The Canberra Press Gallery will decide who governs this country...

And the manner by which they come to power.

Initially, this blog was going to be a bit of a rant about the Australian Federal Press Gallery, and press galleries in general, hot on the heels of the scathing article in the May 15 edition of The Weekend Australian, Canberra gallery turns on an ADHD prime minister who has lost his way by Christine Wallace, attacking the Prime Minister for his personal style, especially as it relates to his personality and his interpersonal relationships with members of the Canberra Press Gallery, and the Adam Walters' Channel 7 exposé of the private life of David Campbell, the former NSW Transport Minister. How these people have the temerity to arrogate unto themselves the power to decide what the political narrative will be for the country, and who should be leading us, is a situation which regularly leaves me dumbstruck. However, when I started doing a bit of research into the theory which would underpin this piece, I came to the conclusion that, whilst I would encourage you all to contribute your thoughts about how our Press Gallery members themselves show the adverse signs of any one of a number of  human frailties which manifests in their work, just like any other group of Alphas, just like any Prime Minister, really; I thought no, instead of that I would like to lead an initial, rational discussion about what drives political journalists to behave the way they do and write the things they do for our consumption.

So I propose to outline the techniques that they use such that we may become better informed consumers of their contributions to the political debate in this country, especially in the run-up to the federal election. Forewarned is forearmed, in my book.

Also, as Mr Denmore over at Larvatus Prodeo has this week done a sterling job of deconstructing our political journalists' motivations and 'shifts in the media and journo-sphere', I thus searched for a different perspective. So, I have chosen to present a hopefully balanced and informative look at the broad nature of political journalism, as I am sure there will be plenty of opportunities in the near future as the temperature rises, in the Press Gallery, in the electorate, and in the blogosphere, to have a more emotively-based dig at the self-important 'oracles' that sit in Australia's Federal Press Gallery, thinking they know what is best for all of us to believe about the Australian political scene and our politicians. Their argument, of course, for this 'right' would revolve around their proximity to the 'action', and their deep engagement in the scene over many long years in Canberra, or wherever. However, I would put it to you that maybe that's the problem. Which goes to the title of this piece. Nevertheless, I will be explanatory first, and establish the framework by which we might be able to go forward and judge them objectively and effectively into the future.

So here goes...

Media Political Bias
There is no such thing as an objective point of view.

No matter how much we may try to ignore it, human communication always takes place in a context, through a medium, and among individuals and groups who are situated historically, politically, economically, and socially adjacent to each other. This state of affairs is neither bad nor good. It simply is. Bias is a small word that identifies the collective influences of the entire context of a message.

Politicians are certainly biased and overtly so. They belong to parties and espouse policies and ideologies. And while they may think their individual ideologies are simply common sense, they understand that they speak from political positions.

Journalists, too, speak from political positions but usually not overtly so. The journalistic ethics of objectivity and fairness are strong influences on the profession. But journalistic objectivity is not the pristine objectivity of philosophy. Instead, a journalist attempts to be objective by two methods: 1) fairness to those concerned with the news and 2) a professional process of information gathering that seeks fairness, completeness and accuracy. As we all know, the ethical heights journalists set for themselves are not always reached. Especially these days when, as others such as Mr Denmore have observed, the modern political journalist is virtually shackled to their desk as they struggle to meet their deadlines, and need to factor in input from new media such as Twitter and TV and parliamentary proceedings. Is it any wonder, they say, that wearing out shoe leather in the hard slog of investigative journalism falls by the wayside, and Press Releases prepared by ever-ready media advisers from one party or another, come to be relied upon as grist for their daily mill? But, all in all, like politics, it is an honourable profession, practised, for the most part, by people trying to do the right thing.

In other words, journalists often do what they do without reflecting upon the meaning of the premises and assumptions that support their practice.

I think we may begin to reflect upon journalistic practice by noticing that the press applies a narrative structure to ambiguous events in order to create a coherent and causal sense of events.

For citizens and information consumers (which are one and the same today), it is important to develop the skill of detecting bias. Remember: Bias does not suggest that a message is false or unfair.

Critical questions for detecting bias
1. What is the author's socio-political position? With what social, political, or professional groups is the speaker identified?

2. Does the speaker have anything to gain personally from delivering the message?

3. Who is paying for the message? Where does the message appear? What is the bias of the medium? Who stands to gain?

4. What sources does the speaker use, and how credible are they? Does the speaker cite statistics? If so, how were the data gathered, who gathered the data, and are the data being presented fully?

5. How does the speaker present arguments? Is the message one-sided, or does it include alternative points of view? Does the speaker fairly present alternative arguments? Does the speaker ignore obviously conflicting arguments?

6. If the message includes alternative points of view, how are those views characterised? Does the speaker use positive words and images to describe his/her point of view and negative words and images to describe other points of view? Does the speaker ascribe positive motivations to his/her point of view and negative motivations to alternative points of view?

Bias in the news media
Is the news media biased toward progressives? Yes. Is the news media biased toward conservatives? Yes. These questions and answers are uninteresting because it is possible to find evidence – anecdotal and otherwise – to ‘prove’ media bias of one stripe or another. Far more interesting and instructive is studying the inherent, or structural biases of journalism as a professional practice.  A more accepted, and perhaps more accurate term, instead of 'bias', would be ‘frame’. These are some of the professional frames that structure what journalists can see and how they can present what they see.

Commercial bias: The news media are money-making businesses. As such, they must deliver a good product to their customers to make a profit. The customers of the news media are advertisers. The most important product the news media delivers to its customers is readers or viewers. Good is defined in numbers and quality of readers or viewers. The news media are biased toward conflict (cf. bad news and narrative biases below) because conflict draws readers and viewers. Harmony is boring.

Temporal bias: The news media are biased toward the immediate. News is what's new and fresh. To be immediate and fresh, the news must be ever-changing even when there is little news to cover.

Visual bias: Television (and, increasingly, newspapers) are biased toward visual depictions of news. Television is nothing without pictures. Legitimate news that has no visual angle is likely to get little attention. Much of what is important in politics – policy – cannot be photographed.

Bad news bias: Good news is boring (and probably does not photograph well, either). This bias makes the world look like a more dangerous place than it really is. Plus, this bias makes politicians look far more negative than they really are.

Narrative bias: The news media cover the news in terms of ‘stories’ that must have a beginning, middle, and end – in other words, a plot with antagonists and protagonists. Much of what happens in our world, however, is ambiguous. The news media apply a narrative structure to ambiguous events suggesting that these events are easily understood and have clear cause-and-effect relationships. Good storytelling requires drama, and so this bias often leads journalists to add, or seek out, drama for the sake of drama. Controversy creates drama. Journalists often seek out the opinions of competing experts or officials in order to present conflict between two sides of an issue (sometimes referred to as the authority-disorder bias). Lastly, narrative bias leads many journalists to create, and then hang on to, master narratives – set story lines with set characters who act in set ways. Once a master narrative has been set, it is very difficult to get journalists to see that their narrative is simply one way, and not necessarily the correct or best way, of viewing people and events.

Status quo bias: The news media believe ‘the system works’.  This bias ensures that alternate points of view about how government might run and what government might do are effectively ignored. They go with the flow and analyse that.

Fairness bias: No, this is not an oxymoron. Ethical journalistic practice demands that reporters and editors be fair. In the news product this bias manifests as a contention between/among political actors (cf. narrative bias above). Whenever one faction or politician does something or says something newsworthy, the press is compelled by this bias to get a reaction from an opposing camp. This creates the illusion that the game of politics is always contentious and never cooperative. This bias can also create situations in which one faction appears to be attacked by the press. For example, politician A announces some positive accomplishment followed by the press seeking a negative comment from politician B. The point is not to disparage politician A, but to be fair to politician B. When politician A is a conservative, this practice by the press thus appears to be liberal bias, that is, the press manifesting their liberal tendencies by seeking out comment from politician B that disparages politician A's conservative achievement; and vice versa, of course. I would add though that the motivation for doing this in some instances is questionable when you read how it has then been used by the journalist.

Expediency bias: Journalism is a competitive, deadline-driven profession. Reporters compete among themselves for prime space or air time. News organisations compete for market share and reader/viewer attention. And the 24-hour news cycle – driven by the immediacy of television and the internet – creates a situation in which the job of competing never comes to a rest. Add financial pressures to this mix – the general desire of media groups for profit margins that exceed what's ‘normal’ in many other industries – and you create a bias toward information that can be obtained quickly, easily and inexpensively. Need an expert/official quote (status quo bias) to balance (fairness bias) a story (narrative bias)? Who can you get on the phone fast? Who is always ready with a quote and always willing to speak (i.e. say what you need them to say to balance the story)? Who sent a press release recently? Much of deadline decision making comes down to gathering information that is readily available from sources that are well known.

Glory bias: Journalists, especially television reporters, often insert themselves into the stories they cover. This happens most often in terms of proximity, i.e. to the locus of unfolding events or within the orbit of powerful political and civic actors. This bias helps journalists establish and maintain a cultural identity as knowledgeable insiders (although many journalists reject the notion that follows from this – that they are players in the game and not merely observers).  News promos with stirring music and heroic pictures of individual reporters create the aura of omnipresence and omnipotence.

Blatant political bias: This is the most contentious framework 'bias' of all. It is one that I wrestled with defining specifically because I could not decide, as I have never spoken to any of the protagonists about it, how fully invested politically are some journalists in defining the stories they write based upon their own political prejudices? It is probably fair to say that some are guilty of this bias. Yet others may only be playing to the audience that the proprietor instructs them to write for.

Simply communicating by written or spoken words introduces bias to the message. Rhetoric scholar James A. Berlin once said that language is "never innocent." By this he meant that language cannot be neutral; it reflects and structures our ideologies and world views. To speak at all is to speak politically.

False assumptions by journalists, rather than overt politicking, help create the political bias news consumers often detect in news reporting. A conservative will quite naturally assert a conservative world view by using concepts in ways comfortable to conservatives. The same goes for progressive journalists communicating with their 'consumers'.

So, whilst it might seem like I have morphed into an apologist for some of the most egregious violators of the public's trust that exist in Australian political journalism, I would rather see what I have put before you today as my considered analysis of the possible motivations behind why they do what they do, good and bad. We all know who 'they' are, and, I guess, they all have mortgages and school fees to pay, like you and me. Thus, while I may not agree with what they say, I will defend to the death their right to say it. And, it doesn't make what they sometimes do correct, but I can now understand better why they might do it.

So is the Canberra Press Gallery really attempting to determine who will govern this country and the manner by which they come to power?

What do you think?

 

Getting some balance into the RSPT debate

There has been much heat emanating from the RSPT debate, but little light to illuminate the details in a way that enables neutral people to be informed in a balanced way.

This piece brings together a number of articles and opinions that paint a somewhat different picture from that portrayed by the mining companies, the Abbott Party, and the media where the commentary has be largely antipathetic.  The articles are generally in chronological order with the most recent at the top.

In the interests of balance, the link to the Henry Tax Review: Australia’s future tax system released on 2 May is here.  The most recent Treasurer’s Economic Note of 24 May, which addresses ‘RSPT myths’ is here,  and the Minerals Council’s 25 May document: The truth about the super tax – the myths and the facts is here

The following is a collection articles relevant to the RSPT.  Most are accompanied by a short excerpt that summarizes the main points.  To read the full article, click the title.

The contribution of Peter Martin’s blog–site is acknowledged.  Because he has taken a special interest in the RSPT, there are more articles and links there than on any other site.

UPDATE 28 May from Peter Martin’s blog-site: Henry: Frankly there is more than enough investment in train in the mining sector...  There you will also find the link to the complete transcript of yesterday’s Senate Estimates hearings where Ken Henry was interviewed. 

Martin’s piece begins “The mining industry did not save Australia from recession as is widely believed, according to the head of the Treasury. And any investor who thinks the proposed new tax is causing stock market jitters deserves to do their dough.

“In two hours of calm, defiant and at times barbed evidence to a Senate committee just ahead of leaving on an overseas holiday Treasury boss Ken Henry rubbished claims the mining industry was Australia's Saviour, poured scorn on suggestions that it was highly taxed and inferred that what its executives say in private they don't repeat in public.  Asked whether the government was planning to water down the proposed new tax in response to industry concerns he said he was aware of no such proposal.  Asked whether he still expected mining investment to boom as forecast in the budget he said he had seen nothing to make him change his mind.”

To read his full piece, and use the link to the transcript, click here.  

Written as long ago as 28 April by Peter Martin, We'll still be mining begins: “Don't believe everything you read in the paper. Particularly not headlines like this in Monday's Australian: ‘Mining tax will kill industry’. It is not only wrong, it's also incredibly familiar.”  and ends “Minerals are about the most bolted down thing we have. Companies that want to extract our resources have no choice but to pay our taxes, even if they delay doing so until other mines become expensive. They are even digging up our gold, two decades after an impost that was going to stifle mining growth, destroy jobs and slash export earnings.”  

Martin’s 19 May piece Henry to miners - no compromise on where the tax kicks in begins “Treasury boss Ken Henry has flatly rejected talk of a compromise over the mining super profit tax saying to give in on the threshold would overcompensate miners to the point where they might not actually mine.”  Later: “When told mining companies didn't see things that way Dr Henry said he did "not want to debate the relative merits of intuition over analysis," adding "obviously I have a marked sympathy with the later."  I don't know how many times in 25 years I've been told... well that's all very well in theory but it's not actually how the real world works, only to observe years down the track that the people we call call financial engineers who can translate theory into practice at the speed of light have moved so quickly and done so much that governments have had to respond and at last recognise the power of the theory over perceptions of what the real world is like."

On 24 May Treasury released its paper Disparities in average rates of company tax across industries that can be accessed in Martin’s Treasury strikes back – Disparities in Average Tax Rates.  Martin’s quotes one paragraph: "With the exception of the finance & insurance industry, all industries pay a less than proportionate amount of tax, relative to their contributions towards gross operating surplus. The standout industries are mining and electricity, gas and water - the latter is of particular note with a contribution of less than 1 per cent to corporate tax collections for the 2004-05 financial year, but 7 per cent of corporate gross operating surplus." 

If you want to know what Rio Tinto had to say, read Martin’s 24 May: Believable statement? Rio says Australia number one sovereign risk worldwide  Rio’s Tom Albanese concluded: "If the tax had been in place 10 years ago, we would not have made the investment ... in the Pilbara..."

Those interested in the tenor of Fortescue’s letter to shareholders published on 25 May can read it in full.  Martin’s concluding comment is “Fortunately one of the questions in the letter can be cleared up straight away:  To make the point, imagine for a moment that your home loan was based on you failing to make your mortgage repayments and the house being sold in a mortgagee-in-possession auction. Do you think your banker would be happy that someone would make good 40 per cent of the loss as a reason to lend you the money - in return for taking 40 per cent of your income? The same income they were relying on to allow you to repay the loan? Clearly the banker would have stopped you buying the house because they rely on believable repayment schedules, not bankruptcy events.

“The answer is 'yes'.”

On 22 May Martin begins his piece: It's not a tax, it applies to more than super profits, so how did so many people get it so wrong? “Books will be written. By the way, the government will win this one.

“Someone somewhere in the Treasurer's office must be deeply regretting ever calling it a Super Profits Tax. For one thing it applies to profits that are pretty ordinary. For another, it's not a tax...” and concludes: “A previous Labor government lost office in 1975 when it tried to borrow $4 billion to buy back mines from mining companies. This government is planning to use legislative muscle to buy in. Neither has proved popular.” 

On 24 May, Ross Gittins, writing in his typically acerbic way in Gittins today - How Rudd got into the mess concludes: “And the precedent of weakness he set with all his cave-ins to miners and other rent-seekers over the emissions trading scheme means giving the miners something this time would be more likely to further incite their greed than calm them.  Rudd is a weak man fallen among thieves. He may be from Queensland, but his moral compass now comes courtesy of Sussex Street. I'm sure he remains convinced of his own uprightness, but clinging to office comes first.  Actually, for a bunch that puts political expediency above all, Rudd's cynical advisers have made a succession of bad calls...”

To highlight how deceptive the mining industry has been with at least some of its representations, read Martin’s 25 May piece: Mistrust anyone who produces a graph like this.  The miners have used the oldest dirty trick in the book in representing statistics by truncating the bars in a bar graph.  Take a look at the first graph that gives the impression that the miners paid around three times as much tax as other industries, but note that the scale on the vertical axis starts at 22% and goes to 29%.  Then look at the second graph and note how the bars look when the vertical axis starts at zero.  To use such a trick shows the level of deceit to which the miners have stooped.  Note that what is being featured here is the deceptive way the data is being presented, not the actual figures, which themselves are debatable. 

Martin’s piece of 22 May: Resources tax: Australia may be the first, we won't be the last begins: “The Paris-based Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development has swung its weight behind Australia's proposed resource tax saying it represents a ‘sharing of the bonanza’ and will not frighten away foreign investors.  The extraordinary intervention in support of the tax, in an ABC radio interview to be broadcast tomorrow suggests the so-called "rich nations club" regards the 40 per cent tax as a model to be followed by other members trying to regain control of their budgets.  Angel Gurría the Mexican-born OECD Secretary-General told the Sunday Profile program the tax was one of ‘a number of preferred ways in which we like to see tax structutres work’.”

To see the Henry Review paper that details the effective tax rates different industries pay in different countries read Martin’s 23 May piece: So what effective tax rates do mining companies actually pay?  You will see this is where the 17% figure for mining has been derived.

Martin’s 24 May piece: Okay so no-one likes to part with profit, but the mining fight is becoming a spectator sport concludes with: “Economist Ross Garnaut appealed for peace labeling the industry campaign "dangerous from a number of points of view". Simply to roll the Treasury on an issue that's been subject of very careful analysis without a lot of very careful analysis being the basis of variation of policy, I think would be very dangerous," he told the ABC.

"We need a strong Australian policy making process, we need a strong independent centre of Australian policy making, that's what gave us 20 years of reform and what is the main reason why we're in better shape than most of the world right now.  To simply have pressure from industry roll this, rather than have a good discussion in the public interest leading to legislation would, I think, be dangerous."

You will enjoy reading Martin’s 25 May piece Five easy pieces - the Mining Super Profits Tax.  All are succinct.

For a wry smile read Peter Martin's piece of yesterday What the experts think about the outlook for BHP and Rio? which points to what the market thinks of BHP and Rio’s prospects for investors.

If you want to read something positive about the RSPT, read Martin’s Three of the best things written about the Resource Super Profits Tax of yesterday where he gives the opinions of “Ben Smith, consultant to the 1986 Gutman inquiry into the taxation of gold mining that recommended the exemption be removed, subsequently making Australia making billions, John Freebairn of the economics faculty at Melbourne University who has the most lateral tax mind in the business as well as the most human understanding, and Alan Mitchell, economics editor of the Australian Financial Review who sees clearly where others see fog.”

Martin insists: “These pieces shows each at the top of their game.

In his 26 May piece How much tax? Martin publishes an critical article “Ian McIlwraith has dug where the Treasury appears not to: If the Treasury analysis of corporate tax, released by Treasurer Wayne Swan and recommended by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, is an example of the quality of that department's work generally - we're in deep trouble. After a heated 48-hour exchange of statistical fire, in which two US academics became collateral damage because their research was used as a weapon it was never designed to be, Rudd and Swan's army retreated to what it thought was higher ground, firing off a soon-to-be-published piece of Treasury research.” that concludes: “That says that the current tax regime is very inefficient in converting company income into tax receipts - something Henry's review was supposed to fix, and it is difficult to see why dropping the corporate tax rate to 28 per cent will fix it.”

Then yesterday we had Martin’s Resource Tax: 22 leading economists speak out that begins: "Although it is appropriate to debate modifications to the design of the proposed Resource Super Profits Tax, the current public criticism of the proposed tax has been dominated by misinformation."  The statement is reproduced.

John Quiqqin was one of the authors.  On his website there was Resource rent tax statement with links to the statement and press release. 

Crikey has good some articles: Yesterday Don’t look at what the miners say, look at what they do by Glen Dyer and Bernard Keane, concludes: “The ‘debate’ over the RSPT is increasingly boiling down to a simple contest between the Government and a number of huge, mainly foreign companies that are systematically lying about the impact of the tax — as demonstrated by their own actions — and who have in effect hired the Opposition in order to run a political campaign of obstruction.  These are very large, very wealthy companies used to getting their way with most of the governments they deal with. In an hitherto unseen demonstration of backbone, the Rudd Government has dared to take them on. And as Ross Gittins has pointed out, they’re deeply concerned that other governments will follow our lead. This is not just about the extra tax the biggest miners will be paying here, but about the extra tax they’ll find themselves paying overseas as well.  But as always, don’t look at what they say, look at what they do. And they’re spending up big here.”

Today in Crikey Adam Schwab’s: How the RSPT may end up costing taxpayers begins: “The biggest problem with the resources super tax is not, as the big miners had earlier tried to argue that it involves too much tax being paid - rather, that the so-called tax may end up being a cost to Australians. That is because under the proposal, the “government will effectively make a contribution of 40% to the costs of the project outlaid by the entity. [With those entities] able to access the contribution by deducting the costs outlaid on a project from: the project’s RSPT income; from income of another project owned by the entity or owned by another entity of the same wholly owned company group”.

If you’re not yet satiated there is more:

Resource debate needs less heat more light and Garnaut’s got the goods on mining taxes, both by Tim Colebatch, on his blogsite, Double bind of the minerals bonanza and Mining the figures uncovers deception by George Megalogenis on his Meganomics blogsite, Canberra doesn't mind if a few miners get shafted by Michael Stutchbury in The Australian, Our oldest enemy by Nicholas Gruen on Club Troppo, Risk and RSPT  and Attacking messengers by Joshua Gans on Core Economics, and Big update: Unravelling the RSPT and The RSPT as we know it will be dead before long by Christopher Joye on his blogsite.

Of course there are many other articles in the MSM on the RSPT, many written by non-economists, some by political commentators who focus more on the politics than the economics.  The above articles focus mainly on the economics and the factual aspects of this complicated debate.  I trust they will shine some light onto the facts that have been so overshadowed by the furious hyperbole emanating from both contestants in this emotive debate, and perpetrated by the media, much of which chooses to represent the RSPT negatively, often in doom and gloom terms.  I trust this collection of articles will provide better balance to this debate, so convoluted as it has been by misinformation and too often, outright lies.

Tell us what you think.

 

Why is a good Government down in the polls?

This is the first of a series that will examine what the Rudd Government has done during its two and a half years in office.  It will be argued that it has been a good government that has achieved much more that might be expected in a first term and has a host of ongoing initiatives in train or planned for a second term.  It will counter the erroneous impression, perpetuated by the Opposition and much of the MSM, that it has been a ‘do-nothing’ government that has made a mess of everything it has touched.  The facts simply do not match the anti-government rhetoric.

 

The series begins though by asking why a good government is now so down in the polls after a record-breaking run for the first two years.  Many pundits are writing about what has happened to Kevin Rudd and his Government these past months during which the polls have descended from stratospheric heights of popularity to ordinary levels and below.  Before a remedy for the Government’s electoral condition can be formulated, an accurate and comprehensive diagnosis is necessary. 

 

Bernard Keane has written a thoughtful piece Crikey Essay: Why is Rudd failing that suggests a diagnosis.  Like most diagnoses it is not simple.  There are several elements.

 

Taking his ideas as a guide, here is my diagnostic formulation:

 

Media malevolence

The Political Sword has repeatedly asserted that there has been and still is a concerted media onslaught on Rudd and his Government by many in the media, especially News Limited.  There have been countless pieces on this blog site going back many months but News Limited’s undeclared war on the Rudd Government in March summarized the situation as we saw it.

 

This month Wake in fright and Their ABC amplified this view.  In a piece on Crikey: How Rudd blew it: finding ways to upset everyone at the same time, Keane agrees: “There’s no doubt the tone of media coverage of the government has changed dramatically, and not in its favour, since the start of the year, with a determined air of get-square for the high-handedness with which Rudd’s office treated and manipulated the media for two years.

 

“There are also the permanent anti-Labor elements of the media. News Limited, primarily via The Australian, has been conducting a war on the government. Considerable resources have been deployed by that newspaper in an entirely confected campaign against the BER stimulus component, even after an ANAO report discredited the entire effort. News also employs several commentators whose entire job is to smear and attack Labor, unrestrained by any adherence to facts or reason, so that even when Labor adopts pro-business policies it is criticised. The Coalition faces no such permanent media opposition.

 

“While declining newspaper readerships and the dominance of free-to-air news bulletins mean News’ attacks are not directly harmful, they influence other media coverage. In particular, the ABC now frequently marches in lockstep, repeating its polling spin verbatim, deploying resources to follow up attacks and giving a regular platform to anti-Labor commentators.”

 

Media manipulation

The pace and style of media reporting has changed dramatically, not suddenly, but it is very different from what it was in the earlier Howard years.  It was John Howard who accelerated the process of using talkback radio and frequent TV appearances to promulgate his messages.  He became expert at this and used favourites such as Alan Jones to reach a demographic that Howard identified as his ‘battlers’.  That use, or manipulation, of the media has reached new heights since Kevin Rudd became PM.  Just about every journalist has commented, usually adversely, on Rudd’s ‘obsession with the 24 hour media cycle’.  While this may be so, the media itself has created a set of expectations of politicians that politicians seem to feel obliged to follow, at times slavishly.   

 

While there are some occasions where in-depth exposition of policies and positions is possible such as on the 7.30 Report, Lateline and the Sunday morning TV political programmes, which inform a unique demographic of politically-oriented thinkers, they reach but a tiny fraction of the electorate.  The busy homemaker, the tired-at-the-end-of-the day tradesman, a demographic with which all politicians need to connect, have neither the time or the inclination to sit through a long and complicated dissertation on political issues. Today’s commercial media demands short ‘bites’ of just a few seconds to convey politicians’ messages.  This requires sophisticated communication techniques, which in my view the Government media advisors have not yet mastered. 

 

In the same way as we all know that ‘No’ is easier to say louder than ‘Yes’, it is much easier to convey a negative message in a seven second sound-bite than a positive one. Tony Abbott’s favourite - ‘Great Big New Tax’ – which he applied to the ETS and now to the RSPT, is a classic example.  As Bushfire Bill has pointed out, the years of hard work and planning that went into the creation of Rudd’s ETS were destroyed with four words ‘Great Big New Tax’.  How can you counter that scare-laden negative with a similarly succinct positive – you can’t, not easily anyway.

 

So Kevin Rudd and his Government are hoisted, willingly or otherwise, by the media’s own petard of seven-second visuals and sound bites.  Sadly for the Government, ministers do not universally cope well with this.  Julia Gillard is the best.  Lindsay Tanner, and more recently Wayne Swan have become adept at longer expositions, but Julia is well ahead on what the media like to label ‘cut through’.  Tony Abbott does well in this regard, but has a head start because his messages are largely negative.

 

There are other demographics to which Rudd tries to connect – the Rove Live and Good News Week and Twitter and Facebook audiences.  And of course that attracts criticism from some in the media which is miffed about being bypassed.  Rudd has done this well, not that the media cares to acknowledge that.

 

The other assertion that journalists make is that Kevin Rudd has made enemies in the media by his refusal to kow-tow, by what seems to the media to be manipulation of it for his own purposes, and of course by advertising less than Howard.  Used to calling the shots and making governments and institutions jump, the media is now in pay-back mode, and it is going at it hard.

 

In summary, the ever-demanding need to comply with the media cycle, or media manipulation as we have called it here, exercises a profound influence on Government and, depending on how it manages it, its electoral fortunes.  The Government needs to remedy its shortcomings in this regard.

 

Promises

Much is made of ‘broken promises’ and some less-than-clear-thinking journalists link this to lying.  So let’s first clear the air by defining these terms.  A ‘promise’ is ‘an assurance given that one will do or not do something or will give or procure something’, or ‘a ground of expectation of future achievements or good results’.  Notice the verb ‘will’.  No ifs or buts, just ‘will’.  To lie is ‘to speak falsely’, ‘to be deceptive’.  The purpose of a lie is to deceive from the outset.  ‘Promises’ are different from ‘intentions’, which are aims.  When a politician expresses an intention to do or achieve something, it is just that, not a promise that come hell or high water, it will be done.  Here is where politicians get into hot water.  By giving the impression that they will or will not do something, an intention is interpreted as a promise, and if it is not achieved it becomes a broken promise.  The intent to ‘stop the blame game’ in the health system has morphed into a ‘promise’, and if not achieved to the media’s or the Opposition’s satisfaction will become a ‘broken promise’.  It is much more damaging to level accusations of broken promises at politicians than to simply say that they have not realized their intention of doing something.  Accusations of ‘broken promises’ are potent weapons of attack.

 

So where does the blame lie?  First, politicians have themselves to blame for creating the impression that certain things will be done, which stick in the public and the media’s mind as ‘promises’.  If they were to qualify their intentions with caveats, such as ‘We will try to do this or that but realize there will be obstacles, people who will oppose, or adverse circumstances that will frustrate or perhaps defeat our efforts, but it is our intention to try our hardest’, they would be seen as vacillating, uncertain, and backing the horse both ways.  The media would simply not let them get way with such a statement.  So the politicians come out with what seem like promises and suffer the ‘broken promise’ barb if they don’t succeed.

 

Kevin Rudd has been perceived by the media and many in the electorate as ‘promising’ to do something about global warming and despite all he has done, by deferring further action until the Kyoto agreement expires at the end of 2012, is seen as breaking a solemn promise.  Likewise, he gave the impression his Government would take a more humane approach to asylum seekers, which it has, but his deferral of processing of Afghan and Sri Lankan asylum applications has evoked another ‘broken promise’ accusation.  Because the particular groups concerned with these two issues are passionate about them, the effect on polling has been profound.  The Government has not managed the change of direction on these matters well.  Its promotion of the policy adjustments have not been well articulated, and the voice of the media and opponents of these changes have been so dominant they have drowned out the voice of the Government. 

 

In summary, media message management has been found wanting by allowing intentions to be morphed into promises, and changes of direction into broken promises.

 

Managing expectations

As expressed in another piece on The Political Sword, The folly of putting a politician on a pedestal we, the ordinary people, have our own expectations of politicians: “A natural human trait is to seek to elevate some of our number to positions of authority and trust.  We seek leaders who will guide us to the promised-land.  So we place them on a pedestal and hope they will fulfil our dreams and their promise of vision, leadership, courage and strength.  But unless they are mythical god-like creatures from a parallel universe, they can never live up to our dreams and their promises – life is too complicated, variables so numerous, fate so unpredictable, circumstances so changeable.” 

 

It is so easy and so ego-building for a politician to raise expectations beyond what is reasonable, to encourage the electorate to believe that they are able to do more than they really can.  Kevin Rudd and his Government have been accused of that by the media and there is some truth to it.  They have not managed expectations as well as they might have.

 

Another way in which the Government managed expectations pre-election was in portraying Rudd as not a risk to sound economic management for which the Howard Government earned a reputation.  Rudd was seen as ‘Howard-lite’.  With his memorable phrase ‘this reckless spending must stop’ (now turned on Rudd by Abbott), Rudd gave the impression of one that would be careful with taxpayers’ money.  That expectation stood Rudd in good stead, but when the GFC tsunami appeared on the horizon, although spending to keep the nation out of recession became necessary and in the event highly successful, the image of a fiscally cautious Government was assaulted by the Opposition who saw mileage in the ‘debt and deficit’ mantra.  Again, the management of the impression that Government ministers were careful fiscal managers despite the actions they took to counter the GFC, has not been as well done as it might have been.

 

Pre-politics background

Kevin Rudd came to leadership without factional baggage.  His bureaucratic background endowed him with a process-oriented approach to political issues rather than an ideological one born of factional allegiances.  This is why we have seen the careful, cautious, enquiry-driven approach to policy formation, which inevitably takes time, and with it the ‘hitting the ground reviewing’ and ‘do nothing’ barbs.  While the impatient might applaud ‘back-of-the-envelope’ planning such as we saw with Howard’s water plan, would not most prefer a thorough get-it-right-first-time approach?   Rudd fostered an image of himself as a careful reformer, and the public has been ready to project that image upon him.

 

Bernard Keane has another interpretation of Rudd’s pre-election image building, namely that “... Rudd captured a national mood for change. In this interpretation, Rudd was anything but Howard-lite — he was more a pre-Obama change agent who answered a growing mood for a swing back to the Left amongst Australians, particularly young people. That Rudd was a personally conservative, centrist technocrat with no real labour movement roots was carefully glossed over.”

 

That interpretation rings true.  Keane puts it this way: “Essentially, conservative voters wanted Rudd to be similar to his predecessor but without the manifest problems that Howard accumulated – his age, most particularly, and his cynicism, manifested both in his increasingly transparent attempts to buy elections, and his casuistry.  More progressive voters wanted Rudd to substantially abandon key elements of the Howard approach on climate change, indigenous affairs and asylum seekers.”  Because the expectation that many people projected on Rudd was that he was a change-agent, when the changes Rudd was able to accomplish fell short in their eyes, they were disappointed and even disillusioned.  Keane also feels that Rudd has not yet crafted “...his own political persona, offering his own story to Australians rather than relying on them to see what they wanted to.” 

 

Managing those expectations, aligning them with the stark reality of politics, and creating a compelling Rudd-image, a Rudd persona, have not been done well enough.

 

Communication

A failing that many in the media have levelled at Rudd particularly, is in communicating ideas, policies and actions to the public.  It is a demanding task to condense into a few short meaningful sentences the complexities of such policy issues as the ETS, the RSPT, the Henry Tax Review, or for that matter the Health Reforms.  The task is made so much harder by a media that insists on short grabs that fit into the perceived short attention span of its audiences.  Solving this problem is at the same time essential but difficult.

 

Rudd seems to have been persuaded by his advisers that he must repeat phrases such as ‘working families’, ‘in the national interest’ and ‘decisive action’ endlessly, and to be sure that is not inappropriate advice in as far as some of those targeted with these phrases will not hear them unless repeated often.  But the rest yearn for a lucid explanation of policies and plans that describe the Government’s intentions and the logical reasons behind them.

 

This is a good Government that has made great progress in its first term and has much in the pipeline for its second term, but it has not communicated its successes as well as it could have.  It must do this, by any means, even if substantial money needs to be spent hitting the papers and airwaves with a barrage of positive messages.

 

In my opinion the Government needs a specialist media unit staffed with experienced communicators to craft messages for the public on its successes, its policies and its plans that will strike a respondent chord among those who really want to know what is going on and why.  The messages then need to be rehearsed by the PM and relevant ministers to the point of being word perfect and promulgated by every available means  - print, online, radio, TV, and social networks.  The message must be consistent, but variation in its presentation would be necessary to avoid mindless repetition and boredom.

 

In summary, inadequate communication is a fault that is impeding the Government’s ability to ‘cut through’ with its essential messages.

 

Standing firm on sacred principles

Kevin Rudd is perceived by some, and much of the media, as unwilling to stand by his sacred principles.  Of course they have created an impression of what is sacred as much as has Rudd, and they don’t always correspond.  One thing the public dislike is not standing by one’s principles.  Moreover, whether one is standing by principles is a value judgement made by the public, aided and abetted by the media, and may be incorrect.   

For example, Rudd seems to me to be as committed as he ever was to the need for an ETS, but frustrated by an obstructive opposition and an uncooperative international community, and unconvinced that a DD will resolve the impasse, has deferred action rather than die in a ditch pushing an agenda that has no hope of success.  Yet the media, particularly Paul Kelly who long ago declared that the ETS would define Rudd’s prime ministership, condemned him in strident terms.

 

Nonetheless it is essential that Rudd carefully define the matters of high principle on which he will not be moved, and stick to his guns.  The RSPT is a contemporary issue many hope Rudd will stand by ‘in the national interest’ so we can all share equitably in the sale of our resources rather than being bullied by the big miners, urged on by an opportunistic Opposition.

 

In summary, we yearn for sacred principles to be protected and fought for tooth and nail by our leaders.  And if circumstance make that impossible we need to know why this is so in clear, unambiguous terms.

 

The comprehensive diagnosis

The Rudd Government is currently confronted by a complex set of problems:
Media malevolence

Media manipulation
'Promises’, sometimes construed as being broken

Management of expectations

Communication of policies, plans, actions and achievements

Defining the principles on which it will stand firm.

 

These problems are postulated to collectively be the cause of the Government’s and Kevin Rudd’s polling slump. Individuals will give more emphasis to some than others, but all are significant.

 

They are all reversible.  The Rudd Government is a good Government that deserves a second term.  Apart from shielding the nation from the ravages of the GFC that have afflicted other nations, it is a reforming Government that is carefully planning to make good the deficiencies it inherited – an unfair IR system, a run-down education system, skill shortages, infrastructure bottlenecks and an ailing health care system. 

 

This is just one person’s opinion.

 

What do you think?

Politics is officially bunk

 

 

I regard myself as a pretty hard nut to crack but I have to admit it... today I'm gobsmacked.

Gobsmacked... that yesterday The Australian could introduce an article by Mirko Bagaric - the man who wrote the book on torture - in defence of the ethics of Tony Abbott's lying (they're only white lies, natch), leaving it to Tony's conscience as to whether a lie is in a good cause. I guess we, the Voters, are just supposed to accept Tony's (and The Australian's) decision on the matter.

Gobsmacked... that Joe Hockey had the temerity to front the Press Club... with no policies, no costings and no idea except to demolish anything and everything Labor has set up in the past couple of years.

Gobsmacked... that the Right thought they could get away with these pathetic excuses for participation in the National Discourse.

This is one of those occasions where I don't know how to begin to criticise the last day's worth of politics. It's not that there's nothing to criticise. It's just... where do I start?

The lies, the convolutions, the deliberate idiocies that Joe Hockey told Kerry O'Brien last night on the 7.30 Report were so monumentally galling as to be beyond rational criticism (given restricted bandwidth... which is another Coalition policy, of course... no NBN).

I can only assume that Joe has been told, 'It'll be fixed up in the morning, mate. Don't worry. Get a good night's sleep Joe.'

That he and Robb can claim that retaining 30% company tax is a saving when the very tax they are claiming to axe - Labor's reduced rate of 28% - is based on a law - the Resource Super Profits Tax - they have sworn not to enact is bad enough, but then to say that if Labor is re-elected they'll block it somehow is too much... what I mean is that if Labor is re-elected, and reduces company tax to 28%. how can getting rid of it be a Coalition government savings measure... because the Coalition won't be in government... See? I'm trying to be rational. It's a character fault I have. You can't be rational with monstrous stupidity such as this. So I won't go on trying. Red Kerry himself gave up after six minutes trying to make sense of it. Greg Jennet this morning on ABC radio told listeners, "It's a bit complicated... but please bear with me...". So perhaps I'm in good company.

Either Joe has been advised the media 'fix' is in, or he's even more stupid than even I dared to believe (and his regard for the Voter is even more cynical than I thought possible). Is politics really bunk? Do they actually expect us to believe this claptrap that passes for sober political policy-making?

Yesterday - all of it - was a monument to absolute political and social buffoonery. What can the Coalition expect us to cope with, now that we've seen the absolute worst they can dish up as rational decision making? For once (many may give thanks) I'm stumped for words.

So it seems was Dennis Shanahan, who, in place of his usual hyperbolic paean of praise for anything the Coalition does, says or implies, managed to stump up with just 333 half-hearted words on yesterday's Press Club fiasco (can I use that word... or is it reserved only for Insulation and the BER?). Michelle Grattan only managed 191 words, although six of them were "Policy vacuum a recipe for political disaster".

According to Dennis, Joe Hockey only "left the impression he didn't turn up at the National Press Club with a detailed list of budget cuts and costings for his budget-in-reply speech yesterday." He had it in his hand, didn't he? One single A4 page wasn't it? He waved it around a bit, right? What more did the hostile media crowd in attendance want? Answers to questions? The cheek! 

The silence this morning in the newspapers and on the airwaves is deafening. It's as if the media have collectively sucked in their breath in shock, and no-one wants to be the first to ask 'What the hell happened?'  Things are so quiet, even the birds have stopped singing in the trees outside my office window. So why do I still hear those tom-toms beating in my brain? Oooooh... my head hurts.

Does yours?