Here’s a note to all the news directors around the country: Do you want to save some money? Well then bring home your journalists following Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard, because they are not doing anything of any worth except having a round-the-country twitter and booze tour.It is a sad thing to say but we could lose 95 percent of the journalists following both leaders and the nation would be none the poorer for it. In fact we would probably be better off because it would leave the 5 percent who have some intelligence and are not there to run their own narrative a chance to ask some decent questions of the leaders. Some questions which might actually reveal who would be the better leader of this country.- Greg Jericho, 30 July 2010
If there was ever going to be a blog post that had the same lasting impact as the very best journalism, that post was it. Personal without oversharing, precisely targeted in its anger and overly generous toward the media, it shamed the better journalists. The then Managing Director of the ABC, Mark Scott, referenced Jericho's lament that he couldn't find out about disability policy from the media, and vowed to do better in reporting the news rather than second-guessing tactics. Nothing came of it. Take Gillard's name from the above quote and you could run it today. "Campaign trail" journalism is bullshit journalism through and through, thoroughly debunked by Tim Crouse in 1972 and never bettered, or redeemed. Yet still this waste of resources persists. When parliament is sitting and actual government is underway, the press gallery wishes it was on the campaign trail, and now that they are they realise they are boring themselves and actually shunning readers/ viewers/ listeners with the sheer vacuity, the exhaustion of everything they find thrilling and compelling about their "work".The abyss stares back at youAustralia's struggling television networks declined to show last night's "leaders' debate" between Turnbull and Shorten because they knew their standard fare was more compelling: cooking shows, the festering saga of media ethics failure that was 60 Minutes, etc. They were right: the show was not a "debate" because there was no actual engagement with ideas. It was a joint press conference. The press gallery began by asking Turnbull about "the real Malcolm", a concoction they made up and homogenised after quiet chats with Turnbull before he became Prime Minister, to which they cling in the conviction they could never have been gulled or scammed. We saw with Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott how the press gallery develop a picture of a leader which prevails long after they have fallen short of it, and we see the same again with "the real Malcolm".Surely it would be easier to report on what Turnbull says (and doesn't say) and does (and doesn't), and refer o that objective reality as "the real Malcolm". Instead, the press gallery persists with cod-psychology about "the real Malcolm" and how reality falls short of their cosy image, and how they can't cope when objective reality departs from their narrative.Press gallery journalists asked press gallery questions and got press gallery responses. Traditional media outlets fear that information is boring, but the one thing people want is tangible information. They think hype and bullshit engages people, when the fate of traditional media shows that it shuns them. The whole exercise is just a make-work scheme for media insider types, shunned by real people who vote and consume and pay taxes. I can remember journalists insisting that Kim Beazley "won" his debates with John Howard; they were pointless exercises even then. The "leaders' debates" are modelled on US presidential elections. Being President of the United States isn't like being Prime Minister of Australia. Prime Ministers succeed or fail on whether they get their policies through a parliament that is neither fully with them nor (unlike the current US Congress) fully against them. If you're going to have a Prime Ministerial debate, have a debate:
- Have a debate: instead of Turnbull and Shorten talking past one another, have them engage with the same ideas and even pursue them to resolution for a change. Test what is said against objective reality (e.g. a Prime Minister with a commitment to science would boost the CSIRO rather than cut it).
- People who will only ever have one shot at asking a question of the actual/potential Prime Minister ask better questions than those who question him every day. We see this with Community Cabinet meetings run by other governments, which have a far lower Bloody Stupid Question ratio than your average transcript of a doorstop/ press release/ other press gallery thing.
- A debate needs to involve the non-government parties. OK, so the Greens or Family First don't govern, but they do skew what government does and the nature of that skew is one of the great deficits of political coverage. The way that a major party leader relates to them is going to tell us a lot about how they are going to govern. Telling us about how we are governed is the point of the exercise: if you can make it genuinely entertaining, then that would be a great departure from decades of failure.
- Press conferences are boring. There is no reason to assume a joint press conference with added pomposity would be any less boring, or enlightening - no proof, no positive example to justify perpetuating this exhausted format. Make this "leaders' debate" the last. There is no point going on.
The election with no themePeople just want what people want. Different people want different things. It's possible for different people to see different things and want different things from the same event. We see this in elections: different people want different things from election campaigns, and politicians respond in different ways to those wants. It isn't true that an election campaign must have one overarching theme.Waleed Aly disagrees. He's a commentator and an academic: he wants the overarching theme so that anyone who departs from it must be wrong. If you don't give a damn about (say) negative gearing, or whether Donald Trump would be a terrible US president, then that's a departure from the official narrative: you must be wrong.What was the grand narrative of the 2013 election - that Everybody Hates Julia? What was it in 2010? What was the narrative of the 1993 election - a chocolate cake? Grand narratives aren't detectable at the time and they are even difficult in retrospect. Our politics is in transition. The support bases of our major parties have eroded (as Aly has examined in-depth elsewhere) and nothing has yet taken their places. It's silly to be impatient in wishing forward a time when that which is unsettled might become settled. It's silly to assume status-quo responses like "leaders' debates" might do in the meantime. It's effete to assume genuine concerns about job security or affordability must be "manufactured"; bogus scare campaigns fail if they're not tethered to reality, but they can't fail if they're not bogus (or not tethered to something real). Michael Lind writes well about his country's emerging political realignment; nobody on the press gallery today could do half as good a job on the similar forces at work on our own country's politics. Turnbull was never a transformative figure, and everyone who thought he was - everyone, regardless of their experience in politics - was wrong. Shorten isn't a transformative figure either. What definitely does have to transform is the way we cover politics, from the set-piece "debates" to the daily doorstop.Eye-wateringYou know who desperately needs to save money? Fairfax. You know which media organisation desperately needs to connect with its audience, rather than cast shade on them/us? Fairfax. Take this:
Malcolm Turnbull's media minders will plot a course through a supermarket right down to which aisle the Prime Minister will walk down. It rarely involves the fresh fruit and veg section.Such is the fear that raw onions can strike in an Australian political leader in 2016.The mastication of a single brown onion was one of the most bizarre moments of Tony Abbott's prime ministership, perhaps even less fathomable than the knighting of Prince Philip.So Brisbane's wholesale fresh food markets was not without its dangers for Turnbull on day one of the campaign, with its pallets of onions.
There is no evidence that Turnbull, or any other political leader, is afraid of onions. There is no evidence that they might be tempted to eat one. Why would journalists choose to juxtapose a non-Abbott politician against pictures of onions? It makes no sense, except as the perpetuation of some self-pleasuring exercise on the part of the press gallery. The press gallery had seen Tony Abbott up close for decades. They knew he was weird, but they pretended in 2010 and '13 that not only was he a regular guy but that he'd be a better Prime Minister than Rudd and Gillard put together. When he ate that onion, the gallery wrote it off as "Tony being Tony". Same with the knighting of Prince Philip. It was social media that pointed out how bizarre this was, and eventually even the press gallery fell into line. That realisation hasn't improved the quality of their reporting, though.Let's indulge risible terms like "fear" and "danger" in this context: the journalist won't and can't admit it, but the press gallery would rather gibber on about onions than discuss policies and other government actions that might affect us in our lives. That's a self-realising fear: even if you avoid the onions, journalists will talk about them at the exclusion of anything else. Why connect with your audience and offer something of value, when you can be snide about an event to which you were invited, and whose point you seem to have missed (yes, the Brisbane produce market is in a marginal electorate. Is that all? Anything else? What do you mean, you weren't taking notice?). Dumb, easily distracted journalists are the "danger" - dangerous to politicians, dangerous to those they represent, dangerous to those who have no information other than rubbish from dumb, easily distracted journalists. Let's not indulge journalists when they complain about the long campaign. The campaign never ends. When the parliament reconvenes and starts work, these same journalists will largely ignore what goes on in front of them and wish they were back on the bus, gaffe-hunting and giggling at memes.Then there's this:
Convergence is the new black with more essential agreement on border protection, taxation, superannuation, and even health, than at any time in living memory.Elections however require difference, real or claimed, so that's where all the attention will be. That, and personality.
Elections don't require anything of the sort. Elections require clear explanations of what each of the parties is likely to do, and not do. Sometimes it is sufficient to simply quote politicians, as most press gallery journalists do: sometimes it is not sufficient, as per this example. A journalist who can't tell the difference between "real" or "claimed" is not worth their salt. They are not worth your time or mine in reading them, and their employers should have the sense to reassess their ongoing value.At the last election - well within "living memory" - differences between the major parties in those areas were minor, but beaten up relentlessly by Kenny and other hype-merchants. Didn't do Fairfax any good. Didn't do the audience any good, in terms of telling us what our options were for government. There is no value in describing convergence or divergence, and even less in fatuous terminology like "the new black". Spare us all the cod-psychology from easily impressed journalists (or, in Shorten's case, those who wrote him off for so long and who are now trying to avoid failing to get on the good side of a Shorten Government). It shouldn't be my job to tell the Chief Political Correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald what his job is, but I've been doing it for years and the perceptions and analysis excreted by that poor silly bastard have not improved even slightly. He gives us a rundown of the clichés he is going to flog for the next two months, which should deter any sensible reader from bothering to consult him for the rest of this financial year. He can't even remember the last election. He has learned nothing. His perspective and experience add no value - not to readers, not to Fairfax, but seemingly only to this individual's salary and other perks.There are other examples, so many others. There will be plenty more because Fairfax is a stupid organisation led badly. You know who should know better than to dump this crap on us under the misapprehension it is informing and/or entertaining? Fairfax.Fairfax owns two media outlets, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, which are the only media outlets represented in the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery since its formation in 1901. You'd think they'd know a thing or two about this journalistic sub-discipline by now, but still they lace their copy with voter-repellent cliché and self-indulgence. Fairfax has sacked about two and a half thousand journalists since 2011. They have sacked journalists from regional areas and suburban papers, even though those places are where this election will be decided: not the Brisbane produce market, or wherever today's picfac is. They have sacked journalists with in-depth experience in policy areas who can do what almost nobody from the press gallery (5 percent of them at most) can do: explain complex policy in a straightforward and engaging way. Not a hype-ridden or clichéd way, but one that assumes the reader is as intelligent as the journalist, but who needs information rather than hype and bullshit. For Fairfax, this is the real tragedy: they have sacked the very journalists who might have added value for readers in this campaign, while retaining those who add no value and who ultimately have no future.Under the Abbott government, there were two examples where journalists held the government to account to the point where a minister's job was on the line. In neither case did the press gallery lead the story:
- Arthur Sinodinos was stood down from the ministry because of revelations from ICAC about his dual roles at Australian Water Holdings and the NSW Division of the Liberal Party. Press gallery followed this story, it did not lead it; terrible, clichéd reporting meant the press gallery initially couldn't believe Sinodinos could lose his job, and when he did the temptation to seen-it-all-before proved too great.
- It was Amy Corderoy, specialist Health reporter, who noticed that the government had pulled a website rating processed foods. She pursued the story to the point where it threatened the careers of then Assistant Health Minister, Fiona Nash. Press gallery followed this story, it did not lead it; terrible, clichéd reporting (combined with fobbing-off from Abbott's office) meant the press gallery initially couldn't believe Nash could lose her job. When her chief of staff resigned instead it opened questions about the role of staffers in ministerial accountability; unable to think about this, let alone write in an engaging way, the gallery squibbed the story. Corderoy wasn't even nominated for a Walkley, and has since left journalism.
There are 250 members of the press gallery. It doesn't take 250 people to all fall upon the same (non-)story and all report it from pretty much the same angle. Mass departures and a realignment of political reporting might be eye-watering for some, but hardly unexpected.The good newsThe good news is that political staffers are actively working to render the press gallery redundant. Politicians need a relationship with voters: the media offered to provide the conduit, but it has let both politicians and public down rather badly. When Abbott hired his own photographer, press gallery photographers were all put out: didn't make a difference, and thanks to modern mobile phones anyone can take a picture. Even a press gallery journalist can notice Turnbull's staff doing what journalists used to do, but of course they get the diagnosis wrong: they aren't imitating you, they are replacing you. It doesn't matter that journalists are acting all upset, they should have seen it coming:
- Did they really think the rolling transcontinental bludge that is campaign trail journalism would go on forever?
- Who can make the better value proposition for having people photograph and question the leader: the leader's own office, or a failing media organisation?
- If an editor can get content supplied to their office for free by politicians' offices and by social media users, why do they need to send one (or more, so many more) of their own expensive employees hither and yon?
- If you can't foresee developments in your own field of work, how are you going to explain tax policy or coral bleaching or schools funding?
Greg Jericho was right in 2010: we could lose 95 percent of political coverage without any loss in understanding how we are governed, and how we might be governed. He's right now, and he'll keep being right until budget pressures force news organisations to put policy at the centre of election coverage. Without policy, election coverage makes no sense.