22 July 2016

Yesterday's social media today

So she was considering, in her own mind (as well as she could, for the hot day made her feel very sleepy and stupid), whether the pleasure of making a daisy-chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and picking the daisies, when suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her.

- Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

I'm grateful to Katharine Murphy for drawing this to my attention, I suppose; but it is rather more your standard press gallery output and less an exemplar of what it might be, which is what I had hoped and suspect she might have hoped, too. Let's not dismiss it out of hand. Bear with me as I pop the bonnet and take it apart, then consider what sort of reporting an event like this might give rise to, from journalists and media companies that knew what they were about and had some conception of customer value.
The Queensland Nationals MP George Christensen has threatened to vote against Coalition superannuation changes, immediately threatening one of the Turnbull government’s key policies two days after his ministry was formed.

Christensen took to his Facebook page to state categorically: “I hate it when government fiddles with super” and described it as “Labor-style policy”.

“It’s not the government’s money, it’s YOUR money,” Christensen writes. “We in government need to remember that. If the government’s superannuation policy does not change, I will be crossing the floor and voting against these measures.”
OK, I read Christensen's Facebook page in the original, and it says a lot about him as a politician. Basically, George has stamped his foot and delivered an ultimatum, which was probably meant to sound like strong and principled leadership. Canberra deal-makers hate ultimatums and the drama queens who deliver them. Coalition MPs returned by the barest of margins will not thank one of his party's whips for rocking an overloaded boat in this fashion.

That said, there are four issues here.

First, superannuation. It's important, and the details have ramifications that go far beyond Canberra, far beyond this term of Parliament, and we really should pay attention to the details. Any details about what this carry-on might mean, Katharine?
The Coalition policy places a $500,000 lifetime cap on after-tax superannuation contributions backdated to 2007, increases the concessional tax rate on asset earnings from 0% to 15% for people aged 56-65 in the “transition to retirement” and taxes accounts over $1.6m at 15%.
Pretty thin, that. What's really needed here is some context as to what that means. This is not a new debate, and by now specialist writers should have opinions about what might happen if the relevant regulations are changed, versus what might happen if the government's policies are enacted. But for two years a decade ago, every government since 1980 has had to bargain its policies through a Senate it did not control (and in 2010-13, a House with a majority of non-government members too); it is probably more useful to talk about the likelihood of some sort of compromise being enacted, and what that may or may not mean.

Christensen has concocted a sob-story whereby I as a taxpayer will have to subsidise (that is, with MY money) a couple sitting on more than $3m of super. It isn't as convincing as either of them might hope. Just because a politician says he is the defender of the people's money it doesn't mean that he can be taken at his word. Just because a journalist has a quote it doesn't mean they have a story.

Has superannuation policy really reached a state of perfection that is worth bringing down a government to preserve? Is this or any other policy at the mercy of his emotions ("I hate it")? If you couch Christensen's antics position in terms of policy, and leave others to do the horserace crap, you potentially bring an angle that informs debate within Canberra and beyond. You also run the very grave risk of establishing a value proposition for media consumers that is described by Ezra Klein in, uh, this piece.

You could make a case that here's a generalist journo trying to make a fist of a complex issue, but that might have been good enough way back when a quick summary was good enough for the likes of you. These days, there are plenty of superannuation wonks. Some of them can write and not all are hopelessly conflicted. Those people have more credibility than workaday hacks trying to be all things to everyone, and the only traditional media outlets with a future will be those who can tap into real expertise when required.

Second, there's the issue of the budget. Superannuation is taxed lightly in comparison to other reservoirs of money, and any government committed to balancing the budget had to revisit this issue. It makes no sense to complain long and loud about BUDGET BLACK HOLE EMERGENCY DEFICIT SHOCK (as Christensen did) and then complain about specific action to that end (as Christensen did).

Again, this is part of the policy context in which this government operates, and which therefore Murphy, Chan and their press gallery colleagues must also operate, and report on. Nowhere in that piece is there anything about that. No questions to Christensen about the relatively light tax treatment of super over many years - including when Labor was in government - and no questions about what he suggests might be taxed instead.

Third, Christensen isn't a conservative in any real sense. Before the last election he was endorsing far-right groups who would shun Muslims, who were ambivalent at best about anti-Muslim violence. Real conservatives have nothing to do with that garbage, as Ted Cruz demonstrated. Hanson didn't run a candidate against Christensen at the last election: she didn't need to. Now Christensen and Hanson are as one on superannuation too:
... senator-elect Pauline Hanson has indicated she believes superannuation should be “left alone” ...
... and Christensen's Facebook page is full of endorsements of whatever she might say about anything. Why doesn't he stop pretending he's a legitimate member of the Coalition and piss off to the PHONies? Is he playing a longer game like Bernardi, waiting to drop off the Coalition once he has sucked it dry?

The novelist Evelyn Waugh once wrote of one of his contemporaries: "To see Stephen Spender fumbling with our rich and delicate language is to experience all the horror of seeing a Sevres vase in the hands of a chimpanzee". There's a certain element of that in knowing George Christensen, and many others no better than him, holds your retirement income and mine and the fate of the government in his hands. Murphy's fascination is understandable, but misplaced. There less drama than you might imagine in a man who talks big but tends not to follow through.

Lastly, there's the angle that Murphy takes on all this - the same angle every other press gallery herd animal took - on the horserace. The barely returned Turnbull government and the potential disruption to its agenda, etc. I suspect this is the bit that's meant to take my interest.

Um, probably. It's just beside the point. Politicians make deals and break them and carry on - mostly over nothing of enduring significance - all the time. Despite press gallery lore, that's not really where the most interesting story is. The herd are all over that horserace stuff. The story is in what those deals are over, and how the outcomes affect us in ways we may or may not expect.

Christensen isn't going to turn government over to Bill Shorten, not over superannuation or anything else. He's seen how conservatives treat Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott, or the Job of Sippy Downs, Peter Slipper; neither Christensen nor anyone in this government wants that sort of calumny for the rest of his days and yea unto the seventh generation. The idea that conservatives cross the floor without penalty is palpably false. It's a historical artefact that was binned by John Howard. If your twenty years of observing politics up close has taught you anything, that's one of the lessons you should have learned.

If it were no big deal that conservative MPs cross the floor, why even write a story about it?

Cory Bernardi has been threatening to leave the Liberal Party for a decade. Like most people (and many dogs, and even some bits of furniture), Bernardi is much smarter than Christensen. If the SA Liberals punted Bernardi he has a much more solid political base to survive and almost certainly get re-elected to form an enduring presence in Australian politics - but still he waits, and waits, and knows any time he wants to stir the pot the entire press gallery as one will run around with their hair on fire. If the LNPQ punted Christensen he'd be finished, flat out making it onto Mackay Council.

Christensen has his Facebook page: if Murphy Chan thinks the best use of her traditional media platform is to make more from a gobbet of social media than it can possibly bear, then she is selling that platform short. She's not alone in this belief, and strangely many journalists take comfort from following this trend: whether it's an overpaid presenter on live TV cutting to a smartphone, or radio personalities taking to podcasts to complain about Twitter, nothing diminishes traditional media faster than the impression that they are nothing but relays for where the action really is, on social media. If the traditional media becomes yesterday's social media today, it's finished.

This government is less precarious than the one of 2010-13, which Murphy and most of the press gallery reported from up close. The idea that the government might collapse at any minute got very damn boring after months and years where plenty else was happening. It crowded out reporting of actual policy developments every bit as significant as the superannuation reforms under discussion here, developments that could make useful stories today or tomorrow given the right writers. Clearly, the lessons of the abysmal reporting from that time have not been learned.

A focus on policy removes perceptions of journalistic bias: can a policy opposed by the Labor party really be a "Labor-style policy" (even if a politician declares it so)? Leaving policy out of your coverage puts it at the mercy of a bunch of personalities that are far less compelling than beleaguered media outlets might hope.

As a political correspondent, Murphy Chan should know Christensen isn't much of a superannuation wonk, and isn't much of a politician either; she would serve her readers better by saying so and pointing out why. In terms of this event and where the news value is, the fate of the nation's retirement incomes far outweighs the outbursts of another mediocre Jack-in-office. Journalistic inertia in only being able to cover complex stories in tiresome ways that obscure their lasting significance is to be pitied (to be fair, Murphy's this piece was one of the better examples of a doomed genre). We still need more and better information on how we are governed than the press gallery can provide.

Update 27/7: It was remiss of me to overlook the fact this article, while referred to me by Katharine Murphy, was in fact written by Gabrielle Chan. The necessary changes have been made above.

My original point stands about the research: reading a Facebook page and taking a gibbering dupe at the words fed to him is not a vindication of journalism but a failure of it. The paragraph on superannuation should have been the core of this story, not a side-effect; we will be enjoying/suffering the results of this for years, and it is only fair for journalists observing from up close to tell us what's going on.

A NewsCorp veteran, Chan tends to give politicians the benefit of the doubt and believes she has done journalism by quoting them directly and taking them at their word. Her journalism from beyond Canberra is far better than that from within; she should do more of the former and let it inform any political reporting she may turn her hand to. Murphy was wrong to consider this piece anything more than your standard all-sizzle-no-sausage journalism content.


  1. Prime example of reader-repellent from Murphy today:
    "Hanging on to Kim Carr was absolutely necessary from Shorten’s perspective for a bunch of institutional reasons I won’t bore you with."

  2. Katherine Murphy is not a good journalist I have just read a story she wrote about the supposed infighting within the Labor Party.When the real story is in the divisions within the government.

  3. Murphy's argument that the superannuation legislation will "need either Labor or the Greens to pass the legislation in the Senate anyway" and "is also highly likely to be referred to a Senate committee for review" rather dampens her breathless revelation in the same paragraph that having "the barest majority of 76 seats in the lower house ... the government would have to rely on an independent or minor party MP to get the legislation through the House if Christensen crossed the floor'" even if she does concede that's "before it even got through the Senate."

  4. Christensen is wrong about it being "YOUR money", of course. The taxation laws specify that a certain amount of your earning are the property of the State. If you don't pay this amount, then you will be prosecuted for (essentially) theft. It is never "your" money.

  5. What is the role of a real conservative? To rejoice in the ethnic dispossession of their own country?

    That is what conservatives in America bought when they swallowed the proposition nation ideology. Trump is race blind just like Cruz but that doesn't stop him from having a few good ideas wrt immigration.

  6. "In other news, a Queensland Nationals MP says something profoundly stupid ...."

    I really do believe it is the heat up there that does it.

  7. You reckon Chan is bad? On RN Drive Tuesday night, Peter Hartcher supplanted Latika Bourke as the world's most expensive microphone stand. (The entire segment was an LNP press release about keeping terrorists in the nick after they'd served their sentences.)

  8. I do wonder to what extent journalists are required to limit their investigatory and genuinely explanatory efforts by the hierarchy above them - editors/ceo's/directors/owners.

    I suspect to a large extent the circulations/page views and attractiveness to advertisers are compelling considerations that must come into choosing the style of content, but also partisan political leanings of those who are in positions to demand a particular style - which would tend to exacerbate a dichotomy between "better" insider knowledge, as something to be miserly with for informed decision making for commercial advantage and dumbed down superficial knowledge for mass consumption.

  9. On another note, does anyone know who's responsible for online headlines (whether The Age or The Guardian)? It often feels like they set the agenda and spin more than the authors of the articles (after all, so many people don't really read, even among people who comment) but they skate past scot-free.

    During the last few campaigns, it has often seemed like the bias from headline writers was worse than the bias from writers (The Guardian continually got hammered for this this campaign, and at one point Gabrielle Chan had to venture below the line to say she didn't write the headline, stop blaming her). One of those sneaky avenues where bias can get in because there's no accountability. The person who writes that "Feeney's trainwreck interview" but Bishop was the victim of a "gotcha question" is truly faceless.

    This has actually come back to mind because of a completely non-political article. The Age's website front page currently declares that after 143 years, Horti Hall is closing its doors. The actual article says that Horti Hall is "ready for its close up", because after 143 years it is having an Open Day for the public- completely the opposite to the headline implication. Which makes me wonder if the headline writer has English as a first language, to confuse "ready for its close up" with "closing up".