The great media awakening

Ever since he became Leader of the Opposition, the relationship between the media and Kevin Rudd has been patchy.  While he, with Joe Hockey, once enjoyed a convivial regular association with Channel Seven, a connection that still exists, and while his appearances on Channel Ten’s Rove Live have been well received, the regard in which Rudd has been held by other sections of the media has varied widely.  ABC TV’s Kerry O’Brien oscillates between aggressive interrogation and benign enquiry, Michael Brissenden makes light of whatever turmoil is engulfing Rudd, ABC radio’s Chris Ulhmann ranges from balanced questioning to nit-picking.  Journalists like George Megalogenis, Paul Kelly and Laura Tingle write even-handedly about Rudd, but others, such as Dennis Shanahan, give Rudd credit through gritted teeth even while longing for the return of the Coalition to its rightful place in power.  This piece reviews the media’s response to the last few weeks of financial turbulence, culminating in the recent batch of polls (Morgan, Essential Research and ACNielsen) that have been favourable to Rudd and his Government

Tony Wright, in his 20 October article on the ACNielsen poll in The Age, Rudd shows that cometh the hour, cometh the man, begins: “Leaders are made or broken by crises, and Kevin Rudd – who has been riding a wave of voter approval for a year now – is having his credentials as a leader confirmed and heightened as most of the world crashes towards recession. Talking about voter optimism, he says: “A lot of that optimism, misplaced or not, originates in a belief that Rudd is handling the fall-out from the global financial crisis in a reassuring and decisive manner.”, but adds the rider “His constant use of the words ‘decisive action’ as a requirement to combat what he has spent the past week or so describing as ‘a new and dangerous phase’ of the economic crisis has worked a treat.”   In other words, ‘good spin’.  Later he reiterates: “... today's poll is all about how voters tend to reward strong leaders in tough times...”

Peter Hartcher, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald in his piece PM: master and commander says “If there is opportunity in crisis, Kevin Rudd has found it. By every measure in today's Herald (ACNielsen) poll, his swift and decisive response to the financial crisis has given him an enormous boost.  It has vaulted Rudd to a popularity peak that only one other prime minister in the past 36 years has reached.”  But here comes the qualifier: “The financial crisis, which is in the process of becoming an economic crisis as well, may yet destroy Kevin Rudd's prime ministership.  But so far it is the making of it”.  Kevin, please note!  Hartcher goes on “It has transformed Rudd's role from long-term problem solver to commander in a time of crisis.”,  and ends “In a crisis, the people want a leader in whom they can put their confidence. So far, Rudd has shown that he is worthy, and he has been rewarded.”  So far - feel better now?

Phillip Coorey, in his piece in the SMH He's never been so popular writes "Kevin Rudd's popularity has skyrocketed to record levels and support for federal Labor has soared after the Government's handling of the global financial crisis, the latest Herald/Nielsen poll finds.  The national poll, the first to test the Government's recent reaction to the dramatic worsening of the crisis, also finds overwhelming support for Mr Rudd's handling of the situation, including his $10.4 billion rescue package. And, despite the dire forecasts, the poll finds 58 per cent are optimistic about the economy over the next two to three years”.  The only qualification came from the pollster, John Stirton, who said "...it was common for voters to get behind governments during a crisis"  In another piece in the SMH Most upbeat despite doom and gloom Coorey says “Support for Mr Rudd's handling of the crisis is strong among voters of all persuasions.  Overall, 76 per cent support Mr Rudd on the crisis. Among Coalition voters, he has 59 per cent support and, among Labor voters, 92 per cent support." More...

The economy – who can we believe?

Nobody really knows how we got into the financial mess we’re in, or how to get out of it.  Nobody knows what the stock market will do this week, next week, next month.  No less a figure than Warren Buffett said in an Op Ed piece in the New York Times last week “I can’t predict the short-term movements of the stock market. I haven’t the faintest idea as to whether stocks will be higher or lower a month — or a year — from now.” Yet we have an abundance of experts: economists, economics editors in the media, and common or garden columnists giving us their predictions, their analyses, their expert opinions about what’s wrong, and their confident critiques about the ‘remedy’. That they don’t really understand what they’re talking about seems to be no barrier.  They are joined by a host of letter writers to the editors and online bloggers who have a variety of simple diagnoses and remedies.  Their assessments and solutions are often quite different, and sometimes diametrically opposed.  Why?  Why the disagreement?  Why the confusion? 

This piece puts forward the proposition that it is the type of thinking most commentators use that underlies the confusion that characterizes contemporary comment.

Science is still bedevilled by convergent thinking and the reductionist approach to understanding phenomena.  Medicine has been in thrall to this for centuries, vainly looking for the single cause and the one cure.  Nowadays, particularly in the face of the growing burden of chronic disease, it is recognized that almost always there are multiple causes, genetic, environmental, physical, social, psychological, and so on, and almost always there are multiple remedies.  This change in thinking has been brought about through the adoption of systems theory as an underlying strategy.

Systems theory is the study of the nature of complex systems in nature, society, and science. More specifically, it is a framework by which one can analyse and describe any group of objects that work in concert to produce some result. This could be a single organism, any organization or society, or any electro-mechanical or informational device. Systems theory first originated in biology in the 1920s out of the need to explain the interrelatedness of organisms in ecosystems.  It refers to the science of systems that resulted from Ludwig von Bertalanffy's General Systems Theory published in 1929.  Since Descartes, the ‘scientific method’ had progressed under two related assumptions – a system could be broken down into its individual components so that each component could be analysed as an independent entity, and the components could be added in a linear fashion to describe the totality of the system. Von Bertalanffy proposed that both assumptions were wrong.

Stated in its simplest terms, systems theory acknowledges the interconnectedness of everything to everything else and proposes that change in one part of the system causes changes in all other parts.  It therefore refutes linear cause-effect thinking.

The application of systems thinking to economics, and contemporaneously to the global financial crisis, has the capacity to bring some glimmer of clarity to our deliberations. More...

Media melancholy

‘Melancholy’ is an old fashioned word derived from medieval medicine; it literally means ‘black bile’, an excess of which was believed to cause depression.  ‘Depressed’, which now carries a specific taxonomic meaning, seems to be an inappropriate word to characterize the contemporary mood of the media, while ‘melancholic’, and its synonyms ‘despondent’ ‘gloomy’ and ‘unhappy’ seem more suitable.  What is it about the media that warrants those descriptors?

That there is plenty of gloom around is obvious – financial, social, environmental.  Although it is the duty of the media to transmit the hard facts, to report the news however unpalatable, is it entitled to editorialize? Sally Warhaft on ABC Melbourne 774 radio’s Friday Wrap this morning complained about the ABC’s propensity to editorialize, citing a comment in the morning news bulletin that reported the 400 point, 5% rise in the Dow Jones index the previous day as ‘slight’, having already mentioned heavy losses on European stock markets.  It might seem a small matter, but it does represent the interposition of opinion into the factual substance of the news report.  Who considered that such a rise was ‘slight’ – a news writer?  What authority does a news writer have to introduce his or her opinion amongst the factual evidence?

The intertwining of fact and opinion is prevalent throughout the Australian media.  In the print media information arising from press releases or doorstops, or opinions expressed by other than the author, are usually placed within quotation marks, and are therefore distinguishable from the author’s opinions, although the two are sometimes physically intermixed in a way that makes the distinction less than clear.  But in the broadcast media the separation of what is fact from what is opinion is much less easy to discern.  This imposes a heavier burden on those preparing text for radio and TV to make clear that separation, than it does on those preparing print material.  While sloppy editorializing characterizes much of the commercial broadcast media, when the national broadcaster indulges in it, it’s time to call for a halt.  Management needs to instruct its news writers to desist from interposing their own views, and ensure they realize that the use of what might seem to be innocent metaphors effectively does just that.   ‘Slight’ to describe the rise in the Dow Jones is an example.  It was noticeable that following Warhaft’s complaint, in subsequent news bulletins, ‘slight’ had been removed.

The interposition of opinion, either overtly or metaphorically expressed, is not a function of broadcasts journalists, unless they make it clear that it is indeed their personal opinion, and unless they furnish the reasons that lead them to that opinion. If they are respected, their opinion will be taken seriously, even if contrary to the listener’s.

As the title to this piece suggests, much of this unwelcome expression of opinion is negative, gloomy, or sceptical.  On ABC radio’s The World Today on 17 October, Alexandra Kirk in the context of her interview with Infrastructure Minister Anthony Albanese about the use of superannuation fund deposits to fund infrastructure projects asked a fund manager what contributors would feel about their “hard-earned money” being used for this purpose.  Note the words “hard-earned money”, the use of which implies that since their money had been “hard-earned” they might object to its use in this way.  She could have asked simply how the manager expected contributors to view this.  As it turned out, the manager annulled her negative spin when he said that superannuants would welcome any investment of their funds that grew their return.

Time and again gloom has been spread by journalists and anchor persons by their use of exaggerated language or disheartening metaphors.  Even the highly-respected Ali Moore, on ABC 774 radio has heightened apprehension and engendered anxiety all this week through the injudicious use of negative words and metaphors, and has been called to order by some of her talkback audience.

There is so much understandable fear and nervousness around among all sectors of society that what we need from the media is not more melancholy, gloom and despondency in the way of gratuitous comment.  The media should just give us the facts, by all means solicit the opinion of experts but in a neutral way, and let us construct our own views.  And if it can spread a little cheer on the way, that would be a welcome change.

On that morning’s ABC 774 Breakfast Programme Red Symonds cheered us when he played Oh what a beautiful morning from Oklahoma.  Perhaps a more soothing theme would have been the classic from The Life of BrianAlways look on the bright side of life.

To quibble or not to quibble

It was just last Tuesday, 14 October, when Malcolm Turnbull announced the Coalition’s willing bipartisan support for the Government’s $10.4 billion package to stimulate Australia’s slowing economy.  In a doorstop, he and his deputy added that the Coalition would not quibble about the details.  ‘Quibble’ as a verb literally means “argue about a trivial matter”.  By the next day that changed when he questioned the data on which the decision was taken and insisted that the Coalition, even the general public, had “the right to know” about it.  The Government’s promise of the mid-term financial data in November was not enough; he wanted it now. 

Then he convinced ABC TV to give him the ‘right of reply’ to Kevin Rudd’s Address to the Nation just prior to the 15 October 7 pm News, an unusual turn of events.  If you missed it, it’s here.  In it, Turnbull speaks well, looks authoritative, and for much of his address is statesmanlike.  But he could not resist the opportunity to score some political points, first accusing the Government of missing “the warning signs at the beginning of the year and talking up inflation and consequently interest rates at precisely the wrong time”, a theme he’s often articulated.  Next he raised doubts about the Government’s plan to guarantee consumer deposits in banks by saying “We are concerned to ensure that safeguards are put in place so that Government guarantees offered to banks do not result in taxpayers picking up the tab for bank losses”, although there has never been any suggestion that this could occur.  He knows it’s easier to raise doubts, no matter how spurious, than to quell them.  He ended by lauding the Coalition’s record, offering bipartisanship again, but expressing disappointment that this had been rejected.  So in a few minutes he had exposure to a national audience and scored a point or two.

Then on the ABC TV’s Lateline the same day Julie Bishop elaborated on the Coalition’s concerns.  Under intense pressure from Tony Jones to explain the change of rhetoric since the day before, Bishop looked uncomfortable, avoided being specific until pressed, and finally said if the Coalition was in government, they might have considered other design options. "We may well have looked at another composition, we might have looked at other issues, we might have looked at tax cuts," and "We might have reconsidered the first home owner matter, we might have got information as to whether or not this would be an inflationary package, and if you calibrated it another way."  So now the theme was the threat of the package being inflationary.

Why the change?  We can only guess why cracks are appearing in the Coalition’s bipartisanship.  Is it the result of pressure from the conservative elements?  It was Tony Abbott who claimed that the package was “politically motivated”, then yesterday Barnaby Joyce chimed in with a breathless “...if you pay people lump sums you can end up against the wall.”,  a meaning not lost on discerning connoisseurs of Aussie slang, and today he described the Government's $10.4 billion spending package as "ridiculous" and criticised it as "policy on the run". He said “More questions need to be asked as to why the Government decided to spend the money before Christmas by handing out one-off payments to pensioners and some families.” and “It’s a peculiar way to do business – let's not just blindly accept – that's a dangerous way to do business."

So what started as a concerted effort by Turnbull to contribute to solving Australia’s worst economic situation for decades has degenerated into the same old partisan points scoring contest.  Turnbull seems to prefer the collaborative approach on such significant events, and welcomes, even seeks the opportunity to be seen as a statesman, but each time he tries, even as he’s succeeding, he seems to be quickly pulled into line by elements of his party who, accustomed to taking the fight up to the opponent, eschew bipartisanship, and insist Turnbull enter the cockpit and fight till the blood flows.  As said so many times in this blog, when Turnbull does his own thing and promotes his own views, he looks impressive and sounds authentic; but as soon as he’s forced to toe the party line, he loses his lustre and becomes an ordinary politician.  Although no doubt the rusted-on Coalition supporters, like spectators at a cockfight, enjoy this political blood sport, the ones that really count, the swinging voters, may take a very different view.  When will the Coalition learn?  When will they realize that sometimes it’s better not to quibble.