What role for journalism if facts no longer count?
The longest election campaign in 50 years had crept quietly to its midpoint when I decided to ignore the stultifying protocols imposed during such events by the hard-working professional control freaks at campaign headquarters and rang Mark Textor to ask him to come on my podcast.
I told Tex, the Liberal Party’s pollster, that I wanted to talk about polling, which was entirely true. I did want him to explain the intricacies of polling to our listeners. But the reason I reached out was because something was bothering me about the 2016 campaign and I didn’t trust that our field evidence was telling us what we needed to know.
I’d recently read some good pieces from American journalists lamenting the fact they didn’t see the Trump phenomenon coming. The consensus seemed to be if they had been more attentive they would have noticed that, post–global financial crisis, America had cleaved into two tribes. There were now nationalists and internationalists, nativists and globalists. This cultural and social and economic phenomenon had helped create the conditions for the rise of Trump: arise sir Donald, nativist king.
These pieces were both fascinating and discomfiting, like receiving a postcard from the future. The Australian campaign in 2016 felt different. Not revolutionary different, just different. My hackles were raised, even before the campaign started. I’d been bothering political people I trust to tell me what the mood was like outside the Canberra bubble. I had my own focus groups, the same ones we all have, friends and family, but I wanted wider intelligence. Were people generally comfortable and relaxed? If they were, I felt Malcolm Turnbull’s ‘I’ve got the future, folks’ pitch would work for the government. If they weren’t relaxed, if unemployment was on the rise, if the transition from mining boom to something else was a source of stress, or more than stress, if it was invoking deracination, I felt it wouldn’t cut through. If voters were fretful, or mulish, I thought Labor’s message of inclusive growth was more on the zeitgeist. Then there were the ‘others’ to choose from: Nick Xenophon, populist and protectionist in a rust-bucket state; and Pauline Hanson up north, about whom, if I’m being honest, I was trying not to think too much.
All the answers from my informal field survey were inclusive. Weeks and weeks of relentless campaigning had made no impact on opinion polls that remained fixed, defiantly unresponsive to the elaborate choreography of the national contest. This was interesting, and it told us something, but I lacked clarity on the what. I felt the subterranean pull of the old newspaper luxuries: time to think, time to get out on the road, time to talk to folks, time to collide into things. I remembered my dear colleague Tony Wright taking off on his motorcycle when the Rudd ascendancy in 2007 was only in its nascency, and returning to base utterly confident from a week of leisurely conversations in pubs and cafés in Queensland and New South Wales that Labor was going to romp it in. He was our early warning beacon. I wasn’t alone in my land-locked mild panic. Another good mate, Gabrielle Chan, who works alongside me at Guardian Australia, tore out of the office at the campaign midpoint, got in her car and drove a couple of thousand kilometres in only a few days, driven almost spare by the need to get out into the field, outside the campaign bubbles.
Confined to base because of the demands of a daily live blog, talking to the Liberal Party’s pollster was a way of pushing out into the field. He could also bring me a long view, having taken the temperature of voters at Australian elections for 20 years or more. I figured if there was a post-GFC realignment on in Australia, Tex would know about it. Whether or not he’d tell me would be another story, since campaign operatives don’t love open microphones during elections for obvious reasons—but, fundamentally, I respect his expertise. I figured it was worth a shot.
Sitting in our little recording booth, we started with the deep dive into polling methodologies. How reliable was the evidence in front of us? Were current poll trends reliable predictors of voting intention? Then I moved us along to America and Trump and the journalistic mea culpas I was reading. Was there a big realignment going on in the Australian electorate that we weren’t tapping into sufficiently? Textor is no fan of Trump or Clinton. He grimaced at the mention of the contest. ‘Maybe there’s just two shit candidates,’ he reasoned.
I persisted. Is there a realignment going on that we are missing? He paused for a moment, wondering how best to explain, or perhaps wondering how best to explain without inadvertently creating trouble for his campaign—that recurrent open microphone nightmare of every professional campaign operative. ‘I think there’s another explanation,’ Textor said after a moment.
‘The political market in Australia is maturing, not realigning …’ And so went our conversation for several minutes. His assessment wasn’t the conventional wisdom that voters are disengaged. To the contrary, voters are savvier than ever before. People have so much information. Twenty years ago, Textor said, you would never have dreamed consumers would be that fluent in politics. ‘As markets mature there’s less capacity for politics to say we’ve got a “you beaut” solution. The political offerings are more nuanced … and people feel more empowered with their votes.’
I asked him what the practical consequence of this was. He said people in Australia, unlike some of the other political markets he works in, have an ‘awareness of the power of their vote. The way people think about their vote in Australia is the most sophisticated of any of the markets I work in.’
He said Australian voters now make deliberate choices: they can ignore the national campaign and vote for their local MP because they like them. They can ignore their local member and vote nationally because they like a particular prime minister. They can also lodge a protest vote with any number of micro parties or independents not because they endorse everything the ‘other’ says, but to send a message, or take out insurance. People can also decide on a ‘more mercenary basis, decide to vote on some meta basis, for stability or fairness or something else’.
Tribal loyalties are diminishing. Very little is rusted on any more. We’ve seen the rise of the tactical voter. Atomisation, fragmentation. Any of us who inhabit the world of national affairs feel it. The environment is febrile. The tempo of everything is impatience. There is this sense of fraying, building to great acts of frustration. When power is returned to voters in Western democracies, they are using it, flexing against various orthodoxies and received wisdoms.
The conversation helped put me in his shoes. From the vantage point of the professional strategist, campaigns are increasingly about appealing to tactical voters, like extended pleading sessions: please don’t lodge that protest vote. Please don’t upset our carefully laid plans.
If we reflect on the Coalition’s campaign, much of it was about trying to appeal to voters not to peel off and vote ‘other’. Malcolm Turnbull must have said it a hundred times over the eight weeks, vote one Coalition. Do not lodge that protest vote you are clearly thinking of lodging. Even the Coalition’s fake tradie (who turned out to be a real tradie in a campaign plot twist no-one saw coming) had his sights set very low, imploring men like him to vote for the Coalition, just for a while. Imagine trying to tell people who are mightily sick of you that it’s okay to hate you and vote for you at the same time—and you’ve got the Coalition’s pitch in a sentence.
But Australian voters ignored the various entreaties. Where they could stomach it they voted Labor. Where they couldn’t stomach it they voted in droves for ‘others’, most particularly Xenophon and Hanson. Both held out the promise of disruption to politics as usual, which is a notion perhaps as compelling as any of the individual components of their respective manifestos. You can feel the emphatic gesture from the voter: how’s this for a tactical vote? How about we vote against the diminished, entitled, smug, self-congratulatory torpor that is major-party politics as usual? How about we shake things up a little?
So Pauline is back. Australian voters have spoken in our most authentic and enduring collective voice: with a guttural get stuffed to the major parties. The question is, what do we all do now?
At her first press conference in the week following that July Saturday night where Malcolm Turnbull stood before the voters ashen faced at the Sofitel, briefly contemplating his own political mortality, enraged at the very prospect of something so divergent from the life plan, Hanson was, reassuringly, the Hanson of old.
It was like we’d all peeled back the lid of the tin at the back of the cupboard marked 1998 and there she was, perfectly preserved in aspic. Those piercing eyes, cornflower blue. The flaming hair. The quaver in the voice. The righteous jut of the jaw. The stupendous scale of the feelings. The manifest disdain for facts and evidence.
Hanson strode across the grass in Brisbane, spotlight trained on her, rugged up in a brightly coloured winter coat against a Queensland winter little more vengeful than a gentle breeze, ready to be disdained by the working press, a familiar ritual that only endears the One Nation leader to her rusted-on supporters: plucky Pauline, giving those pricks of journos a good kicking. Go Pauline. You show ’em, love. The Kimbos and the Himbos deserve everything they get.
The Brisbane journalists didn’t hesitate before getting stuck in, ripping her xenophobic, incoherent, noxious manifesto apart, question after question. Hanson just raised her jaw an inch or two higher and sailed on, a battleship of righteousness, with the flotsam holding on gamely, flapping against the hull. Watching the show back at my desk in Canberra, I had the clear view of the disconnected spectator. Here was Pauline being pecked relentlessly by a mob of magpies. Like Donald Trump in America, attacks—and that’s what that press conference would look like to a person only glancing up periodically to peruse the show—are likely to make her stronger.
Why is this? Understanding that requires referencing the various reasons why she’s back. Hanson’s and One Nation’s success in 2016 are in part about a double dissolution election (although Hanson’s personal support eclipses that), in part because the popular media has done a superb job of keeping Hanson in the spotlight as a quasi-political celebrity, partly because she appealed to voters Malcolm Turnbull spent zero time in the campaign talking to—the people stuck in the old economy with zero prospects of finding themselves recruited by Microsoft.
I also think the strength of her showing is also about registering a gesture. She is a totem of the disdain many voters feel for politics as usual. Pauline Hanson is a raised middle digit on the floor of the Australian Senate. If the political class in Canberra rounds collectively on the stranger in its midst, deploys the blunt instruments of gotcha and when did you stop beating your wife, this will only confirm the worst fears of some deeply alienated voters that the system is rigged permanently against the interests of the people, that politics is about elites protecting their own patches. As John Howard noted in early July, treating Hanson as a ‘scorned species’ is a monumental mistake. It expresses disdain for her supporters, who have as much right as anyone else to have their interests represented in parliament, and it ultimately plays into her studied depiction of herself as put-upon outsider, which is the dynamic on which she trades.
Understanding Hanson’s context is simple enough. But we face another challenge. The problem is not so much comprehending Pauline. Her shtick is now reasonably familiar. The contemporary problem is how we engage constructively with Hansonism, and by constructively I mean deconstructively, which is our core business as journalists: calling out the snake oil, attempting to protect people from being manipulated. Just as strategists such as Mark Textor have had to evolve their core methodologies as voters have evolved, have had to cope with the inconvenient maturation of their market, journalists have to understand that the rules of our game are being rewritten as well. We have to understand that we now practise professionally in a post-truth environment, where our audiences can increasingly choose to exist comfortably inside bubbles, selecting only the information and commentary that reinforces their views, rejecting other material.
The problem we have in facing up to the more toxic and corrosive elements of Hansonism in 2016 (as opposed to the more orderly times in 1998) is that facts just don’t seem to matter as much as they once did. My innate respect for facts and reason and evidence remained largely intact until I watched the dynamic around Donald Trump play out during America’s gruelling primary season. I watched in horrified fascination from another hemisphere as the collective might of America’s greatest newspapers turned their guns on the nativist king, not with random take-downs, or savage hit jobs, but just with forensic journalism: countering Trump’s inflammatory nonsense with facts, and logic, and careful interrogation—all with no visible impact on Trump’s approval ratings.
I know enough of my own eco-system, the world of national affairs that intersects with news publications, comments, threads and social media, to know that political conversation increasingly feels like a giant exercise in confirmation bias. A great many people still consume their politics passively and genially, with a healthy dose of scepticism and a genuinely open and enquiring mind, but there is also an increasingly rancorous cohort of political consumers who reject vehemently any information that does not reinforce their existing belief structure. This cohort feels the whole media-political superstructure is lying to them and manipulating them, and countering this belief with exhaustive explanation sometimes only escalates the feelings of rage. More lies. More manipulations. In late July, a Trump supporter stood vigilant in the background of a CNN live broadcast of the Republican National Convention holding up a hand written sign that said ‘Don’t believe the liberal media.’ CNN went to great lengths to crop him out of the live shot, but he remained fixed in place.
We can’t be like CNN, cropping out the inconvenient audience feedback. We can’t ignore these cultural trends, and we can’t ignore the gap between how we see ourselves and how some of our readers see us. Journalists see ourselves as honest brokers, professional nit-pickers, pursuing the business of fact-checking and accountability, standing as an institutional check on executive overreach. We work ferociously hard, harder than we have ever worked, and for leisure we go to films like Spotlight and feel good about ourselves and our truth-to-power mission. A great chunk of our audience still respects what we do, bless them. But another chunk sees us quite differently. They view the media as being the tame house pets of a busted political system; part of the jig that is now well and truly up. Katharine Viner, the editor in chief of the Guardian, captured these developments wonderfully well in a recent essay about how technology has disrupted the truth:
Now, we are caught in a series of confusing battles between opposing forces: between truth and falsehood, fact and rumour, kindness and cruelty; between the few and the many, the connected and the alienated; between the open platform of the web as its architects envisioned it and the gated enclosures of Facebook and other social networks; between an informed public and a misguided mob.
What is common to these struggles—and what makes their resolution an urgent matter—is that they all involve the diminishing status of truth. This does not mean that there are no truths. It simply means, as this year has made very clear, that we cannot agree on what those truths are, and when there is no consensus about the truth and no way to achieve it, chaos soon follows.
Practising journalism in a post-fact environment is, in a way, more of an existential threat for journalism than technological change. Our whole function in a democracy does rest on an assumption that facts have broad-based currency, that there are shared principles around which societies can coalesce and public interest can be served. To discover that the power of agreed facts is on the wane is, professionally, like losing your moorings. Intuiting the seeming inevitability of the post-fact, post-truth world is a bit like enduring a head-on collision with the certainty of your own redundancy: what if, structurally, societally, journalism can no longer speak truth to power because no-one cares about us speaking truth to power any more, because no-one trusts us either?
For the working journalist (as opposed to the working cypher for an undisclosed agenda, or working propagandist for their employer or their latest political paramour, or the non-working non-caring non-functioning hack), there really is no greater horror, because we know that journalism still matters. We know this, not as some statement of narcissism, as some abstract claim of entitlement, as some crotchety articulation of Paradise Lost, as some undignified foot stamp about our lost influence—we know it because the working journalist inhabits the same universe that powerful people inhabit.
We are not of that universe, but we enjoy privileged sightlines on it, enough to know that lies get told, sometimes monstrous ones, that corruption happens, that self-interest can often trump the greater good and the national interest. We know that the public needs us to stand vigilant, sometimes as more threat than promise, as a structural check on bad behaviour, not because we deserve that honour, but because we have been conditioned our whole careers to serve the public, and most of us are intent on doing that for as long as someone will fund journalism.
I know, for example, that the following statement from Pauline Hanson’s manifesto is a statement unsupported by evidence: ‘Multiculturalism has failed everywhere. It is negative and divisive, a weight that is drowning our once safe and cohesive society.’ I know the proposed prescription for the problem is first, impossible and second, inflammatory, exhibiting the sort of sentiments that have in the grand sweep of history led great powers into destructive conflicts. ‘One Nation will abolish multiculturalism and the Racial Discrimination Act and promote assimilation, nationalism, loyalty and pride in being an Australian.’ This statement resonates with some people, particularly the losers of globalisation, but if you interrogate it it’s about as meaningful as placing a drive-through order at McDonald’s, could I have the McHappy Meal with a side of jingoism? Could I scapegoat someone else to feel better about myself and my prospects? Could we just send all the foreigners back home?
But in order to call out the falsehoods and dissembles and false comforts, we have to be trusted by our audiences, and we have to be self-aware enough to understand that at least some of our audiences now think that most of us are no better than the people we purport to keep honest: that we are all part of the same stinking, creaking, self-referential system that is increasingly cloaked in odium.
I’ve reported every federal election since 1996. I’ve never lived through an election cycle where media commentary mattered less than in the 2016 campaign. Neither major-party leader felt any great pressure to subject themselves to rigorous interviews. News Corporation’s Daily Telegraph whipped itself into a frenzy about the evils of Labor day after day, loyally putting down progressivism in all its forms—and the result of all the histrionics and all the dire predictions of Armageddon from Ray Hadley and his ilk was a positive swing to Labor in the Telegraph heartland in Australia’s most populous state. Take that, Rupert, said the good voters of New South Wales.
Part of the declining cultural relevance of the mainstream media is due to forces entirely beyond our control. It’s predominantly technological change, which has allowed consumers to access their own information without the pesky middle-people—and again, technology, allowing public figures to communicate with voters directly without the media filter. But if we think that’s all it is we are deluding ourselves. We have to look in the mirror. Our intemperate excesses have also discounted our moral value. Our own behaviour has helped fuel a lack of trust, which leads inevitably to an erosion of our core mandate.
And when we have discounted our own currency, how then can we help ensure that voters aren’t manipulated by a new mob of charlatans: the nostalgia merchants and the new protectionists, the xenophobes, the reflexive nationalists, the populists who proliferate and prosper in truthiness, and the people who lied to the voters in Britain to help generate the Brexit vote, to faux everymen such as Donald Trump, who thinks politics is not about service but about publicity and about trolling the world?
I don’t see an easy solution to the current impasse. But I suspect the way back is through understanding rather than glib judgement, and through resisting the temptation to style a genuine crisis of civic integrity as an abstract culture war between elites and people too foolish to understand their own interests—as if that binary, reductionist view of the problem was anything other than a cheap framing device to structure yet another hot take on a complex phenomenon in time for deadline.
From a journalist’s perspective it does involve understanding Pauline Hanson and the context sitting behind her resurgence. That doesn’t mean white-washing her manifestly intolerable positions. It doesn’t mean excusing her, launching apologias or finding reasons why she’s terribly misunderstood: ‘some of my best friends are Pauline’s’.
It means looking her directly in the eye. It means comprehending her and the voters she represents. It means acknowledging that there are people who vote for Pauline Hanson because they are afraid of the future for entirely rational reasons, because governments have failed to give them hope for the future, and we need to acknowledge that perhaps part of the reason politicians have been insufficiently attentive to the losers is because journalists—under pressure, battling shrinking newsrooms, unable to get out into the field—haven’t done enough to tell their stories.
Katharine Viner once again:
I believe that a strong journalistic culture is worth fighting for. So is a business model that serves and rewards media organisations that put the search for truth at the heart of everything—building an informed, active public that scrutinises the powerful, not an ill-informed, reactionary gang that attacks the vulnerable. Traditional news values must be embraced and celebrated: reporting, verifying, gathering together eyewitness statements, making a serious attempt to discover what really happened.
We are privileged to live in an era when we can use many new technologies—and the help of our audience—to do that. But we must also grapple with the issues underpinning digital culture, and realise that the shift from print to digital media was never just about technology. We must also address the new power dynamics that these changes have created. Technology and media do not exist in isolation—they help shape society, just as they are shaped by it in turn. That means engaging with people as civic actors, citizens, equals. It is about holding power to account, fighting for a public space, and taking responsibility for creating the kind of world we want to live in.
The fury about our strictures and limitations echoes around us. Like the politicians of the forty-fifth parliament, we are wise if we listen, and in listening, double down on our journalistic mandate.