One of the most difficult things that can happen in any friendship is when you find someone you care about harming themselves, inadvertently or otherwise, and realise that they need to be stopped before the damage is permanent. I think that it’s time for us to let Insiders know that it needs an intervention.

The way that Insiders was originally sold to Australia’s political junkies was that it would be a mixture of interviews and discussion that would allow more time for analysis of the political scene, what it’s turned into is just another venue for polemicists to spew their bile and repeat inaccuracies. Throw in the perpetual victimhood expressed by the conservative commentariat that they are ‘outnumbered’, and you end up with a show where accuracy is sacrificed in an effort to reduce the accusations of bias from the noise machine on the right. Worse still, every issue seems to be discussed not on its merits but through the prism of how it will be perceived by the political media, as if those conducting the discussion aren’t a big part of how the political debate is framed.

Yesterday morning’s episode of Insiders provided a text book example of the problems that the show has. Let’s start with Andrew Bolt’s very first contribution to the program, discussing the after effects of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Bolt dismissed the problems that have befallen Japan’s nuclear power plants as a “political symbol”, and warned that the green movement would attempt to “beat it up”. No mention of the fact that the need to shut the reactors down has left Japan without a significant portion of its electricity generation capacity, no mention of the fact that it may take months, or even years before some of these reactors are tested thoroughly and brought back online.

This was on the heels of his claim that the Chernobyl disaster was only responsible for 50 deaths. While Bolt is justified in shooting down some of the hyperbole about deaths linked to the Chernobyl disaster, he’s being disingenuous when he chooses to quote a UN panel that found Only 50 deaths – all among the reactor staff and emergency workers – can be directly attributed to acute radiation exposure but ignore the fact that the same report claims that “4,000 deaths will probably be attributable to the accident ultimately”. It’s cherry picking, pure and simple, and when fellow panellist Kerry-Anne Walsh tried to contradict him he dismissed her and repeated his claim that the result of the Chernobyl disaster was only 50 deaths.

By allowing Bolt to introduce misinformation this way Insiders is actually harming the quality of debate. As the saying goes, we are all entitled to our own opinions, but not our own facts. It’s hardly like this is a first for Bolt, for example at the end of the infamous “University of East Bumcrack” exchange Bolt trotted out one of his favourite lines claiming that “the world has not warmed since 2001“, which is demonstrably wrong, but which was left unchallenged. Despite this Bolt continues to characterise his own appearances as being one dissenting voice as though he’s being somehow persecuted on set.

Insiders yesterday turned from discussion to farce when they gave time to Bolt’s ridiculous Bono / Gillard comparison which was based on the fact that both of them had mentioned the moon landing in an attempt to sweet talk an American audience. The fact that two people who were in primary school when Armstrong walked on the moon are still struck by the event, or that they should recall this memory when speaking favourably of the US is hardly a surprise. That Insiders should spend time discussing a stupid right wing meme is an example of the show lacking a serious interest in the issues that are driving our politics.

This brings us to the way that Insiders manages to reduce every issue to a discussion of how it will play out in the media, rather than an examination of the issues themselves. This is the worst kind of self delusion as Barrie and the panel talk about how different events or policy may be viewed, while blithely ignoring the fact that they are a part of the group that defines how events will be portrayed to the public.

This may be Insiders greatest failing, and this weekend past we saw a perfect example of it in response to Kevin Rudd’s comments on Libya. Instead of discussing whether or not a No-Fly Zone is something that should be supported by Australia the discussion was focussed on what a difference between Gillard or Rudd meant to Gillard’s image. This followed a discussion about acrimonious advisers leaking to the press, and how that would affect Rudd’s standing and role.

Later in the program Kerry-Anne Walsh decried the fact that our politicians are being driven by Newspoll with Andrew Bolt chiming in, with a monumental lack of self awareness, to point out that this is the fault of journalists who are using Newspoll as a way to shape their coverage. Amongst the mutual agreement on set no-one seemed willing to accept that they may have a role in the failings of our political media.

When the issue moved on to the Government’s plan to introduce a carbon price we saw, again, that the main focus of the panel was the ‘atmospherics’ and the image problem being faced, rather than serious discussion about the positions being taken by our elected representatives. The only exception to this was Andrew Bolt, who took the opportunity to declare that reducing carbon emissions is futile.

Insiders is emblematic of everything that is wrong with political journalism in Australia today. Instead of substance, the discussion focusses on playing gotcha. Rather than contribute to informed discussion about issues, the panel talks about who has the best ‘narrative’ and ‘atmospherics’. At the end of the program the viewer is no better informed about the issues that are facing out government, and depending on who’s on the panel they may even be less informed than when they began. Sunday morning political television has always been a niche product, but who does the ABC think that Insiders appeals to in its current guise? Certainly not to the informed viewer with an interest in politics, as Andrew Bolt gleefully pointed out on his blog those viewers seem to be getting more and more fed up with the sub par performance of Insiders and some of its guests, you only need to have a look at the #insiders tag on twitter to see it.

The first step in helping Insiders lays with the program itself. Sure, we need to let it know that we care about it, that we want it to be great, that we want it to stop hurting the people who care about it, but before things can get better, Insiders needs to admit that it has a problem.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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