This morning the nation’s newspapers made their traditional editorial recommendations to readers on who to vote for, endorsing predictably, but with decided lack of enthusiasm. It has been, they mostly agree, the worst election campaign since the 1960s. The lack of ideas, of difference between the parties, of vision, are signs of a deep malaise in our democracy.

But nowhere, or nowhere I have seen, does the media examine its own role in this malaise. Yet political reporting is part of the mix, part of the political climate that makes it almost impossible to advance and campaign on a serious political idea. Those leaders who have ideas, who have written books — and Abbott is among them, as was Latham — have to pretend they  never thought that way at all. Or thought at all.

I have written several times about the faults in media reporting of the campaign. But today I want to fight off the gloom and nominate some exceptions to the generally awful picture.

Two days ago I asked readers to nominate their candidates for good journalism during the campaign — journalism that explained or penetrated, rather than merely playing the gotcha game of reporting politics as though it were spectator sport.

Quite a few journalists nominated themselves, or their friends. I didn’t always agree with their nominations, but given that I made a point of decrying the lack of explanation of the NBN, I should say that the 7.30 Report did give it a go,  and so, at greater length, did ABC Radio National’s Background Briefing.

My personal list of favourites included AM’s tour of the nation, which managed to be consistently fresh and occasionally surprising, although inevitably given the format, a bit information light on what the main parties were actually offering the regions visited.

Another reader nominated this Radio National piece of investigation about asylum seekers.

And, of course, the Chaser boys and Gruen Transfer got nominations for shafting the weaknesses of both sides, and exposing the techniques of campaigning better than any journalist.

Lest it should be thought that I am favouring the ABC, I should also say that much of the daily news coverage on our national broadcaster was simply dull. And that includes most of the new ABC24, and the Kerry O’Brien interviews, which rarely illuminated.

Other readers’ nominations: three mentioned The Age’s Tim Colebatch for addressing the substance of the economic debate. This was the most nominations any journalist received from members of the public, as opposed to other journalists. It should be remembered, of course, that Crikey’s audience is made up of policy wonks.

Nobody should think that Colebatch, or the ABC’s Radio National, will penetrate far into the western suburbs of Sydney and the other marginals where the election will be decided. Still, credit where it’s due.

Laurie Oakes’ column in News Limited tabloids also got a mention as being insightful.

Other than that, readers were more interested in handing out brickbats than plaudits. And I have sworn to be positive.

My list of plusses? Full credit should go to Sky News and the Daily Telegraph and Courier Mail for organising the leaders’ forums. Precisely because the journalists got out of the way, these were genuinely worthwhile and, at their best, illuminating. Together with the leaders’ appearances on the ABC’s Q&A, the forums were the only occasions during the campaign in which substance triumphed over spin and the voters were treated with something like respect.

And it was good that the second of the forums was made available free-to-air for all to see. Pity the first wasn’t too, but I’ve written about that little unedifying spat before.

Public forums organised by the media are not a new idea. They were part of the civic journalism movement in the US during the 1990s — the leader of which, Jay Rosen, visited Australia during the campaign. I think these efforts showed the potential of the idea.

A shame news organisations didn’t do more of this before the campaign began, not to put the leaders to the test but to inform their journalists about what the public actually wanted and needed to know about.

Next time around, here are some suggestions. Public forums in the months leading up to the campaign in which the public tell the journalists what they want covered, and how they want it covered. This should feed in to the coverage of the campaign.

And what about a code of conduct for political journalists?

In my few idle moments, I have been playing with a draft. I offer it here for comment and improvement.


  1. Every time I feel tempted to pronounce that someone won a debate, a day or a campaign, I will stop and ask myself how I know this, and what I mean.
  2. Every time I refer to the voters or the electorate, I will remember that in theory, they are the people reading or listening to my stuff.
  3. When I have nothing to say that the intelligent audience member could not work out for themselves, I will shut up and instead work on finding material out about a neglected area of policy. See point 4.
  4. Every day, I will strive to find things out and tell the audience about the results. I will understand that finding things out and communicating them is my main job.
  5. I will understand the second part of my job to be explaining events and issues.
  6. I will not write for my colleagues, but for the public I would like to have.
  7. I will interact with my audience so as to find out what they want and need to know.
  8. I will not be an insider.
  9. I will subvert the agenda of spin doctors whenever it does not serve point 4.
  10. I will get off the campaign bus. I will leave that to those poor sods at AAP. There are better things to do with my time. See point 4.
  11. I will remember that reporting what two opposing sides say about an issue is the beginning of my job, not the end.
  12. I will do my best to understand the main policy issues, and will never suggest that those who do likewise are dull, out of touch or just don’t “get it”.
  13. I will strive not be pompous.
  14. I will not suggest that outbreaks of frankness and honesty are always “gaffes”. I will do what I can to promote and encourage such outbreaks.
  15. I will shun games of “gotcha”.
  16. I will strive to make my work processes as transparent to the audience as possible, consistent with protection of sources.