Can our ABC resuscitate our political media?

Opinion within the Fifth Estate about the state of the political media in the Fourth Estate is virtually unanimous. There is an almost undivided view that in this country, and in many others, much of the print media is incompetent and malevolent in the way it reports political events, that in places it is corrupt, and in the case of the Murdoch media, subjugated to the will of the proprietor. The previous piece: The MSM is dangerously shortchanging us argued this case; the responses highlighted not just agreement, but also the deep dismay that those who commented felt at this state of affairs.

Perhaps even more dismay was expressed about the way in which the ABC had often followed the commercial media line, even at times echoing its headlines and stories, virtually word for word, and too often devoid of any serious analysis of the newsworthiness of the stories, their veracity and their meaning. Some who commented felt affronted by the apparent acquiescence of the ABC to the commercial line, when it is supposed to be an independent public broadcaster, funded from the public purse. There was consternation that it resembled a Murdoch clone, that it had lost its identity, and with it much of its independence.

Only the sightless could believe that the commercial media, and in particular the News Limited media, would be likely to change their tune and adopt a more balanced approached to politics. Only the sightless would be unable to see that News Limited media are running an explicit political agenda, one that is unlikely to change unless something radical occurs.

News Limited is intent on the removal of the Gillard Government and the replacing of it with a Coalition one, and to ‘the destruction of the Greens at the ballot box’. No objective analysis of News Limited’s behaviour could lead to any other conclusion. And it’s no recent thing. Right back to some of the radical measures Labor took to counter the ill effects of the GFC: the HIP and the BER, News Limited, and particularly its flagship The Australian, has run a virulent and disingenuous campaign of denigration against these measures. It has ridiculed almost everything Labor has enacted; has labelled it incompetent and fiscally reckless; has rebuked, mocked and vilified its leaders, particularly its first female leader; and has misrepresented Labor’s intentions and actions with strident and at times vicious headlines, uncomplimentary photographs and disgusting cartoons. We know the Murdoch agenda, we know compliance with that agenda is required of Murdoch’s men, and we see the result day after day in the writings of Piers Akerman, Andrew Bolt, Dennis Shanahan, Peter van Onselen, Chris Kenny, even Paul Kelly, and many others.

We have looked to Fairfax to counterbalance News Limited, but with the likes of Michelle Grattan, Peter Hartcher, and at times the more moderate Phillip Coorey replicating News Limited’s line, we have largely lost confidence there too. Fortunately, Fairfax still has Peter Martin, Ross Gittins, Brian Toohey and of course Laura Tingle, but with Michael Stutchbury, ex The Australian now at the helm of The Australian Financial Review, it must be hard for writers there to buck his anti-Gillard, anti-Labor orientation.

While we in the Fifth Estate ought never to give up, even on an outfit as recalcitrant as News Limited, with the limited resources we have we need to direct our energies in more promising directions, and the most promising of those seems to be our ABC. It may be the counter to the tsunami of commentary adverse to the Government that comes from the commercial media day after day.

It is worth pausing to ask what it is that we ought to expect from the political media. In my view, political reporters and commentators, and particularly the Canberra Press Gallery that is so close to the action, has a particular responsibility, an onerous one, to inform the electorate about what is happening politically, what the issues are, and what they mean for us. They ought to be comparing and contrasting opposing policies and costings. Their offerings should be fact-based, well argued, balanced, and free of bias, and if an opinion is offered, it ought to be similarly based. But what do we get?

We get political ‘news’ dressed up in sensational clothes; we get scoops and exclusives, ’gotchas’, ‘rule in rule out’ games, he/she was ‘forced to defend’ rhetoric, and of course a plethora of ‘scandals’, so long as they are on the Labor side. Whatever else it is, this ‘news’ must be controversial, conflict-driven, lurid, entertaining, and of course short and to the point, even if inaccurate, so as not to overrun the perceived short attention span of the consumers. The default position is triviality; thoughtful analysis is relegated to less popular time slots, or less read newspaper sections.

The purpose of this piece is to suggest that we direct our attention to our ABC, with the intent of stiffening its spine, rebalancing its coverage, and re-focussing its vision. My question is: Can the ABC resuscitate our moribund and feckless media? Can it bring about changes in its commercial competitors by the sheer force of its professionalism and the strength of its determination to promulgate to the electorate accurate facts and figures, well reasoned analysis, sound guidance and helpful insights?

If the ABC were to assume a dominant, rather than a submissive role hanging onto the coattails of the commercial side, if it were to exhibit outstanding professionalism, if it were to set the standard for political reporting we deserve, if it were to divorce itself from the Canberra Press Gallery echo chamber where groupthink reigns supreme, might it not put pressure on its commercial rivals? Might that not shame them into performing better? Maybe not, but it’s worth a try.

But the ABC is certainly not without fault, and it is not yet homogenous. Some sectors perform well, others poorly; some are balanced, some imperceptibly so. There is hope though that if all its sections could perform well, if balance could be restored, it might be the agent to give mouth to mouth to a moribund commercial political media. It is not an exaggeration to view the commercial media as moribund, but still susceptible to well placed resuscitation.

Balance is a particular concern of ABC users. Writing on Independent Australia, David Horton pens a must-read: Open letter to ABC managing director Mark Scott. It begins:

”Dear Mark Scott,

“About this “balance” thing…

“I thought the ABC was about presenting good and accurate information. Your view seems to be that if you have someone telling the truth, it must be balanced by a lie; a fact balanced by an opinion; history balanced by rewritten history; science balanced by ignorance or religion; objective data balanced by vested interest; conservative opinion balanced by neoconservative opinion.

“The IPA is infesting every ABC outlet with its Libertarian Free Market ideology in the service of secret Business business. What are they providing “balance” for? Have there been Marxist economists daily on the ABC I have somehow missed? Even Keynesian economists? Er…no. Professor Sloan is on every week instead. Who is she “balancing”?

“What about the appearance of Peter Reith every week? A full essay on The Drum plus other live appearances. Who is he balancing? Gerard Henderson, Piers Akerman, Nikki Sava? Has there been a rash of appearances by Trotskyists, Socialist Alliance, Left Wing unionists who have escaped my notice?

“Do you really not see that the occasional appearance of, say, a Green MP, or someone from The Australia Institute, doesn’t actually match in weight the regular appearance of those mentioned above, so regular they might as well be on staff, and certainly gain the apparent credibility of being so.

There is more here that you would enjoy reading.

Remember, it was Mark Scott who took notice of Greg Jericho, when he wrote a piece on Grog’s Gamut complaining about the poor quality of reporting of the 2010 election campaign. Scott discussed Greg’s concern with his executives and brought it to a conference for discussion. As we don’t have inside access to the ABC, we can’t know what changes Greg’s piece brought about, but Scott certainly did notice it.

Why do I see the ABC as a potential remedy to the widespread problem of incompetent political commentary by a moribund media?

Mark Scott’s seeming willingness to listen and learn encourages optimism, and we all know that the ABC can and does produce informative and incisive political programs.

Let’s recall some exemplary events in the ABC’s political life. Shall we ever forget that classic interview in May 2010 by Kerry O’Brien of Tony Abbott about Abbott’s approach to the truth? Refresh your memory by revisiting this YouTube clip. Remember Leigh Sales’ interview with Abbott on 22 August of this year over BHP Billiton’s announcement about its postponement of its Olympic Dam project. These were two occasions when the Opposition Leader was pinned down over statements that were shown to be disingenuous and deceitful. Abbott looked embarrassed, harassed and angry, and showed how pitifully inadequate he was as Leader of the Opposition.

We have to go back only to yesterday’s Insiders to see how Barrie Cassidy handled Joe Hockey and his extravagant utterances about the devastating effects of the mining tax on the miners; his criticism of monthly payments of company tax; his likening of the reduction of the baby bonus to $3000 for the second and subsequent children to the Chinese birth control system, calling the bonus ‘a penalty’; and his use of the term ‘flat-lining’ to describe Australia’s 3% per annum growth rate. Hockey blustered and bumbled his way through the interview, appeared outmaneuvered, was at times rambling, and looked foolish throughout. Hockey would be wise to watch his words more carefully, in lieu of shooting off his mouth.

In case you are thinking that I’m focussing only on interviews with Opposition members, let’s not forget the many times PM Gillard, Treasurer Swan, and many other Government ministers have been put under the hammer by Tony Jones, Emma Alberici, Leigh Sales and Chris Uhlmann on ABC TV, and Jon Faine, Rafael Epstein, Sabra Lane, Samantha Hawley and Alexandra Kirk on radio. There have been so many that we can’t keep count.

What I’m saying is that ABC interviewers can be incisive and insistent; they can dig out the truth and expose disingenuousness. But this is not consistently the case.

As an example of inconsistency, let’s look at interviews by Chris Uhlmann. Recall his impertinent interview of PM Gillard on 9 May that was caustically critiqued by Paul Keating in The Drum Opinion, which because it was published without vetting, evoked an angry rebuttal by Bruce Belsham, Head of ABC Current Affairs, who felt the need to come out in robust defence of “one of this country's best political journalists and interviewers”. Read it here.

Contrast that tough interview with his soft interview of Tony Abbott about the NT intervention where all the questions were easy and facilitatory. Now look at how Uhlmann treated Bob Brown, or should I say assailed him? Uhlmann needs to reflect on his evenhandedness in interviews and not let what appear to be partisan biases influence them.

Balance in the ABC is essential. After all the sprays that Julia Gillard has been given by the likes of Piers Akerman, Michael Stutchbury and Nikki Sava on Insiders, it was a salutary example of balance yesterday to hear Mike Seccombe giving Tony Abbott the biggest spray I have ever heard on that program. Listen to it here.

Another example of balanced discourse is the fora that are conducted regularly on The World Today. Just last Friday, Ashley Hall moderated a discussion between three experts on natural disaster management titled: Debate asks whether Australia can manage natural disasters better. You can read the transcript and listen to it here. Such debates are informative, balanced and absorbing.

This is what we want in our political debates – reliable and verifiable evidence, honestly and completely presented, reasoned argument, logical conclusions, sound advice and comparison of the policy options being offered. Instead, what we usually get is biased rhetoric, flawed and incomplete information, loud argument, talking over each other, and inconclusive outcomes. The regular Lateline Friday ‘debates’ between opposing politicians are a gross example of this. They are intellectually valueless; all they provide is coarse ‘entertainment’ for those with the stomach. They ought to be scrapped and proper debate between experts substituted.

So my proposition is that as the ABC is capable of conducting demanding and balanced interviews of politicians across the political spectrum, although it does not universally do so, and as it is able to provide valid and reliable information and balanced commentary when it chooses, the idea that the ABC might assume a more dominant role becomes compelling as the rest of the media deteriorates.

This idea was captured in The ABC Plays Monopoly by Bernard Lagan on October 24 in The Global Mail the link to which was provided by regular blogger 2353.

It begins: “Australian news consumers are confronting new paywalls all over the place – but it’s all free at the ABC, where the national broadcaster is quietly combining the full force of its television, radio and digital news teams for one hugely ambitious online market grab.

“With Australia’s high-brow newspaper publisher, Fairfax Media, heading for its knees, commercial broadcaster Network Ten about to shed one third of its journalists and the Nine Network now in the hands of unforgiving US hedge funds, who is going to emerge as the titan of influence and reach in the Australian media?

“The likely answer is your ABC.”

Lagan continues: “There is a news revolution going on within Australia’s publicly funded national broadcaster, likely to reveal itself early next year when the ABC re-launches its unloved digital news arm, seeking the online audience share ABC bosses believe it should command. The organisation has rich resources; some 1,000 people work directly for the ABC’s television, radio and online news – about 20 per cent of the corporation’s employees. And many more will soon be contributing to the ABC’s online news sites, under the corporation’s plan to follow the BBC, CNN and to some extent America’s public radio network NPR, and have its journalists working across multiple platforms.

“Not only do the changes herald renewed efforts by the ABC to garner mass audiences for its online news sites – they come at the worst possible time for Fairfax Media, publishers of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age broadsheet newspapers. Now the online news competition for Fairfax – and for News Ltd’s The Australian, which moved to a pay-for-access system in October 2011 – will be increasingly from the ABC, as it puts more resources into online news and produces a re-designed more user-friendly website. Unhappily for Fairfax and News Ltd, all of the ABC’s expanded content will continue to be free.”

Lagan continues: ”While the ABC is coy about its ambitions on the ratings tables, its newly appointed head of news content, Gaven Morris, the creator of the ABC’s highly successful around-the-clock TV news channel ABC News 24, wants a visit to ABC online to become a daily habit for news followers. “There is a real opportunity for us [online ABC news] to be much more of a habit for people than we have been,” says Morris in an interview with The Global Mail.”

“Says Kate Torney, the ABC’s director of news: “The ABC has always evolved to meet audience needs, whether it be through the introduction of television or more recently with online. I see enormous opportunities to improve the ABC’s digital news service and to make sure audiences can access their news on devices of their choice.”

“Head of ABC News 24 and News Online Gaven Morris says that aside from the redesign of the ABC’s online news sites, they will also provide more content, and it will be more varied and more rapidly produced…the ABC plans to increase the number of reporters working on stories of national impact, that can be run in all states on radio, television and especially online.

“The ABC will establish…a central production desk, staffed around the clock. It will package national and international stories from both the ABC’s staff and external news agencies for television and radio, and produce text-based stories for the ABC’s online news sites, as well as for social-media sites.”

The article continues: "So has the ABC calculated that early next year – when users can expect the arrival of the Fairfax paywalls – offers the best moment for the public broadcaster to capture the online audience and lure it away from Fairfax online? While Fairfax, thus far, has been relatively subdued in its response to the ABC’s expansion into further online territory, News Ltd’s Australian CEO Kim Williams – once an ABC executive himself – has not held back." He expressed the same aggressive antagonism to the ABC as did Rupert and James Murdoch towards the BBC!

Citing the changed habits of Australians whereby 23 per cent of Australians now name online as their main source of news, and 88 per cent of all Australian Internet users access news online, and more than half of Australian smart phone users regularly use their phone to stay informed of news updates, the ABC believes it is merely following its audience online and maintains that ‘its overriding obligation is to provide news, information and entertainment to all Australians’.

This absorbing article concludes: "ABC executives say the broadcaster’s experience with the two-year-old rolling news channel ABC24 has exposed to it a much pacier news culture – ideal for online. The digital television channel changed the ABC's slow-moving schedule with an energy they now aim to translate to online…" We wish them every success.

So there it is. As the commercial media wilt, as they carry out their role as political commentators less and less professionally, it seems an ideal time for our ABC to set a new standard for political reporting, to show how it should be done, to do it in a balanced way, to take the initiative.

This would elevate political commentary to its proper level, would furnish the electorate with a reliable source of information and guidance, and at the same time might resuscitate the seemingly moribund commercial media, might energize it to begin reporting politics as it always should have done.

What to you think?

The MSM is dangerously shortchanging us

In just twelve months time, voters will be asked to choose between a Gillard Labor Government and an Abbott-led Coalition Government. How will they choose? How will they know how to choose? What information, what analysis will they have to make their choice? How will they obtain it? Who will provide it? The answers are unknown. Yet they ought to be. The nation’s mainstream media ought to be at least one of the conduits, but it is not. And it shows no signs of becoming so. Folks, this is serious – this is tragic.

It would not be so tragic if the two main parties were much the same, but we know they are not. The differences are profound, radical and nation-breaking.

Why is it that we lack what we need to make an informed and rational decision about who should govern our nation for the following three years? The answer is obvious – we are afflicted with a largely incompetent and often malevolent mainstream media. It’s a sad and perilous state of affairs.

In case you think this is just the opinion of a blogger in the Fifth Estate disillusioned with the MSM, read what Mark Textor, pollster and past Liberal Party campaign adviser says in an article in the AFR Commentariat leaves voters short on facts. He begins: ”… these days we do not just live in a world dominated by perceptions, but of perceptions of perceptions. An entire class exists to tell us what voters and consumers are thinking. Or at least what they think voters are thinking. Worse, they add a level of political and consumer analysis to predict how decision makers will then react to imagined changes in that thinking and in turn how voters may react. Confused? Imagine being an ordinary voter.”

Later Textor says: ”Voters want the real experts talking to them. They don’t want yet more opinions of opinions. The traditional media’s downward spiral of playing their online opponents’ game of quick and dirty reporting has undervalued investment in investigation of issue content, such as tasking a staff reporter to a story about hospital health, seeking a diverse range of health experts with insights and potential solutions for voters to weigh up. These would be useful signposts to understanding in the slow lane. But the absence of this truly expert analysis means voters lack basic information they need to form considered opinions”, and later still he says: ”Voters do expect the media to tell them if they are being misled. They are now in desperate need of compelling primary information to show what the truth is.” Indeed!

Mr Denmore was on the same theme in his piece Contesting the News where he says: ”The 'institutionalised' press - as traditionally defined - is finding itself less at the middle of things and more at the margin. New social media allows people to tailor and define news according to their own cultural norms, not those of an exclusive cadre.” His piece is a good read.

Let’s analyse then what we’ve got and propose what we deserve.

The Fourth Estate is not homogeneous. Like in most institutions, occupants are distributed along a spectrum, the ubiquitous bell-shaped curve. The curve of which I speak might be termed ‘the balance curve’, where at the extreme left of the curve are the most unbalanced comments, whereas at the extreme right are the most balanced.

But this curve in not the normal distribution curve, with equal portions each side on the middle. It is a skewed curve, with much of the Fourth Estate clustered at the extremely unbalanced end, and relatively few at the other extremity, the well-balanced end. Let me elaborate.

On Friday last, Australia was voted a two-year non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council by a substantial majority. It was a major victory for our nation, and for those who had canvassed for it for many years. It opened opportunities for Australia to take its place as a middle-order nation within a group that deals with the world’s most difficult, dangerous and intractable problems. It gave Australia a chance to exercise its influence and enhance its geopolitical status and its economic situation. It showed in what high regard Australia is held by the 140 nations that voted for it. All in all it was a colourful feather in Australia’s hat, and those who brought it about. Consumers of our mainstream media might have expected it to give extensive coverage to such a momentous event, the gaining of a UN seat after 26 years, but no, it received scant attention.

Admittedly the announcement came too late for the print media on Friday, but the next day, the beginning of a weekend, would have been an ideal time to give readers an account of how it all came about and its implications for our country. So how did the MSM handle this important event?

A look at the Front Pages with which Lyn supplies us, reveals precious little on Saturday or Sunday that I could see.

What about that iconic opinion-leader The Australian – Heart of the Nation? On the front page of The Weekend Australian there was a 200 word piece that echoed Bob Carr’s words about Syria: Wasting no time, Carr raises Syria with UN that was elaborated on page 6. There, Foreign Editor Greg Sheridan began his erudite opinion with: “There is one overwhelming benefit to having won a temporary seat on the UN Security Council: we won’t have to go through this tawdry, ridiculous business again for at least another 10 or 15 years”. Great endorsement! Later he says: ”If Labor stays in office, it will probably feel the need to honour all the pledges it made to win this tawdry bauble”. He then critiques PM Gillard’s travel in Southeast Asia as ‘very weak’, queries the cost of the seat, and at the end finally hands out a sliver of credit: ”Nonetheless, Carr deserves congratulations for the professionalism and effectiveness of his lobbying in recent months”. But choking on this concession, he ends with sarcasm: “We now take our place among global giants: Luxemberg and Rwanda”. So this is The Australian newspaper’s prime acknowledgement from its expert in foreign affairs – nasty and pathetic.

One can sense Dennis Shanahan almost gagging as he writes: ”After a hectic series of trips overseas and basking in the glow of victory for gaining a seat on the UN Security Council, Julia Gillard has moved to repair some self-inflicted damage to her image as an international diplomat”. To what could he be referring? To her ‘fall’ in India? No, he was harking back to her statement when she became PM two years ago that ‘foreign policy was not one of her passions’. He could have commented how well she had done in the face of that initial concession, but Dennis could never bring himself to do that, could he?

There were also a couple of short pieces in The Weekend Australian about the cost of the seat and the expectations that would be placed on Gary Quinlan, our UN Ambassador.

The editorial was more generous, calling Abbott ‘churlish’ for quibbling about the cost, but still managing to draw Rwanda’s election into the commentary ‘to put our win in perspective’. Unadulterated commendation was too much for our editor. He made up for any praise with two further editorials, one criticizing Labor for berating Tony Abbott for not raising his ‘tow back the boats’ policy with the Indonesian President, and another on The perils of stiletto politics, another tilt at that ever-so-misused word: ‘misogyny’.

What about The Australian’s Inquirer where learned opinion is offered by ‘gurus’? First, there was nothing at all from guru-in-chief Paul Kelly. In fact there was nothing else on the subject.

Peter van Onselen had a nasty article Rudd was the victim of an unimpressive triumvirate – Julia Gillard’s biggest supporters are also Labor’s worst performers, referring to Wayne Swan, Stephen Conroy and Nicola Roxon, who also cops plenty of stick from Dennis Shanahan in Roxon crosses the line – The Attorney General is under fire for her handling of the Ashby-Slipper case, where he really lets fly after his concession in his other piece that Julia Gillard had had a success. Ross Fitzgerald predictably writes a critical article about the Government, Christian Kerr rehashes the misogyny debate in his usual ugly style, and Chris (not Mark) Kenny turns his nasty pen against John McTernan, Julia Gillard’s new Scottish media adviser, who is also featured in the lead piece by Tom Dusevic.

I include this tedious detail to demonstrate what we are getting from one of Australia’s most influential broadsheets. All in all it’s a lamentable attempt at coverage of Australia’s laudable success at the UN. Negative articles, caustic comment, and nasty rhetoric heavily counterbalance what few complimentary words are offered for this success.

Perhaps this News Limited response is more understandable when one reads Rupert Murdoch’s tweet: ”Big deal! Australia gets temporary non-veto seat on Security Council. Cost big fortune in foreign aid all over the place. No Aussies care”. Uncle Rupert hath spoken – all journalists fall into line. Not just pathetic – dangerous.

The contrast with Fairfax print media is stark. The Age/SMH had a short piece on the front page, a supportive editorial, a long and generally supportive piece by Paul McGeogh and Daniel Flitton in the Insight section, and a positive article by Phil Coorey in the SMH, who took a crack at Abbott’s churlishness. There was a positive opinion piece by Jeni Whalan in The Canberra Times, and Tony Walker wrote a balanced piece in the Australian Financial Review.

There was another contrast, and it was in The Australian. There, George Megalogenis had two articles, one where he lauded Julia Gillard’s ‘sexism and misogyny’ address in parliament, and another titled: Let the debate on our nation’s future begin, a fine exposition, where he mentioned an initiative by The Australian: its regular economic and social outlook conference with the Melbourne Institute that will be held on November 1 and 2 with the theme: Securing the Future: How Australia Can Thrive in a Volatile World. He referred to an accompanying article by John Mullen, chief executive of Asciano and a director of Telstra, titled: Embrace change or we risk being left behind, that addressed the need to accept the reality of social media in the workplace, which is the opening article for this initiative. Both articles were great reading – informative and well written – just what we need to understand some of the complexities of contemporary commerce and industry, as well as the associated economics and politics.

If The Australian can provide quality like this, why do they dish up the nasty, adversarial and malevolent material we read day after day? Ask Rupert Murdoch.

Let’s for a moment look at the purveyors of this malignant rhetoric. Again, they are distributed on a bell-shaped curve.

At one end there is a large group of journalists that are unashamed Coalition sycophants. There is no intent among any of them to present the facts in a balanced way. Their intent is to present facts, and the opinions based on them, in a selective way, incomplete, distorted, and sometimes downright dishonestly. Disingenuousness is their stock in trade. They know it and they don’t care. The journalists who live in this extreme space are not worth reading at all, except of course if your biases and prejudices coincide with theirs, and you want them reinforced or confirmed. Writers like Andrew Bolt, Piers Akerman, Christopher Pearson, Chris Kenny, Michael Stutchbury, Christian Kerr, Peter van Onselen, and shock jocks like Alan Jones and Ray Hadley attract those who already share their views. For anyone wanting balanced, fact driven, logically argued analyses, reading what they write or listening to what they say, is not just worthless, it is dangerously misleading. It is no different from that dispensed by authoritarian regimes that exercise thought-control, George Orwell style. What’s more they will never change.

It is fruitless debating whether they really believe what they write or say, or whether they are consciously manipulating public opinion for ideological or commercial purposes. It makes no difference – they are perverting the truth, the very truth that voters need to rationally select the next government. They are set on this path and will not deviate. Nothing anyone can say or do will change them. They want PM Gillard and her Government gone, and instead, an Abbott Government. They must be ignored. There is no other way.

Moving a little closer to the middle of the curve is a more sinister group, sinister because they emit a superficial plausibility, plausibility not matched by their actual performance. I’m referring to the so-called gurus, such as Paul Kelly and Michelle Grattan and Peter Hartcher, journalists who have an established reputation upon which they rely to have their writings read.

Kelly in particular has a highbrow turn of phrase that impresses. He is fond of making predictions, writes with pseudo-wisdom, and coins his own peculiar phrases. Readers could be excused for taking his bait hook, line and sinker. It is only when one asks what he means by his favourite clichés: ‘narrative’, ‘vision’, what someone ‘stands for’, and ‘lack of judgement’, that the superficiality of his writing becomes apparent. I have never read his definition of these words, or seen his examples of them. They are just high sounding Kelly phrases that impress, but fail to inform. Moreover, Kelly is clearly an advocate for the Coalition and its current leader. Read any recent piece and argue that it is balanced, factually accurate and well reasoned. You can’t.

Grattan is the doyen of Fairfax, yet her recent ramblings leave readers mystified about her meaning. She seems to have resorted to cub reporter style ‘he says, she says’ reporting. Once capable of balance, her palpable dislike of Julia Gillard now pushes her into opposition to the PM, and, albeit sometimes reluctantly, into support of the alternative. She can be ever so acerbic towards the PM, but ever so mild when writing about Tony Abbott, so understanding of his foibles, so accommodating of his mistakes, his gaffes and his errors of judgement. She would fume at the suggestion that she was an Abbott acolyte, but if she writes like an acolyte, talks like an acolyte…

Hartcher is an enigma. He writes well. I was impressed by the quality of his information-packed book: The Sweet Spot, a veritable goldmine of useful facts and figures and well-reasoned argument. But it is his visceral dislike of Julia Gillard and his contemporary preference for Kevin Rudd, which distorts his columns. This was apparent in his book. Any opportunity that presents to him to take a dig at the PM is never rejected. Like Paul Kelly, he has an authoritative air about him; he clearly seeks guru status, and like Kelly seems to believe this is obtainable by pontification.

Another group, such as Greg Sheridan, Tom Dusevic, Ross Fitzgerald are perhaps marginally less acerbic, but adversarial nevertheless.

Still closer to the middle of the curve are journalists such as Phil Coorey and Laurie Oakes, but both are unpredictable, seemingly more interested in stirring the pot than transmitting useful information and offering analysis. Coorey seems to have a ‘Ruddstoration’ obsession, and Oakes a penchant for ‘leaks’ that have earned him infamy among some, and admiration among his colleagues. Lenore Taylor, of recent 'context' fame, and 'sketch' writer Annabel Crabb, belong within this cluster.

Over the other side of the curve we have a small cluster of the more balanced writers. George Megalogenis immediately comes to mind, and further still into the balanced end we have Laura Tingle, Tim Dunlop, Peter Martin and the fearless Ross Gittins.

But we soon run out of these admirable people – the MSM is dominated by those who are tarred with the Murdoch brush: to replace the Gillard Government by an Abbott government, and to ‘destroy the Greens at the ballot box’. No matter what their views are personally, they consistently come up with articles adverse to PM Gillard and her Government and supportive of, or defensive of, or at least not too critical of the Opposition Leader, no matter how gross his behaviour, no matter how inane or dishonest his utterances, no matter how badly he stumbles.

As I was finishing this piece, NormanK drew my attention to what must be one of the most appalling pieces of journalism I have ever read. Titled: Labor shuffling numbers for political survival and written my an anonymous ‘Staff Writer’ for the Sunday Herald Sun, it alludes to only one piece of factual information – that the Government was to present its Mid Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook, which is sarcastically described as a "mini-horror mini-budget". The rest is simply opinion; nasty, vitriolic, adverse opinion of a biased writer who clearly loathes the Labor Government. If you have the stomach, read it to see how grotesquely incompetent and malevolent journalism has become.

This state of affairs in our mainstream media is dangerous. We are being seriously shortchanged at a time when we need all the help we can get to select our next government.

We need factual information about Government and Coalition and Greens’ policies and their costings. We need a thorough and unbiased analysis of all of them. We need comparisons to be made between them, carefully analysed and summarized so that we can comprehend their intent, the pros and the cons, the cost benefits, and the likelihood of their succeeding. We cannot take for granted what our politicians feed us, redolent as it so often is with exaggeration, distortion of the truth, hidden implications, and dishonest projections. We need an honest, competent, unbiased, balanced mainstream media to assist us. But we don’t have it. Most of it is the antithesis of these desirable attributes.

It’s not right. It’s dangerously wrong. Is there any hope that our mainstream media will ever meet the needs of intelligent voters seeking to cast an informed vote in selecting who will govern us for the next term?

Thomas Sowell, an American economist, social theorist, political philosopher, columnist and author expresses his doubts: “If people in the media cannot decide whether they are in the business of reporting news or manufacturing propaganda, it is all the more important that the public understand that difference, and choose their news sources accordingly.”

We find ourselves having to rely more and more on the Fifth Estate and social media for what we need, for the balance we crave.

Is balance an unreachable dream? Is it a fantasy like fairies at the end of the garden? Can the Murdoch domination of media thought be overcome?

Does our salvation reside in mustering our own resources in the Fifth Estate? We have access to a plethora of factual news outlets, all over the world, and we are as capable of analyzing the facts, and expressing an opinion about them, as mainstream journalists.

In fact as Mr Denmore says: ”…'the news' isn't what it was. It isn't owned by anyone. It is increasingly contested. And as bloggers scale up and embrace some of the craft qualities of journalism, the mainstream media increasingly ‘moulds’ news to satisfy the world views of its target markets…In fact, as blogs more and more resemble professionally written traditional media, the old media looks more and more like blogs.”

So it’s over to us!

What do you think?

The Punishment That Fits No Crime

Things are looking up for the government. The first study on the effect of carbon pricing indicates a related fall in carbon emissions, without the stupendous price hikes predicted by the Opposition. Australia comfortably won the vote to gain a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council, despite Opposition pessimism, doubt, and what looked suspiciously like sour grapes. Prime Minister Gillard’s numbers are up, and the government has even started to fight back in two-party preferred polls.

Yes, things are pretty rosy – and you know what happens next, don’t you?

The Opposition shift the ground. There’s always another issue on which they can fall back. This time, it’s asylum seekers – again. Specifically, the Coalition decided to take aim at the government’s part-adoption of the Pacific Solution, detaining asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island.

The Greens don’t want anyone on Nauru (or in mandatory detention at all, for that matter) – but are low on specifics as to how to implement their preferred ‘regional approach’. The government won’t tell us exactly how their ‘no advantage’ system is supposed to work – that is, how long asylum seekers on average would have to wait to be processed and granted refugee status. We’ve got some vague statements about making sure that those who come on boats don’t manage to get ahead of people ‘in the queue’ in refugee camps – never mind that the ‘queue’ simply doesn’t exist – but no numbers whatsoever.

Surprisingly, the one party who are giving us details is the Coalition. And those numbers are, frankly, horrifying.

Opposition Immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison announced that, under a Coalition government, asylum seekers should expect to be detained on Nauru for a minimum of five years. In what looked remarkably like a game of ‘Dare-You-Double-Dare-You’, he suggested the government adopt the same position, while Immigration Minister Chris Bowen countered by urging the Coalition to get on board the Malaysia solution. As usual, neither side wants to give an inch.

But let’s look at the Coalition’s proposal a bit more closely. Five years minimum mandatory detention. By anyone’s standards, that’s a long time to be stuck on an island with no idea whether you will eventually receive some certainty for your future. Add to that the fact that these are effectively stateless people, confined to sub-standard camps with poor facilities in a landscape devastated by phosphate mining, and sweltering in temperatures of over 30 degrees Celsius with very high humidity. Then take into account the fact that they can’t leave. They can’t decide to go for a walk, see a movie, have a picnic, or go shopping for a treat.

Looks a lot like a prison, doesn’t it? Of course, prisoners have an allowance, which they are allowed to spend. Asylum seekers simply cannot receive any form of financial assistance until they are out of detention – when they can apply for help from the Asylum Seeker Assistance Scheme. Generally, too, it’s a fairly straightforward process to visit a prisoner – one doesn’t need to find money for an international flight and visa, have a current passport, and jump through the bureaucratic hoops needed to gain permission to enter the detention centre.

While we’re on the subject of comparing prisons and asylum seeker detention centres, let’s look at that number again – at least five years. How does that stack up to sentences given to convicted prisoners?

According to a 2011 report prepared by the Sentencing Council of Victoria, of 228 people who received a custodial sentence for the crime of rape, over 80% were sentenced to less than six years. Half of those were eligible for parole in under four years.

Less than four years. Those who commit rape, a crime which our society regards as one of the worst outrages that can be inflicted on a human being, are imprisoned for roughly the same time it takes to complete a university degree – or hold two Federal elections. Under the Coalition’s plan, asylum seekers would be detained for at least a year longer.

Why such a long detention period? What have asylum seekers done, to warrant such strict conditions?

The short answer is: NOTHING.

Seeking asylum is not illegal. Despite the oft-repeated assertions of Morrison and his Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, people are absolutely entitled to seek asylum in Australia – and we have an obligation to process them, if not re-settle them in our country. We are, after all, signatories to Refugee Conventions. By referring to them as illegal, however, the Coalition plants the idea that something shifty is going on here.

It goes further. The Coalition suggests such people may not be ‘real’ refugees. Often they arrive without identification – what have they got to hide? They pay huge amounts (around US$4000) to people smugglers – why are they trying to get ahead of all those (real) refugees waiting patiently in camps around the world? If they’ve got money, why don’t they just leave normally? Any attempt to bring even a little factual evidence – or even logic – into the discussion is met with blustering rhetoric and accusations of being ‘soft on border protection’.

And make no mistake – Abbott knows exactly what he is doing. He knows that the official term used for boat-borne asylum seekers is ‘Irregular Maritime Arrivals’. He knows they’re not doing anything wrong by trying to get here. He knows that detaining people for long periods on remote islands, preferably ones that are not even part of Australia, tends to fade from the headlines if there are no faces to go with the protestations of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. If he plays the waiting game long enough, there will only be a few voices speaking up against a xenophobic attitude that he has done nothing to counter, and everything to encourage.

It’s really no surprise, then, that the Coalition should be now insisting on what can only be called an entirely punitive sentence for people who have committed no crime, circumvented no process, and are simply trying to save themselves and their families. It’s business as usual – demonise the victims, while claiming to ‘protect’ them from evil people smugglers and risky boat voyages.

Oh, and that five years? Is the low end of what the Coalition thinks is appropriate for mandatory detention. Morrison gave no figures for the maximum time an asylum seeker could be detained. Given that even twelve months’ detention on Nauru under the Pacific Solution resulted in adverse mental health outcomes that afflict refugees to this day, the prospect of five, six, or even more years smacks of outright, deliberate cruelty.

Lest we let the government off scot-free, however, it’s worth repeating: the Coalition have given us a minimum number. The government have given us nothing. We have no idea how long the government would be happy to keep someone in detention, other than some vague mutterings about being equivalent to the ‘average’ time taken to process someone in a camp in our region. As the UNHCR pointed out, though, it’s impossible to even establish an average time. It’s a meaningless concept – and since there is evidence of people in camps waiting for ten years or more, that ‘no advantage’ test starts to take on truly horrifying possibilities. The government seems to think that if one person suffers terrible hardship and interminable delays in having their refugee claim processed, then it’s acceptable for others to undergo the same ordeal. So sorry, but you understand how it is – we have to be fair, after all.

It’s not ‘fair’. It’s coldly, calculatedly inhumane. Whether it’s the government’s ‘we’re-not-telling’ or Morrison’s ‘five-years-and-counting’ solution, the treatment of asylum seekers has gone way past a race to the bottom. The major parties know that this issue can be manipulated in an election campaign, and are only too eager to play to the xenophobic strain that seems to run right through Australian society (with the help of certain areas of the media) if it will gain them votes.

Now, maybe I’m doing Prime Minister Gillard and Abbott a disservice. Maybe they do care about the welfare of asylum seekers, and the way they deal with them is sacrificing personal feelings for the long-term gain of the ‘top job’.

That only makes it worse. Whichever way the next election goes, asylum seekers lose. They will be packed off, out of sight, to Nauru (or Manus Island, or Malaysia), and treated like prisoners of war who have no idea who is winning, or if it will ever end. Sadly, this is the best outcome – because even if the boats don’t stop coming, and the current strategy proves to be an utter failure, neither party is likely to retreat from a hard-line stance. They’d lose far too much face, and give their opposition a great deal of ammunition. The alternative is to become even more punitive, more harsh – and given the appalling state of affairs that exists now, that possibility is terrible. Human lives would become less than pawns.

And we would all be culpable.

The Political Sword welcomes a new author, Marian Dalton, who is, in no particular order, an editor, blogger, reader, writer, poet, mother, graduate student and sometime academic. She currently works as a freelance editor, citizen journalist and media advisor. Clients have included national political parties, lobby groups and community associations. Her blog, The Conscience Vote, provides accessible analysis of Australian political and social issues and aims to engage all people in public debate.

Out of bounds on the full

Victoria, like many other independent bloggers, wrote last week about the failure of the mainstream media to understand the significance of Julia Gillard’s speech denouncing the sexism she has been subject to. As Victoria pointed out, for much of the media, it is apparently ‘just politics’. Gillard’s attack on Tony Abbott was followed up by the very same journalists with reports about sexist remarks directed at Abbott’s female chief of staff. Tit for tat. See? Both sides are as bad as each other.

This is part of the ‘politics is a dirty game’ convention. Working within this convention – as the mainstream media do – day-to-day politics is a game in which both sides seek advantage. Both sides play hard, both sides are dirty; therefore they are no different. It’s like reporting sport. One side kicks a goal, someone fumbles a pass, the ball is out on the full, and the scoreboard shows the result, courtesy of the fortnightly polls. It’s just a question of who is better at the game. Look at the scoreboard mate.

It’s easy for reporters and commentators to write as if the daily battle of tactics means that the two sides are just the same, and as bad as each other. Of course some journalists (guess which ones) don’t think the parties equally bad; they cheerfully reflect the anti-Labor bias of their employers. But others present themselves as ‘independent’: think Sales, Uhlmann, Hartcher, Crabb, Taylor, Grattan, Cassidy or Oakes. They claim that their ‘equally bad’ treatment shows ‘balance’, or evenhandedness. They routinely argue that after all, the opposition will do anything to get rid of the government now or at the next election, and the government will do anything to stay in power now or at the next election, and this constitutes the (equally bad) politics they report on.

Of course there’s a place for day-to-day political reporting. It’s not just that it’s the Canberra Press Gallery’s bread and butter. It’s not just that politics tragics couldn’t live without it. What happens on a short-term basis affects the morale and effectiveness of both sides and the view the electorate takes of the parties. And the particular circumstances of this parliament render day to day reporting compelling for anyone interested in politics. The hung parliament itself makes this reporting important, as theoretically the government could fall at any time. Tony Abbott’s single minded strategy of trying to force an election by making the parliament unworkable also captures day to day attention. The more or less precarious hold the leader of each party has on their position as leader also feeds the daily round.

However the mainstream media don’t do a very good job of this day-to-day reporting. This is partly because some journalists just report what politicians say, very often word for word – ‘the Leader of the Opposition said…’ Some reporters find it easier to write stories based on press handouts from politicians than to do any actual research themselves. (It’s also editors who want a particular spin, but that’s another matter.)

Yet even when they report accurately on the success or failure of the day to day tactics, they rarely question the political strategies that underlie them. Abbott’s strategy of making parliament a shouting match feeds cynicism in the electorate about politicians and politics. We’ll all pay for that in due course. But do any of the mainstream media call him on it? Does anyone even give a nod to the realities of minority government? The tit for tat reporting of the debate over Slipper’s disgusting text messages was allowed entirely to overshadow the issue of whether the Speaker was entitled to the presumption of innocence, and, indeed, the issue of the separation of powers. We laughed when Bjelke-Petersen didn’t know what that meant, but apparently journalists don’t know either, or don’t think it’s important enough to comment on. And then of course there’s the whole issue of the undeniable use of sexism, personal denigration and outright lies by the opposition leader. Which side is doing the damage to the national interest here? You wouldn’t know from reading the mainstream media.

But presenting politics as a rather sleazy sport creates an even more serious problem. Concentrating on the day to day tactics means that substance, or lack of it, goes unreported. Politics is more than just tactics, or even strategy. It is about how power and influence should be apportioned, and how wealth distributed in a society. The whole issue of the long-term outcomes of policy decisions is all but ignored by our mainstream media. There’s a theory about how he thinks the world should work behind Tony Abbott’s attack on the carbon tax. Which mainstream journalists explore it? They just report his hyperbole. And what about the constant talking-down of the economy by the Opposition? What sort of economy do they want? Who would benefit? And turning the boats around? What view of Australian society does that represent? We don’t know much about the Opposition’s plans for Australia should they win office. But even what we have been told goes unquestioned. Who is analysing the winners and losers from the direct action carbon reduction plan, and asking Greg Hunt about it? Who is looking at how paying the salaries of women on maternity leave is going to work out for poor women and asking Abbott about it? Journalists say that their job is to report impartially, not to comment in a partisan way – that is up to columnists. But surely this doesn’t mean taking whatever is said at face value? Is anyone interested in fact checking? Even if politics as a world view is too hard for them, couldn’t they manage a reality check on the bits of substance we have been given?

It’s interesting to speculate how the mainstream media would treat an Abbott government. Media outlets that already cheer-lead for him would continue to do so, which hardly comes as a surprise. And the self-appointed ‘independent’ journalist? My guess is that it would be business as usual. It’s just a game, after all.

We are being served up rubbish. Whatever you think of any of the parties seeking power in Australia, no one’s interest (except possibly lazy journalists’) is served by promoting the assumption that they are all the same. We need to know the differences in how they understand power and influence and the distribution of wealth, as revealed in what their members say and do. Certainly there are policy similarities, and these deserve discussion too. The argument that the major parties are as bad as each other, and by implication without any substance, is at best blind, and at worst self-serving. Far from making journalists neutral umpires, the ‘they are just the same and as bad as each other’ convention distorts reality, and turns the media into players. And guess which side that helps?

After I’d written this post, I saw Kevin Rudd on Lateline saying much the same thing, though his emphasis was on the politicians who treat politics as a game, rather than the media who report politics as a game. (He did take a swipe at the media as well for over-emphasising personal differences.) I also saw The Hamster Wheel’s ‘obituary’ of Rudd, which suggested that all of his actions are self-serving. Well perhaps that’s partly true, but in this case Rudd is right. Political debate should, as he says, be policy based, and we should be asking if political power is being used to benefit the few or the many. And did Tony Abbott really say, as Rudd alleges, he loves the smell of blood on the canvas?

If so, I rest my case.

Dr Kay Rollison, the author of this piece, has a PhD in History and has always been interested in politics – historically, in the present, and of course our future political battles.