09 October 2015

Sooky one day, snarly the next

I got the horse right here
The name is Paul Revere
And here's a guy that says if the weather's clear
Can do, can do, this guy says the horse can do
If he says the horse can do, can do, can do

Frank Loesser Fugue for Tinhorns (from Guys and Dolls)
Former State MP for Cairns Gavin King has written a biography of his former Premier, Campbell Newman. I haven't read the book but I have read excerpts of it in the broadcast media, and their responses seem every bit as interesting as the ins and outs of Queensland politics.

King demonstrated a strong talent for embarrassing himself to get publicity, as though media attention was more important in itself than as a conduit through to the community he represented. He tried and failed to make complex issues like assaults on the body or movements of the body bend to both his will and the limitations of his understanding. He was probably astute to publish his book through the conservative Connor Court, ensuring no pernickety publisher would fact-check it too critically.

Media reports quote King's/Newman's complaint that the defeat of the LNP state government after a single term renders reform impossible. Journalists shirk the whole idea of 'reform' and what it might mean, accepting the word as a gobbet of content rather than an idea in need of unpacking: it is left to people like sociologist Mark Bahnisch to explore questions like reform of what, to what ends and in whose interests, etc.

Their main focus seems to have been on what Newman thought of the media, as though this was the most important and newsworthy aspect of the Newman government. Apparently he thought they were a "pack of bastards", shallow and what have you. This is what gets them going. The trouble is, it doesn't really go anywhere.

Confident that I'm not a bastard

The ABC's state political reporter Chris O'Brien leapt into print with a headline that promised so much. He spends half the article recapping the situation, before this:
After his last all-in media conference in late January, Mr Newman told colleagues "... that's the last time I'll ever have to talk to that pack of bastards."

The initial reaction by some of us bastards has been to dismiss the criticism as sour grapes.

That's an understandable response. It's natural for anyone - journalist, jockey or jeweller - to defend themselves when they're admonished in print, and the book is steeped in Mr Newman's deep disappointment at the fact and manner of his defeat.
Understandable perhaps, but the right response?

Where journalists are different is in their analysis. Information is useless without analysis and context, and journalists add value when they supply both information and analysis. Anyone can stick a microphone in front of somebody and transcribe it: that's a job that can be replaced by computer hardware and software, and one day soon will be.

O'Brien should have been big enough to analyse the criticism for areas where Newman had a point, to concede them with as much good grace as he (O'Brien) is capable of, and to show how he might do better. Instead, he commits to tossing out baby and bathwater with equal force.

Jewellers and jockeys, lawyers and doctors and politicians, face real career limitations in the event of proven malfeasance in their jobs. Journalists do not. Journalists can, and do, dismiss any and all criticism as whinging, going directly into defensive mode without any real clue what they are defending or why, other than their feelings and those of their colleagues. It is flatly untrue that everybody is as incapable of self-examination as O'Brien admits himself to be.
But largely [Newman] avoids admitting any actual mistakes of policy or action.
Well Chris, you were the ABC's state politics reporter during that time: any suggestions about what they might have been? No? That makes you as bad as him, surely.
However, does that mean that his "sour grapes" - and reporters' umbrage - is all we take from the book and its reception?

"Can Do - Campbell Newman and the Challenge of Reform" is more than 300 pages long. It includes lengthy sections, in the words of the author and in passages written by the subject himself, that offer up suggestions and opinions for improving the way politics is done and covered.
What are they, Chris? You're an experienced journalist - draw those ideas out, examine the arguments for and against - no? If your article had a point, that would have been it.
What if Newman and King make some good points, but they're overlooked because Mr Newman is regarded by opponents as bitter and twisted and because he stops short of a full mea culpa?
What are the "good points", and how can you tell? What if an ad hominem attack on Newman and/or King just doesn't cut it? Note this - "is regarded by opponents" - the passive voice and anonymous quote, the marks of journalistic failure.
I don't think there's any harm in debating the book's premise that the coverage of politics in Australia today leaves something to be desired.

As a political reporter I defend what I and my colleagues do, but I have some sympathy for the opinion that there should be more in-depth reporting of government and politics. I happen to think there's plenty, on radio programs and news websites and ABC television current affairs (the last of which Mr Newman acknowledges.)

But I don't dismiss out of hand the view that there isn't enough and that it could be better. It's worth discussing.
But you do dismiss it out of hand, Chris. Here we are near the end of your article and you claim there's "plenty" of in-depth reporting, which presumably gives press gallery journalists some sort of excuse to be trite and banal. See the two paragraphs following the above quote, O'Brien's anecdote about Wayne Bennett at the NRL Grand Final: "... may come across ... labelled by some critics ...". Gutless shirking of perfectly fair criticism of reporters.
Similarly, Mr Newman's bleak view of media - even if genuinely held - cannot be separated from his disastrous electoral outcome.
Really? Joh Bjelke-Petersen, Jeff Kennett and Neville Wran are three examples of politicians with similar views about press gallery journalists and journalism; all had more substantial achievements than Newman, including getting re-elected.
Secondly, can his criticism of media be treated dispassionately by media? Yes, perhaps - but not easily.

As one of the pack of bastards who was at that last news conference, even if I am fairly confident that I'm not a bastard, and even if Mr Newman was thinking about some other bastards and not me, I am at least subconsciously inclined to reject his analysis of my craft.
O'Brien should have answered his rhetorical question in the negative. When criticised he gets his dander up and can't tell whether criticism is legitimate. That second paragraph quoted above is embarrassing, his confidence based on nothing but ego. Maybe he's right to assert his subconscious over any capacity for sensible analysis; it's just a pity.

The journos' syllogism

So perhaps journalists should stay out of the argument about journalists.
That line is whimpering defeatism.

When it comes to criticism, journalists have a syllogism that goes as follows:
  1. No criticism of any journalist by any non-journalist is ever legitimate.
  2. Only journalists can truly know what it's like to be a journalist, so only they are in a position to criticise - if any criticism is warranted.
  3. No journalist ever criticises another journalist, because that would be mean and disloyal - and any criticism of journalists can only ever be mean.
  4. Go back to step 1 until you a) are sick of it, and b) realise they will and can never, ever change. Any and all criticism of journalists is never about the journalists, only about you; Q. E. fucking D.
There's no helping some people. O'Brien (and most journalists, let's be frank) want an impoverished, two-part world: journalists over there, doing the same old same-old without thinking, day in and day out, while over here those of us who want more and better from journalism can chat amongst ourselves, and never the twain shall meet.
It may be naively purist to say, but reporters reporting on criticism of reporters makes them part of the story.
"May be"? How could you tell?

Aren't we well past the point where we can pretend journalists are "not part of the story", as transparent as a window pane? I won't sustain anyone in that fantasy.
We need to be able to explain our actions as reporters and rebut ...
Why not a bit of forethought and humility? Nobody wants to hear your whiny defensiveness. We all have to think about what we do and how we do it, and do things differently when common practice no longer yields expected results.
But it's difficult to remain disinterested in that particular to and fro.
While being Premier of Queensland is a piece of cake? Really? Get over yourself and admit your analytical skills are non-existent, O'Brien. That old saying about politicians needing to be replaced like nappies need changing applies to press gallery journalists too.

Lessons in leadership

Madonna King is not a press gallery journalist but has written extensively about politics. While O'Brien wrestled with issues that are too hard for him to understand, MK (initials to distinguish her from Gavin, from the singer, and the Christian icon) is convinced a simple ad-hominem slapping will suffice to deflect - no, defeat - criticism.

It is a feature of most bad journalism that you have to scroll down a third or even half-way down an article to get to the point. Many can be forgiven for giving up altogether. MK's rugby league analogy was laboured but this bit was jarring:
... on Sunday night when the Cowboys stole the premiership from the favoured Broncos.
The Cowboys played within the rules and won the Grand Final on the field, within the rules of the game. They did not cheat on the field or engage in skullduggery off it. The Broncos were not the reigning premiers, nothing was "stolen" from them. If you can't get that right, what else in this article is bullshit?
Why else would [Newman] think - after the biggest defeat in history - that he is in the position to lecture us on everything from reform to the role of the media?

Despite the LNP loss, he still can't see that he was the reason for it. Now it's the pack of bastards in the media, or those on his team that didn't really pull their weight, or even voters, who didn't understand what he was doing was in their best interests.

Eight months after voters sent him packing, the poll loss is still everyone else's fault, except his own.
The man is entitled to his opinions. An opinion does not become a "lecture" just because you don't want to hear it. He has some experience with reform, and with the media, and so his opinions might have some weight - or they might not, but the umbrage at the very fact of expressing them is silly. Newman might not be self-reflective, but as we saw with O'Brien above (and with Newman's brother-from-another-mother Tony Abbott) he's hardly alone in that.
His book, can do, is bare in self-analysis but it offers a thorough (although one-sided) account of his government's actions. All the attention, so far, has been on his criticisms - a focus the former premier will no doubt highlight as proving his point about the paucity of modern political debate.
Newman may have participated in its writing, but it would be "his" book if he had written it. MK lets Gavin King off the hook - maybe this is another example of the journos' syllogism, maybe Madonna and Gavin are related, who cares? When MK talks about "all the attention", she really means all that journalists want to write about - as though what journalists want to write about is the same thing as what people want and like and need to read.
But what comes through the most is Newman's unwavering belief in himself.
Is Newman the first politician who believed in himself? No. Is self-belief a feature of non-political lives, such as those of (say) journalists? Yes. Is this a silly criticism?

It's certainly passive-aggressive. Someone who wants to disagree with you, but who lacks the information, the debating skill and the sheer wit necessary to make a case and hold to it, will say something like "you're very sure of yourself, aren't you?" in an attempt to throw you off. This is what MK is doing here: like O'Brien, she can't tell whether Gavin King and Newman have legitimate criticisms of the media. She can only tell that there are criticisms, and that considering them and responding to them would be harder work than she is prepared to do.

Lessons in history

His inability to play as part of a team is highlighted more and more, evidenced by the fact that he didn't even consult his wife Lisa about running for the top job until a month after he had sought the advice of others. By her account, he just mentioned it casually as he walked out the door on the day his candidacy was to be revealed.
It was demonstrated long before then. Before becoming Premier, Newman had been Lord Mayor of Brisbane. In that role his autocratic tendencies were obvious to the point where even the media noticed. When he became Premier, smarter people in Queensland were awake to what he was like. Journalists, desperate to maintain whatever is to be gained by insider status, wrote slavering articles and allowed him to slap their faces over and over for years.

Now that Newman's career is over even the most supine journalist doesn't have to cop that any more. When they go after Newman, they do so because he's now outside the whole fed-chooks system that press gallery journalists don't question, and which stunts their ability to tell us how we are governed.
And of everything that has come out in the past two weeks, that is the point I struggle to understand most - particularly given the keenness with which [Newman] later embraced [his wife's] campaigning skills.
Why are we even speculating about his marriage, anyway? Why did Lisa Newman switch to such a full embrace of the life of a politician's partner? What if she holds the media in similar esteem to her husband? What about Gavin King's wife? You see where this gets us: nowhere, particularly in terms of media criticism. But hey, MK has had her say - or lectured us - and that's the main thing.
Campbell Newman can say what he likes, but he led his party to an historic and unexpected defeat, and lost his own seat ...
... and ner-nerny-ner-ner, tu quoque you loser! No mention of Newman's media criticisms and any evaluation of same, no mention of anything he might have achieved among the wreckage of his government, but a resentment that the man both has an opinion and dares to express it.

Had Newman offered Madonna King a series of exclusive interviews, as Joe Hockey did for her biography of him, that might have been different.
So to put himself up, now, as ... someone even the party might turn to in the future is breath-taking in its arrogance.
Really? He said his career was over, but ... oh I see, MK just made that up.

There is a question to be had about how the media were so keen to embrace Queensland's change of government in 2012 (or at least not get caught defending a government on its way out), so happy to put up with the crap Newman flung at them for three whole years, and now happy to pile on him now that he's having his say.

Maybe they're just not as perceptive as we need journalists to be.

You could be really smug

Censorship (n.)

1. Any regime or context in which the content of what is publicly expressed, exhibited, published, broadcast, or otherwise distributed is regulated or in which the circulation of information is controlled. The official grounds for such control at a national level are variously political (e.g. national security), moral (e.g. likelihood of causing offence or moral harm, especially in relation to issues of obscenity), social (e.g. whether violent content might have harmful effects on behaviour), or religious (e.g. blasphemy, heresy). Some rulings may be merely to avoid embarrassment (especially for governments).

2. A regulatory system for vetting, editing, and prohibiting particular forms of public expression, presided over by a censor: an official given a mandate by a governmental, legislative, or commercial body to review specific kinds of material according to pre-defined criteria. Criteria relating to public attitudes — notably on issues of ‘taste and decency’ — can quickly become out-of-step.

3. The practice and process of suppression or any particular instance of this. This may involve the partial or total suppression of any text or the entire output of an individual or organization on a limited or permanent basis.

4. Self-censorship is self-regulation by an individual author or publisher, or by ‘the industry’. Media industries frequently remind their members that if they do not regulate themselves they will be regulated by the state. Self-censorship on the individual level includes the internal regulation of what one decides to express publicly, often attributable to conformism.

5. In Freudian psychoanalytical theory, the suppression of unconscious desires that is reflected in the oblique symbolism of dreams: see displacement.

- The Oxford Dictionary of Media and Communication

Again, I have no idea how "awful" or "woefully-titled" can do is (or whether it is), so I have no choice but to take Gay Alcorn's word for it. What I don't have to take is her misinterpretation of what censorship is:
I will defend Newman against, of all places, the Avid Reader bookshop, the premier independent bookshop in my hometown of Brisbane. Avid Reader is routinely named the best bookstore in the city, with a “ridiculously comprehensive” selection.

Its owner, Fiona Stager, is a former head of the Australian Booksellers Association and a leading cultural figure in Brisbane [you there, stop that sniggering] ... Avid Reader is refusing to stock Newman’s authorised biography, written by former Queensland MP Gavin King. Stager told ABC radio that Newman’s decision soon after winning office to scrap the premier’s literary awards was a key reason.

“We saw that as an attack on the writing, editing, book-publishing, book-selling community in Queensland. It seemed ironic that the first thing he did after losing was to turn around [and] be involved in the publication of a book,” she said.

Stager says the store has “always reflected the views and feelings of its community” and that many of its customers were devastated by Newman’s public service job cuts.
Love it when a journalist has a point, and gets to it.

Nowhere in that article, nor anywhere else I could find, is there any indication that Stager is campaigning to have the book banned. She is not threatening Newman or King with violence, as Salman Rushdie was - not by Stager - over The Satanic Verses. Stager certainly doesn't have the power to censor it, even in her capacity as "a leading cultural figure in Brisbane" (stop it!).

When I rang Avid Reader and asked them to set aside a copy of can do for me, the jackboot of the state came down hard upon my neck and here I am in a remote gulag, for who knows how long? the staff helpfully referred me to another shop nearby which stocks the book.

If Stager had expressed her misgivings about Newman, as I dare say she had even before this book came out, wouldn't she have been a hypocrite for pocketing that all sweet sweet cash which is undoubtedly pouring into the coffers of her competitors? What about if said competitors sold out of stock, and Connor Court could not replenish in time - would they be censoring Newman too? The absurdity of this argument is demonstrated whenever anyone dares to talk back to Andrew Bolt: he goes on his national TV show, his nationally-syndicated newspaper column, his blog and his mates' radio shows, grizzling loud and long that he is being "censored".

Alcorn is a journalist who grew up in Queensland when it was governed by Bjelke-Petersen. Short of someone like Peter Greste, or immigrants who fled repressive regimes, few people in this country should be more aware of what "censorship" really means - and how absent it is here.
Fundamental to my now-quaint notion of progressive politics is tolerance, debate, and the critical importance of free speech, even of speech I intensely disagree with.
It's a pity that Alcorn couldn't engage the book itself, and the issues it raises; and how easy it apparently was for a few tweeps to bump her off such fundamental convictions as she might have, or even her understanding of words. The issues apparently raised in the book are live issues in politics today: law and order, the assets of the state and how they are to be used, how we choose and discard our leaders. If Alcorn doesn't deign to engage the ideas raised by King and Newman then she can hardly blame Stager for doing likewise. Alcorn claims Stager has a responsibility to public debate that she herself has shirked.


... Now this is no bum steer
It's from a handicapper that's real sincere
Can do, can do, this guy says the horse can do.
If he says the horse can do - can do - can do ...
Here again we have seen the limits of 'horse-race' journalism, where the shortcomings of the favourite somehow become apparent after he has slipped back in the field - never before.

For Newman's political career, there is no "can do". There is only "has done" or "didn't", it is too late for "can yet do", "could/ should/ would have".

The whole idea of fourth-estate journalism, of all the privileges enjoyed by press gallery journalists like O'Brien, big-in-Brisbane journos like Madonna King, and ex-editors like Alcorn, is that they will tell us how we are governed and how we might be governed. They won't, they can't - instead, they flock to essentially the same meta-debate about the media and how nobody is allowed to question it. Anyone who does can cop an ad-hominem attack, in place of the fair and well-informed debate they all claim to champion but none can actually conduct.

So Campbell Newman has criticisms of the media. So does anyone with any experience of them. Some of these probably are the illegitimate gripes of someone who shirked the responsibilities of both democratic scrutiny, and to engage the public on issues that go beyond technocratic matters of expenditure and regulation. Some of them might be more than fair: there may even be some really important lessons that journalists, and those who employ them, would be foolish to ignore. O'Brien, Madonna King and Alcorn are well placed to examine these, but they haven't and can't. Instead, they have hurled babies and bathwater with equal force.

Newman's pathetic attempts to limit public debate have been thwarted. Nobody said that public debate can only happen at Avid Reader, or in different broadcast-media outlets that can only ever seem to run much the same story from the same angle and never revisit it. Now we need information about how we are governed (which includes information about how we have been governed, and what our options are on how we might be governed). Are journalists - experienced journalists, with years of experience observing politicians and politics up close - in a position to do this?

They're in a position to do this, but they don't. Newman, and Tony Abbott, are just two recent examples of politicians described by political journalists as soaring and swooping like eagles, who turned out on closer inspection to be turkeys caught in updrafts of broadcast-media hot air. Campbell Newman has every right to lecture journalists on how they should do their jobs, because almost none of the practitioners have much of an idea - they get reflexively defensive without any real clue what it is they are defending. While it's certainly true that Newman's criticisms are unfair, it's indisputable that journalists can't tell which criticisms are fair and which aren't. They have no basis but their own feels to do so, and that leads them only to note the mote in Newman's eye while overlooking the beams in their own.

Even Queenslanders need to be well governed. They - we - need more and better information than self-obsessed, obtuse journalists can provide. Journalists who can't get over themselves aren't just flawed humans, they are social, economic, and democratic bottlenecks. They should accept criticism (not in general but specifically) and engage with it. They should accept that people will and should go around them to get the information they/we need, the information to which we are (go on, say it) entitled.


  1. Martin Spalding9/10/15 8:09 pm

    Thanks Andrew. Your criticisms of journalists are consistent with your previous posts, but in this case you seem to be caught between two positions on Newman's criticisms of the media. I haven't read 'Can Do', but surely if it's mostly sour grapes from a man lacking self-reflection, that kind of undermines the accuracy and perspicacity of what he says about the media. I know you are going for a nuanced view but it gets to a point where you can't have one side and the other.

    1. I think you need to read Andrew's piece a few times. There aren't 'two positions', and any criticism of Gay Alcorn can never be anything but well deserved. Lastly, why does 'sour grapes' preclude accurate and perspicacious comment?

    2. Like the journalists referred to above Martin, you're attempting a meta-debate without being capable of it. A stopped clock is right twice a day, and if Newman makes two valid criticisms in 300 pages then I'd like to see them examined. Babies, bathwater as I said earlier.

    3. I was sort of thinking that as I was reading. After all, Newman attacking the media which lauded him as a saviour, "Can Do Campbell", is similar (if not to quite the same level) as Abbott attacking the media which spend years telling Australia he was fit to be PM, he was a changed man, and applying no scrutiny to him while being utterly unfair to the Labor government and its policies. Both Newman and Abbott's criticism of the media comes from being confounded by the sudden withdrawal of fawning support.

      BUT, that said, the fact that the criticism is sour grapes and incomplete doesn't mean the criticism isn't partially valid and that journalists are entitled to pretend they were doing their jobs properly all along, so I see where Andrew is coming from.

  2. Thanks, I look forward to reading your work. it is a simple point that journalism is more than reporting but it seems to defeat most of those involved.

  3. The Broncos were leading for most of the game so saying the premiership was "stolen" from them is a perfectly cromulent word in this context.

    1. Theirs to lose, then, as they apparently did. (Disclaimer: I don't understand either form of rugby, and didn't watch the game.)

    2. And cromulent seems to be a perfectly wrong word to use in that context.

    3. Surely the traditional "Snatched defeat defeat from the jaws of victory" homily would apply here, but even that would involve some thought by journalists.

  4. Lachlan Ridge11/10/15 11:53 am

    "Journalists shirk the whole idea of 'reform' and what it might mean, accepting the word as a gobbet of content rather than an idea in need of unpacking..."

    I think this goes to the heart of your plaint regarding press gallery muppets, and journalism more broadly.

    How citizens deal with traffic jams, kids education, what happens when they get sick, how they keep a roof over their head, insecure employment and a multitude of other everyday problems all involve how we engage with government: yet to the press gallery - and journalism in its broader sense (with exceptions that prove the rule) - all of this is simply a Macguffin for framing the personal politics of parliamentary theatre, as if it all exists in some Shakespearean bell jar without consequence for real people.

    This blind flaw of journalism, and the conduct of the broader political class and focus group policy development, is a cancer that has grown on our politic since the rise of the professional political class with machine politics from the late seventies.

    How we drag the reality of policy and make it front and centre of journalism and politics while dispensing with the personality fluff engaged by the political class - including journalism - is the problem.

    1. Agreed. Press gallery journalism seems like keeping up with the narrative on Neighbors. What's actually happening is barely important, as the story revolves mostly around the people involved in today's drama, who are only there on the basis of their own opportunities.