31 May 2015

That Hartcher piece

Wow. Just wow. All the press gallery and Labor staffers were united in their belief that this piece by Peter Hartcher was Very Important Journalism, which must of course be wrong. Well, it mostly is, but mainly because of Hartcher overreach. When he gets it right, though, he gets it right - but not nearly enough to warrant all the hoo-ha, or even a net positive regard for Hartcher.

The most important sentence in Australian political journalism for a decade

One paragraph, buried way down the article, revealed more than Hartcher knew or dared admit. In it lies buried much of what's wrong with our politics, mediated through traditional broadcast media, with an insular political class that monitors those it governs, but keeps its distance; that doesn't understand what a country needs, and fights a losing battle over its bipolar tendencies to populist binge followed by neoliberal purge. In it lies everything that's wrong with the press gallery: those who see it and fail to understand must not report for "work" on Monday. The second sentence in this paragraph:
The Labor opposition has struck a position of bipartisan accord with Abbott on national security. For this reason, the Parliament is no longer a functioning check on the government in this realm.
The press gallery - and Hartcher is one of the worst offenders - reports on politics from the premise that whatever Labor and the Liberal/Nationals/LNPQ/CLP/OMG/WTF Coalition agree upon is Sensible Bipartisan Reform. They believe - yes, even the best will lapse from time to time, or their editors do on their behalf - that whatever Laborandthecoalition don't agree on (or what others disagree with the joint ticket on) must be pointless bickering at best, destructive nonsense at worst.

All manner of dumb, nasty policy has been foisted on the Australian public by Laborandthecoalition: a budget in structural deficit, mandatory detention of boat-borne asylum-seekers, a contradictory and half-baked foreign policy, no policy on renewable energy or climate change to speak of, lip-service to health, education, science, and social programs while actually cutting them (more on that later); I could go on, and I have. All of those bad policies have been praised by the press gallery for being bipartisan. That praise only spurs more bad bipartisan policy, which will escape scrutiny because bipartisanship, and the press gallery become drawn into the protection racket that is the political class.

Any and all criticism of those bipartisan positions has been written off as irrelevant, because bipartisanship is its own reward and trumps all others. Peter Hartcher is one of the worst offenders but they all do it. Bipartisanship is an idea above its station.

When bipartisanship shuts down debate, there is some scope for the broadcast media represented in the press gallery to open up the debate that parliament isn't having. To do that, they'd need some understanding of the issues at hand and the stakeholders in the community who can articulate why the bipartisan position isn't the only and best one, which is how it appears to Capital Hill insiders.

Hartcher is yet to demonstrate any difference in the way things appear to Capital Hill insiders and the way such decisions affect those who are governed. This is why the rest of his article, bar the sentence referred to above, fails and fails utterly.

Wannabe Woodward

Bob Woodward is a US journalist most famous for his work uncovering the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s. More recently he wrote a series of books on the decisions by the Bush Administration to go to war against Afghanistan and Iraq, in which he used verbatim quotes from leading figures at crucial moments. Woodward had access to those people but he didn't have access to those meetings; he could not have taken those quotes directly but those who uttered them all come off as wise, learned, experienced, and wanting what's best for the their country and the world.

A review of Hartcher's recent columns show him to be a Woodward wannabe. Joe Hockey, Julie Bishop, Barnaby Joyce, and Malcolm Turnbull have all been tongue-bathed in recent Hartcher columns, where he uses direct quotes from meetings he did not attend that flatter those who flatter him in return. Hartcher is aiming for some sort of eminence in his profession, rather than a serious examination of how we are governed by this government.


Peter Dutton's proposals to strip people of their citizenship are the result of too little scrutiny of bad decisions that arise from bipartisanship.

Under the last Coalition government, Australian citizens Vivien Solon and Cornelia Rau were effectively stripped of their entitlements under Australian citizenship. Robert Jovicic, born in Serbia but who emigrated to Australia as a child and who held dual citizenship, was deported to a country he had not lived in for four decades after committing crimes here. Mohammed Haneef, a foreign citizen working in Australia, had his visa cancelled because of a ministerial decision about his terrorism activity. Dutton's proposal should not be seen as some sort of ambush, but an example of the classic conservative principle of perpetuating that which has gone before. Consider Dutton's predecessors as a Liberal immigration minister:
  • Phillip Ruddock is an elder statesman among Liberals, whose demotion by Abbott earlier this year anguished many in the party but who has recently been restored to a supporting role in anti-terrorism measures;
  • Amanda Vanstone is a Fairfax columnist. OK, so maybe she wasn't commissioned directly by Hartcher, but it's hard to imagine he hasn't at least acquiesced to such a position;
  • Kevin Andrews not only sits at the Cabinet table but was quoted favourably by Hartcher in his piece.
Hartcher's framing is all wrong, and he is horribly compromised in trying to misrepresent Dutton's position.

Quote unquote

Turnbull asked Abbott directly if the Daily Telegraph had been briefed on the proposal for the next morning's paper, which would have meant the cabinet meeting had been pre-empted by the Prime Minister's press office. The Telegraph is a favoured Abbott outlet for signalling his moves in advance.

It had not, replied Abbott.

Yet the next morning the Telegraph carried a report saying that the proposal would be "included in the bill" that had been approved by the cabinet the night before. Oops.
OK, so Abbott is a liar. This isn't even news, let alone the big give-him-a-Walkley-already scoop that the journosphere thinks it is.

What this does is prove a point that has been obvious throughout Abbott's career, not least in his infamous interview with Kerry O'Brien where he basically asserted his right to make shit up on the fly and nobody in the broadcast media called him on it. This was a significant moment in Australian political and journalistic history; Abbott should have been politically dead, but he is Prime Minister today because Peter Hartcher, those who report to him, and their counterparts in other organisations, went along with the idea that Abbott had to be taken at his word - whatever that word was.

The kind of insider access Hartcher and the rest of the press gallery aspires to is negated by the assumption that a direct quote has some sort of journalistic value, that there might be a connection (rather than the odd coincidence) between what is said and what is done.

The result of the 2013 election was based upon the assumption - reinforced by the coverage by Hartcher, his underlings, and their peers - that Abbott's word was worth more than that of Julia Gillard or Kevin Rudd.

Journalists place a lot of value in a direct quote. Abbott has devalued it considerably. Yet they go on, jamming stories full of direct quotes, often from people who don't have names (admittedly Hartcher's piece is refreshing for having a named person by each quote, which his reporting and those of his underlings have lacked in recent times).

It is in the nature of politicians to give self-serving quotes that reflect well upon them. Journalists need not feel obliged simply to transcribe these without further analysis.

On re-reading the above quote, why not have Abbott snarl: "And I suppose you're going to leak this to Hartcher at the SMH, are you Malcolm?". It would have been out of character for Hartcher to have published it, though. Anyway, Abbott isn't that fast on his feet, and his rejoinders tend to be both nasty and prepared in advance.

False balance

Rights are hard won and should not be lightly discarded. And, overall, the Abbott government is an active agent in the furthering of rights in Australia in at least three areas.

The rights of the disabled. The Abbott government is working to bring to fruition the National Disability Insurance Scheme. The rights of women and children in the home. Abbott has pledged to work to reduce domestic violence, even if he is criticised for doing too little.

The rights of Indigenous Australians. He has called a meeting with Aboriginal leaders for July to try to set a process and timetable for achieving recognition of Indigenous Australians in the constitution.
This is Hartcher's attempt to avoid being frozen out by a government that insists, against all evidence, that it must hold office without being criticised for the decisions it makes.

The NDIS has been cut down in budget and scope to suit a government of limited capability. Let's hope that it helps Australians like Solon and Rau, and Greg Anderson, and millions of others similarly afflicted - and their carers. It has a precarious existence under this government, whose announcements are received with nervous surprise rather than the warm gratitude they would hope for.

Hartcher's other two examples are just bullshit. Funding has been cut for women and children facing domestic violence, and for Indigenous people (not to mention those who fall into both categories). The government is not entitled to be taken at its word, which is a key assumption of the very notions of human rights. The insider access counts against the insider who ignores this credibility gap, and who therefore falls into the gap along with those in the community afflicted by more than their pride or 'balance'.

Hartcher sits atop a reporting structure designed to feed him the information necessary to avoid such a strain to his credibility. His lunge for insiderdom undermined the credibility he had sought to put beyond doubt.

Don't take his word for it

Bizarrely, Hartcher rounds off his column by reference to what he considers a higher authority, Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker. Pretty much everybody who has been a second-year Arts student over any of the past thirty years has an opinion on Pinker, but Hartcher is happy to quote him too verbatim and uncritically.
The only risk now is that it falls prey to petty political vanity ... Rather than a mean game of using rights to divide, whether the rights of citizenship or the rights to equal treatment of gay people before the law, Australia's leadership has a chance to use rights to unite.

An Australia united in advancing fairness and human rights is not only the right thing to do. It's also a profound repudiation of the barbarians who call themselves Islamic State. That truly would be an extraordinary proposition.
Hartcher dumps us back in the moral swamp of bipartisanship. Had Shorten endorsed Dutton's proposal, Hartcher would have no story and would likely have piled on the criticism of Turnbull and other "dissenters".

Whether or not others share Hartcher's political-class delusions is neither here nor there. We have a government that stands athwart history, screaming "stop!", across almost every portfolio. That is the nature of our government and Hartcher, as with the rest of the press gallery, is wrong to represent it in any other way. With regard to same-sex marriage Abbott is foxing, like Howard did with the convention on the republic. Hartcher is a fool to take the current prime minister at his word, to assume he is capable of anything beyond political vanity at its most petty.

This triumph of hope over experience, sacrificing reportage of what is happening to a desire to think well of the government, is where all political reporting fails. Peter Hartcher, a puffed-up man holding a senior position in Australian political reporting, fails where he wanted to succeed and fails all the more for that.


  1. Thanks for keeping it real. Sick of the how this Govt gets away with their lies.

  2. Peter Hartcher may be a fool, but he is, like many in the CPG, definitely a tool of this profoundly dysfunctional, destructive and dangerous government and its demented leader.

  3. And today on 'Insiders', when Cassidy brought this story up and David Marr attempted to talk about the issue of stripping people's citizenship by ministerial whim, Cassidy quickly stopped him and said we'll get to that later. Because he wanted to focus on the big issue of ministerial leaking and what that meant.

  4. After LoRes scanning the content yesterday morn, then taking a Maxalon and waiting 5 minutes, my 'umble assessment, (albeit at a lower level of analysis as our esteemed blogger's), was:

    -Hartcher takes call, (or, more likely, meets someone near a video distributor's car park in Fyshwick, and pre-arranges to speak in schoolboy/girl French). A few folded pages are handed over.
    Said notary goes home and types up copy of first half of piece (10 minutes max.)

    -another 10 minutes of liberal whitewashing of Abbott's brave stand on NDIS, domestic violence, indigenous affairs.

    Quick read-over... done...submit.

  5. Same sex marriage. ..his own sister said it will come this Xmas...

    This family are bloody ridiculous as well

    She plays identify politics to further her own career and that of her brother. ..

    They look stupid to everyone outside of Australia

    Narcissistic pricks both of them Andrew to have a big fat gay wedding at taxpayers expense.

    That's a real sign of disfunction right there.

    1. Hear hear. Who gives a flying fandango about what this person is/does. She's Abbott's sister; so what?!
      MSM beat up, without any shred of even tendentious leaks that might be relevant.
      The Mad Monk's sister's sexual preference is for women! Yawn....

  6. Thanks again Andrew. I thought that the add-on sop to Abbott about other matters was telling, infuriating and amusing.

    What dismays though is that there seems to have been very few questions asked or raised about matters of substance.

    How will this proposition work? Where will dispossessed citizens go? Will we end up with a Guantanamo set up? Will we be sending suspected terrorists back to a birth country, Syria for example, when we are struggling to keep others from going there. And it has already been revealed that we would have to accept a Brit-Australian if the UK cancelled the British part of the citizenship. What about wives and children?

    What I find truly amazing is that senior members of cabinet have accused the PM or not respecting the rule of law. What could be more serious? I think that all those who spoke out in cabinet should be required to explain further. Already though it seems like the roller door is going down.

  7. "This triumph of hope over experience, sacrificing reportage of what is happening to a desire to think well of the government, is where all political reporting fails."

    Well they spent so long telling us how bad the last government was and how good the Abbott government was going to be. It's easier for them to keep writing crap for 18 months, to force themselves into this bizarre cognitive dissonance where they state the Abbott government is good when they know it's bad, than it is to admit they were wrong.

  8. The poorer for it, but you have become the left's version of Andrew Bolt right now.

    The sky is not falling in, though your rhetoric would suggest otherwise. Individual targets do not deserve this amount of angry equivalism. I don't understand what is motivating this once-incisive writer. Whatever is angering you, I suggest you try toning it down.

    Meanwhile, Abbott is somehow turning gay marriage into a political win. He's suddenly noble in doing so.

    - Joe

    1. I sure don't deserve it, Joe. The fact that your comment wasn't even coherent - or that it's here at all - suggests that your initial promise not to visit this site any more was the right one for you.

    2. JOE,

      He must have ruffled some feathers to have annoyed you?

      Are you an insider..? poor old angry white male syndrome?

      Keep up the great work Andrew.

    3. anon,

      i find Caitlyn more stylish and having more subtance to Marriage Equality as an American republican than Mrs Forster.

      as they are gay role models, at least become more polished and leave the queer collective university dress sense to those in their twenties...very poor form for a gay liberal

  9. Saw this piece in The Age today and thought of you:

    Martin bemoans the way that politicians manipulate the PBO for their political ends, completely ignoring the fact that the way in which journalists report this manipulation is the very thing that allows such a practice. Like your piece above, it's contemptible that journalists either a) obscure their active role in the process, or b) can't even see that they're being played for fools.

  10. Well Andrew, if you take that job at Fairfax, sorry, Huffpo, you'll be able reach across the cubicle and smack Hartcher over the back of the head for us.

    Oww, what was that for?
    You know perfectly well.

  11. I think it's a mistake to categorise Abbott as a liar, Andrew. As Harry Frankfurter pointed out in his excellent monograph On Bullshit, liars actually care deeply about the truth. Bullshitters like Abbott just say whatever is expedient at the moment, with no concern for truth or falsity.

    1. Yes, and it is very good - but Richard Nixon was both, in spades, at the same time, and Abbott is the same, so I'm not sure this is an either/or position.

    2. Certainly his default state is lying, but I still think that is more to do with expedience than a concern with the truth combined with an intent to deceive. Still, I'm sure we can fart and chew gum here.

  12. Thank you for your continued work in calling out this crap, Andrew. We - and you - have every right to be angry about the way many in the MSM continually feed us half-baked, simplistic, tabloid nonsense, and seem to be unwilling or unable to grapple with the complexities of government. The electorate deserves better than this. It's unpaid (or at least minimally paid) independent writers who are doing the likes of Hartcher's job! It's embarrassing.

  13. I don't know about a transgender person being a 'gay role model??'

    1. Anon...

      Glbti youth have the highest youth suicide rate in the country

      Cath Mc Gregor and other prominent
      transgender individuals play a significant role in the mainstream accepting minority groups.
      This conservative government has been disgusting in providing leadership to the next generation

      Their views are archaic and dangerous.

      I have gay relatives and they're sick of the government playing politics with their lives and not moving with the times.

      For that isolated rural kid struggling with their identity. ..it's very bloody significant!