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Name: Antony Loewenstein
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Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Lacking true self-criticism

Veteran political commentator Michelle Grattan gave a speech in Melbourne last night for the Deakin lectures. She argued that the relationship between media and politicians was at an all-time low:

"When I arrived in Canberra in the 1970s, if you were armed with a Commonwealth Directory it wasn't hard to get to know a lot of bureaucrats and obtain basic background. Now, although some bureaucrats, especially senior ones, will talk to some journalists whom they trust, the majority will run a mile from the most innocuous media call. Most departments have strict rules that officers should report media contacts to the minister's office. Even the bureaucrats who will take the calls feel more constrained."

Her suggestions to improve transparency, accountability and honesty included making the media "simultaneously more constructive and more critical." Furthermore, Grattan talked of a need for "less trashing of politicians. On the other side of the coin, eyes should be sharper and should be more rigorous."

Grattan made some valuable comments and was at least capable, unlike most senior journalists housed in the Canberra Press Gallery, to criticise her colleagues frequent lack of determination in pursuing stories and contacts. "Political investigative journalism is not strong", she said. "Where, for example, is the expose of the culture of the Immigration Department?"

She did, however, miss some fundamentals. The failure of the mainstream media - certainly those not wedded to the establishment orthodoxy of market capitalism and gung-ho militarism (such as the Murdoch press) - is the ongoing acceptance of government stalling on major issues as little more than unfortunate. Not detrimental to open democracy, mind you. These same news organisations, including Fairfax, will still support the re-election of John Howard or, say, Bob Carr in NSW, two masters of spin and duplicity.

Take this example of Grattan's hypocrisy. When Australian citizen Mamdoub Habib was released from Guantanamo Bay earlier this year and returned to Australia, Grattan wrote that he "cannot reasonably complain about [remaining under watch] by Australian authorities." Despite a lack of evidence produced by the Australian or American authorities against Habib, Grattan still accepted the spin put forward by Attorney General Phillip Ruddock that continued surveillance of Habib was necessary. Perhaps she'd forgotten that Habib was an innocent man, held illegally and not charged with any offence.

But Grattan also forgot something else. If she is so concerned about the lack of transparency in contemporary Australian life, she should take a closer look at the Canberra Press Gallery. The ever-increasing intimacy between journalists and politicians is one of the great shams of the system. Have you ever noticed that politicians call reporters by their first name? Ever wondered why journalists faithfully visit the Lodge every Xmas for the annual end-of-year drinks? It is this collusion, and the lack of distance between what should be competing players, that make for truly diminished media coverage.

Journalists are not supposed to be mates with politicians or their press agents. A healthy working relationship is clearly essential but socialising together is inappropriate. During a recent conversation with Robert Fisk in Beirut, he reminded me of the situation in Washington during press conferences with Bush, Rumsfeld or a handful of other American leaders. "The journalists rarely ask tough questions", Fisk told me. "They're called by their first names by the politicians and prefer basking in the glow of thinking some hot-shot politician is taking their question." The situation in Australia is often little better.

Grattan ignores the corporate pressures on mainstream media organisations. Journalists wanting the truth will often not be a strong enough imperative to upset advertisers. UK-based Medialens has long campaigned about the inherent inability of the mainstream media to actively engage in issues that require in-depth critiques of big business and its connection to government. Their report of 16 February 2005 discussed the ways in which Tony Blair is praised for his commitment to the environment:

"This is the standard media view: on climate change, Blair is 'determined', 'committed' and 'listening' to the major NGOs. Thus: 'The Prime Minister is hosting a 'power breakfast' of business leaders, politicians and environmentalists at Downing Street on Wednesday, where he will unveil a new five-year strategy to combat global warming.' Mr Blair is calling for Britain to 'pull together as a country'."

Michelle Grattan may want tougher journalists and more pro-active editors but this wish will not be enough. How much longer will we rely on the mainstream media to deliver results when they are structurally incapable of delivering? Let us not forget the performance during last year's Federal Election. The ALP was seen as bad for business while the Liberals were seen to guarantee more of the same business-friendly, union-bashing policies.

Former media guru Max Suich may think that media owners have little influence anymore - "Australia's media outlets are less politically predictable these days. Why? Because of the freedom from board, management and proprietor interference that editors and reporters now enjoy. This journalistic freedom, an event of the past 15 years or so, is greater than at any time since World War II" - but he clearly has no understanding of media management in 2005. The Fairfax board, as one example, is made up of executives with no media experience and individuals determined to be bought by a financed media mogul after the cross-media laws inevitably change soon after July 1. Editorial quality is the least of their concerns. A high share price certainly will be their priority.

Grattan may have the best of intentions, but her naivety is stunning. Once again, independent media will continue to play an essential role in keeping the bastards honest.


Anonymous michael said...

Seems to me that Michelle Grattan was also one of the pioneers of the 'referee' system of political reporting in Australia.

Instead of taking a direct look at the merits or lack thereof of pollies and policies Grattan prefers to set herself up as some sort of judge of how skillfully they are sold to the public. You can see the appeal of that sort of political reporting to the journos - especially those who are lazy or lack analytical skills - but it has contributed a lot to the impoverishment of political discourse in this country.

I can't be sure that Grattan was the first member of the Canberra press gallery to adopt that approach but she was the first one I noticed who used it consistently. Since then there have been many imitators.

I was gobsmacked when I discovered that Grattan actually enjoys the respect of many of her press gallery colleagues, but I guess its because her technique made it so much easier for them to lodge stories with a pretence of news value in spite of there being no substantial policy differences to report on.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005 1:17:00 pm  
Blogger Antony Loewenstein said...

Tell me more about this referee system....

Wednesday, May 04, 2005 1:28:00 pm  
Anonymous michael said...

The term 'referee' system is one that I just made up for the comment above. Its probably not a good one. 'Style adjudication' is perhaps better.

What I'm talking about is when, rather than discussing a policy initiative or party political stance, the journalist discusses how well the respective spokespeople for the parties have presented it to the 'public' (i.e. the media).

I only started to notice it as a trend in Aus political reporting in the late 1990s but it now verges on the ubiquitous. Even the party leaders themselves now seem more interested in critiqueing the sales skills of their opponents than the policies they are actually trying to sell.

Seems to me that this form of political reporting reached its apogee with the ascendance of Mark Latham. It was always clear that it would remain 'business as usual' on the policy front (especially after his first outing as leader, backed by the Stars and Stripes, made it obvious that he aspired not to dispense with the congaline of suckholes but to push his way to the front of it) but nonetheless there was an orgy of speculation and tealeaf reading from the press gallery focussed on whether his presentation as a salesman would constitute a stylistic break from that of his predecessors and opponents.

You can see why it has spread so quickly within the context of 'balanced' reporting within the two party system. When there's no real difference between the policies the only thing to report on are the personalities and sales skills of their proponents.

But a real political reporter - such as Dempster, Oakes or Tingle on their good days - doesn't restrict himself/herself to adjudicating between the styles of TweedleLiberal and TweedleLabor, but can step outside the dualism and question the morality of policies put by both sides. That sort of political reporting seems to be in terminal decline in this country.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005 2:37:00 pm  
Blogger Antony Loewenstein said...

I hear you and understand. Far too many journos don't even realise the spin and are more than happy to channel it. The amount of journos willing to take risks in commentary of policy is less than a handful in australia...

Wednesday, May 04, 2005 2:43:00 pm  
Anonymous michael said...

Yeah, in a sense Grattan's style is political meta-journalism. Judge the spin, not the subject being spun.

There is probably a place for it in the Australian media (maybe on awards nights for the advertising industry) but I would like to see some real political reporting instead once in a while.

BTW, is my cynicism showing too blatantly when I suggest that the all the excitement in the chookyard over the latest alleged outbreak of Howard vs Costello maneuvering is just a bit too convenient for those in the government who would prefer that not too much attention be paid to how they are handling the Iraq hostage issue?

On a related topic, maybe Labor should recall Gareth Evans from Brussels and send him, armed with a box of chocolates and bunch of roses, around to Peter Costello's place. Might be their best bet for attracting leadership talent into the ALP. Its worked before, both for Gareth and Costello (if Bob Ellis is to be believed).

Wednesday, May 04, 2005 4:24:00 pm  
Blogger Antony Loewenstein said...

Leadership issues related to Iraq? A long shot, and hey, nothing is impossible, but I doubt it. The Lib leadership issue rather bores me. An Australia under Costello doesn't exactly inspire.
As for Gareth Evans. He'll be forever tarred with the stain of Indo and East Timor, as indeed is Keating and Hawke, and a host of others.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005 4:50:00 pm  
Anonymous michael said...

Umm, I was joking with the Evans & Costello love affair & defection riff.

Gareth Evans has long been one of the Australian politicians I most despise (rivalled only by Bob Carr) and his toasting the Timor Gap treaty with Ali Alatas while flying above the slaughter the two of them had contributed so much to was just the toxic icing on a particularly putrid cake. I suspect that both Carr and Evans are true psychopaths.

Costello I don't care about one way or the other - which is pretty much how I feel about Beazley as well. But the idea of Australia under anyone currently warming the benches in Parliament House is hardly an inspiring vision.

Buggered if I know how the media can pretend to be enthusiastic about its own speculation over alleged leadership struggles in any party. About as interesting as changing your socks.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005 11:50:00 pm  

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