24 January 2013

Is Gay Alcorn kidding herself?

In this article, Gay Alcorn proposes a whole new way of reporting election-year politics, kind of. I know, I'm being harsh and she's trying to do something worthwhile, but what she proposes simply doesn't ring true.

The first thing to be said for Alcorn's piece is that it would, for all its shortcomings, have been a revelation had she written it as an editor at The Age - but she isn't one, she's a freelancer. There's a real lack of buy-in from the masthead, for which this is just another wacky idea lobbed out there to fill up column-inches.
As a journalist for more than 20 years, and an editor for seven, I'm surprised at how much I'm dreading it. Already, press gallery journalists have pronounced that politics will be more bitter, more personal, more toxic this year and that - groan - the election will be about "trust and character".
The solution is clear: sack the press gallery journalists. Yes, I'm serious: Grattan, Hartcher, pretty much all of them. They have shown that they do not - and cannot - tell us what we need to know. What's more useless than a journalist who won't tell you what you need to know? Like a Rechabite bartender, they undermine their own position to the point where it's easiest and best just to get rid of them.

Yes, the 2010 election was dire, and it's great that the coverage is starting to become part of that - albeit in that heavily qualified, excruciating and strangely usually facile way that journalists use when talking about one another, even though theirs is the industry they know better than any other. But (forgive the cliche here, but you know how journos love 'em) it's an ill wind that blows no good. Alcorn quotes from Greg Jericho's The Rise of the Fifth Estate, but she missed the most telling story that should give hope to editors who think that journalism is worthwhile.

Jericho tells the story of how, on the same day in the 2010 campaign, the Coalition released two policies in different locations. Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison launched the immigration policy in Sydney while Tony Smith (then Shadow Communications Minister) and Andrew Robb launched the ICT policy. The political journos mostly went to Sydney, where they all learned nothing new and all wrote the same story (because learning nothing new makes you want to buy the paper every day). Very few press gallery journos went to see Smith and Robb, and more fool them because they missed the bigger story.

Most of the journalists who went to the ICT policy launch were ICT journalists, people who know the difference between bandwidth and throughput speeds. They listened politely to the introductory remarks, and they read the policy. They did not address Robb or Smith by their given names, nor pry into their private lives, nor did they talk over them as they answered questions. They politely asked them fair questions germane to the subject-matter before them, questions which Smith and Robb were unable to answer because they had not done their homework.

Not since 1990, when then Shadow Health Minister Peter Shack admitted that the policy he had developed in his portfolio area for his party didn't actually add up, has there been a bigger policy debacle (not a gaffe: a policy debacle). When questioned about this policy area afterwards, Tony Abbott complained "I'm not a tech head", as though that would excuse him from not having an operative policy in this area.

No tech journalist won a Walkley (the journalists' self-awarded prizes for excellence), but Laurie Oakes won one for being the recipient of a leak.
It might surprise Jericho to know that many in the established media, where most Australians still get their political news, agree with him. We limped to the end exhausted and chastened. Why didn't those journos ask about policy? Because their head offices weren't much interested. Because the assumption is that policies - apart from a few the parties want to talk about - are dull compared with personalities.
This is bullshit.

Journos were not at all chastened, they picked themselves up and continued on as though nothing had happened. Business as usual for journalists meant decline as usual for their employers, in circulation and influence. This is why so many of them (including Alcorn) lost their jobs. The people who made the decision about what was dull and what wasn't were the same people who wept crocodile tears while handing out pink slips.

It's also true that the urge to produce the same stuff that everyone else does is irresistible for journalists. The Murdoch press are big on EXCLUSIVE this and SPECIAL REPORT that, but when they feel they have a really big story they scold the ABC and Fairfax for not running it - and rather than laughing, Fairfax and the ABC fall into line.
And because once it starts, a campaign has one big narrative: who's going to win? The polls are the story, and how they go week to week dictates whether the leaders are judged harshly or kindly.
This too, is bullshit. It's dear to the hearts of journos and editors, but it's just not true.

Who's going to win is determined by policy. The Coalition's momentum in the 2010 election stopped short of victory because Tony Abbott could not give straightforward answers to questions about workplace relations. He couldn't give straight forward answers because he didn't think it was that important: he thought a few glib one-liners would suffice. He had been a minister for that portfolio, he was in Cabinet when WorkChoices was approved, and witnessed how it became a decisive factor for the Coalition losing government in 2007. He could not move on from WorkChoices without it being an implicit rebuke to his mentor, John Howard; yet he couldn't develop a post-WorkChoices Coalition workplace relations policy because he hadn't really thought about it. Still hasn't. Still can't.

As for the government, they released policy after policy and weren't asked about them at all. Instead, Prime Minister Gillard and other ministers were asked did they feel frustrated at not getting their message across, by the very people whose job it was to tell us what those policies were. The minister who did the best job at getting their message across was the uncredited one who leaked that damaging material to Laurie Oakes.

The polls are always the story (and in the absence of a fixed and proximate election date, as US analyst Nate Silver showed, they are almost always bullshit). Regardless of what this government has done, regardless of how we are taxed and what those taxes are spent upon, the journosphere has been all about the polls. This term of parliament has shown anyone, other than the idiots who run mainstream media outlets, that viewing policy and even politics through the prism of polls is stupid: all of the worst journalism from Canberra in the past three years or so has been framed by polls, and the best flew in the face of them.

If policy is so boring, why cover it at all? Go back through The Age and other major newspapers since the last election and you'll find lots of articles (some of them quite good) on complex areas of policy - defence, NDIS, carbon pricing, you name it. You'll find plenty of good articles on those topics and more in social media too, but I'll get to that in a moment.

The journalists who write those pieces between elections are the ones who should be quizzing policy during election campaigns. These are the people who are fobbed off by politicians who insist they'll announce their policies "at the appropriate time", but when that time comes the press gallery take over and determinedly miss the point.

Leigh Sales was rightly praised for interviewing Tony Abbott and other senior politicians where she asked them pointed questions, and indeed was Walkleyed for it. Mostly, however, Sales and other politics-focused journalists show their lack of policy smarts when they ask how an issue will play (i.e. how journalists will cover it) rather than how it will work (i.e. after the media have lost interest, will the policy meet its stated aims, and will those responsible for executing it have the resources they need to do so).

As recently as the final sitting week of parliament before Christmas, veteran press gallery reporter Malcolm Farr noted idly that there were 11 substantive bills that had gone through parliament. Did Farr cover any of those bills in any detail? He did not, because he was writing the same stuff that everyone else was writing - the non-story about Gillard and the AWU, a story from back in the day when, if there had been a story there, it would have been covered.

Alcorn's employer Fairfax Media could and should get by with 3-5 permanent press gallery journalists at the most, supplemented as required by writers with specialist knowledge who might be monitoring a committee hearing, a bill passing through the parliament, or some other political event that warrants their presence in Canberra.

For those concerned about departures from traditional journalistic practice, the above is similar to what happens in court cases. When a crime occurs, or when some other event happens that ends up going to court, the journalist does the fieldwork and sees it through the court case. The journalist who does the fieldwork does not hand over to a court-reporting specialist who reports every wink and smirk of the defence barrister, who speculates whether the assistant registrar will take over from the registrar. and ignore the case before the court.
But little has changed in the way politics is covered ...
Gotcha! So much for being 'chastened'.
... except that it's harder. Newsrooms have shed staff, and there is now such a relentless demand to feed the beast 24 hours a day that there is less time to dig, less time to think independently.
To use a phrase that psychologists put to people engaged in self-defeating behaviour: how's that working for you?

What is this "feed the beast" shit? Who or what is this beast, and how do we kill it? Don't you dare accuse me, an avid consumer of this country's news media, of demanding to know every word that dribbles out of some fool's face. To borrow a phrase from Tony Abbott and use it against the media, this goes to the question of judgment and character. The nation's editors and news directors are not fair dinkum. The fact that they (including people like Alcorn) assume this beast does in fact exist and can be sustained on the output of the mainstream media shows Alcorn and others are not as committed to reform as they might fancy themselves to be.

The Age does not have the in-house resources to change the way politics is covered; in-house resources will not drink Alcorn's Kool-Aid and will continue churning out the same old same-old. At the same time, there will not be (and to be fair, Alcorn does not explicitly state this) The Age is unlikely to make effective use of bloggers. They may link to blog posts that deal with forthcoming issues as effectively as this dealt with issues in the recent past, but even that would require pitch battles with management and the conceited culture of journalism to come about.

Even if they were serious, it is hard to see what they would do differently from ABC's The Drum website. It is impossible to imagine them shirtfronting The Narrative to the extent that Peter Wicks did on the HSU, and using a non-employee to do that: look at their failure to get anything of value from Mark Baker over Gillard-AWU. Journalists may feel they lack the time to be reflective and critical; what they also lack is the guts to criticise their Narrative-spouting, Kool-Aid-drinking colleagues.
The ABC says it has listened to the "public weariness" and will shake it up this year, concentrating much more on digging into issues that matter to its audience.
What this means is that focus group shall speak unto focus group: crafted messages from the major parties will be filtered through the crafted message of the ABC's News Director and such focus groups that he/she chooses to heed at any given point. The uncritical acceptance of an Abbott quote against the JuLIAR rubbishing of anything the Prime Minister says will continue. Alcorn has taken the ABC at their word and passed on some PR shite without consideration, analysis, or any value-add on her part - a harbinger of what's to come.

Remember the snide tone of Canberra denizens wrenched from their communities and thrust into ours, condescendingly describing their fellow citizens (and those who read their output) as they went about their business in the shopping centre or school or wherever they happened to be. The journos thought they knew people from polls and news-conference banter, but the election result showed the journos had no clue. The journos followed that result by berating us for electing a hung parliament. Fuck press gallery journos. Chastened, be damned.

Editors and press gallery journalists might fret that non-press-gallery journalists might miss the big political stories during the campaign. Here's a cut-out-and-keep guide for journalists, voters, and anyone else who might be interested on what's news and what isn't:


Traditional news
Actual news
Joe Hockey says Wayne Swan is a dreadful Treasurer
Joe Hockey can’t really explain why Wayne Swan is a dreadful Treasurer, or why he’d be a better one given the economic conditions before us
Opposition criticises government over budget cuts
Opposition specifies where money should and should not be spent, and why - and if not, they miss out on that day's coverage
Separate policy releases, separate stories
Examine how different policy areas work, eg
·         if one party wants to increase numbers in the ADF but they’re cutting entitlements to personnel, how serious are they really?
·         Is cutting entitlements to single parents the best way to a) increase their workforce participation and/or b) cut expenditure?
Nicola Roxon/ Stephen Conroy argue that restricting information makes us all safer
Journalist avoids talking to press secretaries on bus, reads policy document, applies experience in gathering information to what is said in policy document, explains whether and why gap exists between politicians’ words and actual policy
Opposition oppose govt measures on information freedom, word “liberal” in Liberal Party has literal meaning here
Tony Abbott, a control freak over information who plays journalists like trouts, is the champion of information freedom. Riiiight.
[Policy measure] makes life better for families, because proponents of it say so
Is this just more middle-class welfare? Is it? If that worked so well for Howard why isn’t he still PM?
Anyone who will give you a quote that fills the empty space is your friend
If quote fails the “he/she would say that, wouldn’t he/she” test, discard it. Kill your darlings! A commitment to this principle may mean that Paul Howes disappears from the Australian media altogether, but consider whether that would be a bad thing

(Yes, it's all top of the head stuff - but it's free. Mainstream media organisations are right now engaging consultants not very different to or better than the young Mark Scott and paying absurd amounts of money for work of far less quality than that table above.)
This year, what if the media, or at least parts of it, decided they were as bored as the public with it all, and tried something radical? The horse race would be covered, but what if the big story, the main narrative, became: What do voters need to know in order for them to make up their mind which party would be best to lead the country?

An election is a snapshot of a country's challenges, fears and hopes at a given moment. What if we did the work to make them relevant, lively, and revealing? It would be harder than an election framed around reading opinion polls, but my hunch is that it would be far more interesting.
The reference to the horse-race called to mind the racetrack scene from My Fair Lady where our heroine calls on her favoured nag to "move your bloomin' arse!". More applicable to this situation, though, is the wistful song "Wouldn't it be luvverly", where she muses over things that sound nice but aren't realistically attainable.

Look at Gay Alcorn's record as journalist and editor and consider how much of her work (under her byline and those of her subordinates) fits into the left column in the above table, and how much in the right. You don't get out of a cadetship unless you swallow certain fundamental beliefs about journalism that cannot really ever be questioned. Then consider whether she's serious about being 'chastened': never mind if the leopard has changed its spots, how sleek and supple is it really?

Now consider how committed The Age really is to all this: that her employer got rid of her and has brought her back on a very tentative arrangement, which is not necessarily resourced well and not at all integrated into the formal reporting structure of the masthead. If Alcorn's opinions come to blows with those of somebody who likes their news Traditional, and who has a place in the formal reporting structure of Fairfax Media, would you bet on Alcorn's view (such as it is) prevailing?

The hope expressed in her final sentence dies right there. Much of what she believes and promulgates rests heavily on bullshit. Trust me, she says, I'm a recidivist.

43 comments:

  1. Thank you Andrew. Your articles are always stimulating, challenging and based on indepth knowledge of your subjects which is very enlightening.
    I appreciate your work.

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  2. If the Guardian starts an on-line news this election year, Alcorn and any of the other sacked journalists could try writing an article that the voters want and see if it gets published by them. "Wouldn't it be loverly"

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    1. Cant wait for The Guardian.

      Bring it on!!

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  3. Not to worry, Alcorn can get a job at the ABC where they can guarantee they meet their trash quota by demanding "balance".
    So a detailed policy on XYZ will get equal coverage with Abbott saying "Government Baaaaaa-d".
    There is nothing so unequal as the equal treatment of unequal stories.

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  4. While I agree with some of your points, it feels as though this post is more about flinging dung at someone who has said something they didn't live up to *before* rather than applauding that it was said at all.

    But then, no one gets page views by congratulating people on what they've said, do they. The irony of course means that this post has ended up using the same tactic that the msm uses.

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    1. But for the criticism being both accurate and deserved.

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    2. This post isn't about congratulating people for saying nice things. I note that you haven't said which points you agree with.

      This post is about assessing whether a proposal is practical, and defending the conclusion.

      Question your assumptions about whether I tailor my content around clickbait: notice any ads, Jason?

      Delete
    3. It doesn't have to be about ads. I haven't read any of your other articles but I know this one has gone viral and its not hard to see why.

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    4. I'm applying your logic to this comment; you only made it to get replies.

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    5. Jason, you stated that I write in such a way as to maximise page views, and your judgment is based on that. I don't, and you have no evidence for this belief. Because your belief about my blog is wrong, and you won't do any research, your opinion counts for less than you might hope.

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    6. Anon, that's Jason logic: that everything I do is to get a reaction (page views, replies). You're both wrong. I apply the same approach to blogposts when I was getting no hits as when I get thousands.

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    7. I think Anon at 9:28 was directed at Jason.

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  5. excellent post, Andrew.

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  6. Alistair Baillieu-McEwan24/1/13 2:00 pm

    But it's all about balance ain't it? Balance, you know the thing that is shown by writing the way the journalists do because every now and then someone writes to the Letters Editor (and is "allowed" to have their letter published) expressing approval of something a Government does. Balance is promoting the likes of Amanda Vanstone with her vitriolic, vituperative commentary on Radio National as balance against the "left-wing" by contrast very mild Phillip Adams. Persisting with the detestable right-wing afficiondo Steve Price on Channel 10's ultra-light "light news" as heavy handed foil against the weak jokey appraisal of Government initiatives. That's the way it is and that's the way they like it.

    Meanwhile the great majority of us, like sheep, purse our lips and tut-tut about the state of journalism but do little about it, with some exceptions like Andrew Elder and some others. Because, you know, that's the way it is.

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  7. This one is going on the fridge, to be consulted in a few months time!

    Great piece.

    Ben

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  8. Bushfire Bill24/1/13 2:45 pm

    Part of my own email reply to Alcorn...

    * We are told that, as the government is certain to lose the election (“Look-at-the-polls!”) there is no point treating anything they do – be it policy, process or politics – as anything but the last twitches of a lame duck.

    * On the other hand, the Coalition are permitted to hold their policy cards close to their chest until the campaign, to remain a No Policy Zone, because “an Opposition’s duty is to oppose” or some other similar hackneyed cliche.

    As a result we have no coverage of policy from either side – the lame duck government or the clever ducks of the Opposition – leaving the political analysis field a fertile ground for free comment, “open thread” stuff of, roughly, blog quality, centered on gossip, ennui and professional cynicism.

    It’s hard to escape the conclusion that this is very convenient for journalists as well. They only have to write the first thing that comes into their head, and it’s published in a major broadsheet. Easiest job in the world!

    And a privilege waiting to be abused, which it is, often.

    http://pbxmastragics.com/2013/01/23/jumping-at-foreign-affairs-shadows/comment-page-4/#comment-10832

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  9. The AGE championed the Malaysia human trading deal until the facts in Malaysia were shown.

    They have become as useless as the Newsltd. mob which is why I read mostly overseas press.

    WE have the worst PG in the world, not one of them bothers with hard questions, they live up there on the top of the Taj picking each others nits and working out the angle to take on a yarn.

    Because they are all too f.....g lazy to report news.

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  10. Andrew

    Get a show on channel 31

    Need another viewpoint this election year

    Cheers

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  11. Laura Tingle and George Megalogenis were exceptions to the rule Andrew

    Pure class those two.

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  12. If we are to believe Alcorn, our nation's political journalists are frantically busy chasing news item after news item in order to feed an insatiable 24 hour demand for content. So busy, in fact, "there is less time to dig, less time to think independently."

    I can't remember the last time I read such unmitigated bullshit.

    There has surely never been a better time for a journalist to make a name for themselves. There's a Walkely waiting for the first journo to stop chasing the crowd and follow a story of substance - slowly, thoroughly and without sensationalism.

    It's really not that hard. And nowhere near as hard as Gay Alcorn pretends.

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    1. 'There's a Walkely waiting for the first journo to stop chasing the crowd and follow a story of substance - slowly, thoroughly and without sensationalism.'

      I wish I could believe that. I don't see Peter Wicks getting a Walkley, despite doing pretty much what you have stated with his coverage of the HSU saga. The MSM comprehensively and completely ignored almost everything he dug up.

      Delete
    2. The thing is, Anonymous, if a "proper" journalist had thought to plagiarise Peter Wicks, they would've had a Walkley in the bag.

      Delete
  13. Until journalists develop the confidence to go without 'inside sources' nothing will change. They'll never treat various policy proposals or statements with the derision they deserve (libs on broadband, Hockey's absurd 'entitlement' speech etc) because they're petrified that one side will stop drip-feeding them shitty stories.

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  14. You should do that news/real news chart for the next 12 months if you can. Would make a great research project. Fantastic article and I am glad to have found your blog!

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  15. I return from holidays to find this gem! Thank you, Andrew - a fantastic analysis.

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  16. They won't change in the MSM. The evidence is there already. As Mark Baker, The Age's 'Editor-At-Large', has proven when he returned this week to 'Gillard-AWU', like a dog returning to it's vomit.

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  17. Last year I finally worked out how the media in this country work, and realised that they will not change in the near future.

    As part of a journalism module for a media and communication degree, our final assignment was to read two (fake) press releases and make a story out of them.

    After reading the releases I set to work and researched the organisations they were (pretending to be) from, spotted some holes in the logic, and wrote a story that would fit in the right hand column of your table.

    I barely passed the assignment. The reason - I had done too much research, and was advised by my tutor to concentrate on constructing a story based only on the (fake) press releases provided.

    Journalism students all round the country are learning this lesson. Do not research too deeply, take the information provided and write a short inverted pyramid structured story detailing he said/she said quotes. Do not analyse, do not check facts, do not take the time or expend the effort to develop a story that would actually advance the knowledge of the reader.

    As someone who has spent my life drinking in newsmedia of every type I was totally demoralised by this assignment. It is this shabby, lazy, uniformed reporting (not journalism) that is rife throughout Australian media, and, as it is currently being taught as de rigueur to current students, I have little doubt that it will continue in this fashion for many years to come.

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    Replies
    1. That's just fucking depressing.

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  18. Furthermore your diagram proves my point

    They are the dregs of the middle class Andrew.

    Paul Howes is one if the worst examples of having a massive chip on the shoulder and using politics for his own insecurities and horrible family life.

    Vile and nasty stuff.

    A repugnant legacy they have left as selfish careerists.

    Shallow form of democracy that we live in sadly.

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  19. The worst example of political writings I have seen is that nasty man which Les Twentyman put a restraining order against.

    Criminas that are slanderous and children of politicians that the a.l.p use and get quoted by some political journalists.

    I would advise you Andrew not to even analyse that at all on this fine blog.

    Just be aware of the low standards that the media has descended into who source from individuals like that.

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  20. I read the Gay Alcorn article and my first response was that it was at the very least a bit of an attempt to reach a different modus operandi for the coming election. I wondered, however, why an editor (or former one) would admit to such powerlessness when it came to good investigative journalism.

    My other response was to find Alcorn's email in order to apprise her of a very apposite quote from Eleanor Roosevelt. It goes:

    Great minds discuss ideas; Average minds discuss events; Small minds discuss people.

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  21. Let's try this one: Traditional news: Gillard announces female indigenous Olympic champion for Northern Territory Senate seat.
    Actual news: Gillard makes Hail Mary pass around Labor pre-selection processes after indigenous voters desert Labor in NT election.

    Any complaints about that?

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  22. The interesting thing with Gay's column is how many of the retrenched Fairfax journos are coming back as columnists or getting freelance stuff taken on the back of the mates network rather than any real merit. Tough luck for anyone else pitching articles.

    Damien, as far was winning a Bunyip Pulitzer goes, that really doesn't mean much as you have to be 'on the team' (ie someone who gets freelance pitches accepted by Fairfax editors) before you'll make the shortlist.

    Even if you do, Walkley winners aren't exactly a high class bunch. Here's one of 2012's winning crop.

    http://www.ntnews.com.au/article/2012/12/03/315616_ntnews.html

    "His winning entry included the headline "Why I Stuck A Cracker Up My Clacker" - written for a story about a Darwin man who ended up in hospital after sticking a firecracker up his bum.

    "Dyer's other two entries were "Eyeful Tower" for a story about a couple caught shagging on a Darwin balcony at 4 o'clock in the afternoon, and "Dogs of Phwoaarr", written for a story about a new Darwin craze involving people taking their dogs for a walk as a ruse for having sex with strangers in public."

    I bet Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are eating their hearts out...

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  23. Hardly, as that's the prize for headline writing. The investigative prize went to: Linton Besser and Kate McClymont, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, “Exposed: Obeids’ secret harbour deal”. Which was a pretty substantial piece of work exposing Eddie Obeid.

    You're just being silly.

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  24. Stumbled upon this blog via John Birmingham and can't believe it took me this long. Love your work Andrew, and your mexican wrestling mask.

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  25. What a great article - thanks Andrew - agree completely.

    Am tired of politicians making ridiculous statements and never being questioned on those statements. Last Saturday morning Christopher Pyne claimed during a TV interview that the ALP's multicultural policy was about vote winning whereas the Coalition's policy wasn't. The journalist didn't him to substantiate his claims. I don't know whether it's because people like Pyne try and bully journos when they are questioned or the journos just aren't listening to what is being said or they don't have sophisticated interviewing skills.

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  26. I to, have found my way here from John Birmingham's blog.
    I see that I have a great deal to read here before I presume to comment ,(other than this ,Of course!).
    Great article Andrew ;thanks.

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