08 January 2015

Everything wrong with political journalism

... is in this article on the coming Queensland election.
Election campaigns are great fun for political reporters. Long days, frenetic pace, constant pressure, travel, close companionship with politicians and journalistic colleagues.
Yeah, but not particularly enlightening as to how we are and might be governed. Set-piece events taken at face value, no real checking of words against deeds, same approach ('line') to reporting by every outlet because of groupthink. The whole idea of this is to limit access to information other than what the party wants you to present - it's a wonder why editors think this is in any way valuable.
Mystery bus rides and plane trips to destinations revealed at the last moment for reasons of state security.
It isn't 'state security', just PR bullshit by a political party. If you're such an experienced journalist you should be able to see through that.
But it seems like only yesterday I was on the campaign trail for the last Queensland election. In fact, it was two years and 10 months ago, but given the enormous palaver that election campaigns are, two years and 10 months is barely enough time to catch a breath.
There's more to state politics than elections: education, health, transport, policing, disability and ageing, state governments have a huge gamut of responsibility that should keep reporters busier than they are. Sport reporters have less than six months between seasons. Teachers have six weeks between the end of one school year and the beginning of the next.

Two years and ten months is plenty of time. My wife and I had two children in less an interval than that. Get over yourself.
It seems far too soon to be doing it all again. And I'm just a reporter. Imagine what it's like for people who actually matter in our state, the politicians who are supposed to be running the state and the business and social leaders whose work depends on a reliable and steady public framework?
Nobody - not in government, nor business, nor any other field - just gets on with it unchecked. Three years is plenty of time in between elections to get on with it and anticipate changes of direction. The supposedly soporific Menzies era had three-year elections.
The work they do on our behalf is interrupted every three years for a frantic rush around the electorate.

That's democratic and fine, but not conducive to smooth productivity.
I'm so glad you approve of democracy, especially as you enjoy election campaigns.

Did you even think about what ‘productivity’ might mean? Elections are not interruptions, they are the point. Are we on the right track? How might we do things better? These are questions that should be asked by productive people - and political reporters too - from time to time.

Why are they ‘frantic’, given that they are planned well in advance? If running a four-week campaign is ‘frantic’, surely these people are going to burn out after three whole years - what do you mean, you hadn’t thought about it?
… the interruption begins after about two years when the speculation starts about the timing of the next election.
Whenever a journalist lapses into the passive voice, they are up to no good. They are covering for someone or something.

“The speculation starts” among journalists who are bored by the grind of government service provision, and who want polls to focus on them rather than boring old voters with their boring hospitals and boring prisons and boring roads and boring. When they can’t speculate about elections, they conjure up #leadershit or ministry reshuffles.
Longer terms are needed.
Why? By whom? You do realise that means more time covering policy, right?
Other states have four years.
Like NSW, where we spent three years with a dead government twisting in the wind? Over the past two four-year terms NSW had five Premiers, Victoria four. A political system built around feeding the media beast cannot handle the pace.

I thought Queensland was special and different. Every time I go there, locals make a point of wondering aloud why anyone would want to live anywhere other than Queensland.
As a minimum it should be that Queensland elections can't be held before three years.
Why? What would you prefer, ten? Why? You haven’t thought about this at all.
Premier Campbell Newman is in favour of fixed or longer terms. So are and so have been political leaders on all sides. But all say it can't be done because bipartisan agreement isn't there.

Something is missing in that logic.
Ya reckon? Why not get a journalist to ask some questions?
Mr Newman is facing the quite remarkable prospect of an electoral backlash in this election - remarkable in light of his extraordinary success in 2012 when he led the LNP to 78 seats in the 89 seat parliament.

That was an enormous change in Queensland politics after years of Labor rule. But a lot more has changed in the two years and 10 months since then.

Suddenly a Government which overwhelmed the Parliament has found itself level pegging in some opinions polls with the nine-seat ALP opposition. And Campbell Newman himself is under some pressure to hold his inner Brisbane seat of Ashgrove.
Hmmm. What that tells me is all that boring non-election governing stuff is what changes people’s minds about elections. Only journalists think the elections should change people’s minds about the actual stuff of government.

Journos love being the focus of election campaigns - all those set-piece events put on for their benefit, arranged around their schedule - with the obligatory piece at the end wondering why people are so jaded and disengaged with election campaigns.
The reasons for the LNP's fall in the polls so soon after its 2012 triumph have been well documented: a concerted union backlash to public service cuts, some contentious law and order policies, environmental concerns, and so on.
Blithely skipping over the point of the campaign, the whole context, way down the article after all the hoo-ha about the empty thrills of campaigning and a vacuous push to alter an election system when you don’t even see the point of it?
All that must be tempered in fairness by an acknowledgement of the Newman Government's achievements in health and its determined efforts to streamline conditions for doing business in Queensland.
What are they, exactly? What sort of business? What has Labor done to draw level with a government of such achievements in so short a time?

Why does it fall to me, a blogger from NSW, to ask these questions? Don’t you have journalists in Queensland? I remember how the Fitzgerald Inquiry bagged the Queensland parliamentary press gallery - they haven’t got worse since then, surely.
But the point is change. The enormous shift in the political landscape in 2012 seems itself to be shifting again.
If you’d kept up with the issues since the election, it would seem as though the Newman government had a kind of - call it a ‘media strategy’, if you will - where they seemed to be doing something every day, so that journalists would have something to write about. If the ground has shifted on them, are they not victims of their own success?

Maybe the LNP cobbled something together that was never going to last. Maybe Newman was full of it from the beginning. Maybe journalists should have examined that possibility more closely than they did.
The pace and extent of change in politics, all around Australia and certainly in Queensland, is growing year by year.

Gone, seemingly, are the days of one party or the other settling down for several terms of steady government. So in that context, it's especially important that the Queensland body politic is not disrupted every two years.
Every Queensland government has undergone an election every 2-3 years. Every. One.

Even the ones that held office continuously for decades, they still held those pesky elections where they put it all on the line. They didn’t have very good coverage by the media, but then they never do.
If there is bipartisan support for fixed/longer terms, let it be so.
No, start asking questions. Who wants longer terms, Chris, and why? There’d be a story in that, if only you were a journalist.

Queensland is the state where ‘bipartisan support’ counts for less than in any other state. Kevin Rudd took Brisbane-style hokey, anti-establishment schtick all the way to the Lodge, twice, and you can't understand what Palmer and Katter are doing in Canberra until you look at the jurisdiction where they cut their political teeth.

You haven’t done a very good job of making the case for longer terms, Chris. If they are really in favour then they should be making the case, while you weigh the evidence and seek inputs from beyond the George St bubble - if you can imagine such a thing.

Maybe there is no case to be made. Maybe they’re not confident of their ability to win over people. Maybe it’s only in Queensland you can damn-with-faint-praise in declaring something “democratic and fine” but somehow also beside the point.
Chris O'Brien is the ABC’s state political reporter in Queensland.
I’m so sorry to see that.

At a time when we should be rallying behind freedom of the press (je suis Charlie, aussi), we should also expect more and better from them. In politics, journalists hold politicians to account - they are not there as the politicians’ unquestioning support crew, and nor is political journalism somehow valuable in itself.

Read The Boys on the Bus when you have time. You’ll enjoy it, like you enjoy election campaign coverage today, but hopefully you’ll also wonder why so little has changed since it was written in 1973. They have four-year Presidential terms in the US, but so what?


  1. Andrew,

    I'm totally confused. Does Chris O'Brien want more elections (because they are so much fun) or fewer (because that would mean the journalists wouldn't have to "work" so hard)?

    To my mind, O'Brien's article is a limp bit of fluff (you know the kind - you find them under your bed when you haven't been diligent enough about vacuuming).

    I nearly wrote something analogous about O'Brien's brain, but managed to restrain myself.

    Meanwhile, Andrew, happy new 2015 to you and all who sail in her.

  2. ernmalleyscat8/1/15 10:22 pm

    As soon as I got to the excerpts I had a feeling it might be Chris O'Brien. He's Queensland's answer to Mark Simkin and I wouldn't be at all surprised if he has a similar post-ABC placement.

    1. ernmalleyscat,

      Oh come now, Mark Simkin has a Powerful Intellect.

      Chris O'Brien, not so much.

  3. I'm sure I speak for many in saying that we missed you over the last fews weeks. It is great to see you back!

    I read the O'Brien article & was so amazed at its pathetic style & lack of substance. I am not surprised you've picked it up & given it a legitimate critique.

    I have laughed myself sick tonight about the #Imwithstupid Twitter traffic tonight. Do you want to comment on this here?


    1. Here's a thought for all of us subversive types who lurk about on Andrew's and like-minded blogs:

      What if we ALL start wearing "I'm with stupid" T-shirts with fingers pointing left, right, up, and down?

      The poor QLD coppers wouldn't know where to look.

    2. It says a lot about Qld Police that they would arrest that guy, and about their relationship with LNPQ that they don't fear reprisals. Also, the #qldpol press gallery should be looking into this more than they are. Only southerners are keeping it going.

  4. Chris O'Brien is either an ABC Journalist who somehow believes he's Campbell Newman's Butler? or Chris O'Brien really is Campbell Newman's Butler, who somehow believes he's an ABC Journalist?

  5. Thank you. I offered a comment to The Drum saying something similar, but much less elegantly although without any abuse, along the lines of Julia Gillard's advice to the Press Gallery. Seems it failed at moderation.

  6. It would appear that there are 'security reasons' for keeping the Premier's campaign trail secret, just not the ones we might expect.

    Judging by the recent arrest, there is a need to protect the Premier from having to see people in "I'm With Stupid" campaign t-shirts.

  7. "I thought Queensland was special and different. Every time I go there, locals make a point of wondering aloud why anyone would want to live anywhere other than Queensland."

    Aw shit, shots fired!!

  8. i noticed on mr c obrien s time line he wears a blue tie so i blocked him

  9. still trying to get my head around political campaigns are fun, i find them terrifying as we now have the liberals who are about changing our way of life.

    so this person is not worried about no medi care or no HECS

    shakes head,, any idea Andrew how much longer the profession will last,, i have noted the public often see on Twitter or face book before its printed, many time s i have noticed this, must annoy them . i would be doing another career up date if I was them may be in I T or renewable s design. just a thought

  10. I was struck by Mr O'Brien's offering that he takes pleasure in a 'close companionship' with politicians and journalists on the campaign trail.

    I would prefer him to be stimulated by a friendly rivalry with his colleagues. In my opinion 'close companionship' can lead to group thinking.

    I would prefer a journalists to keep their colleagues on tenterhooks by sniffing out their own stories.

    I am uneasy too by the notion of a journalist having a 'close companionship' with any politician. Politicians use such relationships to leak information beneficial to themselves and/or their party which, I have noticed time and time again, is regurgitated complete with spin.

    1. Any press gallery, be it in Canberra, Brisbane or elsewhere in this country is an amorphous mass with one brain, capable only of a singular thought on any subject.

  11. Far, far from Queensland ....

    The murdered at Charlie Hebdo knew the world is absurd. They blew raspberries at it and mocked pomposity wherever it puffed up.

    I wonder what they would have thought about the presence of some govt representatives at the march in Paris.

    Egypt which has Peter Greste and two colleagues banged up.

    Saudi Arabia which has just flogged a young blogger.

    Gabon whose president Ali Bongo marched among the Je Suis Charlie signs after reportedly closing down three newspapers.

    The world is indeed the Theatre of the Absurd.

    I wish I could draw.

  12. I don't live in Queensland but I think you're attacking the wrong subject here. From his title Mr O'Brien is a 'reporter' ie he's employed to simply 'report' what is happening and that's what he is doing. Deeper / longer analysis is not his job, it's the job of other people.

    I share your frustration at the lack of such analysis - or at the lack of other people doing that job. Where I'd differ is in arguing that this absence is the fault of media organisations (commercial and ABC / SBS) who do the employing not the people who are employed to report on a daily basis.

    I'm rushing this a bit but I guess I'm essentially saying we need both 'reporters' and 'journalists' and that it's unfair to attack one for the absence of the other. Like I say, I don't live in Queensland so I'm not sure what coverage they get up there.

  13. whats yr thoughts on the pieces flying around the net now abbott can change how many time have i seen junos begging us to like tony

  14. Interesting that Sophie Mirabella has now a regular gig every fortnight with John Faine on the a.b.c in Melbourne along with the new Rn drive host Patricia Karvelas..

    It's getting weird to see these conservatives pretend to be progressive or look decent with these gigs