30 March 2013

For whom the polls toll

In this piece by the Verbal Dickhead*, it is not necessary to go past the first two paragraphs to see the sheer depth and breadth of journalistic failure in the federal parliamentary press gallery:
Labor’s support among marginal seat voters has crashed in Queensland and Western Australia to levels similar to NSW, exposing it to the loss of all 24 marginal seats it holds across Australia and risking up to 15 more semi-marginal electorates.

The poll by JWS Research also finds that, despite the bleak outlook for Labor, most marginal seat voters would prefer it to win the election than Tony Abbott’s Coalition.
For a start, Coorey failed to report that this latest dropping of pollshit was commissioned by Peter Costello and two of his former staff. It covered fewer than one in a thousand voters, a cheap and nasty effort statistically as well as politically. JWS risks becoming the WHK Horvath of polling, even though Coorey's reputation remains strangely intact.

Previous generations of Chief Political Reporters would have a) noticed that it was doubtful and b) considered it a duty to pass on to their readers that a bunch of self-interested players were attempting to play them. Even Michael Stutchbury would have noticed that back when he was a journalist - but not Coorey, merely rephrasing the summary page from the pollshitters and dishing it up to AFR readers as though it were considered reporting on matters of significance.

More broadly, the fact that the government's policies are popular should give pause to fatalists who believe it is doomed. Doomed governments either have no policies to speak of, like the last Labor government in NSW, or have policies that are unpopular and from which there is no getting away, like the last Labor government in Queensland. Neither of those situations apply to the current federal government.

What Coorey is describing is a failure of journalism. It is the same failure he and his colleagues practiced three years ago, in a syllogism that goes like this:
  1. Journos write articles claiming PM can't communicate policy achievements.
  2. PM stages events where she communicates policy achievements, invites journos. After having thus communicated, journos ask PM if she is frustrated that she is not getting her message out.
  3. Go to step 1 and repeat until made redundant. Act all surprised and hurt when people who follow the news closely insist that political journalism is a joke. Give yourself a gong.
Coorey's notional boss at the AFR is Laura Tingle, who hasn't suffered the same general decline in quality. However, in her examination of the same phenomenon she too sidesteps the obvious issues from the boys at All Care No Responsibility Ltd, preferring instead to point out the motes in others' eyes while ignoring the beams in her own. She came close with this:
The great irony is that some of those most responsible for Labor’s present woes are likely to survive the coming rout, while much of the rising talent – among both Rudd and Gillard backers – will fall.
I still disagree that a Labor rout is inevitable in 2013, but otherwise Tingle is spot on: she, the Verbal Dickhead, forgotten-but-not-gone Michelle Grattan, and the two hundred or so other clowns in the press gallery will be just fine whatever happens.

This brings us to Gay Alcorn's latest. It is far better than her previous effort, but she still calls for sweeping change while wrongly praising the very behaviour that might usefully disappear if a better and more sustainable journalism is to be achieved.
The verdict from the parliamentary press gallery is in: the Prime Minister's government is dysfunctional, with lousy judgment and a fixation with polls ... Turn that around. What if this was the worst political reporting Australians have endured in history? Dysfunctional, with lousy judgment, fixated with polls, feigning concern about the toxicity of political discourse. And the public? They've stopped listening.

Too harsh? I'm not so sure.
Wonderful, air-punching stuff. Then came the confusion:
... the culmination of more than a year of "sources say" stories speculating or predicting (or even advocating) the imminent demise of Gillard. As it turned out, they were wrong.

It is not a simple story. Some bloggers and twitter tragics interpret every event as a giant media conspiracy, but journalists do not make up leadership tensions in my experience and they didn't last week.
So the press gallery has predicted fifty of the past two leadership contests, and they don't make things up? The Verbal Dickhead not only avoided the sack but got a promotion on the very basis that Ruddmentum was so tangible that he could taste it, and carve it into 600-word chunks every single day.

Look also at Alcorn's word "tragics". John Howard described himself as a "cricket tragic" to mean that he had wished to have represented Australia in cricket. Alcorn is implying here that people who criticise journalists want to be journalists, and that their criticism is diminished due to their failure to secure a job in a profession they criticise.

There is no evidence at all that those who criticise journalists have ever wanted to join their ranks. When you go to a restaurant and are served a poorly-cooked meal, and you complain about it, this does not make you a "chef tragic". If the Australian cricket team were to fob off their many critics as "tragics", it would be a sign that their problems go far deeper than mere batting, bowling and fielding.

It's also a straw man: show me the bloggers and tweeps who "interpret every event as a giant media conspiracy". Every event? This is the sort of sweeping statement for which social media users are looked down upon by just-the-facts journos, particularly the ones who don't really do professional self-reflection at all well.

The defence of unnamed sources is bullshit, especially now that we know who they are. Those ministers and other office-bearers who resigned the week before last are the "senior Labor sources" who were once both so murky and so indispensible to the press gallery. The same ones who have been carping away at Gillard for three years are the same ones behind the events of last week, that Alcorn would sheet home to Labor.

Which seer predicted in 2010 that Julia Gillard would thrash Rudd if he ever stood for the leadership again, that the Australian economy would be the best in the world, and that the minority government would prove to be about as stable as other governments with clear majorities? If you breathlessly predict every single day that Julia Gillard will cease to be Prime Minister, one day you might be right; but don't be surprised if people have stopped listening long beforehand.

There have been plenty of journalists who have misled us poor hapless readers over the years over the fate of the Prime Minister: shame on you if you fool me once, and all that. The real tragedy in many ways is that the journalists have lied to themselves. Can people who lie to themselves be relied upon to tell you the truth?

The nature of the politico-media complex is that it is not Labor's "shemozzle" only, but also that of the media. The fact that Joel Fitzgibbon gets national media coverage over even the most idle pronouncements shows the journosphere just can't let it go. It's why they don't believe Labor people when they say they're over it.

What are the sales figures for broadcast media like in marginal seats? What about the take-up of social media to get political information in those seats? Thought so.

Never send to know for whom the polls toll, journalists; they toll for thee. There is no way that the same organisations that produce such crap journalism can produce polls that you could take to the bank (even a Cypriot one). Every poll, and every journalist who writes the same article that everyone else writes, diminishes journalism. It's creepy and weird to be told by people who don't know you what you are thinking, or what you should be thinking, or what simply everybody is thinking and saying these days.

It is an old saw of media that stories get sensationalised in order to sell papers. As a former editor, Gay Alcorn may even have been guilty of that herself. My question is: who the hell buys a paper on the basis of "... senior Labor sources claim Rudd has the numbers this time for sure, no wait we're serious, come back ...". Shame on you if you fool me once, but if you fool me every day for years and years then give me a press gallery pass and a Walkley as substitutes for, rather than recognition of, credibility.

Journalists used to strike over outrages like this, or all those random redundancies, but not any more. They have lost pride in their profession. Nobody would notice when any such strike would begin, or end. The most concerted action they are taking in support of Ferguson is the very sort of action they have spent half a decade sneering at: knocking up an online petition.

What if someone like Verbal Dickhead really did stumble across a scoop that rendered the Gillard government unelectable, would you believe him? If you were dazzled by the glinting from his trophy room you might.

What if someone like Gay Alcorn promised a whole new way of covering federal politics, or of doing journalism more broadly? Well, so long as there was no change to any of the personnel and we all accepted their best intentions on the way they went about things, I'm sure she could really affect far-reaching change: yeah, right.

Journalists can be an insular bunch and few of them would read this blog. To get a reality check, members and defenders of the press gallery could do worse than consult their colleagues in the sports department. The AFL and NRL will hold their finals in late September/early October, in a schedule that was announced well before January. Ask them today who will win the respective grand finals this year. Study every tic that takes place on the field this weekend, fluff all your anonymous sources, and then declare Team X is inevitable, Team Y is doomed. When the laughter dies down, maybe you could deride them as press gallery tragics.

I recommend this. Latham is right in saying that the broadcast media has proven its need to be regulated, we do not need to wait until dead children here have their phones hacked in order to act.

He should have given more credit to Conroy. By insisting on no amendments and a limited timeframe, Conroy made himself the lightning-rod for the broadcasters rather than have them pick on an already jittery backbench. By defeating that legislation, the broadcast media have only ensured that moderate reform is off the table. The only options now are stasis or far-reaching regulatory reform, neither of which the dills who run our media organisations will cope with at all well.

Instead of renting out press gallery space to bloggers, the rule against recording devices in the public galleries should be abolished. Journalists would be better informed by sitting in public galleries rather than being corralled with other journalists. This would be a boon for freelance journalists, particularly those who don't cover politics per se but do cover issues that are occasionally subject to deliberations of Parliament. It would also force broadcast media to lift the quality of its coverage - and by expanding, not imperilling, free speech.

It's a general rule that those of us who don't watch Sky are better informed than those who watch nothing else, unless you want an insight into the thinking of the Liberals:
  • Kieran Gilbert reminds me of those big dumb dogs who lopes over to you, plants his paws on your crotch and then tries to lick your face.
  • David Speers is, aside from this not very recent interview, a muppet.
  • Chris Kenny is the enforcer of groupthink, rounding up rightwing stragglers and dispatching straw men in much the same way that Gerard Henderson heroically slew all those 'brigades' back in his day.
  • The various Van Onselens (Macca Pacca van Onselen, Upsy Daisy van Onselen etc.) are the sorts of fearless and savvy investigators who get done over by Julie Bishop. Because they have big mortgages so they will all go on telly and do whatever they are told: smile and think of the new bathroom fittings.
There are more people like them in western Sydney than Mark Latham would care to admit.

* There are two things to realise about Phillip Coorey.

The first is that he can't respond effectively to mild criticism or even questioning on social media. He's a broadcaster, not a communicator. He ramps it up even the most innocuous exchanges to a personal assault, hoping vehemence will give his arguments more force than they have, flinging his signature phrase from straight outta Fairfax Charm School: "Don't verbal me dickhead" (thus the term by which he's referred to on this blog, the Verbal Dickhead). This propensity in no way prevents him complaining about online incivility from others, or maintaining a self-image as someone who gives as good as he gets.

The second is that he's the President of the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery. His output as a journalist used to be quite good, but it plunged in quality at around the time of last year's Midwinter Ball when he began to be showered with journosphere encomia and busywork titles. In terms of understanding how we are governed, he is a problem to be overcome rather than someone who illustrates where we are politically, where we've been and where we are going. The fact that he's their President belies any notion of self-awareness or a need to change on the part of the parliamentary press gallery.

23 March 2013

A thousand deaths

Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.

- Shakespeare Julius Caesar Act II Sc I
Having been elected as Prime Minister in 2007, Kevin Rudd would wake up most mornings and see that News Limited broadcast media outlets would bag one or more of his policies, whereupon he would dither and eventually drop that policy. When he dropped his government's policy to address climate change in the face of News Ltd hostility, people began to wonder what, if anything, he would stand up for - and he was pushed out of his job.

If he had been re-elected by the ALP, he would have done that again. He would have cringed beneath the cosh of News Ltd again, and again, and again. No amount of smarm or negotiation by Rudd or anyone else will or can overcome this.

News Ltd really want Tony Abbott as Prime Minister. Abbott wrote for News Ltd as a student, he wrote for them as an adult before entering Parliament, and in his memoirs Peter Costello affected surprise when Abbott would set aside actual governing and shadow cabinet work in order to write for News Ltd. Costello has known Abbott for decades and worked with him over many years in the Howard government, but to affect surprise at this relationship diminishes Costello. Abbott was a News Ltd man before he married and became a birth-father; he was a News Ltd man before he was a Liberal, let alone an MP. News Ltd is second only in importance to Roman Catholicism in understanding who Tony Abbott is and what Tony Abbott means.

Labor people of a bygone age who could barely comprehend what corporate power even was flung the accusation at Menzies, that he was a tool of the Collins Street business elite; Billy McMahon headed the legal team that acted for what was then the Bank of New South Wales against the Chifley Government's attempts to nationalise it. Neither of those men, no Liberal/UAP/Free Trade/Protectionist leader nor any other party leader I can think of, was so covered in any one corporation's pocket-lint as Abbott is vis-a-vis News Ltd.

Against that, Stephen Conroy's Crean-like charge into the maw of overwhelming opposition should be seen as understandable - even commendable in some crazy way. Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke. The Greens were generous in crafting a narrative for the government, a skill it has lacked and a sign of considerable goodwill from a rising party that can afford to be generous. The idea that the Labor-News Ltd relationship could get any worse is absurd, but not half as funny as the idea that Kevin From Queensland is the one who can set things right.

Rudd's spinelessness is now obvious to those who keened for his return, those who embarrassed themselves by leaking and conniving in his favour when he wouldn't put himself out for them. The spate of resignations is the implosion of the dream that Rudd was bigger than he is, or was. It has revealed a number of things about important people at a crucial time.

Chris Bowen once said that he would smash the business model of people-smugglers. The business model he has smashed most successfully was by resigning, those of the also-not-illegal models of Chris Uhlmann, Peter Hartcher, and all the other journalists who bet their professional lives on the attitude that if you can't say something nice about the Prime Minister, come and talk to me.

Julia Gillard is the 27th Prime Minister of Australia. All the other 26 had members of their backbench, and even their ministry, who hated them. If journo experience counts for anything this fact should inform coverage of the incumbent. This is not a special plea to go easy on her, it's an expression of disappointment that reality does not inform reporting.

No press gallery journalist had more than forty separate members of caucus come to them and say they were backing Rudd, nor anything like that number. They all claim there really was a groundswell, they all claim caucus dissent was real, but in reality it was just the same old whingers - Fitzgibbon, Kim Carr, Bowen, Husic and the rest - getting more and more carried away with themselves. Every press gallery journalist who made any claim to an authoritative check of the numbers has been deliberately and repeatedly untruthful. Rudd never had the numbers at any point since 2010 and any journalist who said otherwise deserves to be sacked. They simply believed what the old fabulists told them, passing it forward rather than pushing back.

This big lie on the part of the Canberra press gallery coincided with a call for journalists to cultivate the trust of their audience, in the face of evidence that Australians distrusted journalists more than any citizens of any other developed country. In a fragmenting media landscape that relationship of trust is everything. Media diversity is pointless if it only means more ignorant people lying to you.

Which mining company will engage Martin Ferguson in post-ministerial consultancy? To ask such a question is both to see the importance of good journalism, and its lack. Remember how Mark Arbib said that he was resigning for the sake of his family, and how all the journalists believed him? Walkleys all round, and have one yourself.

The second smashed-business-model belongs to Abbott, still insisting that the division in the ALP will continue even as the anti-Gillard Labor movement collapsed. Only a distant observer would look at Abbott's words and say: he would say that, wouldn't he. To be a member of the Canberra press gallery is to lack the perspective and the perspicacity to say such a thing, to be unable to do anything but take Abbott at his word. Note how only Julie Bishop, similarly doomed, is trotting out this line; the smarter Liberals know that gig is up. It was as pathetic as those Liberals from last century who kept insisting that Whitlam or Hawke were communists. Those who aren't capable of developing a new direction are at least being canny by being quiet.

The business model of the Prime Minister has not been smashed. What the press gallery and the Opposition insist is a "shambles" would have been represented as a triumph for any other leader: the challenger chickened out and his supporters fled. At those press conferences where Ferguson, Bowen et al departed it was hard to hear the lamentation of their women, but the effect was the same. Gillard is freer than she has been at any stage of her Prime Ministership, less able to blame others for her failures but in a position where fewer are committed to her failure than at any time in half-a-dozen years. This would be a triumph for any other leader; the grudging admissions that she's tough (particularly, it must be said, from female journalists) is a start in changing the Narrative.

The Prime Minister was right to sack Crean for his rogue intervention. She would be wrong not to bring him back later in some important capacity, unless he makes a goose of himself in the meantime.

The broadcast media were wrong to misreport the apology to victims of forced adoptions. That will be more important to more people into the future than the occasion when some leeches were salted off the backside of the Gillard government. They should have reported it - a moment of national greatness and magnanimity - as the story against which the leadership pretensions of Rudd and Abbott could be contrasted. Those are the people with scars, who are shattered, who have undergone bloodletting - not some leaky pollies dragged screaming from the lolly shop.

Journalists should have seen Abbott's speech on that august occasion as final, incontrovertible proof that he is emotionally disabled; a captive of institutions that are not big enough to apologise either, and in no sense a co-Prime Minister let alone the inevitable successor.

The Royal Commission into institutionalised child abuse is doomed unless Abbott is defeated. His lip-service in establishing it counts for nothing.

Not since John Howard was drafted to the Liberal leadership in 1995 has any governing-party leader been less encumbered than Julia Gillard is now. The fact that Gillard can start pointing to achievements as a pattern for a future where Abbott hasn't even got his policy settings right shows the Coalition (and the press gallery) have been wrong-footed again - just like they were when Gillard thrashed Rudd last year.

18 March 2013

Two articles on the Senate

I originally wrote a great big article on the Senate, which the good folks at The Kings Tribune have rendered as two readable pieces. The Senate really deserves its own coverage because:
I should've written more about Senate Committees in that first piece. Oh well.

13 March 2013

Tony Reagan

Here is my latest article, this time for Independent Australia, on how Abbott's 60 Minutes appearance was different and what he's up to in acting like that.

06 March 2013

The narrow sliver

A number of un(der)employed journalists and the Managing Director of the ABC popped up on Twitter yesterday to distribute this link, and muse whether or not something similar might apply here: that those who use Twitter to discuss politics might not be representative of the community at large.

It was silly, of course; Twitter users are far more representative, and often more knowledgeable, about Australian politics than are those who remain within the broadcast media. The goading relies upon the laughable MSM newsroom conceit that those who work in such places have a special relationship with the Australian people, a conceit that defies any evidence or sense. It also ignores the increasing ability and the willingness of social media users to outskirt the enfeebled Australian broadcasters, and what it means for them (no, not what it means for Democracy. Democracy does not depend on the broadcasters; it never did).

A few weeks ago, Martin McKenzie-Murray (hereafter: M3), a broadcast media fringe-dweller, made the following observations:
... it’s worth pointing out that Twitter’s a shonky barometer of public sentiment. Estimates suggest 1.8 to 2 million active Australian accounts — impressive, but not representative.
And how representative are you, dear reader? Here's a cut-out-and-keep guide as to whether you're in a position to decide who and what might be considered representative:

Twitter users in Australia
Broadcast media in Australia
1.8m-2m, about the same as the population of WesternSydney™ or Brisbane
A few thousand, shrinking fast, including many who wouldn’t be hired today; selected by corporate HR people and editors who haven’t been sacked yet, looking for younger versions of themselves (hence the lack of gender and other diversity in Australian newsrooms), etc.

M3, of course, considers sees himself as both, and in some sort of neo-Camusian sense, as neither.
Which is why Peter Brent’s tweet interested me. Today he wrote: “Much bagging of ‘MSM’ by countless self-appointed online critics in essence boils down to: does journo writes nice things about Julia?”
Brent, like M3, is in the broadcast media but not necessarily of it. It's an ambiguous statement, which is probably why it appeals to M3 so much: you could read that as saying that Twitter users want "MSM" journalists to cover Gillard in a more flattering light, or that they do so too much already. Yep, the PM sure is a polarising figure among people who discuss Australian politics.

Brent's comment is not quite the crystalline insight that M3 thinks it is. The "self-appointed" thing is silly, as if you need a licence (or a gig in the broadcast media) to discuss public affairs. It's old wine in new bottles: the old journosphere trope that if you're copping it from all sides you must be doing something right - or completely wrong, who cares anyway and it's your shout mate.

There is a large overlap between people aged under 50 who take an interest in Australian politics, and those who take to Twitter to express that interest. A very, very large overlap. If I were in the broadcasting-about-Australian-politics business to the extent that Fairfax (who pay M3's rent) and News Ltd (Brent's) are, I'd be doing more to cultivate Twitter users than they, and others in that business, are.

Journalists fancy themselves to be in the business of seeking out facts, from documents and from talking to people, and then reporting on their findings in an engaging manner. The fact is that pretty much anyone in professional work does this - teachers, lawyers, IT workers - all do that sort of thing every day. Journalists have tragically convinced themselves that:
  • their craft is ineffably mysterious to those who have not worked in their industry (it isn't);
  • the fact that fewer people understand or consume their product is not due to any product decline on their part but stupidity on the consumers' (wrong on both counts);
  • the redundancy of some journalists is a vast national tragedy far beyond, say, the mere closure of a food processing plant or another failed get-rich-quick scheme that ensnared elderly investors (nope); and
  • journalism as a craft deserves some sort of reverence (oh, come on).
One thing that journalists should do, and that lawyers and other professionals are required to do, is to define terms. 'MSM' stands for 'mainstream media'. It's a useful term, not to be quibbled away by those who find it inconvenient - or by those more accustomed to doing the pigeonholing than being pigeonholed. In Australia, we might define it as the following organisations and their employees*:
  • In television: the ABC, SBS, 7, 9, 10, and Foxtel;
  • In radio: any station with an audience larger than or equal to Radio National;
  • In newspapers: News, Fairfax, APN, and The West Australian; and
  • The online presences of the above and of those corporations that own them - including The Punch and The Drum but not Crikey or Delimiter.
Having said that, I think the term 'broadcast media' is more useful; people who talk at you rather than with you, which is what happens on social media: a general distinction, but broadly useful and more robust than some other 'clear' distinctions. MSM is a valid descriptor too and not to be diminished by those who resent, for whatever reason, having it applied to them like M3:
I also have some thoughts on the casual use of that acronym. This shorthand can’t meaningfully signify a landscape that’s home to Four Corners and ABC24; Ross Gittins and Michael Stuchtbury [sic]; Laura Tingle and Andrew Bolt.
The broadcast media, like other industries in Australia, tends to oligopoly. The broadcast media, unlike other industries, resents being compared to other industries and considers itself so sui generis that it has nothing to learn from other industries.

In retail, there is a duopoly between Woolworths and Wesfarmers. Thankfully, nobody with any credibility would leap atop a soapbox to proclaim that the organisations responsible for Dick Smith and K-mart, Bunnings and Thomas Dux, could not possibly be labelled quickly and conveniently, that they have more in common than differences, and that they are so diverse that they defy any and all easy categorisation.

If there's one thing worse than the MSM, it's MSM exceptionalism.
Michelle Grattan, doyen of the press gallery.
It's doyenne, actually. Most of M3's post deals with Grattan, and I wrote a post about Grattan too, to which M3 owes more than he dares acknowledge - except, of course, the bits where he's wrong.
Grattan’s slot on Radio National’s Breakfast was a focal point of muted rage and boredom. Each morning another solemn and perfunctory reiteration of “he said, she said”. Each morning a cursory mud-map of the banal agitations on the Hill. Each morning more dreary calculus of “X was leaked, which makes Y look bad.” It was often obvious, often useless and always colourless. There was no wit, no daring, no depth. No eloquence. Worse, there was no sense that anyone outside our invented capital should give a fuck. Grattan’s spot gave the impression of losing the forest for the ring-barked trees, analysis hermetically sealed off from The People that this whole game is ostensibly about.

But for me, the gravest sin was that it was dull. This isn’t a superficial concern. My boredom won’t be undone with gossip or innuendo. I don’t need hyper-articulate, gin-soaked raconteurs to liven things up. I don’t need the jangled rhythms of a gonzo freak. Rather, my boredom might be staved off with substantive and curious examinations of policy. I want things ripened with illumination, humour and eloquence. I want things to be conjoined thoughtfully to all of the people lucky enough not to live in Canberra. A dependence on “the drip” or on polls might provide objective copy, but it can quickly become a substitute for meaning, muscularity, discernment and flair.
That's a fair summary of my blog on the subject (though I wouldn't go so far as to describe something I find disagreeable a 'sin'), and of those by others who have never undergone induction into the journosphere. For those who have, of course, this is nothing short of heresy. Before the advent of social media it was not possible to have a frame of reference about Australian journalism that did not place Grattan at the centre of it, like the queen bee in a hive. M3 is not enough of a broadcast media outsider to have developed this position on his own. Having realised that he has gone out on a limb like, well, me, he starts scurrying back to received journo wisdom as fast as his Mac will carry him:
Now let me complicate things.
It's your blog. You shouldn't need permission, but clearly you feel you do.
First, Grattan’s sobriety is impressive. Her copy was shorn of hyperbole, soldered by corroboration.
Rubbish. Every inconvenience faced by any minister, any leader, was a crisis, a disaster. She talked about policy detail as "lead in the saddlebags" of ambitious politicians, without realising that only the top performers are handicapped in that way (another failure of the horserace journalism to which she was devoted). What M3 calls "corroboration" is merely groupthink. Her prose was never the kind of sinewy, Hemingway-style, no-nonsense pieces of M3's fantasy.

She explained when Keating fell and when he rose, same with Howard; but she lacked the human insight to understand, let alone explain, why and how: what kept those men going and what brought them undone, and how others fared too in the ebbs and flows of politics.

I don't know why she bothers. I worked hard not to refer to her in the past tense, whereas M3 - like other MSMers, has written a eulogy. You can see why showbiz reporters love the tat and the glitz of their rounds, and why sport reporters love the roars and collisions of theirs; Grattan's goldfish-like devotion to the ups and downs of the moment, with no background at all but plenty of hype, is just a mystery.

For someone who edited a book on Australia's first 25 Prime Ministers, and who saw the 26th at close quarters too, the fact that she treats the 27th with such disdain and exults in her every reversal - real and imagined - is simply a collapse in professional standards on her part.
But that’s just half the story. Grattan never leveraged her stature into things of interest, pieces that might endure. Grattan’s name may echo, but few of her pieces of the last few years will.
Not just the last few years; it's only in the last few years that it has been possible even to critique Grattan's work. If Francis Fukuyama had been right and history had ended in 1992 then Grattan would deserve, and would still be getting in pure form, all the encomia that have been showered upon her for decades.

Part of the outpouring of grief for Peter Harvey was for a journalist who could perceive political spin and detect - and report on - the degree to which it matched observable reality. Grattan doesn't do reality. She does polls, she does personal impressions, but actual voters have always been infra dig. It is why she, like most journalists, thinks that Twitter is a broadcast medium rather than a social one.
I agree here with Andrew Elder ...
Dawww, it's a name-check! Oh, wait ...
... even though I felt his piece ungenerous, snide, top-heavy.
It was a corrective to the gushy work from the MSM. I took Grattan for granted rather than being ungenerous, necessarily. Snide? No, I backed up my criticisms, and my tone was hardly Simkinesque (i.e. someone who can only understand politics when it is puerile). As for "top-heavy", what does that even mean (except when talking about physical objects rather than prose)? How can I address a descriptor that really is as meaningless as M3 wishes MSM was?
Second, and more generally, there are plenty of “mainstream” journalists doing terrific work, whether it be economic analysis, investigations or intelligent sports. It’s an unexciting observation, but it’s important to underscore the uselessness of the acronym “MSM” if your media criticism is comprised solely of its flippant use.
This is just a callout to those engaged in the MSM circle-jerk of praising Grattan in the hope of basking in reflected glory. There are plenty of shop-assistants doing great work too, some working for Woolies and Wesfarmers, others not. M3 is wrestling with smoke here: his defence makes no more sense than the attacks, real and imagined, to which he responds.
Final complication: sometimes buried amongst the petty plotting, the planted stories and strategic leaks are the outlines of a genuinely Big Story — Labor’s leadership vote last February, for instance, that was initially dismissed by some bloggers and independent journalists as a beat-up.
Let's be clear about what the beat-up was.

In June 2010, Kevin Rudd declared vacant his position as ALP leader. Julia Gillard nominated, Rudd did not, hence there was no ballot. Two months later the caucus reconvened after the election: Gillard nominated, Rudd did not, hence there was no ballot. In February 2012 there was, finally, a ballot: Gillard 71, Rudd 31 (conventional wisdom holds that the loser is within striking distance of victory if no more than 12 votes have to change).

The beat-up was not that there might be a challenge. The beat-up was that if there was one, Rudd would win it. The beat-up continues. Every leader has their discontents and those who urged Rudd to fight in 2010 and 2012 are at it again. Grattan, and others in the MSM, are wrong to portray Gillard as any more besieged than any other leader.

Maybe the reason why Grattan "never leveraged her stature", as M3 clumsily put it, and as overexuberant merchant bankers never learnt: is because only things of substance can actually be leveraged.
A useful example of the contingencies and priorities that shape journalism comes, I think, in the story of Watergate ... Maybe — and it’s just a loose hunch — maybe something similar can apply to Obeid’s long and odious influence in NSW. A thought, and only that.
A fine one: I'll end with that note of agreement as the rest of M3's post trails off into drivel.

Think about the biggest story of recent years in Australian politics: Gillard's challenge to Rudd. Chris Uhlmann tweeted that a good 10-15 minutes before going to air with it on the ABC news, where "the narrow sliver" dealt with it better than those who made the decisions on Rudd's and Gillard's fate. Think about the Four Corners story into Indonesian abattoirs, with its equally swift response by government. Neither makes sense as a purely MSM play, nor as an exclusively social media phenomenon.

The "narrow sliver" is less narrow than the MSM, but not so wide as the continent - nobody said it was, and the taunt from the MSM has less basis than they might have hoped. The "narrow sliver" is where political reporting lives and breathes, and the sooner the MSM realise that - and adjust to their designation - the better off they'll be. The MSM needs the "narrow sliver" more than we need them.

I'm not doing well with this blog hiatus thing, am I. Thanks to Lyn Calcutt for the ability to retrieve this blog from the vicissitudes of Blogger's mobile app.

* Being an "employee" can be a loose construct these days. M3's work appears in Fairfax publications and he is an enthusiastic sculler of the company Kool-Aid, so without prying into their private contractual arrangements let us consider M3 a Fairfax employee.

Update 7 March: I did not mean to imply that M3 had plagiarised my post, and if you read the section of his post that I quoted it's clear he has arrived at a similar opinion under his own steam. Having mostly agreed with much of my post, he then sought to dismiss all but a small part of it with three adjectives (one of them meaningless). If you read his blog you can see that he places a high premium on generosity, and I simply assumed that people who accuse others of being 'ungenerous' would avoid being so themselves.

04 March 2013

Australia's political parties in the Asian Century

You know how I wasn't going to blog that often and was going to do other stuff elsewhere instead? This is the sort of thing I meant: now at King's Tribune, with only the freshest code and no hormones or artificial sweeteners.

03 March 2013

What have you learned?

This morning on the ABC's Insiders, Malcolm Farr mock-lamented that Tony Abbott had a bad week but nobody reported it.

In the final week of Parliament last year, Farr mock-lamented that there were 11 pieces of legislation under discussion that went unreported because of the focus on the ancient and ultimately insubstantial allegations against Prime Minister Gillard and the AWU.

Farr, a senior reporter for News Ltd in the press gallery, could have covered those neglected issues himself but he chose not to. Farr was guilty of what he claimed to lament: the suspension of a reporter's individual curiosity in favour of The Narrative.

The Narrative is the idea that there can only be one story to be reported at any one time, and that any story that doesn't fit The Narrative doesn't get a run.

The Narrative seems to have become necessary because of the vacuum that the press gallery has created for itself, well articulated by esteemed social media presence Bushfire Bill. The Narrative has written off the Gillard government, and so any announcements, legislation or other action on its part is writ upon the sand. The Narrative holds that an Abbott government is inevitable, but they won't release their policies yet, so in the meantime they will fill their coverage with stunts and wait politely until the Coalition is good and ready.

The fallacy of this Narrative is apparent to those of us who consume a lot of media, less so to content providers. The Gillard government has not slumped into a puddle of defeatism and backbiting like truly failed governments do. Journalists regard it as an insoluble puzzle that the government is managing the best economy in the developed world while also being a failure, rather than a opposition talking-point deserving more investigation. As long as they continue drawing a paycheque, who cares?

The Abbott Opposition are playing The Narrative. Is their northern development plan, with lots of little Monartos and publicly-funded infrastructure for the benefit of large private enterprises and a non-existent mass workforce there currently unemployed, part of Coalition policy or not? For those who like that plan, the Coalition get political benefit; for those who don't it has easy deniability; and for those yet to make up their mind, the journalists can't and don't help understand what's going on.

The Narrative must be a comfort for journalists. Those who are part of setting the narrative must feel really powerful. It must be so disappointing for them to face an audience that is less passive than it was, and which challenges the idea that there is only one way you can report politics.

One example of someone who's been comfortable to the point of indolence within the Narrative is Katharine Murphy. This blog has said plenty about her over the years, almost all of it unflattering to her pretensions at being an effective journalist. This week, however, she has strained against the limits of the Narrative, and this deserves further investigation.

On Wednesday she wrote about how hard journos work to construct the Narrative (or, as she calls it, 'context'), and that we should all be grateful, even though we're not:
But I suppose what I'm saying here is there are benefits to old-fashioned "gate-keeping". Imposing judgment is a much derided custom - but sometimes readers need an over-arching framework as much as they need what the last person said.
Benefits to whom? What benefits the journalist is not necessarily what benefits the reader. Is Katharine Murphy really smart enough and hard-working enough to rise above the "gate-keeping", or "framing", as described here and here?

Seeing as Murphy is talking about the Labor leadership aspect of the Narrative, let's talk about that. Julia Gillard is not the first Prime Minister to be disliked by her backbench. Even leaders who have since passed into history as essential pointers to the present, such as Howard or Whitlam, were heartily disliked by some members of their backbench. If you're going to have gate-keeping and judgment and what have you, let's have the good stuff. Let's have it based upon facts, upon political realities and informed by what has come before.
Audiences have never been more hostile to the journalistic filter. They don't trust us.
There cannot be only one Narrative, the same from Murphy as from every other journalist in the press gallery. If 20 journalists are writing the same story, then 19 of them are redundant. The idea that the economy is both rubbish and great at the same time does not make sense.

When someone in a position of authority is telling you something that doesn't make sense, you have to focus on the people narrating to you and wonder what they're up to. Someone talking nonsense has one of two agendas: they're trying to make you laugh, or they are trying to manipulate you in some other way.

Katharine Murphy isn't funny. The Labor-doomed-Abbott-inevitable thing doesn't make sense, but it is all she and her colleagues are offering. It's not good enough, but they're not offering anything else.
They want information without the narration, the calculated ellipsis, the bias, the back story. I can understand the impulse, because there is a lot about the modern media cycle that is toxic and random, even if the intentions are to be otherwise.
Given that the Narrative is inadequate, a just-the-facts approach is a useful way of rebuilding trust. And make no mistake, rebuilding that trust is vital to Murphy's stated aim of building a community of trust with her readers.

Last October, in a debate about then-Speaker Peter Slipper, the Prime Minister made this speech about sexism and misogyny. It was electrifying and made many people see Gillard in a new light. Murphy was one of those who insisted on imposing Narrative onto that speech, and she was rightly derided. Here we are, less than six months later, and she's insisting that the gate is kept as well as ever, and that the Narrative she adheres to is the only way we can understand our national politics. Murphy has failed to understand that hers is not the judgment, but a judgment; and if you have to run down journalistic shibboleths to make that point, that isn't quite the unfathomable act of vandalism Murphy (and many others) considers it to be.
I love reporting live. I love the purity and the discipline of it - it strips the art out of journalistic practice. There's a rawness to live that feels very honest.
If you're focused on every word you need a pre-digested Narrative, you don't have time to question it. One day, the Department of Parliamentary Services will develop the ability to relay verbatim quotes just as Murphy, and other press-gallery relay-stations like Latika Bourke do today. Chances are the broadcast media will fall about in shock when that happens, if they are run by the same sorts of dills who run those organisations today.
Federal Labor is busy right now fashioning its own peculiar hell. This is no media fiction - but the rolling news cycle is itself a factor in the current leadership woes. The cycle cheerfully amplifies dysfunction. The cycle is relentless and it has no dog in the race except the next update.
The same dogs that have been barking for three years are barking again. Rudd didn't stand against Gillard in June 2010, nor did he do so after the election. He ran against her last February and got slaughtered. There is no story in continuing to insist that a dead challenge is alive, just as the Howard- Costello thing was an extended confidence trick against the public by the journosphere. The story cannot disappear simply by being bullshit, because an explanation would be required and that would reveal those who build and maintain The Narrative as bullshitters occupying jobs that create no value.

Yes, that's my opinion - but if yours is different, there is no proof that your opinion on this matter is any better informed than mine.

In an attempt to be constructive, I went to the Parliament House website and noticed that the NDIS was under debate in a Senate committee. I sent Murphy a suggestion about the issue thus:

Murphy wasn't obliged to take up my suggestion, of course, and she was too busy replying to congratulatory tweets to acknowledge mine. Perhaps Senate committees are less than scintillating, but how scintillating could it be listening to Joel Fitzgibbon whinge? Then again, by taking up my suggestion (or another made to her by someone else) she would have spared herself the embarrassment of having written this tendentious crap.

It's not well written and the logic of the Hollywood-Canberra leap is weak. It is, however, sort of related to politics, and Murphy gets paid to write about politics, so the people to whom Murphy submitted that article decided it was good enough for the likes of us. This is another example of the sort of cack-handed value judgment that makes close and regular readers of Australian broadcast media refuse to accept gate-keeper Narrative judgments by Katharine Murphy and her ilk.

If she continued down the same path the following day I would have bagged her as I usually do, but this was a genuine surprise.
Do we really want a repeat of the 2010 federal election campaign? Does politics want a repeat of that campaign?
Depends who you mean by 'politics', really.

Journalists like having information spoon-fed to them. Simple, inverted-pyramid press releases; colourful backdrops; wacky actions and/or phrases a bonus. The 2010 election campaign was not a departure from politico-media trends over recent years but a perfection of them. When Katharine Murphy simply reports what was said and done at stage-managed events, and applies the predictable Narrative to it, then she she is helping - to use her own words - "play voters for mugs".

It is not possible to talk about politics without also talking about how the media covers it. Katharine Murphy reports the way she does not because she's a fearless, intrepid reporter, but because people within the government and other parties want her to react exactly as she does.
Dear politics. Please don't play us for mugs.
The trouble with that defiant-sounding assertion is, if 'politics' does exactly that, Murphy will have no choice but to do exactly what she did last time - namely, play along with 'politics' and treat us all like mugs. She might grumble a bit in the process but she will not, cannot, push back or depart from it. When you realise that the people she airily dismisses as 'politics' are people known to her personally, people she speaks to in the course of her day; when she broadcasts her findings, which are little different to those of others in the press gallery, she is talking at us and not to us. Katharine Murphy has no right to address 'politics' in the third person: she is 'politics' too.

What was different about the 2010 election was the emergence of specialist media (e.g. in ICT) and social media. Social media kept, and keeps, journalists honest in a way that the MEAA, Media Watch and other feeble mechanisms of a shrinking industry could never do and will never do. It is a lie that journos keep journos honest.

Broadcast media coverage of the 2010 election was dire. A few senior journalists, like Murphy, admitted as much but just couldn't snap themselves out of it. Walkleys were bestowed rather than being cancelled, hurled or inserted. The criticism by Greg ("Grog's Gamut") Jericho cut through like no mealy-mouthed self-referential journosphere nonsense ever could: we're here for the policies, you've got access to the policies, so give us policies and do the other stuff in your own time.

After journos got over themselves there was some grumbling that Jericho might have a point. The 2010 election campaign did not end with the re-election of the Gillard government because Abbott threw an extended tantrum like the US Republicans. The press gallery was happy to treat every day as though the election campaign never ended, with a stunt from Abbott and regular polls and a government that refused to play along with The Narrative.

Recently former Sunday Age editor Gay Alcorn claimed that she and other journalists were "duly chastened" after that election, but people who are truly chastened actually change their minds and behaviours. I dealt with that piece here. The solution she calls for has already been done by AusVotes 2013, leaving the press gallery to wallow in polls and what Twitter calls #leadershit (i.e. deliberately overstating Kevin Rudd's ability to become Prime Minister again because they pretty much missed his departure three years ago).

So Labor is upset about the polls while the Libs are exultant. There is more to the government of this country than that, more to politics than that, despite Katharine Murphy's insistence that There Can Be Only One Narrative, and that if she wants to write tendentious crap within that Narrative then that's all you deserve, dear reader. Instead of complaining that 'politics' could be better, why not show us how 'journalism' could rise above it (rather than insisting, unconvincingly, that it does so).

Compare Murphy's and Farr's work with this. The Labor-doomed-Abbott-inevitable Narrative is there but it's in deep background, like Jane Austen's references to the Napoleonic Wars. It's policy-focused but not dull like an academic/wonky journal paper. Journalists seriously believe that their servings of stale cliche soup are actually zippy and engaging, bless 'em. If Farr and Murphy and other press gallery journalists dared depart from The Narrative more than they do, they would be more engaging and informing than they are. Any grumbling they might do about 'politics' would have more purchase than it does.

If I were Malcolm Farr's employer I would ask him to explain why he decided that eleven key pieces of legislation were overlooked because of an exclusive focus on a non-story in the '90s. When it came to his non-reporting of Abbott falling over, physically and politically, I would be asking him to show cause why he should remain employed at all. But I'm not his employer; his employer is as guilty of Narrative building and maintenance as anyone, and seems happy enough to keep Farr doing what he does. It's disappointing that he and Murphy are free-spirited enough to grumble a bit about the Narrative but not enough to actually change how and on what they report. Murphy is soon to get herself a new employer, and will she use that to break free of the Narrative? Will she bollocks.

*  *  *

I've been running this blog for almost seven years. I have despaired that so little has changed in the broadcast media: that the PM's speech to the National Press Club was reduced to the election date and glasses, that The Situation does the same old stunts and doesn't get called out or even questioned, that journalists have the hide to claim that social media can only ever be inferior to their own offerings. This isn't the end of this blog but I doubt I will have much to say (that I haven't said before) between now and the Budget in May - unless provoked. You'll be seeing more of my work on other sites, linked from here.

My career outside of writing about politics/media has taken off sharply and, potentially, powerfully; other parts of my non-blog (meta-blog?) life are crowding this out too. Even so, I repeat: this is not the end of the Politically Homeless blog. There is plenty of powder and it is being kept very dry, and planning is underway to deploy it most appropriately (and in the same "good time" that Abbott is using for his policy releases).

I still think that Julia Gillard will be Prime Minister this time next year, and that Tony Abbott will not be a viable political force at that point.

Having said that, if you're the sort of person who's pleased about the prospect of this blog coming to an end, you should know that it will pop back up when you might least expect or appreciate it. If you're a valued reader and contributor you can take comfort from the preceding sentence. There's something for everyone here at Politically homeless - but you knew that already.