Integrity in journalism

How do you react to journalists who quote ‘informed sources’ or ‘senior public servants’ or ‘experienced politicians’ but never name them?  How much credence do you place on such anonymous sources?  How reliable do you believe this ‘reporting’ is?  Yet such journalism still exists, even appeals to some readers, if one can judge from their reactions.

In The Australian of 23 September there was a blog by Glenn Milne, Rudd’s control issues that exemplifies this type of journalism.   A man on a mission, Milne has been pushing the ‘Rudd is a control freak’ notion for a while now, and like anyone that harbours a pet idea, he’d like to be proved right.  So he often returns to that theme.  He also finds irresistible the ‘Rudd lacks a narrative’ mantra, so he frequently returns to that.  And since he enjoys heaping scorn on the emphasis that Rudd places on process, that took centre stage in this article.

In Rudd’s control issue we have a piece that pushes all these themes. Reporting on a speech by Kim Beasley at a Chatham House rules Australian Defence Industry Network seminar in Canberra three weeks previously, he quotes the recollections of ‘those present’ of what Beasley, among other things, is purported to have said about process:  “...the pace of reform under Rudd had been slowed by the constipation of process”.  Is this exactly what he said, or a dimming memory of it, or a paraphrasing of what was thought to have been said?  Milne conceded that he had not been able to talk with Beasley to confirm these recollections, so we’ll never know.

 It seemed not to matter to him that he broke the Chatham House rules of secrecy by quoting ‘those present’, or that he had been unable to confirm what was said.  In his piece he went on to recycle comments by Paul Keating that supported his case, to assert that ‘every senior bureaucrat’ knows about “the self-obsessed sclerotic arteries that run from the PM's office”, (every senior bureaucrat - a bold assertion).  He then quoted without qualification the view of anonymous ‘senior public servants’ that as a result there is ‘policy paralysis’.  His piece ended with what supposedly was Beasley’s gratuitous advice to Rudd, as if Rudd would take the time to read it. 

I marvel that he could expect thinking, rational people to take him seriously?

I note though that many of his respondents did.  They were not disturbed by his approach to journalism.  Indeed they seemed to welcome the opportunity to lambaste Rudd, his ministers and the Government, and in so doing confirm Milne’s views, thereby stroking his ego. 

Which leads to the question: “What was the purpose of the article?” Did Milne believe it would change anything?  Did he think his assertions, his conclusions and his advice were sound, that he’d made the right diagnosis and suggested the right treatment?  Did he ever consider he might not be right, that he might not understand the way Rudd and his Government work, and that the process-intense approach he pillories might be the one that will give the best result?

Would a serious journalist really believe that this style of journalism could enhance his, or his paper’s reputation?  But if the prime aim was to write a provocative piece that evoked emotions and engendered angry and conforming responses, judging from the comments of respondents, the article was a success.

Integrity in journalism is a precious thing.  Truth, honesty, accuracy, and quoting reliable, named sources are its lifeblood.  Good journalists know this; lesser ones seem not to know, or care.

Do we want our Prime Minister to travel overseas?

Just when it was hoped that a change of leader might bring a less opportunistic approach to opposition than did Brendan Nelson, Malcolm Turnbull outdoes his predecessor by turning up the heat on Kevin Rudd about his visit to the US. 

We all know why Rudd is going – to speak to the UN about Australian membership of the Security Council and climate change, and now that global markets are in turmoil, to consult with many of the 100 heads of government that will be in New York for three days where the number one topic will be the content of a further global response to the financial crisis.  We know he plans to have formal bilateral meetings with more than a dozen of these world leaders, and informal meetings with another ten to fifteen.  He plans to have contact with US President George W Bush and key financial figures, and take part in a Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting on reform of financial regulation.  All in three days. 

Turnbull knows what is planned, but calls the whole trip “a waste of time”.  We have the spectacle of him making a scathing attack on Rudd insisting he should stay at home and deal with the ramifications here of the global financial meltdown.  He doesn’t give a clue as to what he would actually be in a position to do here in Australia over and above what has already been done, is being done hour by hour by the regulatory authorities APRA and ASIC, the Reserve Bank and the Stock Exchange, and what his Treasurer could do during his absence if necessary.  Turnbull knows he’s talking gibberish, but that doesn’t faze him so long as he can score a political point or two.

Turnbull can tell you where Rudd has been, how many trips he has made and how many days he has been overseas, all critically important facts his people have ferreted out.  He asserts that he has been overseas more than any other PM or his own Foreign Minister, both of which are incorrect.  By why worry about factual accuracy. "Have we elected a prime minister or a prime tourist?" he asked with scorn on the Nine Network on Sunday.  While he conceded that overseas trips and personal contact with world leaders were important, he insisted Rudd was “overdoing it”.  He’s chuffed with his new slogan ‘747 Kevin’, his suggestion for a T shirt logo with ‘where the bloody hell are you’ on the back.

He mockingly enlightened Rudd: "There is such a thing as the telephone".  But Turnbull insisted he needed a face-to-face meeting with finance officials in the US in April; presumably a telephone was not sufficient for him.   He quips: "Just because you're sitting on an aeroplane flying to New York doesn't mean you're doing anything", and accuses Rudd of "mistaking motion for action".  His insists “his travelling is extraordinary and so early in his term - he seems to be constantly on an aeroplane."  All very amusing stuff if the world was not embroiled in such a global financial crisis that threatens this country as part of the global economy. More...

Political commentating as a blood sport

Political commentators thrive on controversy, upheaval, changing fortunes, changing circumstances.  They particularly enjoy a contest between political parties, between opposing leaders and between ministers and their counterparts, and the more bloodshed the better.  They are like spectators at a cockfight, so enjoyed in many Asian communities.

Since the election the fight has been somewhat one-sided.  Brendan Nelson has not been a match for Kevin Rudd.  He started in a weakened state after narrowly pipping Malcolm Turnbull, the then media favourite.  A gentle rooster, he began with one leg pulled one way by the Howardites, the other pulled by the Turnbull team.  He never had unqualified support from the Coalition cheer squad; there were too many who would have preferred Turnbull in the cockpit, or even Peter Costello.  Moreover Nelson’s spurs were never as sharp or as long as Rudd’s, and the moves he made were awkward and easily countered.  The media, rather than cheering for Rudd, gave Nelson the thumbs down; they did not see him as a winner against Rudd, and they wanted someone in the cockpit that would draw blood, get some feathers flying, and eventually win, at least some of the battles.  They wanted a gory fight with a clear victor as much as they wanted a particular winner.

Political commentators are always looking for defects, deficiencies, inadequacies, weaknesses, vulnerabilities in the contestants.  Unlike sports commentators, they are less likely to applaud strengths.  Those who have partisan political views barrack, often subtly, but sometimes blatantly for their favourite.  They are quick to highlight the opponent’s slip-ups, ‘gaffes’ as they like to call them; they criticize their decisions, demean their behaviour and expose their indiscretions – all with the intent of giving their favourite an advantage.  But if despite this their favourite still messes up, still looses most of the time, still fights below their expectations, fails to draw blood, they push hard for a change of rooster.  Cockfights are not much fun if your favourite usually gets whipped, and worse still if the crowd that has come along just for the spectacle give your favourite the thumbs down. More...

The ‘ain’t it awful’ syndrome

The Liberal Party is still mourning its loss of Government.  As pointed out by Maxine McKew on the ABC TV’s Q&A last Thursday, Peter Costello’s Memoirs, written well after the loss, express surprise that a Government that had done so much, which had governed Australia during such a time of prosperity, was rejected by the people.  As Maxine said: “They just don’t get it”.  They accept that Howard stayed too long, but they don’t accept that they wasted the bounty the country enjoyed, that they failed in a time of great affluence to invest in infrastructure, skills and education, and instead spent profligately.  We know that much was spent preferentially on what would give them the best chance of re-election.  On the same show, Tony Abbott’s reaction was that the Rudd infrastructure fund was just a slush fund to prop up the States, and dismissed it as “all nonsense”.  He just doesn’t get it, he never has.

We all remember his lament about the poor pre-election opinion polls, which were a mystery to him “as we’re such a good Government”.  He said the electorate seemed to be sleep-walking, and hoped it would wake up in time for the election.  The lament and the mystery continue in the Coalition to this day.   ‘Ain’t it awful’ and ‘We was robbed’ remains a prevailing sentiment.  Coalition members behave like football supporters whose team had already won four premierships, still considered it the top side, but unfairly lost the fifth Grand Final. 

The consequence is intense anger and frustration, exhibited most blatantly in Question Time where they make repeated and rowdy interjections and spurious points of order, and refuse to listen attentively to answers to their own questions.  They are having difficulty accepting that they are no longer in power and that the adversary has been chosen by the people to govern the country.  They see the Coalition as the natural party to govern and hope Labor in power is just a temporary, albeit unpleasant aberration, a one-term government.  So their focus is on winning the next election rather than advancing policies that will be more attractive to the electorate than the Government’s.  “We Will Win” was the Sun-Herald’s 20 September banner headlines, paraphrasing Malcolm Turnbull’s “We think we can win the next election”.  Judging from what he told the Sun-Herald, producing good new policy seemed secondary to winning.  And some Liberals still seem enamoured of some of the old policies that brought them undone, such as John Howard’s IR.  Julie Bishop is one that seems still wedded to WorkChoices.  More...