Oz Blog News Commentary

Out with the bathwater 2: a change of focus

February 11, 2018 - 23:55 -- Admin

After writing the post below I had a good laugh at Katharine Murphy's effort and was reinforced in my respect for Asher Wolf when she posted this Twitter thread, with a fraction of the resources available to Murphy and the press gallery. I watched James Massola, of all people, condemn the idea of journalists running unverified rumours - and then moments later, another story under his byline consisting entirely of unverified rumours, which has pretty much been his entire "career" so far.I may be getting soft in my old age, but after all that I re-read the Murphy piece. I felt some sympathy for this position:

So I don’t want to be the Canberra sex correspondent.

Non-press-gallery journalists Woodward and Bernstein probably didn't want to cover each and every burglary in early 1970s Washington - and if we look at their career, they didn't. Non-press-gallery journalist Andrew McGarry covered a court case in Adelaide and ended up writing the definitive book on the Snowtown murders. Sometimes in journalism, the story chooses you. Murphy took a strategic decision not to pursue a story that is having far-reaching implications that go to policy decisions, and the very political structure of the government - a story worthy of any self-respecting political journalist, let alone a Political Editor. Regardless of how she feels, she will have to play catch-up on this story. But because the story started in a place that was (to use Jacqueline Maley's technical term) icky, Murphy chose not to lead the story while rising above the ick. A nurse who faints at the sight of blood or shit, or people who rail against the wickedness of John Barleycorn while somehow working in a licensed establishment, are not just fools or hypocrites. They are people with no future in those jobs. So it is with a journalist who stumbles upon a real story and, when it blows up in their face, disdains it:

I’d rather think about energy policy, or whether any of us will ever get a wage rise, or whether our hospitals will be properly funded, not because I’m a buttoned up puritan, but because that’s why I think I’m here: to keep close eyes on those things for readers.

Those stories are better covered by journalists who really understand those areas and can convey ideas being given visitors' passes to the parliamentary press gallery. If journalism is to survive, those journalists (often freelancers, or writing for niche outlets with little hope of employment in the sort of media outlet represented in the press gallery) must be given more assignments. Those assignments must come at the expense of perpetuating the palpably disappointing fantasy that a press gallery journalist can turn their hand to any subject. All of the worst stories written about these and other important issues are written by press gallery journalists whose hearts are not really in this subject matter, whose minds are simply not on the job, and who still cannot shake the herd instinct of the One Big Story that might be happening wherever they're not, and to which they contribute little if anything and thereby diminish the very idea of news.All of the worst takes about Joyce-Campion start and end with the label sex scandal. Like most journo cliches, it's alliterative and the very name almost tells you how to write the story - slap and tickle, the distant missus keeping the home fires burning, the nu-media temptress, long lonely nights and the aphrodisiac of power - but the story has moved way beyond sex scandal, and as a result catch-up journos are going to have to dig for the story rather than have it ladled out in press releases. See for example Asher Wolf's Twitter thread above for prima facie questions arising from Joyce's post-marital accommodation, his landlord's other business interests, and how these appear to overlap with Joyce's portfolio responsibilities. Journalists who sniff about Twitter will be out of a job if they keep being shown up like this.On 9 October 2012 Prime Minister Julia Gillard delivered her speech against misogyny. In the days that followed, press gallery journalists wrote increasingly silly pieces about why the speech did not matter, or how you got it wrong because you weren't here in the gallery with us. Nobody remembers those pieces, even though sadly many of the journalists who wrote them are still employed and unrepentant. I suspect the pieces by Murphy, Maley, and Overington will go the way of those earlier journosplain pieces - they are covering their inadequacies while overlooking more substantial and enduring issues, too much of which negates any value proposition journalism may have.But seriously though, what would I do if I were a press gallery journalist right now, thoroughly discredited and playing catch-up? Would I be shrieking about constrained resources (as though journalists were the only people with this problem? Isn't the whole idea of traditional media to pitch news at people too time-poor to dig for it themselves)? Would I be yammering about Facegoogle or whatever? No, I would be lapsing into old-school journo solutions:

  1. I would take a sheet of paper (well, start with one) and divide it into two columns.
  2. In one column I would write down every Open Secret, every gobbet of scuttlebutt and innuendo and rumour that had reached my shell-like ears, no matter how icky.
  3. I would cross out those matters that have already been done by traditional media. I would also cross out the ones that I could prove were false (e.g. X and Y weren't even in the same country on the 29th, let alone the same bed, and here are the travel documents).
  4. Against each one, in the other column I would list the public policy implications: was public expenditure involved? Did the government choose Surprise Policy Outcome B over Expected Policy Outcome A, and could that be traced back to this?

Starting with observable outcomes, you can then work out motivations, and reverse-engineer timelines and paper trails from there. Stained sheets and video of bags of cash being exchanged come later, or can be left to others once the substantive issues are dealt with. This is proper journalism, and the press gallery are better placed to do it than anybody else. Start tomorrow after the post-lunch lacuna sets in, and continue until quarter to five when those pesky press secretaries surprise you (as they do every other day) by releasing information they would prefer was buried. Repeat until it all comes out. This beats the hell out of disdaining the icky, and failing to imagine how something so prurient can only ever be so regardless of what else comes to light. It is the sort of thing proper journalists outside the press gallery do each day. You know what I really think of press gallery journalism? I think it would be a great idea, and it is not discredited for being tried so rarely.