There’s been much frustration about the media’s preoccupation with Labor’s leadership. Crikey readers have routinely expressed it every time we’ve run a leadership story. Doing radio spots around the country, I’ve found radio hosts and producers have discovered the same thing. Social media is full of complaints about the focus on Gillard and Rudd. The frustration seems to take two forms — that the media are substituting leadership speculation for covering actual news and issues (“why don’t you report real news”) and that the media have become players themselves in the leadership contests.

Neither criticism is new, but it now gets regular amplification via social media and particularly Twitter.

For a lot of politically engaged observers, particularly on Twitter, the press gallery can do virtually nothing right, and everything that happens within its confines exemplifies its meretriciousness and obsession with triviality.

Interestingly, this doesn’t seem to accord with the views of voters. Yesterday’s Essential Report showed that only 10% thought the media was responsible for Labor’s leadership problems, suggesting the “beat-up” angle is not one widely shared — although Greens voters appear much more likely to blame journalists. And while trust in commercial media has been declining over the past 18 months, when asked after the last election how they rated the media’s coverage, voters rated it good over poor by 32-23%, with only Greens voters tending to be significantly negative. And that election was significant for constant criticism of the media’s reporting, mainly on social media.

More than a few journalists were happy to use Twitter to point to Kevin Rudd’s resignation and the ensuing events as evidence that the incessant criticisms about leadership speculation and a media “beat up” were off the mark.

They were indeed off the mark. As Laura Tingle noted in her pointed response to Media Watch, recent events have not been brought about by journalists tub-thumping for a spill or any backgrounding of journalists by Kevin Rudd or his supporters, but by Julia Gillard’s dire polling, perceived lack of trustworthiness and lack of political judgment.

Unfortunately, the mere act of pointing out Gillard’s failings and bad polling appears to strike many readers as a distraction from the “real issues” and even misogynist, as one critic on Twitter labelled me on the weekend and which several Crikey commenters have claimed as well.

I’m happy for readers who’ve made the effort to read what I’ve written about women in politics since I started this job four years ago to make their own judgments about my alleged misogyny.

But while the cry of “beat up” was ill-founded, the other charges are harder to dismiss, but also more complicated than they seem. There’s room for nuance here, which probably won’t appeal to those who loathe the press gallery, but it’s more accurate.

Media Watch had contacted gallery journalists because it wanted to address a specific issue from the leadership tussle — whether Rudd or his backers had been backgrounding journalists, whether confidential backgrounding was now “out of control” and journalists should breach the confidence of their sources. As Dennis Shanahan correctly pointed out, this isn’t merely an issue for political journalists, but extends far and wide.

In a way, this was the ultimate insular media issue — journalists obsessing over whether other journalists should reveal what politicians might have said to them in confidence, when the actual problems for Julia Gillard and the government lay in the real world consequences of decisions such as the carbon pricing package or dumping mandatory pre-commitment or on asylum seekers.

I suggest this reveals how it is easy to overstate the significance of any journalists or outlets seeking to be players in politics. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen, obviously. News Limited, and particularly The Daily Telegraph, prosecutes a partisan agenda that creates a form of incessant and often ludicrously over-the-top propaganda directed at Labor and the Greens. The Telegraph is also, according to Essential polling, the least-trusted major media outlet in the country.

The ABC aims to be quite the opposite. The ABC is the embodiment of what US media academic Jay Rosen calls “the view from nowhere”, the pursuit of rigorously objective and balanced reporting that is uninformed by any (conscious) agenda.

“The view from nowhere” is considered terribly old-fashioned at the moment and, Rosen’s insights are much sought after, including by the ABC itself. And yet, the ABC remains far and above the rest of the media in terms of audience trust. Voters trust the ABC, regardless of their political affiliation, in a way that commercial media simply doesn’t come close to.

There is, therefore, a clear difference, at least of priority, between what critics of the mainstream media (including me) are saying about it, and what voters think.

The accusation of failure to report “real issues” also has substance. One can only be struck by the remarkable disparity of journalistic effort yesterday for a leadership ballot the result of which was already known, versus major policy announcements. Only the budget this year will garner more media resources than yesterday, where media outlets began their coverage before dawn, despite the apparent dearth of actual news to report in the lead-up to the ballot.

That tension between extent of coverage and actual substance possibly led to some of the minor problems that attended the reporting of the ballot. After much pre-ballot speculation about who would report the result first via a leaking MP, Phil Coorey (who for mine is one of the best journalists in the gallery) was first to tweet the result but his source got the numbers slightly wrong, understating Rudd’s count by two. That led to a extensive discussion of how humiliating the result was for the former PM, until the numbers were revised up slightly.

Coorey apologised for the error (Hugh Riminton had also tweeted the 29 number but marked it “unofficial”). Inevitably, this was seized on on Twitter as further evidence of the iniquity of the gallery — a sort of double standard that sees social media celebrated as a channel for information that can’t be controlled by gatekeepers but the mainstream media excoriated for using it the same way.

The level of effort directed at the spill (and for that matter the fierce determination to be the first to report something that will be revealed shortly afterward anyway) goes to the heart of the problems of modern political journalism. Spills are easier to cover for journalists than policy issues: you don’t have to be an expert on a particular area of policy, you don’t need to do any research of actual issues, you just need your connections to MPs and, if you’ve been around longer than five minutes, a memory of how previous spills have played out. Personalities are inevitably easier to explain than policy.

But spills are also easier to cover because voters are more likely to tune in to politics during such moments of high drama. Most political journalists in the commercial media face a quiet ongoing battle with editors and producers to get profile and coverage for news out of Canberra, particularly when it deals with complex areas of policy that translate poorly into a 60-second story for the evening news. But leadership contests always get viewers paying attention, to break their normal disengagement with politics to focus on what’s happening.

In that context, you can’t blame the media for trying to milk that for all it’s worth, knowing that the big policy story next week, or the budget in May, will likely fail to interest most voters. Yes, they should devote more effort to covering policy, and producers and editors should support that, and media executives should fund it better, but if audiences won’t consume it, it’s problematic.

This is all a roundabout way of saying that while there is substance to the bagging of the gallery that the spill occasioned, it’s a far more complicated story than most critics appear willing to concede, and there’s a significant difference of opinion, it seems, between the politically engaged, for whom leadership contests appear to be a unique form of torture, and voters, who as media consumers ultimately dictate the sort of choices commercial media outlets are going to make.

Peter Fray

Get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for $12.

Without subscribers, Crikey can’t do what it does. Fortunately, our support base is growing.

Every day, Crikey aims to bring new and challenging insights into politics, business, national affairs, media and society. We lift up the rocks that other news media largely ignore. Without your support, more of those rocks – and the secrets beneath them — will remain lodged in the dirt.

Join today and get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for just $12.

 

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW