There are times when one wonders whether this bizarre election campaign is actually about anything. But of course it is. It is just that it is hard to get the information we need to determine what the issues are. And that is an indictment of the way it is being reported.
Last Friday I was at a meeting where the future of the website Australian Policy Online was under discussion. During the session we heard about feedback from the site’s readers. One had made a touching plea: where, she asked, could she find a clear and impartial statement of the top 10 policy issues in the present election, and the position of the political parties on each?
Ouch. Once, we would have said that providing such material was the job of the serious media. Yet which of us could point to a place, amid all the hoopla and gleeful reports of supposed embarrassments and overshadowings, where the average citizen could glean such a clear and unvarnished piece of information?
We have to have some sympathy (perhaps) for the journalists actually on the campaign trail. As described in The Australianmedia section today, they rarely have time to think. Treated like trained dogs, told when to wake up, when to move, when to sit up and beg, we can hardly be surprised that on those few occasions when they are let off the leash — when something unscripted occurs — they behave like over-excited puppies, running all over the place and near wetting themselves in excitement.
Yet the result is stories that defy common sense. We read about how Mark Latham’s intervention “overshadowed” Julia Gillard’s policy pronouncement, with no acknowledgement that the way the media reported events had something to do with that overshadowing.
And how do they know it has overshadowed anything anyway? All they are really saying is that they got distracted, and therefore assume the rest of us were, or should have been, too. In all this the media at one and the same time assume they have great power, and also declaim all responsibility.
We read about the voters and the electorate and how things will play as though those who are referred to are a very different bunch of people to those reading or listening to the media outlet.
Yes, the reporters are partly to blame, but what is really lacking is editorial judgement. For goodness sake, get the reporters off the bus! Refuse to let your staff be treated with such contempt. Tell them they should not let it happen. Or at least exercise some independent judgement about what is worth reading and when the stories you are publishing and broadcasting descend in to solipsistic nonsense.
There are some exceptions. I have been enjoying what ABC’s AM has done, for example — touring the electorates out of the public eye and interviewing the electors. But even then, we lack basic policy information.
Perhaps because Nicholas Gruen was part of the meeting I attended on Friday, I was prompted to reflect on a campaign he has been trying to get off the ground on the blog Club Troppo and on Twitter using the hashtag #hesaidshesaid, which he later decided to modify to #mediacarcass, having considered several other suggestions, such as #failureofthepress, #urkillingdemocracy and #soufflejournalism.
His most recent post is this rather devastating, to my mind, analysis of Annabel Crabb’s response to a press conference. He points out that, faced with criticism, the election coverage them becomes partly journalists self justifying. “They might be bored by policy, but my god, they are absolutely fascinated by themselves.”
The original post on #hesaidshesaid, posted last July, suggested that we get mad as hell about “cases where the press engage in the mindlessness of ‘he said-she said’ journalist. That is where they report various sides’ accusations of the other as if that then finishes their job. Obviously us voters want information to help us tell which of the two sides stories is more plausible. And obviously enough sometimes even a hard working journalists can’t find out the information necessary to throw light on the subject. But often they can.”
Later he attacked the journalism that believes “reporting both sides with wide-eyed ignorance about the merits of their claims is at least ‘objective’ and true in a way”. He pointed out that this meant reporters could “without offering any evidence or evaluation race call the very debate you’re ‘he said-she said’ reporting”.
And race calling — treating the election as though it were spectator sport, rather than something in which all of us have a serious stake — is one of the abuses at the top of my list. Because this election is about stuff. Elections always are.
So what to do about it? Well, you can feed Gruen some examples of #mediacarcass reporting, or me for that matter. He is on Twitter as @nicholasgruen. I am @margaretsimons.
Or you can demand, or perhaps even compile, some alternatives for yourself. Could there be an election wiki, perhaps, giving the policy information the media is largely failing to provide?