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…

#Kevenge2: It’s not on until it’s on

That’s the problem with leadership challenges: they’re not on until they’re on. The twice-spurned-but-hopes-to-be-vindicated-Prime Minister-in-waiting, Kevin Rudd, won’t declare his hand until he has the numbers.

And right now it appears that he does not have them.

That’s the reason for the flurries of speculation we’re seeing in the media. Rudd supporters are using every known technique to dragoon disillusioned and despairing Labor MPs into knifing another unpopular Prime Minister, in the interests of having at least a fighting chance at the upcoming federal election.

For weeks MPs have been hinting that the showdown would take place this fortnight, being as it is the last parliamentary session before the Federal Budget. Some even went as far as to name the date, although at least two different dates were nominated. This lead to the political equivalent of dry humping last week when the spill did not eventuate, a turn of events that was frustrating and unedifying for pretty much all involved.

But the main game was always due to take place this week. If it does. And then again, it might not.

All will depend on whether a sense of momentum can be created, setting off a wave of inevitability that would sweep the required number of caucus votes away from the listing ship Gillard to the dodgy lifeboat called Kevin.

A number of today’s events can be seen clearly as the Rudd camp working hard to create this momentum:

  • The day kicked off with an opinion piece by overt Rudd supporter and political editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, Peter Hartcher, claiming “the Gillard Government is suffering a gathering crisis in its leader” and that two Cabinet Ministers had deserted Gillard.
  • Meanwhile, on ABC’s The Drum, Rudd’s unofficial campaign manager Bruce Hawker, criticised the “government’s” handling of the media reform issue.
  • Hawker’s theme was then taken up by Rudd numbers man, Joel Fitzgibbon, during Labor’s caucus meeting and duly leaked to the media afterwards.

Meanwhile, the political media is acting like a diabetic kid locked in a lolly shop: they know they shouldn’t, but……

They know they are being drafted as active participants in this saga, and rather than miss out on a story or – heaven forbid – a scoop, they comply with differing degrees of willingness. As we can see from Laurie Oakes’ non-breaking story this evening, not even mighty Walkley Award winners are immune to the lure of a potential leadership spill.

And so, the rest of this week will play out. There will be a challenge if Rudd can get the numbers. But there will not if  he cannot.

If the numbers fall Rudd’s way, it will be academic whether he challenges, is drafted or whether Gillard stands down. But then again, it may not…

Post script: The momentum builds.

Glasshouses, stones and the problem with player journos

Sometimes I feel like the political equivalent of Methuselah. I really shouldn’t, because I can only remember back to the latter days of the Hawke Government. There are plenty of others around who can remember even further back than me, to the Fraser and Whitlam years.

Aside from feeling extraordinarily old, the benefit of being able to remember back that far is that contemporary political events don’t feel unique but part of an evolving continuum. For those of us who’ve been watching politics a long time, it’s not often that one hasn’t seen something similar happen before.

The most striking recent example of this is the role that Steve Lewis played in the Slipper saga.

There was a lot of comment on Twitter that cast Lewis as the villain; accusing him of actively plotting with the protagonists on one side of the political drama to bring down the players on the other. In bringing down his perspicacious judgement on the matter, Justice Rares said that Lewis was simply doing his job.

Former SMH Chief of Staff and National Editor, Bernie Lagan, now writing for The Global Mail, casts a sharp but pragmatic eye over that part of Justice Rare’s finding:

If, as the judge finds, the whole of the Slipper affair was a calculated effort by James Ashby to politically damage Peter Slipper by abusing the court process, then some might say that Steve Lewis and News Ltd were remiss for going along with it by relying on the protection of court filings for their stories; that indeed Lewis should have seen through Ashby’s motivations from the outset.

But that would be naïve. More likely was that Lewis was well aware of Ashby’s motivations and those of other players, such as Mal Brough. Sources have all sorts of motivations for giving up information. What matters to the reporter is whether the material offered is newsworthy, factually correct and can be defended once published. The facts of the various sexually charged exchanges between Slipper and Ashby aren’t in question (what can be drawn from this most certainly is). And Lewis had waited to publish with the legal cover that came once Ashby had commenced his court action.

Looking at it from this perspective, one can easily think of other examples where journalists have published newsworthy stories in the knowledge that it may be damaging for the opponent of the person who furnished the story in the first place.

Laurie Oakes’ Walkley Award winning story on Cabinet leaks unfavourable to Prime Minister Gillard during the federal election campaign immediately come to mind.

As does the running commentary that Peter Hartcher provides against the Prime Minister in favour of the vanquished Rudd.

So the journalist as political player, to the extent that knowingly publishing harmful information makes one a player, is not exactly new or even considered to be unprofessional.

Unless you’re a self-styled journalism vigilante like Margo Kingston. Yes, that’s the same Margo Kingston who, while still working as a journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald, published Not Happy John, which excoriated the Prime Minister of the day, John Howard. Following her retirement from journalism, Kingston also became actively involved in the campaign run against Howard in the seat of Bennelong, which claimed its genesis in her book.

Not surprisingly Kingston’s Wikipedia entry says she may be seen as part of the larrikin/ratbag Australian journalistic tradition which also encompasses Alan Ramsey and Stephen Mayne. “This tradition is characterised by a willingness to break with convention, espouse controversial opinions and intervene in the events which the journalist is reporting.”

I can attest first hand to this: I clearly remember being a wide-eyed newbie media adviser sitting with Kingston and her SMH colleague Mike Seccombe over coffee one day, listening to them discuss what else they could do to help Paul Keating oust Prime Minister Bob Hawke. From that day on, I knew that some political journalists saw their role as shaping political stories, not just reporting them. (See comment from Margo Kingston below that she was no big fan of Keating so this might have been spoken in *irony font*).

Right now Kingston is shaping another narrative, running a campaign this time against Tony Abbott based on him misleading the Australian Electoral Commission about a slush fund back in the late 1990s. I wish her the very best in that endeavour.

Kingston has so far refrained from accusing Lewis of being a player, retweeting without comment the Lagan piece mentioned above.

She’s been less restrained in accusing other sections of the media from taking a side, railing on Twitter about the editor of the Daily Telegraph burying Justice Rare’s findings on page 17 and Latika Bourke not asking about Ashby in a recent interview with Julie Bishop. In the latter case, Margo even implicitly encourages others to lodge a formal complaint against Bourke:

Those cheering the actions of Margo Kingston now and in the past as some sort of journalistic white knight need to think carefully about how her actions are different, or not, from those of Lewis, Bourke, the Daily Telegraph, Oakes or Hartcher.

In covering the points raised by Kingston in her latest campaign on Abbott’s slush fund, Michelle Grattan recently wrote:

Obviously, there were clear differences between Abbott’s slush fund, which was aimed at a broad political purpose (the destruction of Hanson and One Nation) and the limited self-serving objectives of the AWA body, let alone the vehicle for illegal behaviour that it became. But the point is, Abbott does not bring an unblemished record to the argument.

Next time Margo Kingston is tempted to accuse a journalist of being a political player, she should remember that she does not bring an unblemished record to the argument either.

Political media, cure thyself – it can’t be that hard

In retrospect, it seemed a little weird. Twitter reported on Friday night that people were queued almost down to Darling Harbour for a sold-out Sydney Writers’ Festival event in the Town Hall titled “Can’t be that hard”.

Judging by the tweet-stream, the literati had been joined by the online commentariat and other political junkies to hear six journalists talk about raising the standard of political reporting. Yes, even the two men ostensibly representing the blue and red corners of federal politics had at one time worked as journalists.

Sitting at home in Canberra, following the excellent commentary provided by @PrestonTowers, I soon realised that there were no solutions to be provided by this apparently extremely telegenic panel.

We heard yet again that media organisations are grappling with the “new” digital world, where consumers choose their preferred news from the online information buffet and complain loudly when it does not accord with their views.  And that the pressure on journalists to continuously deliver content throughout the day left no time for reflection. And that it was challenging to discover through social media what the public “really” thinks.

It occurred to me just before I saw similar tweets from @Pollytics, that the discussion was hardly new or surprising. It was unsurprising because the panel was exclusively a product of the mainstream media, no doubt soon to be dubbed the “old media” by the Greens.

Sure, Turnbull and Harris are adept at using Twitter as marketing tools, Crabb’s quirky reporting is carried on various digital platforms, and Mega has mastered the Twittersphere in record time. Hartcher and Cassidy, on the other hand, seem to be part of the “too cool for Twitter” brigade.

But all are steeped in the old media paradigm where it’s more important to get the story first, instead of writing it best; where the journalist decides what’s in the public interest instead of the community making that decision; and where the personal views of celebrity journalists carry unwarranted weight.

Did we think this time it would be different?
(with thanks to @stokely)

And that’s what was weird for me about the SWF event, viewed as it was through the Twitter-lens. I wondered later why so many digital natives, including me, were so keen to hear what old media journalists had to say. Did we think this time it would be different, that there’d be a flash of brilliance and the television talking heads would divulge what they’d learned from considered introspection? Or was the lure of celebrity just too strong, even for cynics like us.

Whatever the reason, it became quickly clear that old media journos can’t even diagnose their malaise, let alone identify a cure.

The antidote, to me, seems clear. It involves the separation of reporting, analysis and opinion; a shift to rewarding quality over speed; and the dropping of frequently published opinion polls.

It seems nonsensical in this age when any person with a smart phone can be a news-gatherer, for media organisations to persist in maintaining separate reporting teams to cover what is essentially the same set of facts. Why is it necessary for three newswire agencies, seven tv stations, ten radio stations and a dozen newspapers* to attend one press conference? Surely, if there’s no slant put on what is said, then there’s only one way to report the facts. So it makes sense for media organisations to merge their duplicative news gathering activity or outsource it to a single organisation like a newswire agency.

Reverting to a single news-gathering service that provides all media organisations with the same information at the same time would negate the rush to be “first” – a title that holds diminishing cachet in the instantaneous online world. Doing so would negate the need for wannabe celebrity journalists to find the scoop or exclusive that will make their name, simultaneously minimising the opportunity for politicians and their spinners to exploit such journos with tempting leaks and rumours.

Hopefully, the Walkley Awards would follow suit, rewarding quality reporting and analysis instead of the journalist who happened to be chosen by political combatants to receive the most juicy scoop in that particular year.

Analysis of what is said at a press conference is altogether different from what is reported to have been said. The separation of reporting from analysis would give those journos not doing the reporting more time to research, reflect and produce the quality analysis that political news consumers are demonstrating they’re prepared to pay for. It’s clear that subscribers will cough up cash for quality objective analysis such as that provided by Laura Tingle and George Megalogenis behind their respective paywalls.

I’d venture that LaTingle and Mega also attract the consumer dollar because neither proffers their personal opinions as analysis. Particularly in recent times, some formerly respected journalists have become diminished in the eyes of their readers by expressing personal political opinions in their pieces.

That’s why it’s also important for media organisations to re-exert the distinction between analysis and opinion in their political coverage.

Opinions are like bums – everyone has one, and anyone with a spare afternoon and a keyboard can publish theirs online (as I have just done). So while consumers will pay for high quality political analysis, it’s unlikely they’ll pay for opinion. But a well targeted, written and argued opinion piece can bring a lot of eyeballs to a media organisation’s online and dead-tree pages. The encouragement of public comment, with a strong but principled moderation policy, can turn these visitors into a community of support and eventually paying customers.

So that’s it in a nutshell; it’s not really that hard. Media organisations can save money by centralising the reporting function, make money with a stable of astute and articulate political analysts, and build their audience/customers with engaging and compelling opinion writers.

They can eliminate churnalism and reduce workplace stress by taking experienced journalists off reporting duties and giving them time to research and write. And political manipulation of the news cycle can be minimised by neutralising the attractiveness of the leak and the scoop.

There’s one other type of leak or scoop that should also be deligitimised in order to improve political reporting in Australia. The running and publishing of fortnightly opinion polls should be scrapped, on the basis that they signify very little unless taken close to an election but can be used to manipulate public opinion in the meantime.

The business model for political media is not really dead; it just requires a different perspective to see how it can be resuscitated. There are plenty of us standing around giving good advice, but in the end, it is up to media organisations themselves to administer the cure.

*These numbers are my guesstimate only.

This piece also appeared at ABC’s The Drum

Is the tide turning for Tony Abbott?

It’s a truism in politics that while one opinion poll might evoke an interesting point, it’s the trend in poll findings that reveals much more.

The same could be said for opinion pieces written by journalists who report federal politics. Each piece has its own merit (or not), but when there’s a trend in the opinion being advanced, then this is something worth noticing.

Why? Because the appearance of a theme in a string of opinion pieces suggests, not that several journalists autonomously and simultaneously came to the same conclusion, but that an external action or actor initiated that thought.

The external factor could range from something as innocent as journalists musing aloud to colleagues over coffee, to something more Machiavellian like a political operative briefing against opponents. Either way, it’s worth taking note when a trend appears in political opinion pieces.

Such a trend appeared this weekend. At a time when there is seemingly unending mainstream media criticism of the PM and her government, not one but five senior political reporters appeared to significantly escalate their scrutiny of Tony Abbott’s tactics and policies.

In his weekend column, SMH Political Editor Peter Hartcher ran the rule over the Coalition’s known policy positions and found “the Coalition is changing from the free-market, pro-business, economically sound party of Howard and Costello to a populist party under the influence of Abbott and Barnaby Joyce.

“Abbott’s opposition shuts down debate about workplace reform, shows signs of being tempted away from a wholehearted commitment to free trade, proposes a new tax on big business to fund an expensive parental leave scheme, and, while it certainly monitors government spending closely, has yet to explain its own fiscal policy.”

Hartcher’s stablemate, Lenore Taylor, pointed in her weekend column to the new heights in spin being employed by Abbott, “ignor[ing] facts altogether” to score political points.

Yet another Fairfax journalist, the Age’s Associate Editor Shaun Carney, sharpened the policy scrutiny focus even more in his weekend piece:

“Abbott’s assault on Labor has been almost entirely policy-free… He attracts support largely because of what he says he will not do and by his relentless critique of the government. His vision for Australia is defined by his negative appraisal of Labor. Even with the Coalition’s massive opinion poll lead, the time is coming when Abbott will have to do more than that. Perhaps it has arrived.”

Similarly, the West Australian’s Federal Political Editor Andrew Probyn, blogged that “Tony Abbott has sown the seeds of his own destruction. It’s not that he won’t win the next election. He most probably will. But unless he sets about seriously reconfiguring various policies, when he becomes prime minister he will either have to break promises, commit humiliating backdowns or attempt to wheedle his way out of controversy.”

And over in the News Ltd camp, somehow foreseeing this trend, The Weekend Australian’s National Chief Reporter Tom Dusevic contributed a feature on Abbott that examines his policy credentials.

What does this mean? It’s not that these pieces are the first to canvass the need for Abbott to show policy depth and integrity. Incoming Liberal Senator, Arthur Sinodinos, advanced it in his weekly Australian column back in early September. Canberra Press Gallery doyen, Laurie Oakes, covered it in his opinion piece last week on politicians lying.

But other columnists did not pick up the point until now. And all at the same time.

What does this mean? Do the reporters in question regularly chat, and decided last week that it was time to turn the heat up on Abbott’s policy credentials? Is this an indication that the tide is turning for Abbott in the Canberra Press Gallery? Perhaps.

Or has the Prime Minister’s newly-appointed Communications Director turned the heat up on journalists and demand parity in policy scrutiny? Maybe, but he has not yet officially started in that post.

We’ll never know how this alignment of political opinion pieces came about. Whether through independent thought, osmosis or suggestion, they do suggest a turning point; the beginning of a new phase for the Opposition Leader in which he is expected to do more than just oppose.

Time will soon tell whether a new trend has emerged. Stay tuned for more: it will be fascinating to watch.

Postscript: One week later – this from the Financial Review’s political editor, Laura Tingle. And then this from Laurie Oakes. Other notable pieces since then include this from The Australian’s Paul Kelly (paywalled), and this from Michael Gordon.

Reports of Labor’s death are greatly exaggerated

Last weekend the SMH’s political editor, Peter Hartcher, made an extraordinary claim that “Labor’s looming death as a stand-alone political entity is the biggest story in contemporary Australian politics.”

Hartcher is an experienced and astute political analyst, having reported politics for the Herald not only from Canberra, but also Tokyo and Washington. However, his prediction seems disconnected from reality.

Hartcher’s thesis is that Labor has lost its progressive supporters to the Greens and has no chance of getting them back. He says that “Labor has yet to squarely confront the fact that it is on track to bring the two-party system to an end as Australia witnesses the rise of a three-party system,” and that “even if [the Prime Minister] can win passage of a carbon tax through the Parliament, it will not be enough to save her, and Labor, from oblivion.”

I don’t quibble with Hartcher’s contention that Labor has had a tactical tendency to lurch to the right on contentious issues to prevent voter leakage to the Coalition. Nor do I dispute that this has caused some progressive voters at the other end of the political spectrum to abandon the ALP for the Greens.

I can even agree that Labor’s low primary vote (37.99%) at the 2010 federal election was mostly attributable to “disillusioned and disgusted Labor voters going across to the Greens”.

But there is no evidence to suggest, as Hartcher does, that these voters are lost to Labor forever. To do so would be to fundamentally misread (or rewrite) what occurred.

The Greens garnered 11.76% of the primary vote at the 2010 election, a swing to them of 3.97%. However, nearly 80% of that vote went back to Labor in preferences, just as it did at the previous federal election.

Interestingly, 26% of Green voters said they did not make up their mind how to vote until 24 hours or less before casting their vote, compared with 17% for Labor and 9% for Coalition voters. This proportion of votes, decided so close to polling day, is unusually high compared with previous elections.

The combination of Green votes preferenced back to Labor, with the delayed decision to vote Green, suggests that many more potential voters wanted to vote Labor but couldn’t bring themselves to do so.

When voters are uncertain about which party to choose, they usually lean towards the devil they know (the incumbent). But on this occasion they were faced with two relatively unknown politicians, both of whose authenticity were in question. As a result, some voters ended up rejecting them both.

Unfulfilled expectations also played an important role in that rejection.

Kevin Rudd’s downfall was that he didn’t deliver on the expectations he created in the 2007 federal election. Rudd deftly positioned himself prior to that election as Howard-lite, framing himself as the “other” safe pair of hands, but with bonus features such as the ratification of Kyoto and the scrapping of WorkChoices.

While Rudd did apologise to the Stolen Generation he didn’t deliver on any other major promise. The Labor MPs and operatives who eventually deposed Rudd did so because they knew voters were waiting to take out their anger on him, just as they had done to Keating in 1996.

Julia Gillard was also damaged by the mismanagement of expectations, but not in the irretrievable way suggested by Hartcher. She became Prime Minister promising to resolve three issues: Australia’s response to climate change; the battle with the mining industry over the Resource Super Profit Tax; and a more humane approach to sea-borne illegal immigrants. Instead she announced a clumsy citizens’ assembly on climate change; gave ground to the mining industry and replicated some of the most reviled elements of the Howard Government’s detention scheme.

Hartcher claims these actions were a grievous insult to the progressive side of the ALP and caused a permanent mass exodus of voters. In fact these actions were viewed much more simply, and by a broader range of Labor voters, as yet another PM welshing on their commitments.

While Hartcher seems to think the battle has been fought and won by the Greens, they should take no comfort from the fact that a chunk of their voter base is comprised of disaffected major party supporters.

The published opinion polls mean nothing this far out from an election: the Greens’ support is nothing more than soft and fickle at this point. It’s conditional upon two things: (1) continued voter antipathy towards the major parties and (2) the Greens’ capacity to deliver on the high expectations they’ve created for themselves.

The Greens shouldn’t lose sight of what happened to the Australian Democrats when placed in a similar position 30 years ago.

The Democrats held or shared the balance of power with other minor parties or independents in the Australian Senate for nearly 25 years (1981 to 2004). At their peak, they also held the balance of power in the upper houses of several state parliaments: NSW from 1988 to 1991, SA from 1979 for the following two decades and WA for one term following the 1996 election.

Today they hold no seats – in any Australian parliament.

There are both similarities and differences between the Democrats and the Greens. Perhaps the most significant similarity between the two is the amount of voter goodwill and accompanying high expectation that each party generated. It was the Democrats’ inability to fulfil this voter expectation that ultimately proved to be their undoing.
When the Greens attain the balance of power in July this year, they will discover, as did the Democrats, that it’s much more difficult to be a political or policy purist when your vote actually counts. The Greens will need to manage voter expectations better than the Democrats to avoid the pitfalls that decision-making can bring.

Negotiations will inevitably lead to concessions, on either side, but if the Prime Minister can find ways to wedge the Greens on their legislative wish-list it will be the minor party and not Labor that will face public opprobrium for unpopular decisions.

This dissatisfaction will then be played out at the ballot box.

Hartcher says Labor is finished as a major party and that it “cannot hope to govern in its own right any more.”

His prediction is a long way yet from being fulfilled.

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