Flat White

Australian political journalism is crap

18 May 2021

4:00 AM

18 May 2021

4:00 AM

‘The Coalition has abandoned debt and deficit in a monumental shift to its political narrative.’

That’s the refrain we’ve basically heard from many of Australia’s political journalists since the release of the government’s last budget and its emphasis on spending on aged care, mental health and other social policy areas.

If one moment singularly captures how bad some sections of Australian political journalism has become, we have arrived at.

Let’s breakdown the bad. Let’s look at the flawed assumptions and lazy thinking.

First and foremost — by like a half-marathon ahead — the current take on the Budget reveals the strong degree to which political journalism has become myopically fixated on what some Gallery and related journos think is electorally advantageous or non-advantageous to a given party or politician. Coverage of politics has been reduced to commentary about who has tactically done what and how well they executed it to get elected or re-elected. It’s become all about gamesmanship and then moral judgement of that very same gamesmanship.

This is as stupid as hanging out outside a pub on a Friday night, hoping for a drunken brawl, and then remarking about who of the protagonists threw the better punches. And then: claiming some special insight about what’s a good punch. And then: moralistically tut-tutting that the people who were in the fight are somehow barbaric.

How stupid and elitist?

In the case of the Budget, the main analysis rolled out by parts of the Gallery is that the Coalition is simply trying to steal the ALP’s policy thunder by committing funding to what journos call ‘traditional Labor issues’.

What a load of bullocks. They’re making things up out of habit and ‘the greenhouse effect’ of journos’ gaseous talking to (and now constantly interviewing) other journos.

The vast majority of journos actually have no idea how professional elections are fought and what does or does not make voters tick. They’ve never been on campaigns, or served in politics or the public sector, or been involved in developing policy. The best campaigners don’t talk to them, as a matter of professional practice. Journos use bullshit banter from self-important backbenchers and staffers as validation. They’ve never seen an actual poll that political parties use — as opposed to the fluffer stuff that’s publicly released. They spend very, very little time speaking to real voters, which is the best way to get your biases and assumptions mauled.

The ABC’s Budget coverage was classic. An ABC compere noted for combative interviews with politicans gently interviewing a puff panel of four ‘experts’ — all of whom were ABC political journalists. They may be experts in political journalism or pointing out rhetorical inconsistencies on the part of political actors, but they sure ain’t experts per se in politics, economics, public policy, campaigning or community views. All we heard was about was political motive — and it was wrong.

Behind the political motive analysis, many journos hold the key assumption that there remain so-called traditional issues that appeal to certain sectors of society. Sorry, but that doesn’t work in society where: a) 60% of voters are now actively swing voters guided by pragmatism rather than Party loyalty or political ideology, and; b) where there can increasingly be massive swings from election to election.

If Parties stuck to their ‘traditional issues’ (be it economics for LNP and social policy for ALP), they would be talking to respectively 20% of the electorate each. It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon, but hey it’s just easier to stick to one’s comfort zone.

Reductionism is just dumb. The concept that politicians or anyone else work on the basis of only one motive is patently ridiculous. Let’s apply it in the reverse to journalists themselves. On that basis, only the search for the truth matters, right? Career advancement doesn’t; by-lines don’t; editorial relationships don’t. In fact, all of them do. Every profession has aspects of both altruism and pragmatism. That’s life and that’s politics too for both better and for worse.

Journos also seem completely ignorant — or intentionally dismissive — of the machinery of government and the way that public policy becomes public policy. Namely, the attribution of one motive and its pursuit ignores the role of the public service, including in objectively identifying social issues, providing evidenced-based policy options for solutions and testing their rigour in cross-agency consultation before they get anywhere near politicians. In a way, journos incorrectly assign to politicians absolute power and then they criticise those politicians for allegedly wielding it.

It’s also about a simplistic and unrealistic view of political ideology. The notion that Liberals are somehow ‘compromised’ when they go away from the free market and business, and that Labor is somehow ‘compromised’ when they go away from government intervention and social equity. If it weren’t for the fact that both our major parties are capable of broader thinking, we would have none of these: Medicare, NDIS, GST, Fair Work Australia, a floated currency, global economic agreements, the highest take-up of home solar in the world…

These are not ideological contradictions or political arrangements. Rather, on both sides of politics, these are products of: a) recognising market failures; b) recognising both community needs and real-world problems, and; c) maintaining the social contract, including good governance. They are acts of competency rather than Machiavellian calculation — which is something our journos can’t seem to credit the political class for as it isn’t prerequisitely combative (eg, scrutiny and accountability in polite terms).

Without even going to the now-accepted techniques of political journalism — like ‘gotcha’ press conferences and intentional efforts to just make the people they’re meant to report on look silly — this stuff worries me. I think it might become corrosive on our overall political culture and faith in democracy, and people’s willingness to participate. It’s undermining and I’m concerned about the civic centre’s capacity to withstand it. Look at what Fox did to the American polity.

Thankfully, I’m wrong so far: the punters remain smarter than me. It’s why in their the public’s mind that journalists have weaker public reputations than politicians and it’s why the community has done so much to trust and cooperate with its political leaders during the very real situation that is the pandemic. So, let’s hope that continues.

Hey — I like journalists. I’m married to a former member of the Gallery! I hang out with them because they’re smart, worldly, curious, funny and very hard-working under increasingly difficult editorial circumstances. But every profession has its blind spots and for too many of Australia’s political journalists, it’s believing their own spin.

Pete Shmigel, a former senior state and federal political advisor.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Show comments