18 October 2020

Need to know

I don't need to know about that bit.  - Gladys Berejiklian to Daryl Maguire
An earlier version of this post focused on the fact that the budget was announced last week, and right now there are compromises and horse-trading underway to get it passed into law, and that any member of the federal parliamentary press gallery worth their salt should be onto this and what it might mean for our country in these uncertain times.

Scott Morrison went to Cairns and made two claims that could be perceived as slanders against the armed forces. First, that his RAAF aircraft had broken down (RAAF Townsville is just down the road and, if there was a serious issue, another RAAF aircraft would be dispatched within minutes), and then his cancellation of a national cabinet meeting with heads of government because he could find no secure place to run it from (HMAS Cairns, and any naval vessel currently in port there, would suffice). The press gallery simply relayed this nonsense. Only social media yielded people with actual milcoms and other government experience did the journalistic task of showing nonsense for what it is.

Instead, the press gallery are as one focused on state politics. Geez, they all agreed (for they are all shrewd and diverse and competitive and feisty, just ask them) - it doesn't look good for Gladys, does it?

So, let's talk about Gladys. I'm not interested in pre-empting the findings of ICAC, nor in talking about The Gladys I Knew. The behavour of journalists covering NSW state politics (both longterm members of the NSW parliamentary press gallery, and blow-ins from Canberra) is the issue here.

There is no good reason why the press gallery didn't reveal the Berejiklian-Maguire relationship before now. It had been going on for years, and the whole idea of Insider Savvy Journalism is to get information and context that can't be had simply by taking press releases at face value. The contradiction of Savvy Insider Journalism is that, if you're close enough to get insider gossip then you protect your position by not reporting it, which for the public is the same as not having that information at all.

Publicly manifested aspects of it (e.g. overruling ministers to approve matters that went against policy, appointing as parliamentary secretary a man known for his mediocrity) were already on the record, and had been for years. If experience counts for anything in covering politics, it should include the ability to:

  • piece together information from disparate sources, and
  • draw conclusions other those fed to them, and
  • test those conclusions against reality
Nobody who covers NSW politics has this ability, it would seem. They have been employed for years by large media organisations offering stable employment, accumulating the kind of journalistic experience that journalists and editors respect, and then put into a complex environment where any skills in gathering, processing and disseminating information might have come in handy.

The benefits of this experience go both to journalists' careers and to better public information and debate. In the absence of analytical skill and courage to press conclusions, there is no compelling reason to consume traditional media. In the absence of analytical skill and courage to press conclusions, it becomes necessary to wait for tribunals to gather the sorts of information that journalists used to be able to gather themselves. What value does a journalist offer in appending ICAC transcripts?

It is up to voters, not journalists or editors, to decide whether or not a government has done a good job. Traditional media needs to focus more on gathering verifiable information and less on the hall-of-mirrors of whether this is good for that politician, bad for this one. That stuff belongs on social media, and traditional media is wasting resources and credibility on this. Letting journalists and editors have their heads leads to economic unsustainability and bad public debate, signs of clear failure in an information age.

Yes, yes, I hear you cry, you've said all that before, and - what about Gladys? How can she not resign in the face of such serious allegations?!?! What about all those senior ministers professing their support, surely the proper journalistic response is simply to pass on their prepared statements without comment, like every traditional media outlet accredited to the NSW parliamentary press gallery has?!?!?!

Experienced political observers will recall Berejiklian's predecessor, Nick Greiner, undergoing an ICAC inquiry in 1992. Serious allegations came out of that, and there was a great deal of chatter about whether Greiner's position was untenable. Greiner put on an impression of toughness for the sake of the party, and then behind the scenes paved the way for his preferred candidate, John Fahey, to succeed him as Liberal leader and Premier.

In 1992 Gladys Berejiklian and I were Young Liberals. She is nothing if not a party loyalist. I spent the whole time from then until last Monday not having to think about her private life, assuming she was the kind of dedicated public servant most people who met her assumed her to be. After years of being told how good she was, perhaps she had her head turned and developed a blind spot; she wouldn't be the first to be in that position, and if you accept that then you have no excuses for pretending things might turn out differently for her.

She is emulating Greiner: toughing it out to keep the ratbags at bay while easing her preferred successor, Rob Stokes, into the job. Constance is a burnt-out volcano; Perrottet is still stained by icare and is a poncy, remote man who scares marginal-seat holders; and the task of any successful NSW Liberal leader is to hold at bay the Christianist right rather than indulge them with the leadership itself. This leaves Stokes, who gives the impression of being both amiable and capable while not overly burdened by your standard vices. When the ICAC hands down its findings - and not a day before or later - Berejiklian will resign and be replaced by Rob Stokes.

The journalistic task, then, is to recognise that NSW politics is essentially a constellation of fixes. Right now, as with the federal budget, discussions are underway to shape the NSW government going forward, and those discussions are newsworthy in themselves. You bums in the federal press gallery, get back to work as you are clearly out of your depth in NSW politics.

Over the past five (six? Seven?) years, we have learned that people should be told in real time what is going on. Traditional media look stupid when they fall about in shock proclaiming they didn't know:

  • NSW press gallery members Andrew Clenell (SkyFoxNewsCorp) and Chris O'Keefe (Channel 9) claimed they only found out about the Berejiklian-Maguire relationship on Monday. If this is true, it doesn't speak to their Insidery Insiderness, does it? Apart from reciting press releases, what have they been doing?
  • If they did know, and kept it quiet to maintain Insidery Insiderness relationships, then what is in those relationships for us? People feel stupid for having voted without full possession of the facts. Is it the job of journalists to withhold information from us?
  • Cheryl Kernot, Ross Cameron, Julia Gillard, Barnaby Joyce, and Emma Husar can all attest to the fact that something has changed this century with regard to the private lives of prominent politicians, and the old "smirk but don't tell" rule of the press gallery simply doesn't apply any more. It reinforces low perceptions of journalists as well as the idea that the real news is somewhere other than in traditional media, which is why you needn't make it a daily habit any more, or at all.
  • If you look at news reports from 2018, when Daryl Maguire resigned as MP for Wagga Wagga, there are references to him being "very close" etc to the then newly elected Premier, Gladys Berejiklian (hurr hurr!). They knew. They compound their incompetence by lying to us. But please, renew your subscription so they can lie to you again!
If the journalism was better, the politics would be better. The journalism is easier to fix than the politics, which is firewalled with legislation and deft political maneuvering. Journalism is not subject to its own legislation and its operators aren't all that deft. The press gallery was one of the first experiments in outsourcing an essential government service (information to the public on decisions made by government), and I suggest that as a business model it has run its race. We still need information about how we are governed but both the federal and NSW parliamentary press galleries are telling us all clearly, in real time: can't help ya, can't help ourselves.