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How the press gallery killed Fairfax

August 2, 2018 - 00:47 -- Admin

The press gallery killed Fairfax and it will kill other traditional media organisations too. Traditional media organisations and major political parties will have to change the way they work in order to change the way politics and policy are covered, because neither will or can survive if you're content to let the press gallery keep on being the press gallery.New readers might find the above alarmist and sensational. Regular readers will recognise it as a consistent theme of this blog. I am not trying to pour the old wine of press gallery inadequacy into the new bottles of the Fairfax takeover, and the recent coverage of federal politics and policy (well, I am, kind of, but if you read on the results more strongly support that than the idea that press gallery are just regular journos doing their best in a fast-moving world).A reduction in diversityIn recent years there has been a trend away from diversity as a priority for media. This wasn't a result of last year's legislative changes; parliament mostly follows rather than leads public debate (and this pretty much discredits the "theatre critic" model of political coverage, but I digress). The press gallery has led this with its governing principle that there can only ever be one story, and one narrative for reporting that story. John Howard couldn't be beaten, until the day he couldn't win. Kim Beazley was tomorrow's man, until he was yesterday's man. Barnaby Joyce was a top bloke, until he was a cad and an incompetent minister. They even boast about the conditions that create the samey-sameness of political coverage, and the inability to snap out of it; a magic land of sharing and caring, where what they think of as competition is the narcissism of minor differences. (c) Hanna-Barbera"Great yarn, mate! Top yarn!"Press gallery output leads news bulletins, websites, and newspaper front pages. It mostly presents politicians' quotes without the context that might make their proposals work, or otherwise meaningful. It does not challenge their assertions, and represents any and all disagreement as "argy-bargy". When the Walkley Awards for Australian journalism were inaugurated, there was no special category for he press gallery. Press gallery rely heavily on press releases for their stories; breaking stories about politics or policy issues, with in-depth investigation from original sources, tends to come from outside the gallery. Photographers and camera operators are more likely to hold their own in industry-nominated awards than press gallery are with proper other journalists. As a result, press gallery journalists really lifted their game lobbied for a special category only open to press gallery journalists. While there have been reductions in press gallery numbers, they have been fewer and proportionally less than in the newsrooms. Press gallery tend to get paid better than other journalists. Now consider that these reductions have been compensated by new entrants to the press gallery, who have mostly hired press gallery veterans anyway, and the privilege of the press gallery is clear to all not within its walls. When journalists back in the newsrooms are downsized, Canberra press gallery send their thoughts and prayers in much the same way that Washington's NRA-funded legislators do with US mass shooting victims. To get to the journalism practiced by Australia's traditional media, you have to push past press gallery output. Those who investigated dodgy financial advice practices made a real difference, and won awards too, but strangely they forgot to interview Senator Cormann who lobbied so hard for the legislative changes (among the first legislation passed by the Abbott government) that made those practices lawful. Those who investigated institutionalised child abuse and covering-up didn't bother chewing the cud of poll results. Newsroom journalists cop jeers from their peers and sneers from Media Watch for writing up product-launch press releases as news, while press gallery get away with it every day. Journalists who complained about government proposals to restrict information from government about its activities were not those who witnessed the legislation being debated and who rubbed, ah, shoulders with the perpetrators. If traditional media outlets really believed that excellent journalism is what makes their outfit great, they would lead with it. If an editor pulling together the daily rushes finds that the single best gobbet of journalism before them is a piece about a football match, or the shoes that an actress wore to an awards ceremony, then that should go on the front page/top of the bulletin. The obscurity of inside pages should be the place for hackery: the accident blocking the busy road, the treasurer who declares opposition policy to be economically disastrous, etc. They don't do that because they don't believe in journalism, not really. There's a formula and bad press gallery coverage is baked in. It's not news that the prime minister is criticised, but journalists can't tell whether or not the criticism is valid. They say that they'll let the reader/viewer decide, but the readers/viewers have increasingly turned off and I've decided press gallery is killing journalism.When you talk about journalistic excellence at Fairfax, I talk about Kate McClymont, Schneiders/ McKenzie/ Baker, Michael Bachelard and Jewel Topsfield from Jakarta, Adele Ferguson or Neil Chenoweth or Michael West from the business pages, Caroline Wilson and Jacqueline Magnay from sport, and perishingly few others. None of those people are/were press gallery. Their press gallery contingent isn't worth their own weight in press releases. Whether it's the blowhard Peter Hartcher, the Owned Boys Phil Coorey, Mark Kenny or (admit it) Michael Gordon, or the prim process-over-outcome focus of Michelle Grattan, it's time to admit that Fairfax didn't put their best into the press gallery, and that the nongs they did put there have done the business no favours. For all the fretting about Nine diminishing Fairfax journalism, the fact is Lane Calcutt's just-the-facts approach runs rings around the entire Fairfax contingent. When press gallery veteran Greg Hywood was appointed Fairfax CEO in 2011 his appointment was universally praised within the media: hooray, a real journalist, they cried as one, when his greatest investigative skill was getting on the dripfeed from Keating's office. Hiding their journalistic light under the bushel of press gallery output was one of Fairfax's biggest mistakes. NewsCorp do the same thing, with inane press gallery compounded by a further layer of cold grey drizzle of culture warriors that ward off all but the most intrepid seekers after journalism who might venture there. They will face a similar reckoning once the old man dies. The choices we makeThe press gallery, through its easily gamed One Story One Narrative policy, decided in Fairfax's final week that there would be two stories:

  • the byelections of 28 July, of which Our Malcolm would win at least one because #balance, and
  • Emma Husar

Taking the second first: I've worked for some crap bosses and I'm glad I never worked for Emma Husar. That said, in the great annals of graft and bludging in Australian politics, Husar's dog-walking and child-minding simply do not rate. And the more experience you have observing politics, the less excuse you have for slavering over every twist-and-turn in this non-story, the less credibility you have when you claim you'd love to do Serious Journalism, oh my goodness did you see what Emma Husar just did ...? Press gallery who disdained going after Barnaby Joyce (and who still regard his story as a sex scandal rather than rorting or policy incompetence) are hogwild for all things Husar.Emma Husar's domestic incompetence recalls Queensland Labor MP Leanne Donaldson. Another unmarried mother who became a Labor MP, Donaldson hit the headlines for antics like driving a car while unregistered and not paying council rates. Anastacia Palaszczuk sacked her from the ministry and at the last state election, Donaldson lost her seat. Donaldson has spoken of her struggle with depression, and Husar may yet do likewise; but while two anecdotes do not form a pattern, it might be worth investigating whether political parties could do more to support women in politics, and that such support might be the necessary price for all that easy talk about attracting more women to public office.In the Coalition, unmarried women are all but excluded by dint of sexism. What those parties lose in crushing the aspirations of capable young women and appealing to a broader constituency, they save themselves the embarrassment of a Husar or a Donaldson. Those women who break that rule (e.g. Marise Payne, Gladys Berejiklian, Julie Bishop) spent decades studying the factional tectonics of the party and leveraged it with overwhelming support, overriding any objections about their domestic circumstances. Bronwyn Bishop only ran for preselection after her children were adults and her marriage ended: her far-right constituency would never have backed her if her husband and children were an issue, or had she never married at all. The key is to attract candidates who aren't fixtures of the party landscape and to give them an inkling that they just might have a chance, but that key turns no lock in the Coalition. They'll endorse a man at face value but won't consider a woman they don't know intimately.Husar isn't a member of the government. In two of the four byelections on 28 July (the two seats where the main competition came from strong Liberal candidates), the Labor candidates were women. The clear implication of the Murdoch jihad against Husar is that those candidates are just like her: a vote for the Labor woman is a vote for Gillard/Jordan Peterson chaos. As it happens, those two women are headed back to Canberra, and it is entirely possible that Husar won't. She might become another victim of a brutal system, she might lash out at her entire party and the journalists. She hasn't entered Lindy Chamberlain territory for weird and prurient media coverage, but you can see it from here. Protesting too muchPaul Keating called Nine a lowbrow outfit. While it's hard to disagree, and hard not to welcome back an original voice into the mealy-mouthed dialogue of today, he protests too much.When Keating was at the top of Australian politics, Nine's Sunday program was consistently excellent journalism, of a standard unknown in Australia's traditional media today. Its investigative pieces with Ross Coulthart gave Four Corners a run for its money. While Keating had the measure of most in the press gallery at the time, if anyone was going to knock him off his game it would be Laurie Oakes. In 1993, when Kerry Packer realised what Hewson's GST proposal would do to his profit margins, he sooled Nine onto the Liberals and helped Keating to his only victory as Labor leader. Keating is the second-last Labor leader (excepting the brief summer of Rudd in 2007-8) to get anything like a fair run in the Murdoch press. Murdoch's voice was consistent throughout his organisation but that voice did not set the news agenda like it does today, thanks to Keating allowing Murdoch to take over the Herald and Weekly Times in 1987. NewsCorp definitely is a lowbrow outfit, proudly so, and don't get me started on 10 or 7 (though again, Mark Riley > the entire Fairfax press gallery contingent). Keating was wrong to play up the mote in Nine's eye to the extent that he did. That said, Nine will quash the delicate flower of Fairfax journalism through dumbness ("what do you need that for?") rather than spite.How late it was, how lateBoth The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age were founding members of the press gallery. Before it existed, both papers led debates about whether a federal parliament should even exist, and in what form; but all parliamentary buildings in this country were built with a press gallery pre-installed, including all three that housed the federal parliament. Press gallery do not have to forage for stories like real journalists do; how this must gall sacked journalists who have to forage for an income once the traditional media paycheque is, despite their best efforts, yanked away.

Here’s a point I’m absolutely willing to concede. We spend too much time with theatre criticism … and not enough time burrowing down into the issues on which voters make their choices.- Katharine Murphy, Political Editor, Guardian Australia on ABC Insiders 29 July 2018

Murphy did not arrive at that concession by herself. On this blog and in my Twitter feed, I and many, many others hammered Murphy for years until all her other options fell away. Murphy does not operate from any sort of elevated place from which addressing actual policy issues might be considered a descent. Her recent work on electricity has been impressive, and the constraints on journalist numbers is worth mentioning, but it's still too much to expect this Fairfax veteran of the press gallery to become a full journalist. Press gallery play at journalism from time to time - now it's electricity, now foreign policy, now school funding - but soon enough it slumps back into the One Story One Narrative of polls and intrigues, real and imagined. Apart from the equally hopeless Barrie Cassidy, nobody else in the press gallery is even awake to the sheer enormity of the problem they have caused their fellow journalists. I laughed when Tony Wright threatened to cover the coming election with the same dreary template the traditional media applies to all election coverage: more readers looking for answers and finding only cliches, more media executives wondering why punters aren't lapping up the argy-bargy and bleating about disenchantment. The joke's on you, fella. We can't vote you out, and the choices we make at elections are not foretold by polls, but by layers of yarns and narratives from the press gallery. We are badly informed about politics and policy, and a people in that predicament can never be well governed. Press gallery overestimate their own cleverness by dumbing down debate to a level that makes them comfortable. They see journalists depart from the home offices and never accept their own role in creating a media environment that makes acts of journalism more random, and as far as possible from wherever they are. You'll note that among the journalist positions whittled away were the actual arts critics - theatre, film, and music critics, book critics - and yet press gallery cannot be dissuaded or deterred from covering parliament like Australia's best subsidised and lamest theatre complex. Bad political journalism makes the country governed badly and kills good jobs in journalism. Despite all the evidence, I'm still not convinced that bad political journalism is the only coverage of policy and public affairs possible - but I've been wrong before.