Given that the mainstream media will piss on Mark Latham’s contribution to campaign journalism from a great height, it might be worth thinking about what he did and didn’t do wrong over the last couple of weeks.
I have been saying all week that his 60 Minutes segment would be either embarrassingly awful, or off-the-wall and penetrating. I was wrong. It was neither terrible nor wonderful.
He made fair points in a fairly dull manner. It would be fascinating to know what the interactions were between him and the 60 Minutes producers. How much was Latham? How much was 60 Minutes?
I have little respect for his final message – a possibly illegal advocacy for people to waste their votes.
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I based my prediction that the program would be wonderful or awful on his record to date. The best of Latham was in the books he wrote before he became leader of the Labor Party. They were original, fresh and provocative contributions with intellectual muscle behind them. Most political journalists never read them.
We never saw that kind of thinking once he was campaigning as leader. Doubtless he would now say that the political process he bagged on 60 Minutes prevented him from talking about big ideas, or even little ones. And he may well be right. Which doesn’t, of course, excuse his flaws, which are manifest.
The Latham Diaries, too, contained a foreword that was an impressive piece of political analysis. The body of the work contained the same, but mixed with at least equal quantities of narcissism and the behaviour of everyone except himself viewed through shit-coloured glasses.
And Latham’s more recent columns for The Australian Financial Review have included some very good analysis and provocative opinion. If Latham had remained a public intellectual, rather than a failed Labor leader, then I suspect he would be held in high regard. Instead of which it is deeply unfashionable, these days, to suggest that Latham ever had anything to say that was worth listening to. All of which is part of the problem he is trying to skewer.
So what about his work on the campaign trail? A great deal of the criticism from the mainstream media has suggested that he did something wrong by asking questions that were off the agenda, or that he was wrong to disrupt the smooth staging of events.
I don’t think there was anything wrong with either of these aspects of his work. Since when did it become wrong to heckle campaigning politicians? Since when was it the job of reporters to assist in making political campaigns smooth, predictable and “on message”? Since when did journalists’ job begin and end with being actors in a piece of scripted theatre?
That was the central message of Latham’s program last night – that there were no ideas, no authenticity in modern day campaigning. And he is largely right. It is also true that he said little that has not been said by others, including by the very journalists who seem to regard unpredictability on the campaign trail as some sort of mortal sin.
On the one hand, the political journalists consent to being driven round on busses. They agree to report the staged events, the predictable announcements, the hesaysshesays boredom of the whole thing. On the other hand they lament that things are so staged.
And then when Latham – or anyone else – introduces an element of unpredictability, they condemn them out of hand.
What did Latham do wrong? Well, inevitably given who he is and how he behaves, he tended to make the campaign all about him. That’s not helpful.
And as I said before, I don’t respect his call for people to waste their vote. That has a picking-up-bat and-ball-and-going-home immaturity about it.
But stirring things up? Heckling? Pushing in, being inconvenient, being an outsider, asking questions that are not on that day’s media managed agenda? What on earth is wrong with that? It used to be what journalists did.