing to make that call trumps all others. Right now, Stephen Smith could* be offering lucrative defence contracts to his mates, Jenny Macklin could* be reintroducing the "dog tag" system for Northern Territory Aborigines, Scott Morrison could be getting his costings from a catering outfit, or some other appalling scandal could be underway - and nobody would know, because all the scoop-hounds are fixated onto a non-story (and because the Opposition are morons who are squibbing a good chance at government, but let's leave that aside for now).

Katharine Murphy acknowledges that the leadership story has been badly reported and then goes on to report it badly, as Bushfire Bill points out. There's no helping some people. It's like hearing a two-pack-a-day smoker preach at people not to smoke: the hypocrisy is almost redundant, it's just pathetic.

The year after Peter Costello entered Parliament, Labor tore itself apart over leadership. The Treasurer and Deputy Prime Minister, Paul Keating, resigned and went to the backbench. Merely by doing straight reporting about the government at the time, journalists established that Keating undermined the Hawke government by denying his services to it.

No such straight reporting is taking place now. No area of Gillard government policy is contrasted with what Rudd did/didn't/could've/shouldn't have done, it is all justified by polls; as though polls never soar or plunge over time like a boat full of asylum-seekers in the Arafura Sea, as though press gallery reporters are right to accord polls with the reverence that they do. Straight reporting on the everyday work of government would be more substantial than the blizzard of fluff that we're wading through today. It would illustrate much more clearly the need for change to/support of the current leadership of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party caucus than yet another anonymous quote like "She's a crap/great leader, so weak/gutsy, I'd be disgusted/proud to have her campaign in my electorate".

What Taylor does at the top and tail of her article, and what many journalists do when fickle winds blow their drizzle of piss back at them, is plead that their job is difficult and that they work hard at it. Many people work hard at difficult jobs. This is precisely why it is important to have good journalism to tell us what those who govern us are doing. We don't have time to go into detail ourselves even in an age where press releases, reports and other information sources are as available as a news article. When journalists insist "this story won't go away" when there is no compelling reason why it should take up so much space right now, people can and do turn away from the media knowing they are not missing much.

The real reason why Rudd-Gillard is the story was not articulated either by Taylor or Eltham, but by Heather Ewart on the ABC's 7.30: the press gallery are effectively fighting the last war. Having missed the Prime Ministerial spill of 2010, and the Speaker's of 2011, the press gallery have lost a lot of credibility and can't move on from the story, in the way that a mare will keep nudging a dead foal determined to find some proof of life. This arse-covering is understandable, and it is motivated by the collective self-pity from which Taylor's pleas come - but it doesn't improve my understanding of what is going on with this government and this country. Long after The Future Of Journalism is resolved, these will be abiding concerns for me and many others; please don't expect me or anyone else to suborn those interests to your job insecurity.

When good, straight journalism is crowded out by bullshit like the tendentious Rudd-Gillard "tensions", journalism is devalued because those who consume it are not necessarily better informed by those who don't. That's why Eltham's fanboy approach to journalism is misplaced:
Ordinary citizens can't easily turn up to important events, take notes, recordings and photographs, or travel around the country to a series of specially-organised media jamborees. They can't go to lock-ups, attend medal ceremonies at The Lobby restaurant or travel on the RAAF jet. Ordinary citizens aren't often privy to the idle musings of federal politicians, don't mix regularly with the nation's executive and legislature, and generally can't spend hours hanging around Aussies Cafe in the hope of button-holing a bored parliamentarian with an axe to grind.
Fuck Aussie's Cafe. I've been to some boring meetings and done some dull work at times, but what keeps me going is this thought: at least I'm not a journalist. At least I don't have to loiter around a door in the cold Canberra wind hoping to ask one person one question, only to have that person breeze by with a "no comment". At least I don't have to pretend that I'm doing something important, writing the same story that so-called "competitors" are writing but knowing that my boss will mark my story as "exclusive". If my bosses insist that I should be doing my job in a certain way, I can make a case why what I'm focusing on matters, while a journalist can be stuck on a non-story and have to pump it up.

American philosopher Harry Frankfurt's On Bullshit makes the case that something can be true and still be bullshit. On that basis we can call bullshit on Lenore Taylor's article, and pretty much all media content produced this year about the supposed Rudd challenge for the Labor leadership. It may or may not be made up, but its link to what's genuinely important for our country is tenuous. If we have to go around the media to get an understanding of what matters then so be it. Let us have no journosphere groupthink to the effect that declining media consumption is a bad thing for anyone beyond their own employers, a danger to democracy, or that those who don't think as Lenore Taylor and her co-conspirators colleagues think just don't get it.

* I'm sure they're not, but how would I know?


  1. In the last couple of weeks we have had a couple of people banging on a window described as a riot and the sixth round of ruddstoration (each meaner and bitchier than the last) and almost no reporting of any of the "BISON"s.


    You have to give poor old Lenore Taylor one point, at least he is bright enough to notice that some are not impressed with the rubbish being dished up, and a defence is needed.


    1. I think it's the rarified air in Parliament house. Up there on the top floor, nothing to do except pick each others nits.

      I worked in that house in1988/89 and it is awful.

  2. Terrific analysis - The real seismic shift relates to the ever-growing call on truth/bullshit, despite journalists' pleas for understanding. Thanks for your excellent contributions to the 'great dismantling...'

  3. A more perfect excoriation of all the media bullshit surrounding the Rudd/Gillard absolute non-story I have not seen.

    (Bushfire Bill's comment was also solid gold.)

    Also, Andrew, this line of yours, about the previous stories(beat ups) about Howard/Costello: They contained nothing about how a Costello government would be materially different from the Howard government...

    Reminds me of something Jeff Sparrow wrote about on The Drum the other day. Amidst the barrels of ink being spilled about Rudd's imminent challenge to Gillard's leadership not a single journalist has actually asked the question, why do we need to care? In other words, how would Rudd's government be different? What does he stand for that Gillard doesn't, or vice versa? What would change, what would remain the same, what policies would be dropped/resurrected/introduced/implemented? In what conceivable way might the change in leadership actually affect the average Australian's day-to-day life?

    Point me to a journalist even pretends to care about any of this. Instead, we get endless speculation about possible political machinations. Because, as Nikki Savva says, "the stories are too intriguing".

  4. Taylor's article seemed to be a response to an article by another SMH journo the day before - I cant recall who it was and cant be bothered searching. But he got in the other of some 100 negative comments (total) with the majority telling him and SMH to stop banging on about this dead story. The same thing happened over at Crikey.com.au on the same day.

  5. On Grattan...does anyone know why she appears to have a visceral hatred of Gillard? I might be imagining it, but all her stories and the morning chat with Fran ("How crap is labor?" asks Fran; "very" says Mich) seem to suggest more than the usual thing the media has. Seems much more personal.

    And on Fran...can we have Waleed Ali back? Please?

    1. Indeed. Fran's break (and Waleed Ali's brief tenure) was a breath of fresh air.

  6. I've only come to your blog on the back of a 'wotnews' link to this article Andrew but this is a wonderful analysis.

    As I read it through it made me think that perhaps the motivation for journalists has become more personal than professional because politics as a general rule has become more personal, or at least professionalism and competence has left the building, leaving 'personal' (with all the pettiness and self interest that that entails) as the only thing left standing.

    I think your imagery of grief ("nudging a dead foal") is completely apt but perhaps journalists are suffering a bigger grief than 'missing the story' because from where they're standing they are eye witnesses to the death of professional, informed and vision led politics.

    It's hard enough to watch from the 'very close' sidelines without collapsing into a ranting, heaving mess. Any closer and I suspect my sensibilities would be entirely burnt out.

    Even though I've travelled into the zone of political homelessness from the opposite side of the paddock to you, I think there might be far more people out in the rain than either side accept. Judging by the quality of political journalism it might be that the journalists too have become another casualty of this, even if they are unwilling or unable to be honest about that. Even worse, despite this daily decaying of the soul, they are forced to stare into the abyss and desperately pretend that they see order where there is only incompetence.

    I don't offer this is an excuse for poor journalism because you're right, there are plenty of people in soulless jobs. The difference is that we don't usually rely on those people to inform us or challenge us or intervene on our behalf in the battle of ideas.

    I might feel sorry for the current crop of journalists but frankly I don't excuse them. Journalists need to man up or move on because they are letting Australia down just as much as the visionless politicians.


  7. "On Grattan...does anyone know why she appears to have a visceral hatred of Gillard?"

    Might be to do with the fact that 'The Insiders' now has more than a hint of irony about it.

  8. "merely by ... straight reporting about the government at the time, journalists established that Keating undermined the Hawke government by denying his services to it."

    Far be it from me to defend the mindless gallery pack, but you are forgetting that the media talked of little else but a Keating challenge from the night of the Placido Domingo speech Christmas 1990 throughout the whole of 1991. You also forget the Kirribilli meeting leak.

    Like the journos reporting the potential Rudd challenge they are doing so because they are being backgrounded by the challengers and the challenged, just as Keating's people backgrounded the gallery throughout the whole of 1991. Alas, they would not be doing their jobs if they failed to report what is a big story.

    As for them missing the challenge to Rudd in 2010 - the SOLE reason was nobody was backgrounding them on it. In fact the opposite. The plotters were backgrounding the journos with the reverse spin because they judged (correctly, imo) the only way they could take Rudd was by ambush.

    Anyway, perhaps Gillard can reopen the Hawkesbury abbatoir to take care of the miserable Krodent when the time comes?

  9. Beautiful piece of writing. Was especially impressed by your analogy of the mare nudging the dead foal trying to find some sign of life. A brilliantly articulated piece from start to finish. I hope that journalists, upon reading this, do some soul-searching about what they do and how they do it. Would be good if in future they wrote useful material, as opposed to the trivial trash they've been turning out during the past few years. Even better if they did so with the class and lucidity your writing exudes, Andrew.