Could the media tide be turning?

It might surprise those who believe the media, particularly News Limited, is anti-Government and pro-Coalition, that some Coalition supporters believe the media is pro-Government and not nearly hard enough on Kevin Rudd and his ministers.  Perspective governs perception.  For those who believe the former, or more ominously that there is a deliberate media campaign to change the electorate's favourable view of the Rudd Government, there are signs the tide may be turning.

Despite adverse comment around Rudd’s recent visit to the US by Andrew Bolt in the Sun-Herald, in the editorial in The Daily Telegraph, in the preamble to Dennis Shanahan’s audio report, and in several TV programmes, as detailed in the previous post, The Cringe Dwellers, there have been some articles since then that indicate a change of tone.

In Glenn Milne’s article in the September 29 issue of The Australian Market injection well plannedit was gratifying to read “The decision by the Government to pump $4 billion of confidence boosting taxpayers' money into the non-bank mortgage lending sector is a significant milestone in the developing stature of Treasurer Wayne Swan. It may also be the first signal lesson that the phase of policy constipation in the Rudd Government is coming to an end; that the period of policy review and consideration is moving on through process to resolution and final implementation. In other words, things are finally happening.”  What a revelation.  At last someone in the media has woken up to the fact that the “all talk and no action” mantra is nonsensical.  ‘Talk’ - talking to experts, talking to stake-holders, talking in committees and reviews ARE action, as are data gathering, analysis and decision making,  all processes the Rudd Government insist must precede implementation.

Even the editorial Some Good News for Main St., Australia in the September 29 issue of The Weekend Australian was positive for Rudd.  It applauds the $4 billion package to non-bank lenders.

Paul Kelly in his piece Two cheers for Rudd in his September 27 article in The Australian says: “The difference between the Australian and American systems of capitalism has rarely been so stark. Kevin Rudd in New York at this time of crisis - a fortuitous accident - deserves two cheers for his response”.  Later, Kelly explains what Rudd needs to do to earn his third cheer: “ reduce expectations within Australian society for handouts, whether for welfare or business subsidies”.  He concludes: “It suggests the Government got the May budget correct in its balance between anti-inflation and maintaining activity. But Rudd must further adjust policy and political settings, with the prize, if he gets it right, being the mantle of economic credibility.”

A Peter Hartcher article in The Sydney Morning Herald on September 27 on Rudd’s visit to the US reads, in part, “While Rudd has been quietly seeking solutions, Malcolm Turnbull has been noisily acting out his new schizophrenia as Opposition Leader. He advances responsible Turnbullesque policy on one hand and defends populist ideas he inherited from Brendan Nelson on the other. In his Nelson mode, Turnbull shamelessly spouts the nonsense that Rudd must rush home to solve problems here. Yet Turnbull knows full well that the biggest problem facing Australia is the crisis in the US, and that’s exactly where Rudd should be. Rudd is trying to do his bit.”  More positive comment.

These may be but straws in the wind, but they suggest an awakening in at least some of the media to the modus operandi of the Rudd Government, its steadfast emphasis on sound process before implementation, its determination to get it right first time, and its steadily growing aura of competence and confidence. 

The Cringe Dwellers

When the Prime Minister announced his recent trip to the US, the ‘cringe dwellers’ emerged in numbers.  First the Opposition coined what it thought were cute descriptors: ‘Kevin 747’ and ‘Prime Tourist’, which apart from giving it some amusement, exposed an underlying attitude – who does the PM think he is, jetting off when he should be at home minding the shop?  An unspoken sub-theme was ‘What could Kevin Rudd possibly have to contribute?’

Soon columnists joined the chorus. The Sun-Herald’s Andrew Bolt in the 29 September issue begins his blog Rudd gets busy with WorldWatch: “What a strange addiction Rudd has for strutting the international stage, doing almost nothing at all of any note.”  Note the words “strutting” and “doing almost nothing at all of any note”.  But what could be expected? After all he’s only the PM of Australia, a large chunk of land with just 20 million down-unders, only an ex-diplomat, only a past Shadow Foreign Minister; what would he know that anyone else in the world would want to hear?  What could Australia possibly contribute on the world scene, and who would listen anyway?  What message could he bring from arguably one of the best regulated financial systems in the world to large nations like the US?  They must know better.  Otherwise the monumental financial mess they’re in would have been much much worse.  Bolt, like others of his type think it’s pretentious and arrogant for an Australian PM to be telling any other country anything.  He depicts them as trembling with apprehension as Rudd delivers yet another ‘lecture’.  Most of Bolt’s following think the same – they had a field day with this blog.  The Sunday Telegraph’s Editorial of 28 September Time to clip Rudd’s wings echoed “Kevin Rudd's travel addiction is getting out of hand.” and mockingly questioned the value of his visit, suggesting email and the telephone would have sufficed.  Same sentiments as Bolt.

Then there was The Australian’s Dennis Shanahan’s 26 September audio report from the US about the Rudd address to the UN.  Although he went on to explain why Rudd’s agenda had necessarily changed because of the global financial crisis and what Rudd had done during his visit, he could not resist beginning by saying that taxpayers watching Kevin Rudd’s address to the UN could be forgiven for wondering why the PM had gone there in the first place instead of staying at home to attend to the financial situation there and to his legislative agenda. 

On Channel Ten’s Meet the Press yesterday Glen Milne took a sideswipe when he said, with his usual dose of sarcasm, that Rudd seemed to have plans for global action on many issues but no plan for supporting pensioners.  Again the message was - how dare he get involved in global politics.  Even the benign Mark Riley in his Channel Seven Sunday Riley Diary made fun of the Rudd visit, although subsequently in his serious comment he acknowledged all that Rudd had accomplished and that his presence in the US was important.  Then on the ABC’s Insiders Piers Akerman predictably ridiculed the visit, as if someone as insignificant on the world scene as Kevin Rudd, Australia’s PM, could offer any useful advice.  Even the cartoonists portrayed on Insiders had a field day.

To balance this, thoughtful commentators like Paul Kelly, Malcolm Farr and Annabelle Crabb, also on Insiders, acknowledged it was important that our PM was in the US meeting with world leaders, updating himself with the latest on the financial crisis, speaking to the UN on financial regulation, climate change and world poverty, as well a canvassing a seat for Australia on the Security Council, the original reason for the visit.  But Insiders still took the time with its visuals to poke fun at Rudd’s UN appearance highlighting the empty seats and the sleepy audience. More...

The Turnbull Report Card 10 days in

10 days ago Malcolm Turnbull became Leader of the Opposition at a time of intense political activity and global financial turmoil.  This is one view of how he’s travelling.

As argued in another post: Will the real Malcolm Turnbull please stand up? Turnbull’s performance varies according to whether he is advancing a case in which he believes, or one in which he does not.  It is in instances of the latter that he has been unconvincing.

Why is this?  Looking back at Turnbull’s career he has had success as a barrister and a merchant banker.  A barrister takes a brief and argues the merit of the client’s case against that presented by an adversary, often a prosecutor.  From what we hear of Turnbull’s successes as a barrister, it appears that it has been greatest in those cases where he was an enthusiastic advocate.  The ‘Spycatcher’ case is an example.  Since entering politics he seems have done best when his heart is in his advocacy, such as signing Kyoto or saying ‘sorry’.  His is less convincing when his heart is not in it, such as was the case in the 5c/litre cut in fuel excise.

Since his ascent to leadership we have seen several pointers to his modus operandi:

First he will not shrink from populist politics if he sees it as advancing his and the Coalition’s cause.  The fact that he endorsed Brendan Nelson’s populist positions without hesitation, when he could have stepped back from at least some of them when he assumed leadership, shows that he has embraced the ‘anything it takes’ approach to winning.  The statesmanlike utterances he made shortly after he entered parliament have given way to ‘political-speak’.  So he gets a tick for his ‘win at any cost’ approach, but a cross for populism.

Second, he has shown that he performs best when, to use his media cheerleaders’ words, ‘he takes it up to Rudd and his Government’.  This is perhaps most closely aligned with the skill of advocacy at the bar, where the job is to take the client’s case up to the prosecutor, something at which Turnbull has excelled.  So his aggression at Question Time or in proposing censure motions is to be expected.  Although he knows he is unlikely to succeed, for example with censure, he proceeds with great vigour and eloquence, knowing that this will hit the news bulletins, and that when shown on TV will promote the strong advocate image, that of someone who can take the fight to the adversary.  That the argument he is making may be flawed or his facts faulty, is no deterrent, so long he considers he is giving the impression of a strong articulate leader.  His trenchant criticism of the exchange of abuse at Question Time on the ABC TV’s Q&A programme this week would have been more plausible if he had not been contributing to it so fulsomely. So he gets a qualified tick for his performance in the House. More...

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.