23 September 2012

A new phase of uncertainty

The press gallery hypnotise themselves into accepting certain premises as true, which is frustrating for readers/ listeners/ viewers/ taxpayers/ voters who have to filter that crap out before you can even get to the story (if indeed there is one). I've railed against this many times and don't propose to repeat myself here. Instead, let me say that I understand why journalists do it: it saves time and effort. They can rush around knowing that their story will pretty much write itself if you can just assemble all the assumptions and tweak them a bit with some topical references.

Here are four examples - two by the same person - of where The Narrative isn't even working for the journalists, let alone the reader/etc or the body politic in general.

First, Samantha Maiden has finally written the article that should have been published at any point in the last two years. "Devil is in the detail" is the code-phrase that the journosphere use to excuse their lack of skill and interest in actual policy, when that lack is at the core of their profession's problems. Being new to this policy stuff Maiden has let herself down by begging a few questions:
1. Turning back the boats sounds strong. But implementing the policy is dangerous and difficult ... It would also involve negotiating with Indonesia to accept the boats.
Indonesia's Foreign Minister and President have stated repeatedly and unequivocally that they will not accept asylum-seekers sent by Australia. That isn't the start of negotiations, it's the end. Read Abbott's disgracefully adolescent address-in-reply when President Yudhuyono last addressed Australia's Parliament and see how far the Coalition are out of their depth on this issue. This is so inadequate it's close to misinformation.
2. After resisting the Coalition's calls to reopen Nauru for years, Labor has run up the white flag. It's early days, but there's no clear sign it has stopped the boats.
The Coalition has no other policy option than that, Labor does. White flag, my arse; the Coalition are being played - be careful what you wish for - but they have lulled the media into being too dumb to see it.
1. The bonus [of the Paid Parental Leave scheme] is that all women would be better off in cash terms under the Coalition's scheme than under Labor's. But is it affordable? Abbott once pledged paid maternity leave would be delivered over the Howard Government's dead body, now he's rushing to deliver it to improve his standing with female voters.
The Coalition's grizzling about spending means that this policy has no credibility. Nobody believes it will not go straight onto the chopping block so why even bother entertaining the idea - unless you're a press gallery journalist desperate to curry favour and whip up a non-story to fill some blank space.
2. A Coalition government has set the ambitious target of working with the states to ensure 40 per cent of year 12 students are studying a language other than English within a decade.
It's not ambitious, it's a lie. I said in February that there was no commitment to it in terms of funding or any other policy that would buttress it and place it at the core of government policy (i.e. no overarching increase in engagement with Asia), no indication of what would be cut in order to fund it (apart from IT, viz):
4. It will take action to address disadvantage in schools, help children with special needs and address cyber bullying.
No it won't; this lot don't even understand the NBN, let alone cyber bullying. They see education as an act of mass charity rather than an investment.
1. The Coalition has pledged to ask the Productivity Commission to review childcare if elected.

2. Extending the 30 per cent childcare rebate to nannies would also be considered. Concerns that quality and safety reforms and red tape are driving up costs would also be considered.
Great, they're going to hit the ground reviewing. What have they been doing for five years in Opposition? Sounds like they need another five.
3. The Coalition would also reintroduce the $12.6 million Occasional Care funding.
Rubbish. Black holes and all that.
3. The Coalition has pledged to work with the states to slow the quality and safety reforms if required. But some of the reforms are popular with parents because they include improving staff-to-child ratios and requiring better training.
Hmm, sounds like they haven't thought through a policy with direct impacts on many thousands of Australian families: that counts for more than all of Abbott's pie-eating, hat-wearing stunts put together. We should get a journalist to look into that.

Second, Michael Gordon, the poor man's Peter Hartcher. Gordon describes a bit of parliamentary back-and-forth in the worthy terms you would expect from a Year 10 excursion to Canberra and then fretfully admits to readers he has nothing to say:
Suddenly, Australian politics has entered a new phase of uncertainty, where the dominance of the Abbott-led Coalition and another tilt by the Rudd forces against Gillard are still generally expected, but can no longer be assumed.
What dominance? Saying no all the time and offering no alternative was always a dud strategy. Expected by whom, Michael?
If there is one word that describes the state of play right now it is fluid.
Well, yes; but isn't it always? Even when it isn't, the seeds of what will eventually break up a smug consensus will start germinating when the situation seems least fluid. This is lazy journalism - a hung parliament, a year out from the election, and a fluid political situation? Wow, really?
This, overwhelmingly, is Gillard's achievement, though Abbott's uneven performance in recent weeks has also contributed. The main ingredients are the relatively painless (so far) introduction of the carbon price, Gillard's focus on a positive agenda (especially around schools, dental care and disability insurance) and the hostility generated by cost-cutting and job-slashing by conservative governments in NSW and Queensland.
No, this is a result of the destruction of Abbott's credibility. Abbott said the carbon tax would be a disaster: it hasn't. People are looking to Abbott to offer an alternative: he hasn't got one. People are looking to Abbott to be a better person than Gillard is: he isn't, he's a prick.
Gillard is still an unpopular leader, but her resilience is winning her grudging respect. She is exuding more confidence, but her every move is still seen by many in the gallery through the prism of leadership - and whether the prime motivation is to keep the man she replaced at bay.
Why is it seen that way, Michael, and how can we get them to see things differently? Isn't leadership getting things done? Why would two men who stopped things from getting done (Rudd and Abbott) be more popular than someone who gets things done?

Could it be that polls are less important than has been assumed? Who will stand up to the editor who believes that polls = story and tell them no?
Finally, there's the "drover's dog" argument that, even if Gillard puts Labor in a competitive position to contest the election, the caucus would switch to Rudd if they believed he would deliver a better result. This underestimates the loyalty to Gillard and hostility to Rudd.
Nobody with any credibility thinks like that. It is late-night Holy Grail talk, and everyone learned the folly of that at the last election - except Michael Gordon.
Right now, Abbott is an even more unpopular leader, but is still strongly favoured to be prime minister after the election.
Nobody but pollsters and journos believes this. In 2010 the Coalition's momentum stopped dead a week into the campaign once people realised if you vote Coalition, Tony Abbott becomes Prime Minister; they didn't and so he didn't, and it will happen again. To believe otherwise is to be so captured by the press-gallery circle-jerk that you cannot report on it accurately.
Having exceeded expectations when they were low, he now faces the challenge of meeting them when they are high.
That sentence should read: he was fine when under no scrutiny, but when put under scrutiny himself he squeals like a stuck pig and even though we can smell the pork frying we cannot describe it to you.
Having displayed extraordinary self-discipline in the last campaign, he must avoid major slip-ups in the lead-up to the next.
Depends what you mean by "self discipline", really. Everyone's had a gutful of him being "on message" with nothing to say and nothing to offer. We don't have to Let Tony Be Tony or judge him by his own lights.
While Abbott will come under increasing pressure because of the polls to switch to a more positive agenda, he will resist it for three reasons: the assault on the carbon price remains his top priority; announcing policy would require mastery of detail and consequently involve risk; and the time to move is much closer to the campaign.
The first shows the sort of misjudgment that felled better leaders than him; the second shows both that he is no better than the journalists who "cover" him, and not good enough for the country; and that by then he will have no credibility and his stunts/announcements will have zero impact.
In the meantime, the strategies of both sides are short-term and could easily come unstuck.
Really? Labor's energy and education policies extend well into the next decade and the NBN goes far beyond that. The Coalition's education policy relies on trust and credibility in Christopher Pyne, who can't be guaranteed to hold his seat. "Both sides"? Really, Michael?
But there are two other possibilities.
Well, yes, and why are they in the second-last paragraph? They bob about uselessly like flotsam from a sinking ship rather than actual facts supporting real arguments. This is desperate stuff, unsourced gossip and graveyard-whistling masquerading as strategic insight. If Gordon was a poker player his table would echo with cries of "ya got nothing! Show us!". If you don't understand politics any more, collect your cheque and go do something else.

Our final victim used to be a regular target of this blog until she became ubiquitous, which meant that no-comment became the best policy. I refer of course to Annabel Crabb:
Can we please, PLEASE declare some sort of federal amnesty on embarrassing university behaviour?
Yes, on two conditions:

1) Said behaviour is a contrast, not a continuation, of attitudes manifested in public life:

  • The guy whose uni girlfriend leaves him for another girl, and who then makes some nasty comments about lesbians that don't quite square with his exemplary and substantial later record on GLBTI issues: that person deserves a break; 
  • The student who rails against job cuts because of deregulation, and who later becomes an advocate for further deregulation in order to foster job growth;
  • The East Timor advocate who found the only politician who'd get on side was the last one they expected, John Howard;
  • Even Nick Minchin, uni dopehead who became a straight-laced conservative in word and deed.
Those people deserve a break. Their hearts were in the right place, and it was long ago, so let the fog of nostalgia descend.

2) As I said earlier, Marr was wrong to lunge so far back for such an example.

Tony Abbott is a jerk. He was a jerk this year, he was a jerk last year, he was a jerk ten years ago and thirty too. His offences go way beyond fashion crimes. Those heavy-handed legal and ecclesiastical defences have put him in a position where he feels he can do no wrong, and so is blind to objective signals to change course to which others pay close heed. That's the significance of Abbott's behaviour, and it's a real shame Crabb missed it - willfully, insisted on missing the point.

In her coverage of politics, Crabb insists on describing politicians as she finds them, and on taking them and their quoted words as given. All that back-story stuff is beyond her control and her ken. She can't tell the difference between a politician undergoing a spot of bother and one who is doomed. It's one thing to be facile, but to insist that non-facile coverage be discarded is crazy. Crabb saw what happened to Mark Latham after the cabbie's broken arm turned him from a forceful personality to a thug, and whether she likes it or not she should be able to see a similar pattern emerging with Abbott.

Crabb's venture on Twitter today, imperiously insisting we #buythepaper to maintain High Standards Of Journalism, has shot her credibility. Like Richard Wilkins in the 1980s, Crabb is an old person's idea of a groovy with-it younger person; by insisting that we who read widely are personally responsible for "bleeding Fairfax" (while those who hired Crabb and gave her resources that were denied to others escape culpability), she has disappointed her readers while also showing her feet-of-clay to those who placed higher hopes in her reach and acuity. She has been every bit as bombastic as Gina Rinehart was in urging us all to work for the sort of money Crabb would have us spend on a wad of lifestyle supplements.

This is a new phase of uncertainty, all right. The less journalists focus on themselves and refuse to help the rest of us through such a phase, the less likely they are to come through it well; no amount of cramming by Sam Maiden, hedging by Michael Gordon or pearls-rattling by Annabel Crabb will substitute for gathering facts, recognising the story for what it is, and telling it free of the faux-entanglements of The Narrative.


  1. I note Michael Gordon continues the bizarro world press gallery logic regarding Gillard: if she looks like she'll lose the election, R*dd will strike and save Labor; if she looks like she'll win the election, R*dd will strike and, um, win it by an even bigger margin.

    It's astonishing the way in which the hacks have painted themselves into a corner so much that they can't find even one compliment for the way in which Gillard may have saved this train wreck of a government. They literally cannot begin to fathom the idea that she may win the next election.

    Murphy and Grattan have lost the plot so much that they're now debasing themselves to the point of openly pleading with That's Just Tone to change his ways. They're even offering him tips on how to behave so all of us can understand what they do - you know, gosh, what a real swell guy he is. Either that or they've been publicly applying for a job as his press secretary, it really is hard to say. Apparently Fairfax would like me to part with my money to read this embarrassing tosh.

    Meanwhile, back on earth Turnbull continues to be more popular than Abbott by about a squidzillion per cent, give or take.

  2. By the way, Andrew: any chance of doing something about those letters and numbers we need to type in to keep robots at bay? I understand why we need to do it but they're getting a bit blurry and smudgy.

    And before you strike: I just got glasses last week and it's not any easier!

  3. An excellent article, it is such a pleasure to read this evisceration of the febrile twitter of the MSM.

    However my real delight is finding those sentences which hit the spot. This time it is "They see education as an act of mass charity rather than an investment"


  4. Bushfire Bill24/9/12 10:21 am

    True story... I met Latham only once, not long before the 2004 election, at a Chinese restaurant fundraiser in Parramatta.

    Not wanting to just gush and say "shucks", I prepared my 30 second speech full of advice for him.

    On the two weekends before that we'd had people over for dinner at our place. The wives thought Latham was a thug, over the taxi incident.

    So there was my cue: suggest to Latham that he finds the cabbie and publicly makes up with him, front-page, all is forgiven. Sunday papers for preference.

    He looked at me quizzically and told me, "That's in the past. It's all over." He shrugged.

    I didn't argue with him. I'd said what I'd wanted to say.

    The person who introduced me to him was Laurie Ferguson. He was an old school chum of mine from St. Pat's, Strathfield (the "non-privileged" section of the Catholic Mafia that sometimes seems to be running the country nowadays).

    Laurie died a thousand deaths of embarrassment at what I said to Latham. I was bundled out of the way quickly. Thanks for the donation, enjoy your chow mein, and piss off. I stopped getting the email invitations after that.

    The rest is history. I'm sure I wasn't the only one to say this to him, but I felt a personal responsibility in not having that argument when I could have. I thought (and still think) Latham could have been a half-decent PM.

    1. Latham was a bit like the man he tried to replace, a combination of smarts and boorishness that seemed somehow emblematic of the nation. I knew it was time for me to leave the Liberals when I stopped arguing, when the question "what's the point?" overrode all others.

  5. The intertia of "the narrative" is something that's going to take a while to adjust. I can see signs in the prognostications of Grattan et al as to whether the sure thing is not quite so sure anymore, but it's clearly going to take a bit longer for them to wake up a smell the roses.

    1. Unemployment concentrates the mind ...

  6. Awesomely stated. Absolutely agree with sentiments here...

  7. Pieces like Katherine Murphy's this morning make me regret that I #buythepaper. In fact, articles like the ones you have covered recently sent me in search of the type of analysis I get here in the first place

    1. Heresy to suggest it's not 'professionalism' or the platform, but the quality of analysis and writing that is the decider.

  8. " ... Christopher Pyne, who can't be guaranteed to hold his seat."

    Even though he's no longer my local member (I moved, but not just for that reason), I hope you're right, Andrew. He makes my skin crawl.

  9. I take your point about lazy journalists, but at the same time I found it refreshing to read Samantha Maiden's article and find that it actually seemed criticl of Abbott. This makes a change from the usual News Corp sycophantic support of the incompetent right and demonisation of the left. Maybe the recent shift in the polls has made the journalists think that the conventional wisdom of the past 5 years might be wrong and maybe they need to actually put a bit of balance back in their reporting. Maybe, although I doubt News Corp allows their journalists that much independence of thought, so maybe it means Murdoch recognises the coalition is no longer a sure thing.

    1. To me, it read like a rushed job. Maiden has no excuse for newbie errors, but I take your point about Murdoch and signalling.

  10. This is exactly the reason #Idontbuypapersanymore

  11. I've been enjoying your articles since I heard you interviewed on ABC RN about a month ago. So glad I found your site and another excellent article this time ! keep up the good work.

  12. I love the way you have kept most of your bile at bay in the last few weeks/months when writing about Abbott, but obviously could not keep it under control any longer, and out it seeps - "he is a prick". Say what you mean man - don't mince words! Brilliant!

    Full marks also for continuing to point out the ineptitude and laziness of Australian political reporting - I cannot believe the easy ride that Abbott has had, fueled by either lazy journalism (hard to call it journalism - reporting perhaps) or ideology. Hopefully the Leigh Sales interview (mooo)a few weeks ago will makes other journalists sit up and take notice on how to push Abbott to respond on more than his lazy three point memory jogger.

  13. Another enjoyable and refreshing post, Andrew. You keep shaming the msm hacks by showing them what real journalism should be.

    I have not read a newspaper or watched a "news" report on the box for months, for the very reasons you have articulated in this post.

    Keep keeping us informed and providing us with the sort of political commentary we used to expect from the ABC at least.

  14. Brilliant. And the clowns still rant that there are people smugglers out there in war zones forcing people at gun point to pay them money to pretend to be refugees instead of refugees so desparate for help they will put their lives in the hands of strangers to be safe.

    Indonesia is pushing refugees out to sea and killing them with our help because they are sick to death of us demanding they jail them for years for us at their expense.

    Our dingbat media will not stop talking about asylum seeker policy or border protection policy as if such things exist - they never mention that pesky legally binding refugee convention at all because they seem to think it is a handbag.

    No thanks to any media but Hamish McDonald from the project for saving the lives on poor Indonesian children in adult prisons for years, the rest of the lazy garbage ignored me for years over the story.

    The list goes on and on but they forget they are supposed to report news instead of their own air bubbles.

  15. Totally agree with your comments on the lazy journalism of the MSM and it doesn't bode well for their future.

    If I hear this ridiculous phrase trotted out again I'll scream :"most successful Opposition Leader ever..".

    If Fairfax truly think they will be able to go totally digital within 9 years they will have to up their gain. People will not pay to go behind the paywall for shoddy journalism. News Ltd is finding it's hard to get people to pay for tosh. The rise of independent on-line sites like this will drown them.

    I've not read one journalist who has questioned the Coalition's idiotic claims that they can 'turn the boats back' or stop refugees. No-one can stop boats leaving another country and turning them back could only be done by negotiating with the countries they come from. Far more difficult in reality and a diplomatic nightmare.

    yet the MSM has become an echo chamber for Coalition press releases whilst important government legislation passed is given the same treatment with hardly an indepth on what it may mean. Since Julia Gillard was elected as leader of her party, the whole theme of the MSM has been one of illegitimacy and when will Tony Abbott take his rightful place.

    I've felt sorry for journalists in the past- their future is uncertain and I do not wish unemployment on anyone but I now believe the sooner tabloid publishing (all we really have now)dies the sooner we will have real journalism dominating again (on the web).

  16. Slightly off tangent here...

    Watching Kelly o Dwyer on q and a was why i think you and many others left the liberals


    Rude and crude and idiocy that makes Tanyas eyes roll on t.v is sad


    1. O'Dwyer really is appalling. The only 'attribute' she has is the ability to constantly interrupt people and speak louder than anyone else, while remaining blissfully unaware of the low esteem in which she is held by the people in her electorate because of this rude behaviour.

      Oh, I nearly forgot, she's also good at being photographed telling lies about furniture shops closing because of carbon pricing. Is O'Dwyer really the best the Liberal Party can do in Higgins?