The journosphere loves Grattan because she's stuck around for forty years in an industry that is increasingly uncertain. In an industry led mostly by clueless and arrogant dickheads, Grattan is mostly nice to her colleagues and takes pains to show newbie journos the ropes around Parliament. Female journalists in particular speak highly of her, in an industry with few female role models. She meets the journalistic imperative of being able to churn out 600 words on demand. She reports on things that journalists think are important.
She checked and re-checked facts with politicians before they became part of her stories. This doggedness impresses journalists, politicians, and others in the politico-media complex no end, because they tend to be people in pursuit of the snappy line or the knockout blow and resent having to do the sort of slow, hard grind that was a feature of Grattan's work.
Michelle Grattan joined the Federal Parliamentary press gallery in 1971. In that time she has covered 16 Federal elections, and seen government change political complexion five times, with dozens of changes to the leadership of both government and opposition over that period. She has a wealth of experience to draw upon, and she clearly put it to use for the benefit of grateful journalistic colleagues. She may even use it for the benefit of students at the University of Canberra.
The people left out of the Grattan value equation were the public at large, readers of the various publications which employed her.
For people who don't follow politics closely, but who felt a duty to keep up from time to time, a Grattan article was easily digestible. It reported petty, mundane activities and then linked them to the careers of political participants, as though the fate of those individuals - if not those of their parties, or even the nation! - rose or fell on the basis of those activities.
They rarely did, of course. For Grattan, politics was something that took place within one of two buildings in Canberra. Outside the building was a continent, several excluded-for-immigration-purposes islands and a world that acted as passive recipients of whatever came out of the particular building in use at the time. From inside that building came announcements, largely unconnected to policy developments in that area or to self-interested lobbying efforts, and almost never followed up as to their effect in the country beyond. Wash, rinse, repeat, for four decades.
For people who do follow politics closely - and who are avid readers of Fairfax publications - Grattan's offerings were thin fare. It may be true that if Tony Abbott does not succeed he runs the risk of failure, but there is more to it than that. She had a wealth of experience to draw upon, yet she set it aside in favour of formulaic reporting of the same old same-old, trying to make it sound fresh and exciting and mostly failing. Her daily journalism is an odd combination of grind and hype: each article stands like a bowl of tepid porridge with a lit sparkler stuck into it.
When Grattan wanted to provide context, she wrote a book. Her first book, Can Ministers Cope? (co-authored with Patrick Weller), dealt with the relationships between politicians and the public service. It was written in 1981 and remains a key work in that field, despite developments in both public sector accountability and political behaviour since that time. Her next book, Reformers (again co-authored, with Margaret Bowman) presented interesting people in a dull way. Her next book, which she edited, provided useful introductions to the first 25 Australian Prime Ministers.
Grattan never attempted the High Road of Big Themes, like Paul Kelly and Peter Hartcher. She did not attempt to collect wacky anecdotes (books which are, in effect, the author's Greatest Hits reel) like Laurie Oakes. She reported what was in front of her and was incurious about how taxes brought into the capital were expended in the delivery of public services, and how the delivery of those services framed how politicians were perceived, and how politicians thus perceived went about the communities that they supposedly represented. Her pronouncements and predictions on Fran Kelly's Radio National show had no value at all.
A prime example of the failure of this approach is the figure of Eddie Obeid as revealed by the NSW ICAC investigation. From a journo perspective, the demarcation is simple: Obeid was a member of the NSW Parliament, and therefore federal politics reporters can be forgiven for not having heard of him let alone reporting on his impact in federal politics. There is no reason why someone reporting on federal politics could not have examined Obeid's impact on their field: it's lazy journalism to sit in your office under a hill and be incurious about the factors that influence politicians. This isn't limited to who did or didn't stay at a ski lodge; a journalist needn't have to wait for an announcement.
Another is the repeated attempts of President Obama to schedule a visit to Canberra. Each time he scheduled and postponed, Grattan commented on it. When he eventually came and spoke, Grattan commented on that too. The fact that Obama's speech promised far-reaching change to Australia's foreign policy - and yes, its politics - has simply passed Grattan by. She has treated Obama like a blow-in to Federal politics (which seat does he represent?).
What was important to Grattan was who was making the announcement. What was important to those making the announcement was that Michelle Grattan noticed and passed it forward to the then-large readership of The Age. And so the politico-media circle went around: Grattan noticed those who were important, and those who were important were those whom Grattan noticed, and what those people did was important because Grattan noticed what they did, etc. It must have been fun while it lasted.
Male politicians knew to butter Grattan up, and they did. Women politicians, a minority for most of Grattan's day, found The Doyenne would ignore them if a man of equal stature was making an announcement of equal import. As recently as 2006 she found it hard to believe that Kevin Rudd depended on Julia Gillard to get the numbers to roll Kim Beazley, preferring to believe - and pretend to her readers - that Rudd was a force of nature in himself.
Julia Gillard is the first Prime Minister in Grattan's long experience who did not engage in a concerted campaign of buttering her up before taking the job. Gillard appears less frequently in Grattan's articles 2007-10 than she did elsewhere in the media; since then Grattan has given her substantially less than an even break, and not just because Abbott plays her to get a good run.
Gillard had the effrontery, the sheer gall, to go for the Prime Ministership without even pitching the idea to The Doyenne. By the time Grattan discovered that Rudd was in trouble, he was finished. It was the biggest political story of 2010 and she, with her ear to the ground and her finger on the pulse and savvy as billy-o, missed it. Since then, Gillard hasn't been able to do a single thing right according to Grattan. Her straight-journalist reporting would set out logical reasons why the PM did or did not do something, but the bruised ego would follow up with an insistence that it was not a good look.
Take, for example, today's serving-out-notice effort:
The Prime Minister's frustration that everything she does is seen in a bad light is obvious.The PM is the victim of a media storm, and there's nothing anyone can do about it. A small bunch of backbenchers can beat up the story and everyone else, Prime Ministers or Doyennes or whomever, is powerless to report on any other issue than this. This Is The Narrative, baby, and readers looking for more than The Narrative are wasting their time.
She feels herself, and indeed is, victim of a media storm but she knows those in her own ranks have fanned the winds.
Grattan reported on the departure of Nicola Roxon and Chris Evans in the same way every other journalist did: disaster for a shambolic government.
JULIA Gillard's problems with her reshuffle will be how it is perceived.What Grattan means here is: how it will be perceived by the press gallery, including Grattan. This is an insistence that the press gallery had the primacy that it had last century. It's wounded-ego stuff, the idea that how a policy plays (among journalists for a day or two) is more important than how it works (on people in the community, whose lives and livelihoods and other social amenity depends upon the policy under discussion). She mentions that Evans has been in the departure lounge for the past year, but it didn't seem to colour her coverage of his portfolio or of the Senate over that time.
It took a blogger, Paula Matthewson, to point out that governments lose a couple of senior ministers just before elections as a matter of course. All of those names Matthewson rattles off - Tanner, Reith, McLachlan - are people Grattan knew. There are journalists in the press gallery who were at school when Peter Reith was in his pomp, but Grattan has no such excuse. Grattan could and should have used her years of experience as a counterpoint of calm against the Narrative that this government is shedding ministers willy-nilly. Grattan herself, and all those journos who venerate her, have been shown up by a blogger.
The only reason to read Grattan was to find out what The Narrative is, so that you don't have to wade through all the other Narrative-surfers clogging up the old media's space and time. Grattan had the stature to make The Narrative about more than petty ephemera, but she chose to be one of the gang.
The articles on Australian politics in The Conversation were refreshingly free of The Narrative, but Grattan is likely to kill that; denying the very diversity she has called for at The Age. The site's editor is Andrew Jaspan, a former editor of The Age, so while this might be nice for both these old mates the reader has less incentive to check The Conversation for political articles in this election year. This is what 'new media' apparently means in this country: The Conversation becomes like The Age's A2 section from about ten years ago, while The Global Mail is basically SMH Spectrum from five years before that.
With the advent of ABC24, people can see and hear how the press gallery operates: Grattan had a knack for asking questions in her distinctive March-fly drone that were obtuse, or (when speaking to the current Prime Minister) rude, and so general that any experienced politician could simply bat them away. Her question to Tony Abbott at the National Pikers' Club last week was stupid, a wasted opportunity. She had little to show newbie journalists in how to extract value from a press conference and make attending them worthwhile; to make those who called them both scared to pick you for a question, and scared not to pick you.
A rarely-mentioned aspect of Grattan's career was that she had been appointed editor of The Canberra Times, one of the first women to be appointed to such a role. She was tasked with making that paper more like The Washington Post, with both excellent coverage of politics and the business of government more broadly, as well as relevance on a small-c civic level to people who live in that city.
Grattan had been a Canberra resident herself for more than two decades by then, but clearly had nothing in common with those of her neighbours who bristle at "Canberra" being used as shorthand for the actions of the federal government. She pinched a few politics journos from other Fairfax publications but failed at both tasks. She took newspapers for granted rather than seriously questioning what they were for, what they could do, and how they might have been saved from their current predicament.
The worst thing of all about Grattan was that she was and is a dull writer. No phrase, no sentence, no article of hers sticks in the mind or helps you understand a complex situation. Think about any major development in Australian politics 1971-2013, then go to her article on the matter the following day: marvel at her reverse-alchemy of rendering the interesting dull.
People who don't follow politics closely think it has to be dull, so they don't understand what the problem is. Her role in turning people off politics, in convincing them that it is about anything other than their hopes and concerns for the type of country we live in, cannot be underestimated.
For readers, the news is that just another journo has shifted jobs. Don't make your daughter a doyenne, Mrs Worthington. This is an attitude that will probably appal journos who regard her as the epitome of their craft, but so what?