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:
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?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.
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.
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.