The media versus the politicians

The last two pieces on The Political Sword: Let’s leave it to Kevin and Media flounders over the Hu affair have focussed on the media handling of the Stern Hu affair.  Concluding comments in those pieces pointed to ‘...all the hype, conjecture, misinformation, and ill-considered opinion that have defaced the media coverage of this case in Australia’ , and how ‘...all the admonitions of the commentariat, all the dire predictions, all the acerbic and in some instances poisonous comments, have so far been shown to be superficial, pretentious, provocative, singularly unhelpful, and in many instances plain wrong.’

The burden of those pieces was to highlight the incompetence of much of the journalism, and the arrogant way that some in the media, especially several journalists working for The Australian, portrayed that event and offered gratuitous advice to the politicians handling it. [more]

Today in the House Rules Blog in The Australian, Christian Kerr writes a rather acerbic piece How can we praise MPs? that addresses the issue of the behaviour of press gallery journalists in the UK.  His piece begins: “All pollies are fine physical specimens and fonts of wisdom. There. I’ve said it. I’ve put it on the record. I’m getting in early, you see, in case our politicians decide to follow something going on in Britain.  The latest issue of Order, Order, the magazine for former members of the House of Commons, contains a full page editorial demanding parliamentary sketch writers show a little more respect to MPs.  The editorial says political journalists should be banned from the parliamentary press gallery if they do not behave.  ‘These journalists are their own judge and jury and paid very high salaries for their exclusive position,’  it claims. ‘Their constant attacks lower the standards of the House and bring Parliament into disrepute.’”   You might care to read the rest to see why such an editorial might have been felt necessary.

My response, which has been posted, reads: “I am amazed at the level of disdain which some journalists and cartoonists display towards politicians, the ridicule to which they subject them, and the arrogance they exhibit in pointing out with such self-confidence their ‘mistakes’, lack of judgement, poor decisions, ignorance, naivety and self-importance.  So much so that the reader is left with the impression that if only the columnist was running the country all these errors could be avoided.

“Our elected representatives deserve our respect while they are doing their job well.  It is only when they betray the trust the people have placed in them or behave incompetently, irresponsibly, or dishonestly that the media has the right to pillory them.  No one would suggest that the media be persuaded not to question, not to seek information and explanations, not to query decisions, not to expose dishonest spin, not to probe improprieties, not to send up their foibles and faults.  It is how this is done, how public figures are treated in interviews and in media reports, how balanced critiques are, that separates quality journalists, respectful journalists, from those whose prime objective is a ‘good’ story no matter what insults, abuse, ridicule, invective  and gratuitous advice accompany it.

“Although I know many will disagree, I believe most politicians enter politics to make a difference.  They deserve recognition, even admiration, for putting up with so much media scorn despite their best efforts.  How many columnists, or readers for that matter, would be prepared to wear that?”

The other comments on the blog are worth reading.

The standards expected by journalists of politicians can just as cogently be applied the other way: “Our journalists deserve our respect while they are doing their job well.  It is only when they betray the trust the people have placed in them or behave incompetently, irresponsibly, or dishonestly that the public has the right to pillory them.”   In recent times there has been plenty of reason to do just that.

Today there has been another toxic piece in The Australian by Glenn Milne Stern Hu forgotten in Kevin Rudd's hopeless UN quest in which he once again sets himself up as a paragon of deep understanding of international affairs and writes off Rudd’s quest for a seat on the UN Security Council seat as hopeless, silly, Quixotic and too expensive; revels in reminding us of the ‘open contempt displayed last week towards Australia by China's official spokesman Qin Gang’, and ends by castigating the Governor General for being ‘a policy advocate for our UNSC membership’ during her recent Africa visit.  If you can ping the PM and the GG all in one hit, why not?  The consistency of Milne’s arrogance is breathtaking.   He is overtaken only by Piers Akerman in The Daily Telegraph in the ‘toxic journalism’ stakes, whose 16 July article Rudd is a bit player on the world stage is hard to match for sheer anti-Rudd venom.  Don’t read it if you are hypertensive already.  Akerman’s appearance on last Sunday’s Insiders once again exposed his inability to say anything good about Rudd or his government at all.

While much has been said about the print journalists, similar criticism can be levelled at those in the electronic media.  One sees on Insiders similar arrogance, the same vitriol.  Yesterday we saw Fran Kelly adamant that Rudd must get rid of Peter Garrett from the Environment portfolio as this was a disastrous appointment.  No ifs or buts.  No one challenged that assertion.  Yet today in the press there are three articles on the subject supporting his position and his decision on the Four Mile uranium mine in South Australia: Paul Daley's piece in the SMH, Garrett sees past Midnight hour, Robyn Riley's The time has come: lay off Environment Minister Peter Garrett in the Herald Sun, and Kerry-Anne Walsh's article in the SMH A Labor loner who has given it all away.  So who’s right?

On talkback radio I have noticed that when politicians come on, the tone of the interviewer often changes to one of arrogant interrogation.  Jon Faine on ABC 774 Melbourne and Neil Mitchell on 3AW are examples.  On ABC TV Kerry O’Brien and Tony Jones exhibit a similar approach.  Yet Leigh Sales on Lateline is able to ask penetrating questions without arrogance or disrespect, and still get good, if not superior outcomes.

So what is the problem here? 

The first problem seems to be that some journalists believe they have the right to interrogate politicians aggressively, even rudely.  Of course if the politician is avoiding the question or obfuscating, it is understandable that the interviewer might become assertive, but sometimes in their dogged intent to control the interview, they overstep the limits of courtesy, interrupt and become discourteous.

Another problem is born of bias, or worse still a deep-seated distaste for, or even hatred towards Rudd and his Government.  Such prejudice renders some journalists incapable of balanced comment.

A further problem seems to be, as Bushfire Bill says in a comment on TPS, “Today's political commentariat needs to be seen as being across every subject, whether it be diplomacy, education, parliamentary rules and regulations, workplace regulations or indigenous affairs.”   Certainly the likes of Milne want to be seen that way.  Of course journalists should know their subject, and when they don’t, they should research it, but that does not mean that they should promote themselves as the ultimate authority.  Only a fool would do that.

A further problem seems to be the inability, or unwillingness of some journalists to garner the facts accurately and completely, and report them correctly.  A simple yet fully factual account would enable readers to make up their own minds.

To make matters worse, so often fact and opinion are confusingly intertwined so the reader is left wondering which is which.

Yet sometimes journalism evokes approval, even admiration – it is not all hopeless.  Today there have been three balanced articles, one on secrecy and the public service and two on China: Public good under fire from secretaries of secrecy by Michelle Grattan, There is nothing new in point-scoring over China by Phillip Coorey both in the SMH, and David Burchell's article in The Australian The great gall of China has us fooled.

So to restore confidence and respect for themselves among the public, how should journalists in the print and electronic media behave?  This is what Kerr’s blog is asking, at the same time hinting that any code of journalist behaviour in reporting political matters would be resisted.

Should it really be a case of the media versus the politicians?

What do you think?

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20/07/2009[On talkback radio I have noticed that when politicians come on, the tone of the interviewer often changes to one of arrogant interrogation. Jon Faine on ABC 774 Melbourne etc.] A valid point and I am fed up with it, I want to hear what the guy in power has to say, I really couldn't care less what Jon Faine's views are.


21/07/2009Initial comment - isn't it all a reaction against spin, against the PR machine, against the "deliberate obfuscation". For example - wasn't Hockey pilloried recently for his honesty (its not we come to expect from politicians).

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21/07/2009charles, When Jon Faine went on his long service leave, I hoped he might return to broadcasting with less assertiveness, but alas that has not been so. It’s not only politicians he abrades; it is any official who holds a view that differs from what seems to be his pre-determined position. As you say, the way he thrusts his own views into the dialogue detracts from what the interviewee is trying to say. I have noticed recently that many text messages admonish him for this behaviour, but he hides behind the mantra – ‘I’m just doing my job’. Presumably being assertive and controversial is now part of his job description. Paul, You’re right, some media behaviour is a reaction [quote]“against spin, against the PR machine, against the ‘deliberate obfuscation’.”[/quote] That is understandable, but sometimes the dialogue develops into a personal chest-thrusting contest between the interviewer and interviewee, the former wanting to hear the interviewee say, for example, ‘no’ or ‘yes’, and the latter determined not to utter these words. Last night on [i]Four Corners: ‘The Good Earth’[/i], the story of the battle being fought between government, farmers and mining companies for the control of fertile agricultural land on the Liverpool Plains, the interviewer, Sarah Ferguson, was determined to get a representative of BHP Billiton to say it would NEVER mine on the plains. Seemingly reluctant to utter that word, Ferguson painfully persisted until that word fell unwillingly from the interviewee’s mouth, although she had indicated this in effect with other words. It was a battle of wills, and Ferguson won. But it was uncomfortable viewing. Regarding Joe Hockey’s ‘honesty’, the media, so accustomed to spin, questioned why he had said what he did. I didn’t read that as pillorying him so much as drawing a contrast between what he said and what was said by the Howard Government at the time. Much of the reaction came from his party who saw him as not maintaining the ‘Howard legacy’, and of course he was pushed into retreat and forced into making ‘an explanation’. Such honestly in politics is clearly hazardous.


21/07/2009He was pilloried because he had lied at the time only now to tell the truth, which we all knew anyway. Cheers Eb

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21/07/2009Eb, Touche Folks, Of the 18 comments to date on [i]The Australian’s House Rules Blog How can we praise MPs?[/i] only three take the unequivocal view that ‘pollies’ are fair game, and if they don’t like the heat, get out of the kitchen. The rest write balanced appraisals that point to a general dissatisfaction with the way many in the media handle political stories One of the regulars on TPS, janice, has posted a telling comment.

Just Me

21/07/2009Politicians have to wear a big chunk of the blame for this situation, in Australia at least. If they were not so strict on party line loyalty (especially the Labor party), and allowed individual MPs to openly disagree with the party (like they do in the US & UK), then a lot of this 'hypocrisy' from them would not happen. OTOH, the media are not a whole lot better on the hypocrisy and rampant narcissism stakes.

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21/07/2009Bilko, Happy birthday. Just Me, No one would disagree with you that politicians must wear much of the blame for this adversarial situation. What is disappointing is that the contest between politicians and journalists has become a self perpetuating process, leading to more aggression from journalists and more stubborn resistance from politicians. If they called a truce for a while, relations might become more congenial. Of course those journalists who have an agenda of bringing Rudd and his Government down will pursue that relentlessly irrespective of any 'truce'.


21/07/2009AA many thanks, now my son is flying in to take us to dinner and insists 70 is not just another birthday. Another colleague SMS me congratulated me on being "Heritage listed" should be a good evening

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21/07/2009There's a great account of the 'Utegate affair' on [i]newmatilda :The Real Utegate Scandal[/i] by Alex Mitchell that shows up the shoddy journalism of News Limited and its journalists. As yet there's been no apology for its misdemeanors.

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22/07/2009I found this intetesting piece [i]Both sides now media[/i] on [i]Public Opinion[/i] on 20 July by Gary Sauer-Thompson, which is germane to the above piece [i]The media and the politicians[/i]: [quote]"One of the annoying aspects of the traditional media--newspapers, television and radio--is not its celebrity culture, which is bad enough. It is political journalism's conception of objectivity. Objectivity is understood as truth, and truth is gained from splitting the difference between the two sides. This implies that there is always truth to both sides of an issue. So we have "both-sides-are-equally-valid" journalism on climate change when natural science is clearly on one side of the debate. "I find this objectivity of political journalism amazing when a core problem with the traditional media is their closeness to political power. They are on the drip feed----access to the well known senior or anonymous resources that pop up everywhere in the media. So instead of journalism's ethos being one of telling truth to power, it is one of transmitting spin and deception to the powerless citizens by recycling their media releases. Journalism is presenting the media releases from both sides of an issue as news and commentary. It's manufactured news and the journalists become spokespersons, and advocates, for a political faction or the government of the day. They depend on these sources. "For them -and there are exceptions-it is often best to keep the lights off rather than turn them on about the media's dependance on, and closeness to, political power."[/quote]

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