Watching Andrew Bolt on ABC TV’s Insiders yesterday, I wondered when last he was subjected to the same critical judgment to which he so eagerly subjects others. This prompted the idea for a series on The Political Sword on how we perceive our political journalists, with Bolt as first under the looking glass.
Ever confident of the correctness of his own views and opinions, Bolt shows scant respect for contrary opinions. This applies to matters of science as well as politics, despite his background being limited to journalism. After a year as foreign correspondent, he became a columnist and associate editor of Melbourne’s Herald Sun. He also writes for Brisbane's Sunday Mail, and appears on the Nine Network's Today programme, the ABC TV’s Insiders, Channel 10's Nine AM, and Melbourne radio station 3AW, Adelaide's ABC, Perth's 6PR and Brisbane's 4BC. In 2005, he released his first book, The Best of Andrew Bolt - Still Not Sorry. He has wide exposure. The Herald Sun rates him as "Australia's most read and talked about columnist.” He is 49.
Apart from his regular columns, he oversees a popular blog which claims now to receive over one million hits a month. It’s hard to know about the readership of his paper columns, but the respondents to his blogs give a clue. Let’s look first at his topics. Here’s the list as at 12 October:
The interview that would have killed Palin
Thank heavens Hollywood doesn’t run the CIA
Liberals don’t need elitists
CSIRO slips on oil
A quick cut in tax would be simpler
What Palin scandal?
Sir? It’s that Australian guy ringing again
Flung mud misses again
Who’s minding Rudd’s office?
Be nice to the rice
Bryce just digs in deeper
Individualists have green zones
The interview that would have killed Palin on 12 October seeks to demonstrate that Stephane Dion, leader of Canada’s left-wing Liberal Party is truly dumb compared with Sarah Palin. Edifying stuff, nothing to do with Australia, but that didn’t stop one of Bolt’s bloggers commenting: “He (the interviewer) needs lessons from Rudd, who could have given hypothetical scenarios about being PM two years ago, today and next week. With a few lessons from Rudd he could have obfuscated and theorized until the interviewer asked to start again. Then, when the going got really tough, he could have switched to a foreign language and told the audience how he would stuff things up without anyone twigging to what was happening." Many of Bolt’s bloggers need little pretext for taking a sideswipe at Rudd. [more]
Then there was Sir? It’s that Australian guy ringing again the blog of October 12, where Bolt begins: “There’s something about talking to famous people - especially foreign leaders - that really, truly excites Kevin Rudd. His hunger for such big-noting is manifested not just by his insatiable foreign travels, largely pointless, but by his almost daily calls to big shots overseas - and his ludicrous need to tell everyone about them afterwards.” He repeated this on Insiders. His blog went on to list details of ten calls Rudd made to overseas leaders and officials over the previous couple of weeks. Wow, fancy our PM speaking to overseas leaders in the middle of a global financial crisis, and worst still, telling the public he had done so. What arrogance for the leader of 20 million down-unders to even pick up the phone to them. What could he possibly have to say, to ask, to share? It’s the cringe all over again (see The Cringe Dwellers earlier on this blog.) This type of missive is not unusual for Bolt – paltry, petty, off the mark, and inconsequential. But Bolt’s bloggers, who hang on his every word, were out in force. One of the early comments read: “Rudd sounds as though he is rather manic, a predictable trait with Labor Party PMs and Premiers. No doubt triggered by having been handed the nation by the swingers after an election campaign based on outright lies and spin. Winning has gone to his head and he’s spilt over into megalomania. The arrogance after less than twelve months is truly worrying. I feel Australian is once again becoming a laughing stock on the world stage.” So this blogger, seething at the Coalition’s election loss, lets off steam, not just against Rudd, but ‘Labor Party PMs and Premiers’ as well - the whole lot are manic. Another blogger said: “Poor Kev’s like the snotty-nosed kid running around the school playground trying pathetically to attach himself to the ‘in’ crowd.” And there were the usual references to ‘Krudd’. Yet not one word of admonition from Bolt – he seems willing to give the anti-Rudd brigade full rein.
In Who’s minding Rudd’s office? his 11 October blog, Bolt writes “In June, the worry was still only that his secretaries didn’t want to work for the insufferable Kevin Rudd. The Sydney Morning Herald believes Mr Rudd has churned through half his staff since coming to power in November. He has lost six diary secretaries in as many months. But even his most senior aides are now bailing out.” He then goes onto detail them. Bolt’s bloggers came out again in force; here’s one off-subject comment: “Many of us predicted that Rudd would destroy our economy. But under no circumstance did we predict that he would destroy the whole capitalist system world-wide. What has he been saying whilst junketing all around the world??? He must have put the heapy-greevies into a lot of people. Foreigners must have thought Australians have gone mad electing a germ like Rudd and panicked themselves.” It’s unbelievable stuff, until you actually read it. Yet not a word or moderating comment from Bolt.
When he’s not attacking Rudd, Bolt offers gratuitous advice about how to run the country; one wonders why he hasn’t offered his services as an elected member or a public servant. It’s all so easy. His 12 October blog A quick cut in tax would be simpler starts: “There’s an easier way than this to prime a faltering economy: The Government has not ruled out the possibility of spending budget surplus as a way of pumping extra money into the economy, after earlier announcing plans to bring forward its infrastructure fund. Spending billions on infrastructure either takes too long or - if rushed - will result in massive waste and (inevitably) pork-barrelling. The quickest way to get money into the economy remains to cut taxes. And cutting them before next July might be just the thing.... At least that way we know the money will be spent on what taxpayers really want.” He repeated this on Insiders. No supporting evidence or argument, just a confident assertion. He might be right, he certainly thinks he is, but it would be helpful if he could argue his case beyond unsupported assertions. If you’re a columnist, I guess you don’t have too. You’re not accountable for any of the ideas you float, so long as it makes good copy and attracts bloggers, particularly those who like using immoderate language.
Many consider Bolt a climate change denier, although he would dispute that. He has assembled an array of scientific opinion that questions climate change itself and particularly that it’s anthropogenic. His focus is on recent climate data that shows cooling, but not on long term trends that show steady heating with the usual up and down variations. Despite being at loggerheads with mainstream climate scientists, he sticks doggedly to his views, seemingly unconcerned with the prospect that if he’s wrong and no action is taken, environmental disaster is inevitable. To hell with the planet when your journalistic credibility is at stake. Fortunately others will have the say about this issue.
For all his show of confidence in words, he looks nervous on TV, often swallowing, thus limiting his fluency. His tolerance of others’ contrary views is low; the camera often cuts to his head wagging in dissent. He seems to be on Insiders to fill the obligatory ‘conservative’ slot. It must be frustrating for conservative viewers that he fills it so disappointingly.
So what do we make of Andrew Bolt. It would be hard to avoid the conclusion that he has a large ego and enjoys supreme confidence. He does take the trouble to gather information, but then presents it in a way that suits his already strongly held views. So his data gathering seems like cherry picking what best fits his biases. His columns and blogs cover his areas of interest and bias, rather than the broad sweep of topical issues. He enjoys being controversial, giving advice to the simpletons in Government who don’t know what they’re doing. An intense dislike of Kevin Rudd is the only reasonable explanation for his vitriolic attacks on him: his demeanour, his behaviour, his mannerisms, his utterances, his decisions, even his overseas phone calls. There seems to be nothing our PM can do right, or do on time, or do in an appropriate way. Bolt would prefer Julia Gillard as PM, until of course she became so, when he likely would soon find reason to attack her.
Bolt’s blog attracts like minds who revel in the opportunity to lambaste Rudd and his Government, over and over, using the same hackneyed words, repeating the same mindless mantras, using the same derogatory labels, and without a murmur of caution, or of protest from Bolt. One can only conclude he approves it; on Insiders he alluded warmly to his bloggers. It’s as if he enjoys being in an echo chamber where he hears the sound of his own voice, echoed by his sycophantic followers. He should take a leaf out of George Megalogenis’ book and clean up his blog, taking the steps outlined in Megalogenis’ blog Calling time on the partisan rant where he says he will separate comments into three categories: on topic; rant; and toxic. The third would go straight to the bin. Megalogenis advises: “First, play the issue, not the reader. But if you want to vent, aim your keyboard at me not anyone else. Second, terms such as “krudd” or “lying rodent” to denote the present or the previous PM are banned because they tell me the blogger has no sense of humour, and no interest in debate. This is an issues blog, not a forum for name-calling partisans.” He continues: “The obvious question is: what do I mean by the word ‘rant’. Put it this way, if the topic is middle class welfare and you reply with a repetitive post about Kevin Rudd being all spin no substance; or you make a token effort to address the topic then segue into a argument about how the Liberals stomped on the nation’s moral compass by locking up refugees here and butchering 5 trillion Iraqis over there, then, sorry you are ranting.” Rants are to be relegated to later posting, after the sensible people have had their say. Andrew Bolt, please note, and please do something about your blog. It’s too biased, too many of your bloggers too full of rant, too vitriolic in their language. It’s off-putting for those seeking even-handed discourse on important matters.
So please try for greater balance, wider scope, less emotion, more verifiable facts, more logical debate, less arrogance, less mindless anti-Rudd attacks, more humility and gentleness, and genuine concern for the awful national issues facing us, rather than an exploitive approach that belittles their seriousness. Try sticking to the big issues and eschew the trivial. Exercise more moderation over your extreme bloggers, Megalogenis style; you might attract a more thoughtful group of bloggers. You might then become a journalist of note, worthy of being ‘Australia’s most read and talked about columnist’.