07 July 2016

Taking the cake

In 2013 I was so convinced that Tony Abbott would screw up so badly that he wouldn't become Prime Minister at all. How I laughed at the polls. How I jeered at the press gallery groupthink that sought to convert that pig's ear of a man into a silk purse of a PM. I still remember how it felt, to be proven so wrong, so irrefutably, so publicly.

That's why I have some sympathy for political journalists who did in 2016 what I'd done in 2013: ignored the polls, ignored people with less exposure to traditional and social media than me (that is, pretty much everyone) who actually engaged with political issues and personalities from first principles, and insisted on having access to some secret cache of political knowledge inaccessible to mere mortals.

Some, but not much - most political journalists are simply reeling forward, claiming that a campaign which had them fooled and gibbering with excitement had somehow become 'lacklustre', assuming that their credibility remains intact. These people might think they're getting on with it, but they are trashing their credibility and that of their employers.

It was strange to see, of all people, Matthew Knott start to realise that he and his compadres had done the country a disservice simply by doing what they'd always done:
Those political reporters not too hubristic to engage in self doubt are asking: did we get it wrong? Did we, as a collective, miss the story?
Yes, you did. That subclause "as a collective" is the operative one here, because that stampede always leads the press gallery into bad and dumb stories, and always convinces them that if they all do it then it must somehow be less wrong.

Pretty much all political journalists in 2016 were covering the parliament of 2010-13. They should have told us what we could expect from such a parliament, which is the kind of parliament we are heading into now.

In 2010-13, the then government was spending so much time with crossbenchers in both houses that it didn't have time to coddle journalists, to drop self-serving little tidbits in their laps; they had a lot to do and focused on the doing, assuming (wrongly) that tough and clever journalists could work it out for themselves. It turns out that journalism doesn't cope well with nuance and compromise; most jobs involving nuance and compromise take place well away from journalists. The then opposition spent no time with crossbenchers but spent all the time coddling journalists, to the point where the journalists all said the government was hopeless while the opposition was the Best Opposition Evah.

Again, the "as a collective" was the problem. Nobody considered the well-flagged possibility that Tony Abbott might be a bull in the china shop of government, and not in a good way. He got fairer media headwinds before coming to government than John Howard had in 1995-96, and he still blew it. The press gallery were of one mind that Gillard and Rudd could do nothing right, and that Abbott could do nothing wrong. When Abbott screwed up the press gallery played it down, or made things up for 'balance', but the reality was irreconcilable with their Best Opposition Evah narrative. Today, the actual result of the election is irreconcilable with a tangle of narratives: that Turnbull is cruising to victory while Shorten is battling to hold his job, that everybody's home and hosed in Canberra under the second term of the Turnbull government and it's your shout mate.
The consensus, speaking to colleagues in the Canberra press gallery, is a reluctant yes.
Why even ask them? Does journalism exist for its own sake?
Some insist they got it spot on.
Fuck all of those people. All of them. Any responsible organisation confronted with egregious professional failure by their staff would make them show cause why they should not be dismissed.

Imagine if AFL journalists insisted at this stage of the season that Carlton, Collingwood, and Essendon were the teams to beat this year because they had been back in the day, and the journos couldn't imagine how things might change. Imagine the currency traders who went long on sterling before Brexit. This is the degree of professional failure involved with dickheads who misreported the national mood a week before an election, and who insisted their failure not be called out. Something beyond mere dismissal is warranted here: chucking them into the most algae-infested bit of Lake Burley Griffin, for a start.
But many admit they expected a more decisive Coalition victory than occurred.
Or not occurred, as the case may be.
And they concede this influenced the way the media covered the campaign.
Every time a journalist lapses into the passive voice they are up to no good, and here's yet another example. 'They' (journalists who cover politics) concede that 'the way the media covered the campaign' was somehow affected by their herd mentality and how it differed from the clear pattern indicating the election could go either way. This might be someone's idea of a big concession: it isn't mine.
This election campaign rained polls. Week after week, media outlets published national polls showing a 50-50 tie or at best a 51-49 Coalition lead.

The results barely shifted from week one to eight. Yet, as the campaign progressed, a view solidified that the Coalition was on track for a relatively comfortable victory.
So "a view solidified", "on track", "relatively comfortable victory" - what weasel words, what worthless piffle that all is. The solidification of pure wind was bad enough - but the fact that it was so all-pervasive is just so stupid, and unforgivably so among people their defenders still insist are competitive, diverse, and intelligent people. The numbing collective aspect is what's so stupid, and Knott is trying to use it to hide what's wrong with political reporting and build a future for it.

Go back to that quote from Knott above - a quote that is not intended to make him look foolish, but which would have succeeded had that intention been there. Let's take out that indictment of a last sentence and run the sentence before it into the one that followed:
The results barely shifted from week one to eight ... Yet the Coalition suffered a sizeable swing against it on election night and is struggling to hit the 76 seats needed to govern in its own right.
It follows that consistent polls indicated a hung parliament, and this is exactly the result that was foretold. That "yet" is jarring - it shows that the jibber-jabber of campaign commentary had absolutely no effect on the result at all. It shows that the media would have been better served simply by printing poll results and filling pages/airwaves with almost anything but the hectares of blather chuntered forth by Knott and his disgraced colleagues.
"The commentariat fell into a bubble and were reflecting what each other thought.

"A narrative caught hold and everyone started reporting it."

With hindsight, there's much to support this.
There was much to support that conclusion at the time, but the only support available to journalists was in delusion, and in reporting the wrong stories. Knott was too haughty to realise it, too wrapped up in his and others' bullshit and lacking the tools and wit to snap out of a collective delusion that impeded understanding.

Knott began his career covering inside-media gossip for Crikey. A young fogey, Knott disdained social media (despite Crikey being more like a blog than established traditional media) and Fairfax decided that personalities and gossip provided the necessary depth of skills to cover federal politics in all its complexities. Despite being one of over two hundred press gallery journalists, there was no way Knott had any sort of ability to work things out from first principles and chart his own course through the nation's public life. Those who wrangle journos for a living from the major parties were dead right in assuming Knott could be stuffed with junk food and shuffled off to picfacs and would love every minute of it, offering nary a challenge to the desired narrative nor any departure from the collective.
Several ideas took hold quickly in the gallery's collective brain. That Australians don't kick out a first term government (despite this happening recently at a state level). And that Malcolm Turnbull's personal popularity was a decisive advantage against the less prime ministerial Shorten.

During the campaign, several events became seen as "turning points" for the Coalition despite the polls never really budging. Labor's admission it would increase the budget deficit over the next four years was one. So was the UK's departure from the European Union.
It's one thing for some to hold to conventional wisdom. But for all of them, without exception, to stick to an opinion that could be trumpeted but not justified can barely be believed, let alone respected.
Many had picked up a "vibe" in the community that voters were disappointed in Turnbull, but not sufficiently angry to remove him. There was also the confidence exuded by Turnbull and his advisers.

Many of us even convinced ourselves that the low-energy, small-target campaign was a clever way of "boring" voters into backing the Coalition.

"You got the impression they were confident and confident for a reason," former Media Watch host Jonathan Holmes says of the coverage. "There was very little scepticism of what was behind that".
Very little scepticism by whom - hardbitten, can't-fool-me journalists, trusted experts in the hall of mirrors that is politics.

Confident Labor - delusional. All journos agreed.

Confident Libs - confident for a reason. Again, all journos agreed (baa!).

Who's best place to judge why these people have failed? Why, the noddies themselves. They'd know. You can trust them - well, our hero does.
But if the media were wrong they were hardly alone. Two days before election day the bookmakers - often hailed as more accurate than pollsters ...
Often hailed by whom - hardbitten, can't-fool-me journalists, trusted etc ... you can see where this is going. First you fool people, then you snuggle down with those you've fooled so that you can be wrong together. The difference is that bookmakers incur real and direct penalties for getting their odds wrong - not so journalists.
So, as Insiders host Barrie Cassidy asked, were journalists shown to be "gullible"? Or were they being lied to?
False dichotomy there. Being lied to is a given in politics. If you're experienced and credible, you can pick your way through the lies and show us what's going on. If you're not, then you're no better than Knott and his arse-covering mates. Right toward the end, and doubtless under duress, Knott dove into social media:
In preparing this piece, I asked readers on Twitter and on Facebook for their views of the coverage.

Some dominant criticisms emerged ...
And excellent criticisms they were, too good for our protagonist it seems. Most journalists use social media to follow other journalists, and get all upset when randoms barge into their carefully curated circle-jerks; I imagine Knott's is no better, but he has blocked me. I have given deeper thought to political journalism than he has; Knott wakes up every day and does the same thing over and over, waiting for drops or chewing over press releases, assuming that he's vindicated by following the herd. Knott flinches before criticism and can't evaluate it, spluttering instead from the ill-considered perspective that only journalists can judge journalists:
Journalists may quibble with some points.
If the campaign is light on policy, blame the politicians' and not us.
No. Politicians bear their own penalties from a disengaged electorate, penalties no journalist bears (not even those made redundant, and too few of those come from the press gallery/campaign trail). Political campaign staffers know what journos like: they like it lite, brite and trite. In my previous post I gave two solid examples of political journalism from the small beer and weak tea that was this campaign. Journos and editors are responsible for what journos write/say. If you'd been right, you'd want credit; you aren't, so cop this.
Others might argue that, despite what readers say they want to read, many more will click on a story about a "fake" tradie than a plan to save the Murray Darling Basin.
The declining fortunes of the media demonstrate that they have no clue what people do or don't want to read. That fatuous and ill-considered quote assumes erroneously that any piece on a substantive policy issue is as good as any other, and that a piece that is both badly written and badly received should discourage any attempt at better journalism.
Still, that doesn't mean those in the media shouldn't listen - and reflect.
It does, if you're simply going to dismiss some very good feedback out of hand, or cast those pearls before the swine of the campaign bus/press gallery.

Six years ago, Greg Jericho expressed frustration that he couldn't find any reporting on disability policy because the press gallery were busy making the very mistakes to which Knott referred and tried so feebly to dismiss. Journos at the time were less dismissive than Knott and some expressed a wish to do better. Millions of news cycles later we know that none did, of course. Knott could have studied that and become a better journalist. As Margaret Simons didn't say, but I will: Matthew Knott has much to be humble about, with no inclination or ability to lift his game.

James Jeffrey doesn't pretend to be anything but a writer of colour pieces. Unlike the more precious and dismissive Knott or Annabel Crabb, he doesn't claim his gentle vignettes have a serious journalistic purpose, and he gets upset when others think they should. This is fair enough (and this writer may well have taken easy shots in the past at pieces of this sort), but the bit where his piece doesn't quite work is the bit where his larky tone turns to snark:
For some, I suspect it stems from the disappointment that the paper isn’t, say, wall to wall Paul Kelly — an understandable disappointment. But Kelly isn’t stingy with his words and there’s plenty to go around.

Following my latest “And this passes for journalism?”, I’ll confess to feeling a bit fed up. I thanked my commenter for checking in, but suggested such a comment was a bit like going to a cake shop and getting grumpy because you can’t get a steak.
Kelly mightn't be stingy with words, but since about the mid-'90s he has sacrificed quality for quantity. And this leaves lighter pieces bearing more weight than they were designed for, like ivy straining to hold together a crumbling wall. Or, to return to Jeffrey's analogy, if someone's sold you disappointing steak after disappointing steak, they can never appreciate cakes for what they are.
I’m still in love with the idea of a newspaper being a banquet with plenty of courses. Hard news, breaking news, solid analysis — all of that is important. But it’s not the only reason readers turn up.
For a start, I only read that story because Jeffrey's employer placed it outside their firewall. Like a potplant outside a toilet block, it leavens the overall effect but does not make me any more likely to go in.

Jeffrey might be holding up his side of things with his personable arrangements of bons mots, but his assumptions about the heavier lifting done by others simply do not hold. If you're an urban denizen, as Jeffrey is, where are you most likely to find a delicious cake: in some hole-in-the-wall patisserie, or in some tacky run-down supermarket full of verbose but customer-unfriendly staff and a reputation for crap steak?

Knott's attempt to raise journalistic failure and then dismiss it without proper examination calls to mind the heartfelt but ultimately misdirected lamentations for journalism by Paul Barry earlier this year, and by Jonathan Holmes late last year in The Age. We live in an information age, and information providers should be making out like bandits. Limiting yourself to mere journalism seems to be its own reward. Yes, proper information costs money, but if you don't take a chance on it then you can never make money anyway. Those who are neither informative nor engaging while taking up space once occupied by those committed to being both waste everyone's time and resources. We needed to be told the truth about how we are being governed, and (at a time of election) what other options we have. At a time where the election was so boring that doing some policy-based research actually made the coverage less boring, rather than more so as Knott and his dull-witted herd did, the fortunes of our struggling media could have turned around. A bit of independent thought might have snapped Knott and some others out of the mass exercise of professional self-harm he and his colleagues perpetrated upon us all. It would have helped us form better judgments about how we are governed (and on what Knott and Jeffrey report), because that matters more than the combined delusions of journalists.

Update 8/7: Different/better takes on Knott from:


  1. I must admit, I frequently wonder why I have to search for your or others' (eg, John Quiggin, Scepticlawyer, Club Troppo etc) enlightening commentary online when Fairfax, etc. is packed with predictable, self-deluded twaddle.
    After the wholesale attacks on Gillard, and the total blanking of MSM's responsibility for the election of Abbott, their self-serving references to the previous ALP government, I simply don't bother reading anything Hartcher, Kenny, Maley et al write. Still, when there are so many truly interesting political blogs around, why do they still employ these people?

    1. Fairfax is done for, there's no shifting them. See below.

  2. Patisseries sell cakes, charcuteries sell pork products!

  3. Welcome back Andrew. I read mainly for the substance of your column but also for the pungent analogies. The ivy straining to hold together a crumbling wall was quite apt while the potplant outside the dunny was a ripper.

  4. The Melbourne papers started a fake Kill Bill campaign using fake CFA volunteers paid for by the Victorian liberal party and thought voters are so stupid they don't get that volunteers are not paid and are therefore not part of any pay deal.

    The rest of the lazy media followed along, including the increasingly vacuous ABC and SBS.

    The problem is the parliament house bubble, up there on the top floor in the heated airconditioning like a pack of monkeys picking each others knits they are too sleepy to think for themselves so they spew out the pressers without a single question.

    1. Monkeys in infested woollen jumpers!

    2. Monkeys in woollen jumpers!

  5. On the other hand, at least Knott shows a glimpse of introspection and recognition they got it wrong.

    To me that instantly elevates him above 95% of the gallery. Most of them won't even admit anyone in the media got anything wrong. "We said the Coalition was narrowly in front and they are!" they say, ignoring that most of them had a clearer win than this and most of them spent the past month claiming a Labor win was impossible and helping out Turnbull's "only the Coalition can deliver stable government" narrative- in fact, it seems that a few thousand votes in the right seats would have swung it Labor's way.

    My current bugbear is the way the gallery are buying into the Coalition's gnashing of teeth about the so-called "Mediscare" as if the Coalition have never conducted a scare campaign ever. Apparently I imagined their "Labor's War on Business" attack from this campaign. Or their reaction to Labor's negative gearing policy. Or their scare campaign about Labor on border control. Not to mention everything Abbott did...

    1. As recently as last Tuesday there was no evidence he was even capable of it. I doubt he'll do it again. I gave the example of 2010 and all the gnashing of teeth then, followed by ... well, more of the same really.

  6. I remember reading several articles before the election that made the point that the two-party preferred vote would be very close and Labor had every hope of narrowly winning it. But that for several reasons this would still result in a Coalition majority. At the time of writing that looks only slightly out to me - Turnbull's majority is a little (not a lot) narrower than most forecast but still a majority despite the TPP. The betting markets followed this projection.

    So I don't think you can cite this as indicating either pundits and markets were incompetent. It's well within a normal margin of error in any projection about the future.

    1. I think betting markets are much vaunted before elections, not really followed through afterwards. It's another feature of horse-race journalism (almost literally) where events like that are disconnected from actual policy outcomes. It's all just such twaddle.

  7. Mark Kenny has been lurking (writing today on Turnbull's now likely majority government):

    "This will make for uncomfortable reading for those who cannot separate forecasting from barracking, or prediction from wish. Indeed, election 2016, is notable for the self-appointed media experts who, in an ironic example of premature conclusion drawing - their key complaint about professional pundits - have loudly condemned the "MSM" for accurately reporting public surveys, and for suggesting a Turnbull win was the more likely result. It turned out it was."

    Take that! I wonder what those 'public surveys' he refers to are?

    1. Who cares? This is a desperate man insisting he has relevance that he lacks. So there was a two-horse race and he picked the one that won last time, the same one all his compadres picked.

    2. I guess I should stop caring what he's talking about.

      As well as the rest of 'em.

      Thanks Andrew - your realism is like a shining beacon; I eagerly await each episode of illumination.

    3. Except, except that... so many people seem to take notice of what people like Kenny write.

      Do we just respond with 'who cares?' or should we try and do something about it?

  8. The MSM are frustrating beyond belief. It is made up of reporters, not journalists. MPs are let off the hook far too easily in TV interviews where a pointed question is easily dismissed with an outright fallacy ("NBN is on track, on budget and will be delivered faster and cheaper") and a swipe at the "other" party.

  9. In the last week I going through the open space of Camden Public Library (NSW) when a lady in the knitting group, approx. 15 + ladies 60+ were knitting, said
    “And when Leanne leaves there will be no one left who is permanent, everyone will be casual”. There was deathly silence as all the women considered the employment prospects of their children and grandchildren. They were depressed and so was I.

    At a post-election interview on ABC, Cathy McGowan, said that she would support Malcolm Turnbull. Cathy also said that over 60% (??) of her electorate could not access bulk billing through Medicare. They had to pay full price to see a GP. I was astonished but the 3 journalist who were reviewing this interview (and others,) totally missed this comment. “Oh well it’s a conservative electorate tra, la, la so she would support Malcom”.

    Obviously, journalists don’t listen anymore to voters/ independents anymore. There is ripe ground for plowing.