Patsys, players and the future of Australia’s political media

Here’s my latest post for the AusVotes 2013 federal election blog…

The most significant thing that emerged from the mea culpas and post mortems that littered the coup-that-wasn’t battlefield was the notion that journalists are willing to be made patsys.

What other explanation can there be for the role the media played in the Rudd camp’s most recent premature leadership tourney?

Seasoned journalists proved yet again their willingness to publicly be made to look fools in return for being able to participate in private leadership maneuverings.

Click here to read more…

Did I miss the zombie apocalypse?

Here’s my latest piece at The King’s Tribune

I must have missed that moment when we relinquished our brains. You know, that moment when we scooped out the gelatinous orbs that give us independent thought and popped them into a bin for collection. That didn’t happen, you say?

Well then, did I miss the zombie apocalypse? Was I in a coma while ghouls shuffled about and munched on our cerebral cortexes? No? Then how else to explain why we rely so much on the media to do our thinking these days, particularly when it comes to politics?

Contemporary political news is now pitched in a way that suggests, instead of thinking for ourselves, we’ve abrogated our scrutiny of political policies and events for the opinions of journalists. Every newspaper, radio program, tv show and online forum that covers Australian politics and current affairs places an inordinate emphasis on what celebrity and wannabe celebrity journalists “think” about political events.

Click here to keep reading…..

Think tanks: Independent does not mean objective

Somewhere along the way, in the debate of public policy issues, we seem to have forgotten that “independent” does not necessarily mean “objective”.

Think tanks in particular are the guiltiest in using this sleight of hand. In stressing that they are independent scholarly organisations, think tanks attempt to lay claim to a higher moral ground that comes from academic objectivity.

With a sage nod and the dispassionate tones of an academic, think tank representatives refer us to the word “independent” in their Wikipedia entries in a Jedi-like attempt to distract us from the partisan players who sit on their boards or fund their activities. They MAY be independent, in that they’re not formally affiliated with political interests, but most think tanks are NOT objective by any stretch of the imagination. Generally, this is because political interests created them in the first place.

This deception is by no means a new dimension to the battle for political influence. Nor is it the only illusion inflicted on the mostly unaware populace.

The flourishing of think tanks indicates the evolving nature of public trust; articulate and organised “third parties” almost magically blossom from whichever groups the community trusts most. And when that trust moves from one group to another, then new “independent” voices spring from that group too.

It’s a classic lobbying tactic, to which the name astroturfing no longer fits because of its broader scope. I call it the creation of friendipendents, that is, the active establishment by partisan interests of third parties which claim to be independent but actually push their creator’s agenda.

There have been several different manifestations of this tactic. When the community vested its trust in non-government organisations like environment groups, these proliferated. Business interests set up their own NGOs with pro-environment names to muddy the waters. As NGOs lost their gloss, and academics consistently outpolled them on trust, then lobbyists (of all political persuasions) swathed their agendas in academic garb by establishing “independent” think tanks.

And let’s not forget the classic astroturfing tactic which arises when the most trusted voice in a community is “one of us”, resulting in the fabrication of grass roots support to influence the debate.

Sometimes, because of the disparity of public opinion on a broad or complex issue, lobbyists use a combination of these approaches to influence the key demographics. The most evident example of this is the Say Yes campaign, which combined green NGOs with the “independent” think tank The Climate Institute, and faux grass roots organisations such as GetUp!.

The Climate Institute’s prominent involvement in the Say Yes campaign seemed to me to be the first time a self-described independent think tank had publicly displayed such political activism. It caused me to question whether this was appropriate. My judgement was no doubt coloured by The Climate Institute’s close association with one political party; TCI was established by The Australia Institute, which has Bob Brown’s current Chief of Staff on its Board and is headed by a former Greens’ staffer.

I was told that TCI’s activism was appropriate because the Say Yes cause was just and also consistent with the think tank’s area of expertise. I wondered nonetheless whether political observers would have been equally sanguine if the Institute of Public Affairs, which has some prominent Liberals on its Board, had participated to the same extent in the No Carbon Tax rallies.

That’s not to say the IPA doesn’t pursue it’s interests just as vigorously. By identifying, grooming and touting a bevy of articulate “independent” commentators, the IPA has assertively imposed its free market perspective into all major public policy debates including that on climate change.

This brings me back, then, to where I began. Independent does not mean objective, although think tanks (and their creators) depend upon us not making that distinction.

Think tanks have agendas and the justness of those agendas will differ in the eyes of each beholder. Think tanks have too long hidden behind the cloak of independence and should be subject to more scrutiny. They should be recognised as active players in political debate, and not the dispassionate observers that they pretend to be.

This piece also appeared at ABC’s The Drum

Should online commenters register with a credit card?

I’ve lodged a comment today on Greg Jericho’s latest interesting piece at The Drum about privacy and freedom to comment.

My reason for doing so is the confusion that seems to have arisen about whether online commenters should register with a credit card.

I recall discussing this with both Greg and Jonathan Green at The Drum, so thought I would share my views on how/why it could be done.

This is what I had to say:

Another nice piece Grog. The irony of the Australian doing a feature on you yesterday was extreme to say the least.

Only to be exceeded, in fact, by your graciousness and generosity in doing the interview IMHO.

On the credit card point. I think that might have been something you and I once discussed. If so, I suggested that paying $1 by credit card to register to comment on an online news/opinion site would be more effective in proving that one is a “real” person than using one’s Facebook profile (which is a method used by some media organisations).

Using emails addresses or Facebook profiles does not weed out anonymous or pseudonymous commenters (clearly), or the astroturfing that can be perpetrated by them. But paying $1 by credit card demonstrates you are actually who you say you are, because the issuing bank will have made sure of that before issuing it to you. Or you would hope so……

Abbott in a Zegna suit?

Shaun Carney’s recount today of former Treasurer Howard sending Treasurer Keating a congratulationary note on becoming the world’s greatest treasurer, caused me to ponder what sort of Opposition Leader Keating would’ve been.While no more than a fantastical imagining, I can’t help think he’d be more in the Abbott mould than the Turnbull one.

Because, when you think back, is there any other modern Australian politician who was more singularly negative in pursuit of their political quarry than Keating was?

My memory is a little dusty but I can’t recall Keating employing the Howard/Rudd tactic of agreeing with the other side’s policies when they had merit. Putting aside that this was a tactic to emphasise the points of difference, I can only remember Keating going for the jugular every time.

While Keating had more rhetorical flair to his parliamentary jibes, he never pulled his punches. Andrew Peacock was the soufflé that wouldn’t rise twice; John Hewson was the feral abacus who’d be done slowly; Alexander Downer was ole darlin’ and the salmon who jumps on the hook for you; and John Howard was a miserable political carcass.

Would Keating have traipsed into misogyny to score a few points? Maybe. The PM who implemented a number of progressive policies for women, was nevertheless known to universally address them as darl’ and sweetheart.

Would he mercilessly court the media to support his policies to the exclusion of all others? Well, yes, because that’s exactly what he did. There was nary a journalist or news organisation that did not support his tilt against Bob Hawke, his destruction of Hewson and the Fightback package, and his ill-fated run against Howard.

Would Keating have abandoned ALP philosophies and overturned public promises to get back the political advantage? Of course! Do the sale of the Commonwealth Bank or “L.A.W. tax cuts” ring a bell?

As astute political observer Malcolm Farnworth said recently on a related topic,

… politics in 2011 may be lively but it barely rates against some of the great upheavals in our history. Those who see the nation beset by crisis really should do some reading.

Perhaps the same observation applies to our perception of Tony Abbott as the most negative politician to have ever walked Australia’s democratic stage.

Refuse the election media spoonfeed and make up your own mind!

I have sympathy for people wanting more substance from the Australian media this federal election. Truly, I do. As I’ve previously explained, some of the political media’s obsession with election frippery is due to them rebelling against being tightly managed during the campaign. However, I’ve noticed an assertion creeping into some commentary that the media should not only be covering more policy announcements but actively analysing the policy content.

This seems to me to be an abrogation of the citizen’s responsibility to make their own mind up.

I’m not a journalist and I’ve never studied media but I’ve worked around journos for 20 years. I used to think the main value that drove journalists was the community’s right to know, but this has changed over time to a more didactic role. I think this is why I don’t read newspapers, watch tv news or current affairs or listen to the radio. (I will confess however to indulging myself with an occasional viewing of the Insiders.)

My self-imposed mainstream media blackout is due as much to source bias as it is to journalistic bias. I’m well aware that pretty much all information transmitted by the MSM has been massaged or spun by someone – a press secretary, a departmental or corporate PR officer, a lobbyist or an activist. This message is further “refined” by the journalist with juxtaposition against related information and arguments. By the time it’s published, the information can often bear little resemblance to the facts. So I just don’t bother wasting my time reading such arrant nonsense.

This distortion is amplified during an election campaign. Everyone is shrilly trying to achieve primacy for their version of the facts, with accuracy (or even truth) becoming the victim in these skirmishes.

Why has it come to this? Why have we regressed to mostly superficial and combative election campaigns? Is it because Australians have surrendered their natural scepticism when it comes to thinking about politics? Have we become accustomed to having our opinions spoonfed to us by the media and commentariat? I suspect not. The number of people who make up their mind in the last days and hours of an election campaign are enough to change the government. Nevertheless, we are a politically disengaged citizenry. I believe this is because we have never had to fight for our freedom or the vote.

This disengagement should not justify the media stepping in to perform what is each voter’s civic duty. While I agree with comments made elsewhere that journalists should not simply produce a hesaidshesaid story without questioning the credibility of the source, journalists should not be making any comment on the merits of an argument or policy. That is for the media’s audience to decide based on the information provided by the media, not the media itself. Being intellectually lazy enough to expect the media to provide “objective” analysis leads to an acceptance that what celebrity journalists say about matters or policies is an unchallengable truth – more often than not, it is nothing more than their (sometimes informed) opinion.

Anyone seeking to know about parties’ policies should do what they would do if they were about to make a huge financial commitment like buying a house – do your homework! Visit the parties’ websites, ring or email their campaign offices with questions. Talk to the candidates on Facebook and Twitter. Why leave it to Peter Hartcher or Michelle Grattan or Malcolm Farr to tell you what is a good or bad policy? How can you be sure they have the same values and needs as you?

The days of the media as a “medium” between the news-maker and the news-consumer are almost gone. We have made the transition through internet search engines, video on mobile phones and social media such as Twitter. So why do we still insist on MSM meeting our information needs during election campaigns? It’s time to refuse the election media spoonfeed and make up your own mind!

Democracy, by-lines and the cult of celebrity

I have a little theory that needs to be refined.  So I encourage you, dear reader, to comment and correct me.

My theory is that the advent of by-lines and the cult of celebrity have irrevocably changed the nature of democracy in Australia.

When I moved to chilly Canberra to be a neophyte press secretary in the 80s, not every journalist had a by-line.  That honour was bestowed only upon senior reporters and feature writers.  Most Canberra journalists were reporters in the truest sense.  They were required to succinctly, accurately and anonymously report on newsworthy matters of the day.

While most journalists I know have a strong point of view, in those days they were proud of the objectivity they displayed in their work.  Their saw their role as information providers, and had faith in the public reaching their own informed views about the matters that were important to them.

My middle-aged memory fails me when I try to pinpoint the turning point – when journalists became participants in, rather than reporters of, the political process.  But I have no doubt that the advent of the by-line was a contributing factor.

When you are a Canberra operative you tend to notice these things, such as the infectious “title inflation” that has been going on in the print media.  Back in the 80s and early 90s, political reporters clamoured just to get a by-line.  Earlier this decade there was fierce competition to see who could become “senior” or “chief” political reporter.  Nowadays, you’re nobody unless you’re a “political editor” for your newspaper.  Even the neophyte political pundit Peter Van Onselen has managed to procure the title of “Contributing Editor”.

My recollection of the advent of the by-line in Australian print media was that it coincided with the emergence of 24-hour television news in Australia, courtesy of Wolf Blitzer and his CNN coverage of the first Gulf War in Kuwait.  This was perhaps the first time that a serious journalist (as opposed to a glamorous newsreader or TV show host) had become a celebrity in Australian homes.  At the same time, both Laurie Oakes and Peter Harvey’s celebrity status began to rise outside of Canberra political circles.  Oakes was the man of substance, getting the leaks and interviews that no-one else could.  Harvey was The Voice intoning, “Peter Harvey, Canberra” on Australian families’ television news each evening.   Although not based in Canberra, Andrew Olle and Jana Wendt are two other examples that spring to mind.

Hence the cult of celebrity began to infiltrate, and inextricably change, the reporting of Australian politics.

The cult of celebrity emerged hand in hand with reality television.  People became famous simply for being famous, with Big Brother and Idol winners, along with hotel-chain heiress Paris Hilton, being the epitome of this phenomenon.

It’s my recollection that political journalists took this new paradigm much more seriously to heart.  With the advent of the byline and a new focus on celebrity reporters, I remember several Canberra journalists saying that they had taken on a didactic role.  Rather than simply reporting political matters and leaving the public to reach their own conclusions, these journalists began to see their role as having to “teach” the public about the pros and cons of certain political positions and policies.

Certainly one could argue that there is just as much need for teachers to be objective about the information they convey.  However, I believe that the shift from journalists as reporters to teachers was accompanied by a growing self-belief that political journalists know more and therefore know better than Joe Public.  This mind-shift has created the way for journalists’ personal views to creep into their work.

Thus began the infiltration of opinion into political reportage.   Over time, the lines have increasingly become blurred between political reporting and opinion masquerading as analysis.  Canberra practitioners see these comments in the context of the journalist’s opinions and biases, but the everyday newspaper reader and television watcher does not.   Many, and particularly the politically disengaged, tend to take the information provided by their favoured media outlet, or celebrity journalists, as gospel.  This is an unacknowledged but serious distortion in Australian democracy.

Today, there seem to be no bounds to the excesses and influence of some celebrity journalists.  The perceived importance of their opinions has become so inflated that television programs now offer “analysis” in the form of high profile political journalists interviewing or chatting to each other.

I hasten to add that I am not tarring all famous journalists with the didactic brush.  Some have begrudgingly accepted their higher public profiles and treated the responsibility with the solemnity and objectivity that it demands.

Others have become addicted to influence and are now willing participants in Australian politics.  They are the favoured recipients of regular partisan leaks.  Or they willingly beat up or play down speculative matters designed specifically to destabilise opponents or even colleagues.   And most are prepared to willingly hunt with the pack to build up or tear down a politician just for sport.

It’s a truism that voters get the government they deserve.  But what did we do to deserve journalists who truly believe their task is to not inform but to guide us?  Unfortunately we are all disenfranchised when it comes to the participatory role that celebrity journalists now play in Australian democracy.

This post also appeared at The Notion Factory.

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