03 July 2016

Leaving us hanging

Before I start, let me apologise to regular readers for the long delay in posting at a time when you'd expect me to post often and much. I feel like I've said everything that needs to be said about the horrible vacuity of campaign-trail journalism, while the big media organisations keep pumping out the same old crap. Those who think I've said too much already can agree that I gave those drongoes trashing once-proud media outlets more than enough rope.

1972 was clearly a big year for campaign-trail journalism. Whitlam's launch of that year set the template for every campaign launch since: the upbeat speech, the balloons, the camera shots of young hopefuls and elder statesmen. Tony Wright and Dennis Shanahan [writes for NewsCorp, find it yourself] both wrote jaded gobbets about how lame it all was - but if those guys' decades of experience means anything, they had no right to expect any better. The US election of that year yielded The Boys on the Bus by Tim Crouse and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail by Hunter S. Thompson, and every single word written or spoken by every campaign-trail journalist has been a warmed-over take-out from either/both of those seminal texts.

They spent three years wishing they were on the campaign trail, and now they're here they are bored and tired - and nobody cares that they're bored and tired, because politics rendered in a boring way isn't intended to arouse sympathy or any other sort of engagement:

(c) Guardian Australia

Campaign trail journalism had to reach a point of cultural exhaustion at some point, and here we are. All those photo-ops and proto-announcements counted for nothing. When you're engaged in non-work, you can't expect sympathy from those who get tired from working real jobs. The press gallery sat around for three years watching their drinking buddies mess about with policy proposals that had real-world impacts on the lives of their readers/ listeners/ viewers.

They couldn't craft the words and images that could describe what was going on, and how it affects us; easier to comment on pretend-elections and gossip, and the dummies in the editorial suite had no better sense for news than theirs. Popular disengagement is political failure, and it's a failure of journalism too. Both have far-reaching impacts on politics and media which can't be imagined, let alone managed, by those who run either type of organisation. Now they wonder why there's disengagement, and you still can't tell them: the old traditions of campaigning have worn so thin, and campaign-trail journalism goes into the skip along with all the other how-to-votes and hopes and dreams.

What's clearly failed here isn't just campaign-trail journalism. It's the idea that you can only report on federal politics from Canberra, or by flying in clueless pinheads from Sydney like Simon Benson or Peter Hartcher, while cutting out local journalists. Everyone talks about Xenophon in South Australia, but once you get past Sydney/Melbourne condescension to that state the only actual Croweaters the press gallery talks to are other journalists, or Christopher Pyne and Penny Wong - and Xenophon seems to be a reaction to the problems those two caused or failed to solve. Rob Oakeshott explained how Fairfax's centralised ad-buying undermined local editorial in the Port Macquarie News. Sydney/Melbourne media could cover from the suburbs of those cities but not from regional Queensland, or hardscrabble Tasmania - even Windsor vs Joyce in New England was assumed to be a toss-up when it wasn't, because the desire to pose for 'balance' outweighed any genuine journalistic instinct to report the story.

Nobody votes on a national basis. It's why those who complained Tony Abbott or Kevin Rudd were "elected Prime Minister" are talking nonsense. It's why journalists relying on "national polls" add nothing to anyone's understanding: if you can't explain which seats go this way or that and why, you can't explain the result; you can only suck air through clenched teeth and go "ooh, it's close!", and there's no future or value in that. Polls showing minor inflections may nonetheless be valuable for pollsters - but it is poor fare for journalists, and irrelevant pap for readers/ listeners/ viewers/ voters.

Let's remember clearly how the media reacted to developments in this campaign:
  • When Turnbull threatened a double dissolution election over workplace relations, the press gallery all agreed (thanks for the link @boozebum) it was a masterstroke in wedging Labor, unprepared and with a lacklustre leader.
  • Traditional media all agreed that 'Mediscare' was a scare campaign, but seemed to take recent Coalition campaigns against carbon pricing or the Budget deficit at face value.
  • In the last week of the campaign, traditional media were all agreed the Coalition would be returned with a slender majority. When Bill Shorten told Leigh Sales that he hadn't given up, Sales laughed in his face.
  • The same people who believed Turnbull ran a disciplined, on-message campaign now accuse him of being 'lacklustre', a term fed to them by Abbott and Credlin, and which shows they have no ability to assess or qualify lines they receive - so, what they pass on isn't valuable.
You've failed at journalism when you look at something up close for a long time and you can't tell us what's going on. When that thing is an election campaign, where we have to decide how our nation is to be governed and by whom, the stakes go far beyond newsroom japes.

A centralised campaign seeks only the information it wants, and its judgment about what it wants is rubbish. Traditional media insistence that its judgments match voter needs are demonstrably false. No appeal to their good sense or better nature is possible.

We've talked for a long time about the declining social bases of the major parties, and the fact that voters are increasingly rewarding people for trying to work out different options that the major parties dare not attempt. Only corporate donors expect whole-cloth solutions from political parties, which is why major parties pleading for first preferences in both houses sound like they're peddling an agenda other than that of the voters. Minor parties need not seek out traditional media to be electable (except for Pauline Hanson, that unflushable turd and wholly-owned subsidiary of Channel 7), and in return traditional media are constantly surprised by each new wave of minor-party politicians.

Major parties value those who'll toe the line over those who can think on their feet. The Liberal injunction "Stick to the plan" (when there was no plan to stick to) seemed targeted to party members rather than a democratic polity at large. Minors and independents get by on their wits, which the drones from the majors interpret as being all flash and no substance. Cathy McGowan danced around Sophie Mirabella, who couldn't get out of her own way again. Alex Bhatal, Jason Ball and Carl Katter ran rings around David Feeney and Kelly O'Dwyer, and it will be interesting to see what (if?) the latter two learn from the experience. Journalists can't cover three-way splits or post-electoral compromise. Journalism is reductive, and is better at explaining clear differences rather than the messy compromises at the heart of parliamentary democracy. We're going to have more hung parliaments (oh yes we are), so traditional press gallery journalism of facile thrills'n'spills simply won't be able to cope.

The traditional media have lost credibility as their news judgment has departed from what people seem to be seeking in politics. It was not this gaffe or that scare campaign that turned the election - such an analysis assumes the traditional media has more readers/ listeners/ viewers than they have, and that their coverage is taken more seriously than it is. Insiders showed a ten-minute montage of dreck footage, and none of the bastards who followed had the decency to apologise and/or resign. Those who don't understand the result can't explain it.

The fact that they can't explain them further devalues traditional media as trusted, experienced sources of political information. This in turn opens more scope for minor parties and devalues poor muppets like Josh Frydenberg, who would be nothing at all without major parties and traditional media, who then seem to spray themselves with voter-repellent when they breathlessly announce "stay tuned for our exclusive interview", and so it goes down the plughole. In this article Brigid Delaney mocks Liberals who actually believed what they read/ heard/ saw in the media, who relied on insider tips fed to them by Liberals, and who then had the journos eat their hors d'oeuvres, and so on in a self-referential loop that both journalists and politicians wrongly assume will keep them all busy.

I've talked about the death spiral of traditional media and major parties for a decade (apologies again for being so light-on over the past few weeks, I've been busy), but never has it been more obvious than in this campaign. By 2019 there will be fewer journalists employed by traditional media overall, though the press gallery may remain a bloated herd. It's amazing to think that editors and news directors will again send impressionable journalists out to do warmed-over Crouse/Thompson from a school in Cairns, a hospital in Perth, a highway easement in Westensinny, etc. ...

Surely not all political journalism in this campaign was crap?

Mostly it was. Only two exceptions of quality journalism applied to public policy come to mind from this election campaign:
Now that Lenore Taylor has moved to an editorial role, Tingle is the best and most consistently journalist in the press gallery by a very long way. Price is not even in the press gallery; she's a columnist and academic, and seemingly by accident she's done some journalism when all other alternatives were exhausted. Unlike 1972, campaign-trail journalists have the ability to research and knock up stories from buses or layovers or wherever else that are every bit as good as those two above.

If the press gallery and the campaign trail produced consistently good journalism, it might be worthwhile - but it doesn't, and it isn't. Journos often moan that I don't call out positive examples: but when I do it only emphasises what dreadful garbage they have flung at us over the past eight weeks, and for years and years before that.


  1. this from Peter Martin was also quite worthy on the history of Medicare

  2. No need to apologise Andrew, most of your regular readers expected you to wait until after the election was over before you ripped into the truly atrocious mainstream political journalism on that long drawn out saga.
    Most people had tuned out and turned off long before the campaign had started in earnest so the opinions of the political pundits of the MSM meant nothing and had very little or no effect on the result.
    A fairly good guide to how things are travelling is to be found in the number of people worked up enough to post comments to online articles of the MSM. The more comments the worse it is.
    If you had followed the mood of the online commenter's on Fairfax, the Guardian, the ABC and the more politically even blog posts you would have noted the sentiment was most definitely not in the coalitions favour.
    Uncle Rupes must be spitting chips right about now.

  3. For perhaps three months prior to the start of the campaign national polls indicated 50:50 pp. During the campaign the national polls did not shift. After the count the pp was surprise, surprise, 50:50. And the chuckle heads in the media are all agog at the result. Election after election they talk in awe about the mystical 'internal polling' they and only they are allowed access too thanks to their symbiotic (sycophantic) relationship to the halls of power which give them Nostradamus like forecasting ability. And when their incompetence is revealed the day after, not one of them have the integrity to say, Jesus, I got that one wrong because to do so would be to admit as a group of professionals, they are valueless. Like you Andrew, I've had it with all of them bar La Tingle. PVO, Kenny, Murray et al exude a smug arrogance that can only shine from the delusional.

    1. Couldn't agree more. Two examples stood out to me:

      Cassidy at around 9pm on Saturday night saying without a hint of self-awareness: "I've said all night that this would be close".

      Kelly on Monday morning pleading with everyone she interviewed to agree with her that the only reason Labor had done so well was because they 'lied' about Medicare.

      The arrogance, as you say, is delusional.

  4. Cate Taylor4/7/16 8:29 am

    Ìnsiders was telling, revealing to us all that Turnbull's "jobs and growth" was pretty hollow as far as plans go. Yes. But where I asked was that in any coverage of the election. No, as per usual, not there: the usual fare of Polls, personality and the LNP are better on the economy, Turnbull should be returned. Despite the "hollowness" of the policy platform. No commentary at all on a government that had been demonstrably rudderless for it's entire term having failed to get a budget thru the senate. Makes you wonder if we need govts at all, let alone a press gallery. Fairfax had some interesting pieces on why the fuss and bother over the different deficit predictions and why until inequality is grappled with, this is the new political reality. Hung parliaments or slender majorities will indeed be more common than not. The majors will have to deal with Senates that reflect that. And again, where was the reporting on the govts palpable failure to deal with the cross benchers?

  5. Got to question your assessment of Lenore Taylor. Turnbull had her star-struck from the time he became PM.

    1. Yes, but she got over it - particularly after the approval of the Galilee Basin coalmine straight after the Paris conference on climate change.

  6. i miss Bob Ellis !

    1. I was thinking about Bob right through the election 'campaigns' and wondering what he would have writing. Miss his blog a great deal.

  7. The role of the mainstream media in helping to create the disenfranchisement that so many voters now feel (both here are overseas) needs to be highlighted by more people like you, Andrew. The dominant economic program since 1989 has, inevitably, over-reached and the political task is to swing it back while minimising the pain on those who would feel it most. I find it a shame that most of the notionally independent / alternative media is so left-leaning as it detracts from what could otherwise be good analysis. In the MSM, only Peter Martin and Ross Gittins get my attention and of course they can be easily "branded". As long as the disenfranchised have only the likes of Hanson to speak for them, we're going backwards.

    1. Reversing the dominant (neo-con) program would affect the rich the most. I want them to feel it.

  8. Good to read your insights again, Andrew but then I think you've set yourself a dismal task and it must be hard to keep it up even if you're not busy.

    btw, I think Leigh Sales is a disgrace, as is Frankelly. Either they're angling for a job with Rupe's rags or they're seriously partisan.

    Also, isn't it good to see Bolt incandescent with rage? A very funny man.

    1. Wasn't the figure that Sales interrupted Shorten 27 times during his last interview? The figure for interruping Malcolm: 4.

  9. Ron Tandberg provided the (only media) perceptive observation about Jobs and Growth, when his typical voter asked "where's the fine print?" onmly to be told, "there's no fine print."
    I'd also like to put in a plug for John Quiggin's term deliberative Parliament to replace hung Parliament.

  10. Worth the wait Andrew, and I agree with all of that (even the most vitriolic bits; actually, especially the most vitriolic bits). The media's love affair with Turnbull (to which he owes the fake "progressive conservative centrist" profile which got him positive polling and thus the PMship) and their disdain for Shorten - who embarassed many of their predictions just by making it to the election as leader, let alone with a chance of winning- was obvious. Leigh Sales badly dented a previously stirling reputation, but not the only one who came to grief, not by a long chalk.

    All that said, there is one point I think you overstated:

    "Nobody votes on a national basis."

    Plenty of people vote for the national leaders and the national issues (I do myself). I know "All politics is local" is a truism but it's also an exaggeration. Our Federal politics are not as Presidential as the US (ironically, the place where "All politics is local" originated from, and where it is least true) but it is somewhat. I would even say a majority do not know much if anything about their local member (and much less the local challengers). Local campaigns matter, but as a means of moving the needle with a few percent of voters, not as the basis on which the majority are voting.

    I would also add one other piece to the list of quality journalism: by the ABC's Stephen Long on the tax cut modelling. Naturally, Long's work was not picked up at all by the usual suspects, who just parroted the Coalition's growth claims as if they were set in stone.


    1. You might have national issues in mind as you vote locally, but vote locally you do. Long can be excellent.

  11. The thing is, that IMHO the narrative of 'inevitable Coalition victory' played right into Labor's hands. How often in previous elections have we seen the (almost farcial) battle to be declared as the 'underdog' in order to properly manage expectations? Here, notwithstanding that the election is, for all intents and purposes, a dead heat, Labor and associated other left-wingers are cock-a-hoop, and will be seen as winners. The Coalition, on the other hand, are furious, despondent, bitter and are pointing fingers.

    If only there's been some serious commentary along the lines of "Gee, guys, the polling has remained stuck around 50/50 for a few months, this is going to be really, really close. Don't show hubris." you had the far-righties expecting a righteous thrashing, and abusing Turnbull because the polls weren't 3+ points off!

  12. The voting in Mayo was very local