I have a dream – no, I have a hope

It would be presumptuous to use Martin Luther King’s 'I have a dream’ theme; modesty dictates I use ‘I have a hope’.

I have a hope that one day the MSM will understand the use of language in Australian politics; I underscore Australian, because language here is unique.  Spurious comparisons have been, and will continue to be made between the oratory of Barack Obama and Kevin Rudd, and it’s no surprise who comes off best.  If simple oratory or even the capacity to write stirring prose is the basis for comparison, how does Rudd’s ‘apology’ rate against Obama’s Inauguration speech?  Both were well written, both well delivered, both were applauded.  Judging from media assessments, Obama’s speech was competent but did not reach dizzy heights.  So maybe Rudd’s ‘apology’ was better.

Yet commentators still lament Rudd’s ‘acceptance speech’ on election night.  Crikey’s Jonathan Green’s assessment was, and still is, ‘O dear’.  That Rudd’s speech was not Obama-esque is hardly surprising.  The two events, the two circumstances, the build-up, the audiences, were different.  Did Green expect an Obama-like oration from Rudd on November 24?  Culturally the two audiences were poles apart.  How would Aussies have reacted to soaring oratory at the end of a long election night?  We didn’t hear John Howard’s 2004 acceptance speech criticized. Yet it was no paragon of oratory.  Read it here Compare it with Rudd’s 2007 acceptance speech here.  Both begin with broad comments, both thank those who made victory possible, both end with a modest flourish.  Pick the difference if you can.  Work out why Rudd’s was criticized, Howard’s not.  That Green has a bee in his bonnet about Ruddspeak is suggested by his throwaway line on Crikey on 21 January and repeated that day on 774 ABC radio Melbourne, that Obama’s speech didn’t mention ‘working families’ once.  Really!  He was at it again in the 23 January issue of Crikey with his piece Rudd struggles to sell his Things Are Seriously Bad tour   Strange obsession!

Rudd fashions his words to suit his audience, just as one would expect.  Note the difference between his words to soldiers in Afghanistan, in his doorstops talking about the economy, in his press conferences, in his radio and TV appearances, on solemn occasions, and in parliament.  Each shaped for the audience.  Try to recall John Howard’s manner of speaking.  Competent, directed to his audience, not flamboyant, not over-the-top.  Both men are workmanlike, competent communicators.  So why is Rudd pilloried when Howard was not?  It might seem uncharitable to suggest that media bias is the reason.

In The West Australian on 9 January in a piece Nation lost for words at Ruddspeak howlers presumably written by the paper’s Andrew Probyn, old ground about Rudd’s language is laboriously re-worked.  He must have been light on copy.  It was so old-hat, so tiresome, so boring, so uninformative, so inconsequential, so unworthy of a decent journalist. 

I have a hope one day the media will understand and accept Ruddspeak, but don’t hold your breath.

I have a hope that one day the media will recognize that old political paradigms are dying.  The Piping Shrike alluded to this during 2008, perhaps most forcefully in his June 12 piece The rats’ problem with Rudd where he writes about three main planks of Rudd’s agenda: “...sidelining the political process, acknowledging the impotence of government and opening up to the international stage.”, all of which he saw as causing the media problems.  ‘Sidelining the political process’ is a reference to the time-weary left-right paradigm, which, while convenient as a descriptor in defining some politicians, has little utility in defining a government’s or a leader’s position.  In his acceptance speech Rudd said: “I want to put aside the old battles of the past.  The old battles between business and unions.  The old battles between growth and the environment.  The old and tired battles between federal and state.  The old battles between public and private.  It's time for a new page to be written in our nation's history.”  Obama said something similar“What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them - that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works...”   

Janet Albrechtsen in her 21 December piece Seduced by the Saint in which she sideswipes the media because she thinks Obama  will get “a free pass on tough media scrutiny largely because so many journalists share his politics...”  uses the left-right paradigm over and again.  She suggests: “...there is likely to be a deeper, though related, reason for the [media] bias. Progressive politics is essentially an emotional, rather than rational, pursuit. Its foundations rest on altruistic, even utopian, beliefs about the perfectibility of man and society. For progressives, hope triumphs over experience. That causes leftist politicians to place a large premium on myth-making, rhetoric and romance. And leftist journalists swallow it whole.”  Janet is like many other political commentators – seemingly unable to think outside this paradigm.  As Thomas Kuhn points out in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, those wedded to a paradigm find it unbearably difficult to change.  Even as evidence builds to incontestable proportions, they adhere to their favoured paradigm until the evidence against it becomes overwhelming and in favour of another, whereupon a sudden ‘paradigm shift’ occurs.  (See the Wikipedia synopsis and Max Planck’s quote under ‘Transition period’: “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it”.)  Janet and her colleagues seem a long way from a paradigm shift.  The Coalition too seems caught in the old paradigm.  Recently Christopher Pyne was advocating it ‘shift to the centre’, whatever that means.  Does he know?  He was admonished by Eric Abetz who likened him to a snake-oil salesman as reported in a Phillip Coorey article in the SMH on 23 January Turnbull puts himself in the middle   Abetz too flogs the left-centre-right argument.

I have a hope that one day, soon, the media will make the paradigm shift away from the old to the new age of politics, where engaging any who can assist, no matter what their background or imagined political orientation, is the norm.  Kevin Rudd, Malcolm Turnbull and Barack Obama have.  Rudd is not defined by the terms ‘left’, ‘right’, or ‘centre’ – to him the terms are pointless.  Turnbull and Obama likewise.

I have a hope that one day before rushing into print, columnists commenting on political polls will take a short course in elementary statistics, at least covering the concepts of ‘margin of error’ ‘confidence intervals’ and ‘trend’  If only they would read Possum’s  Pollytics Pollytrack and ‘Pollytrend’, they may be less inclined to over-interpret results from a single poll.  They may also see the value of acknowledging the other polls appearing at the same time, whether or not they show different results.  All pollsters compare the most recent poll with their own previous polls as if the others did not exist – commercial competition at work I suppose - they never take in the others.  The most recent Newspoll illustrates this point.  By comparing its first poll for 2009 with the last for 2008, commentators saw a marked ‘reeling in’ of the Government’s lead, which they saw shrinking 10 points from 59/41 2PP to 54/46.  The maths were right, but the stats were misinterpreted.  The commentators failed to point out that the 59/41 result in December was the ‘odd man out’ in a series of Newspolls that showed around a 55/45 result consistently over several months.  So the 54/46 result was most likely a return to the Newspoll ‘norm’.  The aberrant December 59/41 result may have been due to the coincidence of the poll with Government’s economic stimulus package, but to place much significance on the change was unwise statistically, especially as two polls at about the same time of the January Newspoll (Morgan 60/40) and (Essential Research 59/41) showed the Government ahead by margins similar to their previous polls. 

Of course for Newspoll to concede that its last 2008 poll was aberrant would have negated its wild interpretation of it as a Coalition disaster.  We’re waiting expectantly for tomorrow’s Newspoll.

Another example of over-interpretation is making much of as little as a two point shift in 2PP, although it is well within the MOE.  Even Roy Morgan, who should know better, is a culprit.  In his most recent poll he pointed to a one point change (from 60/40 to 59.5/40.5 2PP) without bothering to mention that this was well within the MOE using a 95% confidence interval.  Pollsters have such touching faith in the veracity of their own polls, and their capacity to detect small changes that are genuine.

Maybe commercial considerations and the exclusivity of each poll to its sponsor makes sensible and legitimate commentary unlikely – maybe editorial copy and striking headlines are the prime object.

For serious poll addicts who value sound statistical analysis, there is no better site than Pollytics The Poll Bludger keeps up-to-date with each emerging poll and gives a balanced commentary.

I have hope that one day columnists will make comments on polls that are accurate, and frame interpretations that flow from the data by using the basic principles of statistics.

I have a hope!


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2/02/2009Welcome back. Again a wonderful interpretation of what is happening. And thank you for the better font size, I hope you don't get too many objections to it.

Harry "Snapper" Organs

2/02/2009Good to see you back, Ad Astra. I look forward to your analysis of what's going on in the meedja, as it's certainly looking and sounding even more shrill, misinformed and feral than usual. I posted on Pollbludger something I've not seen before, namely, video feed of Rudd at the major press conference today, in which he appeared to be psychomotor retarded by virtue of how either the video was taken or replayed. I've never seen this before, and because this is something I'm trained to pick up in real people, I checked it out with my partner, who confirmed the same thing. I'm not paranoid, or would usually choose a stuff up over a mistake, but was just taken by this. Could, of course, just be a coincidence. But then, why, if you've got corrupted video, don't you just dump it? Maybe I am being a little paranoid.


3/02/2009Your hopes match mine Ad astra, but I also hope we're not just whistling in the wind. I find it somewhat depressing to note that there is a raft of young journalists climbing the ladder of their profession who all appear to follow the language and style of their senior colleagues. Somehow I don't think their training includes honesty and integrity.

Ad astra reply

3/02/2009Thank you for your comments Gravel and HSO. Your concern Janice that we may be just ‘whistling in the wind' in our hope for better journalism, is understandable. Only this morning I see Christian Kerr writing in [i]The Australian[/i] under the subheading ‘House Rules’, whatever that means, an article titled [i]Kevin's sound-bite solutions won't fix the $115bn problem[/i], once again flogging the Ruddspeak theme. You can see it at http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,25000232-5016936,00.html. The article is of no consequence, nor are most of Kerr’s offerings. Is this because writing under the editorial requirements of ‘House Rules’ engenders this style of paltry writing? Or is he simply a mediocre journalist? Articles like this do nothing to foster the hope that the media will some day understand and accept what it likes to label as ‘Ruddspeak’.
How many umbrellas are there if I have two in my hand but the wind then blows them away?