Journalists who have crossed to the dark side have a pretty good appreciation of how media-driven our politicians are.
As a poorly paid part-time politician (PPPP) at City of Melbourne, it can sometimes be a struggle to find out what is going on, but the systems in place are very media-focused and all councillors get an email detailing every individual query that comes in from a journalist, no matter how trivial.
It stands to reason that if Australian politicians are so media-driven, it also means that journalists and popular media outlets consequently have a lot of power.
This makes topic selection by journalists a very important thing.
Last Monday, 3AW’s Neil Mitchell decided that footage taken by a train driver of water flowing in Melbourne’s City Loop rail tunnel was a much more important issue than the disclosure of who provided $178 million to Australia’s registered political parties in 2014-15.
Because Mitchell was talking about a video of moving water, that night’s evening news in Victoria also heavily featured the story, complete with quotes from various politicians.
Alas, as it turns out, Melbourne’s City Loop was built to effectively also be part of the city’s drainage system and, surprise, surprise, water does flow during a downpour.
The disappointing thing about Mitchell’s editorial choices is that I emailed Victoria’s conversation leader on Sunday with a detailed plea to give the annual donations dump a decent run during his three-and-half-hour show. Here’s an excerpt:
all the political donations data from 2014-15 is being released by the AEC at 9am tomorrow (Monday) morning here.
This is when we find out who funded the last Victorian campaign — 15 months after we voted. The system is a disgrace. Queensland and NSW now have state-specific legislation with much earlier disclosure and some limitations on foreign donors, campaign spending and the like.
NSW has vowed to introduce these sweeping reforms after an independent review.
Victoria is still anything goes. Campaign finance is the biggest source of scandal and corruption in democracies the world over. My only interest is in getting some reform at the Victorian and Federal level, but for that to happen we need some public pressure through media thought leaders such as yourself.
But despite talking about trivia, such as spiders and celebrities in an African jungle, during his marathon Monday show, Mitchell gave the donations data a neutral two-minute wrap from his producer at 11.45am and then made no editorial comment about the system.
Sadly, this is not a problem specific to individual radio hosts, be they commercial or publicly funded. The whole culture of Australia’s media is to let the political establishment get away with a shoddy system of campaign finance disclosure. The media is largely to blame here.
And the worst offender in this regard is the institution that is best placed and funded to provide accountability for our politics: the ABC.
Thanks to the depth and specificity of the ABC archives — something that is in stark contrast to the deliberately unhelpful AEC archive of political donations — it is possible to go all the way back to 2000 and check how the ABC’s flagship programs covered the annual dump of donations data at 9am on the first working day of February each year.
The 9am release should work well for ABC radio’s The World Today. The reporters have up to four hours to get a package together summarising the big donors for the national program, which runs from 12.05pm until 1pm and typically carries about 12 stories, averaging four minutes each.
Last Monday, after some prodding on Twitter over the weekend, The World Today did what it should do every year by leading its program with the story.
However, if you back through the complete program archive, it shows that The World Today completely ignored the donations data story in 12 of the past 17 years: 2015, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2005, 2003, 2002 and 2000.
The World Today’s sister program, PM, first goes to air at 5pm on Radio National before the longer 55-minute version runs on ABC local radio from 6pm. It is perfectly placed to comprehensively cover the donations data and made a good decision to lead the bulletin this year.
However, over the last 17 years, PM has only covered the disclosure of more than $100 million in political party funding in these eight years: 2016, 2012, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2004 and 2000.
AM is the worst offender of the three ABC radio news and current affair national programs. Going back to the Sydney Olympics, it has never produced a preview piece to run just minutes before the data is released at 9am. In terms of the next day, there was only this piece in 2001 when the Victorian Liberals were complaining about a Packer family donation to the new Bracks Labor government seemingly influencing the decision not to have a royal commission into Victoria’s dubious casino tendering process.
This highlights the problem. The major parties and their donors conspire to keep their heads down on donations day, rather than feed the media beast. And if the political classes aren’t talking, even our top political journalists and programs fail to cover this most important governance issue.
The likes of Ten’s Paul Bongiorno, Seven’s Mark Riley and Nine’s Laurie Oakes were all in action but missing on this story with their Monday packages, as seems to be the case every year.
Even worse, 7.30 has never covered it in 17 years, which is nothing short of disgraceful for what is meant to be our premier political program.
The same goes for Lateline, although the archive shows it does have the excuse of often not being on air on the first working day in February, but that’s another story about ABC budgets.