Should mainstream journalists be political cheerleaders?

Accurate reporting of the facts and the coherent expression of opinion by mainstream journalists ought to be possible.  Yet sometimes the facts they advance are incomplete or distorted and the opinions they offer confusingly intertwined with them.  This often leads to bias and the impression that the writer is a campaigner for a particular party rather than an advocate for a particular point of view.

To be seen as a party cheerleader diminishes the influence a journalist can exercise over public opinion.  Readers regard the writings of avid cheerleaders as biased and unhelpful, and ignore them. Who, except rusted-on Coalition supporters, read Piers Akerman and take him seriously? [more]

This piece addresses the question of who among mainstream journalists is entitled to wear the mantle of the Coalition’s prime cheerleader.

Leaving aside extreme journalists, the likes of Piers Akerman who operate several standard deviations from the mean and who never have a kind word for Labor and can see little to criticize in the Coalition, I suspect that asked to nominate the Coalition’s prime cheerleader pre-election and early in the Rudd Government’s first year, most political bloggers would have Dennis Shanahan at or near the top of the list.  His leaning to John Howard and the Coalition was a subject of criticism, especially when he was writing about the latest edition of his favourite opinion poll, Newspoll, a poll well understood by The Australian because ‘they own it’.  The smallest scrap of heartening news for the Coalition was converted into positive comment while the adverse news was often played down, so much so that after one celebrated poll where he did this to a preposterous extent, the blogosphere descended on him en masse.  This evoked retaliatory pieces by Shanahan and the editor of The Australian that demeaned bloggers and questioned both their worth and their journalistic talent.  These were not well received by the blogosphere.  What followed was encouraging.

While a cause and effect relationship cannot be assumed, Dennis Shanahan’s pieces changed.  He became more moderate and better balanced in his opinion pieces, and now writes articles close to the centre of the bell-shaped curve.  Indeed some respondents to his blogs insist he is now a left-wing apologist.   I can now read his pieces without fuming, and welcome his change of tone.

So who has taken Shanahan’s mantle?  Sticking to general political comment rather than specialized pieces on topics such as the economy, I make the case for nominating Glenn Milne as the ‘Coalition’s prime cheerleader’.

Milne has become the go-to man if a politician or apparatchik has some grimy material or rumour they want publicized.  He writes much of this scuttlebutt for the Sunday papers, where presumably readers look for scandal or spicy material on ‘the day of rest’.  I wrote a piece on TPS as far back as last November: Glenn Milne – the mischievous journalist that described his pro-Coalition stance.  He’s become an even stronger advocate since.

Let’s look at some of his recent offerings.

Turnbull gives hint of future post-Howard in Monday’s edition of The Australian argues that the Liberal Party is on the verge of ‘getting its mojo back’.  He reminds us that mojo refers to a magical charm.  It’s used metaphorically to denote the possession of a ‘magic touch’ of creativity or charm.  We’re waiting in breathless anticipation for the ‘return of the mojo’.  There’s not much sign of it yet.

Milne does not always feel the need to advance evidence to support his assertions, but this time he tried.  Referring to the opening address, he opines: “Turnbull pretty much nailed the speech, a nice blend of unscripted substance and wit off the back of a strong week in parliament to the Coalition's benefit and Julia Gillard's cost.”  So Milne marks last week as a strong one at Julia Gillard’s cost.  If that was a strong week, one is left wondering what a poor week would look like.  We all have our biases that distort our reality, but having witnessed QT all week, the succession of questions to the “Deputy Prime Minister, Minister for Education, Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and Minister for Social Inclusion” about the problems in implementing the BER, now the smart acronym for the Building Education Revolution, looked and sounded like a group of unruly school-children rudely trying to harass and trip up a teacher, not like a serious attempt to uncover the truth and ‘hold the Government to account’ as it was purported to be.  Add to that Joe Hockey’s trifecta of ‘interest rates are more important than jobs’, the G20 is a centre-left cabal, and his plan to reduce government spending from 28.6 per cent of GDP to 24 per cent, slashing $49 billion from the annual budget, for all of which he is unapologetic, and you have a really strong week.  At least Joe said it was.

Milne goes on: “It did just what such speeches to the party faithful should do; it defended the Liberal legacy, particularly on the economic front opened up this week by Kevin Rudd in launching Paul Kelly's book The March of Patriots.”   A big tick for Turnbull, but intent on sideswiping Kevin Rudd on the way, he offers a gratuitous opinion and sage advice: “Rudd made the truly senseless historical assessment that there had been no contribution to economic reform or progress by any party other than the Labor Party. For a smart man that's a dumb thing to say. But the mere act of assertion in itself – especially by an incumbent riding high – has its own power in politics.  Rudd would no doubt feel suitably rebuked by Milne for his ‘senseless historical assessment’ and ‘dumbness’.  Rudd had better watch his words – Milne is on to him. 

He continues: “And for that reason Turnbull's instincts to take Rudd on in his speech were not only correct but required. To his credit Turnbull even pressed the legacy argument to include the need for more flexibility in the labour market. Given that Liberal legacy includes the debacle of John Howard's WorkChoices this was the first real sign of principled steel we have seen from Turnbull.”

So far from acknowledging that Turnbull had given Rudd another rod to beat the Opposition when he hinted that AWAs or something similar might be re-introduced by the Coalition, Milne sees Turnbull’s words as “...the first real sign of principled steel...”  More of such principled steel might be enough to finish off Turnbull altogether.

Milne continues to laud this principled steel: “It is also pragmatic. Labor may think pinning WorkChoices on Turnbull is an easy kill. But as the global financial crisis continues to work its way through the economy further labour market deregulation is a much easier political argument to mount in a climate of rising interest rates and rising unemployment.”   Milne turned economist gives his words of wisdom to anyone silly enough to listen, and reassures any Coalition supporter concerned about the electorate getting another dose of the electoral poison of WorkChoices.  “There will be no WorkChoices-style mugging of the electorate.”  As an aside, Wilson Tuckey said at a doorstop: “The only thing wrong with WorkChoices was the name.”  Change the name and the poison magically dissipates. 

Satisfied with what he witnessed, Milne was moved to write: “Turnbull's speech made the Coalition's primary case against Rudd; that he is a confected statist who wants to put government at the centre of everyone's lives.” ...”The speech also represented a psychological breakthrough for Turnbull among his own supporters. One of the intangibles that has strained at Turnbull's leadership internally is the idea that he is fundamentally an outsider; that the Liberal leadership is just another addition to an impressive CV. In the minds of those who counted on Saturday, Turnbull dealt with those doubts. By all accounts he was given an embarrassingly long ovation, which seemed to genuinely take him by surprise.” and ...the speech captured the hearts and minds of his home division...”  Turnbull must have sighed with relief when he read those reassuring words from a political pundit of rare discernment.

Of course there were some qualifications in the piece – Milne likes to cover his tracks somewhat – but he concluded that among the faithful there were signs that Turnbull had got his mojo back.  Turnbull might be comforted and delighted with Milne’s prophecy, but if it is as accurate as his prediction of the end of the Rudd honeymoon, Turnbull could be excused for being sceptical.

Then on Sunday we had Christopher Pyne puts Julia Gillard under pressure in which he says, among other things: “The clash [between Pyne and Gillard] is intriguing because it is now absolutely clear this is the first time in her career in government – and possibly the first time ever in her career – Ms Gillard has been under sustained political pressure. And it's showing.  On Tuesday, she looked pale and drawn as she absorbed the punishment of Mr Pyne and the Opposition over her oversight – or lack thereof – of the three-year $16.2 billion BER program, the fiscal battering ram of the Government's stimulus package in response to the global financial crisis.”  He concludes: “Leaving the Parliament on Thursday, an obviously well-pleased Tony Abbott remarked to the media that Ms Gillard was wearing a ‘s***-eating grin’.  He might have expressed himself more elegantly. But his sentiments about Ms Gillard's position at week's end were spot on.”  Milne was clearly delighted with Abbott’s assessment.

If you think that these pieces are an exception, look at some other Milne pieces like Poodle's bite may yet wound the government and Cutting out cronies.

Of course he writes pieces that on the face of them seem unsupportive of the Coalition such as Debt rhetoric paints Malcolm Turnbull into a corner in which he says: “It's as certain as the next official rise in cash rates that you'll hear more of that from Turnbull as the [Bradfield] by-election contest gets under way in earnest. And when the Reserve Bank of Australia does move, the Liberal Leader will no doubt be even more convinced that his ‘debt and deficit’ attack will be enough to carry him all the way to the next election, and over the harbour from his current residence at Potts Point to Kirribilli House.”   So Milne helpfully cautions Turnbull in his eager quest for Prime Ministership: “But will it? What if every time he opens his mouth on ‘debt and deficit’ Turnbull is actually painting himself into an ever tighter fiscal corner from which, come election time, there will be no way out?”   I guess if you want to assist a side to victory, you warn it against the traps.  Look too at Conquistador burns his boats, and Coalition bridges where he warns about the confusion created by the Liberal-Nationals dichotomy.

I expect such pieces are to display Milne’s sense of balance.

Others too see Milne’s leanings: on Insiders he sits in the ‘right chair’, the one sometimes occupied by Piers Akerman, Andrew Bolt, Michael Stutchbury, and Gerard Henderson. 

So, among mainstream journalists my nomination for contemporary 'Prime Cheerleader for the Coalition’ is Glenn Milne by a country mile.  If you have a more imposing nomination, please let us all know.

What about the prime cheerleader for the Government?  Let’s have your nominations for that accolade.

 

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monica

15/09/2009It's interesting to read the selections of Milne's writing you've chosen to illustrate your argument. I've occasionally scanned what he's written but usually would not bother reading him any more than I would Piers Akerman or Janet Albrechtson or Andrew Bolt, on the basis I assume what they write will be their own, predictable spin on whatever the topic may be. However, having read what you've selected leads me to conclude there's some definite psychopathology going on there. For example, the stuff about Julia Guillard being seriously affected by the "attacks" on the BER Program. I think it qualifies as delusional as from my observation she hasn't broken into a sweat yet. I suspect you've nailed Milne as spruiker in chief for the Coalition, and interestingly I can't think of anyone I'd finger as prime cheerleader for the Gov't. George Megalogenis does balanced analysis on economic topics, Peter Martin, as well, however, of the political writers, none of them comes within 'a county mile' of the likes of Milne.

janice

16/09/2009As usual a good piece, Ad astra. Milne wins the Coalition's Prime Cheerleader Trophy by a country mile. He has well and truly earned the name 'the poisoned dwarf'. Each time I manage to psyche myself up to read his offerings of bile and malice, the words 'cash for comment' come to mind. Like Monica, I can't think of any journalist who stands out as a prime cheerleader for the Government.

vote1maxine

16/09/2009Congrats on your 1st anniversary. Although I've been an avid reader of your excellent blogs for the last 6 months, this is my debut post here. Milne, in my view, has always had that crown judging by the way he smears Labor figures. During the "Scores Incident" during 2007 election, he tried to imply on the ABC's Insiders programme that Kevin Rudd may have undertaken "some inappropriate touching". Completely false, but that didn't stop him from saying it. No wonder Latham called him the Poisoned Dwarf. How can he still purport to be a journalist of some repute after man handling Stephen Main at a peer function is beyond belief.

Ad astra reply

16/09/2009monica Your hypothesis about Milne being delusional is pertinent. Clearly his view of QT is different from ours. Where that difference crosses from bias into delusion is hard to define. I wonder what he thinks about yesterday’s performance of Julia compared with the performance of Julie. He seems to have not written anything on that today. But Annabelle Crabb has a nice piece in the [i]SMH: On boy – Julia and Julie turn up the heat[/i] http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/politics/oh-boy--julie-and-julia-turn-up-the-heat-20090915-fpoy.html janice Like you, I’m close to ignoring Milne, as I ignore Akerman and Bolt, but somehow I find his pieces fascinating. The disingenuousness of his comments astonish and infuriate me; I should be immune by now. Since he’s is a journalist for [i]The Australian[/i] I take his pieces as reflecting to some extent the view of that paper’s editors, which is disturbing. vote1maxine Welcome as a commenter on [i]TPS[/i]. Thank you for your kind remarks. Milne’s nickname is apt. He seems to thrive on poison. His reference to ‘inappropriate touching’ at the Scores nightclub is a classic example of the nastiness of the man. Innuendo and smear are his stock in trade, whether or not there is any truth in the accusation. Truth and accuracy never get in the way of a spicy Milne story.

Bushfire Bill

16/09/2009[i]"...but if it is as accurate as his prediction of the end of the Rudd honeymoon, Turnbull could be excused for being sceptical."[/i] I would add only one word to the above, AA: "serial", as in Milne's "serial predictions of the end of the Rudd honeymoon." For Milne to put Abbott's "shit-eating smile" as not "elegant" is a pretty rich, too, considering the blather he got himself into about Rudd's use of "fair shake of the sauce bottle" (and he was not alone in this, either). Rudd called Milne for what he is: the Coalition's "journalist of choice". After that Milne became more notably acidic in his columns. This culminated in his famous pronouncement that, yet again, the honeymoon was over because in Canberra circles there was "a feeling in the air". For myself, I gave up on Milne completely after that [i]Insiders[/i] episode on the morning of the Scoresgate boilover. It had been Milne's "exclusive" story. It stayed in the Tele all day, in print, in every supermarket. The "inappropriate touching" allegation (which V1Mx referred to), while not retracted on TV, or in print, [i]was[/i] excised from the on-line edition fo the Tele by 11am, presumably on instructions from the News Ltd. legal department. I can also remember that Barrie Cassidy gave Milne the short shrift for uttering that allegation without foundation. A disgraceful episode. Often his columns are virtual transcriptions of emails sent to him by "senior Liberal sources" or suchlike. You're right, he is seen as the mouthpiece of the Coalition, not only by the Coalition, but (accurately) by Rudd and Labor, and most of his readers. Some of the Milne "campaigns", eminating from his fold-up ouji board, have been memorable. One was the laughable "Ipswich Inc." whereby a cabal of small businessmen - real estate agents and car sales executives - from the Queensland regional town were somehow plotting to take over the governing of Australia via the donation of a second hand ute, irregular lunches at a Chinese cafe and the taking of compromising photos of themselves and a smiling Rudd deep within the Parliament building. This was a goldmine: the "51 Club" figured strongly, the shady and alarming connections between a local member and voters in his electorate was another nugget dug up by Milne. Fancy a parliamentarian knowing a few local businessmen! I think there was even a trip to China involved in it somewhere, with dark hintings of perks and nepotism for the "mates". These allegations were (at last) finally going to cut Rudd down to size, and even end his government. Glenn's pieces on the subject were comprehensive, damning... and completely forgotten within 24 hours. There have been many other Milne Masterpieces: his incessant rantings about how Costello ws going to skewer Rudd and Gillard (once he got into the leadership), the "lies" Rudd told about his childhood in Eumundie, Long Tan, Rudd's damning connection with Brian Burke (which saw Glenn trawling through emails and funeral service attendance lists, trying to make a connection between Rudd and the famous WA numbers man). We had detailed recitations of who said what to whom and when at various lunches, all under the banner of "it's not the crime that does them in, it's the coverup"... this was, of course, Milne's flirtation with the fantasy that somehow or other he was the Australian equivalent of Woodward-Bernstein. Glenn as a 4th Estate ibis, picking over political scraps in the Canberra garbage dump, coming up trumps with the rotting orange peel that will choke the mighty. An appealing image (at least to Glenn). Of late I've noticed that most of the responses to his blog columns take the form of either plonking Lefty dismissals of the "get a life, Glenn" ilk, or "At last someone has the courage to tell the truth about Rudd, congrats Glen" posts. Milne sees himself as a hero of the Right, taking it up to the Rudd government on every fact, half-fact or outright daydream he can dredge up from the depths of the journalistic junkyard he inhabits. The connecting logic in all of them is that Rudd can be brought down by a seemingly inconsequential fact that only Glen can see for what it's worth. He loves the idea of "leverage", taking something small and knocking down a giant with it. Probably somewhere in his past someone has told him that, because of his size, he's never going to win a real fight by out-punching his opponent (borne out, incidentally, with his assault on Stephen Mayne), so he'd better learn how to be clever about beating his enemies. A trip-up here, a lever there, always applied at the point of maximum weakness, when your adversary thinks he's got you cornered. The David v. Goliath scene, where the little guy beats the big guy by using a small weapon effectively, and accurately. Ah yes, but "accurate" is the operative word here. And Glenn's facts rarely are.... either facts [i]or[/i] accurate. Much of what he writes falls victim to the classic mortal sin of the pugilistic art: "Never get angry", and Glenn is angry most of the time, drowning in a wishful tankful of angst, rumour, accusation, misplaced hope and revenge... revenge against Rudd, but actually I think against the whole world, for continually failing to take him as seriously as he believes he should be taken. Like all little kids who want to get on in the playground, Glenn is careful to align himself with a strong patron. His admiration for Costello was palpable, and he seemed to be making some headway for his master there until he sprung the "Walletgate" story on an unsuspecting world and - as we can see now from hindsight - cruelled Costello's chances of being leader and Prime Minister forever. He'd have been [i]personna non grata[/i] around Costelloville after that, we can assume. Then there was his attachment to Turnbull, made manifest by his continual bagging of Nelson. Lately however, he has realised Turnbull is doomed, and has taken on the role of Regurgitator In Chief for every Liberal talking-point and email scam around town. Sure, there was a slightly positive column about Malcolm the other day, but in general Glenn's pieces on Turnbull have been drastically negative. It was a generally un-listened to speech by the Liberal leader to a captive party audience that induced Glenn to momentarily take leave of his senses and write a column about "mojo". It must have been what Glenn wanted to hear so bad that he wrote it up as the End Of The Beginning. If "mojo" means "magic", then Turnbull is going to need more than one speech to the faithful to pull the electoral rabbit out of the political hat. And he's going to need more than Glenn "Confused Loyalties" Milne on his side to even get back on the stage. I'd reckon Glenn has shot his bolt with Turnbull too, by now... if Turnbull has any political sense, that is. For if there's any one thing about Glenn Milne that [i]is[/i] true it's that he's the kiss of death for anyone even vaguely associated with him. Every single one of his theories, stories and pronouncements has turned from what seemed to be gold, to lead. In trying to help, Glenn goes in always too hard and too strong. Since That Night At The Walkleys, he has been a joke of monumental proportions in the journalistic world, ironic for one so small. His failure to win the presidency of the Press Club against a bemused incumbent certified that, even among his own News Ltd. colleagues he is to be discouraged at every opportunity. Milne is left now only with the few sycophantic contributors to his blog who would laud him as a hero, a little David slaying the Rudd Goliath, telling it like it is, going against the leftist flow of the rest of his colleagues. In short Glen has always regarded himself as, and has now become at alst... a legend in his own lunchtime.

Ebenezer

16/09/2009I think you will find that it was Paul Keating, who christened Milne "The Poison Dwarf". As to the question as to who is the Labor cheerer, as far as I can tell there is no one. Occasionally the odd journo will write a story with the facts and not the Liberal slant, that appears to be pro Labor at times, but apart from that there is nothing. Cheers Eb.

Ad astra reply

16/09/2009BB What a delightful piece. You have nailed Milne so cleverly, better than I have ever seen before. Your recall of his multiple misdemeanours, repeated miscalculations and serial flawed predictions is as good as I have read. I wonder does he ever read such assessments of his character, style and ethics? If so, would he change as Dennis Shanahan did? I doubt it – he fits perfectly into the personality type that is so self-important, so self-absorbed, so insensitive to how people regard him, that he must be utterly shameless and incapable of change. Otherwise he would not be able to sleep come bedtime. Turnbull certainly needs support right now, but even he, inept as he is politically, would not want Milne writing pieces extolling his virtues – they would be the inveritable kiss of death. Eb I believe you’re correct that it was the acerbic Paul Keating who coined ‘The Poison Dwarf’, and for good reason. Milne’s reputation goes back for decades. He’s unlikely to change. Like you, I cannot identify a journalist who could rightly be called a Government cheerleader.

BH

16/09/2009I heartily agree with your summation re Milne. I'm not sure how he can live with himself at times. He surely doesn't believe all the garbage he writes. Your comment re Denis Shanahan is spot on too, AA. Apart from one article last week, pasted by a PBer, he seems to be far less biassed at the moment. Obviously the blogosphere encouraged that after the woeful newspoll column you mentioned. It was fun reading the dissections of it. I wonder whether Denis will revert to his former leanings once the next election is closer. It will be interesting to watch.

Ad astra reply

16/09/2009BH I too wonder whether Dennis will revert to a Coalition cheerleader if the polls ever turn against the Rudd Govermnent.

Bushfire Bill

16/09/2009[i]"I too wonder whether Dennis will revert to a Coalition cheerleader if the polls ever turn against the Rudd Govermnent."[/i] Yes of course he will. His columns critical of the Coalition are written more in sorrow than in anger. Although he appeared to go through an epiphany when he was on holidays (before Utegate exploded), I'm not convinced it was genuine.

Sir Ian Crisp

17/09/2009I don’t read Milne’s drivel so I’m willing to take the word of others who say he is in thrall to the coalition. If you need a scribe who shills for the ALP look no further than Uncle Phil at the Oz. His campaign to have P Keating beatified continues but the Vatican says saints need to be cultured and refined.

vote1maxine

18/09/2009Sir Ian, Keating doesn't need a sainthood. He has done one better, he has been immortalized in an outstanding successful musical. :)

Ad astra reply

18/09/2009Sir Ian Who is 'Uncle Phil at the Oz?' vote1maxine We're waiting for 'Howard the musical'.

ozymandias

18/09/2009"Howard the Musical" I would pay to see. I know it would be full of dirge and doggerel, but it would have to have a happy ending.

ozymandias

18/09/2009I guess the "uncle Phil" referred to by Sir Ian would be Phillip Adams, the craggy human face of the OO's tv ads.

Sir Ian Crisp

18/09/2009Yes ozymandias, you are correct. Uncle Phil is the OO's pansophist. Gee Ad Astra you disappoint me. You spend most of your day running a rule over our journos and you don't know who Uncle Phil is. Surely a process of elimination would lead you to a journo at the Oz with a first name of Phil. It's hard to imagine that Janet is called Phil or Piers is called Phil. The list gets smaller until you reach a Phil Adams. Could it be him? Once the Adams' aperient column has worked its magic you don't forget it in a hurry. vote1maxine, it's often said that a high suicide rate can be traced to the musical known as Keating.

Ad astra reply

18/09/2009Sir Ian Thank you. Phil Adams never occured to me. You and ozymandias are a jump ahead of me. I seldom ever read Phil's pieces; I regard him as Labor's Piers Akerman.

Ad astra reply

19/09/2009Glen Milne is at it again - [i]PM Kevin Rudd's F-bomb blitz[/i] http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/pm-kevin-rudds-f-bomb-blitz/story-e6frf7jo-1225777015498 Why is he running a story two weeks old now? Is it to embarrass Rudd while he's overseas?
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