Why is the mainstream media angry?

I can hear you asking: ‘Why do you say they are angry?’ Read what they write. Listen to what they say. Judge for yourself. To me, the majority of journalists seem angry about the recent turn of events. Not all, but the majority. Let me elaborate.

On top of her record of passing well over four hundred pieces of legislation since elected, much of it impressively reforming, while presiding over the most vibrant economy in the developed world, and as she performs well on the international stage, PM Gillard’s approval is rising although still low, Tony Abbott’s approval languishes well below, Julia Gillard is comfortably ahead in the PPM stakes, and the polling trend shows a narrowing of the gap between the major parties, although the Coalition is still well ahead.

Political journalists, most of who have been confidently predicting a Coalition landslide and a Labor wipeout in 2013, know from experience that when an election is called the polls will narrow from the current average of 56/44 towards parity. I sense that they see that the tide is slowly turning against the Coalition, and the prospect receding of it winning easily, or even at all, in 2013.

For most of the columnists at News Limited, for Michelle Grattan and Peter Hartcher, to name just two Fairfax journalists, for Tony Jones at the ABC and maybe also for Chris Uhlmann, Leigh Sales, Emma Alberici, and Sabra Lane, the prospect of the Coalition losing again appears to be worrisome, anxiety provoking, even anger generating.

Journalists are fond of talking about ‘context’, often insinuating that as insiders they understand this, while those of us outside their circle do not. They parade what they regard as their profound understanding of the ‘context’ of Canberra. Lenore Taylor did in PM's speech did stir hearts, but remember the context. She and her colleagues argued that we on the outside got it all wrong when we applauded Julia Gillard’s magnificent demolition of Tony Abbott’s sexism and misogyny in her speech last week, and that instead Gillard was the loser on the grounds that she was ‘over the top’ and would thereby lose support, and further that she was being hypocritical by speaking to support the Speaker, himself accused of sexism. Some objected even on the grounds that the word ‘misogyny’ was a misnomer.

Most of them completely missed, or avoided, the crucial point that PM Gillard was defending the entitlement of the Speaker to be afforded due process, to be given the right of reply, to have his extant court case settled before his parliamentary colleagues judged him. They missed that she was defending the processes of the parliament, and its dignity and that of the second most senior office in the House. She was opposing the trashing of proper parliamentary procedure that a ‘Motion to Suspend Standing Orders’, without notice, would bring about. She was NOT supporting Peter Slipper and his unseemly remarks, and she said so emphatically.

But most of the tone-deaf Press Gallery didn’t hear that, most didn’t see what she was doing. Most saw her move as simply another political move. Which demonstrates starkly how their insider status has distorted their hearing and their vision, how seriously it has perverted their understanding of the ‘context’ of Canberra, one that is a product of their own imaginings. Like in the remote Asian mountain village where most of the inhabitants are blind, and therefore being without vision is the norm, blindness and deafness seems to afflict most of our Press Gallery, an affliction of which they, like the remote villagers, seem quite unaware. Moreover, they seem blissfully unaware of the views of the man in the street, and in this case particularly, the woman in the street. Perhaps they are so close to their own context that they cannot see what we do, albeit from the ‘outside’.

This was plainly exhibited on The Wrap last Friday morning on Jon Faine’s ABC 774 Melbourne radio. Regulars, the IPA’s John Roskom, who represents the extreme right, and Sally Warhaft of the Wheeler Centre, who is supposed to give left wing balance, both condemned Julia Gillard’s speech, and continued to do so in the face of over eight out of ten text messages, and a similar proportion of talkback callers, passionately supporting our PM. Roskam simply labelled these people as ‘lefties’ and therefore to be discounted; Warhaft, while somewhat set back on her heels, continued to insist she was right in condemning our PM. I have listened to The Wrap for years but have never heard such condemnation of the panellists by talkback callers, the majority of whom were women. Yet the panellists persisted with their view, unmoved by the strong expression of public opinion, a reflection of the attitude of much of the Canberra Press Gallery.

What on earth has happened to our journalistic elite? Are they on the same planet as we? Denise Allen addresses the same issue in her piece MSM Versus The Fifth Estate on her website Denise Allen Australian Politics. Do read it.

Just a few have called the situation in a balanced way, notably Tim Dunlop, in his article on The Drum Unleashed: The gatekeepers of news have lost their keys that begins: “The past few weeks have made clear that the people are no longer passive observers in the news process. If journalists want to stay relevant, they'd better work with their audience.” Do read it.

The unawareness of most of the Press Gallery was starkly demonstrated in countless opinion pieces. Look at Peter Hartcher’s article: We expected more of Gillard for one of the grossest examples, beginning as it does with: ”If Gillard will not defend respect for women, what will she defend? Just another politician indeed”, and at Michelle Grattan’s: Misogyny war has no winner that begins: ”The PM may have made a hero of herself to some feminists but she did the wrong thing in trying to protect the sexist Peter Slipper.” They seem blind to the matter of high parliamentary principle that PM Gillard was strenuously defending. This is dangerous.

They seem not only disappointed and judgmental, but angry too. Why are they so?

If you want to see anger, take a look at Tony Jones on last Thursday’s Lateline, who ostensibly sought to interview Wayne Swan about the latest job figures before he left for the IMF/World Bank meeting in Tokyo, but who spent the first twelve minutes of the twenty minute interview taking about everything else in an aggressive, adversarial, and at times angry way – the Slipper affair in all its detail, and the bad joke at the CFMEU function – before getting round to jobs. He behaved like ‘counsel for the prosecution’. As he did on the previous night, he homed in on the word ‘misogynist’, asserting that ”it is the worst thing you could say about a man” (about six minutes in), insisting that it meant ‘a hatred of women’. This is where his anger bubbled up noticeably. Clearly, he felt this label for Abbott was unfair, basing his view on the older formal definition of the word: ‘the hatred or dislike of women or girls’, rather than the looser way it is now commonly used, as described in Wikipedia, which says: ”According to feminist theory, misogyny can be manifested in numerous ways, including sexual discrimination, denigration of women, violence against women, and sexual objectification of women”. Surely Jones must be aware of this looser definition, but he chose to labour the formal definition to demean its use by Julia Gillard and her ministers. Why are he and the many others who quibble about the use of the word ‘misogyny’, so angry with Tony Abbott getting a dose of his own disrespectful medicine? Why are they so angry about the contempt Abbott hands out every day being returned?

In my view it is because Jones and others who regularly demean PM Gillard and her Government and look to its replacement by an Abbott led Coalition Government, are becoming increasingly apprehensive about the recent turn of events, beginning with the Alan Jones saga and continuing with PM Gillard’s fine address, which has gone viral around the world, and around this nation too, with now almost 1.9 million YouTube views.

They are concerned too that the alternative PM continues on his aggressive, destructive and demeaning way despite the warning signs that this is not going down well with the voters, that he is making too many mistakes, showing too many lapses of judgement, adhering too closely to his old and now defunct mantras, and consistently declining to address policy and costing issues at his abbreviated and mostly soft interviews with the media. He is looking less and less like prime ministerial material, yet there is no plausible replacement. His supporters, who abound in the mainstream media, are becoming anxious, hoping for a lift in his performance, wishing for a more positive approach, yearning for a rise in his popularity and a widening of the TPP gap, but repeatedly disappointed. Anxiety and disappointment is steadily morphing into irritation, resentment and bubbling anger, which erupts in articles and interviews.

If you didn’t see it, do take a look at the segment on last Sunday’s Insiders: Gillard's misogyny speech taken in context. There you will see Lenore Taylor retreating somewhat from her strident SMH comment on ‘context’, and responding more reasonably to the strong expression of public opinion. You will see Andrew Probyn making his usual sensible comments. You will also see the annoyance and simmering anger of long time Abbott supporter Michael Stutchbury, who defiantly argues that PM Gillard’s speech will harm her among her traditional supporters – the ‘blue collar base’, the ‘union warlords’ and the ‘new professional class’, which he calls ‘the progressives’, labels he repeats several times. He disregards the public response as he defends Abbott, dismissively referring to “…the odd comments of Abbott here and there over time…”, adding, as if in explanation, ”he’s a traditional Catholic…”, whatever that means! The 'odd comments’ indeed! He twists and turns, irritated that the other panellists, and Barrie Cassidy too, disagree with him. He seems to have substituted wishful thinking for logical reasoning. He is infuriated and frustrated, and it shows. Eventually, perhaps to placate the exasperated Stutchbury, the panel ‘agrees’ that Julia Gillard’s address won’t change votes. We will see about that.

Of course, Stutchbury is singing from the same song sheet as others in the Coalition Cheer squad. It is uncanny. It is as if they have all attended the same briefing. In a copy of The Weekend Australian we picked up at a relative’s home, I noticed in Inquirer three articles from the Coalition choir. Paul Kelly wrote: Misogyny will backfire: The PM has wasted her passion on an unworthy cause; Dennis Shanahan’s piece was titled: Grubby attempts to smear Abbott as a hater will leave Labor base unimpressed; and Tom Dusevic had the lead piece: Players in Risky Game: Politicians who are obsessed with point scoring ignore voters at their peril.

Like Stutchbury, all insisted that PM Gillard would be the loser; like Stutchbury, all airbrushed away the persistent vile bullying sexist behaviour and remarks that Abbott has been directing at PM Gillard day after day for years, behaviour which precipitated Julia Gillard’s passionate response. The only concession was that he might have a ‘women problem’; his contemptible behaviour towards the nation’s first female PM was virtually ignored. If you can get behind the paywall, and have the fortitude to read their pieces, you will see the extraordinary uniformity of their offerings, all choristers singing the same hymn, no doubt hoping their words will persuade readers to their view. Wishful thinking has replaced facts and reason.

Take a look too at Paul Sheehan’s defence of Abbott in the SMH: Comments directed at Tony Abbott, where he collects comments in a manner we might expect from kids in the schoolyard seeking to return insults. He would have had to be very annoyed to go to such trouble.

Is their annoyance, apprehension and anger a product of their own political values and orientation? Maybe, but surely not for all of them! Is it the result of groupthink, which we know afflicts so many, making them unprepared to express opinions outside of the mainstream? Is it living in the Canberra ‘echo-chamber’, a term they like to use to describe the Fifth Estate, where the opinions of those in the next office, in the Press Gallery, at their drinking holes, in the parliamentary corridors, are the ones they embrace, rather than those of the electorate? Are they too influenced by opinion polls and focus groups, which are feeding them unreliable information and making unreliable predictions? Are they afraid to deviate from the position they have held for so long that the Coalition is a shoo-in at the next election?

Are they apprehensive that the goodwill that they have built up with Tony Abbott and Coalition members that would ensure they are on their drip feed should the Coalition win government, might be for naught? Are they concerned about writing anything that might evoke the disapproval of Rupert Murdoch? Journalists who work for him would not dare to do so, and those who don’t, might need a job with him. Job insecurity is rife and must influence the behaviour of journalists. If you think this is fantasy, read what Dick Smith says in the SMH: “One ABC journalist said to me: ''Dick, I couldn't mention that your magazine was rejected by the Murdoch press because one day I might have to apply for a job with them.''

How each of these factors operate we cannot know, and I guess journalists would dismiss them as irrelevant. I suppose they will never reveal to us how they feel and think. That would be below them.

The thrust of this piece is that there is mounting anger among mainstream media journalists as the fortunes of the Gillard Government and the stature of PM Gillard improve, and as the performance and stature of the Leader of the Opposition decline, and that this anger is increasingly manifest in their writings and interviews, where they hit out at PM Gillard and her Government, and defend Tony Abbott and his Coalition even more vigorously. The reasons for this are postulated above.

But whatever the reason, I predict we will see more and more anger while the situation improves for the Government and declines for the Coalition. How long journalists will take to adjust to the new reality that a Coalition victory is no longer assured, will be up to them. I suspect it will take quite a while.

What do you think?