07 April 2015

With all due respect

Occasionally, press gallery journalists will show that they are even more dumb and/or sneaky in avoiding their central responsibility of telling us how we are governed.

Soon after taking office, Tony Abbott hired a TV cameraman so he could shoot his own flattering footage and have it sent directly to newsrooms, bypassing the press gallery. Now he has hired a stills cameraman, and Stephanie Peatling acts all surprised and sad.
It was not uncommon for the weekend television news to have only Mr Abbott's weekly video message, recorded by his staff and distributed on a Sunday, to use in bulletins.
They have plenty of options for the use of images, and of stories, other than those provided to them by the PM's office. They use those images because they're lazy. They don't check what Abbott says against sources of actual truth, which is a pretty good definition of journalistic failure. TV news ratings reflect this failure as, just because dopey news editors want to show the pap pumped at them from Canberra, viewers aren't obliged to watch it. Peatling's attempt to drum up sympathy for poor news editors just emphasises their failures rather than excusing them.

Peatling refers to a staged black-and-white picture of NSW Premier Mike Baird and his wife, which is similar to the staged pictures that former US President John F. Kennedy and his wife half a century ago. There have been many developments that have buffeted the Australian (and US) media and politics in recent years, and people like Peatling and those who employ her can be forgiven to some extent for not reacting quickly and deftly to all of these. For Baird to use a media-management technique from more than fifty years ago, and to have such a technique stump the Australian media, is laughable.

This, however, is the clincher:
Previously, media photographers were relied upon to take the pictures, which would then be selected by editors and placed in newspapers according to what a range of people judged to be the best image to illustrate a story.
Whenever journalists lapse into the passive voice they are up to no good, and this is another example. By "a range of people", Peatling means groupthink victims in an editorial team.

To give one recent example: a few days before the government introduced legislation that would imprison investigative journalists and their sources, "a range of people" decided that the image that best illustrated "the story" was one of the Prime Minister eating an onion. These people still control vast media resources and can direct journalists cover any number of stories - but they all decided the onion-eater image was the one that best prepared us for the coming of that legislation.

The sorts of people who make decisions like that are the sorts of people who hire Stephanie Peatling - people like Peter Hartcher. Now they're being ambushed by political media strategies that are half a century old. This is beyond risible, like being run over by a glacier.
Now, politicians can readily bypass that filter.
Really, was there ever a filter there? Whose interests did it serve? Was it just a make-work scheme for "a range of people"?
"It's one thing to go down the United States president path," Mr Kelly said. "But you have to ask yourself where it ends."
Every modern election campaign is 'presidential' and borrows to different degrees from techniques used in the US. This is hardly the novel, unexpected development Peatling and her source trying to make it out to be.

Tony Abbott has been a media operative since leaving the priesthood, and has worked out how to play the press gallery better than almost anyone who has occupied the Prime Ministership. He pulls stunts, he stonewalls, and they can't get enough. Now he's replacing them, sending audio, video and script direct into newsrooms.

He's doing it slowly enough - if he got called on it he'd backtrack and get the gallery to forgive him, and then when they were all busy he'd do it again. This is how Abbott works. The very people who should see this coming most clearly are completely surprised. And the beautiful thing - for Abbott - is that they don't even blame him.
Mr Abbott's office was contacted for comment but did not respond.
Bloody staffers!

Traditional media organisations want the government to send its competitors to prison. The government is happy to oblige, in return for not being criticised. And they are engaging in this dirty little arrangement in the name of freedom.

Successive governments have moved to restrict our freedoms over recent years. Occasionally journalists notice, after a while. Often they regard opposition to such measures as the work of hysterics and cranks. The restriction of freedoms under the Abbott government has been noticeable for how long it took the press gallery to notice them, and appreciate their severity. They still believe that internet users are a tiny minority of the population and a greater threat to traditional media than the laws themselves.

Only now, elements of the media from beyond the press gallery - media head offices, the MEAA, universities, and non-press-gallery journalists - have started to become involved. They realise the gravity of these laws was not conveyed by those on the ground, at the scene, the ones with all that Canberra savvy, whose job it is to tell us how we are governed.

What Laurie Oakes is doing here is not standing up for freedom, and rallying his readership. He is admitting to colossal professional failure. Restrictive legislation passed through parliament under his very nose and he just watched it go by. Now, he's doing a deal with the government to protect his EXCLUSIVEs but which does nothing to protect - let alone inform - anyone outside the parliament or the press gallery. This is a sneaky, ridiculous commercial deal at the expense of the rights and freedoms of all Australians.
... the Government has been alarmed by the strength of criticism from media of the Data Retention Bill it wants passed before Parliament rises in a fortnight. Bosses, journalists, even the Press Council, are up in arms, not only over this measure, but also over aspects of two earlier pieces of national security legislation that interfere with the ability of the media to hold government to account.
That legislation has passed, and as Oakes pointed out two other pieces of legislation also passed; journalists in the press gallery, employed for the sole purpose of monitoring what politicians are up to, missed its significance (see the onion-eater example above). There might have been a time when a united, concentrated effort might have stopped legislation like that in its tracks. That time has passed. Oakes is chronicling, and embodying, its decline.

In the decade following World War II, Australian governments tried drastic measures to impose order on issues that were too big for them. The Chifley government tried to nationalise the banks and the Menzies government tried to ban the Communist Party. Both measures were opposed by the media and thrown out by the courts. It remains to be seen whether this mass surveillance legislation is unconstitutional, but the response from the media hasn't been as ferocious as Oakes pretends.
The Press Council is concerned the laws would crush investigative journalism.
Stephen Conroy suggested the Press Council had more power over journalists and their employers than it does. He was portrayed as Stalin for suggesting measures that are trifling by comparison to actual legislation passed by the Abbott government. The media outlet that did that is the one that employed Oakes when Conroy was a minister, and which employs him still.
“These legitimate concerns cannot be addressed effectively short of exempting journalists and media organisations,” says president David Weisbrot.

The media union is adamant journalists’ metadata must be exempted from the law. That’s what media bosses want, too, though they have a fallback position based on new safeguards being implemented in Britain.

That would prevent access to the metadata of journalists or media organisations without a judicial warrant. There would be a code including — according to the explanatory notes of the British Bill — “provision to protect the public interest in the confidentiality of journalistic sources”.
There are two things to be said here.

First: the journalists' union, the MEAA, represents not only investigative journalists but also non-investigative journalists in the press gallery. The failure of the press gallery to raise the alarm, to explain to the public why an attack on their interests is an attack upon us all (as the banks did to their staff and customers in the 1940s) has put their investigative colleagues in the firing line, which is against the interests of media consumers, citizens and taxpayers. They need unity and discipline, but eventually they will need to acknowledge that the whole thing has become necessary only because the press gallery were asleep on the job.

Second: all Australians deserve freedom, not just those employed by the organisations that employ members of the press gallery.

Oakes and all those people on committees with him stand ready to sell everyone down the river so long as he and his get a little more wriggle-room, at the hands of "public interest guardians" who are hired and fired by the Prime Minister just like Peatling's photographer buddy.
In their meetings this week, the government team boasted of concessions in the new Data Retention Bill ... whenever an authorisation is issued for access to information about a journalist’s sources, the Ombudsman (or, where ASIO is involved, the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security) will receive a copy.
Memories of the grief Conroy brought down on his head would undoubtedly make Abbott sit up and take notice.
Is that your considered judgment, Laurie, the fruit of a half-century of intimate knowledge of this country's politics and media? Pffft.

It has been said that Malcolm Turnbull began his working life in service to Kerry Packer and ends it in service to Murdoch; the same can be said of Oakes, who has not been a trusted source of political news for at least half a decade.

As a student, Kevin Rudd cleaned Oakes' house, and when Rudd was Prime Minister Oakes used all his gravitas and media pull to insist Rudd's government was fine, when it was tanking. The downfall of Kevin Rudd in 2010 undid the old media model whereby journos gave favourable coverage to preferred politicians; that preferred coverage meant the public were bewildered when Rudd failed so publicly, and when people like Oakes could neither predict it nor explain why it happened.

When [$] Chris Wallace insisted "Oakes goes where the story takes him, however it affects friend or foe", she wrote falsely and must assume that we have been paying as little attention to twenty-first century political journalism as she has.

With all due respect, the government is playing a wider game with regard to the information it releases to those it governs, and the role of the traditional media within that. Those who work in the traditional media, particularly those who observe politicians and legislative procedures up close, have no excuse for not being awake to that, and to do more than they did to head off this predicament.

What media offered politicians was a relationship with the community that machine politicians lacked; now the absence of that relationship, that conduit, has been exposed. Laurie Oakes and Stephanie Peatling both do the more-in-sorrow-than-anger pantomime, but their surprise and lack of preparation is pathetic.

The press gallery can no longer tell us much about how we are governed, or even very much about by whom. The press gallery, by its own admission, is worthless. It seems better to preserve the empty charade than to work toward something better.


  1. Well observed Andrew and presented without fear or favour.
    Without fear or favour. How old-fashioned those fine words seem now.
    You are right Andrew, journalists, with notable exceptions, cannot describe what is going on because they have allowed themselves to become players.
    They are fearful of not being an Insider and favoured when they are.
    Some of those journalists skip nimbly between working for politicians and political journalism and vice versa.
    And now Abbott is following a US model and has employed a former TV cameraman to shoot those direct-to-YouTube announcements and this week engaged the services of a photographer from News Corp.
    Journalists are being cut out.
    Abbott only talks to favoured radio personalities apart from an occasional gig with Faine in Melbourne.
    He rides bikes, drives fire trucks, goes to church with Margie, eats onions etc for the pack.
    Increasingly he is recorded making sonorous announcements before fluttering flags at which no journalists are present.
    And now we must brace ourselves for those White House style glamour shots of The Leader at work or The Leader en famille.
    You are right Andrew, abbott has been doing this for a long long time.
    He is Steerpike.

    1. Tim Wilson our Human Rights Commissioner does a weekly stint on 3aw with Tom Elliot ...that's all!

      The next generation is worse Andrew.

      The Americanisation of our media is deeply disturbing...so silly and shallow

    2. "Silly and shallow".

      No wonder Abbott's at home with it.

  2. There is a serious problem with the closed shop at the parliamentary press gallery closed of to those freelance journalists who would report the true picture of politics.
    I look forward to your articles for the real events and happenings.

  3. You would have to think only the truly stupid would get caught by metadata laws.
    Today's deepthroat will not use any electronic communications, we have all seen enough spy movies to know how it was done in the old days.
    All governments chase whistle blowers hard and all governments are at least 20 lengths behind the main game. They can try to put the frighteners on but any journalist worth his salt can and will get around any barrier any government can put in front of them. Andrew thinks most of the press gallery are just too lazy to even try, he may be right.

  4. I can't imagine the Age or SMH doing investigative journalism these days. It seems so out of keeping with the pap that it's become. So that's probably why the journalists aren't fighting it.
    Either they are the calibre of Latika and don't know what investigative journalism is, or they will never get the chance to do investigative journalism so meh - not my problem.

  5. You know that journalists have way too much time on their hands...?

    Latika Bourke releases a book about her Indian heritage and adoption story......

    Yes...the Latika we all love to chastise on this blog

  6. If the Press Gallery are really journalists you'd think they'd take their own shots and write their own reports, rather than complaining about what is being served up to them

  7. Abbott's obsession with his own media representation and control has simply grown with time - and the addition of video and stills photographers to disseminate pre recorded messages to the media are his own personal 'savings dividend'. No more, those wretched questions, no more, those gotcha's, no more, those strained, seething and wincing, verbal pauses to avoid coming undone by aggression, no more, well anything folks.
    Just a drift into tin pot dictatorial territory, with lofty and largely pointless official pronouncements that lead of the news bulletins. It's an Abbott distant dream as yet, but the final step in that process would, of course, be the arbitrary allocation of the first minutes of daily broadcast news to Abbott's video entry, at which point we would be officially in Uzbekistan.

    1. Except, sometimes he must speak before the cameras: the COAG wrap up delivery yesterday was such an appearance.

      I can say, without exaggeration, that I could not hold on to a thread. Abbott was all over the place. The speaking style was familiar, lots of ums and ahs, repetition of simple phrases, references to 'our country' etc.

      There was no content that I can recall.

      Mike Baird made the next content free speech but the delivery was lucid and organized.

      And so on and so forth until the WA Premier threw a bucket of cold water on the love-in by making his feelings (cross, very cross indeed) clear.