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.