10 September 2012

Strange rituals and bad jokes

I remember reading this shower of piffle from the ABC's Head of Policy and Staff Development and dreading the prospect of appalling and inadequate coverage of the next election. Reading Greg Jericho's The Rise of the Fifth Estate gave me the ability to validate and articulate that dread. After viewing the US election from afar you have to wonder whether the ground is starting to shift under Mr Sunderland's feet:
Alan Sunderland discusses how the ABC will provide both comprehensive coverage of the next federal election campaign and engaging coverage of policy issues.
Alan Sunderland discusses nothing. He makes announcements and engages in no discussion with the well meant and considered comments that follow his edict. His declarations toward the end that he's open to discussion bear little credibility:
There are few things we can really be sure of as the next Federal Election approaches.

We certainly don’t know when it will be. Officially, a full term would see an election sometime between August and November next year, but given the volatile state of politics at the moment, no one is relaxing.

We can’t even say with certainty who will lead the Government into the campaign, as Labor’s consistently low ratings in the polls mean that leadership speculation just won’t go away.

But there is one thing we do know with a fair degree of certainty. By and large, the voters are hoping for an election campaign with more policy focus and more substance than we’ve seen in the past.
All this doubt basically means that Alan and the gang are going to cleave all the more closely to traditional journalism: verbatim reportage of what was said and avoidance of what it might mean. Any hope in the fifth paragraph is pretty much in vain, because Sunderland is going to frame reporting on government as some sort of high-wire act rather than the certainty of what comes from all that legislation that is being passed by this parliament. That's how it is; policy and substance is second-order business at best.
And that, more than anything else, is what we are turning our attention to at ABC News.
Sounds like a call to action, doesn't it? That feeling lasts until the very next paragraph:
Of course, complaints about election campaigns being policy-free zones and the media covering them as if they were horse races are nothing new ...
He then describes his own experience of getting caught up in the hurly-burly of campaigns, where journalists allow themselves to be caught up in the hype and starved of information while fooling themselves that they were at the very heart of the action, people who confused motion with progress and who thought that they did the media favours by staging their own stunts.

The US election campaign of 2008 saw blogs and Twitter accounts erupt with rebuttals of assertions by candidates; some were splenetic outbursts while others were coolly backed by stats and anecdotes. This time the process of fact-checking has become every bit as professional as the speeches and ads they critique. Ari Melber is wrong when he says "We are all fact-checkers now"; it's reserved for those with the facts to hand an the wit to know which information addresses (or rebuts) which assertion, as he concedes toward the end of his article. As you'd expect from a mainstream journalist, Melber's regards the new development as "aggressive", without disclosing (or realising?) that not only politicians but the mainstream media have most to fear from any such aggression.

The great newspapers of Britain mostly started as coffee-shop pamphlets. What elevated them from diversions to Journals Of Record and Important Organs Of Democracy, etc., is their reputation for fact-checking and reliability. To lose that reputation is to reduce mainstream media outlets back to the level of coffee-shop pamphlets, or their modern equivalents in social media.

Both Melber and Greg Jericho warn, rightly, that facts aren't enough in themselves. For example, in the past week it is a fact that unemployment in the US has gone down:
  • Is Mitt Romney right when he says that too few jobs were created in the past month, and that too many people have given up looking for work (and thus dropped off the lists of those officially unemployed, i.e. looking for work but not having a job)? Yes, he is.
  • Is Barack Obama right when he says that more jobs are been created than lost under his Administration, in contrast to the Republican Administration that preceded his? Yes, he is.
What's needed is a deeper understanding, not only of the nature of unemployment statistics, but also of each man's record in using public policy to generate jobs and economic well-being generally. Mainstream media organs claim to have this in spades, but there is all too little evidence for it. This is the essence of notions like "experience" and "gravitas" that press gallery journalists (and their equivalents in the US and elsewhere), but which is more important to the journalists themselves rather than the media-consuming/ taxpaying/ voting public.

Regardless of all that, Sunderland does not promise to change a single thing about the ABC's coverage. The next election campaign will be run in pretty much the same way as the last one:
After all, when you’re about to choose the Government that will manage the country for the next three years, some proper consideration of their actual policies is not such a bad idea.
Yes! He gets it! This is the man to awaken the potential of Australian journalism and reorient it toward actual news and analysis! But then we get to the dead heart of Sunderland's article ...
Let me add a note of caution in all of this.
This is Alan's way of saying: let me ignore your concerns and kill your hopes stone dead.
The media does have a responsibility to cover the election campaign we are actually having, rather than the one we might wish we were having. And if, for the sake of argument, our political leaders are focussing on heat rather than light, moving from stage-managed event to stage-managed event with little or no time for detailed policy illumination, then it is reasonable to expect that would be reflected in the media’s coverage of the campaign.
A responsibility to whom?

When he talks about "the campaign", he means the succession of stunts set up and executed by major parties. These organisations have their own websites, Twitter accounts, YouTube channels and other means to get their message out in the best possible light. Sunderland holds up a mirror in which preening politicians may see themselves displayed and media strategists may judge their own efforts against their own nebulous criteria. He overestimates the extent to which this is important to viewers:
The public is entitled to know what is actually happening on the ground each day.
In election campaigns, voters' minds are "the ground", not the areas beneath the feet of politicians covered in TV camera cords. Strategists position politicians this way or that with the aim to create the impression that an issue is being addressed, but the more important question is whether or not the issue is actually being addressed. It is an issue that journos "on the ground", being whisked around and starved of information, have little role in addressing other than to run the day's talking points against wider information (and if there's a website available to all, and if the talking points can be had from the party's site, what value is there "on the ground"?).
And, of course, if ever it was relevant to focus on who is ahead in the race for popular support, the election campaign is the time to do it.
And what if it was never relevant to do so, Alan?

Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff nails the problem that Sunderland - and many other experienced journalists and editors - cannot bear and are not equipped to confront:
The crisis in the news business, involving, among other things, a massive decline in reading and viewing habits by the younger audience, is blamed on many things. Seldom, though, is it understood as the logical result of not giving its customers what they want. Or giving them what they don't want: banal and repetitive coverage of what Rasmussen calls the "strange rituals and bad jokes" that comprise modern campaigns ...
If Alan Sunderland wants to feed you "strange rituals and bad jokes" then that's what you'll get; or, as he puts it:
In many ways, an election campaign is something of a horse race, and it will always be covered like one.
So there. No discussion will be entered into, and you were a fool to think things might change.

As a consolation prize, Sunderland proposes to knock up a sandbox for social media users:
So our aim for the coming Federal Election campaign, whenever it is, is to tune into that emerging agenda, work with our audiences to identify the policy issues that matter to the community, and ensure they are front and centre in our coverage.

We believe we can combine the best and most comprehensive coverage of the campaign with rich and engaging coverage of the policy issues as well. Why shouldn’t ABC audiences get to have it all?

The key to this for ABC audiences will be an election website that brings together all of the rich, policy-based coverage we have always done during election campaigns, but makes it more accessible, more searchable and more comprehensive than ever before.

If Radio National provides a deep examination of the major challenges in health care, if Q&A has a program devoted to the big questions in education policy, if 7.30 has a debate between the Minister and the Shadow Minister on defence, the ABC’s election website will bring all that content together and make it available throughout the campaign.

For example, if you have a particular interest in environmental policy, the ABC’s election campaign website will give you all of the background on the policies of the major parties, a range of program material examining the issues in depth, and an easy way to track what is being said about environmental issues during the campaign.
If this had been available in 2010, it would have been awesome. Such is the speed of development of information and technology that it is not even adequate for 2013.

As with Coalition policies, the question must be asked of Sunderland: if you're truly ready for the next election, "whenever it is", why can't we see your wares now?

When journalists start using that information to change the question they ask, or even remove "political" journalists and replace them with subject-matter experts, only then would it be the change Sunderland hints at but could never deliver. One of the reasons why the Coalition's ICT policy at that election failed was because tech journalists, not press gallery hacks, took it apart and showed the politicians weren't across their own policy. This wasn't just the sort of gotcha moment that Sunderland and other senior journalists have built their careers upon, it provided real and valuable information to voters about those who would govern them.
I like to think that ABC News has always been about providing depth and analysis as well as covering the day’s events.
Translation: I'm not interested in any evidence that it was inadequate. We'll do what we like, and what we like is what we've always done.
But perhaps in the past, the problem was that if you missed a particular program on a particular issue, it was impossible to go back and find it again, or to locate all the relevant information you need in one location.
And if you find it, and it's full of pulled punches and begged questions and missed opportunities, what then? Is Sunderland fitting the problem to the answers he's already developed?
That’s where we are aiming for real improvement for the coming campaign.
More of the same, with public input sharply cauterised.
Now all we have to do is get Antony Green back ...
Green is one of the nation's pre-eminent psephologists, but every election-night telecast sees him wrestling with his own software as one of his assumptions ends up impeding our understanding of what is going on. This isn't a case of bagging Green, nor of offering uncritical praise; it means that Green's limitations as both a software programmer and an election forecaster cannot be relied upon as wholly as they have thus far, by the ABC and by viewers.

Wolff poses the sort of challenge for which Alan Sunderland, despite his protestations, is certainly not up:
So, what would happen if all general interest news outlets vastly downgraded their political coverage?

After all, politics, with its present niche focus, should certainly not warrant more coverage than, say, business. What would happen if the national media failed to show up for a political convention? What would happen if we stopped encouraging these squares and dweebs and wonks and Big Data idiot savants and hopelessly impersonal robo-types with our media attention?

In short order, we might start to see a new sort of politician who could speak to the rest of us.
The ABC is in no position to seek "a new sort of politician". This would require a new sort of journalist, which Alan Sunderland manifestly is not and cannot be relied upon to cultivate. Nor can Fairfax, News Ltd, nor any currently-operating commercial radio or TV network.

As a careerist, Sunderland probably thinks he's being clever by putting new technology to old uses. Hopefully between now and November he will throw out his plans (or they will be thrown out for him); and the ABC can lead the Australian media approach to covering the next election with a confidence Alan Sunderland cannot inspire, and cannot reasonably hold within himself.

(Thanks to Gordon Graham for the link)


  1. Idealism is a nice virtue

    Abbott has the tightest media control unit thus far

    Good luck with busting that rock and going deeper

    wait with baited breath


  2. Totally excellent demolition of the patronising, intellectually shallow, "showers of piffle" that emanate from the back rooms of the ABC these days.

    The ABC's formal reply to Paul Keating's complaint about Chris Uhlmann's shocker of an interview with the PM a few months ago was along the same lame, empty-headed lines, delivered in a buff superior tone. It would be hilarious if it were not so sad.

    This manner of speech seems to percolate down from Mark Scott, former Liberal Party apparatchik, god-botherer, and used car salesman, slick and presentable with nothing of substance to say, certainly nothing interesting about the future of actual news reporting in Australia, but plenty about the nice new "balanced" business model we will all be driving.

    I remember Sunderland way back when he was a skinny little geek reporter for SBS. I saw him once at some celebrity function at the Sydney Opera House, sneaking around the edges of conversations, presumably picking up scandalous gossip for the evening news. He did not know he was being watched, and the target of some mirth amongst those of us with nothing else to do but scoff the plonk and admire the view.

    Well, he has now done his apprenticeship in the field and has become chief spruiker for this degenerate anti-intellectual nonsense. The ABC has now become the final refuge of the The Big Stupid, where once it was the brainiac kindergarten, feeding the commercial media with highly trained, high-performance reporters year after year for decades.

    What happened to all the grown-ups? Ah, that's right, the Howard Government sacked them all.

  3. That has more or less nailed it for me.

    The horse race analogy raises all sorts of things which are not described by journalists. Horse racing involves tactics of jockeys, positioning of the horse, speed of the race, track bias and so on. A real journalist should be able to call a horse race not by virtue of who is in front, but what the consequences and causes are. And not just based on selected leaks.

    The problem is that there are more than enough journalists looking at these issues but that no effort is made to join the dots to provide a complete picture. The daily stunt is over, as is the daily doorstop. Journalists simply must stop covering these,because the platitudinous, repetitive sound bite is ruining journalism and politics and public policy alike.

  4. Aunty has become so bad that even when confronted with the fact that it is not offshore processing to expel refugees but human trafficking they won't stop talking about a non-existent process.

  5. 'We can’t even say with certainty who will lead the Government into the campaign, as Labor’s consistently low ratings in the polls mean that leadership speculation just won’t go away.'

    Well if the ABC didn't pander to the speculative nonsense and actually reported on policies and legislation before parliament, then what the parties stood for would be useful to the electorate. And the ABC would be delivering on its charter.

  6. I too have written to and received a facile reply from Mr.Sunderland. The managerial style of news delivery and programming at the ABC. is the pits. There is hardly one part of the organisation that hasn't been polluted by the diseased hand of JWH. And as for those pathetic balloons!!!

  7. The ABC has become a joke, the fact that a fairly mild interview from Leigh Sales could generate such controversy is an indictment of the entire organisation. How have they allowed themselves to become obsessed with the trivia, the inconsequential, the lies and misinformation. They don't have the poor excuse of the commercial media that they have to prop up their margins by appealing to the 'battlers'

    All we'll get at the next election is the same confected, valueless attempt at providing 'balanced' reporting we get at the moment. Some IPA drone on one side, a moderately left wing academic on the other and a lazy overpaid journalist in the middle implying that the truth must obviously be somewhere in between.

  8. On the telly today Latika Bourke, ABC twit supremo, told us with wide-eyed amazement that the reason supertrawlers can catch so many little fish all at once, without them going bad and smelly, is because they have giant freezers on board! Well, you could have knocked me down with feather. Incredible! And then, she told us that she found this amazing information by reading the FAQs on the Fisheries website! Extraordinary! Our national broadcaster at work. Words fail me.

    1. Latika is great eye candy for gen y

      thats all folks!!


  9. Well, all I can say is that it clearly indicates another leadership challenge from Rudd

    1. No no, it clearly shows that either Turnbull is preparing to challenge Abbott, or that the Governor General is going to listen to Jones and dismiss the current government and call a double dissolution election despite the constitution specifically saying the conditions for this have not been met.

  10. The ABC... shudder.