10 April 2014

Victory over the 24 hour news cycle

Journalists complain about a phantom that they call "the 24 hour news cycle" which supposedly makes their jobs tougher. Even press gallery journalists, whose day starts with listening to AM and is all over by mid-afternoon, regard this as something real and try desperately to convince others of it. It was always bullshit but over the past week, the Australian media have shown how to deal with it: pretend it doesn't exist. Plug away with stories that aren't "breaking", or in any way important, and this could be the cure for an affliction that was never real.

Right now, the federal government is putting together its Budget, which will be formally announced and released in May. This happens every year, and you don't need to be a member of the press gallery to know this.

During April, the media is usually full of speculation about what will or won't be in the Budget. Interest groups, bureaucrats fending off incursions from the infidels at Treasury, and even government ministers other than the Treasurer - all background journos and leak documents, and the resulting discussion has an impact on what goes into the Budget and ultimately on what sort of government we have in this country.

This April is different because public servants have not only been told to shut up (this happens every year, no matter which party is in office); but that the government will go through their private lives with a fine-tooth comb and that anyone found to have been leaking, or being disparaging, or even expressing qualms about government policies. However unwittingly, press gallery journalist Samantha Maiden declared closed the traditional multifaceted April debates closed without even realising it.

The institutions of the permanent public service have been commandeered to serve the political interests of the incumbent government. This used to be a big deal and senior journalists, senior public servants and other worthies used to force governments to back down when they did this in the past; no longer.

Maiden has presented this as a problem for the public servants instead of a symptom of a weak government suspicious of those who serve it. Greg Jericho, a former public servant whose career collided with his social media activities to the detriment of the former, can be forgiven for regarding this as a problem for public servants rather than the country more broadly; Maiden can't. Having been diminished as a source of truth by simply quoting Abbott's assurances that he wouldn't be bringing back knighthoods, Maiden has again simply transcribed what she heard with no further consideration about what it means.

Samantha Maiden has done everything a journalist can do to keep on side with this government, and with her employer (but I repeat myself), and all she gets is humiliated. An experienced journalist reduced to a blogger's punchline, I ask you! Give her a Walkley.

There had been a Commission of Audit. The government decided not to release its findings before the WA Senate re-election on 5 April; that election has come and gone and that report has still not been released. No one seems interested. The contents of that report might take the place of the usual April debate around the Budget, but nobody will release it, officially or unofficially. It's one thing for the government to decide that it will not respond to or even court public debate, but it's a pity that the press gallery and even the opposition won't either.

The coming Budget will be the first for a government that likes to talk big, but which can't really deliver. The Treasurer, Joe Hockey, has often been regarded as both a buffoon and a very smart guy; I saw evidence of both when I knew him in the early '90s, and press gallery journalists have also seen proof of both; this coming Budget will see which of those qualities (and the many others he brings to the job, for good and ill) best inform his legacy. One thing is clear: he doesn't want any debate. Whether you're a public servant or not, you'll take what he gives you and you'll shut up.

In the absence of pre-Budget speculation and debate there were some announcements about trade agreements. It was not necessary to go to Tokyo and Seoul to get announcements that were freely available from government websites. In both locations, media footage of Abbott shaking hands with various dignitaries was freely available from local media. When Abbott did a press conference in Seoul and refused to take questions, press gallery journalists expressed surprised, as though walking away from press conferences was not something you'd expect from Tony Abbott.

No agreement was actually signed in either location. No acknowledgement was made (by the government or its press gallery) of the efforts of previous governments, and of potentially critical public servants, in securing those arrangements. The task of reporting those agreements was left to the press gallery rather than to business journalists, surprising when you consider the idea of those deals is to boost trade and economic activity more broadly.

The press gallery focused on agricultural exports, as though Australia's economy hasn't changed in the past century and agriculture is the be-all-and-end-all of our exports. Japan promised to cut its tariff on beef from about 40% to about 20% over 15 years, and no journalist I can find has really explained what difference that would make (not being in the beef industry myself). As Mr Denmore said, coverage seemed more concerned that we think well of the government rather than focus on what might (not) be in it for the country more broadly.

Andrew Robb could well be the only member of this government with any negotiating skill to speak of. If he had been involved with the post-election negotiations in 2010 it is entirely possible that Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott, and Andrew Wilkie would have been more amenable to a Coalition government, and history might have been different.Rather than ramping up their negotiation efforts they went the other way, and seem vindicated by the last general election - until you consider that after six months of Abbott government:
  • Labor's carbon tax and mining tax remain in place;
  • Supposedly bipartisan policies like reforms to education and disability funding are unclear or in tatters; and
  • Coalition commitments like paid parental leave have not yet been introduced to parliament, let alone passed through it.
What is the different between being in that position, and not being in government at all? Believe it or not, there are some members of the press gallery who actually believe Abbott has negotiation skills despite all available evidence. Not being a public servant, or a journalist, it falls to me to point this out.

If I was an experienced press gallery journalist I'd note that Julia Gillard was dead to the press gallery by this point in her term in office, and called a 'liar' to her face. Tony Abbott is still quoted as though his words were achievements in themselves. The way he glides through, achieving little while having journos hang off his every word, reminds me of the way the NSW parliamentary press gallery used to fawn over Bob Carr.

Bob Carr has been a leading politician in NSW and Federal politics for two decades. Everybody knows what he's like: a bit of a wanker, with that Whitlamite combination of self-deprecation and self-aggrandisement where nobody (including Carr) can truly be sure where one ends and the other begins. The idea that press gallery journalists who've seen him go around for a few months can appreciate him on a different level than the rest of us is a ridiculous conceit, insiderism at its worst. It only shows what contempt journalists have for us that they can maintain it in the sheer absence of any proof.
The first sentence in that tweet is flatly untrue; the press gallery reports announcements as facts. And as for the second - if you seriously imagine that Bob Carr is being candid, or capable of being so, I have a bridge (or a rail line from Parramatta to Epping) to sell you.

Carr's career seemed to show the futility of traditional politics. He was a loyal member of his party and held high office within it, but could barely get preselected and nearly got rolled by lightweights like Brian Langton. His big achievements as NSW Premier (e.g. the 2000 Sydney Olympics) were mostly initiated under the previous Coalition government, while initiatives that came from the very bowels of the NSW ALP (e.g. electricity privatisation, Eddie Obeid) were more trouble than they were worth. He was every bit as disdainful of the sort of person who joins the ALP as Joe Bullock. He was a warrior for the Labor Right but his better ministers were Left (Andrew Refshauge, John Watkins) rather than his own people (Obeid, Joe Tripodi, Reba Meagher). He remains Labor's anti-immigration champion, the nearest thing the "fuck off we're full" crowd have to intellectual heft and policy substance.

He was Foreign Minister from March 2012 to October 2013 - a term of 19 months. He went to a lot of conferences in that time but didn't appear to have achieved very much as Foreign Minister. 19 months was two months longer than Percy Spender had in the same job (December 1949 - April 1951). Spender set up the entire post war foreign policy architecture for Australia in his tenure. Thank goodness Carr is so witty because there's nothing comparable to the ANZUS Treaty (positioning Australia on the US side of the Cold War) and the Colombo Plan (positioning Australia as a leading education provider and a major soft-power force in the Asia-Pacific region), which were all conceived - and concluded - in this brief period. Spender became Vice President of the UN General Assembly; Carr, for all his lack of humility, was just another rotating member.

Gillard gave Carr carte blanche in foreign policy - he could've done anything. No press gallery journalist really evaluated Carr while he was in office. They had no petard to hoist him by until Carr provided his own. Those who employ press gallery journalists got someone in from ASPI or Lowy to comment on foreign policy rather than those who actually rubbed shoulders with Carr in Canberra - what would they know? All that other stuff in today's papers/radio/TV - the weird diets, the book-club and trivia-quiz approach to history, the disdain for quotidian politics - we in the nation's most populous state knew that already.

People who are reading Carr's book claim all proceeds are going to charity. People who are reading Carr's book haven't paid for it, and are burnishing it only to make it reflect on them all the brighter.

It was nice of the Murdoch press to finally twig to Carr after plugging him for so long: Carr sold his soul to Col Allan long before Rudd did.

Speaking of the Murdoch press: it was commendable that they joined, late and half-heartedly, in the general mirth surrounding Abbott's announcements on knighthoods and dames. It was pathetic that both kinds of Australian traditional journalism, Murdoch and non-Murdoch, all lined up to be Momentous about Lachlan Murdoch rejoining the family company: all that Dynastic Succession crap. You had to go outside Australian traditional media to read how he move made a mockery of any sense of strategic direction and how undistinguished Lachlan and James Murdoch were and are.

One of the abiding myths of the Australian media is that the Murdoch are geniuses, and that they can run a media company while others can only imitate. The farting bobbleheads atop News Australia are credited with being in touch with Everyday Strains in some mystic way, yet they give the impression that any oaf could do what they do. The financial performance of Murdoch and non-Murdoch media is about the same, but when something big and important happens the last place you go is to a Murdoch outlet. Lachlan Murdoch offers little to remedy that, and James Murdoch offers nothing at all. Why all this stuff about them when there's so much more going on? If they're so wrong about their own industry, about what might they possibly be right?

By focusing on trade agreements, Bob Carr, and Lachlan Murdoch, the Australian media seems to have slipped the surly bonds of a phantom of its own collective imagination, the "24 hour news cycle". None of those stories are particularly urgent. None of them affect our nation in any real way, nor the manner by which it is governed. There is no such thing as a Slow News Day, only Lazy Journo Day or Dumb Editor Day. The only leading story in the Australian media that remotely resembles a rolling, anything-could-happen-anytime story is the disappearance of MH370, but after a month non-journalists are right to be tired of "Breaking News: Still Nothing ... Breaking News: Still Nothing ...", etc.

What now? When will the traditional media realise that its power to focus on some inane thing or person, and foist it on the rest of us as The News You Need, is waning? Perhaps it will stop blaming The Internet and start realising that audience-repellent content does more damage to their prospects of survival than whatever comfort might come from journo cliches. After the last few days, any journalist complaining about the "24 hour news cycle" should have all the credibility of a sailor wittering about mermaids, and about the same career prospects.


  1. Christopher10/4/14 10:40 pm

    Thanks Andrew, but what the hell can be done about it? Even the Age is getting less and less relevant, and more and more depressingly formulaic. Won't be long before we have an IPA permanent column, to match Spooners nasty little anti Climate change cartoons. What is most depressing is that these journalists/commentators {pick the difference, if you can} are writing like yesterdays people, and are not even vaguely aware of this, or that they are now reduced to the level of the OZ's commentators. You know what I mean: pick a subject, and you know without reading EXACTLY what the response will be. God, it is so depressing.

  2. If I was an experienced press gallery journalist I'd note that Julia Gillard was dead to the press gallery by this point in her term in office, and called a 'liar' to her face. Tony Abbott is still quoted as though his words were achievements in themselves. The way he glides through, achieving little while having journos hang off his every word, reminds me of the way the NSW parliamentary press gallery used to fawn over Bob Carr.

    What else did you expect? Bob Carr was a "journalist" - and journalists never ever eat their brothers. Ditto PM Blood Oaf.

    Bob Carr? A sandpit John Laws. A failed Alan Jones.

    A nonentity.

    1. "and journalists never ever eat their brothers." - because they know where they've been, obviously.

  3. I think we live in the age of the 6.5-hour news cycle.

    I recall a time when teleprinters rumbled day and night, when newspapers had an overnight staff, when we had afternoon papers with four editions and a last gasp Stop Press column. It was a time too when morning papers went to press in the wee hours.

    In this new on-line media age I have noticed that any overseas feature articles worth reading turn up in our papers several weeks later. Silly news items can be days late too.

    As I do not have to tell you Andrew, our papers are full of high profile commentators all writing the same column, day after day after day.

  4. All of the above is why I pay $3 once a week for The Saturday paper and not $2 a day for the Herald Sun.

    The people who run that publishing company will be the next giant. Could anyone claim there's consistently good journalism in the offerings out side it?

  5. To borrow from Jenny Saunders, Absolutely Fabulous.

    You have threaded diverse memes together splendidly, linking all with the banality of our Press Gallery. At the same time you have covered the more serious concerns of just WTF this government is trying to do with the budget approaching, the austerity knives drawn, amid a clamping down on any public service comment or activity.

    The nature of the 24-hour news cycle does seem to present a challenge to the mainstream media, leading to situations where they are unable to see the woods for the trees.

    I still remember the 9/11 attacks not for their horror and loss of lives, nor for the total failure of various security and safety agencies and systems. No, the most memorable thing was the constant rerunning of the visuals of the planes hitting the buildings. It was as if meaning might be found by constant repetition without analysis.

    Yet it would seem, from the Australian example of the last four years, that the 24-hour cycle of banality repeated is used as an alibi for not reporting or analysing information. The Press Gallery are the most visible example of this failure, apparently gaining reinforcement for their groupspeak by talking to each other more than checking assumptions and stories.

    The Abbott-Credlin-Murdoch control of the political news is bad enough to be alarming. But it is not just Abbott and Hockey that are getting away with blatant lying and reneging. Turnbull's selling out is as bad as Hunt's.
    Both are to the huge detriment of our country.

    And then you demolish Carr in a way that I could only dream about. You are right that he did sell his soul to Col Allan long before Rudd did. It was a marvellous analogy with Gough, capturing why Carr can be appealing to a certain audience. For all his reputation as a thinking loner, and he can express himself well in that mode, he has long been a part of the NSW Right. He still seems to share their outlook, such as it is, on immigration.

    Carr does not stand up well despite his longevity as NSW Premier. Wran, his model, was more effective and more approachable. It was Wran's action which got the lead additives taken out of petrol in cars here.

    And while I'd probably rate Carr ahead of Rudd as FM, I wonder how much there he achieved. No doubt he played some role in rallying nations to get Australia over the line for a seat on the UN Security Council. All the same, I still remember the huge spontaneous applause that broke out at Foreign Affairs when PM Gillard called there to thank staff for their work.
    The staff understood achievement and who led to it.

  6. "Sideshow" Samatha Maiden is the author of her own humiliation, for example, what journalist would write a book review when she had not read the book, and then be dumb enough to admit it. Like the Abbott government, she spends too much time trying to coverup her own mistakes and not enough effort in researching the facts.

  7. I remember living through the era of Bob Carr as NSW Premier. Carr sat on his arse and did nothing, letting all manner of infrastructure and services crumble around him, yet proclaimed year after year that the state budget was in surplus so he was doing a fantastic job.

    Finally when the general masses (even the journos) had had enough Carr was already retired and gone. The same journalists then turned around and told all and sundry what a great job Carr had done in all his time as Premier.

    NSW is still paying the price for the complete lack of anything Carr did as state leader.

  8. Abbott and Credlins' strategy is working - no news is... no news. So fill that space with Abbott strong-arming the Emperor of Japan in precisely the same way he swings anyone he publicly meets to put himself in center frame for the cameras, and the rest...?

    Who needs it? Apparently no-one in Australia.

    Ignorance is just another way of singing 'Advance Australia Fair'.

  9. Lenore Taylor, as usual, talks about Abbott's negotiating skills but shows little insight.

    Perhaps they're actually shit scared of baring their souls by giving some real commentary?

  10. Andrew, it's amazing to look at the comments under that Maiden article. It makes the HUN readership look like a bunch of lefties!!!

    If that's so, then even the winged monkeys look like they're turning against the Abbott Guvmint.

  11. Ian - I have looked at the comments and I am amazed.

    Who would have thought that Terror readers could be so cynical.

    I remain amazed though that people seem to be surprised by govt attacks on free speech while upholding it, by our Leader's revival of knighthoods and dame hoods while talking up modern Australia's place in Asia, by the continual shocks and surprises when it had been promised that Abbott would take the tiller of Good Ship Oz and there would be barely a ripple.

    His agenda was hidden in plain sight.

    It seems that some of the Terror readers are now seeing things more clearly than those tapping out the commentary.

    1. seems he even screwed the knights and dames up, The first two appointments are illegal, Lizzy has not signed off on the changes. She got pre-empted. AAh Tony, time to change your feet again

  12. Hi Andrew,

    As always I've enjoyed your clear eyed assessment of the present government and the sycophantic media coverage of it.

    I have two questions that I hope you or your readers might be able to answer.

    Firstly, why did the Labor leadership consider it so important to parachute the retired Carr into the position of Foreign Minister? He didn't appear to bring any improvement to Labor's standing in the polls and he didn't appear to bring any particular skills to the job either.

    Secondly, how common was it, with previous Prime Ministers, to call a Press Conference then refuse to take questions at the end of it? I'm guessing it was very rare as politicians used to be wary of getting the "free press" off side. Something has changed there I think.



    1. VoterBentleigh13/4/14 12:06 pm

      Although I realize that your questions are rhetorical, DiddyWrote, I would offer the following responses: -

      1. Bob Carr was presented as a successful Premier in the MSM, so the appointment was seen to cause less criticism from the MSM. In addition, as shown by his book promotion, Bob Carr is a good salesman and could sell the Government's message. This was also seen when he managed to convey the view that Iranian asylum seekers were economic refugees which the MSM accepted, failing to note that the spike in the refugees coming from Iran occurred following the suppression of protests against the Iranian elections of 2009.

      2. The PM can now ignore questions, because the Murdoch press are currently the propaganda arm of the government and the remainder od the MSM seem to have no power to make the PM accountable. If the PM suffers no repercussions from not answering questions, why should he answer any? The Government only valued the media in manufacturing consent. Except for the propagandists within the MSM, the Government and those they really represent, as distinct from those they pretend to represent, now have no use for the the MSM. Once, all the media manipulated, but now only the pro-Government section of the media have the power to manipulate.

    2. Thanks VoterBentleigh,

      Actually my questions weren't rhetorical, I just couldn't understand why there was any need to bring Carr into the Federal government, I'm still not sure I do.

      As for Abbott's failure to answer questions, I'm just gob smacked by how passive the media is. They appear to fear losing access if they ask uncomfortable questions but as they are treated with contempt anyway, what have they got to lose?



    3. I think Carr was parachuted in for the same reason that Beattie was - desperation.

  13. Except the always lovely and smart Laura Tingle..

    That woman is a beacon of light in the dismal press gallery.

  14. VoterBentleigh13/4/14 12:07 pm

    As usual, the Treasurer claimed this morning that the Commssion of Audit will be released " in good time" before the budget. He says that "we" will "all" have to do the heavy lifting in the Budget. As Tony Abbott used to sneer at Gillard: "Oh yeah!" I bet the miners, the bankers, the polluters, the multi-national corporations and the members of this Government will do some heavy lifting. "Oh yeah!", you mean like cutting back on a few million of funding for a community group, so that the PM can use that few million to buy a bigger luxury plane in which to ferry himself and his selected journalists around the world. Unike Bob Car, the Right Honourable PM doesn't need to insist on flying first-class, because he provides his own "pre-eminent" first-class plane.

    The issue of the silencing of the PS is, as you indicate, more serious for the community than for the PS itself. A major role of the PS is to provide impartial, candid, researched advice to government and if they are made to feel that is not welcome, then they will stop fulfilling their crucial role for the public. This is one of the aspects which the "pink bats" Royal Commision is examining - whether the PS gave the necessary advice regarding safety, etc. The Coalition's view, exemplified by a reply the PM gave to a journalist, is that the PS is there to do what the Government says - he only added that the PS should provide impartial, frank advice as an afterthought. In addition, the PS gag makes the Government look like collective "sooks" and shows that the PM's Office is paranoid.

    Regarding the missing plane, I turn the sound down until the next news item, muttering, "tell me when something is found". Having Defence Force chiefs providing no news updates about a tragic issue has not only belittled the seriousness of the search, but has the Defence Force looking silly and only brings to mind other "on water" matters about which the ADF were forced to keep mum.

    Once a politician has left politics, what they have to say has minimal influence upon goverance. Bob Carr's promotional advertising for his book may sell tabloid junk, but has no bearing on policy today. But your analysis of his performance as Premier of NSW and Foreign Minister was interesting.

  15. Bob Carr was absolutely fabulous considering that he was Eddies Patsy…….

    1. I love that john - very clever!

  16. And now the ABC is about to be bludgeoned.

    Why haven't journalists even considered the idea that we may be an oligarchy?

    I am going to seek out a book by French economist Thomas Pikertty who asserts that the rapidly widening gap between rich and poor could sink us.

    It seems his book Capital in the Twenty- First Century is going to be very influential.

  17. DiddyWrote, given the shallowness of the ALP talent pool Prime Minister Gillard was faced with a Hobson’s choice. Prime Minister Gillard wisely decided not to draw on her team of ALP MPs because of divided loyalties. Who could apply statecraft on the international stage? The PM couldn’t send Hawke because of his history of chasing skirts. The world has no appetite for a return to Bismarkian style diplomacy so Latham was not even considered. Keating is a permanent guest in the ABC studios, still amusing and regaling us with his impersonation of a financial savant and he and the PM couldn’t agree on the amount of T/A he could claim so he was dropped from the list. Step forward Bob Carr. Mr Carr turned out to be a morosoph and had Prime Minister Gillard spent less time in the library carrel and more time at the netball she would have avoided the current Carr controversy.

    Your second question should be approached from another angle. How many Prime Ministers have said nothing at a press conference notwithstanding their verbosity?


  18. Like all LNP trolls, Kabonesa, you're very good at begging the question.