08 November 2015

No favours

The press gallery has disgraced itself yet again by falling for an old trick, which some can anticipate but none seem able to head off. This time it's failing to spot information released after 8pm on a Friday night. Reactions to this news have been interesting, and revealing of both political bias and journalistic framing which most press gallery journalists would deny even exists.

When politicians, or anybody really, wants to release good news, they will do so in a way that suits journalists and maximises coverage. When people have bad news they won't release it at all, or will do so in a way that minimises coverage. Even the dullest press gallery journalists are awake to the trick whereby bad news is released late on a Friday, or just before a big event or holiday, or even during a big and unexpected event. Their employers don't seem to be awake to this ruse though, and every time it happens journalists are caught out. Shame on you if you fool me once, shame on you if you fool me again and again, because we're journalists and we just don't do shame.

Many outlets reported the fact that Shorten would not be referred for trial as a straight news story, like the ABC link above and the Guardian. Others, particularly in the Murdoch space, tried a meta-interpretation about Shorten and the royal commission.

They tried to continue linking Shorten and the royal commission in the way US conservatives do with set-piece inquiries into their political opponents that never fully implicate nor exonerate them: the practice has become known as 'swiftboating', a reference to the issue used to bog down John Kerry's Democratic candidacy for the US Presidency in 2004. Swiftboating was tried on the Clintons with Whitewater (though this preceded 2004, the practice was similar and later acquired the name) and now with Benghazi. In Australia the inquest-as-punishment tactic was tried on Kevin Rudd with pink batts, Julia Gillard with her renovations from decades before, and now on Shorten with the trade union royal commission (TURC) and AWU side deals. This linkage is part of the shortcomings of journalism, what they call 'framing' or 'context'. It often isn't helpful for readers/ listeners/ viewers/ citizens in understanding a situation; people resist the framing and thereby miss other aspects of the story, and other political stories. Journalists who (unwittingly or not) help muddy the waters jeer at the public for becoming disengaged, when such disengagement is more properly a failure of journalism.

One example of this Shorten-TURC meta-analysis is this piece by David Crowe, non-paywalled as I write but which may be yanked back behind that 21st century Mauer. It is not the worst example of its type, but Crowe is pretty much the archetype of the hapless press gallery drone who cannot and dares not go beyond his riding orders, and who will always patronise readers rather than provide useful information on how we are governed that might upset those who drip-feed him content.
The royal commission into union corruption does itself no favours by leaving it until a Friday night to clear Bill Shorten of any crime.
What an extraordinary statement that is. If that's when the information came to light, then that's when it came to light and it should be reported as soon as possible afterwards. Let's apply Crowe's logic to other big stories of recent years:
Lindy Chamberlain did herself no favours when her baby disappeared in the early hours of the morning.
Al-Qaeda did itself no favours by leaving it until the early hours of the morning to hijack planes and crash them across the northeastern United States.
The environment does itself no favours by jacking up temperatures to vindicate climate-change alarmists.
Labor itself no favours by leaving it until late on a Saturday night to lose the election to Tony Abbott.
Now you might claim that Crowe is entitled to some time off on a Friday evening, and I couldn't agree more. David Crowe, and almost every other member of the press gallery, should get as much time off as possible. Crowe's employer, NewsCorp, does roster journalists on after hours in a service they call a "night desk", and those people should keep an eye out for late-breaking stories like this but apparently, they don't.

What could Crowe have meant when he lamented that an official inquiry "does itself no favours"? As a quasi-judicial body, is it not obliged to act without fear or favour? To whom/what is it obliged to do favours, David?
The Opposition Leader warrants better treatment than that.
Yes he does, and good on you for leaping to his defence! Such concern is totally consistent with your reporting on Shorten and TURC. Is Shorten, as a potential prime minister, owed the "favours" you mention?
Burying awkward news on a Friday night is an old political trick – and commissions are not meant to be the place for that. Its submission on Shorten needed to be clear and upfront, not left to the 13th paragraph of a press release at 8:07pm.
My job involves gathering information from human and documentary sources, hunting through it and analysing that information, to often tight and shifting deadlines. I'd love a job where my colleagues and I became accustomed (if not entitled) to being spoon-fed information like the press gallery is.

Imagine being handed a piece of paper, with all the information for the day on one or two pages, then attending a short meeting where a person basically read out what was on the piece of paper just handed to me and my colleagues. Imagine we then got to ask questions, and the answers came back as reiterations of the phrases on the aforesaid bit of paper. Then imagine all I had to do was reformat those words, and maybe splice in some other words provided in a similar manner by someone else (the opposition, or a lobbyist). Now imagine that all happened in plenty of time ahead of my deadline: my job would be much easier than it is. It would approach the near-singularity of bludging and busywork that is the press gallery.

Crowe should have been able to rely on his "night desk" colleagues to pick up this story, rather than grizzle about news happening at times inconvenient to him. Maybe it just isn't reasonable for anyone, least of all Crowe himself, to act on the assumption that he is across all of the operations of the trillion-dollar entity that is the Australian government.
The commission has done great work uncovering the misuse of union members’ funds by the officials meant to help them. The labour movement is collectively shamed by revelations that an official spent workers’ cash at Tiffany’s.
I'm glad I didn't have to read to paragraph 13 of this article for Crowe's framing. Being an organisation comprised entirely of humans, I'm sure that unions and companies and government departments do feature the odd bit of graft and other malfeasance. Independent Australia was onto the HSU long before The Australian or TURC. I'm not convinced that graft is more prevalent in the union movement than in other operations, and nothing in the reporting coming from Crowe or his colleagues have helped confirm or disprove that notion.

What Crowe is doing here is claiming a role in vindicating the Heydon Royal Commission, or TURC. When this body, operating without fear or favour, releases information late on a Friday evening they are not just letting themselves down. They are letting David Crowe down. He's willing to help, but he can only do so much.
But if commissioner Dyson Heydon is to carry any influence with the public when he hands down his final report at the end of the year, his inquiry has to be seen to be fair.
Heydon is required to hand his report to government; influencing the public is the job of politicians, and Heydon has never sought nor held public office. Those who do so use the media as their conduit to the public, and Crowe is more than a willing tool in this regard. It is impertinent for him to insist that the royal commission help him by fitting its activities to his schedule. Crowe believes that prioritising the media in releasing information would be 'fair', and implies such 'fairness' would flow therefore in the ways those who fell foul of the commission might be reported.
Accusations of political bias have already damaged Heydon and the commission. Now there is more fuel for those attacks.
Journalists are taught to write in the active voice: it's action-oriented and more compelling to read, it clarifies responsibilities, and it requires fewer words than the passive voice. Whenever a journalist lapses into the passive voice they are up to no good.

If the TURC was politically biased against Shorten, and now Shorten is not to face charges, then surely "accusations of political bias" (wherever they are) have less fuel, not more?
The counsel assisting the commission, Jeremy Stoljar, obviously had a difficult deadline to release his submissions. Perhaps the workload was too great to finalise all the documents in time. But would it have been too difficult to issue a statement about Shorten earlier on Friday?

If tardiness was the problem here, it looks sloppy. If it was an attempt to draw attention away from the core conclusion, it looks like media manipulation.

Shorten and his staff were given no notice of the statement and say they first learned of it when journalists called them. Some claim that Shorten’s lawyers tried to contact the commission on Friday to check if anything was being published, but got no response.
People work late for all sorts of reasons. Clearly, the lack of notification to Shorten's office negates rather than reinforces Crowe's idea of a stitch-up. Should the commission have withheld this information until 9am Monday?

The commission released its own statement on the timing:
The submissions were completed in the early evening of 6 November and immediately released to all affected persons through the Electronic Court Book shortly before being publicly released to the media at 8.07pm. There was no disrespect intended to any affected person by this process.

The Commission's public website is operated through an external agency who will publish the submissions on the website on Monday.
Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Mr Crowe. Tardy and sloppy, indeed.
And the findings themselves? They hold more risks for Shorten than some might think ... Who knows what could emerge if the commission’s final report recommends action against Melhem and the entire affair ends up in court? ... The questions over Shorten subside.
Crowe's rather limited imagination is running away with him, and with the editors who failed to cut out such drivel. If there's a story, base it on the facts. If Shorten has no case to answer, why dream up scenarios where me might and call it reportage?
For now, though, the result is there for all to see. Shorten faces no submission that he broke the law.
It seems so contingent. Questions about Shorten have merely "abated", like a flood-tide that man is powerless to control, rather than been resolved by processes of oyer and terminer.
He has an instant answer to anyone in federal parliament, or elsewhere, who tries to attack him over what has emerged at the commission.
By "elsewhere", Crowe must surely include 'from the press gallery'. Maybe he could take time out from his day job as press secretary for the Heydon Royal Commission to ask Shorten one of his carefully framed questions. Maybe.

Within this story, The Australian links to other stories on the same topic:

Notice how they cast doubt on the exoneration of Shorten with the 'scare quotes', which are not afforded to the far more doubtful contention in the following headline. I'm not blaming Crowe for this, but I note he is not strong enough to set a clear tone for his articles, based on solid facts and sound analysis.

A royal commission should inquire into a pressing matter of public concern, but it should not need a cheer squad or public explainer in the way Crowe (and other journalists) claims. If this royal commission is first and foremost for show, if accommodating media deadlines trumps other considerations such as close and careful application of the law, if it requires "favours" from David Crowe, then it is in trouble. It is in so much trouble that Crowe, with his limited scope and skills in journalism, with his absurdly overestimated popular appeal and his misunderstanding of what a royal commission is/should be, simply cannot save it. He can barely justify his own role in this process, insofar as he has one, and insofar as the events of Friday night excluded him from it.

Crowe tips us off to TURC's essential illegitimacy, a failed witch-hunt tripped up by rules of evidence and the laws of the land. He reveals the extent to which he falls short of hopelessly inflated expectations. He does himself, his employer, the Heydon Royal Commission and this government - and his few and dwindling readers - no favours whatsoever.


  1. TURC: Just like a Liberal, bringing a diseased parsnip to a sword fight.

  2. Love your work as always, Andrew.

    But you got passive voice wrong again, I'm afraid. "Accusations of political bias have already damaged Heydon and the commission." is canonical active voice - the agent of the action is the subject and the auxiliary verb is HAVE. "Heydon and the commission have already been damaged (by accusations of political bias)" would be the passive version.

    Interestingly (to me anyway, but then I'm a linguist), this is a case where there is very little to choose between the two - our strong tendency to code human entities as subject makes the passive not noticeably weaker than the active in my view.

    1. Thank you (I'm sure there's a good reason why you started your second sentence with a preposition).

  3. I suspect most of so call allegations they are presenting as evidence will fail in any court of law. That already seems to be the case with the 2 or 3 charged,Courts are throwing cases out. Others if arrested are not being charged. Most that have been referred last October don't seem to be leading anywhere.

    1. Except for Kathy Jackson.

  4. Thanks for the term 'swiftboating' I was aware of the practice but did not know the term in political parlance.

    Would also like a name for the silly game of floating and idea to a gulliable press gallery (GST increase being the latest example) and then later discounting the proposal as never being endorsed by the executive. .

    1. The old "everything's on the table" defence.

  5. I'm not entirely sure what your point was with this one, Andrew, apart from attacking Crowe. Are you sticking up for the Royal Commission's Friday night special?

    The point of the Friday night press release being iffy is not that journalists are incapable of picking up things released on a Friday night, but that it hits the news cycle in a way when the public is paying less attention. It's not in the Friday night TV news, it's not in a weekday paper, it lands on the weekend when people have less attention for serious news. It's about hiding stories from the public, not from the press.

    When the Coalition does this the press usually pass no comment and assist in the burial of the news, so it's pretty unusual for the press gallery to make an issue of this. IF Jeremy Stoljar (who has seemed unquestionably the Liberal Party's man in TURC, whatever one thinks of Heydon's performance) did this deliberately he probably wouldn't have expected to be called on it for that reason. Maybe TURC's reasoning is legitimate, that it really did take until late Friday to complete the recommendation and they wanted to get it out immediately, but Stoljar hasn't earned the benefit of the doubt on that.

    Given the apprehension of bias from TURC, I think it's a very reasonable point that justice must be SEEN to be done and after very publically putting Shorten to the question it is very reasonable to expect that his exoneration be just as public- hold it back until Monday morning and make a big deal of it, or rush it out on Friday arvo even if the official recommendation hasn't yet been typed out in full and signed yet (surely by then Stoljar and Heydon knew what the recommendation would be). At best this is an oversight from people who should be hypersensitive to the visuals at this point, at worst it was a petty and deliberate act from people who are annoyed that they couldn't make a witchhunt stick.

    1. My point is that journos must hunt for news wherever it is, rather than expect it to be spoon-fed to them at their convenience. In terms of timing, there is no reason why this issue cannot be considered in depth and published at length at a time not suitable to the smart-alecs who thought up the Friday night idea.

      That is the only way you will kill this practice: give it the attention they hoped to avoid. Anything else is just whinging. It's the journalist's role to push through "visuals", not indulge them.

    2. That seems to be exactly what Crowe (and others, because I certainly didn't read The Australian) are doing, though: giving the matter the attention it wouldn't normally get and increasing the chance of it being noticed by the public. I'm not sure why they should be criticised for attacking the practice of "taking out the trash" in the process... even if journalists do their job and make a point of emphasising the news again on the Monday morning (or whenever), it is by then no longer breaking news and will no longer get quite the attention. Reactions to it are no longer fresh. There are new stories which may overshadow it. The practice SHOULD be condemned- whinging or not.

      Your attack on Crowe stumbles with the phrase "If that's when the information came to light, then that's when it came to light and it should be reported as soon as possible afterwards." because it takes TURC at face value and assumes they couldn't possibly have got the news out a few hours sooner even in preliminary form. When even a News Corp hack for The Australian, practically the Coalition's propaganda mouthpiece, is casting doubt on this it seems a bit odd that you're so willing to assume it's true.

    3. If we're into corrections, that's be "publicly" Anon.

  6. And yet everyone on board has already made their minds up about the whole thing. It's the ideologue's way. If you must have a trial, make it one by popular opinion, not all this legalistic nonsense. That's only good for getting away with things.