Feb 4, 2013

‘Chaos’, or how to see the world like a political journalist

After years of complaining about politicians failing to treat voters like adults, Julia Gillard has done just that -- and incurred the wrath of the press gallery at the same time.

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

What a collection of hypocrites political journalists can be sometimes. One of the beliefs that unites the press gallery, despite other divisions that undermine the idea that it’s a monolithic institution, is a longing for politicians who will treat them and voters as adults. Politicians who won’t engage in spin, stunts and cheap rhetoric, but engage on real issues and speak candidly, intelligently and with conviction to voters. It might manifest itself as a longing for the days of Paul Keating, or a preference for Malcolm Turnbull, or a fierce resentment at the obsession with media management that has been a characteristic of Labor’s time in office, particularly under Kevin Rudd. They’re all versions of the same conviction that politicians these days are too much "on-message"and insufficiently straight with voters. Along came Julia Gillard last week and fulfilled those oft-expressed hopes, in two ways. First, she abandoned the traditional prime ministerial prerogative of keeping the nation guessing about an election date and said when we’d go to the polls later in the year. Second, she spoke in detail about the economic policy challenges facing the government, why they existed and how limited the government’s options were in dealing with them, in a manner unusual for its candour. In short, whatever her political motivations for doing so -- and of course they existed -- she treated voters, at least for once, like adults. But the reaction from the bulk of the press gallery to this rare fulfilment of their expressed wishes has been a tantrum. The actual speech received precisely zero mainstream media analysis beyond Ross Gittins, who understood what an unusual speech it was, especially for a Prime Minister in an election year. And many journalists just don’t seem to have been able to process what has happened regarding the election date. They are convinced we are now in an election campaign -- a "record-breaking seven-month election campaign" as The Australian described it this morning or "a marathon 227-day campaign for both leaders" as another Australian columnist called it. That’s by no means News Ltd bias -- an ABC journalist declared Australia "set for its longest federal election campaign on record"; it was an "extended election campaign", Fairfax journalists said. Others settled, a little less disingenuously, for the term "unofficial election campaign".  That misconception might be understandable for the UK Telegraph but not for local hacks. One journalist asked the PM on Saturday about a "sort-of faux caretaker principle that applies because of the announcement of the election date so far in advance" (public servants, of course, would love nothing more than to spend the next eight months doing nothing but tweaking their election briefs and surfing the internet).
"'Chaos' and 'disarray' are media judgements, right or wrong, about politics, not about real world outcomes."
But you can see the appeal: framing everything through an "election campaign" prism makes journalism easier. Election coverage is, at least the way it is normally done now, easier than regular coverage, because it focuses exclusively on politics -- who’s up, who’s down, who’s stumbled, who’s made a gaffe, what do the polls say, who has strayed off-message, who will win. It’s an excuse to abandon content in favour of race-calling. Framing everything within an election narrative means anything unexpected, or unusual, that doesn’t fit the narrative, either gets ignored (the PM’s speech) or treated, reflexively, as a stumble/gaffe/debacle/disaster. Thus the government was said to be in "chaos", and "disarray", suffering "body blows", because two long-planned resignations were announced on the weekend (Nicola Roxon a "body blow"? Really?). That Tony Abbott is too concerned about his level of support within the Liberal Party to risk a reshuffle that would remove deadwood like Bronwyn Bishop, Kevin Andrews and Peter Dutton in favour of the talents of Arthur Sinodinos, Jamie Briggs, Steve Ciobo or Simon Birmingham -- indeed, promised last week that his first ministry would be exactly as it currently stands -- is as significant a political story as the departure of an ALP stalwart like Chris Evans, but it isn’t so manifestly inconsistent with the now-dominant "election" narrative. Even then, some in the media went further, indeed, right off the deep end. "Is it possible for her to recover after these two resignations we’ve seen over the last 24 hours?" an unidentified and presumably local journalist, referring to the Prime Minister, asked Christopher Pyne in suburban Adelaide on Saturday. The ABC, too, inexplicably thought it appropriate to seek the views of Pyne on the ALP’s internal matters. Even if you're going to ignore substance in favour of politics, why seek the views of a political opponent to commentate specifically on party politics? "Chaos" and "disarray" of course are political no-noes, particularly during election campaigns. Recall "chaos” was the key prediction of many at the start of this parliamentary term -- minority government couldn’t be expected to produce anything other than a mess. The government has delivered plenty of chaos -- relying on Peter Slipper, welshing on its deal with Andrew Wilkie, belatedly dumping Craig Thomson, having a leadership spill -- but the Parliament also churned out hundreds of bills, including a carbon price that both sides had previously promised and not delivered, cuts to middle class welfare and superannuation reforms. Indeed, what’s the broader economic achievement of this "chaotic" minority government? Low inflation, low interest rates, low unemployment, a massive investment boom, a "safe haven" currency, growing labour productivity, a sharemarket up nearly 20% since a carbon price commenced. If this is the product of "chaos", long may it continue. "Chaos" and "disarray" are media judgements, right or wrong, about politics, not about real world outcomes. The more journalists view everything through an election campaign prism, the less interested they appear to become in real world outcomes.

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86 thoughts on “‘Chaos’, or how to see the world like a political journalist

  1. john2066

    The press gallery are morons.

  2. Andrea

    An excellent article; I couldn’t agree more. On a related matter, I wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald last week complaining that it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between news and opinion in the paper. Their article about the resignation of two senior ministers in the Gillard government was a good example. It was in the News section, but started: “Julia Gillard’s extended election campaign has suffered another damaging blow with the shock resignation of two of Labor’s most senior cabinet ministers”.

    This is not news, it is opinion, and most of the coverage of the announcement of the election date falls into this category. Could the media refrain from telling us how to judge the news, and instead just give us the facts so we can make up our own minds?

  3. Jimmy

    The Herald Sun has gone particularly feral since Gillard named a date, “227 day Farce” was Thursdays front page, “Chaos, What Choas” was yesterdays and yesterdays editorial was along the lines of everyone is looking forward to getting rid of Gillard but it would be nice if Tony gave us at least one policy if it isn’t too much trouble.

    The notion that by simply naming a date we are in campaign mode is simply ludicrous, Victoria has set terms so if we followed the argument to its logical conclusion the Victorian Paliament is constanlty in campaign mode.

    The gallery also routinely claims that Abbott needs to release some policies but when he announces that he will cut the school kids bonus and give back middle class welfare to the better off by rolling back measn testing, the champions of the Aussie battler who would be outraged by a similar ALP move are silent.

    “. Election coverage is, at least the way it is normally done now, easier than regular coverage, because it focuses exclusively on politics — who’s up, who’s down, who’s stumbled, who’s made a gaffe, what do the polls say, who has strayed off-message, who will win. It’s an excuse to abandon content in favour of race-calling.” How is that different to any coverage of the past 3 years?

  4. Holden Back

    We now have direct access to the press conferences in question. I think Bernard is not alone in thinking the assembled reporters seemed cranky and ill-informed, while the actors in this ‘chaos’ seemed remarkably cool, calm and collected. Was part of the tantrum that no-one in the press gallery had a leak on the retirements?

  5. The Pav

    The simple fact is whether Gillard advised the actual date for the election now or later the election campaign was on.

    All she did was recognise the reality and got on with things.

    Personally I’ve always more than a little offended that the calling of an election has been a plaything of the PM

  6. Jimmy

    The Pav – “The simple fact is whether Gillard advised the actual date for the election now or later the election campaign was on.” Abbott had actually launched a mini campaign the Sunday before after 2 years of virtually non stop campaigning but that doesn’t fit the narrative now does it.

    There was a great cartoon in the Age over the weekend with Abbott’s diary and all the important dates marked, there was an early October date when Abbott had marked “Reveal massive black hole in costings”.

  7. Daly

    Good article thanks.
    Not a word on the PM’ s speech except in Crikey.
    An ill informed electorate may vote for Tony Abbott who has never had to answer any policy questions from his cheersquad media friends, just wear fluro vests and silly hats.
    I hope those who believe this rubbish will be delighted to be represented internationally by a Lycra clad Tony, with the economy in tatters from Joe’s unnecessary cut backs, and Julie’s abrasive foreign policy getting all our neighbours off side.
    I plan to say ‘I told you so and I voted proudly for Julia who has behaved like an adult despite appalling bullying coverage of her highly successful government’.
    Don’t complain to me; learn to reject journalists and read the original speeches and docs for ypurself. If you want entertainment choose a ral movie and let politicians do the serious stuff of running the country.

  8. klewso

    “Chaos Theory – A Pantomime” by Mr Murdoch’s Grade 5.

  9. fractious

    Excellent Bernard, just excellent.

  10. Steve777

    The next NSW State election date is known – 28/3/2015. However, we don’t seem to be in the midst of a four year State election campaign. As for the Federal election, well that was never going to be before August 3 unless Tony Abbott could somehow get a No-confidence vote up. And while it could in theory have been as late as November 30, in practice it would have been most unlikely to have been later than October 26. So the date was known to be within a pretty narrow range. Until August 12, it’s the period of ‘governing’.

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