Financial journalism

Lego Journalism

Lego

It’s not widely understood by the reading and viewing public, but a big chunk of what are purported to be ‘news events’ really are stage-managed set-pieces, minutely choreographed by the public relations industry.

The supinely lame local coverage of the recent triumphant “free trade” deal announcement between the Australian and Japanese governments provides a perfect case study in how “news” is engineered, with national leaders positioned as virtual lego figurines in a carefully constructed tableaux.

In this case, journalists junket off to Tokyo with a planeload of CEOs, lobbyists and hangers-on.  A favoured journalist writes a preview, saying the Australian PM will meet his Japanese counterpart in “a last-ditch bid to break the deadlock” in seven-year-long negotiations.

Happy snaps are released to the press pack showing the two PMs completing the deal over sashimi. And, hey presto, out of this cosy tete-a-tete comes “historic breakthrough”. Cheap Camry heaven!

Did any of the journalists stop to ask whether the big chunk of corporate Australia would have flown to Tokyo if there had been a real possibility that a deal wouldn’t be concluded? Surely, this was always going to happen. It was only a question of how badly Australia wanted the deal.

Trade agreements like the one announced between Canberra and Tokyo are political events, not economic ones, but they are almost always reported as if they are economically significant.

In this case,  the spin doctors paint as a triumph what was a concession the Japanese were always going to make under the right circumstances, but still stops way short of what can be described as “free trade” (cutting tariffs on Australian beef from 38.5% to 19.5% over 15 years). Even then, there are other ways of slowing the entry of Australia food products, such as imposing byzantine quarantine arrangements.

As well, there are strong economic arguments that bilateral trade deals (favoured by the Howard and Abbott governments over multi-lateral initiatives such as the Doha round) lack transparency and tend to vastly over-rate the benefits to the general public.

The Productivity Commission, in a report released in 2010 five years after the Australia-US bilateral pact, noted that “free trade” deals are more appropriately described as “preferential” trade agreements, as they usually stop far short of a free market.

“While bilateral and regional trade agreements can reduce trade barriers and help meet other objectives, their potential impact is limited and other options often may be more cost-effective,” the commission said. “Current processes for assessing and prioritising (these agreements) lack transparency and tend to oversell the likely benefits. “

There are a range of more philosophical economic objections to bilateral agreements, notably that it can lead to one country being locked into trade arrangements with relatively inefficient producers of the trade partner when better and cheaper deals are available elsewhere.

So why didn’t any of the triumphal media coverage of the Japan deal not include these questions? Instead, we saw the ABC’s television correspondent, in his piece to camera in Tokyo, mouthing what sounded like a cut-and-paste from a government press office statement.

The problem here is the dominance of “access” journalism in political coverage, as opposed to “accountability” journalism. This theme is explored in relation to pre-GFC business coverage in a recent book by ex-WSJ reporter Dean Starkman (“The Watchdog that Didn’t Bark”).

In business journalism, news becomes “a guide to investing, more concerned with explaining business strategies and tactics to consumers than with examining broader political or social issues to citizens”.

Likewise, in political journalism, news becomes about framing every issue in terms of what it means for the tactical nous of the incumbents and their opponents. So the angle on the trade deal is “triumph for Tony Abbott”, as the journos see their role as representing the political class to the public, not representing the interests of the public to the political class.

Under the accountability model, journalists stand further away from the political actors. But what they lose in access and short-term “scoops”, they gain in a wider point of reference, an understanding of context beyond the daily noise and a greater readiness to ask tough questions.

The growth of digital media and the ability of the audience to talk back expose the lazy manipulations and spin that old journalism regurgitate in return for access.

The best journalists become part of the conversation and work with the audience to find the truth.

The rest belong in Legoland.

(See also: Bernard Keane:  ‘Sorry, But Free Trade Agreements are Duds’)

20 thoughts on “Lego Journalism

  1. So we can compare and contrast WA Premier Barnett and his trip to China with 600 business leaders, and his threatening speech to the oil and gas industry before he left. Even as a “liberal” politician and a tax accountant, I just do not think he knows who is pulling the strings, and how much of a puppet he is in the big games.

  2. So we can compare and contrast WA Premier Barnett and his trip to China with 600 business leaders, and his threatening speech to the oil and gas industry before he left. Even as a “liberal” politician and a tax accountant, I just do not think he knows who is pulling the strings, and how much of a puppet he is in the big games.

  3. Agreed Mr D,

    “Likewise, in (poor) political journalism, news becomes about framing every issue in terms of what it means for the tactical nous of the incumbents and their opponents”

    The late Peter Harvey reported from Canberra with an unimpressed detachment I (and most voters) could identity with. His commentary seemed to strike a good balance between calling out the silliest Dorothy dixers of the day and then also apply a critical eye to both parties at the same time. Even if it was unfair to some (at times Peter was not Mr Perfect – that's another late Peter), it had the reasonable appearance of fairness with directions given towards improvement.

    Could Latika Bourke be found guilty of such regular fairness?
    The young ABC reporter could improve with age and blinkers removed – one would hope – but not likely within the ABC.

  4. Agreed Mr D,

    “Likewise, in (poor) political journalism, news becomes about framing every issue in terms of what it means for the tactical nous of the incumbents and their opponents”

    The late Peter Harvey reported from Canberra with an unimpressed detachment I (and most voters) could identity with. His commentary seemed to strike a good balance between calling out the silliest Dorothy dixers of the day and then also apply a critical eye to both parties at the same time. Even if it was unfair to some (at times Peter was not Mr Perfect – that's another late Peter), it had the reasonable appearance of fairness with directions given towards improvement.

    Could Latika Bourke be found guilty of such regular fairness?
    The young ABC reporter could improve with age and blinkers removed – one would hope – but not likely within the ABC.

  5. The WTF Prime Minister was talking up the benefits to farmers (after the recent result for the Nationals in WA, he would say that wouldn't he) while the Japanese were talking up our new “alliance” and military cooperation.
    Is there no journalist out there who is concerned that we have suddenly thrown in our lot with Japan against China?
    Certainly not the ABC Mark Simkin, his main concern was the state of repair of his aircraft.

  6. The Lego bricks were out again this very morn at RN.

    Fran Kelly made ref (approving) to the FTO with Japan and then said TA was off elsewhere to conclude 'an even better one'.

    Come on. It is not a journalist's role to endorse actions by govt.

    Kelly is not a newcomer. She has been properly trained and should know better.

  7. The Lego bricks were out again this very morn at RN.

    Fran Kelly made ref (approving) to the FTO with Japan and then said TA was off elsewhere to conclude 'an even better one'.

    Come on. It is not a journalist's role to endorse actions by govt.

    Kelly is not a newcomer. She has been properly trained and should know better.

  8. Agree with your summation that it is assumed by the journalists that FTAs must be in Australia's interests because most politicians seem in general agreement that FTAs are good. I saw an interesting interview on “The Business” (ABC) with Roger Montgomery last night and he said that FTAs were not going to solve the problems for the economy. Also, apart from the delay in the tariffs being lowered by Japan, there will surely be more spending cuts as a result of the fall in government revenue from the Australian tariffs cuts.

  9. Agree with your summation that it is assumed by the journalists that FTAs must be in Australia's interests because most politicians seem in general agreement that FTAs are good. I saw an interesting interview on “The Business” (ABC) with Roger Montgomery last night and he said that FTAs were not going to solve the problems for the economy. Also, apart from the delay in the tariffs being lowered by Japan, there will surely be more spending cuts as a result of the fall in government revenue from the Australian tariffs cuts.

  10. Well written.

    The question I have is why do politicians, business leaders & PR people still think these stage-managed approaches still fool people.

    We live in an extremely media savvy society.

  11. Well written.

    The question I have is why do politicians, business leaders & PR people still think these stage-managed approaches still fool people.

    We live in an extremely media savvy society.

  12. Mr D, I see on twitter that you respect Sarah Ferguson. For what it's worth, so do I.

    In my opinion she is a genuine journalist. I hope she stays in the chair.

  13. Mr D, I see on twitter that you respect Sarah Ferguson. For what it's worth, so do I.

    In my opinion she is a genuine journalist. I hope she stays in the chair.

  14. I figured that your analysis was self evident. So I am also at a loss that journalists are breathless about these events. These discussions have been going on for years. Only an idiot would think that a tri-nation junket with a wagon train full of Captains of Industry was not off to cash in on a lay down mazaire

  15. I figured that your analysis was self evident. So I am also at a loss that journalists are breathless about these events. These discussions have been going on for years. Only an idiot would think that a tri-nation junket with a wagon train full of Captains of Industry was not off to cash in on a lay down mazaire

  16. I'm grateful for this note of realism injected into the miasma created by the MSMs credulousness in their response to both aspects of this farce. You correctly point out that the negotiations are all done and dusted long before the figureheads show up. I see this as attributable to the triumph of televisual values, that if there aren't any pictures, it isn't a story. This infects the way other media interpret and perhaps understand the process. However I'm inclined to the view that since some of the reporters are intelligent enough to know what is going on, that they are in on the joke and that they consciously choose to mislead we mug punters.

    I'd give even greater emphasis to the misrepresentation of the term free trade, which you mention almost in passing. Whatever the merits and limitations of the deals with Japan and South Korea, they are the antithesis of free trade (for good or ill), since they imply preference for two trading partners (competitors ?) but restrictions on all other actual and potential traders. Whether this is due to reporters' lack of knowledge of economics or their lack of interest, it would be heartening to hear one or two well-informed enough to break ranks and “bell the cat”.
    Thanks again Mr. Denmore for providing this important contribution to understanding.
    PJF

  17. I'm grateful for this note of realism injected into the miasma created by the MSMs credulousness in their response to both aspects of this farce. You correctly point out that the negotiations are all done and dusted long before the figureheads show up. I see this as attributable to the triumph of televisual values, that if there aren't any pictures, it isn't a story. This infects the way other media interpret and perhaps understand the process. However I'm inclined to the view that since some of the reporters are intelligent enough to know what is going on, that they are in on the joke and that they consciously choose to mislead we mug punters.

    I'd give even greater emphasis to the misrepresentation of the term free trade, which you mention almost in passing. Whatever the merits and limitations of the deals with Japan and South Korea, they are the antithesis of free trade (for good or ill), since they imply preference for two trading partners (competitors ?) but restrictions on all other actual and potential traders. Whether this is due to reporters' lack of knowledge of economics or their lack of interest, it would be heartening to hear one or two well-informed enough to break ranks and “bell the cat”.
    Thanks again Mr. Denmore for providing this important contribution to understanding.
    PJF

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