Why do so many in the media enjoy a beat-up?

This morning on ABC 774 radio, Kathy Bedford, a temporary morning announcer, raised the matter of a brutal assault on Dr Mukesh Haikerwell, past President of the AMA, that resulted in his being admitted to the Western General Hospital in suburban Melbourne for ‘brain surgery’.  Fortunately he is recovering well but will need rehabilitation.  Had Kathy focussed on the brutality of the assault on a gentle man who has done so much to improve health care, or even on the nature of his injury and what can be done to save lives and prevent permanent damage in such cases, she might have engaged her audience meaningfully.  Instead, she played the line that Dr Haikerwell might have received ‘preferential treatment’ by being given neurosurgery at Western General rather than at a large city hospital where such surgery is more commonly performed.  She asked: “If Dr Haikerwell could receive surgery there for head injury, why are others transported to city hospitals?”

She carried on this conversation in almost total ignorance of the different types of intracranial bleeding that could occur after head injury.  Despite two doctors explaining the different trajectory of different types of intracranial bleeding and the different consequences, she persisted with her ‘preferential treatment’ query.  This was despite both doctors explaining that one type of intracranial bleeding following head injury, so-called extradural haemorrhage, requires extremely urgent treatment.  Lives can be lost in a matter of minutes unless surgery is undertaken.  Not wanting to speculate on Dr Haikerwell’s situation, both doctors emphasized this in general terms, but to make the point, one described a case when despite an urgent operation in the ward immediately on admission, the patient had died. 

This did not deter Kathy from her pursuit of the possibility of a well know doctor receiving preferential treatment, even after one doctor informed her that there were neurosurgeons on staff at Western General who regularly performed brain surgery, referring elsewhere only the most complex cases.

Even when she acknowledged receiving a batch of text messages castigating her for her insensitive interview with the doctors, she pressed on, seemingly undaunted.  It was as if, having dug herself into a hole, she was determined to dig her way out and restore her credibility.

When radio journalists decide to stretch credulity to make something out of a situation, a so-called ‘beat-up’, they should at least bone up on the technicalities.  No one expects journalists to be medical experts, but if Kathy had taken a quick look at Wikipedia beforehand she would have sounded less foolish, and listening attentively to what the experts had to say would have been a sound cautionary move.  But the desire to ‘beat-up’ seemed too irresistible.

That this journalism upsets those who know better is bad enough; what is worse is that the public may be mislead and persuaded to the view that this patient did unfairly receive preferential treatment because he was a well-known doctor, which was the whole point of her story.

The media has the capacity to influence thinking profoundly.  It needs to be very careful how it promulgates information, and sensitive to its ‘rabble-rousing’ potential if it gets its facts wrong, if it interprets them incorrectly, and especially if it indulges in blatant ‘beat-ups’ in pursuit a ‘good story’.


What should we expect from the Shadow Treasurer?

When Brendon Nelson unexpectedly pipped Malcolm Turnbull for leadership of the Coalition last year, even although the Liberal convention is to allow the Deputy Leader to choose a portfolio, it was expected that Nelson would offer Turnbull the post of Shadow Treasurer.  That’s what happened.  Julie Bishop was in no position to exercise her prerogative.  But when the leadership position was reversed last month, the Shadow Treasurer position was up for grabs.  The temptation for Julie Bishop to exercise her right proved irresistible.  After all, it’s the most prestigious post after Leader of the Opposition.  When she was questioned afterwards about her qualifications to fill this post, she pointed out that she was accustomed to carrying out a brief.  And indeed she was.

She graduated Bachelor of Laws in 1978, and after practising in Adelaide joined Clayton Utz in Perth as a commercial litigation solicitor.  She became managing partner of the firm, responsible for management of over 200 employees and a multi-million dollar budget. In 1996 she completed a Harvard Business School Advanced Management Program for Senior Managers, including subjects in global financial accounting and government, business and the international economy. She’s a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Management.

So does this qualify her to be an effective Shadow Treasurer?

She got off to an inauspicious start when, in a radio interview, she got wrong the base cash rate.  It was a small error, a reflection of her minders’ inadequacies as much as her own, but it exposed her to media ridicule and a Lindsay Tanner ribbing in Question Time where cameras captured her stony countenance.  Not a good look for a new Shadow Treasurer. 

Her website said nothing of this, but reveals that in the two weeks since her appointment she has made eight comments on financial matters.  First she accused Wayne Swan of “remarkable ignorance of the operation of the Australian Office of Financial Management and changes his Government had made to its investment mandate only a few months ago.”  Subsequent revelations in the unfolding of the $4 billion package to buy triple A mortgages and improve the mortgage share of the non-bank lenders showed Swan knew full well what he was doing; it had all been carefully planned months before. Her next comment echoed the Coalition line on the luxury car tax.  Then there was a brief comment on the IMF Report, to which she added a mention of ‘the Coalition legacy’ and took a sideswipe at the Government.  Next there was her accusation of a Swan ‘back-flip’ on the mortgage market when he introduced his $4 billion package.  Next came her Fairfax Business Blog.  It began with the background to the sub-prime crisis.  To what extent she wrote it is unknown; it was posted by ‘Ed’.  There were over 30 comments, none from her.  Her next comment briefly welcomed the Productivity Commission Report on paid maternal leave.  Her last two comments were made in doorstops, the first in an extensive interview on the financial crisis, and the last on the prospect of an interest rate cut.  She played the party line condemning Swan for not insisting that the banks pass on the full cut, although when he did that last time, he was castigated for telling the banks what to do.  Now Bishop insists Swan “...should stop acting like the CEO of one of the big banks...”  Take a look at her website's record of comments and judge for yourself. 

Turnbull has continued to make statements on the financial situation, as he’s entitled to do to match or counter those made by Rudd.  Some have been statesmanlike - others have been to score points.  But Bishop has not matched Swan, as she should have.  She has missed opportunities and has not yet landed a telling blow.  Had she come to the Shadow Treasurer position at the same time Swan became Treasurer, when the Coalition insisted he still had his training wheels on, the contest might have been more even.  But with ten months of experience behind him, his competence, authority and confidence have grown steadily, making him much harder to match.  The question is whether she will be able to catch up.  Her professional background seems to be too fragile for the portfolio, and her performance to date has been inconspicuous.  The public is entitled to expect more.  Unless she can improve substantially the Coalition will continue to look weak in this area.  Turnbull and Andrew Robb, who would have loved the post, will need cover for her.

The old adage applies: ‘Be careful what you wish for.’

Could the media tide be turning?

It might surprise those who believe the media, particularly News Limited, is anti-Government and pro-Coalition, that some Coalition supporters believe the media is pro-Government and not nearly hard enough on Kevin Rudd and his ministers.  Perspective governs perception.  For those who believe the former, or more ominously that there is a deliberate media campaign to change the electorate's favourable view of the Rudd Government, there are signs the tide may be turning.

Despite adverse comment around Rudd’s recent visit to the US by Andrew Bolt in the Sun-Herald, in the editorial in The Daily Telegraph, in the preamble to Dennis Shanahan’s audio report, and in several TV programmes, as detailed in the previous post, The Cringe Dwellers, there have been some articles since then that indicate a change of tone.

In Glenn Milne’s article in the September 29 issue of The Australian Market injection well plannedit was gratifying to read “The decision by the Government to pump $4 billion of confidence boosting taxpayers' money into the non-bank mortgage lending sector is a significant milestone in the developing stature of Treasurer Wayne Swan. It may also be the first signal lesson that the phase of policy constipation in the Rudd Government is coming to an end; that the period of policy review and consideration is moving on through process to resolution and final implementation. In other words, things are finally happening.”  What a revelation.  At last someone in the media has woken up to the fact that the “all talk and no action” mantra is nonsensical.  ‘Talk’ - talking to experts, talking to stake-holders, talking in committees and reviews ARE action, as are data gathering, analysis and decision making,  all processes the Rudd Government insist must precede implementation.

Even the editorial Some Good News for Main St., Australia in the September 29 issue of The Weekend Australian was positive for Rudd.  It applauds the $4 billion package to non-bank lenders.

Paul Kelly in his piece Two cheers for Rudd in his September 27 article in The Australian says: “The difference between the Australian and American systems of capitalism has rarely been so stark. Kevin Rudd in New York at this time of crisis - a fortuitous accident - deserves two cheers for his response”.  Later, Kelly explains what Rudd needs to do to earn his third cheer: “...to reduce expectations within Australian society for handouts, whether for welfare or business subsidies”.  He concludes: “It suggests the Government got the May budget correct in its balance between anti-inflation and maintaining activity. But Rudd must further adjust policy and political settings, with the prize, if he gets it right, being the mantle of economic credibility.”

A Peter Hartcher article in The Sydney Morning Herald on September 27 on Rudd’s visit to the US reads, in part, “While Rudd has been quietly seeking solutions, Malcolm Turnbull has been noisily acting out his new schizophrenia as Opposition Leader. He advances responsible Turnbullesque policy on one hand and defends populist ideas he inherited from Brendan Nelson on the other. In his Nelson mode, Turnbull shamelessly spouts the nonsense that Rudd must rush home to solve problems here. Yet Turnbull knows full well that the biggest problem facing Australia is the crisis in the US, and that’s exactly where Rudd should be. Rudd is trying to do his bit.”  More positive comment.

These may be but straws in the wind, but they suggest an awakening in at least some of the media to the modus operandi of the Rudd Government, its steadfast emphasis on sound process before implementation, its determination to get it right first time, and its steadily growing aura of competence and confidence.