31 July 2013

The news you missed while reading the news

1. This:

a) It's taken years and years, but superjourno Katharine Murphy has finally worked out that Tony Abbott is a bullshit artist. Better late than never - but my goodness we've had to put up with more than our share of press-gallery-consensus bollocks from her while she tried to have us believe that Abbott was infinitely to be preferred over that nasty Gillard woman.

b) The Coalition are offering a five year contract on their tent city deal. Five years! So much for "stop the boats". If asylum-seeker numbers did drop they might need fewer tents, and where is the commercial supplier who could tolerate such uncertainty?

c) Look at it from Toll's point of view. They want to tender for a mass government purchase of tent services: Nauru or Manus, Liberal or Labor, it doesn't matter to them. They'd never get any of their own people over there due to security restrictions, and it would backfire on the government if one tenderer was able to gather information that wasn't available to all. Solution: send eager-to-please Scotty over there, get him to take some notes, and they can use that information regardless of who wins the election. Any bad publicity will be caught by Morrison and the Coalition before it would blow back on Toll.

d) The Morrison-Toll thing is the latest example of a wider generational phenomenon where the Coalition does a deal with business, it takes on the risk and the business walks off with the profit.

Left cynics claim it was ever thus, but Liberal leaders of yesteryear had a perspective on business that their successors lack. The Collins Street business community in Menzies' day were chaps he knew personally through Melbourne private schools, Melbourne University and the Melbourne bar. Menzies would want quid pro quo from rentseekers, which frightened away most of them. Fraser was cut from much the same cloth. Howard knew the Collins Street crowd never did him any favours (which Ron Walker tried to ameliorate) but by his time the action had moved far from cosy Yarraside.

Contemporary Liberals are content with a small donation to party coffers in place of a contribution towards wider policy aims. The Greiner government in NSW was the first Liberal government to accommodate business to this extent, with toll roads that never met the need identified for them nor seemed to meet the profit projections of the companies that built them. A fat lot of good it did them politically but at least those companies hired Liberals after the government staff jobs evaporated. Others have followed its pattern of outsourcing services and then running government relations for the outsourcers.

The Liberals did not give rise to the 'political class' of professional political operatives trained since university for the campaign that never ends. They did pioneer the career path post-politics (or for some, instead of elected office) whereby being elected to represent a broad, diverse set of interests in an electorate was a prelude to representing narrow, focused interests as a lobbyist. Elected representatives are at a disadvantage at representing broader interests in such an environment.

e) Morrison took News Ltd to Nauru because they wouldn't cover any slip-ups he made, and because the way they frame their stories is the way he frames his. This is a prelude of how an Abbott government will relate to the media, and it's why non-News media that seek to be 'balanced' and accommodate Abbott are mugs. Julia Gillard 's even-handed disdain for the entire press gallery will prove to be fairer and better than Abbott, Morrison et al playing favourites.

f) Well done Jonathan Swan from Fairfax for picking up this story.

2. Nicholas Stuart clearly dearly wanted to write a poignant account that a) represented the Diggers as the truest essence of Australia, and b) pointed out that ooh, the political contest is a bit close isn't it. This, however, isn't it.

Julia Gillard moved pretty damn fast, but the broadcast media slowed her down to Abbott's pace.
The military's often thought of as a conservative institution, but that doesn't mean everyone in it votes Liberal.
That is one of the stupidest straw-man positions I've ever seen. Nobody said the entire Australian Defence Force votes Liberal. It is fair to say that military, security and intelligence personnel vote conservative more than any other occupational group.

It's also fair to say that the Gillard government, in its push for a budget surplus, cut funding to troops in the field. Roman history is replete with examples showing how politically reckless that is.
Labor appointed Rudd Mark II because it believed he might be able to swing enough of these people to prevent a wipe-out. Rudd believes with more time he can convince enough of them to switch back to win. At this point, of course, it's tempting to insert the line, "we're not dealing with reality here". That's because it appears as if Labor's deficit is so great it's not going to be able to catch up. Doing this would be a massive mistake.
Appears to whom? Look at the imaginary deficit Howard pulled back to win in 2001.

My favourite part of Stuart's effort was this:
Polling by Galaxy over the weekend demonstrates the enormous degree of volatility in the electorate. Forget those 50:50 polls; in fact, ignore them all. The polls are accurate because they tell us exactly what is going on, and this is that we don't know what's happening. So, if we ignore the irrelevant predictions about "who would you vote for if an election was called today", what can we determine about the political scene.
I almost cheered when I read that, until I read that Stuart was a freelancer and not the replacement political editor. In an earlier paragraph he used the term "reality" to refer to poll results, so maybe he's seeking to liberate himself from polls before he's ready. Yes, forget them all, but realise that the entire current business model of political journalism (see below) rests on four things: polls, leadership, polls and leadership.
What do the images that stick in our memory say?
Whose memory would be?
Abbott needs to turn positive and fight fire with fire; otherwise he'll get burned.
He can't "turn positive" because he's done no policy work on which such a fight can be mounted. This is the same basic error made by Paula Matthewson here, knowing as she surely must that there is no switch to throw:
... Abbott has thrown the switch to Statesman ... The look is more polished, the language more considered, and the message has evolved from one-dimensional chants about stopping the boats and scrapping the tax to incorporate a positive element with pledges of hope, reward and opportunity.
Really? Tony Abbott?

Your derisive laughter is not helping. Back to Stuart again.
The swinging voters want an upbeat reason to get behind one side or the other.
'Swinging'? 'Upbeat'? Hey-hey, daddy-o. The fact is that this country has a great future provided the government is well run. Abbott is promising whatever Labor is promising but much less, so much less. He's not presenting a positive alternative for the simple reason that he can't. Stuart was right to trash the polls but wrong to portray an oncoming train wreck as the light at the end of the tunnel. There is no future for a journalist trying to fit in with the big media companies.

3. When we talk about the limitations of press gallery journalism, we must talk about one of its exemplars:
Malcolm Turnbull has no prospect of leading the Liberal Party to the election, despite a recent surge in media speculation and public interest.
To be fair to Hartcher, there is a role for MSM organisations not to try to be first with the latest, but instead take a more considered and verified approach. This is why it would be unseemly to point out that he is two weeks behind this piece. But let the man have his say:
The reason is a simple one: there is no venue for a party meeting to even consider a change of leaders.

The Rudd government has decided that it will call an election before the date that Parliament was due to return, according to authoritative sources.

In the absence of the scheduled return on August 20, the parliamentary Liberal Party will not be gathered in one place before polling day.
Oh come on, if it came to that Turnbull could afford to pay airfares and accommodation for every Liberal Parliamentarian to assemble and dispatch Abbott, if only he had both numbers and inclination. It's the "authoritative sources" tripe that signals his article is about to go downhill fast:
Mr Rudd is expected to call an election for September and two dates are in play - the 7th and 21st.
Oh no - election date prediction, what poll-leadership wankers write about in the six months leading up to an election. Any date but the 14th, eh? Like a true wanker he cites some bloke who monitors the media and then confuses that with what real humans are thinking.

Then, when he has finished reassuring us about realpolitik, he offers us this attempt at a think-piece, based on a straw man:
Australia is supposed to be the land of the tall poppy syndrome, where the successful are cut down to the same size as everyone else, quick smart. You're not supposed to stand out for intelligence, achievement or, worst of all, wealth.
Since when? Do you know any Australian history at all, Peter?
Less prettily, tall poppy syndrome is "an Australasian modernism for envy, jealousy and covetousness that has been labelled a notable anti-talent", according to a pair of academics ...
Who? From where? Note the passive and rickety "has been labelled" construction. Hartcher would've had an intern Google that: who says journalism is dead.
The Fairfax pollster, Nielsen's John Stirton, says: "It's fair to say that Turnbull has been the preferred Liberal leader since he lost the leadership", which was more than three years ago.
He was the most popular leader before then too, in terms of general popularity with the community as a whole. The challenge for the Liberals is to get a majority of the population voting for them, while led by a man who has only ever been popular with rusted-on Liberals.
What's going on here? Is the tall poppy syndrome a relic of a bygone Australia? Or is there some other factor at work?

"It's fascinating and, on the face of it, it implies that Australians have grown up a bit," suggests Rebecca Huntley, who studies public opinion for Ipsos Research in focus groups she convenes every seven weeks.

She offers two reasons why this might be so. One is economic. "People understand that we are at a crucial point about what sort of economy we evolve into, and about where education fits in. This is something people talk about.

"They want a contest of ideas, a proper, serious discussion between two alternatives."
Prime Minister Gillard placed education and the changing nature of the economy at the centre of what she was offering, what she was about, and Abbott was afraid to debate her too. Yet, Hartcher is are happy to quote the warmed-over opinions of someone like Huntley to the same effect. Gillard would have swung it around like a gate and only Hartcher's co-dependence with Rudd prevents him seeing it.

Huntley actually owns and runs Ipsos-Mackay Research, but in Hartcher's reporting she comes across as just some sort of functionary/spokesperson. Huntley is telling Hartcher how he should be doing his job, but he just quotes her verbatim and moves on. Like all fundamentally facile people he can quote somebody else calling for ideas but doesn't actually promote any, struggling to get out from under his own cliches and those of his 'profession'.
But both [Abbott and Gillard] speak to the public in scripted "talking points" and use heavy-handed repetition in such an obvious way they demean people's intelligence.
That's how they talk to journalists. People find each of them clever, warm, and caring. The fact that politicians have to restrict themselves to talking points when speaking to journalists shows the limitations of the broadcast media as the conduit between politicians and voters.
Towards the end of his prime ministership, John Howard told me that in an earlier Australia, a young man watching someone drive past in an expensive car might have felt resentful. But today, said Howard, he was more likely to think "that could be me one day".
I heard Howard mention that at a Liberal function in the late '90s. I wondered: was Howard referring to himself there? Hartcher never wondered that. He's got a column to bang out and any nuance goes against his "talking points".
If these analysts are right, leadership, integrity, even obvious intelligence are in demand as valued commodities for our leaders.
Those qualities reflect the best of this country, leaving aside the question as to what extent Rudd and Turnbull have them; and dealing with the big questions requires them in spades.
Who said you never read any good news in the newspapers?
What started with a straw-man ends with another. Who said newspapers offer leadership, integrity, even obvious intelligence?


Murphy is starting to wake up all too slowly and may yet slip back into journalistic slumber. Hartcher is presented with real stories but can't fit them into his frame of reference. Stuart wants to assemble a series of cliches only to be mugged by the polls on which his profession (and those who commissioned him) rely so heavily. They get mugged by reality but carry on as though nothing has happened. If these people are going to miss big, real stories and dish up pap, then what hope does the broadcast media, or Fairfax in particular, really have?


  1. Mural at the north end of King St, Newtown (now slightly obscured by a bus shelter):


    Check the Hartcher headline, then check the date!

    1. I remember that! Thanks for reminding me, cheers

  2. Bushfire Bill1/8/13 11:56 am

    Rudd's re-ascension to the Prime Ministership was a classic case of Stopped Clock syndrome, as it applies to the media, complete with being right twice in the cycle.

    They were right first in February 2012, when Rudd challenged and lost. And they were right in June 2013, when he challenged and won.

    For the other 1,438 minutes of the political 3-years-in-24-hours, they were dead wrong. But it wasn't for want of trying, was it?

    Every week, just about, someone (often as not, Hartcher) wrote a "Rudd" piece. "He's coming back". "He won't give Gillard clear air (and we're just here to report that)". "He's plotting". "His numbers men are leaking".

    Labor was behind the Coalition in the polls by around 6 points during most of that period, with peaks and troughs going higher or lower. But polls are part of a grand feedback loop involving media commentary, the polls themselves (used as laundries to make subsequent commentary look "independent" and "scientific") and more media commentary on the polls.

    Probably 4 or 5 of that 6-point deficit was due to this Ruddstoration campaign alone. It made Gillard always look like the "temp", going through the motions, shuffling papers, stamping forms, until the Golden Boy came back to retake the reins after a nice holiday abroad. Without it she could have won, and anyone who disagrees should look at the role the polls and poll purveyors played in trashing brand "Gillard".

    If Rudd had bowed out decently in 2010, like Gillard did in 2013, the political history of the past three years would have been utterly different. Part of me (a small part) wants Labor to lose the election. It would serve Rudd right.

    At one stage we saw ridiculous statements from writers for The Australian that "The Next Newspoll" would determine this, that or the other, as if Martin O'Shannessy was some kind of Third Umpire, checking Hot-Spot for a snick. The only difference was that media thugs like Hartcher, Shanahan, Grattan et al had big enough bully pulpits - subsidized in turn by the Old Malignant One in New York and the mug punters in Australia who own Fairfax shares - to qualify for unlimited referral rights. Eventually the finger had to go up.

    In the end, they got the result they wanted. You can hear them preening from here. But, as I said... "stopped clock".

    Shanahan may yet end up driving taxis as a result. Judging from News Ltd outrage at anything the new PM does or says, it either wasn't the result that old Rupert wanted, or Rudd didn't come across afterwards.

    Unfortunately, Hartcher looks set for a glamorous career in the PR industry. Rudd loves sycophants, as much as he hates Gillard.

    The Bard said something like, "One swallow doth not a summer make", and we may have seen an epiphany in Kath Murphy... but I wouldn't bet the house on it. She's had too many years of shoving her own opinions down her dwindling readers' throats not to be able to shake off the odd spoonful of reality she may be forced to accept from time to time (for medicinal purposes only).

    The fact that she lost her job because no-one wanted to read her self-indulgent, "Murphy on top" tripe seems to have evaded her.

    We'll never know whether "The Polls" up to Gillard's political demise were right or wrong. I know that sounds denialist, but it had been so long since they were tested against reality, in 2010, and so much argey-bargey and interference from meddlesome media types had gone on in the three years hence, it would be hard to tell what was "Schrodinger" and what was "cat". The Uncertainty Principle doesn't only apply to photons. It applies to polls, and poll pushers, but sadly the opportunity we may have had to determine Gillard's real position in time and space has gone.

    It won't and can't be revisited.

    1. Wonderful, BB. Sums up everything I too have been thinking. It just seems the press were so sorely pissed at missing the big scoop in 2010, that they decided to write their own storyline. Anyway, I stopped reading Hartcher et al awhile back and encourage others to do the same!

  3. Howard saw plenty of rich men in expensive cars alright, as he manned the petrol pumps at his father's Dulwich Hill Service Station. That would have given him plenty of time to dream of becoming one of them one day.

    1. Not many there back then. That would've come later.

  4. What you don't know because you don't bother to read is that Gillard signed a 20 year lease on land on Nauru for human trafficking by the government and 15 years on Manus Island, all of which the parliamentary human rights committee found to be illegal.

    But why bother to actually read a report.

    for disaster and has seen thousands more intact families old white men stacked up to scrutiny;
    They literally dismissed the report with three sentences:
    The evidence that this approach will work is not yet supported by any
    downward trend in boat arrivals. While the committee is sympathetic to the view
    that this is still a ‘work in progress’, it is not the committee’s role to assess on a
    hypothetical basis whether implementation of the Expert Panel’s recommendations
    in their entirety at some point in the future would satisfactorily meet Australia’s
    human rights obligations. On the basis of the evidence before it, the committee
    considers that the measures as currently implemented carry a significant risk of
    being incompatible with a range of human rights. To the extent that some of those
    rights may be limited, the committee considers that the reasonableness and
    proportionality of those limitations have not been clearly demonstrated"

  5. VoterBentleigh2/8/13 8:04 am

    An accurate analysis of those articles cited, as well as interesting information which the fourth estate has not provided.

    Instead of policy analysis and governance, the media have focussed upon celebrity-style politics: the Prime Minister is whooped in the street, the Opposition Leader is cheered in highly staged rallies. The media have not ignored all these popularity auditions, but promoted them. Without the continual promotion, giving Abbott full coverage doing auditions as a life saver, fire-fighter, truck driver and his latest effort, sitting on a white steed as if auditioning for 'The Lone Ranger' without the William Tell Overture and a mask.

    The public get no analysis or information from Abbott's doorstop promos. Like the one at Longreach on July 27. (see the Youtube video at the Phonytonyabbott website)

    There we had his sidekick give laud him for a plan to develop the north because only 1 million people lived north of the Tropic of Capricorn while 22 million lived south of it. So the Coalition's logic works like this: instead of providing services where the people are, build them where there aren't any people. No challenge from the northern journalists on that issue.

    Here's more:

    Journalist: Do you commit to rolling that [a mobile phone black-spot programme] out again if you were to win government at this election?

    Abbott: We'll be finalising all of our policies in the run-up to the election, but you can be absolutely [this word emphasised] confident that under the Coalition, mobile phone coverage is going to be much more swiftly and much more effectively addressed than under the Labor Party.”

    Abbott and Coalition Ministers regularly answer like this, yet there was no follow-up question, despite the fact that it is clear that currently he has no policy on the matter, even though the election campaign is in full swing.

    Then it gets worse:

    Journalist: Do you think you can win a battle of personality against Mr Rudd?

    Abbott: [looking amused] Well, look. In the end, government is not about showbiz. Electing a national parliament, electing a national government, is not a version of Celebrity Big Brother. I know that Mr. Rudd wants to play these games, but I'm just going to get on with showcasing our team, showcasing our plan - our real solutions plan - while Mr Rudd has had just about every imaginable position on just about every imaginable subject...”

    No wonder he looked amused; he would have loved that question - off policy, allowing him to waffle and focus attack on his opponent. Even a quick follow-up to suggest that he had just done a showbiz routine with his audition for the part as the LR might have been worthwhile. No query that, if he had a real solutions plan, then why didn't the Coalition have a formulated and costed plan on mobile phone black-spots. Not even a murmur that it is slightly hypocritical for him to call Mr Rudd a weathervane.

    So the public spend ten minutes listening to some propaganda spiel where they learn absolutely nothing new, but the media have got us to watch and they can take some snappy grabber from it to put in the news bulletin along with a some footage of the latest audition for PM.

    Still, Abbott was a journalist. It doesn't matter what is said today; tomorrow is another news day. Forget what was said yesterday; we've all “moved on”.

    Media outlets which really want to serve the public and be beacons for democracy, should stop pandering to these forms of propaganda by refusing to show up to Tony's “showcases” or Kevin's street capers, just as the Coalition refuse to participate in any meaningful discussion of policy.

  6. Murphy's complaining about the amount of sloganeering without acknowledging her on wide eyed, slack jawed credulity regarding every Abbott soundbite ("I, for one, take him at his word")up until a couple of weeks ago is breathtaking.

    More and more, I suspect that "The Narrative" was Journo code for "anyone but Julia"

  7. Meanwhile, in the lower reaches of the pond . . .