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)

 

Fenced In

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“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

Talk is Cheap

Our public broadcaster is our most trusted source of news. So why does it spend so much time and money chasing cheap and predictable opinions from a small group of people who have plenty of other places to bang their tin drums?

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Ordinary People?

 

“Grandma, tell me about the Great Cyber War. What was it like?”

 
“Well, dear, on top of hill were the well-armed, but rapidly depleting mainstream media corps defending their turf to the death, or at least until deadline.

“Assaulting the outskirts of parliament were we brave bloggers, dressed only in our pyjamas, fuelled on skim lattes and clicking on petitions until our index fingers blistered. It was ugly, dear.”

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Nowhere Man

One of the shorthand criticisms of the internet by the mainstream media is that it is almost wholly populated by paranoiacs, single-issue fanatics, stalkers and sundry geeks. Thank God, they say, for the reasoned professionals in the nation’s newsrooms.

Given what the internet (and bad management) has done to the legacy media business, it’s understandable that some journalists are defensive about ventures outside the mainstream. 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).

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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

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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