16 February 2014

Catch-up journalism

The Federal Department of Health and Ageing put up a website that ranked processed food products for their nutritional, sugar, and other health-related properties, and took it down soon afterwards. The journalist who noticed this was Amy Corderoy, Health Editor at The Sydney Morning Herald. It was she who investigated the chain or events up to the office of Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash; and to the person of her then Chief of Staff, Alistair Furnival, bawling out the mid-level public servant responsible for the site. As recently as Thursday she was doing the heavy lifting required to get the story out and explain why it mattered.

Health journalism has become a specialty that started with the repackaging of press releases (e.g. wine industry findings that modest consumption of their product was good for you, or silly quests for 'balance' between drug companies and anti-vaxxers). As it developed a base of industry sources it developed a culture of celebrating research successes (new pharmaceuticals or treatment practices that improved health, e.g. Gardasil), or finger-wagging (get some exercise! Stop smoking!).

In their downsizing programs, old media companies have let go of specialists and kept generalists, rather than the other way around. Corderoy's predecessor Melissa Sweet was the victim of such a round of cuts and set up her own health journalism site, Croakey, within Private Media. It is a good example of the many strengths, and few of the weaknesses, of Australian health journalism today.

Health journalism has tended to avoid in-depth examinations of government health policies. Health policy can be mind-bogglingly complex and it can be hard to get your own head around it, let alone communicate it to others. Going in hard against one aspect of health policy can make life hard for government-funded researchers, which in turn makes them reluctant to talk to journalists. Occasionally health journalists will lend some nuance to politically-sensitive and complex issues such as disparities in health care/outcomes for Aborigines, or the social impacts of alcohol/drug consumption. Gotcha stories, like women in labour sent away from public hospitals to give birth in cars or toilets, tend not to be written by health journalists. The current government came to office with no health policies to speak of, which must have made it hard to analyse them. Generally, it's fair to say that health journalists regard political reporting as separate to their field, a complicating factor to be avoided.

Corderoy is not a press gallery journalist, yet she has uncovered a story that is one of the central political stories right now. There are precedents for this: the journalists who uncovered heedlessness to environmental issues on the part of successive environment ministers when approving massive development applications tended to be environment journalists, not in the press gallery. Emma Macdonald was a junior journalist with The Canberra Times when she reported that Peter Reith's son had misused a ministerial phone card for his own juvenile purposes. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein worked for the Washington Post but they weren't assigned to the White House or Capitol Hill; they initially reported on the Watergate break-in as a local crime story.

This article is catch-up journalism on the part of the press gallery. Mark Kenny isn't just the bunny of this blog, but the "chief political correspondent" of The Sydney Morning Herald, and he has sought to insert himself into this story long after the brief life of the food website passed without him noticing. There are several inside-Canberra additions to this story, and as readers of this blog might expect, they are pretty worthless:
But Fairfax has found documents lodged with the corporate regulator show more than simply having a "shareholding", Alastair Furnival in fact owns the company in a 50-50 share with his wife, Tracey Cain.
Yep, and it's important to note that such information came not from well-cultivated parliamentary contacts, nor from a ministerial press release, but from publicly available ASIC records that can be accessed from anywhere.
Fairfax Media understands that the Prime Minister's office was aware of Mr Furnival's connection with Australian Public Affairs but had expected him to divest himself of the shareholding.

It is also understood that Mr Furnival's proposed appointment was held up by the Prime Minister's chief of staff, Peta Credlin, due to concerns over his background and commercial interests. A source revealed there was a level of frustration within the Prime Minister's inner circle over Mr Furnival, which had led to his initial appointment being temporary and subject to adequate performance. However, his appointment was eventually confirmed without any attempt to ensure he had cut his ties to the lobbying firm.
This is horseshit.

Peta Credlin and Alistair Furnival were both staffers in the Howard government. I make no comment on how close they may or may not have been at various points, but it is flatly untrue that Furnival's was just another CV to her. The fact that Furnival was a loyalist and a known quantity is why the normal checks and balances weren't done.

Furnival is a long-term lobbyist with occasional bouts of staffer work, to keep his gamekeeper skills sharp when he returns to poaching. He's a headkicker first and foremost. I first met him when he was working for Senator Michael Baume in Wollongong, one of the few pockets of Australia with a critical mass of actual socialists for a university conservative to hate. Even Baume found him a bit rebarbative. Labor people like Gareth Evans might 'love humanity but hate people', but Furnival hated everyone equally except for those who paid him. He is the guy you want to bulldoze others out of your way, if that's what you need to have done. Furnival wouldn't have much business nous and prolonged exposure to the man would irritate even loyal staff and clients.

The fact that there was no follow-up check is what's significant here. It's all very well to be an all-powerful control freak, but the converse is you have to be right about absolutely everything all the time. Credlin could be forgiven for taking her pal Al on trust if she was a trusting, hands-off manager, but she isn't.

Kenny has no excuse not to be awake up to this - other than the fact that getting Credlin offside might make his 'job' a bit harder. Are there any other Coalition staffers still on a kind of temporary arrangement (and if there are, put them on death-watch)? Who are they? Given the Howard government's difficulties with shareholdings in 1996-97, and given Furnival's direct experience with Santo Santoro's conflicts of interest in 2006 - not to mention the Abbott government's lapses over entitlements - why have these lessons not been learned? Kenny has let not only Nash and Furnival, but Credlin and Abbott, off the hook.

Lobbyists walk past journos every day in Parliament House. By the time a policy has been announced via a press release, it has often been the subject of months or years of lobbying. Journalists report on stories without any mention of the lobbying, which impoverishes their coverage and diminishes the job they are there to do. Nobody votes for lobbyists, but former Coalition staffers Andrew Parker and Olivia Wirth at Qantas are having more of an impact on public policy than most backbenchers - or even Bill Shorten.

Mind you, if Credlin starts pole-axing Furnival-style loyalists, nobody will want to work for the Liberal Party at all.
Labor health spokeswoman Catherine King ... said Senator Nash had still not adequately explained why she had decided to intervene and pull down the health star website.

"She had no reason to do that, nor in fact any authority to do that, and she has failed the entire week to actually explain that," [King] said.
In a opposition that bet everything on Fuehrerprinzip, Nash was relatively high-profile. Her failures of explanation are the fault of an insufficiently attentive press gallery. Labor Senate leader Penny Wong followed the document trail and did the job on Nash; only Corderoy, far away in Sydney, seemed to have noticed. The Opposition did its job of scrutinising the goings-on in Nash's office; the press gallery did not.
Senator Nash has repeatedly claimed that Mr Furnival has no conflict of interest, as he distanced himself from the company he owns, receives no income from it, and his wife had committed not to undertake further lobbying in the health area after his appointment.
What does it mean for Furnival to have "distanced himself"? Nobody gets to be a career staffer these days, and like all the smarties in the Coalition Furnival has no interest in becoming an actual elected official. This means the guy is a career lobbyist, a member of an elite that can never be removed from office by voting or other means, a cat who always falls on his feet.

The National Party (back in the day) used to have all these staffers who were balding, obese guys who looked like they'd just come off the farm and squeezed into bad suits with dreadful ties. They just appeared in National staff jobs in new Coalition governments like mushrooms and croaking frogs after a rainstorm. They were affable rather than cold and dismissive like Liberal staffers, and would accordingly be patronised and underestimated by the big-city smart-alecs; but they were sharp and knew their stuff. They could get what they wanted before anyone else worked out what was going on. Nash needs one of those guys. It's a pity she's 20 years too late and all those guys are dead. Furnival was all she had. No wonder she believed his entreaties, and says that his decisions were hers, resignation received with regret, etc.

Nash was his only option, too. Peter Dutton is overwhelmed in the senior health portfolio but he was smart enough not to touch anyone contaminated with Santoro. None of the senior Libs would have wanted Furnival: he and Hockey would have been at uni around the same time, but anything less than the clear green light from Credlin would have seen them pursue options other than Furnival.
Senator Nash did not respond to Fairfax's questions.
There is no reason why she would have. There was nothing in it for her if she had. She will make decisions and announce them, and press gallery journalists from Fairfax and elsewhere will simply pass on those decisions without further comment, thinking they are just doing their jobs.

Some think that Nash should have resigned. If Scott Morrison can send warships into another nation's territory and then mug and girn his way through a non-press-conference, why should any minister resign for any reason at all? If a minister actually punched Bill Shorten in the face, on camera and in a marginal seat, Abbott might have a quiet word with them but that would be it. This government is so bad that it cannot be embarrassed.

Furnival is not finished in the way that a vehicle manufacturing employee might become unemployable. The idea that he would cut off his entire career for the sake of an 18-month sojourn is ludicrous. Laws about lobbying and conflicts of interest are designed to be petty and facile while leaving deeper and enduring issues untouched. When this government starts to die and staffers storm the exits, watch for Furnival to return as "a safe pair of hands", with nary a reference to this past week.

There are basically two types of journalism: access journalism and investigative journalism.

Press gallery journalism is access journalism. You have to get on well with politicians and staffers in order to do the job, and make compromises to maintain those contacts year after year, whoever is in government. If you go in too hard, your sources simply stop talking to you and you can end up stuffed. The narrative that comes from access journalism is based upon conversations and speeches; even the stories that come from access journalism are called 'yarns', a word that makes no claim for truth.

Investigative journalism need not require any relationship with the person or thing being investigated. When journalists talk about the glories of their profession, they talk about Four Corners, or foreign correspondents dispatching from war zones. Investigative journalism relies on documents and structures and narratives to be drawn from them. The nearest the press gallery comes to investigative journalism is the budget lockup; rather than read all those documents, and track them through the Parliament and onto to execution, they mostly just eat biscuits and interview one another.

It is access journalism that is coming under the greatest pressure today, partly but not entirely due to technology. In an era where the Prime Minister's office has its own camera operator to take flattering action shots of the PM, who even needs a press gallery? When the PM's office will supply that footage at no charge to all networks, those beleaguered outfits must wonder why they are spending millions maintaining a presence there. When the most visible event of federal politics is the monkey-house antics of Question Time, who wants to hear or read some commentator drone on about it? I keep saying: the press gallery has no future.

Investigative journalism has a future: it rings true and the journalists who practice it seem more highly respected. Press releases and video clips are available online. In some cases you can do an investigation and the target won't know about it until Kerry O'Brien mentions them it in his intro on Monday night.

Press gallery journalism is catch-up journalism. It reports what was decided and does not question what was decided, let alone hold out for more and better. Press gallery journalists think they're being investigative when they're piling on a beleaguered minister. Listen to the tone they used in addressing Julia Gillard, then listen to the wording of their questions and how inane they were, how easily Gillard brushed them off: that's why they hated her, she treated them like they were stupid while Abbott said "I'm stupid too, gutting fish and eating pies, so let's all be stupid together". And they were, Abbott and his pet journalists, confusing their output with the will and wants of the people.

Mark Kenny 'investigated' Gillard's AWU connections from a file that Abbott's office dropped in his lap, day after day for months; had he been an investigative journalist he would have realised the documents did not support a story. A good investigative journalist knows when they're being had; Kenny doesn't and neither does his boss. Kevin Rudd strung Peter Hartcher along for a decade. Hartcher thinks he's building credibility with the new government with soft bullshit like this; it's too late. Hartcher is finished. And if Hartcher is finished, what chance do any of them have (even those who are better journalists than he is)? Why hasn't Emma Macdonald replaced either/both of them?

Fairfax have compounded their lack of talent by hiring Matthew Knott. The media reporter at Crikey could have been in a privileged position to report on an evolving industry, but he showed no depth, no nuance, and reported media comings and goings in such a vapid way he made Richard Wilkins' disquisitions on Hollywood look like Chekhov. Fairfax has decided that such a person without context or knowledge or perspective is what they need in reporting on politics, and be it on their own heads.

Big media organisations protect investigative journalists with lawyers and other resources. They used to do this more than they do, or can. Big media organisations can and did, however, produce journalists with a quality that should be inimical to journalism: they were obtuse. When Tony Abbott promises 1 million jobs in five years, but Ian Macfarlane admits there will only be 630,000 if we're lucky, journalists playing the access game just lets the story go begging. There are other examples. Many, many examples.

The best health journalism does both access and investigative journalism, but access journalism is just PR until you start asking the hard questions, matching statements with proof. The standard of health journalism, in terms of interesting stories backed up by fact, is far better than press gallery journalism. I defer to nobody in terms of being a political junkie but if I had to read a profile, I'd rather read about someone who's devoted their life to researching childhood leukaemia rather than, say, Annabel Crabb's account of lunch with Mark Textor (imagine: "The way he eats with his hands is so charming!", "His rudeness to waiters shows he means business", etc.).

Tony Abbott has access journalism down pat. As Opposition Leader all he had to offer was access, and he gave it good and hard: the last Opposition Leader to do that was Whitlam, to similar effect. Now in government, Abbott controls the access and a press gallery that was never strong on investigation to begin with has nowhere to go. When his government doesn't feel like speaking for itself, why not wheel out a muppet like Maurice Newman or David Miles to excrete some content and stop the gallery asking questions?

The investigative bombshells that will wound this government will come from investigative journalists like Corderoy rather than the fixtures in the press gallery. This will make life hard for the press gallery: during Watergate, press gallery from the Washington Post at the White House and Capitol Hill were snarled at by their Republican contacts, who in turn snarled at Woodward and Bernstein for making life hard for them. Nobody remembers those guys anyway ("it's been a good week for McGovern"), so stuff press gallery journalists and their bogus attempts to bludge off the really important work of investigative journalists.

Update 17 Feb: When the Alcohol and other Drugs Council of Australia was defunded, the press gallery reported it. What they didn't report was Furnival's links to the alcohol industry. It took a real journalist to do that. The press gallery has hundreds of goobers just standing around while a real journalist actually does some investigation work from hundreds of miles away.

One of said goobers, Matthew Knott, got confused about Mark Baker and Mark Kenny and tried to hang it on this blog. It must be so confusing for him.

15 comments:

  1. Good article. Has anyone noticed that, while the press gallery eventually woke up to the fact that Nash had misled parliament, and was therefore in some strife........none of the press galley has commented on the fact that Abbott blatantly lied to the House in the same week? he denied having promised to visit an Arnhem Land community in his first week as PM ; there is footage freely available of him making that exact promise.

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    1. No, and they almost certainly won't until it's time to pile onto him for being a loser.

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  2. Swing Required16/2/14 11:14 a.m.

    Andrew, I've followed politics closely for a very long time. You tell me more in this one article than a lifetime of reading some of the 'journalists' you mention.

    Thank you, a great article which nails it perfectly

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  3. Thank you Andrew for once again showing up the flawed political journalists that operate within the press gallery you have now convinced me not to believe any of them and in fact when they are on television now I change channels because most of them a full of bull dust.

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  4. It's Department of Health, Ageing has departed.

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  5. Andrew, thank you for this insightful article and for pointing out the gaping chasm that separates the "access journalists" from the true investigators. As you pointed out, so much information is now publicly available and online that the pap we are being served in the guise of "reporting" is largely a lazy PR exercise. I'm left wanting more from journalists: more questions, more challenging of lies and spin, more cross-referncing of fact over opinion, more evidence that the reporter has actually put some intelligent thought and research into their work. It seems that these days any attempts at investigative journalism are branded as politically motivated, biased or "un-Australian" - rather ironic when one considers the blatant right-wing propaganda that passes for journalism in mainstream Murdochracy. I pretty much rely on independent news media and other organisations these days, along with trawling through any publicly available documents on government policy and the like. I am angered by the secrecy that now shrouds so much of the policy and decision-making process of government. In many cases, I am learning more from leaks reported in foreign press than in the three paragraph "articles" that pass for news in the local arena.
    Clare

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  6. I was hopeful that the Guardian would do better in this regard but with a few notable exceptions even they have fallen into the lazy press gallery nonsense, albeit with a less supine posture than the mobs at fairfax/FauxNews

    You nailed it with the comment that this government can not be embarassed. Until journalists at outlets like fairfax/guardian stop treating this mob as though they actually care about results or consistency or indeed anything beyond retaining their hold on power things will not improve.

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  7. Within 5months of being elected this government has discarded all fairplay electoral assurances and set off with the full support of the 70%
    Murdochracy
    ramping up the anti --go stick it up the worker terrorise the unions bring back the excessive hurtful workchoices pay reducing polices
    to say nothing abouta full frontal attack of the national broardcaster by by the baboon Bolt the clogged artery Akerman and the Kroger -Howard backed Albrectson
    the press gallery has become owned by murdochracy in such a way that saw --in Britain Murdoch's chief man went off to be cuccokled into the Prime Minister's office
    Close your doors pull down the blinds dont answer the doors in fear of the nasties from the LNP coming to get you--stay quiet everyone and good luck till the nasties get elected out

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  8. Yes, that Mark Kenny is a worry. Like Michelle Grattan, you see the name and avoid the article.

    Still the Lib strategists know their stuff. That is, its difficult to underestimate the analytical powers of the Australian voter. Their current attack on unions and through them Labor and Shorten, who is looking better, seems to be working. Lord love a duck.

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  9. Brilliant insights as usual Andrew. Reading this helps me understand fed political reporting and "access journalism" in The West Australian post-election. Julie Bishop and her staffers pretty much have free reign at The West with a steady stream of "stories" getting prominent runs or the exclusive treatment. It's also having an impact on how international issues, esp. Indonesia, are covered. A few weeks back as part of the ABC-Australia network coverage, it was a page three report on the potential of twitter to be a more (cost-)effective medium than the network. As you can imagine, the many questions raised by this Bishop thought bubble went unanswered.

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  10. First off, thank you, Andrew, for an amazingly informative article. I caught the piece re Nash earlier in the week and commented on the issue in IA but could find no reference to it anywhere else (not to say no-one was else was reporting on it ). I was struck by the fact that Furnival's lobby company represents the owner's of Cadburys and other 'junk food' and wondered if there was a connection with the fact of the $15m grant to Cadburys in Tasmania for 'tourism purposes' whereas there was nothing forthcoming for 'tourism purposes' or any other purpose for SPCArdmona.
    In the 'olden days' I used to have some respect for Michelle Grattan but her fawning of Tony Abbott and her denigration of Julia Gillard from the beginning of 2010 was a major reason for my abandonment of the Age from that time on. I used to access The Conversation for political information and analysis but the wise heads that manage that site decided that Grattan would be an asset to them and she began the 'same old, same old' there too. I rarely go to that site these days - there are many other blogs (such as this one and King's Trbune, IA, AIMN, Cafe Whispers, North Coast Voices etc.) where I can access credible and indepth investigative journalism that the MSM ought to be undertaking.

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  11. Andrew, if only Barrie Cassidy and his lame waste-of-space programme had a fraction of the actual analysis you regularly offer... Your blog is essential reading.

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    1. I like it when Barrie has Piers on. I like watching the other guests taking him seriously. it must be hell.

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  12. I wish you went into the Santo link to Furnival

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