The antediluvian media

I’ve been wondering what chronic disability it is that has been afflicting so much of the media, wondering why its political commentary is so predictable yet so often lacking in depth, so devoid of clarifying insights.   Where have the competent columnists gone?  We know there is a handful, and we know who they are.  We are even more aware of the rabble rousers: the Akermans, the Bolts, the Milnes, and those who, while being capable of writing decent articles such as the Shanahans, so often abandon journalistic standards to write disgracefully partisan pieces with one aim – to demean and pull down Kevin Rudd and his Government, to make it a ‘oncer’.

A plausible diagnosis of this affliction is journalistic sclerosis, a chronic and incurable condition, the result of advancing age and an unwillingness or incapacity to undergo renewal and adapt to the realities of contemporary communication and the trends of latter day politics.  This condition is aggravated by an infective process, the organism responsible being Coalitiococcus which leads to partisanitis, a chronic condition subject to acute exacerbations.  There is no cure once the condition is established.  Even when it appears to be quiescent, it can flare up with the slightest aggravation into a fulminating illness that only time can resolve.  Immunization against the offending organism might reduce the prevalence of partisanitis, but the sclerosis appears to be irreversible.

How has this condition taken hold?  Since most of the mature journalists are now middle aged, their background is from another era.  The Internet has come upon them, Facebook and Twitter have arrived, the Fifth Estate has proliferated and is challenging their previously exclusive right to report political events, offer opinions, pontificate, and sit in judgement on politicians, their actions and the political process.  Their authority and their right to do all this has not been challenged until fairly recently, but the blogosphere has arisen to contest that right, and they don’t like it.

Reflect on the era in which they grew up professionally.  While some like Paul Kelly, Michelle Grattan, Laurie Oakes, Malcolm Farr and Paul Bongiorno would remember well the days of Hawke and Keating, even Whitlam and as far back as Menzies, many contemporary journalists would be more familiar with the Howard era that stretched for so many years.  They would be used to his style of governing and the way he used the media.  But it seems as if they have failed to progress as fast as John Howard did.  He made talk back radio an art form, appeared regularly on TV, and paid careful attention to the media cycle. 

Kevin Rudd has followed this trend and extended it.  Although it might be expected that the media would welcome Rudd’s attention to the media cycle, instead he is incessantly criticized for being ‘obsessed with the media cycle’.  Can you understand this?  Why would they be so upset?  Is it because Rudd’s media focus causes them to get off their butts to cope with it?  Is it because they believe they should control the media cycle, not Rudd?  They seem to suggest that policy formulation and attention to the media cycle are incompatible.  They are not.  Rudd believes that if he is to communicate effectively with the electorate he needs to be out there every day with a photo opportunity, a grab for the evening TV news, a message that his Government is active, doing things.  Why is he pilloried for this?  Are the journalists upset that Rudd is calling the shots, not them; is it that they feel he is using them and the media for his political advantage?  Well that’s exactly what he’s doing; they had better get used to it.  And when he uses Twitter and Facebook and his website to promulgate his messages to different audiences, they pour scorn on these mechanisms.  Why?  Is it because they bypass their conduits to the people?  Is it because they believe they are the media and how dare Rudd circumvent them?  Is it because Rudd reportedly treats many of them with utter disdain?  It’s said that journalists dislike Rudd but like Abbott, a good bloke that they find easy to relate to.  Maybe this results in payback because Rudd declines to be obsequious, and so they strike at him with the power of their pens.

There is a preoccupation in the media with what it regards as the ‘cynical use of the media’ for political purposes by politicians, especially Rudd and Government ministers.  They regularly look for some sinister reason for an announcement.  Is it to distract from the Government’s problems?  Is it to steal a march on his opponents?  Is it to get ahead of some unpleasant news?  Is it a way of making the pace?  Yes, it is all those things, and the media doesn’t like it.  They like to be in control; who does Rudd think he is?

So they counter this upstart through two approaches:

First, they demean the man as often as possible with as many of his supposed ‘misdemeanours’ as can be mustered, and repeat them endlessly with the hope they will be burned, mantra-like, into the psyche of the voters.  You know them well – the bad-tempered Rudd, the rude Rudd, the slave-driver Rudd, the control-freak Rudd, the fight-with-friends Rudd, the unpopular Rudd, the use-religion-for-political-purposes Rudd, the Jekyll and Hyde Rudd, the policy-on-the-run Rudd, the all-spin-no-substance Rudd, the all-promise-no-delivery Rudd, the petulant Rudd, the bullying-the-premiers Rudd, the fake pseudo-ocker Rudd, the he-uses-funny-talk Rudd, the fair-shake-of-the-sauce-bottle Rudd, the sham hollow Rudd.  Even the nerdish Rudd, the hardworking Rudd, the policy wonk Rudd, the reviewing Rudd, far from attracting a modicum of admiration, are all held up for scorn.  Examples are catalogued – Scores, Burke, RAAF hostie, hairdryer story, overworked staff that never see their kids, excessive staff turnover, bullying colleagues stories, murmurings about a successor and talk about Julia Gillard as the next PM.  These bits of boilerplate are trotted out monotonously to make the case that Rudd is no good, no good at all, and very temporary.

Second, they paint everything he does as cynically opportunistic.  They foster a high level of suspicion.  Why did he announce that today?  What was he trying to hide or obscure?  What’s the reason for this or that action?  Whatever it is, it must be sinister, devious, insincere, because you know that’s the way Rudd is.  They castigate him when he seems to them to discard what they consider to be lofty principle in favour of pragmatic solutions, although his predecessor did this repeatedly without the disapproval they reserve for Rudd.  They set up straw men of high principle to which they pay allegiance so they can lament Rudd’s lack of adherence to them.  They fume with righteous indignation, insist that he must use up his ‘political capital’ to stand by the principle, yet by their very words furtively hope that he will use all of it up and stand exposed as a target for their venom and for untimely defeat. 

The media, by and large, is mad with Rudd, and they intend to punish him.  So they have embarked on the most intense and unremitting attack on almost everything he does.  Even the announcement of an increase in the tobacco levy and the changes to cigarette packaging are greeted, not with praise for an important health initiative, but with suspicion regarding the timing of the announcement, with cynicism about his intent.  They do not accept that the move is to improve health, reduce deaths, lower health costs and fund prevention – no, it’s to fill a budget void brought about by the ‘bribes’ he offered the premiers to get his health reform deal accepted.  His motivations are always suspect, never pure.

The uncomfortable fact for them is that Rudd keeps them guessing.  He runs his own agenda.  He refuses to comply with what the media thinks a PM should be, should think, and should say.  Why can’t he be predictable like Howard was?  Why can’t he be the sort of politician they want him to be?  Why can’t he go along with their expectations?  Why does he despise some media outlets and refuse to use them?  They rail against what they see as the arrogance of the man in not complying with what they have come to expect as their right.

Instead of trying to placate them, to go along with their self-centred demand for recognition, their self-seeking insistence on compliance with their requirements, he thumbs his nose at many of them and goes his own sweet way.  They long for the good-old-days, oblivious of the reality that they are long gone and will not return.  They have lost control of the media flow.  There are too many others involved, too many other modes of communication, too many listening to others outside the MSM.  Their power and influence is fading and they hate it.  The Fifth Estate calls them to account, and they resent it.  After all they have always called the shots; they have been the king-makers and the king-dethroners.  How dare the people ignore them, how dare they no longer buy their papers as before, how dare they ignore their privileged position?

Their journalistic sclerosis, complicated by recurrent bouts of Coalitiococcal partisanitis, has rendered many MSM journalists redundant and ineffective, ignored by more and more of the people.  Have they ever asked why it is that despite their malignant attacks on Rudd over many, many months, he still comes out smelling like roses in most opinion polls?  Have they queried why their perpetual condemnation, their endless venomous stories, their unwillingness to give more than perfunctory credit when it’s due, is having so little effect on Rudd’s ratings?  While they are down somewhat from their stratospheric highs, for all the vitriol poured on him, Rudd should now be well into in negative territory if the people were taking notice.  Do journalists ask themselves why that is not so?

The simple answer is that all except the rusted-on voters have stopped listening, have stopped believing what groupthink-afflicted journalists are feeding them day after day.  The Rudd they see and know from TV clips on news and current affairs programmes, talkback radio and personal contact during community visits does not correspond with the Rudd the media paints.  And they prefer to believe what they see and hear.

This piece offers the view that much of the MSM is antediluvian – a pitiable state of being sadly out of touch with contemporary political reality, alas unrecognized by so many of the journalists who inhabit that space.  Recovery is unlikely.

What do you think?


Which Tony has the twin?

Or, 'Change You Can't Believe In'.

G'day.  This is the first in an occasional series of commentary pieces that I will be submitting in the run-up to our federal election. Merely one other perspective, but one which I hope you will find interesting and informative and good for discussion.

So, as first cab off the rank I thought I'd take the UK Conservative Party in National Election mode for a drive and see how its policies compare with those we are likely to see from the Coalition in the run-up to our federal election, as they attempt to engage in message management and providing the electorate with certain expectations of the direction they would take in government.

I will attempt to divine the common threads that make up the cloth that the world-wide conservative movement's clothes are cut from, as I do believe they have a concerted and co-ordinated campaign to each move in the same direction. Not that I am saying that there is anything wrong with that, as I am sure that there is a similar attempt being made by all the social democrats in parliaments around the world to coordinate their policy objectives and actions. All I am seeking to do here is make observations about the consanguineous actions of the conservative political forces.

First, let's start with the heading of the UK Conservative Election Manifesto:

'Invitation to Join the Government'.

Fine. I can see how this tantalising offer would make the thought bubbles pop up above the heads of all the legends in their own lunchtimes out in the electorate who are constantly invigorated by the thought that they could do it better than the government, no matter what the area of policy. In much the same way as the Liberal Party here likes to appeal to the 'Aspirational' in all of us. This is a superficially but powerfully appealing idea. You know, you too are good enough to rule the UK/Australia with us, and we'll let you (or we'll let you believe we are letting you join in running the country with us, but, really, you won't be – we, and our mates out there in your community will).

I class Tony Abbott's policy of Local Hospital Boards, run by doctors, nurses and 'worthy' members of the local community in this group, as I am sure that in practice you would find that the Board members would be sourced from those members of the community with sympathies to Coalition policy. That is, the sentiment sounds fine as a generality, but in specific practice I think you would find that it would result in the entrenchment of atomised units sympathetic to Conservative/Liberal ideals and remote from centralised coordinated control, able to virtually go their own way as far as the day-to-day running of these systems is concerned. I've cause to reflect also upon the Conservative diaspora's predilection for allowing 'Faith-Based Initiatives' to be involved closely in running services.

I admit, it's the above-mentioned sort of sentiment that appeals to the vanity of 'individuals', which, when used properly, motivates all of us to achieve and aim as high as possible in our lives, but, directed inappropriately, can lead to bullying and authoritarian behaviour, as some of us believe we know what is best for the rest of us. Thus we may well see those sorts of people manoeuvring into the positions in the community that are created by these policies. Considering the primacy of the individual in conservative philosophy the genesis of such policies is obvious. As it says in the Outline of Principles of The International Democratic Union, the umbrella body of all the centre right political parties in the world, (whose Chairman of the Board just happens to be one, John Winston Howard), they are: 'dedicated to a society of individuals working together in partnership for the common good.'  Also, don't forget that corporations are also considered 'individuals', especially in the context of conservative policy, most obviously in America, where they enjoy some extraordinary rights.

Thus I imagine that the 'individual', 'individual choice', and 'empowerment of individuals' will be mantras that will issue forth from the lips of Coalition MPs in our own election campaign as well.  

Also, when you read the following core principle of the IDU:   '...that political democracy and private property are inseparable components of individual liberty and that the socially-oriented market economy provides the best means of creating the wealth and material prosperity to meet the legitimate aspirations of individuals (my emphasis), and of tackling social evils such as  unemployment and inflation', you can see where Tony Abbott was coming from last week when he attacked the 'social evil of unemployment' by advocating the market-based solution of transporting the 'dole-bludging' ne'er-do-wells to the mines of WA. As the IDU is supportive of 'believing that this is the most effective and beneficial way of providing (for) individual initiative and enterprise, responsible economic development, (and) employment opportunities', what else would he think was the solution for 'the social evil of unemployment'?

Thus, when we look at the attitudes of the Conservatives in the UK with respect to devolving control of Schools, the Police Force, and the Health system to local individuals, communities or boards – hey, why have a government at all?...except for Defence and National Security policy-making and a National Spy/Federal Police force to monitor the citizenry.  Why not just let all the fine, upstanding 'individuals' in our communities run everything instead?  Surely they'd do a better job than 'big, bad, bureaucratized, centralised government' (except in the above-mentioned instances)?

You can be sure when you hear lines like that you are hearing conservative parties the world over singing from the same song sheet. A song sheet provided by the IDU, who believe in 'A society of individuals working together for the common good'.

Now, what you have to ask yourself is, 'How valid a concept in practice can that be?'  I think it would lead, if allowed to go to its ultimate conclusion, to a laissez faire-like, barely-controlled, semi-anarchic chaos, similar to that which we have just experienced as a prelude to the Global Financial Crisis/Chaos.

I'd really like to hear your opinions about this, and especially from those conservative-leaning commentators here, as to how they think that social atomisation policies CAN work for the Common Weal? That is, other than by mouthing motherhood statements back to me like, 'Individual success is good for the Nation'. Obviously. However, what I'm more interested in teasing out is the reason why you think that atomising society like the Conservative parties of the world want to do is a superior ethos to having a paternalistic-style government which runs and decides policy in all the areas of our lives that are important to us, for the good of us all.

It seems to me that the IDU way lacks that essential ingredient of 'empathy' that Jeremy Rifkin was referring to this week – as in striving for individual supremacy does not enable us to develop much in the way of empathy for 'the other'. Isn't that what should be the basis for our successful interactions, and the jumping-off point for successful governments in the 21st century?

Somehow, I can only see such devolutionary policies as the Conservatives in the UK are advocating leading to a 'Survival of the Fittest' society, where the biggest boats, metaphorically-speaking, take up most of the space at the marina, as opposed to the social democratic principle, which seeks to see all boats rise equally, and no boat to get too big. In order to achieve this, the guiding hand of government needs to be in the picture.

What do you think?

The Liberals' universal solution to everything: Just say 'No'

Once again the Liberals have shown themselves to be the party of ‘No’. Premier Colin Barnett of Western Australia has taken his bat and ball and gone home from the Health negotiations.

Whenever the Liberals' vote is needed in the national interest they withhold it. Wherever co-operation is required, they are absent. They attend negotiations, but not in good faith, even when big concessions are offered. When they don’t get all they want they either spit the dummy and go home, or, as with the ETS, reneg. They are like barrackers in the cheap seats, big grins on their faces, always with something smart-arsed to say, or with contempt in their hearts, but nothing constructive to add to the debate. No policies, no framework, no ideas, no contributions… the word that best describes their attitude towards governance of the country is ‘No’.

The SMH headline from Tuesday afternoon says it all:

Deal with Labor leaders

I think the voters will be gradually coming to that conclusion, too.

90% of the country (as represented by five Labor premiers and two Labor Chief Ministers) has gone with the deal...not the original deal, but a genuinely negotiated one, with extra incentives put onto the table in answer to expressed objections. Negotiations have proceeded in good faith. There have been hurdles in the way, seemingly insurmountable arguments and objections, but somehow in the backrooms of Canberra and the state capitals, a deal was hammered out.

Except in Western Australia... and wherever it is Tony Abbott is currently riding his bicycle or surfing a breaker.

First we had Abbott's no-policy negativism at the Press Club debate. Abbott was so weak on that occasion he was mauled by a worm. Then Colin Barnett left the country when Health negotiations reached fever pitch in recent weeks. That was his way of saying, 'Eff you all' to the rest of Australia. Recovering from his drubbing at the debate, Tony Abbott went riding his bike as a diversion. Peter Dutton, the Shadow Health spokesman, has been off the air, too worried about cherry-picking safe seats, for months. These losers are supposed to be mature politicians, but their strategy revolves around just saying ‘No’. Why? Because they can.

This negativism abounds in other areas too, especially in Parliamentary proceedings: pointless 'Points Of Order', useless, doomed divisions, filibusters, welching on deals... and then they have the hide to taunt the government for not being able to get its reforms through, as if the Liberals had nothing to do with blocking them!

To asylum seekers they just say, ‘No’. They don't say what they would do. They only ever tell us what they won't do, like the demented nihilists they are.

Egged on by their media cheer squad (thankfully diminishing in size, if not in volume as yet) they have convinced themselves that, if they make things hard enough for Rudd, government will just fall back into their laps. It is so much easier to block and defeat almost every initiative the government tries to get up and running than to contribute constructively and positively. It is also completely, utterly, bone lazy.

Clinging to the last vestiges of anachronistic parliamentary powers left to them after their decimation at the last election, cheered on by a corrupt media run by a wizened, bitter old man in New York, they and their shills stick to the belief that a miracle is about to happen, anytime soon. They mindlessly obstruct everything in order to make government in Australia almost impossible, waiting for the day when the scales will be lifted from what they assume is an adoring public's eyes to make way for their triumphant return, meanwhile conserving as much energy as possible by eschewing policy development, and lately even rational thought.

I am not so sure that the rest of the Australian public, after seeing a universal Health deal put in jeopardy by a Liberal government representing just 10% of the voters, will acclaim Barnett's, Abbott's and Murdoch's unrelenting negativism for too much longer. Over 65% of the Australian public wants health reform. Even in Western Australia the figure is above 50%. We came so close only to see the Liberals' favourite word trump what could have been a truly historic, unanimous, agreement. That word is ‘No’.  It is the shortest, but most appropriate epitaph I can think of for a once great party that had reduced itself to daydreaming about the glory days and putting its periodic electoral fortunes ahead of the country's best interests.

Only they know what's best for Australia. Only they can save us from dreaded change. Only they can be trusted to keep the country on the rails until the hated Rudd is swept away to electoral oblivion later on in the year. In the meantime they just say ‘No’.


Is the ABC’s ‘Insiders’ balanced?

The only tenable answer is ‘sometimes’.  This Sunday’s Insiders was balanced, many other editions, not.  I expect most political tragics take a look at this programme on ABC TV each week.  In recent times there have been complaints on this blog site and elsewhere about the lack of balance in the comments of the panel.  Some lament that the programme has become so tabloid that they no longer bother viewing it.  This short piece canvasses the issue of balance and seeks feedback from visitors.

By balance, let’s agree that in a political context it means giving all sides of a debate and all parties to the debate comparable opportunities to express a view so that the viewing audience has before it sufficient information and opinion for it to reach a considered judgement, a conclusion.

The approach to ‘balance’ by news and current affairs programs seems to take several forms that differ not so much by degree, as they do by underlying philosophy.

Some outlets seem to believe that you achieve balance by having roughly equal representation of conflicting views.  To give an example, if the debate is about climate change, they believe in the quantitative approach - that having equal numbers of climate change believers and deniers or sceptics, and giving then equal time, will result in balance.  But if there is no qualitative assessment of the credentials of the opponents, or the scientific plausibility of their arguments, balance will likely not be achieved.  If soundly advanced scientific facts and arguments are pitted against questionable facts and faulty reasoning, there will be no balance if both are given equal credence; in science some opinions are simply not worth as much as others.  Yet we have seen them given equal weight time and again.  This is especially dangerous when the audience does not have the scientific background to differentiate between fact and falsehood.

In the context of Insiders having panellists with diametrically opposed views does not produce balance.  To begin with there is no Labor-leaning, anti-Coalition journalist that could match the Coalition-leaning anti-Government bearing of, for example, Piers Akerman, Andrew Bolt and Glenn Milne.  Even David Marr, who might be seen as pro-Labor, cannot and never does match the ferocity of Akerman’s and Bolt’s anti-Labor attacks.  Marr can be as critical of the Government as of the Coalition.  I have heard Akerman only once agree with Kevin Rudd, and that was when he condemned Bill Henson’s photos of adolescent girls.  Otherwise, according to Akerman everything Rudd has done is bad or incompetent, going right back to the 20 year old Heiner affair in Queensland that he is still trying to pin on Rudd.   Bolt is able occasionally to utter words that are not anti-Rudd, but that is uncommon.  Milne is more subtle, but he takes frequent sneering sideswipes at Rudd and his Government.  There is no way that these partisan advocates can be balanced by anyone on the opposite side – they don’t exist among the journalists on the Insiders’ panel.  Even if they could be found, what sort of debate would result?  Would viewers want from both sides the ranting that appears day after day in Akerman’s and Bolt’s columns replicated during their appearances on Insiders?  The simple fact is that whoever else appears with them, when Ackerman and Co are on the Insiders panel, balance is not possible.

I have several times emailed the benign host of Insiders, Barrie Cassidy, about the inclusion of these three, but the response is always that their presence is to achieve balance.   It seems not to be apparent to Cassidy that their very presence precludes balance.

Balance may be possible when the panel comprises journalists from the various sides of the political spectrum but only if they are capable of acknowledging the validity of positions on the several sides to the debate.  Gerard Henderson is an example of a conservative columnist who can take a positive view of non-conservative positions, and offer balanced views on a variety of topics.  So panellists from one side of the political spectrum can be balanced although selecting such people runs the risk of imbalance.

The best balance seems to result from selecting panellists who have no obvious political leanings and can make comments that are for or against the Government, and for or against the Coalition or the Greens or the Independents, with equal facility and feeling.

We came close to balance in early March when Chris Uhlmann was the moderator and the panel comprised Laura Tingle, Brain Toohey and Phillip Coorey.  While Brian Toohey seems often to be anti-Government in his views, he can and does offer pro-Government opinions. The other two seemed to be neutral. We saw balance at its best last Sunday when Misha Schubert, Phillip Coorey and Lenore Taylor were panellists.  They all seemed to be neutral in their views and balanced in their comments.  It was a delight to watch this episode of Insiders.  Whether or not one agreed with the views expressed, it was gratifying to observe a balanced debate.

In my view, if Insiders wishes to retain its viewing audience and enhance its credibility as a current affairs programme that give viewers a balanced appraisal of the political landscape, party policies, projects and programmes, political manoeuvres, politicians and their actions, the views of the people, opinion polling, and possible election outcomes, it is essential that the moderator select panellists who are capable of giving a balanced opinion, preferably those with no apparent political leaning, and rigorously exclude those incapable of taking a balanced view, particularly if they are overflowing with venom towards one party.

What do you think?