The supinely lame local coverage of the recent triumphant "free trade" deal announcement between the Australian and Japanese governments provides a perfect case study in how "news" is engineered, with national leaders positioned as virtual lego figurines in a carefully constructed tableaux.
In this case, journalists junket off to Tokyo with a planeload of CEOs, lobbyists and hangers-on. A favoured journalist writes a preview, saying the Australian PM will meet his Japanese counterpart in "a last-ditch bid to break the deadlock" in seven-year-long negotiations.
Happy snaps are released to the press pack showing the two PMs completing the deal over sashimi. And, hey presto, out of this cosy tete-a-tete comes "historic breakthrough". Cheap Camry heaven!
Did any of the journalists stop to ask whether the big chunk of corporate Australia would have flown to Tokyo if there had been a real possibility that a deal wouldn't be concluded? Surely, this was always going to happen. It was only a question of how badly Australia wanted the deal.
Trade agreements like the one announced between Canberra and Tokyo are political events, not economic ones, but they are almost always reported as if they are economically significant.
In this case, the spin doctors paint as a triumph what was a concession the Japanese were always going to make under the right circumstances, but still stops way short of what can be described as "free trade" (cutting tariffs on Australian beef from 38.5% to 19.5% over 15 years). Even then, there are other ways of slowing the entry of Australia food products, such as imposing byzantine quarantine arrangements.
As well, there are strong economic arguments that bilateral trade deals (favoured by the Howard and Abbott governments over multi-lateral initiatives such as the Doha round) lack transparency and tend to vastly over-rate the benefits to the general public.
The Productivity Commission, in a report released in 2010 five years after the Australia-US bilateral pact, noted that "free trade" deals are more appropriately described as "preferential" trade agreements, as they usually stop far short of a free market.
"While bilateral and regional trade agreements can reduce trade barriers and help meet other objectives, their potential impact is limited and other options often may be more cost-effective," the commission said. "Current processes for assessing and prioritising (these agreements) lack transparency and tend to oversell the likely benefits. "There are a range of more philosophical economic objections to bilateral agreements, notably that it can lead to one country being locked into trade arrangements with relatively inefficient producers of the trade partner when better and cheaper deals are available elsewhere.
So why didn't any of the triumphal media coverage of the Japan deal not include these questions? Instead, we saw the ABC's television correspondent, in his piece to camera in Tokyo, mouthing what sounded like a cut-and-paste from a government press office statement.
The problem here is the dominance of "access" journalism in political coverage, as opposed to "accountability" journalism. This theme is explored in relation to pre-GFC business coverage in a recent book by ex-WSJ reporter Dean Starkman ("The Watchdog that Didn't Bark").
In business journalism, news becomes "a guide to investing, more concerned with explaining business strategies and tactics to consumers than with examining broader political or social issues to citizens".
Likewise, in political journalism, news becomes about framing every issue in terms of what it means for the tactical nous of the incumbents and their opponents. So the angle on the trade deal is "triumph for Tony Abbott", as the journos see their role as representing the political class to the public, not representing the interests of the public to the political class.
Under the accountability model, journalists stand further away from the political actors. But what they lose in access and short-term "scoops", they gain in a wider point of reference, an understanding of context beyond the daily noise and a greater readiness to ask tough questions.
The growth of digital media and the ability of the audience to talk back expose the lazy manipulations and spin that old journalism regurgitate in return for access.
The best journalists become part of the conversation and work with the audience to find the truth.
The rest belong in Legoland.
(See also: Bernard Keane: 'Sorry, But Free Trade Agreements are Duds')