In a tradition introduced to the wider world by the 1993 Bill Murray movie, journalists crowd around a creature known as 'Punxsutawney Phil', whose ability to see his own shadow is seen as a sign of how long the winter will last. In this case, furry Phil did see his shadow on coming out of his hole, which was taken to mean spring is another six weeks away.
Returning to Australia and looking at the headlines here, it struck me how our own Fourth Estate plays a version of Groundhog Day, relentlessly calibrating the body language of frightened Labor backbenchers as they emerge from caucus meetings and prime ministerial barbecues to judge just how long the Gillard winter will last. Whispered off-the-record asides of disgruntlement and mutinous murmurings from marginal seat-holders become the basis for that classic mode of Canberra journalese - sentences with inanimate subjects: "Speculating is intensifying..."; "Pressure is growing..."; "A showdown is looming...".
You may well ask where is the news in that. In journalism school, they teach you that news is about what's new, what's novel, what's unusual, what's changed. But we have been hearing this story now for more than a year - Disenchantment with Gillard as PM is growing on Labor's backbench and if the poll numbers don't turn soon, a challenge is ON. So a few weeks of political and policy events are allowed to run, a fresh round of opinion poll fodder is generated, a fresh round of leaking ensues and the cycle begins again. Does anyone else feel the urge to tell the press gallery to just shut up and let us know when something really is happening? Or perhaps, editors just need to tell reporters they'll stop running the story unless the mutinous backbenchers go on the record? This is an olde journalistic tradition BTW. You quote people ON the record, because going off the record just allows them to manipulate events without taking any responsibility. (Yes, yes, but what about Watergate and whistleblowers, I hear you say. My answer is that leadership scuttlebutt is usually self-serving for all parties involved and doesn't tell the public very much at all).
Think I'm being unfair? The Courier Mail just over a year ago, without quoting anyone in particular, was telling us the flood levy (remember that?) was set to "define" Gillard's leadership. A couple of weeks later, Dennis Shanahan in The Australian reported that Newspoll had found voters actually backed the s flood levy, although support for both Labor and Gillard had gone backwards. Also just on a year ago, AAP dutifully reported Opposition health spokesman Peter Dutton as saying that Gillard's federal-state healthcare reforms could "make or break" her leadership (Well blow me down) . As it happened, the deal went through. But The Advertiser (Feb 15, 2011) subsequently reported that despite those reforms, "falling numbers may doom Gillard". In late February, 2011, The Herald Sun reported that Gillard was staking "her political future on the ultimate carbon mission". Lots of backbench murmurings again. None on the record. As we now know, the reform went through. And on and on it goes. Gillard proposes reform, is criticised as being foolish and reckless, gets reform through, poll numbers don't turn, media whips her with the chosen narrative, fuelled by loose lipped, unnamed MPs. In the meantime, the real business of government goes barely reported.
Another rule of political journalism is that if the news doesn't match the narrative, you choose the "news" that does fit. So Dennis Shanahan was telling us by July last year that poor polling was the symptom, not the cause of Labor's plight. The cause, he said, was lousy policy implementation. Really? In the past five years, Labor has, among other things, implemented a fiscal stimulus identified by the IMF as world's best practice, enacted groundbreaking healthcare reform, sought to lower the cost and improve the transparency of superannuation and financial advice, and instituted a carbon pricing program that had eluded governments for years. So on one view from the media, Gillard was doomed by poor polling despite good reform and on the other she was doomed because of lousy reform. Do you get a sense here they are making it up?
What the general public often doesn't appreciate about journalists is they can prove to be very reluctant to desert a preferred narrative or framing device for the news if it's one that proves successful and one that allows them to hunt efficiently as a pack. In fact, this interpretation of every event in terms of a single frame or meme is identified by veteran Guardian journalist Malcolm Dean, in his recent book "Democracy Under Attack: How the Media Distort Policy and Politics", as one of the seven deadly sins of modern journalism.
"A familiar scene takes place once a social policy departmental briefing has concluded," Dean says. "As the minister leaves, the journalists get together. Some times in one group, some times in at least two: tabloid and old broadsheet. They swap and check quotes with each other and then discuss “what’s the story?”. (This is) driven by two factors: the intense competition between papers along with the insecurity of journalists. They don’t want an 11 pm call from their night news desks asking why they are leading with story A when all the other papers have opted for story B."This kind of fevered group think is easier when your time is short, your resources limited, your staff stretched and your editors impatient to feed the insatiable sausage machine. And keep in mind, also, that journalism has lost its specialists in recent years. Formerly, there were health reporters and science reporters and environment reporters. Now, with the loss of the old "rounds" people (who understood the nuances of policy and what was new) everything is about the politics and insider talk. And not the real politics mind you - the politics by interest groups behind the scenes - but politics at the very top of the tree between individual personalities. It's politics as an end in itself. Dean describes it thus:
"In the last decade as editorial budgets have been squeezed with the downturn in advertising and reduction in sales, there has been an accelerating trend of cutting specialist reporters. Policy is complicated. News desk editors don’t like too much complication. (So) political reporting through bi-focal lens can produce a more simplified story: who’s for and who’s against."This is exactly what we are seeing in Australia now. Major reforms that affect all of us are going under-reported or poorly reported, while the press gallery focuses all of its considerable attention on a single groundhog. So much is going on below the surface of our politics; so much that is real and significant. Yet the only question our press pack wants to ask is whether Julia will last till winter. There may be a real story there. In fact, I'm sure there is a story there. But it is not the only story. And the media ill serves our democracy by pretending that it is and serving up speculation and groundhog watching as truth.
Also see: After the Fact: Adventures in New Journalism - Ben Eltham, The Drum
Also see: Politics without Policy: The Age of Unbelief - Jeff Sparrow, The Drum