We’re just two lost souls
Swimming in a fishbowl
Year after year
Running over the same old ground
What have we found?
The same old fears
Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here
The mainstream media’s coverage of the 2022 Federal election has been a disgrace to the profession of journalism and a stain on our democracy.
From the opening day freakout about Albanese’s ‘gaffe’, to the Thursday-morning tantrum six weeks later when the Opposition leader suggested the media pack could go listen to Jim Chalmers talk about budget costings rather than follow him to Queensland, the media have behaved with all the grace and subtlety of rival gangs of goombahs arriving at a new pizza place to discuss security arrangements.
Not all journalists, I hasten to add. But fuck, a lot of them.
The entire methodology of how elections are covered is broken, and most of those entrusted with reporting on this most important event in the cycle of democracy are either not up to the task or are so constrained by riding orders from head office that the entire process has turned into a farce.
That last point is key, I think, that whatever abilities and knowledge individual journalists may bring to the task at hand, editors with agendas are demanding that certain matters and approaches be foregrounded, and they are emphasising confrontation over nuance, fluff over substance.
How else to explain the SMH trying pass off this gentle puff of wind into the prime minister’s sails, written by the paper’s ‘national affairs editor’, as ‘analysis’?
If Jenny Morrison could meet 50.1 per cent of voters, Scott Morrison would be prime minister for life.
Consider the chain of failure, from conception to editing to publication, needed to allow that sentence to exist.
Nine have had a particularly bad election, with the SMH leaning into—as many trans people have noted—the Katherine Deves story with an emphasis that has been less than helpful to trans people themselves and that has bolstered an obvious tactic of distraction and dog-whistling orchestrated by the prime minister and his office.
The Age ran an ‘editor’s pick’ story prominently on their website that had Josh Frydenberg shaking hands with Peter Costello, the story airily waving away the obvious conflict of interest of having the media organisation’s Chair—himself a former deputy leader of the Liberal Party and Treasurer—photographed and endorsing the current Liberal Deputy leader and Treasurer, as nothing more than a coincidence.
We speak a lot about the media holding their audience in contempt, and this is the sort of thing we mean.
Nine’s biggest failure, though, was the so-called leaders’ ‘debate’ which, in the absence of any real attempt to stick to a format or maintain any balance, descended into a shouting match.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, one of the debate participants, Nine’s Political Editor, Chris Uhlmann, spent the next few days, and thousands of words, pompously telling everyone that the debate was in fact great, an ornament to public interest journalism, and who are you going believe, him or your lying eyes?
The whole thing became an exercise in telling the audience to suck eggs, with the editor of the SMH mocking ‘Twitter’ (you know, a section of his audience) and suggesting we all just take the word of yet another one of his employees.
Some journalists have sought to defend the unedifying performance of the daily press conferences on the grounds that the politicians have been light-on with policy, thus ‘forcing’ journalists into trivia and gotchas.
Malcolm Farr, in what was a reasonable piece, noted that ‘the heavily structured yet lightweight Morrison and Albanese campaigns [relied] on selling an image rather than detailed policy,’ and it is a reasonable point.
The whole notion that after three years of government—in fact, the LNP has been in power for nine years—the process of an election can be reduced to a highly confected and tightly managed 4–6-week performance piece—a campaign—is in and of itself damaging to the notion of democratic accountability.
But the argument Farr and others makes misses the bigger point.
The fact that so much politics is fatuous doesn’t mitigate the media’s failures. It underlines the problem.
Saying, we are bad because they are bad doesn’t solve the problem, it doubles it.
What we have is a toxic, co-dependent relationship, with each party—journalists and politicians—relying on each other for mutual support. The whole culture of ‘drops’ and strategic leaks, with the concomitant creation of hierarchies, where politicians have their favoured journalists who they can rely on to present information in a way that favours them, is a cancer on our democracy and fatal to the very notion of journalism as a fourth estate, as a check on power.
This co-dependency and symbiosis are key reasons reform is so difficult: the system actually works quite well for the droppers and droppees, for the media and the politicians.
It is the poor, mug citizen who is left short changed.
There are obvious improvements that could be made to the whole process, and in a worthwhile thread, journalist Ben Eltham makes suggestions ranging from abandoning the very idea of a bus full of journalists following politicians around on the campaign trail, to making sure that journalists with policy knowledge are the ones asking the policy questions.
It’s not the first time someone has made such a list—Margo Kingston has been arguing to abandon the campaign bus since the Hanson campaigns of the late 1990s—and the fact that we are still having the discussion shows just how resistant to change the industry is.
Like the old joke, the lightbulb must want to change, and normally I would say that there is little evidence of that desire to change amongst the media pack, but is that a glimmer of hope I see before me?
Things have got so bad that some experienced and big-name journalists are breaking the code of silence that usually surrounds these discussions and joining the chorus of audience members who are demanding change.
Journalist Rachel Withers has gathered some of their comments together in a Twitter thread, and it is encouraging to see Laura Tingle, Virginia Trioli, Nick Bryant and others go on record with their concerns.
Then again, you have that other doyen of the profession, Michelle Grattan, in the most condescending way possible, doing the worst possible version of ‘they are all as bad as each other’, voters aren’t really ‘engaged’, and, ‘on the one hand this/on the other hand that’ sort of take that really should not be allowed to run in an outlet like The Conversation that (with some justification) styles itself as ‘trusted and thoughtful’.
Instead of analysing what the parties are doing, Grattan dismisses the matter of pork-barrelling, for instance, with the highly contentious conclusion that ‘Spending promises, to bribe marginal seats, have been thrown around like confetti by both sides.’
This is just lazy, and we-the-audience deserve better.
This sort of approach—and it pervades the way many in the media have covered the election—is a particularly profound betrayal now because, against all odds, Australian democracy is in the midst of a renaissance.
The emergence since 2013 of the Voices-of candidates in electorates all around the country, culminating in the unprecedented rise of the ‘teal’ candidates in this election, speaks to a nation taking seriously the need for democratic renewal.
These independents have generated huge support from almost nothing by engaging in the sort of grassroots campaigning that is the heart and soul of democracy, and they, and we-the-people, deserve better than a media that continues to wallow in the sort of cynicism and once-over-easy approach that pervades so much election reporting.
Journalists love to say that voters are disengaged from the political process, but who is really disengaged here?
The digitisation of news has changed the way news in general, and politics in particular, is reported, and the old static model of appointment television and deadline-sensitive front pages is still being imposed on a media environment that is much more fluid.
As BBC reporter, Ross Atkins, argued recently:
News is not a given in people’s lives. It can’t be assumed people will seek to learn about our world via journalism. It can’t be assumed people understand and value the way that journalism work or why we think that gives the information we produce has value. It can’t be assumed that the way we tell stories is the way people want to hear them. Our place in people’s lives is not a guarantee.
And so, when I look at the need to innovate, to reimagine, to restructure what we do—it’s not because change is fun and creative and exciting… For me this is a necessity.
If you believe in the importance of journalism to our society—and to the world—then actively engaging in what we need to become isn’t optional. This isn’t some distant moment.
All this is true, and the technical reform and changes to storytelling that Atkins talks about are all important to consider.
But the bottom line is that media have lost our trust and the only way they will get it back is with a display of sincerity and humility that will take years to develop.
Given the corrupting influence of certain large media organisations, their owners and managers, on our media landscape, I’m not holding my breath, but as we go into this extraordinary election, let’s accentuate the positive.
The entire legacy media could do worse than learn from the Voices of movement and reinvigorate itself in the same way, by going back to basics, by talking to people where they live, by talking to them as equals and not as the lucky recipients of wisdom dispensed from on high, by sitting down with people at their kitchen tables and making some attempt to understand what sort of journalism would help them.
More than ever, we need a Voices of Journalism movement, led by journalists themselves—maybe the ones who have already spoken out—but involving audiences as much as they possibly can.
Change is possible, but you must want to change.
Tim Dunlop is a writer based in Melbourne. His regular newsletter is available here.