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Journalism

Aug 2, 2010

This is all your fault

Yes, this election is boring and visionless rubbish. The media have to accept much responsibility for the poor state of political debate but in the end the fault lies elsewhere.

Yes, this election is rubbish, and it represents the lowest point in policy debate since, probably, 1980.

Yes it’s boring, and visionless, and run by two parties that are entirely risk-averse and who have turned their backs on so much achieved by previous generations of leaders. Parties for whom a key campaign strategy is to explain to voters that they have no intention of carrying out reforms they have long insisted were crucial.

But bad luck – it’s your fault. Politicians, and the media, and the business community all share responsibility for this dire state of affairs, but it’s voters themselves who have ultimately brought this about.

Last week, even mainstream media journalists began complaining about how tedious the campaign was. Hitherto, their main complaints had been poor catering and a failure by the Labor campaign to give them sufficient access to Julia Gillard. When blogger Grog’s Gamut attacked the press packs accompanying the leaders for ignoring policy issues (reproduced below), it elicited a very defensive reaction from some journalists (Larvatus Prodeo covered the spat and the broader political ennui enveloping us all).

The media indeed bears some culpability for not merely the dire state of this election campaign but the dire state of politics as a delivery for quality government and public policy. But it isn’t solely or evenly mainly to blame for it.

The role of the media in relation to politics is best understood as akin to that of feeders, the parasites who encourage obese partners to grow larger to satisfy their psychological and fetishistic needs, creating a deeply unhealthy cycle of mutual dependence. The media exploits and encourages a flawed political culture, but they don’t create it or control it.

That’s not to say there isn’t much left to be desired in mainstream media political coverage (let’s leave aside for the moment News Ltd’s anti-Labor campaigning, which extends to smearing Julia Gillard over her appearance, relationships and childlessness). Most journalists indeed fail to cover policy properly, but not because they’re lazy or obsessed with trivia or think their readers and viewers are idiots — to pick three of the criticisms routinely thrown around — but because they lack the specialist skills and the time.

Few journalists have an economics background – and ultimately economics is at the heart of most government policy. Many, it appears, can’t count. More seriously, few have the time to invest in analysis of policy, as political bureaux are cut back.

Instead, they rely for policy analysis on external “expert opinion” and therefore inevitably frame policy analysis as a debate and conflict. This leads to “he said-she said” journalism which offers an easy way out for time-pressed hacks, and in the case of the ABC is actually made obligatory by editorial guidelines as part of the national broadcaster’s unthinking and unreflective quest for “balance”.

This isn’t just a recent phenomenon occasioned by the slow death of the print media. Commercial broadcasters have been cutting back on news and current affairs since the 1980s. Political coverage has slowly become niche journalism. And 24 hour news channels are not a substitute for the long-term diminution of mainstream current affairs. They rarely provide in-depth analysis, but offer instead talking-head commentary and commentary on commentary. In any event, they are only watched by political tragics anyway.

All this makes media complaints about “spin” all the more ironic: the media needs spin, both from politicians and from external experts and observers, otherwise it would have to do the heavy lifting of actual analysis. Political coverage relies on spin and fills columns and airtime analyzing spin, discussing how the spin will be perceived: spin, messaging, propaganda as it used to be called, has become the primary material of the media cycle.

The result is too much cynicism and not enough scepticism. The media not merely covers policy poorly, it covers it selectively. A remarkable feature of the last three years has been the ruthless assault on every claim advanced by the Government in relation to key policy issues such as emissions trading or the mining tax, while the claims of vested interests have been waved through and reported as fact with virtually no scrutiny.

Much of this, true, is the product of News Ltd’s war on Labor. But it isn’t confined to the pages of The Australian, by any stretch. The Financial Review was one of the worst offenders in relation to the RSPT, and the ABC is now the sort of broadcaster where it is typical, rather than a matter worthy of remark, that an irrational and discredited a figure like Chris Monckton is given extensive and high-profile airtime.

In this swirl of self-interest, credulity and inconsistency, the role of the business has unfortunately avoided scrutiny. Despite its frequent calls for economic reform, Australia’s corporate sector is one of the biggest impediments to it. It was amusing to read last Thursday in the Fin the demands of the “Business Coalition for Tax Reform” for “real reform” to be considered in the election. At the centre of those reform demands was a significant reduction in the corporate tax rate, to 25%.

Again, we’ll put aside that the Government tried to pursue a proposal to cut company tax to 28%, and received exactly zero support from corporate Australia while foreign multinationals successfully intimidated Labor into abandoning it.

Cutting the company tax rate to 25% would cost perhaps $8-10b a year. Did the BCTR, or any other of the business groups that support it, nominate what other taxes should rise to make up the shortfall? Did they nominate any area of expenditure that should be cut? And not just something generic like “government waste”, but actual programs where proposed cuts might upset people – lower school funding, fewer roads, fewer doctors and nurses, waiting longer to buy some new warplanes or frigates? No.

This isn’t serious public policy debate. It has no more validity than the bloke at the bar bitching about taxes between beers. The corporate sector, despite calling for it, provides no support for the cause of real reform. In fact it provides the opposite: individual industries or sub-sectors that may lose as a consequence of reform know they can try to derail legitimate reform without opposition from, or criticism by, the rest of corporate Australia, although the latter reserve the right to then criticise politicians for failing to show leadership.

But neither the media nor the business sector can take responsibility for the policy timidity and risk-averse nature of the current generation of politicians.

That’s where we come in.

Tomorrow: how we outsourced government to professional politicians, and are now paying the price for it.

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76 thoughts on “This is all your fault

  1. Mike M

    Dear Bernard….your right, but most of the fault lies with the “swingers” in the outlying seats of our largest cities. These are the people that are working the long hours to meet their debt obligations, to the extent that they find it difficult to think much beyond next week, or at most next month. They are the ones that have so little time, that spin is all they have the attention span for. This election campaign is aimed at them and is pitched by both sides in a way that won’t frighten them, while appealing to their need for a simple solution to their fate …..that their circumstance is somebody else’s fault (ie immigrants, boat people or whatever)…..just stop the immigrants and everything will be all right. If only it were that simple.

    What is emerging is a big divide between the “rusted on” supporters of the two main parties of the inner/outer suburbs and the “swingers” in the outer suburbs.

    Having said all of that, what seems to be on offer are two individuals that have no/little life experience outside of “machine politics” and both will be shown to be too inexperienced for the job once (one of them) has won the top job. Perhaps its because of this that they are incapable of offering any more than spin and simplistic solutions.

    Meanwhile the potential train wreck of climate change and energy shortages are approaching, with both sides completely ignoring the enormity of these future challenges.

  2. John Bennetts

    Bernard, I don’t buy what you are selling this time.

    What is the difference between Australian and (say) British voters’ intelligence, numeracy and so forth? Nothing much, I would suggest.

    The Brits have agreed on the need for GHG reduction, across the board. There are skirmishes about how and how fast, but not regarding the acceptance of the green house challenge.

    Australia is still mired in a sh_t fight about who is telling the most lies – on the one side, we have knowledge and on the other side, opinion. Opinion seems to be what interests our journalists, who are indeed not stupid but they are lazy, very lazy. Opinion is what gets reported. Stuff based on facts is simply not considered fit for the news.

    The difference between Britain, where policy has substance and Australia, where politicians on all three of the major parties (I exclude the Greens from this criticism) are afraid to develop and to defend their policies is the horrid negativism, lowest common denominator, follow the leader, brain dead, lazy, incompetent band of otherwise smart and intelligent folk called journatists. I exclude from this list the likes of Ross Gittins and prescious few others. The remainder appear to me to be happy to state that day is night, black is white and wrong is right, if they think that by doing so they will increase circulation and/or curry favour with their boss.

    You, Bernard, are one of a group who are, collectively, responsible for an enormous malaise which Australia is being subjected to and you cannot hide behind a “no – it’s really you” argument.

    Remember also – the “minders” of politicians are also journalists by training, in the main. Again, they have sold their sold for pieces of silver. How many such trained monkeys are employed within the Government and Opposition offices at taxpayer expense? How many more work for government departments and other arms of the public service?

    How many more journalists work for the unions of employers and of employees which infest our front pages? The MTIA or the peak business councils are nothing more or less than collective bargainers and mouthpieces for employers, just as surely as the CFMEU or the Labour Council of Victoria represent their members, the employees.

    More journalists… what a growth industry this profession represents… can be found squirrelled away in corporations large and small. Every employer worth its salt has a mouthpiece to do the lying for it. Guess what? Another journalist. The CEO and the Chair of the Board are too afraid to speak in public, because they may fall foul of the listing rules and the ACCC. Better let a journalist tell the lies for us. (S)he might not know much about the business or the technical issues, but by golly! He has a way with words! He can talk underwater with a mouth full of marbles, but commit to nothing, all the time using sweet soothing words.

    Journalists, one and all, you scream that your profession has been drained of job opportunities because the media magnates are struggling to keep their dead tree news platforms afloat, but whose fault is that?

    Show me a room full of journalists and I will show you a room full of inflated egos, useless parasites who feed the community st_t and then blame the commun ity for eating sh_t.

  3. Michael R James

    Yes, yes. I have said it over and over, even here in Crikey: “…..tailor-made for Australia, the answer is in Pogo’s classic line “We have met the enemy and he is us.” ”

    But MikeM at 1.50 pm is correct. It is a small number (5-10% ?) of ignorant bozo rednecks in a small handful of seats who apparently determine policy for the rest of us. In the absence of a leader who can somehow bring these idiots along (funny enough one thinks of Latham –these morons were his electorate) one begins to think that maybe compulsory voting has this major, major undesirable feature.

  4. John Bennetts

    “…sold their soul…”, not “sold their sold”. I am sure that the other typos can go through to the keeper.

  5. shepherdmarilyn

    I just phoned Newspoll and was told the Australian commissions questions about asylum seekers without context.

    The reality is only 5% of all asylum seekers arrive by sea yet that is what they whine on about incessantly.

    The question is only ever put when this tiny number of people arrive and considering we have been outside our own laws for the past 20 years one wonders why the law is never stated by newspoll.

    O’Shaughnessy refused to speak to me.

  6. Mr Denmore

    How can it be the public’s fault when they’re not getting the right information on which to make a decision. So few journalists have an economics background. So why aren’t the newspapers employing them? Why do the major papers cover economics out of Canberra and not Sydney or Melbourne?

    Why do the media play along with the politicians’ manipulative games? No-one is forcing the media to cover politics as a horse race, but they do it anyway. No-one is forcing them to just recycle press releases by vested interest groups as if they are fact.

    We’re suffering from bad and lazy journalism. There are no grumpy chiefs of staff any more sending back reporters’ copy with the line ‘well what did you expect them to say, sonny’?

    We have a total absence of decent policy debate because the media and our political leaders insist on treating the population like idiots – and because the people who advise the politicians are wet-behind-the-ears half-trained former journalists with no experience of the world.

    You’re right about cynicism over sceptism. It amuses me when I hear a world weary tone adopted by a twenty-something spoonfed press gallery hackette who never learnt to be a proper journalist and who spends her life block cutting and pasting from interest group press releases.

    So send the journos to economics night classes. Refuse to run stories that start from press release. Put a limit on time spent in the press gallery without a break. Ignore the party leaders circus and go and talk to people. Do more of the what the SMH did last week with its wraparound on the real issues facing Australia – not the bloody boats.

    Stop relying on spin doctors’ version of what focus groups are saying and go and ask them yourselves. That’s what journalists do.

  7. Peter Phelps

    [Much of this, true, is the product of News Ltd’s war on Labor.]

    No mention of Farifax’s editorialised Leftism?

    [It is a small number (5-10% ?) of ignorant bozo rednecks in a small handful of seats]

    Beautiful – neatly sums up the hatred the bougeois Left feels for real Australia. Why don’t you piss off to Cuba.

  8. Fran Barlow

    One also suspects that given the scope for most people to be engaged with matters is limited — Australians reportedly do a lot more work beyond official hours – that most people pay little attention to anything that doesn’;t fit into a headline or a grab on the radio.

    Given that most of us will never have a politician as an acquaintance nor be asked our opinion on any matter of policy, we have a context in which the tendencies that Mr Denmore spoke of above become central to how journalism gets done.

    One should also not forget that media organisations are commercial institutions in their own right. Their primary function is not to inform but to create coherent and qualified audiences to market to advertisers. It is only natural that business gets a free pass as business are the clients that pay the bills.

    They set the agenda and then the ABC follows.

    One might also bring in the arms trader analogy. An arms trader has less interest inb who wins a conflict than there should be a conflict — and ideally a prolonged one, precisely becuase that makes his or her merchandise more valuable.

    A government under pressure is going to spend up buying advertising and if a major business groups is runnign against them then that’s brilliant from a media POV.

    So quite independently of the attitude of individual journalists or the wish of the proprietor there are many converging pressures that shape the processes by which media narratives are iterated. If in addition to these things the proprietor also has a certain inclination, things may get even more obviously partisan — and The Australian is case in point here, but it is helpful not to become overly obsessed with this.

    The ALP has not done itself any favours — and has very much allowed itself to be a aprty to the narrative rather than trying to create a new and more interesting and flattering one.

  9. Liz Johnston

    I’ve seen a lot of elections and every time the commentariat proclaims it is going to be very exciting. Two weeks later they say it’s really boring. Maybe it’s really boring because journalists aren’t doing their job of asking pertinent, informed questions.

  10. stephen_kaless

    @ Peter Phelps.

    No mention of Farifax’s editorialised Leftism?

    Is that the same policy that gives weekly column inches to Miranda Devine, Gerard Henderson and Paul Sheehan. With weekly contributions from Peter Costello, Julie Bishop and Ross Cameron?

    Oh that’s right Mike Carlton gets a go on Saturday!

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