The last piece How should we rate the quality of our political journalists? outlined the criteria that might apply when judging their quality. This piece reflects on individual journalists. Your views are invited.
First let’s deal with editorials which are a particular problem in appraising quality in journalism. When there is a named author it is possible to compare any particular piece with others by the same person; with editorials, the author is usually unknown and often changes. Editorial writers hide behind the paper’s banner, yet their words are meant to reflect the paper’s stance and potentially have an important influence on readers’ opinions. Maybe because they are generally anonymous they seem to be bolder in their assertions and opinions. They often speak with the authority of Moses descending from the mountain with wisdom engraved on tablets of stone. It’s pretty hard to hold them to account; the only recourse for readers is ‘Letters to the Editor’ published in the newspaper; there seems to be no online opportunity for this. [more]
Subeditors are a great source of irritation. Their object seems to be to create catchy headlines no matter how unrelated they are to the substance of the article. Last weekend The Weekend Australian had front page headlines: PM plan to raid super for projects by Adele Ferguson. Completely untrue. The article began “The Rudd Government plans to tap Australia's $1 trillion pool of superannuation savings to help plug a $58 billion hole in its nation-building program”. That is different. Was this poor journalism by Ferguson or subeditor interference? It would be illegal to ‘raid’ super funds, and the Government had never indicated any intention of doing so. All that was said was the super funds might be interested in investing in infrastructure projects, presumably what Ferguson meant by ‘tap’. This mendacious headline resulted in Government ministers being questioned at doorstops and having to vehemently deny the story. Yet some readers will have taken the headline as correct and will hold that against the Government. Such editorial irresponsibility is appalling yet seemingly beyond any reckoning.
Then there’s the incongruence between headlines on the online homepage and the real headlines of the story. On Tuesday after the Newspoll result The Australian homepage headline was Budget backlash trims Labor lead: poll. It was wrong. The real headline, the accurate one by Matthew Franklin, was Labor solid but budget backlash trims Kevin Rudd lead. In fact in Newspoll the TPP had gone up marginally from 55/45 a fortnight ago to 56/44, the opposite of the homepage headline.
Using the criteria of balance, lack of bias, truthfulness and accuracy in representing the facts, separation of the facts from opinion, humour, a creative turn of phrase and decent English, let’s look at some of our most prominent political journalists. This is just one person’s opinion – your opinions would be welcome.
At the top of my list, several standard deviations above the mean, is George Megalogenis who writes in The Australian and is a frequent panellist on Insiders. He writes balanced, well researched pieces, separates fact and opinion, and even when he is critical of a point of view or a politician, as he was of Kevin Rudd in yesterday’s piece Debt dodge stretches logic, he is polite and moderate in his language. He is the best of the Insiders panel.
Then there’s another group with similar attributes close behind: Laura Tingle, Mike Steketee, Lenore Taylor and Mischa Schubert. Laura, chief political correspondent with The Australian Financial Review is well-informed, balanced and fair, in both her writings and on TV where she occasionally appears on Lateline, Insiders or on special panels. Mike writes sound pieces for The Australian, especially on climate change issues. Lenore is a frequent contributor to The Australian, is balanced and tells it the way it is. She is one of the best on Insiders, and can hold her own with male panellists, even if they express extreme views. Mischa, federal political correspondent for The Age and a panellist on Insiders is ever sensible, sound and balanced.
Paul Kelly is another respected journalist. Senior, experienced, steeped in Australian political history, and endowed with plenty of gravitas, he writes sound pieces that have a prophetic ring to them. He enjoys his senior journalist status. What I find though is that sometimes what he says in The Weekend Australian does not always correspond with what he says on Insiders the next day, leaving the observer wondering what his real position is.
Laurie Oakes is another mature senior who writes well, has gravitas, and conducts his interviews on Channel Nine with persistence but courtesy. He is not averse to trying for a gotcha moment.
Brian Toohey of the AFR comes across as a reasonable person; he has some pet topics though, such as ‘middle-class’ welfare, that he works into his articles and his discourse on Insiders.
Jack the Insider is my favourite blog columnist. Jack writes well, is balanced and unbiased, does separate fact and opinion and injects humour into his pieces. Above all, he is the most responsive blogger, adding respectful and helpful comments regularly.
Dennis Atkins of The Courier Mail is balanced and fair, and has been a welcome addition to Insiders.
Coming back closer to the mean there are several journalists that do a reasonable job but are not exceptional.
Michelle Grattan is very experienced and writes some good material but is inclined to get caught up with some inconsequential stories. In London at the G20 she spent a lot of airtime on the ‘Rudd was rude to hostie’ story, when we wanted to hear what was happening at the meeting. Today she’s jumped on the ‘Rudd and Swan won’t say billions’ horse. She could have left it alone; it’s already flogged to death.
Shaun Carney, another Fairfax journalist writes gentle but generally sound articles, but they are unlikely to set the world on fire.
Peter Hartcher, yet another Fairfax columnist, seems to be aiming to assume the mantle enjoyed by Kelly and Oakes, but has a way to go. Gravitas descends over time with consistently good work that proves to be prophetic. His latest book To the Bitter End, should tell us how far he’s progressed. Some of his pieces, especially when reporting opinion poll results, can be off the mark. His recent Rudd's walk with the gods is over after the ACNielsen poll is a case in point. Possum on Pollytics said Hartcher wrote with “the sort of biblical authority usually reserved for Paul Kelly on a gravitas bender.” If he had waited for Newspoll the next day, he might have been more reserved in his judgement. He, like many commentators with little statistical knowledge, reads too much into single polls.
Matthew Franklin usually writes balanced pieces for The Australian. Phillip Coorey writes generally well balanced pieces in the SMH, with an emphasis on economics.
Bernard Keane is usually balanced in his comments on Crikey, but today is exercised by what he sees as Rudd’s manipulation of the media via a well controlled message which he acknowledges is aimed not at the political tragics but at busy folk who catch only fragments of political information. Nonetheless he’s angry at the way the hallowed media is being handled. The media are good at dishing it out, but become petulant if they don’t have it all their own way.
Greg Sheridan writes well, more on international politics, and performs well on TV, for example on Q&A. He writes and speaks with great authority.
Clustered around the mean there several journalists who do an ‘average’ job.
Malcolm Farr writes in The Daily Telegraph; what he writes in less impressive than what he says on Insiders where he is even-handed and fair. Jennifer Hewett writes for The Australian. Her material is generally balanced, but she is prone to insert an acerbic edge that irritates without enlightening. Brad Norington writes for The Australian, with a liking for IR matters. A long-time opponent of unions, he finds fault with the Government’s IR changes. Gerard Henderson of The Sydney Institute writes for the SMH and appears on Insiders. He is rather pontifical, but generally makes balanced comments on Insiders when occupying the ‘right wing chair’.
Peter van Onselen is trying to establish himself as a political journalist in The Australian, but still lacks authority. Although an editor of books about the Liberals, he is inclined to take a shot at all sides of politics.
Dennis Shanahan is an old hand at federal politics. He amused us all during the year leading up to the election with his interpretation of the opinion polls, always searching for a ray of hope for Howard or the Coalition, no matter how inconsequential, and blowing that up into ‘the turning point'. He received so many ribald comments from bloggers that he became at first defensive then resigned to a change of Government. His offerings since then have been more balanced, but he still declines to respond to bloggers on his blog-site. He’s been absent for a while.
Janet Albrechtsen is well informed and writes well, but her bias shows through so strongly that reading her pieces is tedious. Whatever the subject, her approach is predictable. The exception was her piece telling Howard it was time to go.
Anabelle Crabb of the SMH is a political ‘sketch writer’. Sometimes she’s humorous; sometimes she misses the mark. She is a pleasant but not impressive panellist on Insiders. Kerry-Anne Walsh of the Sun-Herald is always a sensible panellist on Insiders.
Andrew Probyn writes for The West Australian and has little good to say about the Rudd Government; Paul Murray is more balanced.
Christian Kerr has his House Rules Blog in The Australian that takes a generally light-hearted look at federal politics. Sometimes though it’s more light-weight than light-hearted.
Economics correspondents are a variable lot. Fairfax’s Peter Martin is balanced and a great source of material via his blog-site. Another Fairfax man, Ross Gittins is experienced and usually writes informative articles, as does Kenneth Davidson. David Uren and Alan Wood of The Australian are worth reading. Michael Stutchbury writes pieces of variable quality. Today he gets uppity with Ken Henry for having the temerity to criticize some who commented on the budget projections, another example of columnists not liking their own medicine.
Michael Pascoe, a commentator on Channel Seven’s Sunrise and Sky News is sound, but not much seen these days. Alan Kohler who writes in Business Spectator and is on ABC TV is generally sound but prone to dogmatism. The most outspoken and arrogant is Terry McCrann, styled in the Herald Sun as Australia's leading business commentator. His propensity for extravagant language diminishes the value of his writing.
Most economics commentators are not across the GFC. Few predicted it and they often disagree on what is best to do about it. They should not be surprised that the public is sceptical about what they have to say. Being a somewhat discredited group does not stop them though from pontificating. See an earlier piece The problem with economists.
Sliding down the bell-shaped curve to the negative end there is the ubiquitous Glenn Milne of The Australian, the go-to man if politicians have some scuttlebutt. A favourite of the Sunday press, his predictions seldom come to pass. On Insiders he sits in the ‘right wing chair’ and when he’s there fills the smart-alec role. He fantasizes about landing a spectacular scoop. See a piece Glenn Milne – the mischievous journalist.
Finally, several standard deviations below the mean are Michael Costa, Andrew Bolt and Piers Akerman. I place them there not because of their well-known political orientation, but because their writing is so unbalanced and biased as to render it worthless, except of course for their breathless sycophants who hang on their every word and feed off the vitriol they pass off as journalism. Michael Costa, previously NSW Labor Treasurer, like Mark Latham who writes occasionally in The Australian, has venomously turned on his party. Such writers appeal only to the anti-Labor camp.
Andrew Bolt runs a most savage blog, one that flogs his pet themes – climate change, Muslims, and anything that’s anti-Government and anti-Rudd. Many of the arguments he runs are so disingenuous that he has become the main focus (along with Tim Blair) of Pure Poison a Crikey blog whose theme is 'Intellectual dishonesty is pure poison…' and whose main purpose is to debunk Bolt and Blair. See the piece Andrew Bolt - Pied Piper to his bloggers. He is a blot on Insiders when he's invited to sit in the 'right wing chair'. His extreme views and arrogant self-confidence are distasteful.
If I had to select the political journalist who sits at the bottom of the pile, it would be Piers Akerman. His total condemnation of the Rudd Government and his apparent inability to say anything good about it or about Rudd, renders his column suitable only for the most extreme Rudd-haters. His obsession with the 20 year-old Heiner affair, with which he hopes one day will bring Rudd down, is a running joke. He is as unpleasant as Bolt on Insiders. A visitor to The Political Sword once suggested I write about Akerman but I haven’t had the stomach.
That’s enough for now. There’s more to come – the radio and TV journalists. That’s another piece.
I emphasize that the above are the opinions of just one person. Visitors may have different views. All will be welcome via ‘Comments’. The media have had such power to influence that until blogging came into being there was almost no right of reply. Now we bloggers can hit back, but don’t expect those who inhabit the media to enjoy it.