Is traditional political television dying? Have the likes of Insiders and the Laurie Oakes interview been left behind by new media and canny politicians? In a two part-series, Crikey invites readers, journalists and politicians to have their say.

Let’s go back to the beginning. There never used to be old media or new media. There was just the media: print, radio and television, which were specially regulated by governments because they were so influential. The media business model, with a few variations here and there, was to aggregate mass audiences and offer them to advertisers. And the media sector had high barriers to entry — large fixed costs for infrastructure such as presses and transmission towers — and governments lifted them far higher via regulation.

Traditional political journalism grew out of this model. It was about a trade-off — politicians got access to the mass audiences the media could aggregate and the media got access to the politicians. Journalists and editors got the role of interpreting — mediating — the communication between politicians and voters. Authoritative, independent and trusted political journalists were the guides for readers, viewers and listeners to what was happening in politics. And the close relationship of journalists and politicians naturally led to information networks and cooperation as well as conflict. The press gallery became as much the place that received stories from governments as investigated them.

But even as political journalists promoted themselves as a key feature of democratic accountability, the whole model was undemocratic. It treated voters like sheep, herding them together at anointed times and feeding them carefully prepared information selected by journalists, editors and proprietors. And the mainstream media weren’t the unbiased and independent filters they pretended to be. They were owned by large, conservative corporations. The Fairfax family’s publications never editorialised for Labor. Rupert Murdoch started out as a crusading lefty but moved to the right as his empire grew. Or they were public broadcasters regularly accused of ideological bias. Before becoming a byword for left-wing radicalism, the ABC was considered the broadcasting equivalent of Fairfax: stuffy, conservative and anti-Labor like its old, white, middle-class audience.

In reaction, small left-wing newspapers, some funded by the labour movement, others more radical in ideology, sought to balance the conservative bias of mainstream media. But by the early ’80s, such ideological vanity publications were on the way out as trade union membership began falling. Labor had even bought its own radio station in Sydney, 2KY.

And traditional political journalism — particularly on television — used certain almost ritualistic formats. One was the interrogation by a senior journalist of a politician, a “grilling” in which an invariably middle-aged, white, male journalist tried to embarrass a politician (of usually the same demographic). Such p*ssing contests were, especially in the hands of egomaniacs such as Richard Carleton, as much about journalistic self-importance as about informing audiences — probably more so.

Another ritual was based on the idea that watching a panel of journalists discuss their area of expertise would be innately informative and interesting.

Politicians were the first ones to start breaking the model down. Some, such as John Howard, decided they didn’t get fair treatment from the press gallery. He preferred more direct and more easily controlled means of communication, such as talkback radio and media pets (usually in News Ltd), although he retained a noblesse oblige attitude towards traditional interviews. Kevin Rudd adroitly used FM radio and light entertainment programs to reach demographics such as young people who didn’t use traditional media anywhere near as much as their parents and who ignored traditional political journalism.

And, at the hands of political advisers and spinners, there came to be no distinction between the content politicians were putting out — media appearances, Question Time sound bites (carefully addressed to the chamber camera for the evening news), press releases and replies to correspondence became variations of the same talking points. Interviews stopped being grillings and started being used as just another platform to convey the same message. This has been happening for decades — Jane Singleton terminated an interview with Bob Hawke in the 1980s because he persistently refused to answer her questions, but has grown considerably worse this decade (Singleton copped some confected outrage whipped up by Labor’s media people at the time and few journalists have ever dared to follow her lead). Penny Wong, whose response to most questions is to redirect (via the inevitable segue “can I say this?”) to her preferred topic, is only the most blatant offender in this regard.

The other disruptive factor was that the internet arrived and began wrecking the whole media model. Suddenly people could start generating and distributing content as well as receiving it. The media became more of a dialogue than a monologue. Small media and even bloggers could compete with well-established media. Distinctions between “lean forward” and “lean back” audiences were no sooner identified than they began to blur as digital broadcasting yielded more choice and control by viewers. The mainstream media struggled to cope as new media promised interactivity much greater than “Letters to the Editor” or a TV network switchboard and viewers decided that media consumption should fit into their lives, not the other way around.

The internet had particular implications for political journalism. It enabled audiences to be almost as well-informed as your average, and increasingly time-poor, political journalist, particularly about complex policy issues. Twenty years ago, the lack of online access meant even political documents intended for public consumption such as press releases and White Papers weren’t easily available to the public. Now there are terabytes of information from politicians, business and NGOs just a few clicks away.

So what do we need now from political broadcast journalism?

We need formats that can evolve to match the rapid development of the communication techniques of our leading politicians. In this regard, Kevin Rudd has taken the John Howard model far beyond where his predecessor left it but many in the press gallery seemed to have barely worked out that it’s not the Keating years anymore. The traditional grilling is no longer an effective means of media accountability.

We need journalists who, if they want to stick to traditional one-on-one interviews, are well-enough briefed to be able to match it with their subjects. And if journalists believe they provide accountability, let’s see it in action. Producers and interviewers need to be aggressive enough to tell politicians that if they refuse to answer questions the interview — the precious opportunity to pump out key messages — will be terminated. The Prime Minister and Penny Wong should be the first targets in that regard.

And the mainstream media need to get over themselves and learn from new media that interactivity and audience engagement are more than just comments boxes at the end of articles — it should be part of the content process as well, especially in opinion and analysis.

Part 2: what 7.30 Report, Insiders, Meet the Press and other programs get right and wrong — and what some of their audiences think.

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