Truth, opinion and Australian journalism

My life has always involved words: I was a bookish adolescent, a competitive high school public speaker, did an English double major at uni, worked as a public relations consultant, a media adviser, a lobbyist, and now a professional writer and amateur blogger.

I’d always assumed journalists were equally driven by words, but now I realise it’s truth, not words, that motivates and defines them.

It’s embarrassingly obvious if you think about it. The greatest glories are held for investigative journalists: those who uncover the crime, corruption and evil intent that exists behind shiny corporate edifices, unimpeachable governments, celebrity personages and everyday joes. Even though the world has access through digital platforms to more beautifully written words, fine phrases and compelling stories than ever before, we seem more inclined to celebrate and commemorate those written in the name of truth.

Even so, it wasn’t until recently that I realised journalists see their profession as being custodians of the truth. While many of us interpret journalists’ indignant defense of their craft as an unwillingness to accept change, I can see now that they believe they’re fighting to protect something much more fundamental than their next pay cheque. They believe the loss of conventional journalism will leave no-one to protect the public’s right to know.

Renowned editor of the UK’s Guardian newspaper, CP Scott, enunciated journalism’s commitment to truth in a 1921 article celebrating the paper’s 100th anniversary and his 50th as editor:

[A newspaper’s] primary office is the gathering of news. At the peril of its soul it must see that the supply is not tainted. Neither in what it gives, nor in what it does not give, nor in the mode of presentation must the unclouded face of truth suffer wrong. Comment is free, but facts are sacred. (my emphasis)

I was reminded of Scott’s words during a recent Twitter conversation with two journalists, both of whom I respect for their integrity and objectivity.

I was exploring my thesis that news media organisations should use a centralised news-gathering function like AAP or Reuters because it is duplicative and wasteful for one set of facts to be reported by numerous commercial sources. This is even more the case now that anyone with a smart phone can gather and instantaneously deliver information directly to news consumers.

My theory is built on the premise that news consumers will pay for quality analysis but not news because facts are so easily obtainable and freely distributed. I’ve speculated that an alternative news media business model would invest in a stable of quality journalists, not to report but to value-add by providing analysis of the news. In short, to explain what consequence the facts have for an individual, a community, the nation or the world.

But I realise now that my proposed business model fails in the eyes of news media organisations because it places more import on analysis than on facts. And in the eyes of many journalists analysis is akin to opinion, which is highly subjective and can sometimes have only a fleeting relationship with facts.

Here’s an excerpt of the Twitter conversation. You will notice Marcus Priest makes a comment eerily reminiscent of CP Scott:





So here’s the disconnect: with the plethora of information now available online, news consumers don’t readily distinguish between facts and information. We don’t value those who gather and report facts because we think we can do it ourselves.

What we do value, however, are the “experts” who help us make sense of the overflowing news buffet.

As Bernard Keane recently observed:

… it pays (although, perhaps not very well) to remember that users don’t just want one type of expensive content. In addition to investigative journalism that meets the traditional criteria of being stuff powerful people don’t want you to know, they do want commentary — that’s why there’s now so much of it not just out in the blogosphere but in the MSM itself. They also want analysis that acts as a filter for the unimaginable amount of information that is now publicly available but needs not merely to be accessed but made sense of. They want real-time coverage of events, something the MSM runs a poor second to social media on. And they want the opportunity to discuss it with the authors and with other users, discussion that will vary, rather like people themselves do, from thoughtful, intelligent and original opinions to bile and stupidity.

Keane’s commentary is borne out in the behaviour of contemporary news consumers. While the organs that predominantly report the facts – newspapers – continue their decline, viewers maintain their interest in investigate reporting by watching programs such as Four Corners and readers continue to support long-form political analysis by purchasing The Monthly, the Quarterly Essay* and books by highly regarded journalists.

Notice the important distinction that Keane makes between analysis and commentary/opinion. In contrast, Jonathan Holmes wrote (admittedly several years ago), “the border between [analysis and opinion] can’t be patrolled, without parsing the life out of both.” Holmes is demonstrating a blind spot that seems particularly endemic within the journalistic profession.

To me, the distinction is clear:

facts = what it is

analysis = what it means

opinion = what I think about it

I get journalists’ determination to protect their reporting role in the name of truth and the community’s right to know. What I don’t accept is the related view that analysis is just a higher form of opinion, and less worthy than reporting of facts.

To illustrate:

 



I find it troubling that at least two highly esteemed and principled journalists can’t/won’t see the importance of separating analysis from opinion. The standard for objectivity is not that complex – if I can determine from a piece what the writer thinks about the subject then it’s opinion, not analysis. They are not inter-changeable.

Like most other engaged citizens, I enjoy talking about the future of the Australian news media and exploring the many facets of this challenge. I realise the conversations I have and the posts I write merely pick at random threads in a huge tapestry that no-one yet has determined how to stop unravelling.

I’m not an expert, but I do have an informed opinion. It’s occurred to me that the two factors that I discussed with Marcus Priest and others on Twitter over that couple of days are in essence the two that have most eroded the media’s integrity in the eyes of the public.

While journalists may consider themselves to be custodians of the truth, their current propensity to rebirth press releases and sensationalise superficial dramas leaves the citizenry to wonder how many truths are lying undetected for want of a journalist prepared to put in the effort to unearth them.

Equally, the offering of journalistic opinion as news and analysis undermines our perception of journalists as the objective reporters and experts we rely upon to convey and explain the facts to us.

In some ways, the future of conventional journalism is in the hands of those who practice it.

I can’t imagine anyone disagreeing with journalists wanting to defend the truth and the public’s right to know. That is a noble cause and one worth protecting.

But if journalists want the public to support them in this role, they need to reaffirm and demonstrate the primacy of truth in the work that they do – by giving us more journalism, less churnalism, and more analysis than opinion.

Post script: GrogsGamut – What do we need? What do we trust?

*Yes, I mistakenly named The Quarterly Essay in my tweet. Thank you for noticing.

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…..

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.

Is the media consumer always right?

And so, with the demise of 6.30 with George Negus, Australia’s dirtiest secret has been exposed. There’s no longer any point denying it, now the courageous programming innovation featuring the moustachioed one has come to an end. The evidence is clear: we’re a country of Philistines who couldn’t give two hoots about serious news and current affairs.

It’s not that we didn’t already know this; we just didn’t want to accept it. We tried to ignore the fact that more Australians would rather watch grimace-inducing talent shows than hard-hitting investigative journalism; listen to crank calls than probing interviews and read celebrity gossip than analysis.

It’s this conundrum that casts a shadow over the future of Australian media. Are the punters always right? Is the only commercially sensible option to give consumers what they want? Or should the media favour its public-interest role and give people what they should want? This is a fundamental question, because despite the fine words uttered about the accountability that media must enforce in a healthy democracy, media organisations are firstly commercial enterprises. Aside from the public broadcasters, every other media organisation, large or small, needs to make enough money — either through advertising/sponsorship or sales, to continue operating. Some also need to provide returns to their shareholders.

Those that ascribe to Lindsay Tanner’s Sideshow syndrome, would argue that it’s the drive to give media consumers what they want that has led to the re-packaging of news and analysis as entertainment. Politicians are similarly accused of dumbing-down their messages to make them more interesting to the public.

The demise of 6.30 and the modest audiences generated for most serious news and current affairs programs makes it hard to argue against this perspective. Even so, the solution being advocated to reverse the Sideshow trend is simply illogical.

Media academics and commentators suggest that the news-as-entertainment mentality can be neutralised by somehow requiring media organisations to provide more coverage and analysis of serious events and policy issues. There appears to be an assumption embedded within this solution that “if you print it, they will read it”.

But, as we know, the evidence suggests otherwise. If somehow the Herald Sun was required to provide more considered reports on superannuation or health policy, or the unravelling of the Greek economy, does anyone honestly think that any more people would buy it and any less would read it from the back page first?

It’s not that the majority of people want merely to be entertained; they want information that connects with them and the lives they lead. People have simple needs when it comes to the media. They want to know “what happened today and what does it mean for me?” Yes, some people also want to know what it means for the community, the country or the world, but those people are fewer in number. An even smaller number of people also want to tweet, comment or blog about the event and its implications.

But it is the will of the majority that shapes a democracy. The preference of those who choose not to watch ABC24, or listen to PM or read The Monthly, will guide the reconfiguration of Australia’s media as it grapples with the opportunities and challenges presented by the online world.

This is not to suggest that the Sideshow will become bigger and even more perverse. Frankly, it’s journalistic laziness to simply make news entertaining instead of framing it to be interesting or compelling.

While most of the public is disengaged from political events and current affairs, they’re far from being passive consumers. They demand engagement from their service and product providers, to be heard and to have their needs met.

This applies equally for the consumers of news media. Clearly newspaper circulation numbers are dropping because readers aren’t getting what they now want from a news product. Instead of presuming to know what’s best for the public, and what it is that they should want to know, it would benefit journalists and their proprietors to better understand what the public actually wants to know.

An excellent example of a media organisation doing exactly that was the Sunday Age, which invited their readers to guide the paper’s climate change agenda by nominating and voting on the top ten questions to be reported upon. Over a four-week period, 567 questions were posted, around 4000 comments were made debating the questions, and almost 20,000 votes were cast.

This participatory approach to generating news is one of the ways that traditional media will re-establish themselves as relevant and responsive to their customers. There will be other ways too.

If the commercial media model is to survive, then media businesses will indeed accept that the punter is always right. There is no alternative. The pressure will be on politicians, media academics and the commentariat to accept this too, although I doubt they will.

If a genuine attempt is made to understand what the public really does want from their news products, we may all end up being pleasantly surprised. And if news organisations can deliver what the public really wants, then our democracy will be better for it.

This piece originally appeared in The Kings’ Tribune

Post script: This great piece on the media consumer being right from the head of news at ninemsn. 

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.

The Power Index: peddling influence or impoverished ideas?

US academic Jay Rosen recently described a number of failings he’d identified in modern journalism in an address to the Melbourne Writers Festival. He calls them “impoverished ideas”.

One of these motifs is the depiction of politics as an insiders’ game. Rosen says that when journalists define politics as a game played by insiders, it then becomes their job description to find out what the insiders are doing to “win.”

Rosen says that in casting light on the inner-workings of politics, the media “positions us as connoisseurs of our own bamboozlement. Or, alternatively, we can feel like insiders ourselves.”

Another of the impoverished ideas that Rosen says has contributed to a broken media is what he calls savviness:

Savviness is that quality of being shrewd, practical, hyper-informed, perceptive, ironic, “with it,” and unsentimental in all things political. And what is the truest mark of savviness? Winning, of course! Or knowing who the winners are.

If indeed these features epitomise the worst in Australian journalism, it will be interesting to see whether a new media venture specifically built upon them will survive.

Playing strongly upon the investigative cojones of principal journalist Paul Barry, the web-based The Power Index promises to provide readers with “the secrets, the motivations and the ambitions behind Australia’s most powerful individuals.”

Using the tagline, Who really runs Australia?, the website promises to deliver subscribers over 250 profiles of those who wield power in 24 categories, and an ultimate top 50 will be divulged in The Power 50. A power index for individual categories can be purchased as an ebook for $48, while The Power 50 will only be available for purchase by those who cough up the $340 annual subscription fee.

Even putting aside the interpretation that The Power Index uses narrative motifs discredited by Rosen, the question remains whether it will survive commercially.

Like most readers of Crikey, which shares a media stable with The Power Index and has been cross-promoting it heavily, I was excited to read about the upcoming launch of the insider’s guide to influence.

At first blush, it makes sense to tap into the Crikey readership base: we are political tragics; some of us are/have been insiders; and the online newsletter has rarely let us down, delivering fresh news and interesting perspectives on politics and related topics on a daily basis*.

But to promise “deep, thoughtful and entertaining profiles of the people who pull the strings” on a daily basis is another thing altogether. Yet this is what The Power Index has undertaken to do.

And so, two weeks into the life of the website that claims to know who really runs Australia, how is it stacking up?

Are Paul Barry and his crack-team of investigative journalists delivering analysis that is worth almost twice the price of a Crikey subscription?

In a word, no.

Despite the hype, the 20 profiles we’ve seen in the past fortnight have been disappointingly shallow. While we were promised the best in investigative journalism, we’ve been given undergraduate summaries of what has been written before, peppered with quotes from anonymous insiders, a few politicians prepared to speak on the record, and occasionally the subject themselves.

The heavy reliance on unnamed sources, which were for example quoted 33 times in profiles of the Top 10 Political Fixers, can only lead us to wonder who they were and what was their interest. With no opportunity to assess the analysis based on the sources’ biases, we can only wonder how accurate are profiles that depend on such sources?

Admittedly, an insider would know whether The Power Index profiles ring true, but they would be equally attuned to the shallowness of the analysis.

Which casts a shadow over the wisdom of leveraging off Crikey’s readership. If there’s a cohort of informed readers that could see the flaws in The Power Index, it would be them. Any lobbyist, apparatchik or politician who doesn’t already know what was in the Top Political Fixers’ profiles would not be paying attention.

Perhaps the publishers of The Power Index have based their business case on the less-informed but nevertheless influence-hungry corporates who are the bread and butter of lobbyists and other influence-peddlers.

This plan may work until the power lists for the business world are published. If they’re as impoverished of real inside information as the political lists appear to political insiders, the corporates will soon work out that they’ve been sold a pup.

The other glaring deficiency in The Power Index’s take on influence is that certain categories of influencers are noticeable by their absence. While spinners will be analysed, political staffers will not; and the developers/ producers of new media platforms get their own list but not those who use new media such as bloggers and citizen journalists. There are other missing groups too, but I’ll keep them to myself for the moment.

Undoubtedly, it’s tough to make a buck in the news world these days, and you’ve got to give the publishers of The Power Index credit for thinking they could get the jump on the Financial Review’s annual power lists (which incidentally costs only $3). However, the new venture doesn’t compare well against the Fin’s list, which is based on transparent analysis of power brokers by their peers, not professional dirt diggers and their anonymous sources.

While The Power Index may be tantalising for those who exist outside the circles of power, will it deliver enough inside information to make them part with their hard earned cash? Perhaps it will in the first instance, but in my view, their clientele will not be sustained over time.

*Disclaimer: Crikey publishes my posts and articles on an occasional basis.

Postscript: Excerpt from Crikey Daily Newsletter 1 September 2011

The Power Index’s Adams profile:

Philip Luker, author of Phillip Adams: The Ideas Man–A Life Revealed (JoJo Publishing), writes: Re. Extract from The Power Index, Tuesday Item 6, with direct link to The Power Index Item 10 by Matthew Knott: Some statements about Adams are straight lifts from my book without any accreditation.

Examples: “Bob Carr said he (Adams) is prone to ‘smugness and predictability’ (Page 91 of book). “Former NSW Premier Bob Carr describes the program (Late Night Live) as ‘a corner of the radio universe free of the cacophony of climate change denials, rank racism, manufactured grievances and fake indigation that is the currency of commercial radio” (Page 91). “Bob Hawke calls him (Adams) ‘a pain in the arse’ and ‘a non-event as far as I am concerned’ (P. 80). “Even Adams’ arch enemy, Sydney Institute director Gerard Henderson, admits to enjoying his radio show” (P. 84).

I spent considerable time trying to help Knott. I resent the fact that the only reference to the book is in the third last paragraph.

[The Power Index have since updated the story.]

Post script: The Australian reports that with the departure overseas of Paul Barry, The Power Index will be incorporated into Crikey

Whether you like it or not – looks DO matter in politics

I have to confess I noticed the PM’s earlobes long before it was cool to do so, back in the days when she was a mere Deputy PM. Once or twice I mentioned them to non-politicos who responded with quizzical stares, but I soon discovered they had been a long-time topic of conversation amongst Labor staffers.

Before you accuse me of trivialising politics by focusing on a person’s appearance, let me let you in on a little secret – whether you like it or not, looks DO matter in politics.

It’s a real shame that Niki Savva stooped so low in her recent article about Ms Gillard’s appearance because the substance of her comments had merit. Politicians ARE measured by their looks, and not just female MPs as decried by Annabel Crabb.

Recent research by the University College London and Princeton University has found that voters make judgments about politicians’ competence based on their facial appearance, with facial maturity and physical attractiveness being the two main criteria used to make these competence judgments. The researchers found that appearance is most likely to influence less knowledgeable voters who watch a lot of television. This research built on earlier work that found voters rely heavily on appearances when choosing which candidate to elect.

Perhaps the most striking example of the weight given to politicians’ appearance was the perceived outcome of the first debate between Richard Nixon and John F Kennedy during the 1960 US Presidential election. The 70 million television viewers believed the tanned, relaxed Kennedy had beaten the pale, stubbled Nixon, in contrast to the radio listeners who thought the opposite. Nixon’s appearance directly affected public perceptions of his competence.

Moving forward to more recent US elections, opponents of 2004 Democrat presidential candidate, John Kerry, were accused of planting a story that Kerry used Botox to smooth his Lincoln-like brow. While no direct link was drawn between this cosmetic practice and Kerry’s competence, the subtle inference was nonetheless encouraged. The same tactic was employed against Queensland Premier Anna Bligh in 2008, which she quickly defused by admitting to the practice and then moving on.

And so, in politics, do clothes maketh the man?

Yes they do, even as far back as 1892 when the UK’s first Labour MP, Keir Hardie, took up his seat in Parliament wearing a tweed cap and a working man’s suit. His failure to wear a top hat prompted the magazine Vanity Fair to declare: “His headgear has endangered the foundations of parliamentary propriety, and provided innumerable paragraphs for the papers.”

We may move more quickly to judge female MPs, but this may be because their hair and clothes present such an array of style, colour and shape.

One writer mused that:

It is precisely because our interior selves are essentially inscrutable (most of us can’t unscramble the psychological coding of our spouses much less the machinations and motivations of public figures) that we depend so much on surface clues. The whole superficial shebang — from hairstyles (who can forget Hillary’s little-girl headband?) to accessories (remember the fuss about Cherie Blair’s pricey Tanner Krolle handbag?) — provides us with the contextual tools to read the Other, the person who is not us, be it the stranger across the room or the stranger angling for political office.

And so we are superficial by nature – judging books by their covers – and this is exploited by others. Political spin and campaigning techniques encourage us to accept a politician’s appearance as a measure of their competence.

A prime example is our twice-removed former PM. Despite Howard’s eyebrow trimming, teeth capping and spectacle refurbishment, and even the final banishment of the comb-over, we still remember him as Little Johnny. While Howard is in fact as tall as the average man he always looked short next to the towering Fraser. The diminutive term may have first been struck to match his appearance, but was later used to suggest smallness of spirit. It was the reinforcing visual image that made it stick.

Numerous other subtle but similar connections have been made between the appearance of politicians and their competence. Would Beazley or Hockey have been more successful if they had been slim and less disheveled? Would Tony Abbott have won more female votes this year if he had not paraded around in his sluggoes and licked his lips during interviews? Does Bob Katter seem even madder because of his hat? Yes. Probably.

Pollsters of any political persuasion will tell you I speak the truth. They know better than anyone how a punter’s vote can be won or lost based on the appearance of the candidate. War stories abound with focus group quotes including “I won’t vote for him, I don’t like his eyes” or “she’s a smart girl but she just needs a good blow-wave”.

So remember next time a politician is ridiculed for their hair or their personal style. Yes, it is superficial, but there is a deeper intent at play. Don’t be distracted or attracted by this sleight of hand – appearance does not equal competence, but it is up to common punters like you and me to prove it.

This post was also published at The Notion Factory.