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Dropping the penny

December 27, 2015 - 16:21 -- Admin

When Michael Gordon describes his Manus Island nightmare it is in one sense a nightmare for all of us, given that our laws and taxes create the position Gordon is describing. In another, Gordon is forced to confront - however unwittingly - a professional failure on his part, and of pretty much all Australian journalists who report on Australian politics.Since 1992, Australian government policies on detention of asylum-seekers has been increasingly cruel and wasteful. Since then the Prime Ministership has changed six times and the political party in government has changed three times; the policy has continued, becoming crueller and more expensive. The idea that such policies have a deterrent effect is palpably false, believed by nobody except politicians and journalists. Journalists cannot tell whether a policy is good or bad. They can tell who has announced it. They can tell whether or not both Labor and the Coalition support it. They cannot evaluate competing claims about its cost or efficacy or other qualities a policy may or may not have, merely describing them as noise toward the end of their articles (they may reinforce this with a pithy quote from a minister, named or unnamed, who describes this as "whinging").

There is a view that the situation on Manus, like that on Nauru, is unsustainable, and that eventually the penny will drop that the end does not justify the means, that punishing one group of people endlessly in order to deter others is immoral and that there is another way to achieve the same policy objective ... the images that trouble me are two sides of the same coin.

That view is not new and more widely held than someone in the Canberra bubble might dare admit. To be fair to Gordon, he's had a hell of a shock and has changed his mind about a big issue where it was easy just to go along. He was wrong to be so dismissive of the view he now holds just because it lacks "savvy".Michael Gordon has dedicated his career to avoiding the drop of that 'penny'. It is the coin with which he is paid, his very currency as one of this country's leading political journalists. He has helped devalue that coin, and can't let it drop without losing something of himself - something no PNG thug can ever take from him. The press gallery unanimously agrees Michael Gordon is one of their finest and most experienced journos. Impressionable younger hacks look up to him, and in some cases he shapes their careers.Political journalists have - and if you read back through his work, Gordon in particular has - a bias toward 'bipartisan' policies. Bipartisan policies are reported favourably by the press gallery. Policies which don't have the support of the opposition, where the government can only pass them through the Senate with the help of the Greens or Senators from other parties, are reported less favourably than bipartisan policies - regardless of their other merits.Journalists are more interested in how a policy will play (i.e., what politicians and journalists will think of it) rather than how it will work (i.e., long after journalists have moved on to something else, we will still be bound by regulations and spending decisions that may not even address the issue).Almost all bad policy is bipartisan:

  • The fact that the government spends more than it raises in taxes, and that it prefers to tax individuals over corporations;
  • The ongoing war in western Asia, which has neither success criteria nor an exit strategy;
  • Australia is committed to billions of dollars of expenditure on defence equipment that doesn't meet our needs;
  • The fact that we have reduced our civil liberties in the name of safety in the face of terrorism, yet we are no safer and less free while terrorists flourish;
  • The failure of our relations with Papua New Guinea and other states in the southwest Pacific;
  • The ducks-and-drakes over federal-state relations. Press gallery journalists like Gordon are fond of quoting one of Keating's less well-considered lines about Premiers and buckets of money, without realising their responsibilities to fund services from a low tax base; and
  • There are others. So, so many others.

Almost all of those policies have, if you go back through the archives of Gordon and his ilk counterparts, received strong support for the breadth and depth of their bipartisanness. Other considerations are marginalised; bipartisanship is all. Michael Gordon had a glimpse into the consequences of bipartisanship, and in short, he was afraid. He grizzled a bit about it in his second-last paragraph, but I suspect it will take a better journalist and a stronger person than he to admit his mistakes and change the basic assumptions of his professional life. He could well end up like Katharine Murphy: someone with random flashes of insight into the sheer extent of journalistic failure in Australian politics, but who can't recognise it as such and won't ever do a damn thing about it.Forty years after the events of 11 November 1975, and after the three main protagonists have died, Paul Kelly and Troy Bramston have concluded Kerr wasn't a very good choice for Governor-General. The reports at the time Kerr was appointed, however, led to the opposite conclusion and can be summarised as follows:

  • The son of a Balmain boilermaker, Kerr won pretty much every academic prize at the University of Sydney Law School;
  • Glittering career in the law, culminating in becoming Chief Justice of NSW; and
  • Whoa hey, so impressive

There was, of course, the undertow which journos would have known at the time: the vainglory, the alcohol, the pushy missus, his collegiate approach to the law (and thus his inability in a role requiring sole discretion, where counsel with legal peers like Barwick, Mason, or Ellicott was inappropriate), etc. In keeping with the mores of the time all that stuff was hushed up. There was no way journalists or editors could link what they saw as scuttlebutt with the way Kerr would execute his responsibilities in office. Kerr might have sued, and - worse! - the press gallery might have missed out on garden parties at Yarralumla.Kelly won't be changing the way Murdoch journalists cover politics. Gordon won't institute much change at Fairfax either. I don't know why either of them bother.Hunter S. Thompson used the death of Richard Nixon to underline the essential failure of press gallery journalism - not just in the US:

Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism -- which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place. He looked so good on paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen. He seemed so all-American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the cracks of Objective Journalism. You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.

Plenty of Australian politicians have similarly slithered into office, looking good on paper (remember how Tony Abbott was a Rhodes Scholar, of Jesuit education and social justice principles?). Paul Kelly and Michael Gordon and every other press gallery numbskull lauded all those unsuitable people into positions of power, and lauded one another at how savvy they were, without daring to show us what the consequences are of bad leadership (beyond, say, a blistering phone call from Peter Credlin).Pure gonzo isn't the answer to what afflicts press gallery journalism. Thompson's holy fool routine requires the reader to indulge the journalist even more than the assumptions under which the current press gallery operates. Gordon's mistake with his revelation above is that he can go back to covering politics in the same way he has always covered it.When the people are badly informed, it is the media's fault - especially when they coalesce around one side of a story. That's when you blame the media. They're not to blame for everything in our political system - but going after the press gallery for failing at their jobs isn't "shooting the messenger". We are right to insist on more and better from these people.