Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Media Paradox – Take your time and do it now

This morning’s episode of Insiders gave a nice little example of the frustration many people feel with the media. Barrie Cassidy (who never saw a policy done by the Rudd Government that wouldn’t have been better done by the Hawke Government) was interviewing Lindsay Tanner. The discussion came to the Rudd Government media policy. Barrie_Cassidy Cassidy, perhaps not realising that in the age of the internet and twitter that the media is a tad more intense and fast paced than it was back when he was advising Hawke, asked Tanner about a statement Tanner had made to a meeting of news company Reuters’ clients:

BARRIE CASSIDY: You apparently told a meeting of Reuters clients this week that reform is harder these days because of the media. What did you mean by that?

LINDSAY TANNER: No, that's not quite what I said. I just said that the intensity of the media cycle now and particularly the far greater pervasiveness of electronic media means that it's harder to prosecute a reform case than it was maybe 20, 25 years ago. That doesn't mean you can't do it. It just means that it's tougher circumstances.

The newspaper industry has dumbed down because it's in a much more intense competitive environment. And so you're getting a kind of reporting that just makes it tougher to prosecute complex, nuanced reform projects rather than simplistic Tony Abbott style one-liners.

That's just the reality that we have to deal with. It doesn't mean you don't pursue reform. It just means it's got a bit harder.

hewson I have to say I fully agree with Tanner’s statement. The media has without any shadow of a doubt dumbed down. Compare say A Current Affair back in the 80s with what it is now. Were we to see the 80s/early 90s version hosted by Mike Willessee now, it would seem closer to the 7:30 Report than the current versions of the show. Back then, politicians were regularly interviewed by Willessee (or Jana Wendt later on). Remember the big “birthday cake GST” interview with Hewson? That was on Channel 9. Now for that type of interview you’d have to go the Kerry O’Brien on the ABC, or possibly on Lateline (though that show serves a different purpose). Political interview on ACA or Today Tonight are puff pieces.

Newspapers as well have followed suit – The Australian for example, has followed the Fox News version of political coverage – ie the purpose of the story is to make The Australian part of the story. Objective facts? Bugger that. Much better to take a stance (opposed to the Government), argue that and force the Government to respond – viola! The Australian is part of the news-story.

The tabloids have always been pretty useless for political coverage, but again, compare The Advertiser or The Herald Sun in 1980s with what they are now and you would not believe the difference.

You only need to look at the coverage of David Campbell to see the change. It wasn’t a sudden change – it was gradual (Frontline charted the decline in current affairs programs). The only thing of which we can be certain is the current affairs shows and mass-daily newspapers will never turn back. 

Cassidy continues:

BARRIE CASSIDY: Is that really the problem or is it your Government's obsession with the media that's the problem?

LINDSAY TANNER: No well first Barrie I didn't say it was, quote, "the problem" as you've just implied. I answered a specific question about has it become a bit harder and I said yes.

Secondly the suggestion that there is an obsession with the media in our Government I think is not correct. The media is an ever present part of modern politics, no matter who the government is, no matter who the players are. It is just a key part of the process.

Nice of Tanner to point out Cassidy was verballing him, pity he had to.

BARRIE CASSIDY: But every morning as I understand at some ridiculous hour press secretaries get up and they have these discussions. And what they look at is how to win that day's political debate. They're not talking about reform.

Now surely that's the mindset that the Government has and that's not conducive to reform if you're looking to win the daily battle every day.

LINDSAY TANNER: Well first it's true that media advisers do get up pretty early and look at what's going on in the media. And there's a very simple explanation for that. People like me and others could be doing radio interviews at seven o'clock in the morning, sometimes earlier.

And we need to know what's gone on. And there's all kinds of media out there. So there's a process of actually informing people like ministers who are about to do things like radio interviews or TV interviews well there's an article about this issue in The Courier-Mail or whatever the case might be and here's the information that we've got about the issue.

That's just about making us informed and able to respond on behalf of the Government.

Cassidy’s question to me seems just about the most ignorant one I’ve seen in a long, long while (well ok not really, but certainly the dumbest for a few weeks that has been asked on a supposedly serious political program). Press secretaries get up early in the morning?! My gosh, life must have been pretty cruisy in the Hawke years. Welcome to the 21st Century Barrie. This is an age where if a Minister says they haven’t read an article the media assumes he/she is trying to dodge the question.  If Rudd goes on Breakfast radio he’ll be asked about anything – often things that happened overnight, or late the night before, or a story that is being reported in The Oz, The Age, The SMH etc etc. That press secretaries get up early and put out information and spin on the morning’s news is hardly surprising. In fact if Cassidy thinks that is unique to the Rudd Govt then he really is kidding himself.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Doesn't it turn every day into a separate political battle?

LINDSAY TANNER: Oh look there's an element of that that is there whether we like it or not. No matter what approach we take that daily contest is there and the question of how you approach it is a matter of judgement.

Well duh, Barrie! Everyday is a separate political battle, because everyday there are new columns written about the previous day, with journalists ever so desirous of saying the Government is losing the battle on whatever issue it wants to talk about. Hell, if Rudd doesn’t speak to the media for a week the papers are full of stories about him laying low/hiding from the press etc etc etc.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Well Kevin Rudd now says the mining tax reform debate will drag on for months. Is that the media's fault?

LINDSAY TANNER: Well no it's not anybody's fault. It is a reality that you've got Government trying to get fairer value from the Australian people from its resources that are in the ground that we then sell in effect, with tax as the price, to mining companies to process and then on-sell, and to use the proceeds of that to lower company tax, to lower tax on small business, to invest in superannuation and invest in infrastructure.

So it is nobody's fault that there's a big debate about his. There's just a lot of people who don't want to pay more than they're currently paying. And that's fair enough.

There's a serious negotiation going on. We've made it plain that apart from the 40 per cent rate the detailed architecture of the tax is entirely a matter for consultation and negotiation and we continue to pursue those negotiations.

BARRIE CASSIDY: And you're happy for it to go on for months?

LINDSAY TANNER: Well Kevin wasn't saying this is what I want to occur. He was indicating...

BARRIE CASSIDY: No but he did say it could go on for months.

Yes, Barrie Cassidy, straight after criticising the Government for being too focussed on the immediate, then criticises Rudd for saying the RSPT discussion could take months and he sees absolutely no irony in that fact.

Is it any wonder that the Government (and opposition) focus on the short term when the media sees anything that goes for months as “dragging on” or the Government being “bogged down”. Hell, The Australian this weekend has been full of bullshit about Rudd needing to finalise the RSPT negotiations in the next two weeks! Does this time line have anything to do with policy? Hell no, it is all about the Rudd needing to fix it politically – and is purely the opinion of Graham Richardson. Policy?? What the hell is that?

Last month The Australian had this as the leader of its editorial:

Australia needs a mature debate on super-profits tax

Since then The Australian has breathlessly reported every idiotic, overblown, bullshit statement by any mining company executive as Gospel truth. Yesterday, for example, it reported:

Investors can't make sense of changes

Now was this story based on interviews with investors? Did the journalist interview any bankers or financiers? Why no, why would you think that? Instead the entire article was based on an interview with the chairman of BHP Billiton, Jac Nassar. Now perhaps Matthew Stevens and the editor of The Oz think Nassar is some objective participant in the RSPT debate. May be that is true, and maybe my mother-in-law will take my side the next time I have an argument with my wife…

Here’s what was reported:

7JacM_m BHP Billiton chairman Jac Nasser, speaking exclusively to The Weekend Australian, has warned that the Rudd government's proposed resource super-profits tax has driven a "distinct change in attitudes towards Australia from all types of investors across all industries, not just mining and resources industries".

"I am talking all streams of investors," he said. "The bottom line is people are questioning whether the investment climate in Australia has fundamentally changed."

Now personally, were I to be told such a thing by an obviously subjective party, my first reaction would be to pick up the phone and talk to someone in the investment industry to check if it were true. But no, The Australian doesn't need to do such things – it seems Jac Nasser has does the reporting for them now.

And this is just a small example from what is (sadly) the best newspaper in Australia. That is a close as The Oz gets to having a “mature debate on super-profits tax”. 

The Oz is the one paper you must read every day if you want to know what the issue will be of that day (especially as the opposition uses it for ideas, and also to feed stories to). The sad thing is what you’ll find there far too often is such poor reportage.

The RSPT seems to have brought out the laziest in Australia's political journalism – find a mining exec to talk about job losses (especially those “prospective”) and report verbatim, or else just report speculation (generally your own) as fact. Here’s Terry McCrann (quite possibly the most anti-Rudd journalist outside of The Australian offices) on Friday:

THE Rudd Government will announce major changes to its proposed resources super profits tax today or tomorrow.

Well “tomorrow” was yesterday, so I guess we’ll just file that one under W for “Whoops” (or, “What a load of bollocks”). Notice how that opening sentence has no wriggle room – it is a fact; there is no, “sources close to the PM suggest” or “cabinet insiders believe”. Nope it’s fact. Well sorry Terry, it wasn’t.

Then there was the situation where the Government announced it was going to run an information campaign on the RSPT. It was criticised (quite rightly in my opinion) for seeming to have reneged on a pre-election pledge of banning tax-payer funded political advertising. But then the adverts came out and they were decidedly non-partisan and apolitical. So what was the response? Why the adverts were too boring! Because you see the Government should have put out interesting, informative and persuasive adverts that were also non-partisan. Yeah jump through that hoop Rudd.

The dumbing down can also be seen over on the ABC (aside from Cassidy’s dopey interview today). Last week Four Corners “examined” the RSPT. Was there any objective analysis of the policy? Of course not. It was merely a summary of what had been said by both sides in the last four weeks. Anyone who reads the newspapers and watched the 7:30 Report would have come out none the wiser after watching the episode. It was all about politics. The only new bit of information was Clive Palmer admitting that he, like Tony Abbott, played loose with the truth when engaging in the cut and thrust of debate, and that his threats to cancel mining project were mostly bullshit. (And that wasn’t really new anyway, he just hadn’t admitted it before.)

Was there any analysis of what is happening overseas – like for example in Brazil where the Brazilian Senate has just passed a Bill which will make the state owned Petrobras the sole operator of new oil projects in the subsalt region with a 30 percent minimum stake in those projects. Why of course not. Was there any examination of what was also reported in that same article, namely: “Brazil's move is part of a worldwide trend of governments seeking greater control over natural resources”. Nope – not a whit of it, and yet that would have been informative (and also would have required some investigation).

You see, for me that is the big underlying story of the whole RSPT: mining companies are petrified that if the tax comes in here and the world does not end (which the mining companies know will not) then all other countries with masses of minerals will be looking at the RSPT and saying “me too”. Yeah Canada is talking about how it will try and steal mining operations form Australia, but that’s just salesmanship. The mining companies know that if the RSPT comes in and they don’t actually shut down and leave, then everything will be seen as a bluff, and there will be little stopping Brazil, South Africa, Canada and any other stable country from looking at the RSPT revenue and licking their lips.

And we know the miners won’t up sticks and leave here because there's too much money to be made.

But forget that – what’s important is what is Rudd saying today – will he get this all sorted in 2 weeks (after all Graham Richardson says it must be, therefore it must be true).

The Government, and Rudd especially, really should stop whinging about the RSPT, after all the media has made it pretty clear what is expected:

  • Think long-term, but make sure the long term can be achieved in under month or you’re bogged down;
  • Make unpopular decisions to show you stand for something, but don’t mind that this will also allow us to focus on your declining popularity and quote “unnamed insiders” who are calling for your head;
  • Focus on policy not politics, but don’t bore us with policy we’re not interested;
  • Tell the people about the policy but don’t do it in a persuasive way but also don’t be boring or unpersuasive;
  • State only the absolute, pure truth, but be prepared that we will quote all your opponents’ lies and exaggerations and never hold them to account;
  • Be available to the media always, but don’t be always in the media otherwise you’re obviously in panic mode; and
  • Remember, no matter what you do, we’ll somehow work in a way to use subjective adjectives like “bungled”, “troubled”, “flawed” and “damaging” as though they are fact.

As for me, I’ll read Peter Martin and George Megalogenis and know that at least I’ll be wiser for the experience.


L said...

I love Tanner. He may look like a crotchetty grandfather (especially with the jumper-over-collared-shirt look he was rocking in the interview this morning) but he's one of the only politicians around who bothers to engage with the interviewer and address their argument, rather than just treating every time they stop talking as an opportunity to reel off as many talking points as they can fit in until the interviewer gets bored and cuts them off. Cassidy's performance on the other hand was not exactly a credit to the ABC.

At least we got some laughs thanks to Milne's appearance on the panel. That little guy's hilarious.

Grog said...

Tanner's jumper-over-collared-shirt look today was absolutely amazing. I am trying to conceive of a politcian in any other country going so casual in an interview.

And Milne? Yep, every show needs a coemedic element.

Anonymous said...

"L" (above) is correct. Tanner hears the question, understands the question, and - mirabile dictu - Answers the question. If the question presupposes this or that which Tanner thinks is questionable, then he says so, and questions it. And - with that caveat - Answers it.

Such a relief.

The guy is quality.

Hillbilly Skeleton said...

Cooly dispassionate & analytical as ever. Now, as I remember it, there have been papers written for investors about the RSPT, by the likes of Rory Robertson. He is in no way a partisan player, and his conclusion? Mining companies will still be good investments, even after the RSPT. So, I would like to have 'Exclusive' access to Jac Nasser also to thus ask him, "Could you please let me know who exactly are these investors you have been speaking to that have made the claims that you told 'The Australian' about?" Let's just say that I would find his reply interesting.

Matt said...

Each of you (political) columns should be reprinted on The Drum. Your opinions may well have a bias (and there is nothing wrong with that) but at least they are well supported with argument not just the shtick that the Oz comes up with.

NormanK said...

Great piece. If the Liberals think they have a bully-boy in Tony they are in for a rude shock if he ever ends up head-to-head with Tanner. The 'don't put words in my mouth' quote you used was priceless. Tanner on Q & A the last time he was there, stopped GFC- deniers from heckling his answer by using a stop and stare tactic. Tony (and Julie) can only dream of having that effect. I wonder with regard to the general chat on that Insiders episode, did you get the impression that the panel 'slid' away from talk of the Conservatives with, what was to my biased ear, a subtle implication that they (Libs) are not the subject of the day/week/month and that if we (the journos) have to go there can we please wear a mask and gloves? I may have been imagining things, but it seemed they all agreed the Libs are a rotting corpse and best left under the plastic sheet. If this is true, why are they stepping around them?

Lyn said...

Hi Grog

Fantastic piece again. Thankyou Grog.

You have a wonderful pratical, genuine, opinion on these shows and Parliament Question time, probably everything.

This is a classic:

Press secretaries get up early in the morning?! My gosh, life must have been pretty cruisy in the Hawke years.

I agree Grog, was hard to believe Barrie Cassidy would ask such a dumber than dumb question.

But, I am still asking everyone, Grog, did you hear Glenn Milne say the media would be taking Abbott to task with hard questions from now on, it was near the end of the show.

Cheers lyn

Agnes Mack said...

While we fumed and fretted you wrote a piece giving voice to our frustrations. Thank you.

I have tweeted @abcnews suggesting they seek your permission to reproduce this post in the Drum, (good idea, Matt) Maybe some other appreciators of your reasoned analysis could join the chorus.

Another thought - perhaps Bernard Keane could arrange for a bit of guest blogging at Crikey. Your daily QT roundups are gems

Now back to Cassidy's Sunday caper.... I find the commentariat's fulminations about the daily spin hypocritical as well as annoying.

As you point out briefing Ministers on the expected media slings and arrows has been standard practice forever.

The hypocrisy of some journalists is apparent when they demand that politicians (or only Labor ones in the present case) should all give different answers to predictably identical questions which are the obvious product of media group think.

You identify the evolutionary decline in the standard of media treatment of current affairs. I have to agree with your conclusion, disheartening though it is, that there's no returning to the glory days of journalism.

The new media does offer hope of a more balanced flow of information.
We consumers of blog posts need to become a bit evangelical and make serious efforts to get a wider audience for well reasoned and evidence based blogs like this one. However the target audience of the tabloids, print and tv/radio is a difficult one to crack. Have no idea how it can be done, but I see that audience as probably the election deciders.

Anyway,all I can say is, while there's Grog ( and a few worthy peers) there's hope!

Anonymous said...

can you explain to me why no member of the current government ever makes a direct accusation of bias to the murdoch press.the conservatives never stopped making complaints about the abc and even when it's all their way they still complain,just out of habit probably.i don't see what is to lose by bringing it to the notice of the wider audience,after all the msm couldn't become any more feral.
ps love your style.

Agnes Mack said...

In QT Rudd, Gillard and Tanner and others regularly lampoon the bias in "news"/opinions in the Australian but no-one reports it, so only people with access to QT know about it.

I suspect complaining directly to News Ltd would simply be turned into a govt can't take the heat story, probably embellished with real or imagined expletives.

Grog said...

Anonymous - the main reason is as Agnes Mack says, they'd be attacked as not being able to handle the heat etc etc. (you can see that line of response in Barrie Cassidy's questions to Tanner - saracasticaly asking about the length of the RSPT discuss)ions being "the fault of the media"