It’s now four years since the US journalism academic Jay Rosen decried at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival about the “cult of savvy” in political journalism and the treatment of politics as a game for insiders. What’s changed since?
Not much, going by the hysterical coverage of the leadership change in the Australian Greens. In what may simply have been a case of a party leader deciding to quit politics because 25 years was enough, the hacks fell over each other looking for the cute angle.
For the ubiquitous Annabel Crabb on the ABC, the Greens’ change from 62-year-old Tasmanian environmental warrior to Christine Milne to little known 44-year-old Melbourne doctor Richard Di Natale had a “whiff of Moscow” about it.
Annabel’s witty knack for comparing mainstream Australian political parties with murderous 20th century totalitarian regimes had us recalling fondly her hilarious “Valkyrie” reference to the failed February putsch against Tony Abbott. Or maybe not.
By the way, it’s hard not to conclude that ABC ‘personalities’ make smart-arsed references about the Greens because the party is a soft target for public broadcasters. You impress the major party playground bullies and there’s little chance of your funding getting cut.
Of course, if the safest sport at the perpetually obsequious ABC is taking cheap shots at the Greens to curry favour with their fickle funders, the culture war cranks at News Corp have it written into their KPIs. So there was Rupert’s wind-up toy Chris Kenny spinning around in excited circles, calling Christine Milne a snarling old cane toad.
For her part, Crabb made fun of the fact that Milne announced her retirement on Twitter, lamenting that the Greens had not done the media the decency of disemboweling themselves in public first, while chucking the odd “exclusive” entrail at journos to sate their hunger for fresh content meat over another 24-hour cycle.
And why wouldn’t the Greens refuse to play the insiders game when a good chunk of the media has sworn itself to their destruction?
The tone of all the coverage, yet again, was smart alecky and “savvy” as if the journos were not writing for the general public, but for their colleagues and sources. As Jay Rosen wrote in his Melbourne address four years ago:
“Promoting journalists as insiders in front of the outsiders, the viewers, the electorate…. this is a clue to what’s broken about political coverage. Things are out of alignment. Journalists are identifying with the wrong people. Therefore the kind of work they are doing is not as useful as we need it to be.”
Yet, there are plenty of legitimate news stories in an approaching major realignment of an exhausted major party system. For instance, how is what is happening in the UK (the splintering of the mainstream parties) reflected here in Australia? To what extent are interest group politics limiting the scope of the public conversation? What is the role of the media itself in how politics is framed? We can’t seem to get beyond the cul-de-sac we’ve found ourselves in.
Well, actually, we have. It’s why you’re reading this. What hasn’t changed is the traditional politics-media ping pong, which bounces back and forth incessantly with nothing ever changing. Insofar as there is a change, the Greens represent it – as did the Palmer United Party (however cynical its namesake’s motives). The public hates politics as it’s played, they hate politics as it’s reported. They’re sick of clever spin and clever reporting on spin. They’re over the schoolyard focus on personalities and leadership change as the be all and end all of the system.The mould is broken, but the media doesn’t want to admit it or ditch how it operates.
Why listen to Fran Kelly and Michelle Grattan droning on every morning on the radio, talking through the political noise of the day without revealing anything that we are not already aware of and speaking purely about how every issue “plays” in a game that only they and a handful of other insiders are interested in? And it is only they who are interested because it is an insiders club, a cosy little huddle of familiars who all know each other personally and resent anything that might break the mould and require them to broaden their scope.
The media is busted. Its job is to tell us what is going on. And what is going on requires them to see connections beyond the inch deep pond they live in. It requires them to think deeply and ask tougher questions than those aimed at generating a ‘Gotcha’ headline in the next five minutes. But their curiosity (the currency of their trade) is completely missing.
Plenty of us keep saying this. And nothing changes. Nothing. Which is why I vote Green.