My first federal election campaign was in 1996. I’d been a journalist for two whole weeks when Paul Keating called the election he would lose to John Howard. I was entirely clueless. No responsible editor could put me on the bus where reporters are positioned to cover the leaders—at least not in those days, because in those days only senior people went out on the campaign trail. My bureau chief, a benevolent soul, hid me in plain sight, deploying me to Tasmania on a contained field trip to interview Bob Brown, who was running for the Senate. Not even the new kid could screw up that assignment, but I managed to, somehow. A colleague had to help me beat the piece into shape to get it published. It was a less than auspicious start but fundamentally I’m implacable and relentless, and was fixated on the notion that political journalism was my vocation. I vowed there would be more campaigns, and I would learn from every single one of them.
Election campaigns are signposts in my life. By 1998 I was off the training wheels and deployed on the campaign bus. I could be let out in public on the main story and not bring shame on my masthead. But my body was in revolt. While John Howard almost lost that poll trying to sell the GST, I doubled over during campaign stops, vomiting profusely, swelling with my first child.
By 2001 I was back on the bus, and the plane, hurtling around the country. In those days leaders still travelled on the plane with reporters. I can still hear Kim Beazley’s booming laugh as he roamed down the back, genial in the face of what loomed as inevitable defeat. I can also remember the prickle of flesh sitting in Sydney, watching John Howard declare with a pugnacious jut of the jaw that he would decide who comes here and the circumstances in which they come. The applause for Philip Ruddock, culture war hero, threatened to raise the roof.
By 2004 I was on staff at the Australian and new enough there to spend the campaign quartered back in the Canberra bureau rather than on the bus. I was depressed about this until I discovered the benefits: you could break stories if you weren’t locked up with the leaders. You weren’t hostage to someone else’s cadence. The distancing could be productive. Then there was 2007, and I was at the Age, back out on the road, mainly with John Howard, who was in the process of being run down by Kevin Rudd. I discovered what a campaign looks like when almost everything goes wrong. Howard had been the constant of my political reporting life, a fixed point tethering my protean professional form. But he shrank before us as Ruddmentum gathered pace, a slow deflation, then a vanishing: lost seat, lost era, quite the reckoning.
After that there were the two campaigns I think of as the Abbott campaigns—2010 when Tony Abbott began to believe he could win and almost did, only to be outflanked by Julia Gillard. Rudd had taught Gillard during that campaign the merit of remaining several steps ahead of your mortal enemy, and while she couldn’t outrun Kevin, in 2010 at least, she could outbox Tony. Then 2013, the campaign Abbott did manage to win. That campaign I was back at my desk, working around the clock trying to help launch Guardian Australia on the national scene. That plucky insurgency was carried out from a shared desk at the back of the Network Ten studio in the parliamentary press gallery.
In the 2016 campaign I will also be at my desk. The journalism I now practise during the peak political season requires me to be an air traffic controller—raw material comes to me around the clock and I bring it to readers as it happens on a rolling live blog for Guardian Australia. I’ve been a live blogger in the Australian political scene for four years now, so my routines and rituals are well honed. I rise before dawn, and plug into the online universe. I have ABC News Radio streaming before I’ve managed to get into the bathroom for a shower. When I’m out I’m checking headlines. While I’m getting dressed I have the bones of my opening post running through my head. I’m in the office in time for early AM, and I launch within the hour, providing rolling coverage for as long as the story that day requires me to be live.
I report, I analyse, I fact check, I manage incoming contributions from colleagues, I wrangle visuals from my wonderful partner in live blog crimes, Mike Bowers. Politics Live launches as blank space, and swells throughout the day to thousands of words, a creature coaxed and nurtured into being through a single news cycle. The activity is like a pulse. It quickens in times of stress and reverts to resting when the tempo is more moderate.
In addition to the reporting, analysing and curating, I also interact with readers throughout the day, answering questions, pointing them in the direction of primary source material, breathing through the trolling and the hate reading—this too shall pass—and laughing at the jokes and trinkets generous people send, hands outstretched through the digisphere. In the old days people delivered a casserole or a bunch of flowers to a worthy person, these days, my readers send gifs.
In Politics Live mode I sit at my desk largely in silence, concentrating intently in order to retain the thread of the story I’m telling. Every journalist who works in the live sphere approaches their task in their own way, but I think a live blog has to cohere. Everything needs to connect to everything else. Segues matter. Transitions matter. Regular summaries matter, given that people tune in and drop out at different times of the day. If you drop a stitch on a live blog pretty soon you are unravelling, just drifts and lumps of slack yarn—no ballast.
It looks a solitary business, almost monastic. In high school we were sent on retreat and told to find God in the enforced silence. That silence, punctuated by ripples of suppressed giggles, felt empty and devoid of purpose in adolescence, but I’m now grateful for the mental conditioning. Now I pare back to silence as a conditioning process, a meditation, for a day of close concentration.
I have to contain the extraneous noise and localised distractions, not because I’m ill-tempered or introverted, but because once I’m safely cocooned in that enforced silence, I enter a highly saturated space. My enforced live blog silence is the noisiest and most contested place I’ve ever inhabited because the blog internalises all the clamour and combat of daily politics. The political universe roils. Fragments of information compete for my attention. Backroom folks want to massage the daily political story in various directions. They loom in my inbox, sprinkling their trinkets. Readers, meanwhile, clamour for clarity.
To record the kaleidoscopic shifts each day, the small but significant drifts of colour that change the character of the image, I have to exist in a permanent present. I have to succumb to now, and not only succumb, find joy in microscopic movement, without losing sight of the broader contextual task—which is not now, but the sum of yesterday, and the day before, all those election campaigns, all those past moments, the diurnal patterns and the seasonal repetitions of politics. I fashion a ‘now’ state and the ‘forever’ state, transiting purposefully between the fragment and the whole.
Arrayed before me every day are the grand operatic gestures of politics, genuine moments of risk, pathos, human drama and courage. Then there is overstatement, hubris, vacuousness, dissembling—and, increasingly, narcissism, a noxious display of personal entitlement that is increasingly alienating members of the communities politicians are supposed to serve. Rather than stoically absorbing the sum of their inevitable slights and disappointments, allowing setbacks to forge stronger and more settled identities, personalities hewn by wind and weather and exposure, they now seem prone to venting like children, slaves to their impulses, exemplars of instant gratification.
A live blog has to record the daily theatrics and also push past them to divine meaning. It needs to call out and cut through, which is harder than it sounds, because judgements are instant. In the glory days of print, faking omniscience was easier. Hours passed between an event and touching a keyboard, sometimes days. Today we speak now, or forever hold our peace. I’ve learned that sometimes instinct in the moment serves me better than considered reflection, but not always.
If I boil all this down to the sum of human experience, to my moment in time, my live blog is a minute-by-minute confrontation with my own journalistic limits: physical limits, intellectual limits, the limits of patience and benevolence and wisdom, the practical limits of multi-tasking—followed by the pure adrenaline rush of pushing past those limits successfully into open space. Daily I dare myself to perform another act of pure insanity and not fall on my face in front of a large and loyal audience gathered to consume the show.
Politics Live forces me to ask the same question of myself every day. Do I have the courage to trust the sum of my accumulated knowledge? Can I ask readers to trust me, not because I’m right all of the time, and brittle in my own righteousness, but because I’m honest? Can I seek a new kind of mandate from the reader, a new journalistic authority grounded in eschewing self-infatuation, and eschewing pantomimes, be they the pantomimes of politics or the reflective pantomime of journalistic omniscience?
This year’s election campaign is yet another signpost in my professional life. Journalism is in the middle of a profound period of disruption. At the beginning of my career I felt the certainty of a long horizon—there was time to fail, time to learn from the failure, time to move sequentially through the hierarchies of political reporting. Aspirations were linear. By the next campaign I would be on the bus. In the campaign after that one I might be able to write some analysis as well as the breaking news. Eventually I might graduate to being that luminary on the bus who produced the Rolling Stone lite piece—the campaign essay sneering at the Stockholm Syndrome of the working journalists, the one promptly dismissed by working journalists because it didn’t include that vital prime ministerial locution about vertical fiscal imbalance from Perth on day three.
Structural change has stolen these temporal certainties. We’ve entered a state of constant flux, and we’ve cleaved into camps. Some of us are powered by nostalgia, eking out what’s left of the glory days of industrial journalism crouching from the wind, in some protected zone, holed up in some cosseted folly, belching faux gravitas. Others are possessed by a foraging instinct—pushing out full tilt into the gale, shapeshifters and entrepreneurs and iconoclasts, improvising madly.
As this election rolls round, I’m conscious of a new experience. I really can’t predict what journalism will be like three years from now. I don’t know when the next signpost rolls around, whether I’ll be fighting still, whether my current fight and the good fight going on in newsrooms around the world will take us any closer, collectively, to a place of safety and flourishing, or whether this will be a burst of activity signifying not very much, a fireworks display honouring a dying ritual.
But for now, I know this much. When we step up to cover a campaign, integrity is the only certainty we have. And it remains the only thing that matters.