Today, no news outlet provides the full scope of what's going on. Yeah yeah, I'm sure they have their reasons and thought they were clever in trimming costs, and you could spend all day making excuses for them I suppose. Those who continue to shill for those organisations insist they're turning the corner to a bright new future, but when you're in a downward spiral you're always turning the corner, and increasingly doing so in a way that appeals to adrenaline junkies with no sense of perspective. For the majority of us who aren't journalists, the fact remains that if you need to know what's going on you have to hunt for it far beyond [insert news outlet name].
Journalists from still-large and once-proud media organisations insist that only they can provide that combination conducive to consumer trust that comes from both the busywork of journalist activity and the stolidity of reputation, fact-checking, and a well-staffed pool of lawyers. Self-deception is always sad and an appreciation of this must temper the brittle assertiveness with which this
When someone like Gay Alcorn writes something like this, I accept that she has a genuine and general concern for the state of the polity in this country. Pretty much everything Jonathan Green writes is in a similar vein, and there are others, but here I'll quote Alcorn and probably make her feel that she's carrying the can for others, when that isn't the intention here. When you reach such a state of despair, the question you have to ask is: what can you do? To answer that question in the negative is to invite further despair.
The aspect of our political system which is most deserving of disappointment/ anger/ calm but firm corrective measures is the media, and the way it reports politics. Fix that, and other aspects of our political malaise (parties' poor selection of candidates and leaders, and the statements they make, and the things they do) will either fix themselves or be much diminished. The media, and the way it reports politics, is the very area over which Alcorn has the greatest influence, because it is also that area where Alcorn has the most experience.
Because it is also that area where Alcorn has the most experience it is the area she is most reluctant to criticise, after decades of friendships and career mentors and more than a little (I suggest) of the adrenaline-junkie aspect of having been in an old-style newsroom. Lacking that experience myself I scorn it for its sheer lack of helpfulness in the current debate and how it gets in the way of decisions that have to be made about the way we relate to information and our system of politics.
What I won't do is pretend that such a sentimental approach is even a useful way of thinking about popular disengagement from the political system - and from the traditional media - and that it must be respected and left in place while the search for answers dances around it. That sentiment is not the spur for the solution, it is the problem.
A few days ago, columnist Andrew Bolt was furious about the abuse of Tony Abbott ... Julia Gillard was subjected to demeaning, sexist, brutal abuse for much of her prime ministership ... Bolt wasn't calling for civility in politics generally, or warning about the dangers of abuse.No he wasn't, and nobody expected any better from such a man - unless you overestimate the importance of his professional background. Bolt was, as was Alcorn, a journalist from The Age who was not taught to write about how outraged they were but to collect facts about what the event was - and that "facts" went beyond mere statements. If Bolt sells articles praising Tony Abbott, and Clementine Ford sells T-shirts saying "Fuck Tony Abbott", these are equally valid statements/ selling points, with a receptive public for each. If no fact-check is possible, two conclusions may be drawn: there is no story, or access to the facts is being covered up and the story should focus on that.
That's where we are in Australian politics. Vilification and scorn. Little common ground, even about the basic facts of difficult issues.Of course, because of the nature of he-said-she-said quote-alone political journalism. The fact that a politician has said something assumes more significance than it has. Political journalism should check what is said against what is done. If a politician denies the science behind climate change should be a basis for government policy decisions on, say, farm assistance, journalists should not merely transcribe and transmit but ask why. The story is in the conflict between the politician's words and the facts of the matter, not in one set of words against another.
Vilification and scorn is where we're at in Australian politics because vilification and scorn are what's in the quotes, and in the background briefings received but not transmitted by the press gallery.
Zero allowance for error or human frailty.With Reza Berati dead, and Scott Morrison and Angus Campbell ready to subject others to the same fate by omission or commission, how much "frailty" or latitude do you want? Did Senator Nash commit an error by letting Furnival run her agenda, and does/can criticism of her constitute only "vilification and scorn"?
A race to the bottom? We have reached the bottom and it's hard to see where we go from here.No it isn't. News from Ukraine, Egypt and Syria show what systematic political failure looks like. The media in each of those countries just takes ministers at their word, too; they at least have the excuse of dreading a fate worse than not being able to meet a mortgage in Manuka. The question is how far you want to go down that road, and whether fact-free he-said-she-said empty journalism gets you closer to those abysses.
Most Australians, understandably, have turned off. A quarter of young people failed to enrol to vote before the September election. A major Scanlon Foundation study released last year found a collapse in public trust in government - in 2009, 48 per cent of those polled thought Canberra could be trusted "almost always" or "most of the time". By last year, it was 27 per cent. An Essential Media report in 2012 also noted trust in government declining, and found something else. Faith in institutions such as the High Court and the Reserve Bank, as well as businesses and trade unions, is sliding.Do Fairfax mastheads count as "public institutions", even though they are assets of a private company? I think they can and should have been included in Alcorn's list of declining institutions, and the degree to which newspaper-reading is as unusual an activity among young people as, say, crocheting. Journalists shrug and say that they are merely passing on what is said; but even if that was true, it clearly isn't working for them or arresting the slide in civic engagement. Journalists apply their hype and cliches, assuming This Is What Sells or This Is What Gets The Punters In; but they're wrong about that too, they obviously have no clue about a central assumption of their very occupation.
And so we turn inwards. The minority of Australians who are interested in politics for the most part seem to be talking among their own kind ...When was the golden age of civic engagement, from which we have declined (nay, fallen)? World War I conscription, where the protagonists are now as silent as the soldiers they fought over? How jolly, or even gentlemanly, was the Labor split in the 1950s?
My earliest memories of politics was in 1975; I was in primary school, but I remember heated arguments and sly digs among the adults in my life. 1975 was when Fairfax mastheads were in their pomp and well before social media. Was Australian politics really less heated then than it is now? For years after he left office, on a street in central Sydney, there was graffiti referring to former PM Malcolm Fraser that replaced the 's' in his surname with a swastika: vilification and scorn to be sure, and my Twitter app doesn't even have a swastika key.
See if you can find a swastika on this blog, go on; bet you I could find one in The Sunday Age. Alcorn has made the sort of generalisation with which everyone agrees until they think about it.
Tony Abbott said his mission after the last election was to "restore trust" in government after three years of Labor leadership treachery and policy missteps. But it's too late, Tony.Tony Abbott has said a great many things that are bullshit, and journalists should have called him on it more often that they did and do. This business about "too late" implies that we are going to have a bit of accountability and that nobody is better placed to do that than the press gallery; but that's bullshit too. The press gallery only call events "predictable" after they have happened, rather than before. Alcorn should call it and work to fix it, but too many toes to tread on.
Trust has gone and you [Abbott] played a fair part in its destruction.Indeed he did. But simply transcribing and broadcasting Abbott's claim that "this is a bad government" did that. It would have been fair to question whether or not Abbott might provide a genuinely superior alternative to the previous government, for all its flaws. Mark Latham criticised the Howard government too, but with two important differences:
- In 2004 the press gallery challenged Latham to say how Australia would not just be different, but better, with him as PM. In 2013 they took Abbott at his word and waved him through.
- Latham shares most of Abbott's weaknesses but offered more of his strengths.
It should have been possible for people like Alcorn to show the way rather than merely lament its loss - shit, any old blogger can do that.
Trust is essential in a democracy. Politicians will spin, put the best gloss on things, and even deceive at times. But it's gone beyond that in the past few years - the very basis of our system seems to depend on deliberately misleading the public.The very basis of whose system? We pay journalists to de-spin and un-gloss, and if they don't then we stop paying them in both money and attention.
When Abbott declined to spend $25 million as part of a co-investment in fruit processor SPC Ardmona last month, the main reason given was that conditions and allowances for its workers were "way in excess of the award". That wasn't true, meaning the only conclusion to be drawn was that it was a false claim designed to bolster the government's desire for industrial relations changes.Interesting how Stone apparently referred to Abbott with the royal plural, eh?
It was a fellow Liberal MP, Sharman Stone, who said the Prime Minister had lied. "What they said was, 'We're not going to help because it is the amazing wages and conditions that have knocked this company for six', and that is just wrong," she said.
What happened was that some people - whether or not employed as journalists - actually checked the provisions of the agreement (not an award - yes there's a difference), and compared them against the PM's words. That happened a day or so before Stone's observations. Those journalists who reported Stone as 'off message' or 'disgruntled' missed the story, and the point, whatever their fealty to journalistic tradition.
Those reports made it hard to determine whether or not we have a Prime Minister who can be trusted on important matters, as nuance and complexity can all simply be written off as undifferentiated argy-bargy.
If politicians mislead, not occasionally but routinely, people harden. They assume the worst. Even when someone is trying to level with them about why a tough decision is made, they won't believe it.My assumptions are my business. Good reporting provides the basis against which assumptions can be tested. Sloppy reporting panders or confuses, and isn't a good basis for anything - including the job security of the journalist.
Similarly, what was most offensive about Immigration Minister Scott Morrison's news conference last week announcing that asylum seeker Reza Berati had been killed during a riot on Manus Island was that before any details were clear, his first instinct was to all but blame the dead man for his fate. "People decided to protest in a very violent way and place themselves at great risk," he said. Several days later, the minister corrected key errors, but to use a man's death to twist the knife into asylum seekers at such a time was cruel politics.And the fact that nobody in that press conference called him on it was dumb, worthless journalism.
Labor has played its part in this, too. Its support for former MP Craig Thomson in the last Parliament ...And had Labor treated Craig Thomson any differently, would Reza Berati be alive today? Would Morrison? No, the very suggestion, the very linkage here, is monstrous. What Alcorn is striving for here is the pose of balance, the idea that she sees all but is above it, the voice from nowhere.
Firstly, it's disgusting in itself.
Secondly this is what's called a tactical feint. This is what politicians do: when they get caught in a position that's embarrassing and can't be resolved quickly, they change the subject. Alcorn has no excuse not to be awake to this, no excuse not to stay away from a matter that is still before the courts, and about which little new or insightful might be said. Let Murdoch papers pile on Thomson; whenever Fairfax follow one of those Holt St pogroms they always look stupid and ninth-rate.
... the now convicted fraudster ...
But blaming all job losses on the government is as misleading as blaming the unions.Do go on - no, really, that's where the stories are, not in the back-and-forth between the PM and the Opposition Leader.
It has been said that we're in the era of post-truth politics, when facts don't matter, when evidence doesn't matter.Fuck everyone who says that. Facts are never futile; the more a journalist has, the more attention they should be paid. Journalists have chosen to quote what was said and leave it at that, floundering or bloviating or otherwise embarrassing themselves while we have to dig and scrounge for facts against which to measure this slippery government.
But without these things, there can be no trust at all, no fragile but essential compact between citizens and their government that respect is mutual.Without these things there is no role for a journalist. They are simply redundant, and increasingly their employers recognise them as such. Journalists who bring the evidence create their own place, a highly valued one. Facts are never futile: fragile and essential, like a newspaper used to be.
If trust goes, where does it lead us? To exactly where we are.I know that I'm doing what I can, but much of what I'm doing you can see here. If you have more experience in media than I do you could do more to fix it. A repaired media would stop reporting gibbering stooges, who would lose currency with their parties for their media-relations skills. Trust, elevated debate and good things generally in politics start with up-ending the media. Alcorn couldn't go there, but she's happy to go where we are - which might be why she's so disdainful of facts.
Update 4 March: Thomson was convicted, in a Magistrate's Court.