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