Do Keep Up

Man-with-megaphone-000080450985_LargeFor millions of Australians forced to save for their own retirement, ‘finance’ is Alan Kohler on the news every night telling them what happened to the Baltic Dry index that day or explaining why Stock A’s share price went up when their earnings went down.

The truth is that what happened in the global and domestic financial markets on any one day is hardly relevant to the vast majority of people  whose investment horizon is measured in years, if not decades. The day-to-day stuff is meaningless noise, of interest to day traders or speculators or financial journalists, but not to the rest of us.

Political journalism works the same way. What matters for the overwhelming majority of the voting population in relation to politics are longer-term outcomes. Politics is significant insofar as we feel the debate is about ensuring the society we live in is fair and decent and one that puts humans before the needs of the system itself.

Are our children getting an adequate education? Are they choosing the right degrees? Assuming they graduate, will there be jobs for them? How will they afford a home? Is the system fair? How are “insiders” treated in comparison to “outsiders”? What happens when we age and no longer can look ourselves? Will climate change make our grandkids world unliveable? Is our destiny in our own hands anymore?

These are tough questions, but you won’t hear political journalists talking about them to any great extent. Like their financial counterparts, they are too busy watching the daily horse race. Who won the week in parliament? Does Scott hate Malcolm? Is Malcolm “cutting through with the punters”? Will Bill’s makeover work for him in the polls?

The commentators or race callers, because that’s what they are, see their job as providing a real-time form guide for those people who view politics as an end itself, an occupation for a class of people who have never really known any other line of work. They’re not really that interested in what the wider public actually thinks, beyond the occasional condescending reference to “pub tests” or how it plays in “struggle street”. They’re more intent on representing the powerful to the rest of us, rather than the other way around.

Peter Hartcher in the SMH exemplifies this, seeing himself as a kind of unofficial chronicler or real-time biographer of whomever the great political poohbah of the moment seems to be. Perhaps there’s an element of self-interest in this, because if you sufficiently ingratiate yourself with your subject you’ll be put on the drip for “exclusives”. But whatever the motivation, this week-to-week attempt to represent noise as signal leads to the scenario where each column can completely contradict the one before.

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Like the politicians they cover, political journalists are mostly on the inside looking out. And there’s your problem. There are simply not enough people who are as plugged into or who care enough about who said what five minutes ago to offer meaningful comment. So inevitably they all end up talking to each other and reading the entrails of opinion polls, starting with the narrow window they look through every day and attempting to pan out from there. Try it. It doesn’t work.

The ABC’s Jonathan Green admirably tried to get around this issue by convening a weekly ‘Outsiders’ radio show featuring ostensibly the “unusual” suspects of the commentariat. But the underlying requirement that the show be about “the week in news” meant his talent pool was a shallow one,  inevitably including the token IPA “research fellow” or a member of the voiceless Murdoch press to keep the ABC’s balance Nazis off his back.

To be fair, political media is broken because politics is broken – or at least what we call politics – the charade that takes place in Canberra or any other world capital each day featuring people and parties who don’t really believe in anything anymore, but making sure they posture and pontificate in a way that suggests they do. And the media, having so much invested in the semblance of a left-right, blue-red, coke-pepsi contest, is forced to play along with the whole silly game.

The rest of the population senses the breakdown. And not just in Australia. This is a global phenomenon, reflecting the end of a 35-year era in which neoliberal capitalism looked to have destroyed all other contenders. Politicians of the nominal left and right swallowed the consensus whole, leaving them to fight ridiculous and infantile ‘culture wars’ to justify their own sorry existence.

But ironically “the market knows best” people don’t seem to have figured that the wider population understands the issue better than the insiders do. The big problems we face are global in nature – climate change, people movements, adequacy of resources, the impotency of central banks, the dislocations wrought by “free” trade, the rise in the power of stateless corporations at the expense of people, the encroachment of “markets” into every aspect of our lives and the power of well-funded lobbies that sell private interest as public interest and destroy the possibility of people-oriented change.

THAT’S why politics is broken. And THAT’s why the media does not appear to have a clue about what’s going on right now. Oddly enough, this is a much, much bigger story than whether Malcolm loves Scott.

Do keep up now.

(On what’s really ailing us, have a listen to Philip Adams’ excellent recent panel session ‘Advance Australia Where?’ with Bob Brown, Kerry O’Brien and Julian Burnside or for a global view, check out Paul Mason on the Guardian)


Doing a Number

Journalists, as a rule, don’t do numbers. They’re words people – topped the class in creative writing; struggled in maths. And in most areas of reporting, that’s not a huge disadvantage. But when it comes to economics, it can leave them open to being conned.

Take the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook. That News Corp would run this set-piece through its lazy and deliberately misleading partisan filter (‘Labor’s Debt Bomb!’) was not surprising. But when the ABC recycles the official spin you have to wonder at journalists’ competence: Continue reading

Media Stockholm Syndrome

‘Twenty Ways to Bulk Up Your Cash’. That was the breathless headline in The Australian Financial Review on September, 27, 2005

“It’s shop till you drop for ordinary people with money to park,” the article gushed. “And the range of investment options is so vast, it’s very nearly an embarrassment of riches.” Continue reading


Cast your mind back 17 years. A Reuters journalist prepared a report on the jobs data. loaded his script on the autocue, turned on his TV lights, positioned the ISDN camera, loaded his DIY graphics and went live to air on a digital feed to Tokyo. Afterwards, he wrote 800 words for the wire, recorded and cut a radio interview and turned around a 2-minute package for conventional TV.

Yes, that ‘multimedia’ journalist was me, which is why I’m surprised to read that “everything has changed” in the last 10 years and an entire new skillset is now required of journalists. Writing quick updates for the web is a huge imposition, it seems, and a radical departure from what came before.

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Future Shockers

“Prediction is very difficult, particularly about the future.” Journalists would do well to keep in mind that aphorism from influential Danish physicist Nils Bohr when quoting “experts” about the outlook for financial markets, the economy and politics.

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The Forecast Deficit

A few years back an economic forecaster was asked to explain why his predictions of a 10 per cent return on the Australian equity market that year hadn’t come to pass. (The market ended down nearly 40 per cent in 2008). “It’s not my fault,” he complained. “No-one predicted Lehman.”

To which the response is well, isn’t that the point? Forecasts are subject to considerable error, due to the tendency for events to screw around with one’s cherished assumptions. A plane flies into a building, an investment bank goes belly up, a country defaults, a government changes etc;
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The Secret Sauce

What did the International Monetary Fund say about the Australian economy? We’re heading for a severe slowdown. No, wait! We’re better placed than anyone. Hold on, that’s not right! Julia Gillard is putting a brave face on a grim outlook.
In an age when the source material for most news events is freely available on the web, it is surprising that media organisations continue to spin multiple versions of agreed facts to suit their own ideological positions.

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Locked Up

The Federal Budget is ‘The Big Day Out’ for the political and financial media in Australia. Busloads of hacks (only the lucky ones go by plane these days) make the long journey to late autumn Canberra to join their full-time press gallery brethren in what is a media and political ritual – a six-hour lock-up, a frenzy of writing and then off to The Holy Grail (these days the Kennedy Room, I’m told) to get stonkered till 3am. Continue reading

Here’s that Rainy Day

What is it with the Australian parliamentary press gallery and its obsession with budget deficits? It seems every government initiative is met with questions about what it means for the Labor government’s election campaign pledge (extracted under pressure) to restore the budget to surplus within three years – as if this means anything.

To be fair, successive governments have brought this on themselves by making a fetish of having the budget in surplus and instilling an irrational fear among the population of the ‘D’ word to the point that individual political leaders do anything to avoid mentioning that very possibility.

Nevertheless, there is no reason for informed journalists to play along with the myth. Indeed, the nadir of this book-keeping mentality among the nation’s elite political reporters came when the first question at a prime ministerial press conference to announce initiatives on one of the worst natural disasters in the country’s modern history was what it meant for the surplus promise; this at a time when scores of people were either dead or missing and when the disaster was still unfolding.

If any further proof were needed of the lazy pack mentality of the press gallery, here it was. While the normally astute Bernard Keane of Crikey moved to defend his colleagues’ questioning as legitimate, the general response on Twitter was that the deficit-related questioning was inappropriate at this time.

Of course, media scrutiny of government finances is entirely appropriate. But this would be easier to take seriously if it were not suspected that the questioning was purely a tactical ruse aimed at extracting a “gotcha” quote from Gillard – in effect getting her to admit, even in the slightest way, that the surplus goal might be compromised by the size of the demand on government from a disaster of this magnitude. The headlines at The Australian – ‘Deficit Looms as PM Loses Grip on Budget’ – will be ready to roll for the slightest trip, which is why Gillard chose her words carefully.

As to complaints from Keane that this criticism is unfair on the press gallery, one wonders whether journalists would have the temerity to ask Gillard, during a press conference to announce the death of another Australian soldier in Afghanistan, as to what the escalating financial cost of this war meant for her surplus projections.

The big lie about Australian government finances, as informed journalists like Ross Gittins have repeatedly shown, is that the public sector is drowning in debt or that we are running an unsustainable deficit. That is simply not true. Yet not matter how many times this is pointed out, the press gallery continue to play the ‘debt and deficit’ card – simply because it suits their purposes to play word games with politicians to keep themselves entertained and to avoid having to ask themselves tougher questions; like how political journalism became a type of ersatz accounting (except in this case the practitioners can’t add up).

Here is a chart from the OECD. It shows that Australia is extremely well positioned relative to most developed economies in terms of net government liabilities (how much the government owes after assets are taken into account).  Japan has net liabilities of more than 100 per cent of GDP, the US nearly 70 per cent, the Euro area 59 per cent and the total OECD 58 per cent. Australia has net liabilities of 0.4 per cent of GDP – negligible.









Is it too much to ask the press gallery to get a sense of proportion over this and point it out to the Australian public that we are not up to our eyeballs in debt and that our public finances are the envy of the rest of the developed world? And is it too much to ask political journos to consider for just a moment that the very reason governments run surpluses in good times is so the budget can play its role as a shock absorber in  bad?  Remember the rainy day we’re saving for? It’s here.

One final observation: Notice from the chart above that oil-rich Norway has the best public finances in the world? Psst. They run a resource rent tax.

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