One of the curses of being a news journalist is that the ‘news’ (a hazy concept at the best of times) must always fit the available space. The space for news has been expanding exponentially in recent years as new digital, real-time platforms emerge. At the same time, the resource to fill that space has been dwindling. What do you think happens?
In financial journalism, which is my background, the consequence of this growing mismatch is that journalists lower the bar for news or broaden its definition to the point where noise is frequently mistaken for signal. So they give greater currency to the ephemeral, the transitory and the superficially dramatic despite the needs of their presumed audience whose focus is necessarily long term. (I say ‘presumed’ audience because the actual audience tends to be the minority who live for the noise as well).
In political journalism, likewise, the constant need for a new ‘story’ to fill the ever expanding space keeping the ever diminishing ads apart means the public is assailed by headines misrepresenting the 5-minute obsessions of insiders and partisans as of wider significance.
The noise-to-signal ratio is intensified and reinforced by the mutual interests of those doing the reporting and those being reported on. In the case of financial journalism, the source of much of the ‘news’ is the sell side of investment banks and brokers whose business model is transactional – they want people to trade. And ‘news’ provides the hook. Journalists don’t tell their audience that this is the case because it would undermine the pretence that any of this short-termism matters.
In political journalism, as we have seen, the sources are frequently anonymous and almost always talking their own book, just like the brokers and investment banks spruiking initial public offers to mug punter ‘mums and dads’. Flattering themselves as Bernsteins and Woodwards – brave agents of the people against untrammelled power – some politicial journalists romanticise the notion of anonymous sources as something other than what they are – a source of easy copy to feed the insatiable appetite of the daily news monster.
This is a rather long-winded way of theorising why with a few notable exceptions, the Australian press gallery these past three years has treated the public with contempt – serving the interests of insiders and allowing themselves to be manipulated for the purposes of a story.
In an op-ed last year, former Age editor Michael Gawenda put his finger on it, noting that journalists reporting on the Rudd-Gillard saga were placing the principle of respecting anonymous sources ahead of their primary function of telling the public what was really going on.
“The rules of engagement in Canberra no longer serve our interests,” Gawenda wrote. “They encourage and support dishonesty from politicians and timidity and yes, dishonesty from reporters and commentators. The rules of engagement protect ‘insiders’ and keep the rest of us, we poor punters with no access to ‘secrets’, more or less in the dark about what’s really going on.”
Of course, given the return of Kevin Rudd to the prime ministership, the defenders of this ‘inside talk’ journalism will say ‘see, we were right all along. The challenge to Gillard was real.’ Well, yes, it was fairly apparent from the beginning that Rudd was not going to go quietly and it is undoubtedly true that the division in the government hampered Gillard these past three years (which makes her legislative achievements all the more impressive BTW).
But it is worth asking to what extent the constant anonymous briefing and media feeding off that in pursuit of the greater narrative was a factor in generating the very outcome that the leakers were engineering? And to what extent did the media’s obsession with this story for three years cut the space given to other issues by rounds reporters outside Canberra on issues like education, health, climate change and the huge structural change in the economy? Most importantly, to what extent did excitement over the Rudd-Gillard soap opera divert attention from scrutinising the Opposition’s policies (or lack of them)?
Gillard, for all her virtues, was a lousy communicator. But she did give one great speech as PM. This was in January this year at the Press Club where she set out clearly and simply the huge economic challenges facing Australia and the difficult choices the nation faces – a uncompetitive exchange rate, an economy transitioning away from labour-intensive manufacturing to capital-intensive resources, a dearth of infrastructure, and a structural deterioration in the budget alongside a growing call on it by an aging, savings-short population. Those are all strong news stories on their own, each deserved follow-ups and they all have greater relevance to the wider public than the day-to-day scuttlebutt and rumours inside parliament house.
It’s true that Gillard did herself no favours in that January address by upstaging herself with the announcement of the election date. But even that was not enough for the popular press, who decided the biggest story from the event was her new ‘hipster’ spectacles. In the meantime, the public remained pitifully uninformed of what really may decide their own futures.
In recent weeks, the respected economist Ross Garnaut made some of the same points as Gillard did in that speech, challenging Australians to face up to choices about how to respond to hard times after two decades of extraordinary prosperity. In a veiled reference to the deceitful campaign against the resources super profits tax by the mining industry (the issue that in my view was the greatest catalyst for Rudd’s 2010 removal), Garnaut also spoke of new barriers to productive change in our political culture, ones that elevate private over public interests and the immediate over the longer term. It seems there is a real story here – one that will affect our kids more than what glasses the PM wears – but who’s telling it?
Everywhere these days, you hear people saying they are “sick of politics”, they are over the circus in Canberra, they are fed up with the soap opera. One gets a sense that what they are really sick of is the noise. They are sick of the constant he said-she said predictability of partisans with dug-in positions. They switch off on hearing the cute talking points and transparent spin from all sides of politics that trivialises important issues (like why we need an honest, accountable media for instance). And they are completely over being treated like mugs by journalists who recycle every bit of self-serving anonymous backgrounding because of their desperation for a story to justify their own existence.
Journalists can say the leadership speculation stories scored strong hits on their websites. Yes, and so do financial headlines that read ‘Fund Managers’ Secret Stock Tips’. People need substance. But all they get is the journalistic equivalent of junk food. They need signal. But all they hear is noise; shrill, constant, meaningless and inconsequential noise.