Flat White

Go have a long lunch, Emma, and put away the phone

21 August 2020

2:01 PM

21 August 2020

2:01 PM

It’s awful losing your job. Bloody awful. Full stop. Most of us have been there one time or another. We know the feeling. There’s the immediate shock, the emotional damage — the hit to your sense of worth and identity — that is then compounded and twisted through the fears that naturally arise once you start to work through the practicalities of what it all means.

A job loss played out in public comes with an additional hit. But it’s not true to say the bigger they are, the harder they fall.

Unless you read the trade press, you wouldn’t know about this. Staff at The Border Watch, the paper serving Mount Gambier, in South Australia’s south-east corner, will turn off the lights for good when they leave this evening. After publishing for 159 years, it’s closing both its print and digital operations. Its sister papers, the South Eastern Times and The Penola Pennant, are shutting their doors too. Thirty-eight people will be retrenched.

I’d rather be Emma Alberici than one of them. Her chances on the job market are far, far better — despite everything.

The ABC’s one-time chief economics correspondent, we learnt this morning, is gone. It’s been ugly. But so has Alberici’s response; a Twitter woe is me, followed by a brawl with former prime minister and communications minister Malcolm Turnbull over the article from more than two years ago that led to this.

Yes, Turnbull isn’t exactly a SpecOz favourite. But he knows the media industry from all sides, from reporting to restructuring Channel 10 when it was about to fall off a cliff. He knows journalism. And there was certainly nothing analytical or journalistic about Alberici’s response in this exchange.

For the truth remains. Back on February 14, 2018, Alberici presented her audience a funny valentine that contained lines like these:

New analysis by the ABC reveals … about one in five of the country’s biggest companies have paid no tax for at least the past three years.

Yes, the government fired back. But so did other journalists, such as Joe Ashton, from the Australian Financial Review, who slammed Alberici’s “innumeracy”. As he explained:

Freely available data produced by the Australian Taxation Office show that 32 of Australia’s 50 largest companies paid $19.33 billion in company tax in FY16 (FY17 figures are not yet available). The other 18 paid nothing. Why? They lost money, or were carrying over previous losses.

Company tax is paid on profits, so when companies make losses instead of profits, they don’t pay it. Amazing, huh? And since 1989, the tax system has allowed losses in previous years to be carried forward – thus companies pay tax on the rolling average of their profits and losses. This is stuff you learn in high school. Except, obviously, if your dream by then was to join the socialist collective at Ultimo, to be a superstar in the cafes of Haberfield.

Aston’s Fin colleague, Aaron Patrick was a little gentler:

Alberici, a woman of considerable self-belief, argued (perhaps without realising it) that mainstream economics has misunderstood the effect of lowering business taxes, and that corporate tax evasion by large Australian companies is rampant.

Both assertions are remarkably daring, and arguably beyond the competence of Lateline‘s last host, who has a BA majoring in Italian from Melbourne University.

In its assessment of the furore, Media Watch observed:

You can still see Alberici’s news story online, but it has now been drastically rewritten, and we believe it needed to be — to clear up the confusion between income and profit, to moderate the tone, and to get rid of gratuitous swipes like this depiction of Goldman Sachs as “the great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money”.

Note that? “The confusion between income and profit.” From a chief economics correspondent.

Turnbull this morning said the 2018 article was “full of errors, confused basic accounting concepts and was widely and publicly criticised including by me in the House.”

Alberici replied “Just cos you bully people doesn’t make you correct and others not. The countless letters you sent to the ABC were ridiculous and unbecoming of a PM.”

Turnbull’s response was unsparing: “Pointing out factual errors in a journalist’s work is not bullying – and even more so when the errors were later acknowledged.”

Quite right too. “The confusion between income and profit.

And that’s effectively it. If you’re interested in ABC Kremlinology, there have already been thousands of words written on the affair. As the Media Watch report makes clear, the national broadcaster didn’t exactly cover itself in glory back in 2018. It hasn’t since. The Media Watch contained these lines:

But the further question that lies behind this is: has the ABC caved in to political pressure from an angry government?

Certainly that’s what some people are saying…

The ABC denies that and says that concerns about Alberici’s stories were raised inside the ABC before any public criticism.

Wheels within wheels.

Twitter, naturally, is has been insane today — or, rather, madder and more distasteful than ever. It has a new martyr.

Our advice? If she’s hasn’t already, Alberici should leave her phone at home and head off to a long lunch with some sympathetic souls.

But if you’re having a drink this afternoon, raise a glass and think of the poor bastards from The Border Watch, the Pennant and the Times.

Presumably, they know the difference between income and profit.

And they’re the media workers who deserve our sympathy today.

Illustration: ABC Television/YouTube.

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