26 September 2014

The difference

The difference between the Australian response to the war with a barely organised rabble in Iraq and the response coming from other countries is important, and it reflects badly on us.

US President Obama, UK PM Cameron and other world leaders have made it clear that Daesh are a foreign entity to be degraded and disrupted before their influence spreads.

Tony Abbott has explicitly linked the activities of Daesh to goings-on in Australia, that it represents an internal threat as much as an inexternal one. He has invoked the recruitment of Australians as a reason to go to war with Daesh that does not seem to be present with other multinational operations that cause death and destruction in this country, and the prospect that trained and experienced killers might return and create havoc. No other national leader has done this - not even those from majority-Muslim countries closer to western Asia, which have a far more substantial and pressing problem on both counts.

He even addressed the UN about an incident hours old, involving a messed-up teenager whose links to Daesh were neither strong nor clear. Mental health facilities in this country are full of people who want to kill the Prime Minister, or who think they are Prime Minister, and/or who see persecution everywhere.
Cuts to those services mean that police have to deal with those people, without training or resources. Tony Abbott has misled us on so much for so long, with so little challenge that I would not be surprised if this incident turned out to be bullshit too.

As if Abbott was going to talk about climate at the UN. Are you stupid? Do you think anyone following Australian politics for longer than a week is even sillier than you are?

You would only call for Muslims to denounce Daesh if you haven't been listening to what they have said and done, or if these people have to jump when you bid them to. Daesh are not representative of Muslims, and only Murdoch headline writers think otherwise. Every significant new wave of migrants has faced similar pressures to 'fit in'.

The reason why Brandis canned a revision of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, despite upsetting part of its base, was to maintain relations with Muslim communities to thwart or monitor Australians joining Daesh. A wise government would take action against those who think they have a licence to harass people they perceive as Muslim. This is a start. Police don't need any more powers/resources than they have already to enforce existing laws. If this really isn't a war against Islam generally but against Daesh-addled ratbags in particular, the first step - the sine qua non - is to stand against harassment of Australian Muslims.

The Fairfax press published the wrong picture of the person concerned, which is important for a number of reasons:
  • Bad journalism used to be limited to simply quoting press releases and speeches, like Latika Bourke does. Now, bad journalism includes sloppy combing of social media. Crap MSM journalism, not internet or Young Warwick Fairfax or whatever, is what's killing traditional media.
  • There is no link between that image and the apology. The guy in that picture will miss out on opportunities because future searches will link him to terrorism. If Fairfax had injected him with asbestos or had him install roof insulation without training, they could hardly have set him up worse for life.
  • Journo culture in Australia is so toxic that the guy in the photo and the impact on him will be belittled relentlessly and ignorantly. If he complains he'll be some unreasonable whinger. Yes, it was an easy mistake to make; but big-mistake-little-apology is just one of those MSM traditions that must die, along with the careers of all those who would defend it.
  • Nobody is calling for the severed head of the Fairfax Media Picture Editor, but (yes I'm going to go there) Peter Greste is not rotting in an Egyptian prison for the sake of some untrammelled right to fuck up to such an extent, and get away with it.
  • If it's easy for Fairfax Media to make a mistake, why is it no less easy for ASIO, the Federal and/or Victorian Police - and even George Brandis or Tony Abbott or Bill Shorten - to also make mistakes? And if you accept that they make mistakes, why treat their words with more gravity than they may warrant?
Any journalist who thinks I simply have some inexplicable hatred of the MSM is free to just piss off, and probably will when the next rounds of sackings come through.

Tony Abbott has never been a champion of freedom. In Battlelines, in other utterances and publications, he has consistently said that freedom and security are opposites and that he supports more of the latter than the former. It is one of the few things he has been consistent about, one of the very few issues on which he can be trusted. Tony Abbott is ambivalent at best, and at worst hostile, to your freedoms. He wants a society where you beg him for indulgences and are pathetically grateful for whatever he might deign to dispense.

The same applies to Brandis, as I've said elsewhere.

Journalists should have been awake to this when helping us, and themselves, decide whether Abbott would make an effective Prime Minister, and by extension Brandis an effective Attorney General.

Instead, we have people like Paul Farrell and Jonathan Green decide that Abbott's moves against freedom are something of a surprise. Green is right to say that Brandis, the buffoon of travel rorts and bigots' rights, has not suddenly become the wise and firm protector of the common weal. Green is wrong, though, to imply this has come about all of a sudden, that it was not foreseeable before last September; close and privileged observers of public affairs have been negligent in failing to point it out.

Belatedly, Farrell has stirred:
Really, we can only blame ourselves. Could all journalists, collectively, have done more than throw together a handful of submissions? Most major news organisations in Australia raised concerns about the bill and the new offences. But there was no concerted campaign, no unified push to stop these disclosure offences succeeding. We’re now stuck with these laws, probably until someone is made an example of to spur journalists into action.

There is a small comfort in all of this and that is that the laws simply won’t work as a deterrent. They won’t discourage whistleblowers. And they won’t discourage fearless journalists from reporting on our intelligence agencies when it is in the public interest to do so. The disclosures by whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning – and the reporters who told these stories – have shown us that people are willing to take extraordinary actions, at great personal risk, when they believe it is necessarily to do so.

It will just mean that some of them will go to jail.
Yep: Australian journalists regard Peter Greste, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning as them, not us. There are no fearless journalists in the press gallery, just sad little dropseekers who occasionally stumble over something big and then pretend it never happened. They gave Tony Abbott the easiest ride to the Prime Ministership since Whitlam; after a few pantomime slaps over the budget emergency/non-emergency, this pattern has continued.

The press gallery is unconcerned about these laws because anything that isn't in a press release, won't be covered by them. Some of them might have their photos taken with tape over their mouths (unless Brandis' press sec ticks them off for doing so), but that's about all.

This post was considerably longer than it was, before I read this by Katharine Murphy. Yes, that Katharine Murphy, the self-confessed press gallery herd animal. It's unusually good. Impressive, even, for the most part. The best traditional-media piece so far on this topic.

She is spot on in her insistence that journalists can and should go into the details of what's going on, rather than just ripping a press release off the telex and zooming out to Endeavour Hills or wherever. You can't present the work of police officers or politicians or other non-journalists in a sensationalist, simplistic way, and then insist that journalists:
  • are hardworking
  • are sensible and sensitive
  • balance moral/ethical dilemmas
  • are under stress
  • do their best to get it right, and
  • when if they don't get it right - well, fuck you.
In an article concerned about framing, Murphy lurches back a decade to frame society as a three-role drama: government, media, and a passive public that cares little for either. She won't or can't even acknowledge social media, let alone credit it with informed critiques as well-made or targeted as hers. However unwittingly, she exposes the fallacy, the sheer emptiness of the traditional media notion that you have to be in journalism to be able to criticise it (and even then you have to pull your punches, as Murphy duly does).

The comments on Murphy's piece are worth reading too. Journos are told never to read the comments: they transmit to an imagined audience but block reception from the real one.

Our country has the wrong government. We have the wrong media reporting on its activities. Both of these things must change.

19 September 2014

National security theatre

Once again, the Australian media has been completely bluffed by national security theatre.

What the Prime Minister and the various police chiefs - even George Brandis - have said may be proven. They haven't been proven yet and their words are worth nothing. Nothing. All this would have much more credibility coming from a judge after fair and extensive trials, even with the law's palaver.

No government is entitled to be taken at its word, especially this one. A policeman's finding is the start of a trial, not the end.

In reporting the arrests and related events of the past 48 hours or so, the traditional media had no right to drop the 'allegedly' and other qualifiers, to be excused for failing in its duty to be sceptical at the show put on for their benefit: the staged photo ops, the idea that any question would be fobbed off with 'sub judice' or 'operational matters', the absence of any inkling that the story might be elsewhere than where the media wranglers indicated.

Remember how the Murdoch press' investigative skill cruelled last year's Boston Marathon bombing, as @FearsumEngine noted. Remember the shameful treatment of Dr Haneef, and the great lie linking asylum-seekers to terrorism on the Tampa which our politics and media is yet to call out. Remember how credulous the media were on all those occasions - and how they have learned nothing, cowering and passing on unqualified the lines fed to them.

When you see transcriptions from staged events, you are not looking at a triumph of journalism, but a failure of it. Any event that resists investigative journalism is not worth covering. Being forewarned of photo ops is no proof of journalistic competence or savvy.

These are the occasions that ratchet downwards trust in traditional media. No amount of browbeating or sneering by journalists (or wannabes) will recover the respect they are busy shedding.

The national security agencies are ramping up security in the lead-up to the G20 conferences, particularly the leaders' meeting in Brisbane in November; and rightly so. Experience from previous incidents suggests that it is this far out that perpetrators start to finalise their plans. None of this was explained to, or by, supposedly experienced journalists. None of this appears to have been even a factor in recent raids. Instead, they talked of how police actions (which necessarily involve suppressing debate) might work for a government that has demonstrably failed at everything else, including economic confidence.

This fool would reward a politician who has spent seven years beating up non-threats. The journalist would give the politician yet more powers that he is demonstrably unable to execute effectively (even by his own standards - how many of those arrested arrived by boat? Well?). This shows why insiderdom is not worth journalists having, not worth people heeding, and why the story is not where the grizzled veterans (duped again by spinners) insist it is.

We are going into debt, financial and moral, for all this. Our public policy mechanisms appear exhausted of alternatives (and if this were not the case, the traditional media lacks the skill and wit to detect it). There is no small-o opposition offered by the official Opposition, only the most timid echo. It would be pathetic were there not so much more at stake than 'w(h)ither Labor?' witterings. Should this whole operation turn out to be the sort of sham for which I gave precedents above, they give no sign that they might anticipate or even learn anything from it.

12 September 2014

Good analysis requires perspective

Solid, intelligent analysis of how we are governed is possible. It is just not possible from within the press gallery.

This is what proper analysis looks like. Read it all, see you when you get back.
Westacott says that "never before has the public sector faced a more complex set of challenges". It's as if she's not heard of the "challenges" of: setting up the Federation, World War I and its long, severe, economic aftermath in Australia; the 1930s Depression; World War II and postwar reconstruction; the existential threats of the Cold War; the seemingly intractable difficulties of "stagflation" in the 1970s; and so on. Beside these "challenges", those of the present, for all their difficulty, are not nearly so complex.

It's not just that Westacott is talking historical nonsense. She has based her recipes on a false premise and she neglects the history and current circumstances of the Australian Public Service as well as the fundamental differences between the public and private sectors.
That's a takedown: it's about something other than attacking the person directly, but about the national context that the target here (BCA CEO Jennifer Westacott) sought and failed to address. It isn't ad hominem (e.g. Keating at his most caustic), and unlike most parliamentary insults it doesn't come from some stale catalogue of cliches (e.g. "depriving some village of its idiot"). This is why people despise parliamentary banter: it isn't half as well-considered as this.
So what is her game?
That simple question elevates this above most political commentary. When you're an experienced observer of politics you can look beyond what is said to the longer game of what the speaker is hoping to achieve. Again, the press gallery took Abbott on face value, and failed to ask what his real game was: had they done so the current shambles would have been more apparent when we went to vote last September.
Of course, these are not so much "insights" as modern management aphorisms; they're about as useful as such things usually are. Their consideration is not helped by the number of blunders Westacott makes in elaborating them.
Again, the intolerance for nonsense that obviates the ad hominem attack, followed with a point-by-point rebuttal.
The point Westacott overlooks is that the boundaries of innovation and risk for public servants should be defined by their ministers. There's no point in urging an "innovation mindset" on officials if that's not what their political masters want.
This is what it means to have the real understanding of politics which the press gallery, and those who employ them, insist they have but do not.

If the utterings and witterings of Tony Abbott and his frontbench had been subjected to that level of scrutiny there would not be a Coalition government now. If the last Labor government had been subject to that quality of scrutiny it would have lifted its game. By defying the instruction to not write crap and adopt and adolescent pose of sneering scepticism, the press gallery ensured that the Gillard and Rudd governments merely survived and that excellent policy was tossed out with a great deal of policy bathwater - not that the press gallery could tell the difference.

Let's contrast the above piece of analysis with the sort of thing you get from the press gallery - and not just from some poor newbie, or your bog-standard drone, but from someone who (by press gallery standards) produces reflective, thinky-thoughty pieces. Over to you, Katharine Murphy:
As a rule of thumb, politics would prefer to deliver voters steadiness and certainty, but increasingly this [sic] is a commodity in short supply.

So if you can’t deliver certainty, then uncertainty will have to do. And uncertainty has its own potent rhetorical currency.
It was the press gallery, of which Murphy was then (and strangely, remains) a senior member, who heard and reported Abbott promising to deliver certainty, without really questioning whether he had the capacity or even the inclination to do so.
The current uncertainty frame in national affairs isn’t actually a construction, or a complete invention delivered to us by a manifestly cynical political class.
Well, largely they are.

The current government, when in opposition, declared that the government had a debt crisis. It doesn't, but people like Murphy either simply reported that it did, or pretended there were two valid sides to such a question. They assumed, but did not check, that there was a real strategy for reducing debt rather than the same hopin' and wishin' that we saw from the previous government. They did not bother to do some basic checking on what Liberals do in government; namely, that when they do pay down debt it's a historical accident.

The current government, when in opposition, declared that it had a plan to deliver economic growth and jobs, and that key to this was the abolition of taxes paid by only a few big companies. The taxes went in their own good time but the jobs growth (and economic growth more broadly) hasn't materialised. This was foreseeable by anyone not so gullible as to take Tony Abbott at his word - someone like Katharine Murphy.
Reasons to feel bloody terrified are many. In no particular order, there’s Russian aggression, there’s Chinese regional ambition, there’s the consequences of the decline of American exceptionalism and the perceived vacuum of leadership in the White House, and there’s that sectarian violence in the Middle East and its deeply unpleasant consequences for all western liberal democracies.
Knocks "stop the boats" into a cocked hat, doesn't it? Doesn't it? What do you mean, simply reporting those words was all that was necessary? This geopolitical gibbering context is the sort of thing you develop from too much exposure to Peter Hartcher.

See the quote above on other points in history which had their own challenges, and see Murphy's global impressions for the shallow affair it is.
There’s concern about the direction of the economy, about job security and cost of living pressures. It doesn’t matter, apparently, if the data tells us we are travelling well enough and certainly a great deal better than elsewhere – the concern persists and wafts.
The data doesn't tell us that.

The data tells us everything is slowing down, and that there is no countervailing narrative that (or how) things will get better and that here are ways of joining the upward trajectory. As Paddy Gourley points out, sources of future growth from research and innovation are being cut back, not boosted. It's not that we're innumerate - we read things all too well, better than those in close proximity to the decision-makers who feel it's their job to make allowances and excuses.
Tony Abbott made a really big promise before the last election – he promised to end the chaotic cycle of the 43rd parliament and put the adults back in charge. He held out a chimera of certainty. Then he manifestly failed to deliver it.
He was never in a position to deliver it. This isn't being wise after the event it was starkly evident long before September '13 to anyone without a vested interest in the outcome. Everyone who reported to the contrary was wrong to do so, and has committed the most terrible fraud upon this country.

The press gallery put all of its credibility in Abbott's basket, and it has blown the lot.
This parliament has opened much like the last one, only it’s actually more lacking in a basic organising principle.
Yep. this was obvious just after the last parliament was elected, when you consider what might have happened if Windsor, Oakeshott et al had made a different decision. The idea that Abbott had to be taken at his word, and that the only way to assess an Abbott government was to have one, was both the unanimous press gallery position and deeply, deeply stupid and wrong.
Surprises emerge from back pockets.
Only if you're not paying attention, and if you have learned nothing.
The Coalition has been unable to communicate clearly what it stands for.
This has been the case since 2007, when Howard lost office. It was clear since Abbott became leader. He was clear about nothing other than the last Labor government was 'bad', which was all Murphy and the press gallery wanted to hear, all they reported. Murphy's failure to identify her own agency, and those of her colleagues, impedes any credibility she may bring to analysis of our politics.

That, and her childlike unquestioning belief in Mark Textor:
Textor noted soft perceptions about the economy. After years of economic growth in Australia “there is now a distinct possibility that easy prosperity may not continue”.
Again, the failure of agency here. This isn't a matter of disclosure, it's a matter of Murphy's ability to perceive what's going on and report on it accurately.

Mark Textor is largely to blame for making the silk purse of a Prime Minister out of the sow's ear that is Tony Abbott. Textor gamed Murphy and her colleagues for years and years, and they never picked it. He's still doing it. It was always the case that the Coalition did not have the answers for this country; Textor helped frame Abbott so that Murphy and her equally ovine colleagues didn't bother asking the questions that might damage the chances of Textor's client. Textor plays the press gallery for mugs and they love him for it.
I’d rate Textor’s assessment of our collective state of being bang on the money.
You would, wouldn't you.
Tony Abbott has moved into a discussion about national security and the steps the government is taking to keep us all safe. In so doing, the prime minister has defined an enemy which is both abstract and “other” and ephemeral – and very real.
Yes, yes but the idea of journalists covering politicians is not merely to quote, or even summarise, what they said. It is to check those words against other objective sources of reality, and to evaluate questions of how well we are governed, whether the priorities of the government are those of the nation, and so on.

In 1981, Robert Trimbole left Australia despite the highest level of police border alerts by changing his date of birth on his departure card. 32 years later, Khaled Sharrouf also slipped travel restrictions by using his brother's passport. Journalists should be alert to the idea that calls for greater powers are distractions from the ineffective use, rather than inadequacy, of existing powers. Instead, journalists like Murphy take Abbott at his word by accepting his word that he's "keep[ing] us all safe".
To put the current public posture at its simplest, Abbott is countering an abstract uncertainty with the imperative of moral crusade.
That's what he always did. The case against Gillard and Rudd was pretty abstract, but Abbott made up in fervour what he lacked in detail. Murphy and the press gallery fell for it then and here they fall for it again.
Prime ministers do what is right and what is necessary. Listen to him. He’s saying that every time he’s in front of a microphone. He wants to assure us that the adults, or in his case, the adult, has finally turned up.
Murphy and her colleagues quote him unquestioningly, giving him the benefit of the doubt, reinforcing him and Textor and the rest of them in the positions in which they are most comfortable.
The basic, reductionist, construction suits. So this is a key transition for him. If he can achieve the balance, Abbott has a good prospect of not only facing and dealing with a bunch of practical threats and problems but of stabilising his government and rebooting its political fortunes.
Murphy and her colleagues do reductionism really well, so they'll do their best to help Abbott. Were they to focus on subtleties and nuances and other points of view, they would serve their readers better but set Abbott adrift.
Shorten is also working himself up into a nationalistic lather about the intrinsic sacredness of Australian jobs and about defending “our industries” ... (in this case high tech Japanese submarine manufacturers, apparently creeping covertly around the Adelaide shipyards) who would make products more cheaply overseas and send them back here.
The Japanese submarines are designed for short-range operations, over a couple of hundred kilometres at most. Australian submarines need to operate over thousands of kilometres. Murphy could have found that (and other issues) out with a bit of basic journalism. Instead, operational issues like that are sneeringly referred to as "Australian conditions" or wedged into a half-baked narrative, and dismissed.
...understand that we are now locked in a process where we essentially hold mirrors up to each other.
We've always understood that, and journalists and politicians have both suffered as a result. The idea that Textor and others accurately capture our thinking about politics and what we want/need from it is risible.

Only when you understand the press gallery as a mirror in which Abbott loves to gaze, rather than as a 'fourth estate' for evaluating and checking state power, does this aimless wittering make any sense.
... it’s this abundance of reflective surfaces that exacerbates the disconcerting feeling that nothing in national affairs is ever quite real – and nothing ever quite penetrates.
And do you think Murphy will get off her backside and question any of the images crafted for her benefit? Never. Does this diminish Murphy and her press gallery colleagues? Yes. Abbott has hocked the credibility of his party and that of the press gallery; he demands still more credit, and Murphy and the gang will give it freely until he and they inevitably run out. They'll be all surprised at that, too.

Nobody should be surprised at the sheer obsequiousness from this blog's very own bunny, Mark Kenny:
Abbott has been using this neat bit of self deprecation for years now, trotting it out on those occasions when prime ministers are required, by tradition and format, to be funny.

It got a solid laugh from an audience of journalists, lobbyists, and corporates, at the National Press Club's 50th anniversary dinner in Canberra on Wednesday night - even if many had heard the punch-line before.
Jokes rely on their power for being unexpected. What Kenny heard there was a roar of appreciation for a politician who has always made a point of making journalists feel important, and feel competent by reinforcing their predictive power.

When Abbott promised a government of no surprises, it was a promise made to journalists. He promised that they would not have to deal with nuance and subtlety and different points of view. They love him for that. Having to run around and gather different opinions is hard work! Because press gallery journalists are morons, they failed to realise that differing opinions is normal for politics, and that any promise of 'slowing down the news cycle' was always nonsense.

A politician promising to slow down the news cycle is up to no good, doesn't know what they're talking about, or both. Nobody in the press gallery is awake to this.
Privately, Abbott has a wicked sense of humour and loves to laugh, but witty pre-written speech-making has never been his long suit.
Privately, Abbott's humour is petty, mean, and inane. Publicly, his speeches (particularly the ones he writes himself) are petty, mean, and inane.

Kenny dares not point this out. Kenny spent years chasing down the chimera that Julia Gillard had someone else pay for her bathroom and found nothing. Here he is applying his chimera-chasing skills again, seeking to achieve solidity from pure wind, with the idea that Tony Abbott is a good bloke who likes to laugh. There's nothing faux-reflective about Kenny, it isn't his fault he has an enlarged bullshit gland.
Yet, there is a sense about Abbott that despite his considerable intellectual power - foolishly overlooked by those who would want it to be otherwise - he is more at home in parliamentary attack mode, or at least when defending a serious position or argument.
The idea that there are great hordes who think Abbott is stupid is a straw man. However, the case that Kenny is an intellectual fizzer is strong. Abbott is good for a blast of bluster and not much good beyond that. Nobody who has observed Abbott up close for years and years, like Kenny has, should be puzzled by this. Kenny goes the straw man on a daily basis, a sure sign his analytical skills are non-existent.
That said, there is still something impressive about a prime minister who despite his time constraints and legions of staff, insists on crafting most of his own speeches. This is Abbott the writer and thinker.
Abbott is wasting time by ploughing away at something he's not good at, while other issues that need his time and attention go begging. This is something poor leaders do.

There's little impressive about the speeches themselves. School captains across the country blow the Prime Minister off the stage in terms of writing and giving speeches, which is why Abbott never goes to schools.
Even back in his day, Menzies had lamented the drift in political coverage of Canberra, criticising reporters for relying on mere pieces of paper provided to them by politicians – press releases – while the oratory and theatre, or "cut and thrust" of parliamentary contest went less reported.

Neither side of politics has shied from making similar criticisms since. Who can forget Julia Gillard's admirably economical plea to the Canberra gallery delivered from the same podium: "don't write crap".
Well you did, because you wrote nothing but. The coverage of parliamentary theatre has increased, without improving our understanding of how we are governed. This says a lot about the media, which neither Kenny nor Murphy are prepared to face (remember, Kenny and Murphy are both experienced members of the press gallery).
"The best contribution, if I may say so, the media could make right now is not to be more right wing, or more left wing, but to be more ready to give credit where it's due and to acknowledge the strengths as well as the weaknesses in our country and its people," [Abbott] said.
A government is evaluated against the strengths and weaknesses of the country. A government that simply trumpets the strengths of the country is being vacuous. A government that neglects or exacerbates the weaknesses of the country deserves criticism. Kenny, Murphy and the gang can't and won't do that.
In any event, Abbott's complaint suggests he believes he has not been given sufficient credit for his successes in ending deaths at sea from people smuggling, concluding free trade agreements and for his deftness on the world stage. This is not so.
Cute use of "deaths at sea" - a man shot in the head or who dies from a preventable condition in an internment camp is no less dead than those who drown.

Abbott hasn't "concluded" free trade deals. The Korean deal contains sovereignty-wrecking measures to invalidate our laws, and it is [$] not a high priority for the fractious KNA. He hasn't been deft at all in diplomacy. He's pre-empted the US and been oafish toward everyone else. Prime Ministers in trouble get their spinners to claim they're diplomatic geniuses, but Kenny is so "in tune" with Abbott that he overlooks actual practice in that regard.
Perhaps more substantively, Abbott also used the opportunity of the speech to remark on his own journey over some 30 years in public life and 20 in parliament, putting it up it as a model of how change can be embraced even against the necessary inertia of conservatism.

"I will admit to two significant policy areas where I am now different," he ventured, nominating multiculturalism, and paid parental leave. "In other words, there were good conservative reasons – liberal conservative reasons – for changing a traditional position."
The weakness of conservatism is that it can't distinguish between a passing fad and a permanent shift. Inertia, in itself, is not "necessary".

Abbott's supposed shift on 'multiculturalism' has to be assessed against his treatment of Muslim Australians regarding terrorism (compared with the treatment of other faiths with the terror of child abuse, for example), and the abandonment of his pledges to Aborigines. Abbott is not entitled to be taken at his word. No politician is. Kenny's insistence that he must, a Crabb-like bit of theatre review, shows that he fundamentally does not get what his job is.
In all, what we learned from Abbott's press club speech was that he remains firmly convinced of his own conservative position with minimal exceptions, and, that he thinks he gets a hard time from the media.
No Prime Minister in my lifetime (I've been an avid consumer of press gallery output since Fraser was PM) has gotten an easier ride from the press gallery than Abbott.
There was one final reason Abbott agreed to address the press club's black tie affair rather than its regular lunch-time series, and it was apparent in his final line: "I have to say, tonight, is my vision for the National Press Club – a speech with no questions afterwards."

Witty after all.
Abbott just wants to be taken at face value, and the press gallery has shown - and continues to show - that it is happy to oblige. Kenny can't distinguish wit from shit.

Penetrating but not personal analysis helps us think about what our leaders are doing, and how they might do it better. Paddy Gourley, who is not a member of the press gallery, is far more perceptive than senior press gallery members Katharine Murphy and Mark Kenny, who are heavily invested in this government and the way it relates to the traditional media.

We need better analysis of what our leaders are up to. We are never going to get it from the press gallery. It's one thing for Mark Textor and Tony Abbott to write their own pieces - but despite their limbo-dance under the low bar set for them we should expect more from those whose job it is to analyse them.

"Yeah, what he said" is not journalism.

Media consumers do not simply have to accept to accept their self-serving, badly constructed (but engaging! You had to be there!) framings. We need more than unquestioning agreement or minor, set-piece quibbles from those whose job it is to work out how we are governed. Good analysis requires perspective that the press gallery beats out of capable journalists.

08 September 2014

Smears from nowhere

The 'view from nowhere' is a principle in journalism where the journalist affects an impartial perspective and appears to be stating facts so objective that those who speak/write them cannot be held responsible for those facts, or for having stated them in that way. The US observer and academic Jay Rosen has written extensively on 'the view from nowhere' and its use for journalists denying responsibility for their output.

Throughout Julia Gillard's Prime Ministership, it was alleged that renovations on her home were paid for from a slush fund linked to the AWU. She helped set up a legal instrument which led to the opening of a bank account, and all before entering public life. The nation's top journalists were set onto the story and found nothing to corroborate wrongdoing on Gillard's part. On one occasion she fronted a press conference for over an hour and dared them ask anything they liked; the nation's toughest press gallery journalists asked and asked and got nothing.

Despite the absence of evidence linking Gillard to wrongdoing, Anna Patty and Paul Sheehan insinuate that she has something to hide from the Royal Commission set up to investigate this and other matters.

If the Royal Commission uncovers new information that shows Gillard received benefits improperly, then this is an indictment of journalists who kept insisting for years that Gillard had questions to answer, without their being able to uncover any information that required her response.

If the Royal Commission does not uncover any significant new information on this matter, other than that already chewed over by journalists, then this is an indictment of journalists who kept insisting for years that Gillard had questions to answer, without their being able to uncover any information that required her response.

In other words, journalists have let us down either way. In the latter instance, Patty and Sheehan are going to look stupid. They will diminish such credibility as they have in later dispatches.

They (and other journalists) could have spent their time more usefully by investigating what an Abbott government might look like, and whether there was any supporting or countervailing information on their policies beyond their press releases and their set-piece statements. What Gillard may or may not say, or what might be put to her by various lawyers, is less important - especially now that she is out of office - than the systematic failure of the fourth estate.

They are trying to present wrongdoing or negligence by Gillard as given, unproven but detectable and waiting to come to light any day now ... any day now. They would, similar to Rosen's example above, shrug off accusations of bias; but one aspect of bias is the maintenance of a position in the absence of proof. Neither Sheehan nor Patty - senior journalists - will put up evidence of Gillard's wrongdoing, but nor will they shut up about it. Theirs is the smear from nowhere.

If you can accept that Lindy Chamberlain didn't kill her daughter, or that Julie Bishop really feels for asbestos victims, or that Mark Kenny is a journalist deserving your respect - you can accept that Gillard paid for her own bathroom.

Another aspect of journalistic failure is the inability to see discussions on public policy as anything other than political conflict. The issues are lost in such coverage, which only reinforces the idea that the way the press gallery frames political conflict is the only way to do so, under the dual misapprehensions that public policy conflicts are both extraordinary and exciting in themselves.

This is a minor issue but a solid example of fundamental journalistic failure. Is this application 'appropriate' or 'inappropriate'? Do families not live in multi-dwelling units? These are important questions but Henrietta Cook cannot handle them.

Instead, she insists that Victorian Liberal State MP Elizabeth Miller "has been accused of breaking party ranks after she opposed a proposed development that sits within new state government residential zones". She does not say who has made these accusations; she even quotes the state's Planning Minister, a Liberal often mentioned as a potential leader, endorsing Miller's actions. The reference to the mother-in-law of a former Premier is clumsy.
Ms Miller denied she had defied the party line. She said she had been overwhelmed with residents opposed to the development and had simply taken up their concerns with the council.

"I believe residents' concerns are warranted, so I have written to council. It's an inappropriate development for the area," she said.
This might be a worthy piece for the Glen Eira Bugle but it hardly warrants the state and national prominence Cook and her editors are giving it.

A local MP is representing her constituents' views: does Cook not understand how politics works? Does she assume her readers are equally ignorant or more so? Where are the party control freaks giving Miller a hard time about the way she does her job - or are they all in Cook's imagination - and either way, why do they set the frame through which all policy is reported? Who decided that Cook should be denying someone else - anyone, really - a job as a journalist?

Cook is implying that Miller is not being an effective member of the government. In fact, getting involved in issues like this is Miller's best chance of ensuring her continued place in parliament and government. Her use of the passive voice and avoiding quotes on the key issue of division shows Miller isn't breaking anything or defying anyone. Cook and her editors have, in short, written a bullshit article, dishonestly attempting to blow up a standard suburban planning issue into one with wider importance.

The 'view from nowhere' is an attempt by journalists to insert themselves at the heart of an issue while denying responsibility, both for the issue itself and the way they report it. Journalists should be held to account for their failure to understand issues. They should be culpable for attempting to inject hype, bullshit, or blame where the facts of the matter fail to support the thrust of their offerings to the public.

These failures are far more damaging than internet, or 24-hour news cycle, or imaginary goblins that journalists invent to explain away their professional decline. Hype and slant work against journalists, not just (or even) for them.

04 September 2014

Where the press gallery beef hooked

The Parliament of New Zealand has its own press gallery, and it falls prey to the failings of all press galleries. It has its doyens (Colin James), its pack mentality (there's only ever one story and we're all going to write it no matter what) and the unshakeable conviction that the way it is must also be the way it has to be. The way the gallery reports on politics is, even now apparently, the only way to report on politics.

Insofar as it matters any more, the press gallery narrative on the coming election (due on 20 September) can be summarised as follows:
  • John Key, the incumbent PM and leader of the National Party, looks confident and has presided over a united team and economic growth.
  • David Cunliffe has presided over a divided Labour Party, even though he apparently beat Key in a set-piece 'debate'.
  • There are other parties but they are just political tinsel. Therefore,
  • It's Key in a canter, so let's make a National victory inevitable and any other outcome a disaster.
This is the politics of tidiness: the political party that presents the most couth, affable and easily summarised front to journalists wins. Their reward is to have their statements reported without serious challenge, while their competitors are either not reported or framed such that their words are to be mistrusted. Incumbent governments tend to win the tidy politics prize, with their extra resources and the higher stakes involved in decisions taken, but occasionally oppositions make a convincing case when incumbents let things slide.

Press galleries shrug off accusations of partisan bias - usually levelled by partisans - but they are wrong to defend themselves as unbiased. Their only agenda is to set the agenda, and that agenda is the politics of tidiness.

This is why political journos are constantly alert for gaffes: a gaffe is verbal untidiness. If you're the shadow treasurer and you speak of "eleventy" like it's a number, gaffe! - or maybe you're the shadow foreign minister and you refer to Africa as one country, gaffe! - then, having made a career from piling on gaffes, you can then write a thoughtful column about how our politicians are under such scrutiny and how trivial gaffes are. Other journos will retweet links to your column praising both your thoughtful bravery and brave thoughtfulness, and will go after bloggers who jeer at you.

Political reporting in NZ and Australia has been hostage to the press gallery and its politics of tidiness. In Australia it still is, but you'd be a fool to bet (let alone stake your career) that it will stay that way. In NZ the election narrative has been hijacked by Cameron Slater, an active member of the NZ Nationals, who runs the blog Whale Oil.

Whale Oil is scabrous and nasty and funny and untidy and partisan, in contrast to the bland offerings of the politics-of-tidiness press gallery. It won Best Blog in NZ's premier publishing industry awards, and it is only a matter of time before a focused site like that beats an all-things-to-everyone pablum like Stuff. Whale Oil isn't focused on policy or outcomes but then neither is the press gallery.

Political parties also succumb to the Politics of Tidiness. This used to mean that they and the journalists understood one another and worked by the same rules. With the rise of social media, where any site is no more or less accessible online than traditional media sites, there is no reason why a politician would take their chances with a capricious media when a trusted partisan will both get the message out and frame it in the way they would like.

In the absence of a comprehensive social media strategy (including a budget), a political party relies on committed amateurs with the purple-squirrel rarity of commitment to a political party and facility with social media. A person with long-standing commitment to a political party will not have a commitment to the party as a whole, but will have opinions about aspects (and personalities) within the party that they like better than others. A political party using a committed amateur in social media runs the risk that it will be presented unevenly, that members of the team who fall foul of the house blogger will not receive the same coverage as those in favour.

This is what happened with the NZ Nationals when they started leaking to Whale Oil rather than to the press gallery. One of Key's staffers was accused of leaking to the blogger, and briefing against a sitting minister. Judith Collins, NZ's answer to George Brandis (if she's the answer, etc), resigned after being found out briefing Slater against the Serious Fraud Office.

Nicky Hager had written about the NZ Nationals in his earlier book Hollow Men (which contains a clearer account of how CrosbyTextor works than anyone in Australia has managed), and apparently he's done it again with Dirty Politics, according to Richard Shaw. When Shaw details Slater's nemesis (known as Rawshark or Whaledump) we get into the hall of mirrors that is political shit-sheeting, turbo-charged by the internet, and screw that.

The whole business has destroyed the Nationals' image as Tidiest Party (and thus deserving the prize of government). Having been sucked in to Slater's drip feed, the press gallery lost what cool detachment it had. Both the government and the press gallery who report on it have lost the benefit of the doubt. Whether the Key government is re-elected, and whether or not NZ's press gallery keep on giving one another awards for excellence or whatever, the gig is up. Beef hooked, indeed.

Whale Oil is the bastard son of the UK's Guido Fawkes, which has had as significant an impact on UK politics today as the 17th century coffee-shop scandal sheets that grew into venerable titles such as Tatler or The Spectator. Fawkes, the brainchild of Paul Staines, exposed Labour spinner Damian McBride and NewsCorp's illegal requests for information on its targets. As with Whale Oil, and Woodward and Bernstein or Amy Corderoy's exposure of Alistair Furneval for that matter, it's instructive that the big political exposes come not from within but beyond the press gallery.

Recently in Australia, we have seen the Labor Party get the rough end of the press gallery for their wanton untidiness. Rudd even looked so meticulous, and as for That Woman with the empty fruitbowl ... people like Michelle Grattan run their fingers along the sideboards of the major parties, looking for smudges. Grattan's befuddlement at how Abbott's tidy opposition became an untidy government is understandable only if you excuse her from having to analyse policy and how it might work, rather than merely how it will play.

It is as though tidiness monitoring is what political journalism is, and all it could ever be:
  • In Victoria, the ALP is much tidier than the Coalition. The Coalition used to be all about tidiness when they were run by well-bred Collins Street types, but this too has passed.
  • In NSW, the Coalition are getting very untidy, but still less than the post-cyclone shambles that is the ALP.
  • Labor won in SA because it was tidy but active; the Coalition could only be tidy through inertia, creating doubts as to what might happen if they had to do something.
  • In WA, the Coalition government is starting to get untidy, even after it and the press gallery have stopped making excuses for Troy Being Troy. Same with the NT CLP (chock-full of Troys) and Queensland's Newman government trying to rough up the state's fastidious legal community. In all cases, Labor is yet to make their case for comparative tidiness.
  • In Tasmania, Labor spent two decades getting untidy, while Will Hodgman got tidier and tidier. He can only get less so with the demands of governing.
  • In the ACT, Katy Gallagher has kept Labor tidy while Jeremy Hansen has made no progress on The Road To Tidiness that all successful oppositions must take.
Some organisations are setting up their own media operations, including social media, to outflank moribund traditional media. The AFL is most advanced at that, relying on Channel 7 while preparing to screw them in a few years. If the major political parties were smart they'd do likewise, replacing press releases with their own pre-prepared grabs. You might say the press gallery would never cop that, but what choice would they have? This would be the only valid explanation for the major parties' insatiable lust for fundraising.

The major parties are not doing this because they are run by dills. They are spending and raising money with the same wit and judgment they apply to taxation. The Federal President of the Liberal Party is a former Communications Minister, and because we are talking Richard Alston here he never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity when it comes to constructive policy on media and communications. They are blowing all that money on ads that prop up faltering traditional media, on mailouts through the faltering postal service, on Mark Textor, stuff like that.

A decade or so ago my NSW Young Liberal contemporary David Miles set up a blog called Capital C. It could have been as big in Australia as Fawkes or Whale Oil are in their jurisdictions, but Howard was in power then and Miles was unwilling to rock that boat - even (especially!) as it began to founder. Miles could have become the Liberal Party's 21st century media guru. Instead, he's just another lobbyist, simpering away on ABC TV's The Drum, defending Coalition positions without the clout involved in having input, or even the dignity of being an official spokesperson. Like Maurice Newman, Miles is just a red herring in a suit. Both he and  The Drum diminish one another.

I'm surprised that disgruntled Labor rank-and-filers, rolled and humiliated time and again in their party's forums, haven't taken to social media more than they have. There will be a social media site that will have the juiciest gossip from within a major Australian political party, and journos won't be able to keep away from it. Too late, they will realise that social media has taken the initiative in political coverage, but will arrogantly insist that the press gallery remains the only crucible in which political reporting and agenda-setting context are forged.

The press gallery in Canberra is already having the narrative gradually taken from it, what with "on water matters" and its union unsure about censorship. The decline of the press gallery is like Hemingway's description of a slide into bankruptcy: first gradually, then suddenly. By the next election, it will have the narrative taken from it so comprehensively that it starts asking those long-overdue questions of what its purpose is, why should we give them any credence or privilege, etc.

The future of political coverage is unfolding in Wellington. Next year the city will host the Global Political Marketing and Management Conference. You could sit around in Canberra and act all shocked when political reporting goes around and past the press gallery, or you could keep ahead of the game so that the important stuff (accountability in a democracy, one's own job, etc.) survives fast and far-reaching change.