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

loading animation
Sunday, 13 April 2014 18:30 by Jan Mahyuddin @j4gypsy

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?