God is Dead

An old man with long grey hair and a long grey beard standing in front of a dramatic dark sky. He is wearing a white toga and holding a wooden bar. His arm is stretched out for giving a sign or for blessing and he is looking up to the sky.

“Did the media get the election wrong?” asks Fairfax journalist Matthew Knott in an attempt to turn the spotlight fleetingly on he and his colleagues in the press gallery.

“The consensus, speaking to colleagues in the Canberra press gallery, is a reluctant yes. Some insist they got it spot on. But many admit they expected a more decisive Coalition victory than occurred. And they concede this influenced the way the media covered the campaign.”

While Knott’s moment of professional introspection is rare and commendable, he’s really asking the wrong question. The assumption buried in his gallery quick quiz is that the media’s primary role is not so much to report the news, as to predict it. But it that’s your measure of success as a journalist, you’re playing a loser’s game.

As this blog and others have tirelessly (OK, tiresomely) argued over the years, the focus of political reporting is too much on who’s winning the horse race and not on the substance. That is partly a consequence of the professionalisation of politics, the loss of specialist reporters and the commodification of straight news. Everyone knows what’s happened and is remarking on it via social media, so that encourages journalists to play up their “insider” credentials, deciphering the multiple layers of spin. They become professional pundits rather than reporters.

Peter Hartcher is one of the exemplars of this trend, often casting himself as a kind of diviner of what drives individual political leaders and connecting them to the zeitgeist in a way that can come across as toadying in pursuit of favourable scoops. Remember how he wrote up the now infamous 2014 budget?

“While Abbott was a cheap populist in opposition, he now reveals himself to be a purposeful prime minister. He’s not looking for popularity but respect. His budget is a bold political bet that people will not punish him for breaking promises but reward him for being tough and responsible.”

This isn’t to say all political reporting has to be just a bland recitation of the facts. Context and analysis are even more important now when political parties just routinely make stuff up and sections of the popular media meekly run with it. As Tim Dunlop has argued, political reporting comes alive and adds real value when it positions the noise within a wider signal.  But it achieves that not by journalists assuming the status of omniscient beings, but by admitting to their limited view and inviting others to fill in the picture.

“The new-media environment of engagement with the audience makes it easier than ever for journalists to take readers into their confidence and explain the reasoning behind a given article. Or to defend it, if necessary. In other words, engagement with the audience is the new objectivity, and any decent journalist should cultivate that approach.

On that score, I’m a big fan of the insights of Laura Tingle in her weekly chat with Phillip Adams on Radio National. What I like about Tingle is that unlike many other insiders, she doesn’t position herself as a sort of aloof Canberra Kremlinologist, deciphering the patterns in the plumes of smoke emitted from the ministerial wing. On the contrary, she often sounds worn down and just exhausted by the whole circus. It’s notable that one of the most telling images of the marathon election campaign was of Tingle on the panel during the second TV leaders’ debate, clearly exasperated by the umpteenth recitation of theatrical talking points that told voters nothing.

Screen Shot 2016-07-07 at 12.09.46 pm

The Guardian’s Katherine Murphy is also a journalist who has done more than most to break down the imaginary fourth wall that isolates press gallery members from the public they are supposedly a proxy for.  Her daily coverage is presented in diary format, exposing the often incomplete and haphazard information upon which reporters are required  to squeeze into tidy narratives. She recognises, indeed luxuriates in the fact, that she doesn’t know everything, can’t know everything and will never know everything. In so doing, she exposes the pre-spun nature of so much for what passes as “political news”, all wrapped up neatly every day and presented to the public as fact.

As an aside, it’s significant that we’re having this election post-mortem alongside the release of the damning report by former civil servant John Chilcot following his seven-year inquiry into the circumstances that led to Britain entering the Iraq war 13 years ago. While most of the focus on that debacle has been on deficiencies in intelligence, foreign policy nous and political judgement, the media’s failure to ask tough questions and their increasing tendency to identify with the spin doctors has also come under scrutiny.

“So much of the current public distrust in the media and its incestuous relationship with the political establishment can be traced back to its failures in covering the Iraq war,” writes Ian Burrell in The Independent. “Where once its access to Westminster corridors was its most valuable currency, that cosy relationship means it is now too often seen as a mere mouthpiece for the ruling elite.”

There’s a lesson for Australian media here. Journalists need to stop seeing themselves as players. Their job is to represent the public to decision-makers, not the other way around.  We don’t want them to make forecasts; we want to them to demand answers to simple questions. We want them, beyond rare exceptions, to stop reporting self-serving anonymous scuttlebutt and to insist that people go on the record. We would prefer that instead of guessing and surmising and speculating, they just said “I really don’t know what will happen next. But here are the facts.”  And we would prefer their editors to stop asking them to issue “hot takes” on every little brain fart in Canberra and leave them to get their teeth into a story once in a while.

As Russell Marks writes in The Monthly, in perhaps the best analysis of the media’s failures this election, journalists can do us all a big favour by giving up the pretence that they are god-like electoral analysts or judges of spin. Stop the second-hand running commentary on how the management of issues will ‘play’ in the electorate, turn your bullshit detectors up to 10 and start testing the “perceptions” against the facts.

“While intelligent journalists are running themselves ragged acting as unglorified public relations assistants for politicians, they’re not testing statements and checking claims,” Marks writes. “News reportage becomes quite literally a matter of ‘Turnbull said A, while Shorten said B’, which is close to entirely useless without context. In the end, we are told, the voters get it right. But that expression of faith in the democratic process depends on faith in the fourth estate to present political realities so that voters can make sensible choices.”

Journalism is a tough job, even tougher when your resources are constantly being cut, the bosses are asking you to file constantly and social media is bagging you. But journalists can make it a lot easier for themselves by giving up the pretence that they are all-seeing political sages and focus instead on asking good questions, reporting facts, placing those facts in context and admitting that neither they, nor anyone, has any idea about what happens next.

In journalism at least, god is dead.

See also:

Fenced In

old rusty barbed wire with hand on the dark background

“Our job is not to step in, our job is just to reflect, it’s just to report on what happens.”

That’s a quote from the ABC’s head of current affairs, Bruce Belsham, in the transcript published by New Matilda of his conversation in 2013 with the public broadcaster’s then technology editor Nick Ross about the National Broadband Network. Continue reading

The God Complex

Once upon a time in politics – not that long ago, at least in human years – the mainstream media audience sat respectfully in the grandstands watching the game. Journalists, on the  other hand, were on first name terms with players and coaches and had a cosy, inside view of the action.

Now, as is increasingly evident, the audience is invading the pitch. The old insiders’ game is breaking up. And the former participants and stenographers are clearly ruing the loss of clubby exclusivity. On Twitter, they can be seen pompously blowing their whistles and citing rules that no longer apply. Continue reading

Dog Bites Man News

Life is tough in the news business. Journalists are being asked to do more with less. Print reporters, once required to file once a day, must now produce in real time for multiple platforms. Speed and volume has primacy over care and quality. The noise-to-signal ratio has arguably never been greater.

What to do? The ideal solution is to hire more staff. But we know that’s not going to happen. The industry is downsizing faster than a Biggest Loser contestant as migrating audiences and advertisers cut its formerly generously proportioned profit margins to skeleton thin. Continue reading

Groundhog News

News is what’s new. At least that’s the traditional definition. But in the case of a heavily concentrated Australian mainstream media, news is defined by the same half-dozen issues constantly rehashed as vehicles for faked-up conflict and partisan opinion mongering.

So at the start of every week, it is a fair bet that The Australian Financial Review (formerly a pro-market paper, now a pro-business lobby rag) will spin as “exclusives” a handful of front page beat-ups on productivity and the Fair Work Act, along with a couple of hatchet jobs on the NBN.

Continue reading

Spinning Wheel

A health warning to mainstream media consumers: When a news story starts with the words “is expected to”, activate the BS detector. When that story involves forecasts about economic statistics, shift detector to warp speed. Continue reading

The Play’s the Thing

What do you think the pokies story is about?  According to the Australian press gallery, it’s a story about individual politicians and party politics. The prime minister they have dubbed ‘Jul-iar’ Gillard, incapable of keeping promises, has done it again – ripped up a deal, walked away from an agreement and put pure politics ahead of principle. It’s the story her opponent wants run. And , of course, the genuises of the press gallery dutifully report it (‘The Blame Game Begins’, says Seven News).

Continue reading

You Can’t Handle the Truth!

If the world of politics is now so dominated by spin and media management that ‘reality’ is whatever you choose it to be, what’s the proper role of journalism?

It’s to find the truth and report it, right? Journalists are employed to serve their readers and viewers by cutting through hype, digging out red herrings, challenging misleading statements and exposing what’s really going on. You would think so, wouldn’t you? Continue reading

Branded News

Is journalism about truth or marketing? If you picked the former, go back three spaces.

Journalism, as it is practised for the most part today, is about packaging, framing and distributing information to match the world views and ideological biases of distinct target markets. But don’t take my word for it. Continue reading

Mr Jones Goes to Canberra

Photo: SMH

The media is a sucker for stories about plain-talkin’, grass-roots folk confronting cynical politicians with homespun morality.  Think ‘Mr Smith Goes to Washington’.

Brought up on these sentimental tabloid templates and jaded with the daily theatre of covering politics, capital city journalists tend to revel in ‘people’s protests’ as a welcome injection of ‘authenticity’ in a working environment where no-one ever says what they mean.

Aware of this tendency, Australia’s savviest spinners and lobbyists have taken their cues from the world’s best practice US media manipulators and their now widely employed strategy of ‘astro-turfing’ – a form of advocacy to advance a corporate or political agenda masquerading as a ‘grass-roots’ movement.

And don’t some of our media friends in Canberra fall for it every time? Despite priding themselves on their cynicism, political reporters like the ABC’s resident Tory Chris Uhlmann earnestly interpret the parade of shockjock-manufactured people’s protests against the carbon tax, pokie reforms, gay marriage (and whatever else fires up an 18-wheeler driver in a lumberjack shirt) as some sort of expression of the real folk:

 UHLMANN: “It’s not as large a gathering as some of the organisers had hoped, but the crowd has certainly found a way to make itself heard. although there was an anti-carbon tax theme, the convoy had picked up many hitchhikers along the way.”

PROTESTOR: ” That’s the international Christian flag. You see the cross up there. And I just brought this down today because God told me to bring it down.”

UHLMANN: “But to dismiss them all as cranks of no consequence meant you didn’t bother to talk to any of them or ask why they would travel so far.”

Just when did our journalistic elite stop taking their bullshit detection medication? The mere presence of that self-promoting blow-hard carnival barker Alan Jones – a man whose opinions have been found to be correlated to how much he is being paid by corporate interests – should have alerted anyone with any news sense that this was an astro-turfed event. Sure there were a few truly aggrieved souls in the crowd, but the idea that this was some kind of natural expression of widespread community anger was just fanciful.

Yet there was Uhlmann running News Ltd’s line that “the forgotten people” are not being heard in Canberra, despite 90 per cent of the media – including himself – doing little else in their reporting but manufacturing the circumstances of discontent with the government so that they can then run the line that the country is in uproar.

There are exceptions, of course. Getting full marks for real journalistic chutzpah, The Sydney Morning Herald’s Jacqueline Maley sparked a characteristic spittle-projecting hissy fit by the vile Jones when she dared to ask him whether he had been paid a fee for venturing out of his $3 million Sydney harbourside mansion to mix it with the bush ‘battlers’ in chilly Canberra.  For her troubles, she nearly found herself on the wrong end of a pitchfork.

But for the most part, it suits a lazy media – hooked on fake conflict and the eternal election campaign – to patronise their readership and viewership by presuming that a few dozen truckies in bush shirts and akubras standing outside parliament and calling for fresh elections somehow is the true ‘voice of the people’.

We deserve more from journalists. We deserve a better media.