There was movement at the station, for the word had passed around
That the colt from old Regret had got away,
And had joined the wild bush horses—he was worth a thousand pound,
So all the cracks had gathered to the fray.
Let’s start with something positive, to remind ourselves that a better world of political reporting is possible.
On Monday evening, the first Monday of the election, Laura Tingle took to the airwaves of the ABC’s 730 program and delivered a package that showed journalism can be about context across a full term of government and not just gotchas within the artificially constructed limitations of an election campaign grab.
She summarised the full range of national and international issues that inform and define the period we are about to enter, the matters that an incoming government and prime minister will need to respond to. She summarised, not some mythical image of a government that has been in power for nine years, but its actual track record and that of the man who has led it for the three years since the last election. She sketched the failings of Labor at the previous election and the challenges the party faces in winning support in the one due in six weeks.
British author and literary critic, Angela Carter, once wrote of Australian novelist, Christina Stead, in these terms: ‘To open a book, any book, by Christina Stead and read a few pages is to be at once aware that one is in the presence of greatness…To read Stead, now, is to be reminded of how little, recently, we have come to expect from fiction.’
Ditto Tingle and political reporting.
Not just how little we have come to expect, but how thoroughly most political reporting rewards our diminished expectations.
The HeraldSun almost immediately jumped into print, its passive voice constructions at the ready, and attacked the Tingle piece:
The ABC’s 7.30 program has come under fire for what has been described as a ‘shameless, savage and biased smear of the prime minister’ on Monday night.
In the firing line is the program’s chief political correspondent Laura Tingle who narrated an eight-minute video that called into question whether Scott Morrison is the right person to lead Australia.
This pearl-clutching is only worth mentioning in the context of noting what everyone knows, that the News Ltd stable of media exists almost exclusively to protect and defend the Liberal-National Party Coalition and to denigrate anyone who dares challenge that status quo. Increasingly their role is not to report and analyse but to use their dominance to define the terms of acceptable debate for the rest of the media who they inevitably draw into their distorted ambit.
Tingle raised their ire because she allowed Morrison’s failures to speak for themselves. How dare she.
Tingle’s contextualising and big-picture overview was very much the exception to way most media approached election coverage in this first week, and the inherent shallowness of the majority approach was painfully and embarrassingly illustrated by the way in which most outlets reacted to the failure by Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, to answer questions about the cash rate and the level of unemployment.
The gaffes, baby, the gaffes. Let’s talk about the gaffes. The gaffes, the gaffes, the gaffes!
Many journalists have been at pains to point out that the questions Albanese failed to answer were legitimate questions and that he should have such information at his fingertips.
To enter the argument on these terms, however, is to miss a bigger point.
Even if they were legitimate questions—and they most certainly were—and even if he should have had that knowledge at his fingertips—far less certain—the matter should not have become the full-week burning-man ritual the media turned it into.
We were treated to the most absurd hyperbole that was more revealing of the mindset of the media than it was of the failings of the leader of the Opposition.
This breathless wallowing speaks—shouts—to a desire, not to inform or analyse on behalf of an audience of citizens, but to perform to an audience of peers.
Beyond that, what is worth lingering on is what it says about the way in which too many journalists are still living within a pre-digitisation mindset, where their ontology is still bound to the logic of paper.
We often see this when journalists construct their arguments around outdated notions such as the mythology of a ‘front page’ or a morning-edition deadline, when, in fact digitisation has changed the very nature of those aspects of their profession.
We live in a period where the entire planet is wrapped in an electronic infrastructure that, for good or ill, stores and makes accessible vast reservoirs of information, and most of us know that we do not need to carry around in our heads information that is a click away via the phone in our pockets.
We further know that in such a world, it tells us precisely nothing about a leader’s fitness for office that he couldn’t recall a precise number in a given moment when everybody watching knows he could’ve Googled it as he stood there.
This point was tellingly made at the Press Club on Tuesday when Greens’ leader, Adam Bandt, dismissed yet another attempt by a journalist to catch a politician out on a question about some economic statistic when he literally told the reporter to ‘Google it, mate’.
Welcome to the twenty-first century.
It isn’t just that most media sought to install a random memory test as a symbol of Labor’s fitness to govern, it is that they are still working off a theory of knowledge that has been irrelevant since before most of them were born.
It speaks to the way in which media organisations have atrophied as places of intellectual inquiry and how a nostalgia for a past era still haunts their hallways.
And they wonder why they struggle to get people to buy their product, especially young people.
This hankering for tradition, the bottomless willingness of journalists to justify outdated practices with reference to an alleged glory age and to dismiss concerns of citizens suddenly exposed to their fusty ways, also appeared in the revelation that campaign-trail journalists attended a drinks session thrown by the Prime Minister.
Those who pointed out the obvious conflict of interest were deluged with journalists insisting that all this was not only normal but essential to the proper operation of their profession, that such informal get-togethers were the very lifeblood of journalism itself.
The presumptions in this sort of argument—and these tweets put it better than did most responses from journalists—need to be questioned, not restated as immutable laws, and journalists need to be open to the criticism.
And let’s be clear: the practice of reporters schmoozing with the reported, especially a political animal as transactional the Prime Minister, is deeply problematic, and that is no better illustrated than in the way in which the media themselves reported the informal get-together.
As it happened, some guy managed to infiltrate the gathering and record a little of what was happening and upload it to TikTok, and it made clear a number of things.
First, if this ordinary citizen had not decided to confront the PM, most people would never have known this drinks event had taken place. It would’ve remained one of those what-happens-in-Vegas-stays-in-Vegas things that help bond politicians and media as members of an exclusive political class.
Second, once it was revealed, the media framed what happened in a very misleading way. Channel 7 and Channel Nine both ran news stories about it but presented it entirely as a Labor activist invading a private event. Although the original footage clearly shows Morrison telling the guy it was a private drinks event that he was hosting for the media, the stories the two channels showed carefully edited that bit out, and the reporters referred merely to ‘a private event’.
Clearly, they didn’t want us to know the actual nature of the gathering, and that alone should give journalists reason enough to understand why audiences might be concerned.
But let’s try and focus, Tingle-like, on the broader context.
Increasingly, as the coverage of the election has unfolded, what has been revealed is a political media stuck in a mindset that is dangerously outdated, a relationship with their audience that is imperious and condescending, and a set of practices that are no longer fit for purpose.
The bus, the drinks and the gotchas are bad enough.
Other things are just farcical, like this sort of ‘analysis’ by a ‘senior writer’:
Or Leigh Sales questioning Adam Bandt’s policy to tax billionaires in these terms:
This isn’t a journalist holding a politician to account. It isn’t even a journalist trying to construct a discussion that might help inform an audience. It is a farcical approach that uncritically repeats far-right talking points calling into question the idea of, not just a given tax policy, but of the value of governments taxing at all. It is a deeply political framing, not some neutral, but-on-the-other-hand alternative.
All this is bad enough, but there nothing more damaging to media credibility than the passive-voice framing, and other devices, journalists use to mask their own role in the political process.
When journalists write, as they did all week, things like, ‘the opposition leader continued to be dogged’, or the ‘Gaffe continues to dog Albanese on day two’, or ‘the Leader of the Opposition is in dire need of a circuit breaker’, they are constructing a version of events in such a way as to remove their own role from the process they are describing.
The ‘gaffe’ isn’t an independent entity following Albanese around dogging him: what they are describing is an action they themselves are performing.
‘Dire need of a circuit breaker’ is another media concept that excuses journalists from the process of coverage they are part of creating. The ‘circuit’ that ‘needs to be broken’, in other words, is their own coverage.
Their language tries to suggest that they are merely reporting some independent event, when it in fact, the entire campaign does not exist independently of their reporting of it, and this is not just some esoteric academic point: it is fundamental to how they fulfil their role as a watchdog on power.
By passive-voicing themselves out of the process, they absolve themselves of responsibility for whatever happens, and for any criticism that comes their way. They absent themselves from the fray with an outdated and dubious notion of neutrality and get very cross if anyone points out the disconnect.
No wonder they so often see criticism as abuse.
The point is, by adopting this outdated approach to their work, they leave us all vulnerable to politicians who have a better handle on the changed nature of the media-politics nexus.
Part of the reason Morrison run rings around most journalists is because, unlike them, he is very much of his age, a walking-talking manufacturer of spectacle, impossible to interview in any meaningful sense because he has mastered a barrage technique unmoored from ethical concerns, which means any interview, from a presser to a sit down, is the political equivalent of white noise.
As Guy Rundle has it, ‘Morrison and the people around him are native postmodernists…They are at home in the simulation, the unplace, where for any sort of visual stunt the PM gains points simply for doing the stunt itself.’
No wonder, the only time Morrison has ever really been shaken is when confronted by a non-journalist in a pub who wouldn’t—couldn’t—play the game.
It’s going to be a long six weeks, and an even longer three years after that, whoever wins.
The media run around drinking the PM’s unproblematic drinks, believing there is still such a thing as a front page, pretending that Googling makes you a lesser leader, and running a constant battle on Twitter against their most engaged audience, the people most willing to pay for a journalism that would serve their needs.
Meanwhile, the PM himself is completely undogged by questions of payments to former staffers, the failure to create a federal ICAC, the vaccine strollout—which remains the greatest public policy failure in recent Australian history—the failure to help people still trying to recover from flood and fire, and the failure to even to attempt to mitigate climate change.
But what the hell, drinks at seven.
Tim Dunlop is a writer based in Melbourne. His regular newsletter is available here.