The big business bogeyman

It might come as a surprise to anyone who hasn’t done so, to learn that people who run major companies are not always the equivalent of Darth Vader or Ebenezer Scrooge.

Not all CEOs of major corporations, not even most of them, hatch plots to rob their employees of wages and entitlements, develop strategies to wreck the environment, or devise clever ways to rip off their customers.

But you’d be excused for thinking so. Big business has become the latest bete noir; a convenient scapegoat for all that is bad about capitalism, or corporatism, or fossil fuels, or the two-speed economy, or the tax system… and on it goes.

Tim Dunlop described another dimension to the evil empire today, in an otherwise excellent piece on the importance of civic engagement. According to Tim, big business has a secret agenda to create bigger government through increased regulation. I love a good rant, so here it is in full:

Look at how business people, despite their rhetoric, behave in the real world. They are no more interested in small government than they are in competition.

Do big players like Harvey Norman and David Jones welcome competition from the internet as the lifeblood of the free enterprise system they claim to love and then redouble their efforts to provide their customers with a better deal when it challenges their business model?

Don’t make me laugh.

What they actually do is demand government regulate the internet, or adjust the tax system, or change labour laws in order to neutralise the competition and maintain the status quo.

(And speaking of labour laws, that sacred text of small-government types, WorkChoices, while marketed as labour force deregulation was nothing of the sort. It was 1,000-odd pages of exactly that: regulation.)

Banks around the world didn’t just cop the market collapse associated with the global financial crisis as an example of the beauty of capitalism-as-it-actually-works. They sought to ameliorate the fallout of market forces they allegedly champion by lobbying governments to redirect public funds to their private losses, and they did it without so much as a blush.

Or look at how that champion of the free market Gina Rinehart responded to a labour shortage at her mines. She didn’t use the forces of the market to attract more workers by offering better wages and conditions. She did a deal with government to bring in guest workers from poorer nations overseas.

Rinehart’s freedom was enhanced, not by getting rid of government interference, but directing it to work in her favour.

And what of that other mining magnate and scourge of big government, Clive Palmer? Palmer so hates government that he is trying to get elected to it. He doesn’t want to abolish government or even shrink it; he wants to run it.

So here we have the thousands of big businesses in Australia tarred with the same brush as DJs, Harvey Norman, the banks, Gina Rinehart and Clive Palmer. All of them are somehow manipulating the government to increase regulation and change laws to crush their competitors and enslave their employees.

Well, yeah, nah, that’s just not how it is the real world. Sure, there are some bad eggs amongst them but for the main part the people who run big businesses are good people like you and me, just trying to do their jobs as best they can.

Whether we like it or not, that job primarily is to provide the best return possible to shareholders. And remember, those shareholders include pretty much anyone with an Australian superannuation scheme – yep, that’s people like you and me.

Short-sighted business people look no further than this requirement – and the bad eggs amongst them are no-doubt focussed on profits at any cost. But canny business people know they have to do more than look after their shareholders if they want the company to be viable over the longer term.

These are the CEOs (and Boards) who invest time and money in their workforce, knowing that loyalty pays dividends in reduced employee turnover, as well as better quality assurance, OHS performance and company reputation.

The same head honchos know their company must be a good corporate citizen if it is going to be allowed to continue operating. This means meeting the community’s expectations as well as that of the government.

And it is at this point that I partly agree with Tim Dunlop’s contention that businesses can lobby government for more regulation. Some advocate regulation, not necessarily to crush competitors but to bring them into line with the standards of behaviour that are expected by the community. This is because a business sector, or an industry, will nearly always be judged by its miscreants poorest performers.

Which ironically is just what Tim Dunlop did in his piece today.

So in closing, let me say, yes I’m a conservative, yes I’ve worked for big business, yes I used to be a lobbyist. But this post is from me as an informed citizen, saying “Why do we beat up on big businesses when they create jobs and help keep our economy strong? Why do we tar them all with the same brush? And, isn’t this the same sort of intellectual laziness that we want to stop in the mainstream media?”

Postscript: Here is an excellent rejoinder to my post from @theMickMorris The Big Union Bogeyman

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 an unfaithful politician fit for office?

“While it’s all very well to say political private lives should stay private, we need to stop glossing over the fact that infidelity involves a great deal of lying and the breaking of a profound commitment.”

Should the media report when a politician is having an affair?

Yes of course they should, because the politician’s deception casts a shadow over their fitness for office.

While it’s all very well to say political private lives should stay private, we need to stop glossing over the fact that infidelity involves a great deal of lying and the breaking of a profound commitment.

A politician who embarks on an extra-marital affair has, at the very least, poor judgment and limited willpower.

Remember Anthony Weiner, the US politician who sent SMS photos of his wiener to a young woman who was not his wife? He’s a good example of the fools and self-indulgers that we don’t want making political decisions on our behalf.

Serial philanderers on the other hand, like former US President Bill Clinton, are power-trippers who think they’re beyond detection and reproach. While Clinton indeed got away with it, lawlessness is not a quality we should want in our politicians.

In addition to a weakness of mind and body, or delusions of entitlement, politicians who stray are deceivers.

When they publicly deny an affair, it shows they’re capable of mouthing commitment while simultaneously subverting that commitment with their behaviour.

Perhaps most importantly, a cheating politician puts their satisfaction before being honest with their partners. This shows they’re capable of putting their own needs before that of the community and the nation.

It certainly proved to be the case with the late Mal Coulston, whose wife blew the whistle on his misuse of a parliamentary travel allowance when she discovered his affair. Time will tell whether the same applies to Craig Thomson or Peter Slipper.

Perhaps by now you’re wondering whether I’m a bit of a prude.

I’m not, but I’ve lived and worked in Canberra for over 20 years, in reasonably close proximity to federal parliament and the various professions that hang off it like limpets.

I see politicians as ordinary people, thrust into extraordinary jobs.

Sometimes extraordinarily boring jobs, sometimes extraordinarily frustrating jobs, and sometimes a job that makes an extraordinarily positive contribution to Australia and its people. Nevertheless, they are flawed and fallible humans just like the rest of us.

But most people who follow the call to a politician’s life accept the 24/7 nature of the role and the accompanying expectation that they will at all times meet a standard of professional and personal behaviour much higher than that required of almost any other profession. That’s fair enough – politicians govern for the rest of us.

Just like sportspeople shouldn’t take performance-enhancing drugs, politicians shouldn’t act dishonestly.

I understand the highly charged nature of the political workplace and the temptations presented by working long hours alongside equally committed colleagues.

This hot-house environment is not an excuse, however, to dismiss political extra-marital affairs as professionally inconsequential.

So why don’t the media report politicians’ affairs?

While they demur that “what politicians do in their private life is their own business”, it’s clear that journos are also protecting their own kind by not shining the light into politicians’ bedrooms.

Pillow talk continues to be a time-honoured way of generating, and sometimes deflecting, news stories in Canberra. So not reporting politicians’ affairs is as much an act of collective arse-covering by the media as it is respect for politicians’ privacy.

Sometime in the next 18 months, though, the media will have to decide whether lies and broken promises are important in politics or not.

A federal election will be fought predominantly on the question of whether Julia Gillard is fit for government due to her broken commitment on the carbon tax and whether it was an intentional lie.

Surely if the breaking of a political commitment can make a Prime Minister unfit for office, then cheating pollies breaking a commitment to fidelity is no less morally or ethically acceptable.

It’s time for the media to accept that political private lives can be a public issue. It’s time for them to set aside the unspoken gentlemen’s agreement which protects cheating politicians from media exposure.

It’s time to start reporting politicians’ affairs.

Originally published at The Hoopla.

Jump in Sam! The water’s fine.

When explaining to the uninitiated, I usually equate Twitter with swimming.

No matter how much you watch other people do it, ask people to explain it, even read instruction manuals about it, you will never know what it is like to swim until you get in the water and start paddling. Twitter is the same. Lurking is the swimming equivalent of sitting in the shallows, retweeting is like floating around on a tyre-tube, and one-way megaphone tweets are like doing the Australian crawl on the picnic table.

Without fully immersing oneself in Twitter there is no way to learn how it feels, how it works, and what actions are needed to get around and have fun.

And so it was, when I read Sam Roggeveen’s piece today on how Twitter has caused a “barrenness of Australia’s political blogosphere”, I thought “this guy hasn’t even got out of the spa yet.”

My observation proved to be correct. Roggeveen (@SamRoggeveen) is a newcomer to Twitter, having apparently joined on 22 March 2012 in order to be the guest tweeter on Lateline. Since then he’s responded to a couple of tweets and otherwise only tweeted links to articles or blog posts. The last tweet was on 23 April (for the article in question) and he’s managed a total of 24 tweets in the entire time he’s been on Twitter (ten of those were for Lateline).

So he’s certainly not a Michael Klim in the Twittersphere; not even akin to that guy you know who does laps at the local pool every lunchtime.

So, having established how much Roggeveen actually knows about Twitter (because knowledge in this case can only be based on experience*), lets turn to his theory.

Roggeveen bemoans that political blogging has not taken off in Australia the same way that it did in the US in the early 2000s – that “Australia has political blogs, but it doesn’t have a political blogosphere”. He explains:

What’s the difference? Networks. On its own, a blog is a powerful instrument; a platform that allows anyone to post opinion, analysis and information that could conceivably be read by millions.

But blogging reaches its full promise when all those voices form a network [a blogosphere]…. What blogs exploit is the internet’s power for conversation. But that conversation can only be sustained by high numbers of bloggers and readers and their mutual desire to engage with one another.

Roggeveen argues that Twitter has usurped this model of blogging in Australia, because conversational energy is focussed on the newer social media platform. He says Twitter has become the new toy of the political class “who are now enjoying the network effects of Twitter, getting a new distribution channel for their ideas, instant feedback and tips for new reading”.

“This emulates the effects of the blogosphere,” writes Roggeveen, “but in a more feverish and less reflective environment.”

None of these observations are untrue, but they demonstrate a narrow understanding of Twitter by Roggeveen, who eventually concludes:

“In taking up Twitter… the Australian political class have embraced a good tool at the expense of a better one. What sets the blogosphere apart is the way it can harness the power of networks, exploit previously hidden pockets of expertise, and encourage genuine conversation.”

Only a person who knows little about Twitter could make such an erroneous statement. Firstly, Roggeveen has no awareness of the cross-fertilisation that occurs between blogs and Twitter. Sometimes people blog to expand on a topic they started discussing on Twitter, or conversely they debate the merits of a blog post with other interested parties on Twitter.

If Roggeveen spent some time in the deep end he’d know that political blogging communities have been created, not destroyed, through the networking power of Twitter.  There’s nothing more engaging for political tragics on Twitter than to watch esteemed political observers share and debate their perspectives with each other or political players. An added frisson is when the conversants are respected combatants from across party lines.

Many a blog post has been by sparked by a writer watching or engaging in such conversations, which would have been impossible if not for the unprecedented reach and immediacy of engagement that Twitter provides.

Roggeveen says that only blogs can “exploit previously hidden pockets of expertise”. I say bollocks to that. Never in a million years would I have been exposed to the range of expert political minds and perspectives that I encounter and engage with every day if it wasn’t through Twitter. Without the upstart micro-blogging platform I would never have had the “genuine conversations” that Roggeveen claims only blogs can deliver, which have in turn challenged, tested and reshaped my own political philosophies.

Conversations like these, and the many other conversations that they spawn, have created a strong network of political bloggers in Australia. Without Twitter most would never have known the others existed. Instead, some meet in real life for a tweetup, others read and comment on each other’s blogs, some even promote other bloggers to their own loyal readers.

This vibrant, argumentative, thoughtful, and delightfully articulate world that encompasses both Twitter and blogging bears no resemblance to the “barren political blogosphere” that Roggeveen seems to inhabit. I can only conclude that it’s only his own blog that is barren.

So I say to Sam Roggeveen, “Jump in! The water’s fine!” so that he can share in the rich political conversation and bountiful networks that the Twittersphere can provide.

Post script: Sam responded to this post on the blog that he edits for The Lowy Institute, The Interpeter. Unfortunately I could not leave a comment on his post because The Interpreter has a “no comments” policy.

*If I’m wrong, by all means show me the person who truly understands the dynamics of Twitter without spending considerable time experiencing its ebbs and flows and engaged in conversations of one sort or another.