02 April 2018

Flinching at the future

I look to the future it makes me cry
But it seems too real to tell you why

Freed from the century
With nothing but memory, memory

And I just hope that you can forgive us
But everything must go

And if you need an explanation
Then everything must go

- Manic Street Preachers Everything must go
In 2018, traditional broadcast media is dying and politicians are starting to look for alternatives to standard media management. Two recent incidents from two current politicians, and the responses from the media covering them, show that the place of the media in the future of politics is clear: there isn't one.


There are those who govern, and those who are governed. For the past two hundred or so years in western democracies, the entirety of Australia's post-settlement political history, that relationship has been mediated by accredited media. Accredited media was supplied with details about government decisions that had been taken, and it also took to reporting both reactions to those decisions, and proposals for government decisions not yet taken. In that gap, between the government and the governed, Australia developed political systems and cultures developed and are developing still.

For much of Australian political history it was possible for a politician to build a career through close, physical contact with the community they represented. Since the 1960s politicians had to deal with broadcast media as the most efficient way to reach a mass audience: one of the reasons why Gough Whitlam was so lionised by journalists in the late 1960s/early '70s is because he took broadcast media journalists more seriously than his Coalition opponents at the time. For a generation, it was largely only possible to get into politics through a major party; and the major parties outsourced their public outreach function to broadcast media, which operated on a similarly clubby and oligopolistic basis as the major parties themselves.

Today, political parties have their media relationship down to a pretty fine art, bound by conventions (such as 'off the record', or observing publishing deadlines) and imposing tight rules to govern the press gallery within Parliament House. However, the environment has changed around them to the point where this fine art actually works against the relationship between those who govern and those who are governed. That relationship is paramount, and it prevails over secondary, failing relationships with the broadcast media.

Over the mainstream media

I hate journalists. I'm over dealing with the mainstream media as a form of communication with the people of Canberra. What passes for a daily newspaper in this city is a joke and it will be only a matter of years before it closes down. 
- ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr, 8 March 2018
When The Canberra Times (the daily newspaper referred to above) discovered Barr had said this, it initially couldn't believe it, reduced first to dumb and incredulous reporting of his words; then it went officially berserk. No calm and measured reflection on changes to technology and reader information needs. For years, senior management at Fairfax Media has sought to assure investors that it has a strategy for transition to digital: the hysteria from The Canberra Times shows either no such strategy exists, or it is so tightly guarded a secret that head office will have to do the whole lot by itself.

Instead, The Canberra Times carried one unsourced assertion from Barr and another from its editorialist about readership figures, and then insisted that its coverage of municipal Territory affairs is equal to detailed scrutiny of government. Of course, most of its coverage is merely relaying press releases; as with the federal parliamentary press gallery, the person who drafts the press release does much more work than the journalists who simply pass it forward. Only when a government is fading in the polls, or when it has actively alienated its press gallery, is there any scrutiny worth the name.

Politicians spend a lot of time crafting their message, only to have journalists fail to grasp it or go off on some frolic of their own. That relationship has its frustrations; but parties to that relationship can only patch over its frustrations in both parties are actively convinced that dissolving the relationship would be worse than patching things up and getting on with it. Kirsten Lawson's initial article quotes Barr as actively looking for channels for engaging his constituency in the affairs of its government, in ways that go beyond the standard relationship with broadcast media - inadequate and consistently failing. Lawson was wrong to claim Barr has "set out his new plans to bypass traditional media", because later in the article she makes it clear no such plans exist.

The editorialist identified this lack of a coherent alternative to traditional media relations when it portrayed Barr's look to the future as some sort of mental problem. Opening the framing by comparing Barr to Trump, using terms like "pique", "lashed", and deploying straw men in such numbers and futility that it must surely be in breach of ACT environmental regulations, The Canberra Times draws on a record of competence hoping to create the impression that it has a future.
[the ACT government's] implicit push towards controlled messaging and social media ...
Which is it? The use of "implicit" shows this is a figment of the editorialist rather than the work of the Barr government. You can either have a controlled message or a social media engagement strategy; you can't really do both. You show me a tightly controlled social media account and I'll show you one that fails to engage. Lumping those terms together shows The Canberra Times doesn't understand either of these terms, which bodes ill for its future as a viable media organisation regardless of what Barr might or might not do.

This arrogance, combined with that of other Fairfax mastheads, leads the company to demand resources that might more usefully (and profitably) go to other ways of disseminating information to Canberra and the world. If you're serious about resources for good journalism, consider whether the resources might better be spent on sites like The Riot Act, arguably Canberra's ragless true local rag, rather than propping up The Canberra Times for old time's sake.

This arrogance sent ace reporters Daniel Burdon and Katie Burgess into a tizz:
ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr's comment that he "hates journalists" has been labelled a "brain snap" and likened to views once espoused by the disgraced former Queensland premier, the late Joh Bjelke-Petersen.
When someone in the public eye swears or laughs so hard that snot dribbles out their nose, that's a brain snap. Listen to Barr's speech again: you do your readers a disservice and discredit your own work when you mislabel events like that. As for Bjelke-Petersen: my dudes, he sure as hell wasn't trying to connect with Queenslanders under 30 using multi-channel strategies. Griffith University political analyst Professor Paul Williams, quoted in that article, has beclowned himself with that comparison.
The utter absence of media solidarity with Canberra's oldest broadcast outlet is notable, as is the speed with which Burgess dropped this existential threat to civic life in the nation's seventh-largest city and seat of government. But never mind such trifles. Here is the much-vaunted Uhlmann statement:
Here's where Uhlmann is right: broadcast media is dying. Here's where he's wrong:
  • "And now [sic] we are gifted with politicians who can't be arsed being accountable". No jurisdiction in Australia is gifted with politicians. We elect them on the basis of information supplied by accredited broadcast media. A politician keen on multi-channel engagement ought not be confused with one who wants to shut down any and all scrutiny;
  • "I have known Mr Barr since he was a youth" - oh please, condescension without superiority;
  • "far greater political minds than his have grappled with the torture of dealing with the mainstream media and decided it was central to a healthy democracy" - those minds dated from periods where mainstream or broadcast media really was the only media, where both the politicians and the journalists were better than they are now. Barr is a provincial politician in a well-informed polity right now, and he can see the beginnings of a post-CT future, while all Uhlmann can see are Orwell's cavalry horses answering the bugle;
  • "Given it is going hand in hand with the decline in trust with all political institutions ...". Here Uhlmann goes for a bit of tu quoque and comes up short. It is a fantasy of insider journos that politicians must go down with them, grappling and plunging like Holmes and Moriarty off the Reichenbach Falls. That isn't how politics works: if you're going down, pollies cut you loose and laugh at your descent. If Uhlmann doesn't know that much he clearly doesn't understand politics as much as his job titles over the years might suggest.
  • "When the last, irritating, journalist is sacked and when the last masthead closes, does Mr Barr imagine his already underscrutinised government will be improved?". The question is: will Canberrans be better informed? Scrutiny is not exclusive (still less EXCLUSIVE) to journalists at outlets like The Canberra Times, and Barr deserves credit for trying to discern the dim outline of what is yet to come rather than that which has the reputation but no future to speak of;
  • "does Mr Barr honestly believe that the social media alternative will be better?". Again, Uhlmann assumes social media is an alternative rather than a supplement to the emaciated and fading broadcasters. As he doesn't understand the state of the media today he has no business lecturing politicians, or anyone else, about it. He also overestimates the extent to which Barr can pick and choose his own media. Barr is not, as politicians are often accused, "picking winners"; he is picking losers, and his picks seem more astute than Uhlmann's throat-clearings and harrumphing;
  • "will its wild winds create a storm that will have [Barr] longing for the smell of newsprint?". Why are you asking him? Even if he did sup the Kool-Aid of nostalgia as deeply as Uhlmann has, would he be able to save The Canberra Times from its fate by embracing it?
The above statement, purportedly by Channel 9's Political Editor, does not seem to appear on Channel 9's political news site. Perhaps [$]Bernard Keane was not entirely wrong when he claims this whole issue is a storm confined, if not to a teacup, then to that hill-edged basin surrounding Lake Burley Griffin ... but if so, why write about it at all? If he's spent so long in Canberra, is he the right person to judge hard news, or its absence? This was the best bit though, all the funnier for being so earnest:
Why can't a wealthy city of 300,000 people, the nation's capital, populated by people notionally engaged with public affairs and home of one of Australia's best universities, sustain a publication focused on what they do?
Like the beep of a reversing truck, that word "purportedly" shows Keane has it backwards. Canberrans *are* engaged with public policy and other matters that journalists might bundle up into "public affairs". The whole business model of journalism requires a market that is less well informed than the journalist, and content both to remain so after the journalist's output has been consumed and to come back for more. This is a hard ask in Canberra, where public servants in any given area must resent journalists' glib misrepresentations of their work and the misallocation of credit or blame to those blow-ins sent to town from elsewhere in the country.

The coverage of public service affairs rarely extends to sloppy press gallery journalism causing problems for politicians, who in turn cause problems for public servant heads, who in turn impose career-ending limitations on lower-ranked public servants who have done what they were asked, let alone drives improvement in reporting to a well-educated population demonstrable capable of appreciating nuance and disdaining hype and bullshit. The idea that the people of Canberra are unworthy of the newspaper foisted upon them rather than the reverse is not just a self-own on Keane's part, it shows why journalists will never be able to solve their career problems in an information age.
Part of the problem is that not much actually happens in Canberra ...
How does he know this? Even committed readers find The Canberra Times thin gruel. And so the downward spiral continues.
... beyond the Raiders and the Brumbies in winter.
Both kinds of football: rugby league and rugby union. But I digress.

Of course Barr has backed down, to an extent. Julia Gillard also flirted with female bloggers as a way of getting her message through to people, and the traditional media outlets that make up the press gallery (then as now) went berserk. Barr has to run a government today, and gauzy visions of the future have to take a back seat to realities here and now. The Canberra Times has to deal with the ACT government, and it is both good and bad news that its coverage has returned to the same old pattern; I'm sure readers are delighted and new readers flock in to see what the fuss is about. Another reality is that the ACT government does have to deal with The Canberra Times, but what future either have - in cahoots or at daggers drawn - remains to be seen.

Desperate needs

... the crazy lefties at the ABC, Guardian, the Huffington Post ... [who] draw mean cartoons about me ... They don’t realise how completely dead they are to me.

- Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, 22 March 2018
This is not a man who is trying to engage with people using multi-channel strategies. He would be flattered by the comparison with Bjelke-Petersen, which may be why Professor Williams of Griffith University hasn't made it. This is a man who makes decisions and does not expect to have to answer for them to people who aren't already fully supportive of them, as 2GB's Ray Hadley is. He is one of the few ministers in this government who does not own the ABC's Leigh Sales, whether through smarm (as Turnbull does) or bamboozling her with bullshit (as Morrison, Hunt, or Frydenberg do). The only time he regularly accounts for himself is in parliament, where he flaps and squawks like a panicked goose; his criticisms never land like well-considered, well-turned phrasing sometimes can. Lacking the power to haul Labor MPs down to the station for questioning, he seems rather lost and impresses nobody but the anti-Turnbull right on the Liberal backbench.

Jacqueline Maley tried to call out Dutton's tactics, but only drew attention to how easy it is for a galoot like him to play the broadcast media:
But far from being dead to him, Dutton’s critics are actually an essential part of his political tactics.

Without critics, you can’t have controversy, and controversy is the oxygen politicians like Dutton need in order to breathe and grow.

Consider his feat last week - with no warning, he came out with a left-field proposal to help an obscure sub-group of the world’s persecuted population, a group whose suffering, such as it is, is so niche it has escaped global attention for several decades, and is beneath the mention of the United Nations, which appears focused (however ineptly) on the persecution of Syrians, Rohingas [sic] and Christians in the Middle East.

No one in mainstream political discourse has talked about South African farmers in decades. They are a '90s throwback.
It wasn't a proposal, it was a brain-fart, and should have been reported as such. If journalistic experience in covering politics has any value, it should be to know the difference between a major policy shift and a bit of kite-flying designed to distract journos who can't and won't focus on actual policy.
[Dutton] said “independents can scream from the sidelines” but they only thrive on disruption and are not serious parties of government.
And yet, when the government tries to get their legislation through parliament, they go cap-in-hand to those same independents. Again, experienced journalists know this and avoid getting wound up; yet, Male thinks you have to be devilishly clever to fool not just one journalist, but absolutely all of them, en bloc:
Dutton’s trick is to co-opt the disruption and sideline-screaming of the right-fringe and bring it into mainstream political debate. To civilise it. That way, voters don’t have to turn to independents, because their grievances (anxiety over reverse racism, nerves about how far political correctness will alter social values) are embedded in the main party of government.
If they stayed on fringe outlets like 2GB, right-fringe issues wouldn't enter political debate. People like Jacqueline Maley, the sorts of dills who employ people like her and Mark Kenny and the rest of Fairfax's appalling politics team, they are the ones who bring right-fringe issues into political debate.

Maley refers to Trump: but much of the US media, their readers, and others such as academic journalism schools, are engaged in deep reflection and debate about how they were played in 2016 and what they can do to improve the way they work. They are aware of their need to contribute to a healthier body politic, that the freedoms of the press are joined to responsibilities about sound public information and debate.

It's rights-only-no-responsibilities for Jacqueline Maley and her frantically silly colleagues at The Canberra Times; when the next bit of political tinsel catches their eye, whether from Dutton or the ACT Opposition or anyone else, they'll charge after it and leave more pressing and serious issues in the dust. Then they have the gall to complain about resources! If journalists had any pride, they wouldn't be played so hard and so often by Peter fucking Dutton. Dumb journalists are the reason why he's being positioned as a potential Prime Minister, rather than as a bollard or some potentially useful piece of civic infrastructure.

Dutton, like Andrew Barr, is a politician today. There are lessons those guys can learn from Pericles or one of the Plinys or Churchill or [insert your favourite dead politician here], but for a lot of it - including how to deal with today's media - they have to make it up as they go along. Some of it involves getting journos on side, some involves ignoring them, and for all this pas de deux large sections of the public will be left cold. This disenchantment has different effects on politics and media: politics can and does survive public disenchantment (to a point), media can't and doesn't.

Every time a journalist complains about resources, call out an example of a self-own like Maley or Keane (they do it all the time) to demonstrate that the problem with Australian journalism today isn't a stubbornly ungrateful readership, but a lack of sense in allocating the resources they have, which discourages giving them still more resources to squander in yet-undreamed-of ways. Resource misallocation is also what bad governments do, and yes the two are directly related. Symbiotically. There's nothing more Aussie than facing the future and flinching.