12 September 2014

Good analysis requires perspective

Solid, intelligent analysis of how we are governed is possible. It is just not possible from within the press gallery.

This is what proper analysis looks like. Read it all, see you when you get back.
Westacott says that "never before has the public sector faced a more complex set of challenges". It's as if she's not heard of the "challenges" of: setting up the Federation, World War I and its long, severe, economic aftermath in Australia; the 1930s Depression; World War II and postwar reconstruction; the existential threats of the Cold War; the seemingly intractable difficulties of "stagflation" in the 1970s; and so on. Beside these "challenges", those of the present, for all their difficulty, are not nearly so complex.

It's not just that Westacott is talking historical nonsense. She has based her recipes on a false premise and she neglects the history and current circumstances of the Australian Public Service as well as the fundamental differences between the public and private sectors.
That's a takedown: it's about something other than attacking the person directly, but about the national context that the target here (BCA CEO Jennifer Westacott) sought and failed to address. It isn't ad hominem (e.g. Keating at his most caustic), and unlike most parliamentary insults it doesn't come from some stale catalogue of cliches (e.g. "depriving some village of its idiot"). This is why people despise parliamentary banter: it isn't half as well-considered as this.
So what is her game?
That simple question elevates this above most political commentary. When you're an experienced observer of politics you can look beyond what is said to the longer game of what the speaker is hoping to achieve. Again, the press gallery took Abbott on face value, and failed to ask what his real game was: had they done so the current shambles would have been more apparent when we went to vote last September.
Of course, these are not so much "insights" as modern management aphorisms; they're about as useful as such things usually are. Their consideration is not helped by the number of blunders Westacott makes in elaborating them.
Again, the intolerance for nonsense that obviates the ad hominem attack, followed with a point-by-point rebuttal.
The point Westacott overlooks is that the boundaries of innovation and risk for public servants should be defined by their ministers. There's no point in urging an "innovation mindset" on officials if that's not what their political masters want.
This is what it means to have the real understanding of politics which the press gallery, and those who employ them, insist they have but do not.

If the utterings and witterings of Tony Abbott and his frontbench had been subjected to that level of scrutiny there would not be a Coalition government now. If the last Labor government had been subject to that quality of scrutiny it would have lifted its game. By defying the instruction to not write crap and adopt and adolescent pose of sneering scepticism, the press gallery ensured that the Gillard and Rudd governments merely survived and that excellent policy was tossed out with a great deal of policy bathwater - not that the press gallery could tell the difference.

Let's contrast the above piece of analysis with the sort of thing you get from the press gallery - and not just from some poor newbie, or your bog-standard drone, but from someone who (by press gallery standards) produces reflective, thinky-thoughty pieces. Over to you, Katharine Murphy:
As a rule of thumb, politics would prefer to deliver voters steadiness and certainty, but increasingly this [sic] is a commodity in short supply.

So if you can’t deliver certainty, then uncertainty will have to do. And uncertainty has its own potent rhetorical currency.
It was the press gallery, of which Murphy was then (and strangely, remains) a senior member, who heard and reported Abbott promising to deliver certainty, without really questioning whether he had the capacity or even the inclination to do so.
The current uncertainty frame in national affairs isn’t actually a construction, or a complete invention delivered to us by a manifestly cynical political class.
Well, largely they are.

The current government, when in opposition, declared that the government had a debt crisis. It doesn't, but people like Murphy either simply reported that it did, or pretended there were two valid sides to such a question. They assumed, but did not check, that there was a real strategy for reducing debt rather than the same hopin' and wishin' that we saw from the previous government. They did not bother to do some basic checking on what Liberals do in government; namely, that when they do pay down debt it's a historical accident.

The current government, when in opposition, declared that it had a plan to deliver economic growth and jobs, and that key to this was the abolition of taxes paid by only a few big companies. The taxes went in their own good time but the jobs growth (and economic growth more broadly) hasn't materialised. This was foreseeable by anyone not so gullible as to take Tony Abbott at his word - someone like Katharine Murphy.
Reasons to feel bloody terrified are many. In no particular order, there’s Russian aggression, there’s Chinese regional ambition, there’s the consequences of the decline of American exceptionalism and the perceived vacuum of leadership in the White House, and there’s that sectarian violence in the Middle East and its deeply unpleasant consequences for all western liberal democracies.
Knocks "stop the boats" into a cocked hat, doesn't it? Doesn't it? What do you mean, simply reporting those words was all that was necessary? This geopolitical gibbering context is the sort of thing you develop from too much exposure to Peter Hartcher.

See the quote above on other points in history which had their own challenges, and see Murphy's global impressions for the shallow affair it is.
There’s concern about the direction of the economy, about job security and cost of living pressures. It doesn’t matter, apparently, if the data tells us we are travelling well enough and certainly a great deal better than elsewhere – the concern persists and wafts.
The data doesn't tell us that.

The data tells us everything is slowing down, and that there is no countervailing narrative that (or how) things will get better and that here are ways of joining the upward trajectory. As Paddy Gourley points out, sources of future growth from research and innovation are being cut back, not boosted. It's not that we're innumerate - we read things all too well, better than those in close proximity to the decision-makers who feel it's their job to make allowances and excuses.
Tony Abbott made a really big promise before the last election – he promised to end the chaotic cycle of the 43rd parliament and put the adults back in charge. He held out a chimera of certainty. Then he manifestly failed to deliver it.
He was never in a position to deliver it. This isn't being wise after the event it was starkly evident long before September '13 to anyone without a vested interest in the outcome. Everyone who reported to the contrary was wrong to do so, and has committed the most terrible fraud upon this country.

The press gallery put all of its credibility in Abbott's basket, and it has blown the lot.
This parliament has opened much like the last one, only it’s actually more lacking in a basic organising principle.
Yep. this was obvious just after the last parliament was elected, when you consider what might have happened if Windsor, Oakeshott et al had made a different decision. The idea that Abbott had to be taken at his word, and that the only way to assess an Abbott government was to have one, was both the unanimous press gallery position and deeply, deeply stupid and wrong.
Surprises emerge from back pockets.
Only if you're not paying attention, and if you have learned nothing.
The Coalition has been unable to communicate clearly what it stands for.
This has been the case since 2007, when Howard lost office. It was clear since Abbott became leader. He was clear about nothing other than the last Labor government was 'bad', which was all Murphy and the press gallery wanted to hear, all they reported. Murphy's failure to identify her own agency, and those of her colleagues, impedes any credibility she may bring to analysis of our politics.

That, and her childlike unquestioning belief in Mark Textor:
Textor noted soft perceptions about the economy. After years of economic growth in Australia “there is now a distinct possibility that easy prosperity may not continue”.
Again, the failure of agency here. This isn't a matter of disclosure, it's a matter of Murphy's ability to perceive what's going on and report on it accurately.

Mark Textor is largely to blame for making the silk purse of a Prime Minister out of the sow's ear that is Tony Abbott. Textor gamed Murphy and her colleagues for years and years, and they never picked it. He's still doing it. It was always the case that the Coalition did not have the answers for this country; Textor helped frame Abbott so that Murphy and her equally ovine colleagues didn't bother asking the questions that might damage the chances of Textor's client. Textor plays the press gallery for mugs and they love him for it.
I’d rate Textor’s assessment of our collective state of being bang on the money.
You would, wouldn't you.
Tony Abbott has moved into a discussion about national security and the steps the government is taking to keep us all safe. In so doing, the prime minister has defined an enemy which is both abstract and “other” and ephemeral – and very real.
Yes, yes but the idea of journalists covering politicians is not merely to quote, or even summarise, what they said. It is to check those words against other objective sources of reality, and to evaluate questions of how well we are governed, whether the priorities of the government are those of the nation, and so on.

In 1981, Robert Trimbole left Australia despite the highest level of police border alerts by changing his date of birth on his departure card. 32 years later, Khaled Sharrouf also slipped travel restrictions by using his brother's passport. Journalists should be alert to the idea that calls for greater powers are distractions from the ineffective use, rather than inadequacy, of existing powers. Instead, journalists like Murphy take Abbott at his word by accepting his word that he's "keep[ing] us all safe".
To put the current public posture at its simplest, Abbott is countering an abstract uncertainty with the imperative of moral crusade.
That's what he always did. The case against Gillard and Rudd was pretty abstract, but Abbott made up in fervour what he lacked in detail. Murphy and the press gallery fell for it then and here they fall for it again.
Prime ministers do what is right and what is necessary. Listen to him. He’s saying that every time he’s in front of a microphone. He wants to assure us that the adults, or in his case, the adult, has finally turned up.
Murphy and her colleagues quote him unquestioningly, giving him the benefit of the doubt, reinforcing him and Textor and the rest of them in the positions in which they are most comfortable.
The basic, reductionist, construction suits. So this is a key transition for him. If he can achieve the balance, Abbott has a good prospect of not only facing and dealing with a bunch of practical threats and problems but of stabilising his government and rebooting its political fortunes.
Murphy and her colleagues do reductionism really well, so they'll do their best to help Abbott. Were they to focus on subtleties and nuances and other points of view, they would serve their readers better but set Abbott adrift.
Shorten is also working himself up into a nationalistic lather about the intrinsic sacredness of Australian jobs and about defending “our industries” ... (in this case high tech Japanese submarine manufacturers, apparently creeping covertly around the Adelaide shipyards) who would make products more cheaply overseas and send them back here.
The Japanese submarines are designed for short-range operations, over a couple of hundred kilometres at most. Australian submarines need to operate over thousands of kilometres. Murphy could have found that (and other issues) out with a bit of basic journalism. Instead, operational issues like that are sneeringly referred to as "Australian conditions" or wedged into a half-baked narrative, and dismissed.
...understand that we are now locked in a process where we essentially hold mirrors up to each other.
We've always understood that, and journalists and politicians have both suffered as a result. The idea that Textor and others accurately capture our thinking about politics and what we want/need from it is risible.

Only when you understand the press gallery as a mirror in which Abbott loves to gaze, rather than as a 'fourth estate' for evaluating and checking state power, does this aimless wittering make any sense.
... it’s this abundance of reflective surfaces that exacerbates the disconcerting feeling that nothing in national affairs is ever quite real – and nothing ever quite penetrates.
And do you think Murphy will get off her backside and question any of the images crafted for her benefit? Never. Does this diminish Murphy and her press gallery colleagues? Yes. Abbott has hocked the credibility of his party and that of the press gallery; he demands still more credit, and Murphy and the gang will give it freely until he and they inevitably run out. They'll be all surprised at that, too.

Nobody should be surprised at the sheer obsequiousness from this blog's very own bunny, Mark Kenny:
Abbott has been using this neat bit of self deprecation for years now, trotting it out on those occasions when prime ministers are required, by tradition and format, to be funny.

It got a solid laugh from an audience of journalists, lobbyists, and corporates, at the National Press Club's 50th anniversary dinner in Canberra on Wednesday night - even if many had heard the punch-line before.
Jokes rely on their power for being unexpected. What Kenny heard there was a roar of appreciation for a politician who has always made a point of making journalists feel important, and feel competent by reinforcing their predictive power.

When Abbott promised a government of no surprises, it was a promise made to journalists. He promised that they would not have to deal with nuance and subtlety and different points of view. They love him for that. Having to run around and gather different opinions is hard work! Because press gallery journalists are morons, they failed to realise that differing opinions is normal for politics, and that any promise of 'slowing down the news cycle' was always nonsense.

A politician promising to slow down the news cycle is up to no good, doesn't know what they're talking about, or both. Nobody in the press gallery is awake to this.
Privately, Abbott has a wicked sense of humour and loves to laugh, but witty pre-written speech-making has never been his long suit.
Privately, Abbott's humour is petty, mean, and inane. Publicly, his speeches (particularly the ones he writes himself) are petty, mean, and inane.

Kenny dares not point this out. Kenny spent years chasing down the chimera that Julia Gillard had someone else pay for her bathroom and found nothing. Here he is applying his chimera-chasing skills again, seeking to achieve solidity from pure wind, with the idea that Tony Abbott is a good bloke who likes to laugh. There's nothing faux-reflective about Kenny, it isn't his fault he has an enlarged bullshit gland.
Yet, there is a sense about Abbott that despite his considerable intellectual power - foolishly overlooked by those who would want it to be otherwise - he is more at home in parliamentary attack mode, or at least when defending a serious position or argument.
The idea that there are great hordes who think Abbott is stupid is a straw man. However, the case that Kenny is an intellectual fizzer is strong. Abbott is good for a blast of bluster and not much good beyond that. Nobody who has observed Abbott up close for years and years, like Kenny has, should be puzzled by this. Kenny goes the straw man on a daily basis, a sure sign his analytical skills are non-existent.
That said, there is still something impressive about a prime minister who despite his time constraints and legions of staff, insists on crafting most of his own speeches. This is Abbott the writer and thinker.
Abbott is wasting time by ploughing away at something he's not good at, while other issues that need his time and attention go begging. This is something poor leaders do.

There's little impressive about the speeches themselves. School captains across the country blow the Prime Minister off the stage in terms of writing and giving speeches, which is why Abbott never goes to schools.
Even back in his day, Menzies had lamented the drift in political coverage of Canberra, criticising reporters for relying on mere pieces of paper provided to them by politicians – press releases – while the oratory and theatre, or "cut and thrust" of parliamentary contest went less reported.

Neither side of politics has shied from making similar criticisms since. Who can forget Julia Gillard's admirably economical plea to the Canberra gallery delivered from the same podium: "don't write crap".
Well you did, because you wrote nothing but. The coverage of parliamentary theatre has increased, without improving our understanding of how we are governed. This says a lot about the media, which neither Kenny nor Murphy are prepared to face (remember, Kenny and Murphy are both experienced members of the press gallery).
"The best contribution, if I may say so, the media could make right now is not to be more right wing, or more left wing, but to be more ready to give credit where it's due and to acknowledge the strengths as well as the weaknesses in our country and its people," [Abbott] said.
A government is evaluated against the strengths and weaknesses of the country. A government that simply trumpets the strengths of the country is being vacuous. A government that neglects or exacerbates the weaknesses of the country deserves criticism. Kenny, Murphy and the gang can't and won't do that.
In any event, Abbott's complaint suggests he believes he has not been given sufficient credit for his successes in ending deaths at sea from people smuggling, concluding free trade agreements and for his deftness on the world stage. This is not so.
Cute use of "deaths at sea" - a man shot in the head or who dies from a preventable condition in an internment camp is no less dead than those who drown.

Abbott hasn't "concluded" free trade deals. The Korean deal contains sovereignty-wrecking measures to invalidate our laws, and it is [$] not a high priority for the fractious KNA. He hasn't been deft at all in diplomacy. He's pre-empted the US and been oafish toward everyone else. Prime Ministers in trouble get their spinners to claim they're diplomatic geniuses, but Kenny is so "in tune" with Abbott that he overlooks actual practice in that regard.
Perhaps more substantively, Abbott also used the opportunity of the speech to remark on his own journey over some 30 years in public life and 20 in parliament, putting it up it as a model of how change can be embraced even against the necessary inertia of conservatism.

"I will admit to two significant policy areas where I am now different," he ventured, nominating multiculturalism, and paid parental leave. "In other words, there were good conservative reasons – liberal conservative reasons – for changing a traditional position."
The weakness of conservatism is that it can't distinguish between a passing fad and a permanent shift. Inertia, in itself, is not "necessary".

Abbott's supposed shift on 'multiculturalism' has to be assessed against his treatment of Muslim Australians regarding terrorism (compared with the treatment of other faiths with the terror of child abuse, for example), and the abandonment of his pledges to Aborigines. Abbott is not entitled to be taken at his word. No politician is. Kenny's insistence that he must, a Crabb-like bit of theatre review, shows that he fundamentally does not get what his job is.
In all, what we learned from Abbott's press club speech was that he remains firmly convinced of his own conservative position with minimal exceptions, and, that he thinks he gets a hard time from the media.
No Prime Minister in my lifetime (I've been an avid consumer of press gallery output since Fraser was PM) has gotten an easier ride from the press gallery than Abbott.
There was one final reason Abbott agreed to address the press club's black tie affair rather than its regular lunch-time series, and it was apparent in his final line: "I have to say, tonight, is my vision for the National Press Club – a speech with no questions afterwards."

Witty after all.
Abbott just wants to be taken at face value, and the press gallery has shown - and continues to show - that it is happy to oblige. Kenny can't distinguish wit from shit.

Penetrating but not personal analysis helps us think about what our leaders are doing, and how they might do it better. Paddy Gourley, who is not a member of the press gallery, is far more perceptive than senior press gallery members Katharine Murphy and Mark Kenny, who are heavily invested in this government and the way it relates to the traditional media.

We need better analysis of what our leaders are up to. We are never going to get it from the press gallery. It's one thing for Mark Textor and Tony Abbott to write their own pieces - but despite their limbo-dance under the low bar set for them we should expect more from those whose job it is to analyse them.

"Yeah, what he said" is not journalism.

Media consumers do not simply have to accept to accept their self-serving, badly constructed (but engaging! You had to be there!) framings. We need more than unquestioning agreement or minor, set-piece quibbles from those whose job it is to work out how we are governed. Good analysis requires perspective that the press gallery beats out of capable journalists.

08 September 2014

Smears from nowhere

The 'view from nowhere' is a principle in journalism where the journalist affects an impartial perspective and appears to be stating facts so objective that those who speak/write them cannot be held responsible for those facts, or for having stated them in that way. The US observer and academic Jay Rosen has written extensively on 'the view from nowhere' and its use for journalists denying responsibility for their output.

Throughout Julia Gillard's Prime Ministership, it was alleged that renovations on her home were paid for from a slush fund linked to the AWU. She helped set up a legal instrument which led to the opening of a bank account, and all before entering public life. The nation's top journalists were set onto the story and found nothing to corroborate wrongdoing on Gillard's part. On one occasion she fronted a press conference for over an hour and dared them ask anything they liked; the nation's toughest press gallery journalists asked and asked and got nothing.

Despite the absence of evidence linking Gillard to wrongdoing, Anna Patty and Paul Sheehan insinuate that she has something to hide from the Royal Commission set up to investigate this and other matters.

If the Royal Commission uncovers new information that shows Gillard received benefits improperly, then this is an indictment of journalists who kept insisting for years that Gillard had questions to answer, without their being able to uncover any information that required her response.

If the Royal Commission does not uncover any significant new information on this matter, other than that already chewed over by journalists, then this is an indictment of journalists who kept insisting for years that Gillard had questions to answer, without their being able to uncover any information that required her response.

In other words, journalists have let us down either way. In the latter instance, Patty and Sheehan are going to look stupid. They will diminish such credibility as they have in later dispatches.

They (and other journalists) could have spent their time more usefully by investigating what an Abbott government might look like, and whether there was any supporting or countervailing information on their policies beyond their press releases and their set-piece statements. What Gillard may or may not say, or what might be put to her by various lawyers, is less important - especially now that she is out of office - than the systematic failure of the fourth estate.

They are trying to present wrongdoing or negligence by Gillard as given, unproven but detectable and waiting to come to light any day now ... any day now. They would, similar to Rosen's example above, shrug off accusations of bias; but one aspect of bias is the maintenance of a position in the absence of proof. Neither Sheehan nor Patty - senior journalists - will put up evidence of Gillard's wrongdoing, but nor will they shut up about it. Theirs is the smear from nowhere.

If you can accept that Lindy Chamberlain didn't kill her daughter, or that Julie Bishop really feels for asbestos victims, or that Mark Kenny is a journalist deserving your respect - you can accept that Gillard paid for her own bathroom.

Another aspect of journalistic failure is the inability to see discussions on public policy as anything other than political conflict. The issues are lost in such coverage, which only reinforces the idea that the way the press gallery frames political conflict is the only way to do so, under the dual misapprehensions that public policy conflicts are both extraordinary and exciting in themselves.

This is a minor issue but a solid example of fundamental journalistic failure. Is this application 'appropriate' or 'inappropriate'? Do families not live in multi-dwelling units? These are important questions but Henrietta Cook cannot handle them.

Instead, she insists that Victorian Liberal State MP Elizabeth Miller "has been accused of breaking party ranks after she opposed a proposed development that sits within new state government residential zones". She does not say who has made these accusations; she even quotes the state's Planning Minister, a Liberal often mentioned as a potential leader, endorsing Miller's actions. The reference to the mother-in-law of a former Premier is clumsy.
Ms Miller denied she had defied the party line. She said she had been overwhelmed with residents opposed to the development and had simply taken up their concerns with the council.

"I believe residents' concerns are warranted, so I have written to council. It's an inappropriate development for the area," she said.
This might be a worthy piece for the Glen Eira Bugle but it hardly warrants the state and national prominence Cook and her editors are giving it.

A local MP is representing her constituents' views: does Cook not understand how politics works? Does she assume her readers are equally ignorant or more so? Where are the party control freaks giving Miller a hard time about the way she does her job - or are they all in Cook's imagination - and either way, why do they set the frame through which all policy is reported? Who decided that Cook should be denying someone else - anyone, really - a job as a journalist?

Cook is implying that Miller is not being an effective member of the government. In fact, getting involved in issues like this is Miller's best chance of ensuring her continued place in parliament and government. Her use of the passive voice and avoiding quotes on the key issue of division shows Miller isn't breaking anything or defying anyone. Cook and her editors have, in short, written a bullshit article, dishonestly attempting to blow up a standard suburban planning issue into one with wider importance.

The 'view from nowhere' is an attempt by journalists to insert themselves at the heart of an issue while denying responsibility, both for the issue itself and the way they report it. Journalists should be held to account for their failure to understand issues. They should be culpable for attempting to inject hype, bullshit, or blame where the facts of the matter fail to support the thrust of their offerings to the public.

These failures are far more damaging than internet, or 24-hour news cycle, or imaginary goblins that journalists invent to explain away their professional decline. Hype and slant work against journalists, not just (or even) for them.

04 September 2014

Where the press gallery beef hooked

The Parliament of New Zealand has its own press gallery, and it falls prey to the failings of all press galleries. It has its doyens (Colin James), its pack mentality (there's only ever one story and we're all going to write it no matter what) and the unshakeable conviction that the way it is must also be the way it has to be. The way the gallery reports on politics is, even now apparently, the only way to report on politics.

Insofar as it matters any more, the press gallery narrative on the coming election (due on 20 September) can be summarised as follows:
  • John Key, the incumbent PM and leader of the National Party, looks confident and has presided over a united team and economic growth.
  • David Cunliffe has presided over a divided Labour Party, even though he apparently beat Key in a set-piece 'debate'.
  • There are other parties but they are just political tinsel. Therefore,
  • It's Key in a canter, so let's make a National victory inevitable and any other outcome a disaster.
This is the politics of tidiness: the political party that presents the most couth, affable and easily summarised front to journalists wins. Their reward is to have their statements reported without serious challenge, while their competitors are either not reported or framed such that their words are to be mistrusted. Incumbent governments tend to win the tidy politics prize, with their extra resources and the higher stakes involved in decisions taken, but occasionally oppositions make a convincing case when incumbents let things slide.

Press galleries shrug off accusations of partisan bias - usually levelled by partisans - but they are wrong to defend themselves as unbiased. Their only agenda is to set the agenda, and that agenda is the politics of tidiness.

This is why political journos are constantly alert for gaffes: a gaffe is verbal untidiness. If you're the shadow treasurer and you speak of "eleventy" like it's a number, gaffe! - or maybe you're the shadow foreign minister and you refer to Africa as one country, gaffe! - then, having made a career from piling on gaffes, you can then write a thoughtful column about how our politicians are under such scrutiny and how trivial gaffes are. Other journos will retweet links to your column praising both your thoughtful bravery and brave thoughtfulness, and will go after bloggers who jeer at you.

Political reporting in NZ and Australia has been hostage to the press gallery and its politics of tidiness. In Australia it still is, but you'd be a fool to bet (let alone stake your career) that it will stay that way. In NZ the election narrative has been hijacked by Cameron Slater, an active member of the NZ Nationals, who runs the blog Whale Oil.

Whale Oil is scabrous and nasty and funny and untidy and partisan, in contrast to the bland offerings of the politics-of-tidiness press gallery. It won Best Blog in NZ's premier publishing industry awards, and it is only a matter of time before a focused site like that beats an all-things-to-everyone pablum like Stuff. Whale Oil isn't focused on policy or outcomes but then neither is the press gallery.

Political parties also succumb to the Politics of Tidiness. This used to mean that they and the journalists understood one another and worked by the same rules. With the rise of social media, where any site is no more or less accessible online than traditional media sites, there is no reason why a politician would take their chances with a capricious media when a trusted partisan will both get the message out and frame it in the way they would like.

In the absence of a comprehensive social media strategy (including a budget), a political party relies on committed amateurs with the purple-squirrel rarity of commitment to a political party and facility with social media. A person with long-standing commitment to a political party will not have a commitment to the party as a whole, but will have opinions about aspects (and personalities) within the party that they like better than others. A political party using a committed amateur in social media runs the risk that it will be presented unevenly, that members of the team who fall foul of the house blogger will not receive the same coverage as those in favour.

This is what happened with the NZ Nationals when they started leaking to Whale Oil rather than to the press gallery. One of Key's staffers was accused of leaking to the blogger, and briefing against a sitting minister. Judith Collins, NZ's answer to George Brandis (if she's the answer, etc), resigned after being found out briefing Slater against the Serious Fraud Office.

Nicky Hager had written about the NZ Nationals in his earlier book Hollow Men (which contains a clearer account of how CrosbyTextor works than anyone in Australia has managed), and apparently he's done it again with Dirty Politics, according to Richard Shaw. When Shaw details Slater's nemesis (known as Rawshark or Whaledump) we get into the hall of mirrors that is political shit-sheeting, turbo-charged by the internet, and screw that.

The whole business has destroyed the Nationals' image as Tidiest Party (and thus deserving the prize of government). Having been sucked in to Slater's drip feed, the press gallery lost what cool detachment it had. Both the government and the press gallery who report on it have lost the benefit of the doubt. Whether the Key government is re-elected, and whether or not NZ's press gallery keep on giving one another awards for excellence or whatever, the gig is up. Beef hooked, indeed.

Whale Oil is the bastard son of the UK's Guido Fawkes, which has had as significant an impact on UK politics today as the 17th century coffee-shop scandal sheets that grew into venerable titles such as Tatler or The Spectator. Fawkes, the brainchild of Paul Staines, exposed Labour spinner Damian McBride and NewsCorp's illegal requests for information on its targets. As with Whale Oil, and Woodward and Bernstein or Amy Corderoy's exposure of Alistair Furneval for that matter, it's instructive that the big political exposes come not from within but beyond the press gallery.

Recently in Australia, we have seen the Labor Party get the rough end of the press gallery for their wanton untidiness. Rudd even looked so meticulous, and as for That Woman with the empty fruitbowl ... people like Michelle Grattan run their fingers along the sideboards of the major parties, looking for smudges. Grattan's befuddlement at how Abbott's tidy opposition became an untidy government is understandable only if you excuse her from having to analyse policy and how it might work, rather than merely how it will play.

It is as though tidiness monitoring is what political journalism is, and all it could ever be:
  • In Victoria, the ALP is much tidier than the Coalition. The Coalition used to be all about tidiness when they were run by well-bred Collins Street types, but this too has passed.
  • In NSW, the Coalition are getting very untidy, but still less than the post-cyclone shambles that is the ALP.
  • Labor won in SA because it was tidy but active; the Coalition could only be tidy through inertia, creating doubts as to what might happen if they had to do something.
  • In WA, the Coalition government is starting to get untidy, even after it and the press gallery have stopped making excuses for Troy Being Troy. Same with the NT CLP (chock-full of Troys) and Queensland's Newman government trying to rough up the state's fastidious legal community. In all cases, Labor is yet to make their case for comparative tidiness.
  • In Tasmania, Labor spent two decades getting untidy, while Will Hodgman got tidier and tidier. He can only get less so with the demands of governing.
  • In the ACT, Katy Gallagher has kept Labor tidy while Jeremy Hansen has made no progress on The Road To Tidiness that all successful oppositions must take.
Some organisations are setting up their own media operations, including social media, to outflank moribund traditional media. The AFL is most advanced at that, relying on Channel 7 while preparing to screw them in a few years. If the major political parties were smart they'd do likewise, replacing press releases with their own pre-prepared grabs. You might say the press gallery would never cop that, but what choice would they have? This would be the only valid explanation for the major parties' insatiable lust for fundraising.

The major parties are not doing this because they are run by dills. They are spending and raising money with the same wit and judgment they apply to taxation. The Federal President of the Liberal Party is a former Communications Minister, and because we are talking Richard Alston here he never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity when it comes to constructive policy on media and communications. They are blowing all that money on ads that prop up faltering traditional media, on mailouts through the faltering postal service, on Mark Textor, stuff like that.

A decade or so ago my NSW Young Liberal contemporary David Miles set up a blog called Capital C. It could have been as big in Australia as Fawkes or Whale Oil are in their jurisdictions, but Howard was in power then and Miles was unwilling to rock that boat - even (especially!) as it began to founder. Miles could have become the Liberal Party's 21st century media guru. Instead, he's just another lobbyist, simpering away on ABC TV's The Drum, defending Coalition positions without the clout involved in having input, or even the dignity of being an official spokesperson. Like Maurice Newman, Miles is just a red herring in a suit. Both he and  The Drum diminish one another.

I'm surprised that disgruntled Labor rank-and-filers, rolled and humiliated time and again in their party's forums, haven't taken to social media more than they have. There will be a social media site that will have the juiciest gossip from within a major Australian political party, and journos won't be able to keep away from it. Too late, they will realise that social media has taken the initiative in political coverage, but will arrogantly insist that the press gallery remains the only crucible in which political reporting and agenda-setting context are forged.

The press gallery in Canberra is already having the narrative gradually taken from it, what with "on water matters" and its union unsure about censorship. The decline of the press gallery is like Hemingway's description of a slide into bankruptcy: first gradually, then suddenly. By the next election, it will have the narrative taken from it so comprehensively that it starts asking those long-overdue questions of what its purpose is, why should we give them any credence or privilege, etc.

The future of political coverage is unfolding in Wellington. Next year the city will host the Global Political Marketing and Management Conference. You could sit around in Canberra and act all shocked when political reporting goes around and past the press gallery, or you could keep ahead of the game so that the important stuff (accountability in a democracy, one's own job, etc.) survives fast and far-reaching change.

31 August 2014

Disruption and renewal

On the few occasions when the Coalition would be pressed - or even asked - for policy detail before the last election, the response was that detail would be released "in good time". Our fearless press gallery failed to bristle at this patronising attitude, and explore whether or not there is aught but bluster behind it.

Since the review of the Renewable Energy Target (RET) there has been a lot of talk about how it will kill the renewable energy sector. Political observers have focused on how this is part of Abbott's policy against all things green and any legacy of the former government. "This isn’t logical, it’s emotional", says Tristan Edis, and he's right. There is, however, a longer game which those focused on short-term politics and economics tend to miss.

At the moment, the Australian energy sector is divided. On one hand we have the established players, responsible for 'baseload' or the large and regular supply of electricity, and who generate it by burning coal (and increasingly, gas). On the other we have a number of smaller companies, some based overseas and others based here, seeking to generate electricity through renewable technologies such as solar and wind.

If the government does axe the RET, or (more likely) if it stuffs about and creates such regulatory uncertainty that renewable energy projects become cost-prohibitive and returns become uncertain, those smaller companies will disappear from the Australian market. Investment decisions taken today will not come on line until about 2020 at the earliest. There are a whole lot of targets relating to carbon emissions and degrees of increased temperature which fall due then, and for Australia renewables will play less of a role than many had hoped.

Does this mean that renewable energy will disappear from this country entirely? No it doesn't. Here's what the government hopes will happen, and the basis on which it plans to establish its future credentials in an area which its opponents think it has vacated altogether.

It's true that Australia's coal-fired power stations are legacy systems, held together with increasingly tenuous maintenance. It's true that the unit costs for renewable-generated electricity are dropping, but that they are (note the timestamp on this post please) still higher than the unit costs of generation from the legacy systems. You'd have to bet that the unit costs for renewables will fall below the unit costs for coal and gas, and proponents of renewable energy assume this will be the case.

DickWarb's recommendation that the RET should be axed because it is working too well reminded me of Alfred Deakin's quote that people of certain other races should be excluded from Australia not because they were inferior to white Anglo-Saxons, but the reverse. It caps a career of achievement with a risible punchline. You can imagine Maurice Newman telling him: well I could have told you that.

The NSW government should have invested in renewables. When the ALP were in government and were tearing themselves apart over privatisation, renewables innovation was lost amid the heat of the debate. The unseemly rush to privatise was all the more so in the knowledge that coal-fired power assets could only decrease in value, a fire sale pushed by economic arsonists. Labor must not, and almost certainly will not, return to government in NSW until time and circumstance resolve the issues they can't resolve themselves.

People who run Australian energy companies aren't stupid. They aren't going to cling to coal because they love it. The survival of their companies require them to make provisions for renewables to be the most economical way of generating electricity. What's happened now is that making those provisions has become easier and cheaper for them. It hasn't become easier and cheaper for consumers, and those companies who were innovative in the renewable energy area have been dudded.

Companies that have been innovative in renewables miss out the rewards to which free market theories say they're entitled. Take, for example, this proposal. Who are Silex and ARENA? They've never generated a moment's power for me and I've never paid them a cent. They've given it a good Aussie try, though, but like a lot of businesses they have blown it (and in Mildura, of all places; Mildura will be wiped off the map through bad policy before Whyalla will). The Abbott government has changed the playing field so that Silex/ARENA won't be able to compete with the coal-fired power that has supplied Mildura for decades. As many have noted - a year too late! - $8-10b is being transferred from renewable energy providers to incumbent providers, to no benefit to anyone else (much less the budget bottom line).

Who knows - Silex and ARENA may have done so well that they may eventually have been able to buy out the legacy providers. This is called disruption, it's part of how capitalism works. It's the part of capitalism, however, that the Abbott government most fears and seeks to suppress.

The government's anti-RET position means that current electricity provider(s) will be able to buy the intellectual and other property rights for the proposed solar facility at a fraction of the cost that it would have been worth as a going concern. This means that the incumbency of existing providers will be maintained without them having to do the hard work and take the risk that Silex/ARENA took, while reaping the rewards properly due to Silex/ARENA.

Australia will get renewable energy in good time, when the incumbent electricity generators are good and ready to provide it and not a minute before. There'll be none of your disruption, which causes far-reaching change which the dull-witted and unimaginative control freaks who run this government (and others like them who run financial analysis outfits) neither like nor understand.

The incumbents will close that circle by showing their gratitude to the party currently in government. This isn't corruption in the sense currently playing out before the NSW ICAC, and if there was a Federal ICAC it wouldn't necessarily indict anyone involved in such a cosy arrangement.

This government is picking winners. Libertarians profess to oppose governments that pick winners and change the playing field, but you won't find the IPA or CIS criticising this instance. The IPA sacked Alan Moran, the one-eyed man in an organisation wilfully blind on such issues, for doing the same sorts of thing on social media that Andrew Bolt does in traditional media. By doing so they have also scuppered what remained of their jihad against 18C. Oh well.

The Abbott government, and those who crawl from the wreckage once it is over, will claim that they brought renewable energy to Australia is a way that could be sustained (as if new companies taking the place of old ones was unsustainable). They will regard their malfeasance over Silex/ARENA as part of the chaos apparently caused by Rudd-Gillard, and the stenographers in the press gallery will pass this on without examining it. They are deciding which renewable energy comes to this country and the circumstances under which it will come.

The invocation of Howard and another area of policy entirely is deliberate. The antipathy to innovations in renewable energy is of a piece with other policies. In civilian ICT, we have seen Malcolm Turnbull frame debate and policy so that Telstra and/or NewsCorp will set the pace for innovation. In the United States, ICT is subject to constant disruption and disrupts other industries; Telstra and NewsCorp won't disrupt anyone, including themselves.

The same government that is bungling renewable energy is busy tying up 'free trade' deals with other countries that are further advanced on these technologies than Australia. This government is not asserting the interests of the Australian renewable energy sector but happy to accommodate the interests of others for a minor concession on, say, sugar; the sort of thing that really matters to this government.

The nearest historical parallel of the extent to which this government is stifling the country's future is to imagine the Bruce government after World War I commissioning a whole bunch of horse people to kybosh motor vehicles and aeroplanes - regulations requiring planes taxiing at federal airports to be pulled by horses, that sort of thing. Imagine how Australia's development over the past century would have been stifled had Cobb and Co had lobbied to nobble Qantas, or the national telephone network. Imagine the Bank of New South Wales insisting that other banks could not be as sustainable as it, and grizzling about the Commonwealth Bank like Murdoch does about the ABC. This is what you get from a government which likes the idea of business, but not the messy reality of disruption and keeping your distance from blatant preferment.

Consumers will not get cheaper electricity, neither from the current delay nor from the eventual supply of renewables-generated electricity by sly, non-innovative incumbents. I haven't got my $550 for repeal of the carbon price, and I never will; neither will you. Australia is only open for business to oligopoly players. This kind of thing was foreseeable before last September and you should have been warned about it by the incumbent media organisations (bloated, anti-innovative and mostly doomed organisations) who make up the press gallery - but don't get me started on them.

Disclosure: 1) I am biased against the Abbott government and 2) I own some Infigen shares (less than $550 worth).

24 August 2014

Media scrutiny and the Abbott government

Before the 2013 election and since, it has been the contention of this blogger that the Australia's political media (including, but not limited to, the Canberra press gallery) did not sufficiently scrutinise the Coalition about its suitability to govern this country.

It is more than fair to say that it was excessively critical of the former Labor government and has been insufficiently critical (in the best sense) of this one. To compensate, political journalists are acting all surprised that the Abbott government turned out to be worse than they had expected it to be, when nobody had any right to expect an Abbott government to be anything but the combination of punchline and disaster like the US Presidency of George W. Bush. I've already gone after Michelle Grattan for this silly approach, but yet it persists from beyond the press gallery by two commentators who ought to know better.

In 2010 Greg Jericho was a public servant living in Canberra, hoping that the media would examine the Coalition's policy on disability services. When it instead engaged in its traditional Boys-On-The-Bus crap Jericho took to social media and demonstrated its power for the first time in Australia. The political media were confronted with the idea that whatever they dished up might not be good enough, that they didn't have a monopoly on (or any) news sense, and that they might be judged by both how well they played the game and on the game itself by people who weren't even 'players'. By and large, they hated it. Some, such as Fairfax's Tony Wright and the ABC's Mark Scott, admitted being caught out and promised to lift the standard of political reporting, but none did.

Earlier this week, Jericho wrote this. He seems to think that the most you can expect from journalists covering politics is that they attend press conferences, document launches and other set-piece events, maybe ask a few questions, transcribe what is said and simply relay it on.

During last year’s election campaign, the Liberal Party did all it could to say very little that might rock any boats other than asylum seeker ones.

It was happy to talk about border and national security but on issues like education and health it played a straight bat and suggested little change was coming. While such a strategy may have been the safe play in opposition, it's rebounded badly on them now they’re in government.

A few weeks ago at the National Press Club, Guardian Australia journalist Katharine Murphy suggested to Christopher Pyne that one of the reasons the government was struggling to sell its policy was that “there was a deliberate effort by the Coalition to minimise the differences and the perceptions of the differences in education between the Coalition and Labor”.

Pyne replied that he had given speeches “hinting” that the Liberal Party in government would propose the changes it had and that “the fact that some members of the fourth estate missed that is not my responsibility.”
He's right; it isn't. Journalists should have sources of information that go beyond staged events. Murphy's idea of investigative journalism is clicking the Send/Receive button on her email in the hope that some press secretary has sent her a press release. Almost all of her press gallery colleagues are of similar modus operandi.

The reason why Laura Tingle is consistently one of the better journalists in the press gallery is that she seems to have contacts outside Parliament House, in the public service and other organisations that both feed into and are affected by policy outcomes. Murphy and the rest of them don't, by and large, which is why they can't cope when what seems like a great idea in Canberra falls flat before it hits the Federal Highway.

If you want to catch Christopher Pyne you need to watch how he spends his time, and where he gets his ideas from. Pyne did not, as Julia Gillard did, go around to actual schools and ask actual teachers and actual parents and actual students what was going on. So much for minimising differences. Pyne spent most of his time in opposition engaging in parliamentary silly-buggers and offering commentary on any issue other than education, which is why he relies on ill-considered assumptions like these.

Talk to Coalition backbenchers and note the aridity of their ideas and the process by which they come up with ideas: if these intellectual deserts will not fill the banquet-halls of government, then where are we to look? Look at what the IPA come out with, and the antecedence of their ideas: they do not like scrutiny and scurry away like those timid marsupials in First Dog On The Moon cartoons - but that is all the more reason to turn up the klieg lights. The same goes for policy units within business organisations like BCA. Rather than stand around Canberra like the world's most expensive microphone stands, they could examine where the Coalition forages for its ideas, and thereby build a better picture (for better and worse) of how the Coalition governs.

In higher education, he is attempting to implement the same policy that John Hewson proposed in 1991, a version of which Amanda Vanstone attempted to introduce as minister five years later. Fightback! is indeed 'old news', but political journalists need to overcome their aversion to it if they are to detect, report on and analyse how we are governed. Clearly, hanging around in bunches within Parliament House and doing whatever else they do is not working for anyone, including them.
Like education, the Liberal Party’s health policy was barely articulated.

In the months leading up to the election, Peter Dutton told the Australian Financial Review that “Our policy is ready to go. I’ve been working on policy with stakeholders in this portfolio behind the scenes every day over the past five years. We will have a cracker of a policy as we did at the last election”.
The political commentator Paul Kelly said before the election that the Coalition had fifty fully costed policies ready to go, but it is hard to see any evidence of these. Kelly put his credibility on the line by making a statement like that, and it's fair to diminish his credibility in light of the actual performance of this government (including the fact that so many current ministers had held ministerial office under Howard).

Again, regarding the above quote: the AFR journalist referenced by Jericho, Joanna Heath, did not approach any of the relevant stakeholders consulted, but instead merely relayed the 'cracker' comment and moved on. This is a failure of journalism on her part and on that of all journalists covering politics and health. They had a duty to examine what an Abbott government might be like, and go around the Coalition press wranglers if necessary; they squibbed it.
Nowhere in the Liberal Party’s health policy document was there anything relating to GP co-payment, nor anything suggesting, as was reported yesterday, that private health insurers would get control over general practitioner treatments.
No there wasn't, but that was the wrong place to look. How were private health insurance companies trimming their sails this time last year in response to what was then an inevitable change of government? Who does the Coalition listen to on health matters, and what were they saying?

This isn't being smart after the event. It should be basic journalism.
The AMA was against [the $7 co-payment for GP visits announced in the budget]. But lest you be under some delusion that the AMA was against a co-payment, let me correct you. As the president of the AMA, Brian Owler, told the media yesterday, “The AMA’s position has never been that everyone should be bulk-billed.”
If the public are under any delusion about any aspect of public policy, then this is not the fault of the public, but of those who inform them - the media. AMA policy should have been one of the measuring sticks for both Labor and Coalition policies. Journalists should take more responsibility for this than they do.
So, the government remains saddled with a policy that has little love among voters and less among the people needed to make it into law.
Time to revisit the question (too late, but still) as to what extent anyone might regard it as a "cracker". If the Coalition had consulted its stakeholders about this policy, surely the stakeholders themselves bear some responsibility for helping convince the public. Building a constituency for change is basic politics, and investigating that constituency (or its absence) is basic journalism.

In terms of "the people needed to make it into law" (i.e. the crossbench senators), this is a simple misjudgment of politics by Dutton and Abbott. Politicians may fail at economic management, they may fail to prepare the country in education or health or in any number of policies. Politicians who fail at politics have failed utterly. Poor old Amanda Vanstone couldn't work out whether the rise of Clive Palmer was a shock or utterly predictable, and so decided on both.

In his various columns Jericho sets himself apart from other commentators by taking a politician's statement and comparing it against reliable external sources of fact to test whether or not the statement stands up. There should be more of this, and he should be congratulated for doing it. He should not be congratulated for insisting that journalists can only be expected to cover what is said in set-piece announcements (including in Hansard).

Journalists have no right to be surprised by the Abbott government when they observed it up close for so long. This is why the very first sentence of this piece by Michael Gawenda was wrong. It is no more weird than any other time since Abbott became Liberal leader.
... Tony Abbott has been unable to offer up any coherent statement of what the main challenges facing his government -- and the country -- might be.
The absence both of any vision, and any capacity to execute it, has been there all along.
First there was Eric Abetz for his suggestion that there is a link between abortion and breast cancer.
This question was put to Abetz by someone outside the press gallery, regarding an event Abetz is participating in that is squarely in line with his long-held, professed beliefs. Eric Abetz has been a Senator for 20 years. In every parliament, the question of abortion comes up. The idea that Abetz holds ill-informed views and holds them staunchly should surprise nobody. Yet, the entire press gallery flapped and floundered at the 'revelation' of a predictable approach to a predictable issue, diminishing their value as observers and commentators.

Weird? No. Seriously weird? Hardly.
Neither of them, not Abetz in his pathetic attempt to say that he was quoted out of context, nor Hockey, in his abject apology for being misunderstood, actually resiled from what they had said.
That, too, was predictable by any close observers of politics and of the way it is reported.
What this points to is the major problem with Tony Abbott’s first year in office. On the available evidence, he has not yet been able to make the transition from an opposition leader renowned for his ability to be relentless in his attack on a shambolic government and its policies, to a prime minister who can articulate the direction in which he wants to take the country.
What this points to is the major problem with the way the media covered Tony Abbott and examined what he said. To what extent was he being facile and repetitive, rather than 'relentless'? To what extent was the Rudd-Gillard government shambolic - in absolute terms, or in comparison to the incumbents?
Some commentators seemed to believe he had found the 'real' Tony Abbott PM after the shooting down of MH17 ... For the first time since he was elected prime minister, Abbott sounded like what he was saying, how he acted, the tone of his language, came from conviction and a clarity about what he felt and believed that had about it a real authenticity -- a political authenticity that is, something that every politician aspires to but few actually achieve.

But on the evidence of the past week or so, it seems that this ‘real’ Tony Abbott that his friends in the media were so hopeful had finally emerged and would transform the political landscape, was no more than a transitory moment.
These 'friends' are the problem. Why so many of them, even now? Have they privileged this relationship with their friend Abbott over what was best for the country? It's time to ask serious questions about the credibility of the press gallery in terms of telling us how we are and might be governed. It's time to stop accepting that bad reporting is like bad weather, there's nothing you can do so just put up with it.
He has allowed friendly commentators to signal a move by Abbott towards something they describe as pragmatism and at other times, a move towards the political centre, though it is wholly unclear just what that means in policy terms.
The signalling is done through the organs that employ those commentators. Their credibility diminishes when Abbott's does. In dictatorships it is the role of media outlets to explain what government has done and that it means well, not in supposedly robust democracies like ours. If commentators have failed to explained Abbott, and have succeeded only in explaining him in ways that please him, this is a problem for the media that employ those commentators.
And Abbott has been muddled at times and at other times tin-eared when it has come to selling the government’s proposed anti-terrorism laws.
What did you expect? The Minister who bungled the treatment of Dr Haneef is still a member of Abbott's cabinet. Nobody has explained what the Coalition, the security agencies or anyone else learned from that caper.
He might even be right to take the advice of the security agencies that the anti-terrorism laws need to be beefed up ...
... but when the previous government proposed this, the Coalition opposed it on civil liberties grounds. Journalists should have questioned whether this was a point of principle or a cynical maneuver, and looked at the power of security agencies in shaping Coalition thinking (as they had under Howard after 2001).
But when he conflated his government’s abandonment of changes to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act ... It went downhill from there when he talked about ‘Team Australia’ as if there were communities who were not part of the team ... And what exactly did Abbott mean when he said on talk-back radio that "you don’t migrate to this country unless you want to join our team"?
Oh come on, he's been doing that for years. The idea that this is some departure from a well-considered position is flatly false. Nobody has any right to be shocked at the inconsistency and cynicism involved.
He knows what he is against, but he finds it very difficult to say what he is for, except in slogans ...
'Twas ever thus. This is not a new phenomenon for Abbott, it's just that the media are being a little more critical in some respects, and the Coalition can't handle it.

Had they scrutinised the prospect of an Abbott government, who knows what might have happened? Maybe the last election would have been like 2004, when a flawed and unpopular government was re-elected rather than be replaced by a manifestly worse alternative. Michelle Grattan's insistence that Abbott's policies (such as they were) need not be scrutinised because he was going to win anyway should have brought forward her retirement and signalled her end as a useful commentator. Instead, she and other signallers remain in place, puzzled at Abbott's inadequacies in government, without examining their own role in bringing such a predicament into being - nor their inability to effectively scrutinise the activities of any government, now or into the future.

Gawenda, Jericho, Murphy and the rest need to stop their automatic exoneration of the media. In failing to scrutinise the Abbott government before it was elected, the traditional media have failed the nation and themselves.

21 August 2014

A modest proposal for NewsCorp

When pictures circulated on social media of journalist James Foley being executed by the Islamic State, journalists came over all sniffy about how vulgar social media is.

Once those pictures were published in the Murdoch press - first The New York Post, later in Sydney's Daily Telegraph, the snobbery about social media seemed to have gone into abeyance. In its place is some sort of general malaise about the world that we live in, rather than experienced people identifying the problem and calling it out.

The IS is posting those pictures because it wants to draw the United States and other western powers into another war on their territory in western Asia. This does not oblige the Murdoch press to run those pictures. What obliges the Murdoch press to run those pictures is the fact that its business goes up slightly when its major markets (the US, UK, and Australia) are at war.

The sales of newspapers have been in longterm decline for many years. That decline is lessened slightly when there's a war, or the prospect of one. People tune in to small-n news outlets to find out what's going on, and to hear the ploughshares beaten back into swords.

The Murdoch dynasty was forged in the First World War, and the pattern of its coverage was set at the time. It belittles politicians who oppose war, or who work to avoid conflict, as gutless and treasonous. It praises politicians who wantonly splash around blood and treasure as courageous and patriotic.

Over the period 2001-03 we saw the US government decide to go to war over a very slender pretext, the so-called 'weapons of mass destruction'. The Murdoch press was sufficiently powerful in all its main markets to force those markets to war in Iraq regardless. It destroyed politicians, including some with decorations for battlefield bravery, who urged caution or at least other means of removing Saddam Hussein. It praised fabulists who made silly promises that the war would be a cakewalk and that western armies would be welcomed as liberators. It invited itself to military funerals and splashed images of grieving, powerless widows across its pages in the hope that product ads on those pages might somehow be more attractive to consumers than they would be otherwise.

The Murdoch press wants war again.

For some years now, Sydney's Daily Telegraph has been playing a double game with its readers: it claims to represent western Sydney and rails against misrepresentation of it, while at the same time misrepresenting Muslims in the area as violent extremists. It has insisted that Muslims denounce extremists without similarly demanding that Christians denounce, say, pedophile clerics. Now it is doing the IS's dirty work for them, in the hope that its business model might be boosted by social discomfort, exclusion and maybe even violence on the streets of Sydney and other Murdoch markets.

It should be unthinkable that a major news organisation should succumb to propaganda from the self-declared enemies of its audience. Yet, the IS wants war, Murdoch wants war, so Murdoch outlets run IS propaganda as though it were 'high quality content'. It wasn't as though intrepid Murdoch journalists leopard-crawled across hundreds of miles of desert to capture those images; they were fed them by IS. Foley worked for GlobalPost; Daniel Pearl worked for The New York Times; there are journalists who put themselves in harm's way to get the big stories, and then there are Murdoch journalists. Murdoch outlets were happy to help the IS in its call for war because it shares those aims.

When journalists from Al-Jazeera English were imprisoned in Egypt, journalists around the world protested at the abrogation of their colleagues' rights and dignity. When the same journalists were confronted with the execution of Foley, a sentence from which no appeal or pardon is possible, there was no protest. Some declined to turn a dollar from the ordeal, but Murdoch outlets happily did.

If you're a journalist - and you put yourself in harm's way doing your job - keep in mind the possibility that Murdoch will turn a dollar from your crisis and stalk your relatives in their grief.

When Tony Abbott left open the possibility that Australian military forces were not only open to engaging in humanitarian missions such as aid to the Yaziri, but could well participate in conflict in the region, he is not acting at the behest of the US Administration. He is acting at the behest of the Murdoch media, who want Australia involved in any such war as they successfully pushed in 2003. Abbott is Murdoch's Manchurian Candidate.

Murdoch outlets are running the IS images because they are gunning for war. It is extraordinary that they are so weak, so unprincipled, that they allow a small bunch of semi-literate bullies far from their traditional markets to dictate their corporate tactics like they do. Their readership will complain, but they will flout the wishes of their readership because the wishes of Rupert Murdoch are for provocation to war. When Murdoch executives excuse their behaviour as though they were mere vessels of their audience, and as though the audience is to blame for Murdoch vulgarity, consider today's output and think again.

Those who do not believe Australians should go to war in IS territory will be marginalised, and the smarter ones are ready for that.

There is, however, a solution that is right and proper. One which plays the IS at their own game and which slakes the almost satanic bloodlust of those who run the Murdoch press.

It's traditional to say that there are some Very Fine Journalists 'working' at the Murdoch outlets - but who are they? Gideon Haigh, perhaps - but he's a freelancer rather than someone in a position to set the tone of a masthead or the organisation as a whole. Samantha Maiden sat on this until ordered to Make Glorious Propaganda Against Running-Dog Hockey and lacks the courage to pursue that rort wherever it might lie, like the non-Murdoch elements of the UK press did with that country's MPs. Malcolm Farr is asleep and Simon Benson is a joke. Sharri Markson is Brynne Edelsten without the wit, talent, or news sense. Paul Kelly said in 2012 that the Coalition had fifty fully-costed policies ready to go, but the evidence from this government is that they've never had any. None of Murdoch's journalists content providers are worth anything, as journalists or in any other capacity really.

It is undeniable that the best possible use of any and all Murdoch employees, those with bylines or without, is to issue them with giggle hats and rifles and drop them into the area around Mosul dam. Maybe they could capture a printing press there and churn out some of that high-quality content that nobody wants to read. Joe Hildebrand and Miranda Devine could disport themselves like Rudd and Hockey on Sunrise. They could bust their buddies Glenn Mulcaire and Andy Coulson out of prison for some Dirty Dozen-style redemption. You can't think of a better use for such people, and neither can those who employ them.

Maybe they might see that Muslims in Mosul are mostly people going about their business and no threat to social cohesion, neither there or in Australia. Their employment, however, depends upon them not seeing it, which is a pity: more so than the fact that nobody else has a more constructive proposal for NewsCorp than that in the preceding paragraph.

Journalists can get very sniffy about social media, but rather than finger the Murdochs when they step out of line they assume - wrongly - that they are acting in accordance with the audience. They see opponents of Murdoch manipulation as cranks. They were fooled last time, and are gearing themselves up to be fooled again, as though misleading the audience they are supposed to serve was a lesser tragedy than them losing the jobs they have no right to occupy. Start noticing that Murdoch is beating the drum for war and that he has no grounds to do so. Once you do that, you can empower decision-makers to go against Murdoch. And if you can go against Murdoch on a big issue like war, you can go against the old bugger on other issues too, and get on with your life.

In the olden days newspapers were sold on the basis of hype and bullshit. People are awake to this now, which explains the decline of newspapers and other traditional media. War should be an instrument of state policy, a resort when politics has failed, rather than a (poorly executed) business model. A company in the information business should be dominating the information age but it is barely getting by. The idea that we have to get stirred up and go to war to pump a few extra bucks into an exhausted business is pretty sad, but those who get stirred up in service of that are sadder still.

NewsCorp is like the Soviet Union: it might seem overwhelmingly powerful to some, especially those unable to laugh at its flaws and contradictions. One day the whole farce will be over, leaving a whole bunch of people who yearn for leadership of whatever quality without it, while the rest of us will adapt to its historic downfall much easier than might be imaginable today.

Update 23 Augusr: NewsCorp is refusing to accept the decisions of the newspaper industry referee, the Australian Press Council. This is wrongly portrayed as some sort of general malaise with the APC. It should be reported for what it is - the toxic Murdoch culture reasserting itself - with appropriate questions about what they are trying to hide.

19 August 2014

Don't blame Amanda Vanstone

Amanda Vanstone tried to defend Joe Hockey in his attempts to implement the policies of the Audit Commission, of which Vanstone was part. She only demonstrated her own intellectual poverty and that of the politico-media environment which sustained her career.
Sometimes the banal aspects of life are just too much to ignore.
What a great opening! Dear reader, this column will be banal: aren't you glad you buy the paper?
When the gods conspire to load them up into a short time frame and throw them at you, it can seem overwhelming. I feel that way now about so much of our media coverage of politics.
The first two sentences could apply to anyone, anywhere. Stop someone in a supermarket or waiting for an elevator and they would probably say something like that to make polite conversation.

As to the last sentence - why now? Did this not happen regularly during her time in politics, or even before that?
There can't be a crisis next week, my schedule is already full.
- Henry Kissinger
The next four paragraphs of her article were a pathetic attempt to say that, well, a Liberal smoked a cigar but then a Labor person smoked a cigar too. This is the sort of childish tu quoque that denigrates politics and democracy as a whole, and then people like Amanda Vanstone then write articles saying what a pity it is that politicians are held in such low esteem.

Here's the significance of the cigar: it denotes a man who is out of touch with most others, and who does not care. For a retiree, the symbolism is less significant than for someone in a position to know better. Hockey has brought down a budget that shows him (and the government that approved it) to be out of touch with ordinary people, and who maintain entitlements for those who are already wealthy and powerful. Vanstone has tried Dr Freud's line that "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar" and it just makes her look like she doesn't get it.
If you think I am kidding myself, consider a reversal of the stereotyping on others. How about users of illegal drugs as an example. If someone were to stereotype them all as useless losers who sponge off society on welfare, break into our homes and steal from us, there would be an outcry. You see, apparently it is OK to engage in stereotyping of a senior conservative politician, but not of others.
I still think she's kidding herself. On one hand, we have a guy who has 20 years' experience dealing with the media, and who employs people who deal with the media on his behalf. On the other we have people so deluded they think drugs and other criminal activities are what their life is all about - people who can't defend themselves from themselves, let alone others.

Mind you, the actions of drug addicts is only illegal because of the way our laws are drafted.

If Vanstone has a point I can't tell what it is, and she can't either.
There’s a free kick on offer, and plenty of the lazy journalists take it. Hollow infotainment tries to get away with looking like sensible media comment. Stereotyping and ridicule pass as substitutes for informed debate. It adds nothing to the substantive political discourse.
Valid points in some general sense, but it doesn't fit the situation here. Keep in mind Vanstone has been both victim and beneficiary of such laziness. Hockey did not get where is with media engaged in constant Socratic dialogue; nobody does, not even the media themselves.
Another example is the media reaction to Joe’s recent comment to the effect that people with lower incomes don’t drive as far and thus would not be affected as much by a small increase in the fuel excise. In many cases, in an absolute sense, that would be true, although there would of course be exceptions. It would be equally true to say that, in some cases, lower-income earners would be affected more in a relative sense. Yet again, amid all the information we could be looking at, one remark is brought to the surface and has a spotlight trained on it.

In the discussion on this from so many journalists we see little about the overall merit or otherwise of raising the excise on fuel. Do we want fuel to get relatively cheaper and cheaper so the so-called rich, who in absolute terms may well consume more petrol, get a bigger benefit? Even that is not the question.
Clearly, if you want a serious discussion of issues, you're wasting your time dealing with the press gallery. Vanstone is not the first to make this complaint, and it's not even the first time she has made it. Over the last half-century at least, the political parties that govern us have come to rely more and more upon the press gallery to maintain their relationship with voters. By using a demonstrably inadequate means of connecting with people they compromise their position. Either find a way of going around the press gallery, or stop bellyaching, and no there is no third option.
The real issue we face is: Can we keep going as as we are? Can we keep spending at current rates and have a sustainable economy? Do we just hope things will pick up, or do we start to put our house in order? If we don’t want to collect more money one way, how would we like to collect it?
There are several questions there. I'd add questions of spending versus investment, too, among others, but then I've not seen a lot of evidence that Amanda Vanstone is open to engagement with new ideas, or that a newspaper column is the forum for such a debate. Like most major party politicians, Vanstone's idea of a debate is to talk past an idea rather than engage with it or modify behaviour in any way.
Much of the difficulties Joe faces are a consequence of the Senate with which he has to deal.
(I would have said "many" rather than "much"; in any case multiple things can't be "a consequence". This, from an expensively-educated person whose entire professional life has been about communication, in a newspaper that is supposedly authoritative on such matters. Anyway.)

Joe Hockey has been dealing with the Senate for two decades. During this period it has faced seven half-Senate elections and numerous turnovers on account of resignation etc. He is not the first Treasurer do deal with a difficult Senate. It's part of the job.
We elected some people who in their wildest dreams never expected to get elected. We didn’t expect it either. They had no coherent set of principles that would guide their decision making. These senators seem very much focused on simple political posturing and bargaining.
Amanda Vanstone was Education Minister in the Howard government. She once hired Chris Pyne on her staff. Today, Chris Pyne is Education Minister and trying similar 'reforms' to universities that Vanstone tried and failed to get through. What principles are at work there?

Amanda Vanstone was Immigration Minister in the Howard government. What principles guided her decisions? Keep quiet, do as you're told, don't rock the boat and we'll give you an embassy.

What are Joe Hockey's principles? I've known him for as long as Vanstone has, and unlike her I confess freely that I do not know.
Now Joe has to deal with [Senators] in order to get some common sense. Making sense of that isn’t easy.
Nobody said it would be. Malcolm Fraser said it wouldn't be, back when Joe was in short pants. I've found that if you want to get some common sense, you have to bring some: could that be the issue with the budget?
What do the independents and Palmer United Party members want for the long term in Australia? Do they think we should future-proof the economy against another global financial crisis, or not?
What does it mean to "future-proof the economy"? It used to mean protectionism and keeping out non-whites. I think it's a nonsense to say that the economy can be future-proofed, and a lie to say that the way this government is going about it is the only/best way to do it. Maybe we could've had some journalist ask the before the last election.
Just how did Clive Palmer achieve such prominence? He’s a rich man, but so what. There have been and still are rich people in Parliament. That alone is no claim to fame.
Every time a wealthy man has entered Parliament, they have attracted media attention. Every time. Never once has Mr Moneybags rolled into Parliament and rolled out without troubling the scorers. I can feel a straw man coming on ...
First, his party always had a prospect, even likelihood, of holding the balance of power in the Senate. That alone makes you of interest. Some in the media actively built his profile.
Imagine a dark and stormy night, with a black-clad old woman hunched over the horoscope of baby Clive. Her bony fingers reach into his cot and she feels the bumps on his skull. "This boy is destined to hold the balance of power in the Senate!", she cackles.

Nope, doesn't work for me either. Why, pray tell, was it so likely? Did you wager a yellow note on such an outcome Amanda? How did some LNP Queensland tiff lead to this scenario, or predicament? Perhaps it is a Queensland thing, given that in recent years Queenslanders such as Andrew Bartlett, Cheryl Kernot, Mal Colston, and Vince Gair have held the balance of power in the Senate.

I have no idea why a cruel electorate would taunt Joe so, and fail to elect as many Coalition Senators as possible.
Second, sadly there was precious little scrutiny of what he stood for.
Oh, that's rich. Joe Hockey and the rest of this government coasted into office on the back of this "precious little scrutiny". He is now under a great deal of scrutiny, as is Palmer, but one is handling it with more equanimity than the other.
Being a potential thorn in Tony Abbott’s side made him the darling of good portions of the media.
Julia Gillard was a thorn in Abbott's side and large portions of the media of varying quality treated her very badly. Nobody becomes a 'media darling' by criticising Abbott. Even his successor as Leader of the Opposition doesn't qualify for such a title. The idea that the media is out to get Tony Abbott reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the media that constitutes the press gallery. They've observed him up close for many years and they don't get him at all.
Third, Clive is a master at manipulating the media, at getting the spotlight – and like moths to the flame, they fly.
The same can be said for Tony Abbott, and it's a shame it can't be said for Hockey. They said lots of nice things about him when dull policy wonk Wayne Swan (another Queenslander! Was he a likely prospect too?) held the job he holds now. You'd think Hockey would have learned media manipulation skills after all this time.
All of this contributes to coverage of the froth and bubble of politics, not the substance of policy.

Of course, in the great conversation of life that is politics there is room for discussion about people, their personalities, attitudes and quirks. How we say things can matter as much as what we say; it can unintentionally cause offence and it can affect what people think about us and our ideas. That’s no doubt why Joe has apologised for any offence caused. We just need to remember that these things are about the game of politics but they are not the main game, not the substance of government.
It was the substance of government that is making life hard for poor people. It was the substance of government that doesn't know or care enough to find out about how they live, or leave them alone, or perhaps even help them a little bit.

One does not apologise for offence caused; one apologises for one's actions, and let the apology go the way of the action itself. There has been no change to that substance, which is more offensive than a thousand word-games of this type (see previous post). Or not apologise, as the case may be.
The Hockey budget seeks to put Australia’s house back in order. It seeks to do that in a measured way over quite a few years. Sure there are, as there always will be, some tough decisions. Personally, I am in favour of future-proofing us from the next GFC, and very much in favour of stopping the selfish "spend now, make our kids pay" policies.
It seems to have made the house more disorderly, not less so, even without having been passed. Hockey seems to want the same tenure that Swan had, but unlike Swan not promising a surplus at the end of it, nor making any innovation on the revenue side. Amanda Vanstone was a Cabinet Minister in the Howard government and she sure as hell did nothing to protect Australia from the global financial crisis of 2008 (the one Hockey denied we had).

I still don't know what it means to future-proof anything, let alone a national economy, and it would appear Hockey is making our kids pay with fewer opportunities in what should be a brighter future for our country.
Some will pillory Joe over his cigars or something he said. I think we should offer him some praise for recognising that we need to clean up Labor’s mess.
These are not the only two choices. He overstated "Labor's mess" and is doing too little to address it, and other important aspects of our future. At the first sign of the scrutiny he should have faced in last year's budget - if not earlier - he has resorted to self-pity and a mutually embarrassing intervention from Aunty Mandy.

Vanstone is understandably upset that someone she's known and liked for many years is being pilloried. She is wrong to expect better from the media, wrong to expect policy debate when she can't even ask the right questions, and wrong to assume that whatever the government is doing must be right. The idea that she's succeeded at anything when muddying the waters over the cigar imagery is just sad. Politics is changing around her in ways she doesn't understand, and all she offers is her befuddlement - which is what she offered when in office. Why Fairfax are strapping themselves to both her irrelevance and the things she rails at is unclear.