Lords and Ladies, a morality tale …

The spruiker

Lords and Ladies, I invite you on a journey into a world that is imaginable to only a few. A frightening world where nothing is what it seems. Your guide will be our jester Tiny-er-er O’penmouth. He will make you laugh. He will make you cry. You will find ecstasy in his grovelling grace. You will find despair in his jocular deeds. He will make servile all creatures and bring them before your court. Through his own halls of merriment he will lead you. From within his paper fortress he will guide you. In a maze he will leave you. Be thankful this is not your kingdom — or is it?

The jester’s tale

Outside the towers of the Lords and Ladies, the land is being enveloped by darkness. A pestilence has descended.

See the morbid peasant creatures dwelling there wailing for sustenance, crying for relief from their suffering, as Tiny-er-er O’penmouth merrily jangles past, his bells ringing from his knees and cuffs. The peasants are led off to work in the dank fields and at the smoking forges before returning to their hovels outside the castle walls. And yet there are some that run to him when they hear Tiny-er-er O’penmouth jingling past. Sometimes they believe his paper fortress will also shield them and they turn their anger away from the castle gates. Some follow his every sound, smile at his every whim — or at least feign they do. But darker figures steal away to gather in quiet corners, fingers playing tentatively over matches in their ragged coat pockets.

A fabled paper castle surrounds Tiny-er-er wherever he goes. The Lords and Ladies convinced Tiny-er-er O’penmouth it is for his protection, that the peasants can never harm him while he lives within its invisible paper walls. It is not real. The Lords and Ladies know it but don’t dare tell Tiny-er-er, nor ever let the peasants in on their secret. He flirts with the gold of the rich, plays with the fears of the peasants and belittles their world outside his hall, safe in the knowledge that his paper walls safeguard him.

Safe within his paper walls, Tiny-er-er O’penmouth revels in masquerading as a peasant, wandering the boggy roads, drifting aimlessly into their fields and … doing nothing! Just standing there as if his very presence enriches their day, hoping a passing Lord or Lady may notice him keeping their villeins contented.

A drunken vagabond staggers along the road and tumbles into the mud as Tiny-er-er catches him up. ‘Why, er, aren’t you, er, at your work?’ he demands of the fallen serf, now flailing in the mud, trying to swim away from the bizarre apparition beside him. This reduced being once made fine carriages for the Lords and Ladies before they decided better and cheaper carriages were to be had from the farthest parts of their kingdom. He slurs and gurgles his story through the wet earth filling his mouth. ‘Er, shit happens!’ Tiny-er-er answers the muddied revelations. ‘If you, er, do not work, you can, er, be a ,er, er, a knight. Yes, I, Tiny-er-er O’penmouth, can, er, make you a knight.’ Tiny-er-er O’penmouth draws his dagger and annoints the head of the prostrate vagabond before deftly slashing the dagger across his breeches, laying bare his buttocks. ‘Look! Now you really have, er, the arse out of your, er, breeches! And your, er, carriages were crap,’ he sniggers while still bending over the fallen figure.

He straightens from the forlorn fallen vagabond, laughs raucously and, with gestures, entreats passers-by to join him. They look behind. They look ahead. They draw their stale breaths, then turn away as a faint titter quickly fades, before they drift on in silence. ‘Come one, come, er, all,’ he calls to them. ‘I can make you all Lords, er, Ladies. Or Lords, er, yes, Lords.’ He chortles at his own jest but the shuffling peasants do not.

One scrawny bone-drawn figure (Tiny-er-er cannot even tell if it is male or female) from the rear of that now more distant throng calls, ‘Give us food.’

Tiny-er-er’s bells ring as he bobbles with mirth. ‘You can, er, have food when you, er, work, er, yes, work.’

‘We already work,’ comes the fading shout.

‘Then, er, er, you must, er, work harder. How can our Lords and, er, Lords, er, look after you if you, er, do not work harder.’ The throng, shuffling on, shuffling away, no longer hears him.

The Lords and Ladies, with Tiny-er-er’s vainglorious consent, are selling the peasants’ farms or digging their ground in search of mythical riches, destroying their homes, making their land barren and desolate, and beseeching them to work ever harder, ever longer. In a frivolous gesture, Tiny-er-er has been known to take the bread from the hands of lonely mothers feeding their babes: ‘The Lords and Ladies need, er, this, er, this more than you’. He says it is just a joke, and it is, for lonely mothers have no bread.

The next step in Tiny-er-er O’penmouth’s journey takes us to his own great hall, a vast, forbidding room in shades of green where jesters, clowns and goblins gather behind him. Sometimes they rush to make their jokes but Tiny-er-er much prefers his own. Sometimes he will run from that place for no reason — it is just his humour. Sometimes he will er, er, orate in his own, er, manner. He will make pronouncements there that please his Lords and Ladies even if they take little notice. He invites passing peasants into his hall to mill in bewilderment opposite him. The Lords and Ladies think this is good. They think it is entertaining. Tiny-er-er O’penmouth also thinks it entertaining. He rails against the peasants and goads them to rail back. Sometimes they do. Sometimes their barbs sting but no-one outside that hall shall ever know. It is Tiny-er-er’s secret place, shielded within his paper castle. The Lords and Ladies are pleased when he is there where his jesting can do no damage to them. Let him rail against the peasants for his own enjoyment, and that of those he chooses to seat behind him, for there he is in a world of his own, a basically harmless world to the Lords and Ladies, and if it keeps him amused, well, just leave him there.

Occasionally a goblin escapes from Tiny-er-er O’penmouth’s hall and in its shrill, prattling manner makes declarations that even the Lords and Ladies dare not mention beyond the veil of their castle gates. That does not please the Lords and Ladies for the goblins scare the peasants and they grow restless, the matches rustling in their ragged coat pockets.

Tiny-er-er O’penmouth sometimes likes to believe himself a Lord, and disappears to far parts of the kingdom, riding past peasants in a borrowed carriage, waving fleetingly as he passes. ‘Work harder!’ he exhorts them from his carriage window. The peasants do not have time to look up from their work.

He meets other Lords in these furthermost regions and tells them he is saving their world from them, er, that should be ‘for’ them — Tiny-er-er O’penmouth makes that same mistake himself. The Lords are left bemused at this jester entreating them, nay, commanding them, to do as he says. He presents a cornucopia of plans and thoughts, often no more than thoughts, to make a brighter world for Lords and Ladies, as long as that morbid mass of peasants keeps its place. His thoughts wander and change rapidly. What he says today he does not mean tomorrow but that only enhances his jests.

‘I will send you bright, er, orange boats,’ he tells a Lord who rules a land of land without water. When the Lord laughs, thinking it no more than a jester’s jest, Tiny-er-er repeats his offer. ‘I can, er, fill them, er, with peasants,’ he adds. ‘I can take your peasants and send, er, then send them back again.’ The Lord shakes his head and turns away unable to take any more of this strange stranger’s world. ‘I can, er, have the wheelrights give them, er, wheels …’ he suggests plaintively to the departing Lord before departing in his own borrowed carriage to seek out another Lord who may like his orange boats.

His visits are inevitably brief for which these distant Lords are thankful beyond measure. Tiny-er-er O’penmouth has so many jests to pass on to so many. He must return to his great hall and belittle the peasants again — he does enjoy that and it pleases the Lords and Ladies, for although the peasants in the fields and at the forges do not hear of his escapades there, he ensures the Lords and Ladies do. He will whisper his feats in quiet corners of their courtyards, leave short notes praising his own deeds in their dingy dining halls. Oh yes, he humours them. How else can a jester survive in this world of the Lords and Ladies without keeping their amusement.

But outside, fingers pluck at matches in ragged coat pockets.

Now in the peasants’ world the trees are dying, left as lifeless looming shadows over the creatures below. The peasants think they know why but Tiny-er-er O’penmouth says God has given the trees rest and they will return when they wake.

‘But what about the fires?’ a small hairy figure sitting at the base of one of those trees asks the dismissive Tiny-er-er, who replies: ‘They are lit by the bad, er, peasants, er, with matches, er, encouraged by that nasty caste of, er, tree monks.’

Like the Lords from the far regions, the figure shakes its head as it clambers nimbly high on the dead trunk and Tiny-er-er belatedly discerns the hirsute shape as a tree monk. ‘It is hard to tell, er, a tree monk these, er, days’, Tiny-er-er thinks (as even his thoughts are punctuated by ‘ers’) and ponders whether he should ask the Lords and Ladies to banish all of them. But how to recognise them? — no, it won’t matter if a few innocent peasants are banished as well. He can even use the orange boats — if he can get them back from the lands where he has sent them.

Fires ravage the dying tree trunks and return again and again — a never-ending sea of flame. It was here yesterday, is here today, and will be again tomorrow.

The rivers are also rising but do not refresh the land as once they did, instead turning the land to mud, the settling ash to a black sludge. Little will grow in that mire. The hovels are filling with water and silt.

When the Lords and Ladies demand the fruits of the fields, the milk of the herds, and the fatted calf, there is none left to bring, no peasant to bring them. The pestilence on the land and the people has all but destroyed the peasants’ world. Some have built their houses higher and wait there fearful of what may next befall them. Many have taken to the slippery sludge of the roads, seeking shelter elsewhere, anywhere but the land of Tiny-er-er O’penmouth, any land that knows the fires will keep returning, that water is flooding the fields and in some unnatural way no longer receding.

Tiny-er-er’s Lords and Ladies shelter in their castles, hidden from the peasants. They feel safer there. They have faith their stone walls will not burn, that their heavy gates will keep back the water.

Tiny-er-er O’penmouth still roams the desolation safe in his paper castle. There are no fires or floods there.

And outside, fingers play purposefully with the matches in ragged coat pockets.

It is extremely hot. It is extremely cold. It is a land of extremes — more extreme than it has ever been in the life of Tiny-er-er O’penmouth. But the Lords and Ladies are safe inside their castle walls.

For many days not one soul has stirred from the stone fortress where the rich people live
No one came and no one went
Fear can do many strange things
And even though water ran low
Their mouths burnt and bellys caked dry
Not one person set a foot outside
No one had that much courage
For they feared the peasants and their world outside
So they played it safe and didn’t move
But one by one they perished and died*

* from ‘The Black Plague’ on Winds of Change, Eric Burdon and the (new) Animals, 1967

Truth with partisan on the side, but hold the bias, please: Part 2

The impartially partisan political journalist

Part 1 of ‘Truth with partisan on the side’ ended with the suggestion that we might be in a muddle in political journalism in Australia, a muddle about ‘partisan, but not biased, journalism versus impartial or objective or “neutral” journalism’. If this is so, what kind of a muddle is it?

It may be a muddle about what we the people — the readers, the listeners, the ‘reliers’ on information we can’t easily track ourselves — want and need from political journalism. It may be a moral muddle about what political journalists themselves see as their role in providing what they think we (the people, the reader etc.) might need and be looking for.

It is certainly, for me, the muddle inherent in, and driven by, a long-taught practice in journalism — that the journalist should be a non-partisan presenter of facts.

In The Year My Politics Broke Jonathan Green argued that the public ‘make a pervading assumption of impartiality’ and that political journalists fail this test via ‘misinterpretation’ or ‘abrogation’ or ‘partisan journalistic activism’. One might guess, and only guess, that Green’s faith in the impartiality mantra has been strong all of his professional life.

In May 2013, well before publishing The Year My Politics Broke, Green had written ‘Journalism tainted by conviction is not journalism’. It is a short piece wholly dedicated to the impartiality theme and disdainful of anything that does not measure up to journalism ‘untainted’. And it is salutary to compare some of the words, phrases and examples Green uses to flesh out what untainted and ‘conviction’-tainted journalism are for him:

Journalism untainted Journalism tainted
… a craft, a set of trade skills that can be applied pretty universally to a range of situations a polemic…a cynical exercise in the promotion of any or various propositions
…true calling at the heart of the craft: to simply inform without bias or favour. the sort of polemic that may have limited commercial worth but enormous political purpose
… a cornerstone of smart democratic practice … cynically political purpose while claiming all the protections, rights and respectability of the fourth estate
… created with intellectual curiosity to inform Fox News … an entirely parallel universe that determines its own agenda, facts and logic according to an often bellicose political mission
… practiced with calm objectivity and simple curiosity The Australian, a paper whose political purpose and occasional flights of “truthiness” can routinely obscure its better journalistic angels
… neither of the right or left; it is, for want of something less pompous, of the truth. … the opinion formers of the tabloid blogosphere. Little s-bends of ill-humour like the Daily Telegraph's Tim Blair, or great vaulted Taj Mahals of polished ego like the Herald Sun's Andrew Bolt.
In any … worth its salt the convictions of the reporter are an irrelevance … produced under the influence of personal prejudice is a betrayal of professional practice and the implied trust of all who consume it
Who knows how many journalists have personal political sympathies to the left or right. What is certain is that it should not matter. the paranoid, fact defying columns of the proselytising right … where … any measured objective assessment of reality is dismissed as being 'of the left', the facts are mutable servants of argument
Journalism is a trade in which personal conviction is one of two things: an irrelevance or a death sentence

The ‘heartfeltness’ of Green’s sentiments can’t be denied. And not many of us reading here would contradict, I suspect, his take on the The Australian, Tim Blair and Andrew Bolt.

But what niggles about the piece was captured, for me, in Paula (@dragonista) Matthewson’s response in The Myth of Objectivity, which introduced some needed subtlety:

The reality is that journalists’ philosophical views do permeate their writing, not just in the blatant drum-banging of News Limited writers, but in the choice and subtle framing of political stories by all political writers.

The most obvious examples are the political journalists who specialise in policy ...

While bias is probably too strong a word for these predispositions, they still shape how journalists present stories and therefore our perception of the issue at hand [my emphasis].

Far less subtle than Matthewson’s, of course, was a February 2014 Gerard Henderson response to, well, not just Green and his The Year My Politics Broke but Green, as an exemplar extraordinaire of ‘our ABC’, otherwise known as that appalling collective of left-y, partisan-y groupthink-y bias. Subbed with the give-away title ‘It's easy being Green when you can sneer while on the public purse’ Henderson gives himself licence to sneer away at Green:

Green seriously divides Australians between an “informed public” (that is, people like him) and “a great mass of people” who are “wilfully misinformed” (that is, people not at all like him). Green wants “gatekeepers” like himself to shape “informed decision making” in a green/left kind of way.

Whenever commenting on journalism as practice Green clearly argues for impartiality and objectivity, considers himself impartial and, further, that his personal political stances are, and should be, private. Consequently, he believes they just don’t show.

Matthewson argues from the opposite position and for the inevitable subtle evidence in everything a journalist writes, of belief, conviction even, by virtue of the individual journalist having almost sole power to choose the content of any story and shape its telling so absolutely. In the light of this, look again at Green; at, say, his policy-change suggestions to the Labor Opposition in ‘Where is the alternative to Manus Island cruelty?

And Henderson would never consider anything Green says or writes as impartial, but not for any of the reasons Green puts forward against ‘tainted’ journalism. In the ‘conviction’ piece, Green is trying out a philosophy, if you like, of impartiality. Matthewson teases out some complexity. Henderson just plays the man (or lots of them in this piece) to snipe at the ABC in News Corp’s ever more savage way for its failure to provide ‘balance’ or ‘equal time’ to so-called left and right.

No-one, of course, can rip the balance myth (as antidote to the dreaded evil of bias) a better one than David Horton did in, for example, his open letter to ABC CEO Mark Scott:

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.

Or here again in ‘Steering the ABC Titanic’:

I am suggesting that the obvious sources of bias be removed. That experts once again replace ideologues, that news bulletins contain, well, simply news.

For Horton, the ABC’s over-striving after ‘false’ balance (or false equivalence) to placate its critics from conservative camps leads to presenting non-fact as if it had the same weight as fact; and for Horton, this way the mad obsession with avoiding bias truly lies. For Green, pure bias is the personally prejudiced, politically purposed, paralysingly paranoid, polemical propaganda journalism of a Bolt or a Blair (amongst others). For Henderson, bias is Green’s wicked adherence to, for example, those ‘catastrophic’ issues loved by lefty greenie progressives such as anthropogenic causes for a changing climate.

But the Henderson view on bias and the never-ending drama about the ABC’s journalistic ‘balance’ are little more than ‘look over there’ or ‘ooh, shiny thing’ tactics from the naysayers and the no see-ers whom both Green and Horton so rightfully excoriate. Such views offer no help to moving us from adversarial charges that conviction is partisan in a ‘bad’ way, is bias, is propaganda, to something else — perhaps something like recognising that owning and stating your position may be offering some first steps in reviving trust in the integrity of political journalism?

In a recent piece, ‘Facts are futile in an era of post-truth politics’, Gay Alcorn lamented:

… we're in the era of post-truth politics, when facts don't matter, when evidence doesn't matter. But without these things, there can be no trust at all, no fragile but essential compact between citizens and their government that respect is mutual.

Andrew Elder responded:

When someone like Gay Alcorn writes something like this, I accept that she has a genuine and general concern for the state of the polity in this country. Pretty much everything Jonathan Green writes is in a similar vein, and there are others, but …When you reach such a state of despair, the question you have to ask is: what can you do? To answer that question in the negative is to invite further despair. [my emphasis]

Despair as media cop-out, really. Elder goes on to suggest that the media, more than the politicians and the political system, needs faith in evidence and correctives in the way it reports politics, or journalists like Alcorn are already out of a job. He adds: ‘If you have more experience in media than I do you could do more to fix it.’

Speaking at the Melbourne Writers Festival in 2011 Jay Rosen drew on, as a springboard for some of his ideas on how to change or rescue ‘political coverage’, a 2008 essay, ‘The power of the pen: A call for journalistic courage’, by Walter Pinkus that set out the Pinkus approach to how to ‘fix’ political coverage. Pinkus, from fifty years of practice in the business, had reminded his profession of their origins in presses begun by families who took partisan positions in their politics, but played the game with integrity nevertheless:

… they all used their presses to influence government, but that is what the founding fathers contemplated when they wrote the First Amendment. Pamphleteers, newspaper editors and writers of all kinds could have their say, and citizens were to weigh all opinions and facts as presented and make up their own minds. [my emphasis]

Pinkus argued that the political media participated in the political process: that the actions and decisions of the media directly affected government, making the media powerful, and thus allowing it to play ‘activist’ roles in governance. A recent development is the media’s rejection of this activist role — which he views as a ‘threat to our democracy’.

For Pinkus, courage in the political media field is ‘a journalist [who] stands up to a government official or a politician who he or she has reason to believe is not telling the truth or living up to his or her responsibilities’. It isn’t eliding, omitting or denying evidence or fact. But it isn’t playing at being ‘neutral, unbiased and objective, presenting both or all sides as if they were on the sidelines refereeing a game in which only the players—the government and its opponents—can participate’. For Pinkus, the ‘neutral’ journalist is an unfortunate evolution away from the origins of the profession (at least in the USA) into becoming PR mouthpieces for governments.

When first picking up the Pinkus essay in 2008, Jay Rosen argued that neutrality (another word for balance) needed to be ‘uncoupled’ from fairness, which should remain a tenet of modern journalism. But more importantly, the political press needed to let its readers know what it was doing with its own power. Nothing quite as simple as letting us know who they vote for, but what evidence they could provide for claiming their position of authority in the first place.

In 2011 in Melbourne, Rosen offered his audience several aspects of political coverage that ‘impoverished it’: what he described as ‘politics as an inside game’, ‘the cult of savviness’ and ‘the production of innocence’. He then suggested a possible model for change based on political coverage reflecting what is real, and letting the public know what is not, after all, real or true. In Rosen’s model a political journalist should assess the information they garner in four ways and ask themselves whether they are seeing:

  • appearances rendered as fact; e.g. the media stunt
  • phony arguments; e.g. manufactured controversies; sideshows
  • today’s new realities: get the facts; e.g. the actual news of politics
  • real arguments; e.g. debates, legitimate controversies, important speeches.
For Rosen, this is what citizens need from the political media.

Andrew Elder’s response to Gay Alcorn’s piece raised the issue of how difficult it might be, when you are on the inside of a profession or institution, to see what is happening and to make change from the inside. Ideally, you are best placed to do so. But it’s also possible to be so long or so far in that it’s hard to see how, when, where, why and what change might be needed.

Jonathan Green argued, in The Year My Politics Broke, for a game changer in Australian politics a, change agency person, preferably a different kind of Prime Minister or leader.

I’d argue, perhaps with Elder, that we need Australian game changers in political journalism far more, right now, than we might need a different kind of political leader or politician generally.

There are those, quite a few, who suggest that the rise of the fifth estate is such a change agent. And I would argue that while exciting in its possibilities, it simply isn’t true. Not yet. Not when online only starts-up like The Global Mail fold so quickly. Not while the Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun or the Australian or The Age are the probable reading fare of the hundreds of thousands of Australians who don’t yet read the political media online and don’t know how to find it. Neither New Matilda nor The Conversation nor yet Guardian Australia (though it’s growing fast) has yet the extent of readership to influence the voting mind as rapidly as News Corp’s paper-based rags have.

The fourth estate still matters more, because of its power, because of its reach and because of its capacity to influence our governance for the worse or for the better, which is probably why some of us get as angry with it as we do. It’s way past time for the fourth estate to throw up journalists as change agents working from the inside.

One might look just like Jonathan Green … if he’d only seize his impartial partisanship (he doesn’t put a fact wrong) laud it, and teach that, instead of its opposite. (To be wholly in love with Jonathan Green would be quite something.)

One might look like Paul Syvret, working out of the News Corp stable in Brisbane, who produced this astonishingly open piece stating what his own personal positions on many issues were, but equally arguing no reader should simply box him into ‘left’ or ‘right’. Syvret has become one of my other most trusted journalists. It may be that his every article reads like the perfect practice of the Rosen model. I know where he stands. And I trust his evidence.

And one indeed might look like Margot Kingston, who practises now in the fifth estate after a long time in the fourth, and who very recently described herself, when challenged on whether she was ‘really a journalist’, in these words:

I think I've always been an activist journalist. As far as whether this has crossed a line, I've certainly never done any form of embedded journalism before,"

"My policy has been, for a long time, to be very open about who I am and what my beliefs are, and I hope that people trust me because of my honesty and transparency. All I want, as a journalist, is for what I say is the truth or report as fact, is believed. I think I have got that, I think my work is trusted journalistically, but yes, this is a very extreme way to report a protest." [my emphasis]

I want real change in my political coverage in Australia.

What do you want?

I see journalists who seem to actively pursue what we might call ‘a partisan impartiality’ in their practice in Australia.

Do you, and if so who?

I think I see some glimmering causes for optimism.

What do you think?

Truth with partisan on the side, but hold the bias, please: Part 1

Quite in love with Jonathan Green

I love Jonathan Green. Indeed, I’ve been quite in love with Jonathan Green for yonks. And that, in media-land, is called ‘disclosure’ (or ‘the big reveal’? Whatever.)

Disclosure is important because this piece is partisan. Whether proudly clutching its first person (it began with ‘I’) or not, this piece like any other can be nought but partisan. Partisan is precisely how we roll and what we are — all of us. (But let’s hope what happens next is also truthful and attentive to the facts.)

So why have I ere-long loved the Green?

Is it the kindly rounded face guesting every now and again on ABCNews24’s The Drum, murmuring wisdoms, occasionally pained, but often beaming genial benevolence?

(*Green starts at 2.30 mins.)

Is it the gentle calm about the ABC radio voice — that it almost never rises, even when the topic is confronting and the participants adversarial; that it holds steady through repeated challenge; that it slips in questions so deferentially as to seem innocuous? (But they’re not, of course.)

It is that the Green’s froggy tweets [@GreenJ] are quite sublime — a mastering of the ‘mot’ so ‘bon’ they out-‘wit’ all others?

Or that his weekly Thursday columns on The Drum website challenge us not only to look but really to learn from what we see?

Whichever way he captivates, this voice has been, for me, a trusted one in media. Not surprising, then, that I leapt to acquire The Year My Politics Broke by Green, a work in fine journalistic tradition of analysis on the 2013 Federal election, the moment it was digitised and out.

But — there is indeed a ‘but’ — while I didn’t quite know it then, I was a reader on a mission. After all, The Year My Politics Broke is written by an insider having voice across four communication platforms (add the book and we make five). Would this powerful, trusted voice shed new, or any, light on the role the fourth estate had played in letting loose the brutal wrenching dogs of pseudo-democracy we’ve just inherited — apparently by vote? If anyone knew the go on media culpability, Green surely would.

I have wondered ever since our last federal election whether journalists in Australia really truly, saw, never mind understood, the anger that hundreds of thousands of Australians felt so directly for so many of them before and after it. Aussie journalists sold Australian voters down the drain, cried some. Aussie journalism hadn’t done its job, said others. Tagged repeatedly by new online media and the fifth estate, even just in this last twelve months, who in the fourth has been listening?

So furious have been some judgments of betrayal, of an abdication of responsibility so heinous, that a chosen consequence could only be arraigning some of them — this very fourth estate — for treason. Those hungry for some kind of just consequence for media inadequacy are not ‘rusted-on’ (the usual disparaging epithet) party-aligned loonies; these are rusted-on human beings (I like to think I’m one) who feel betrayed utterly by press as much as politicians.

And I’ve wondered since; how aware now is the fourth estate that extreme citizen unrest persists, that the language of anger (and yes, I do use Twitter as something of a barometer, but not the only one) is, however extreme the analogy, increasingly aligning what is happening in the Australian political environment with the 1930s rise of fascism (not to mention the part some media played), and resistance — any impetus for action — with notions of real revolution?

Might Green have seen this as he reflected on the ‘breaking’ of his, indeed he argues Australia’s, own politics? Does he see it now? (Surely, I ask myself, after the ‘March in March’ event of 15–17 March the fourth estate might see a little more … now? Or not, as Mr Denmore considers.)

Green’s first chapter (available here in full), though, is one of the most incisive and intelligent dissections of where the last three years or more of politician and press shenanigans have left all things to do with the polity that I have thus far seen. (You really should read it.)

His very first sentence holds a palpable sense of his own disappointment in what modern Australian politics has become: ‘At some point they refined the art of politics, whittling it down to a nub of cynical ambition couched in something that from the middle distance might pass for belief’.

On the ‘sum of modern politics’ he further notes that there is good and bad policy, the good often squandered through a focus on its ‘inter-party or intra-party effect’ because of ‘fear of adverse reaction’, and the bad sculpted from fear to create division that is politically useful. It is, he surmises, a system reacting to circumstance rather than being ‘driven by belief’.

There’s no doubt at all that Green’s personal ‘J’accuse’ includes the press:

And how did we come to this? It’s hard not to overstate the role that the media have played—another institution, like formal politics, looking increasingly uncertain in a world of changing verities and technological circumstances. They have both gone down together in public estimation, our politicians and our press, two estates fundamental to our democratic health, but engaged in a mutually self-destructive relationship.

Quite soon (Chapter 2), ‘the press’ are called (or are they?) on their coverage of the Rudd revival. Green suggests the public interest was little served by coverage of what ‘seemed like little more than self-serving figments … shreds of deliberately laid, wishful myth’ of which he says: ‘And we, the reading, viewing public, could never call the press on this, never challenge the source of all the rumour and ambitious innuendo’ [my emphasis].

Journalistic motives in the Rudd saga are, however, explored In Chapter 2. Significantly, the framework of impartiality in journalism is brought into play. Suggesting that some senior correspondents thought a Rudd comeback likely or, for some reason, desirable, he notes: ‘Again, an impossible proposition to prove or detect, thanks to the notion of confidentiality and the pervading assumption of journalistic impartiality’ [my emphasis].

By Green’s third chapter, the kind of bollocking Andrew Elder has been serving out for years to the press in general and the Canberra Gallery in particular is underway:

Is this a wilful blindness? If Australia’s political discussion is lost into a pit of rudeness and tripe, it has been dumped there by press as much as by politicians … could politicians behave in that manner if the media forced the issue and used its collective intelligence and informational bargaining power? …

The media could play a role in the cure too, of course, but turn a famously tin ear to these discussions … Just fine if the work of these men and women had no broader public impact, if the system was a closed cell whose failures and transgressions could be safely ignored. But the public trust invested in a free press demands a better return than the flabby self-indulgence of so much of the political reporting-as-usual …

If media are to enjoy the privileges they earn as our democracy’s fourth estate, then they need to reawaken a sense of what serving that estate might entail. A shorthand for the position might be policy over personality, but perhaps that’s too tempting an oversimplification.

It hardly seems to matter, in any event, because nothing seems more resolute than the collective failure of Canberra press to just get this simple point. Our gallery hacks are rarely called on it, even though the consensus growing among the increasingly audible community they putatively serve seems to be that our press is not to be trusted or relied upon.

And the one group dealt out of the exchange were the voters, the viewers, the ordinary Australians, the real losers in this cartel collusion between politics and press that substitutes reality for self-serving political fictions [my emphasis].

But it’s not until Chapter 7 that Green next tackles the political press. Writing of press coverage of the ‘pink batts’ affair Green notes: ‘The betrayal of the reader/voter implied in this is obvious, and it suggests either a misinterpretation or abrogation of the role of political media. Or worse than either, it implies partisan journalistic activism’ [my emphasis].

The press really don’t appear again. Instead, towards the end of his treatise (Chapter 11) Green hands us this:

It’s a cycle that needs a circuit breaker before the entire apparatus consumes itself tail first.

And that circuit breaker may just be the popularity of a politician who sees all this, plays to it as well as anyone, but somehow manages to send a simultaneous signal that things need to change, that none of this serves us well. A charismatic celebrity candidate who nonetheless embraces a suite of big ideas, ideas made more palatable by fame, ideas that also mirror the public distaste for the stale systems of media and politics as they stand. It might have been Turnbull. It could have been Rudd. It’s not a description that seems to fit Abbott. We may be surprised or we may have some waiting to do.

It is true in so many ways that The Year My Politics Broke doesn’t disappoint. But it is also true that many more words are spent on the failure of politicians and politics than on how we mediate through the political press our trust in both. Green’s thought of the possibility of a leader who could turn it all around is virtually his only suggestion for how change might occur. A popular charismatic leader is his answer? And, yes, while it isn’t fair to ask someone to write the book you wanted rather than the one you got, I am bemused by a respected elder of the journalistic profession who wrote so vehemently against ‘the cartel collusion’ of politics and press seeming then to offer little more than an ‘oh woe’ and a wish for a new messiah.

I am more confused than bemused at how Green seems initially to position himself: ‘we, the reading, viewing public, could never call the press on this’ or ‘our gallery hacks are rarely called on this’. Well he isn’t ‘the public’, of course. By all first principles of the estates, and by virtue of the layers of media expression he has access to, he’s in a far more powerful position than, say, I am for calling anyone in public life on anything. And the public, by virtue of social media apart from any other way, consistently did call the press ‘on this’. And so indeed did he in November 2012 in ‘Partisan hyperbole: mistaking a claque for a clap’ where he notes ‘a puffed up, perpetually outraged and campaigning media can be a political trap …’, and continued to do in February 2014 in ‘Slogans stifle debate – and we let them’ where he raises the question of what might have happened in the last federal election ‘ … if our media had pushed harder for more considered responses and insisted that the electoral argument go beyond cliché and slogan …’

It seems, then, that Green chooses to comment on the habits of political journalism as if he were not a member of the media. If you are not, perhaps you don’t have to act (other than to comment) for change?

There may be a clue to the apparent contradiction in how strongly Green states, as a cause for the failures of the political press, that the public assume the ‘impartiality’ of journalists when what they often get is ‘either a misinterpretation or abrogation of the role of political media … [or] worse than either … partisan journalistic activism’.

Worse, no less: partisan journalistic activism.

Green is looking for new and different political leaders to bring change to politics, and presumably (by osmosis?) to that colluding political press.

Part of a love that is still ‘quite’ is that I’m equally looking for leaders in journalism to bring change to the political media. Jonathan, for all that I esteem his work, does not yet seem to be putting up his hand.

For some time US journalist, professor and critic Jay Rosen has been critiquing political journalism. In 2011 at the Melbourne Writers festival he set the cat amongst the journalistic pigeons by giving an address titled ‘Why political coverage is broken’. In it he defined something he calls ‘the production of innocence’ in journalism:

By the production of innocence I mean ways of reporting the news that try to advertise or “prove” to us that the press is neutral in its descriptions, a non-partisan presenter of facts, a non-factor and non-actor in events. Innocence means reporters are mere recorders, without stake or interest in the matter at hand. They aren’t responsible for what happens, only for telling you about it. When you hear, “don’t shoot the messenger” you are hearing a journalist declare his or her innocence.

One reason why a journalist as fine as Jonathan Green leads us to the nub of the problem but seems unable to lead us on to solutions is, I’d suggest, that we are in a very moral muddle about partisan, but not biased, journalism versus impartial or objective or ‘neutral’ journalism.

In ‘Truth, with partisan on the side: Part 2’ I want to explore this suggestion further.

But for now:

  • Is political journalism in Australia broken?
  • Should we be looking for leaders in political journalism who might make a new compact with both the public and their own estate?
  • What might leaders and compact be like, if we did?
What do you think?

Bringing Gross National Happiness into play

In my series of articles about where the Left should be heading in our new world, I suggested that adopting Gross National Happiness (GNH) as a measure of economic progress should be one element of a new approach for the Left. In this piece I will examine why that is important, what it means, and how Labor can also move towards adopting the concept of GNH while still seeking government.

The basic idea is that GNH, in one form or another, would replace, or at the very least supplement, the current measure of economic progress, Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

The use of GDP to measure economic activity only arose during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when the American government was concerned that they did not see the depression coming. The government asked economic experts for a model that would allow it to keep track of the economy and so have a chance of foreseeing such events in the future. GDP only came into widespread use, however, after 1944, with the Bretton Woods agreement and the establishment of the World Bank and the IMF (International Monetary Fund).

GDP measures a nation’s economic activity either by summing the outputs of every category of enterprise to reach a total market value of products and services, or by summing the expenditure in acquiring those goods and services, or the income of the producers in selling them: each approach should come to the same final number.

There is also another measure termed Gross National Product (GNP). It differs from GDP only in terms of measuring the value of all products and services produced by a nation, whether within its own borders or overseas by its citizens:

For example, if a Japanese company such as Honda has an auto-manufacturing plant in the United States then the output of that plant becomes part of the U.S. GDP but not its GNP because Honda is not a U.S.-owned company. The output of the plant instead becomes a part of Japan’s GNP.

It would be interesting to see how Australia measured up on GNP given the prevalence of overseas ownership of our businesses.

The use of GDP, however, began being questioned as early as the late 1950s. Even its creator, Simon Kuznets, said that ‘the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income’.

A major problem with GDP is that it measures only productive activity and takes no account of the losses or costs associated with the activity:

… it tends to go up after a natural disaster. Reconstruction and remediation spur intense activity that is registered by GDP, while the destruction, lives lost, suffering and disruption to families and communities in the wake of a flood, cyclone or bushfire are ignored.

Or as Robert Kennedy said in 1968:

… the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. [added emphasis]

And while GDP aggregates national income, it does nothing to indicate how that income is distributed. That is why the Gini coefficient is sometimes used, as it provides a statistical measure of distribution: under the Gini coefficient it is theoretically possible for a rich and a poor country to have the same coefficient, simply meaning that the low national income of the poor country is distributed among families and households in the same proportions as the higher income of the rich country.

The small nation of Bhutan, rather than relying on GDP to follow its progress, decided in 1972 to adopt a measure of Gross National Happiness (GNH).

Although the term “Gross National Happiness” was first coined by the 4th King of Bhutan the concept has a much longer resonance in the Kingdom of Bhutan. The 1729 legal code, which dates from the unification of Bhutan, declared that “if the Government cannot create happiness (dekid) for its people, there is no purpose for the Government to exist.”

(Perhaps we should apply that last statement to our governments!)

GNH has nine ‘domains’: psychological well-being, health, education, time use, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards.

There are also 33 indicators and 124 variables for measuring results. There are roles for government, communities and individuals in achieving ‘happiness’. ‘Happiness’ is defined by having a ‘sufficiency’ in the domains. In Bhutan, the government’s main role is in decreasing the ‘insufficiencies’ of ‘unhappy’ people. While in one sense the GNH is specific to Bhutan (it includes a number of local cultural indicators), its purpose of measuring well-being applies where GDP fails. GNH has been discussed in UN forums and has influenced economists in the developed world.

A number of alternatives to GDP have been developed over the years such as the Fordham Index of Social Health (FISH), the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) and more recently the Social Progress Index (SPI).

The UN has the Human Development Index (HDI) which basically looks at life expectancy at birth, years of schooling and literacy, and gross national income per capita — developed countries, like Australia, tend to score highly on this as it is primarily aimed at developing nations. The SPI is similar but adds extra dimensions and allows disaggregation of results, so that while Australia still rates highly overall on the SPI it rates more lowly (as many rich countries do) on the sub-set of ecosystem sustainability: and while Sweden tops the SPI it ranks more lowly on ‘shelter’ owing to weaknesses in affordable housing.

In 2012, the UN introduced the Inclusive Wealth Index (IWI) which includes not only economic capital, but human capital and environmental capital, and provided a report on 20 countries, examining their growth between 1990 and 2008: an example of four nations comparing GDP and IWI growth is shown in the following table:

Nation GDP growth 1990-2008 IWI growth 1990-2008
China 422% 45%
USA 37% 13%
Brazil 31% 18%
South Africa 24% -1%

The lower IWI growth in each country was due primarily to the depletion of natural resources in achieving GDP growth. An interesting contrast is Germany, which achieved 30% GDP growth but 38% growth using the IWI owing to significant investment in human capital (education).

In the same period Australia achieved average annual growth of 2.2% in GDP but only 0.1% in IWI.

Similarly other measures, like the FISH and GPI show that in the USA, the UK and Australia, GDP has grown significantly since the 1970s (up to threefold in the USA) but the FISH and GPI indexes have barely moved.

When the results of these alternative measures are considered, it clearly suggests that rising GDP has not improved social well-being, and that economies are not growing as strongly as suggested if the costs of achieving GDP are factored in. If the Gini coefficient is added into the equation, it also shows increasing inequality in the distribution of wealth in many nations, both developing and developed, since the 1970s. If those aren’t good reasons for adopting something other than GDP as a measure of progress, I don’t know what is!

These various approaches do, however, indicate that there is a serious attempt being made to move away from the exclusive use of GDP as a measure of economic progress. It is perhaps an acknowledgment that GDP measures economic activity, not progress.

In recent years the GPI was the front runner to replace GDP. It has been adopted by the US states of Maryland and Vermont and a number of other states, Utah, Minnesota and Oregon, are considering it, and Canada has adopted aspects of it.

It is probably the most popular because, like GDP, it is still measuring economic growth based on monetary values but, instead of just summing all production, it includes the dollar value cost of some activities and tries to give a value to other activities not currently valued in the market, for example:

  • the poor benefit more than the rich from a rise in income, so the GPI rises when their share of national wealth increases
  • the value of housework and volunteering are added, calculated at the rate of hiring someone to undertake the same tasks
  • the costs arising from crime are deducted
  • costs of pollution, degradation of wetlands, forests, farmland, etc are costs to be deducted from economic growth, as are estimates of longer term environmental damage
  • the GPI also goes up if leisure time increases
  • for consumer durables GPI treats the capital expenditure as a cost to the economy and the value is added for each year of service they provide.
It is more difficult to calculate than GDP, which may weigh against its widespread use and with the UN’s Inclusive Wealth Index now in play, the latter may become more favoured over the next few years (especially if it adds a measurement of social capital which it is aiming to do).

While the GPI and similar approaches may keep economists happy and provide governments with a more realistic measure of economic growth, it may not necessarily make the people happier.

Even the OECD has recognised that measuring well-being goes beyond purely monetary indicators. Subjective measures such as ‘life satisfaction’ are now included in survey questions on well-being and the OECD acknowledges evidence that this subjective measure actually shows up in objective measures: people showing a higher level of life satisfaction are likely to be more productive, more collaborative in the workplace, generally have better long-term health, can better pursue long-term goals and so on.

A problem with the current approach is that it is leading towards having a number of different measures operating together— some suggest that GDP remains important to monitor the economic cycle. So we could end up with GDP reflecting movements in economic activity, something like GPI or IWI taking a wider view of the costs of achieving GDP, and something that measures social well-being. Such a combination, while valuable, would leave policy makers with the discretion as to which they choose to drive policy. Public debate needs to drive policy and that really requires a single approach that can be readily understood, not having to combine the different evidence from three or more measures.

To my mind the GNH already blends much of what these other measures are trying to achieve.

In its surveys, it asks questions on life satisfaction and self-reported health status but also about the number of healthy days a person experienced in the past month; it asks about time use, working hours and sleeping hours (as sufficient sleep is seen as necessary for health and productivity); it asks about political participation; about social support, community relationships, and victims of crime; about pollution and wildlife and an individual’s environmental responsibility. In approaching education, it looks at literacy and educational qualifications but also at knowledge and values (based on the dominant Buddhist precepts in Bhutan). Three of its five knowledge questions are about local cultural issues, but it also asks about the Constitution and HIV/AIDS (a significant issue in Bhutan). The 2010 report concluded that despite rising literacy, people’s ‘knowledge’ of their locality was poor. I think that wider focus on local knowledge and values is an interesting inclusion that could have application in Western countries, as it attempts to quantify knowledge obtained outside the formal education system.

Yes, the GNH would need to be adapted to a modern western economy but the basics are there. For measurement purposes it would be possible to use the statistical approaches developed for some of the other indexes mentioned previously. In Australia, the ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) already conducts Social Trends surveys and that data can also be used.

So this is not an impossible task. People may baulk at the idea of a ‘happiness’ index but it can be renamed – perhaps a National Well-being Index or a National Progress Indicator.

Labor, in seeking government, would no doubt be reluctant to take the concept of GNH to an election. They would be open to criticism by the LNP that they were ignoring ‘economic fundamentals’ — the LNP already rates higher with the electorate in terms of ‘managing the economy’. That is one reason I suggested in my three part article on the Left that Labor needs to work at changing the tenor of the economic debate.

Being realistic, I would see Labor adopting the multiple-measure approach, at least initially: so there would be GDP, GPI or IWI, and a well-being measure akin to GNH. But what needs to be done is make GDP a background measure, and begin emphasising the real value of our economy (GPI or IWI) and the social benefits (improved well-being and equity). Labor should seek to emphasise that the order of importance of these measures is GPI/IWI first, well-being second and GDP third, and focus on GPI/IWI, not GDP, in public debate. The long term strategy should be that GDP drops from public view as the main measurement of economic progress and that, over time, well-being assumes first place in the public hierarchy of progress measurements. The other measurements, and eventually only the GPI/IWI, then become the economic background against which the government decides which policies are tenable to improve social well-being (happiness).

That will take time and will not be easy. The vested interests of big business and global corporations will mostly oppose it. They like GDP because it measures what they are producing, taking no account of environmental or social costs. While GDP reigns, so does big business because it can argue that for every downturn or slowing in GDP growth it needs government policies that will help it boost production and so increase GDP again. I will concede that at the WEF at Davos in January this year, the global corporations represented there did show some concern for environmental and resource costs because they are realising that continued unfettered use of natural resources and damage to the environment will eventually affect their ‘bottom line’. Unfortunately there appears no sign of this realisation in Australia and that is unlikely to change while GDP rules the economic debate here and while political parties also pay homage to it.

What do you think?