Monday, July 22, 2013

The Australian Asylum

The Rudd government's new PNG solution to the asylum seekers problem is aimed at shutting down a filthy trade run by cynical and low-rent opportunists who exploit the hopes and fears of the most marginalised for commercial gain. Yes, we're talking about tabloid editors.

There are two dimensions to the refugees issue. One is managing the problem itself - a relatively marginal one for a rich economy that leads the developed world on most economic metrics. The second dimension - and the trickier one - is the theatrics around the issue, a charade kept alive by attention-seeking sections of the news media and the frightened politicians they goad into one piece of policy knee-jerkery after another.

The facts of the refugee situation - however many times they are raised - don't seem to register. What matters for the dying institutions of our news media is that this issue is an emotive, eyeball-grabbing one, encompassing age-old fears of brown skinned hordes shattering our cosy, white bread suburban lives. As such, it's tailor-made for endless rejigging on the front pages of the Tele and the Hun.

So in the tabloid Murdochcracy, it just becomes a question of choosing from a range of instant outrage buttons to push - from "OMFG, The Refugees Will Destroy Our Way of Life!" to "Lax Security is Letting Terrorists Through the Net!"  to  "Those Bludgers Are Living in Luxury on the Taxpayers' Tab!" to  "Refugee Solution Will Blow Budget Surplus!" and, finally, "Won't Someone Think of the Children!"

That the tabloid anger pendulum swings so shamefacedly from fanning fear of refugees to pleading for their humanity to calling for security crackdowns to castigating the government for the cost of security is neither here nor there. What's important in media terms is that this story is easy fodder for fulmination and vein-popping outrage in dead trees media and on talkback radio.

Meanwhile, the refugee issue is manna for political parties desperately seeking to differentiate themselves and cover up the fact that most of the major issues we face are beyond the control of nation states acting on their own (climate change, the structure of the financial system and the global movement of people).

As with ridiculous questions about "who is best able to manage the economy" (as if Canberra is able to do anything about the global economic cycle other than to ameliorate its effects), it suits the political class to fake Churchillian "we shall fight them on the beaches" postures over asylum seekers

The truth is the global movement of displaced people across borders, fleeing failing or repressive states, is a global problem and requires international solutions. It also requires a debate in the Australian media, including the presentation of actual facts, about what is driving the movement of people.

For instance, the single biggest source of refugees last year was Afghanistan, a country in which Australia has had troops fighting for more than a decade in our single biggest international military commitment. Where is the media and political debate about the wisdom of that deployment? Neither side of politics seems willing to actually pose the question of whether our efforts in that quagmire are in our long-term interests.

Yes, the number of boat-born asylum seekers has increased. But beyond the tabloid-driven fear campaign, the actual impact of this influx on the vast majority of Australians is fairly limited. Keep in mind that Australia ranked 49th last year in the list of countries hosting refugees, accounting for 0.3% of the total.

None of this is to claim that finding policy solutions to the seaborne drift of asylum seekers is easy or that there are not costs involved - strategically, financially or morally. But it would help us all if we were spared the self-serving screeching of the popular media and the grandstanding of populist politicians who jump to its orders in the vague hope of appearing relevant.

(By the way, remember The Tampa back in 2001? Of the more than 400 mostly Afghan refugees who sought asylum in Australia, about a quarter ended up in New Zealand. Here they are.)

See also: 'Captain Rudd Steers Australia Into New Depths of Shame' - David Marr, The Guardian

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Moving Forward

This is either the most well timed book on politics of recent times or the worst. In her meticulously detailed volume of the caustic three years of Julia Gillard's prime ministership,  Kerry-Anne Walsh ends the narrative tantalisingly short of the final scene - the long-canvassed 'Ruddstoration'.

It seems churlish to fail the book on events overtaking it, but this is always the danger with seeking to tell history on the run. Indeed, one wonders, after reading it, whether Walsh's punchy news diary-style treatment might have worked better as a live blog than as a paperback.

Even so, this book will be welcomed by all those, including this blogger, who see the last three years as a colossal failure in political journalism and the wider media; a failure evidenced by glory-seeking journos riding anonymous sources to become players in the political game, of splenetic old broadcasters
unleashing misogynistic tirades and of an unashamedly partisan tabloid trash media telling outright lies to further the ideological and commercial interests of their proprietor.

In detailing the methodical white-anting of Gillard by Rudd and the complicity of many media figures in it, Walsh echoes many of the points made on this blog and elsewhere about an incestuous political-media complex that seems all about serving insiders and keeping the public in the dark.

But Walsh's views on these issues carry additional weight, given her 25-year history in the press gallery, working for both the popular (Daily Telegraph and the Sun Herald) and high-brow (The Bulletin and Radio National) news outlets. She also knows how the dark arts of spin doctoring work, having started her career as a press secretary in the Hawke government.

So it is notable that someone with so much right to be world-weary and jaded is as gobsmacked as the rest of us by the absence of balance by so many journalists, by the reliance on one or two highly compromised sources, by the ritual overlooking of the substantial and far more consequential legislative achievements of the minority government that Gillard led and, most of all, by the corrosive influence of polls in the news process.
"Journalists who habitually play statistics to promote the case that a government or its leader is terminal when there are months, even years, before an election are engaging in fraudulent misrepresentation," Walsh writes. "Paul Keating was a goner six months out from the 1993 election, the polls predicted; Beazley was supposed to be a winner in 2001; Mark Latham looked like he could get there in 2004, according to the polls eight months out; and in 2010 Labor's lead seemed healthy."
Despite the clear evidence that polls distort the political process in unhealthy ways, it seems the dying media's demand for the fix of the instant sensation and the voracity of the appetite of the news machine demands the beating up of every survey. And when your employer pays for the number crunching, you had better get in there and make a story out of it.

While there are legitimate complaints to make about the strategic nous of the Gillard office, a picture emerges through this book of a press corps that has lost all perspective, that is more focused on writing for each other and the other insiders in their limited orbit than for the general public.
"The press gallery can be a beast that feeds on itself," Walsh writes. "Gallery journalists are shackled to their desks. Their company is each other; their sounding boards are each other; their judgements about the political angle of the day are formed out of exchanges with each other. But the competition is fierce for the headline story - to be the agenda-setting pundit or to be the first to report a whisper."
And, of course, all this is happening as resources dwindle and the competition for eyeballs from alternative information sources increases. It's no surprise then, to anyone with a degree of distance from Canberra, that so much of what is written is, to use Ms Gillard's apt description, "crap".

In the preamble to the book, Walsh says she does not intend it to be a defence of Gillard, although it certainly reads that way. Perhaps, her passion can be seen as an attempt to restore some much needed balance to the partisan junk we have seen. The author, like most people who have seen him up close, clearly despises Rudd - depicting him as self-deluding sociopath and egomaniac.

Looking at social media, there is still much bitterness in the community about the media treatment of Gillard and corresponding revulsion at Rudd's mealy-mouthed hypocrisy in calling for an end to the politics of negativity. And it's hard to argue with that assessment of things.

My own view - and it is just my mere unschooled opinion - is that there is nothing inconsistent about on the one hand being appalled at the sexist treatment of Gillard, recognising her great character and significant policy achievements and arguing on the other that she was a poor communicator, tactically inept or least very badly advised.

Likewise, there is nothing inconsistent in recognising on the one hand that Rudd is an egomaniac, a control freak and an over-promiser, while on the other accepting that he at least has social democratic instincts and seems better able to communicate and cut through with the many people parking their votes with Abbott. He may come undone, but he at least for now appears to have wrong-footed a man that many of us dread far more than his own egomania.

But anyway, to quote JG one last time, we are now moving forward.

POSTSCRIPT: Lest we forget, a compilation by John Jay Smith of some of the sexist, loathsome language directed against the former prime minister by mostly stupid, ignorant old men (and the odd supposed feminist) over the past three years.

'The Stalking of Julia Gillard: How the media and Team Rudd contrived to bring down the Prime Minister' - Kerry Anne Walsh, Allen and Unwin

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Old Empires New Legacies

Journalism isn't like any other business. And that's because journalism isn't a business at all.  The great newspaper empires now being dismantled in Australia and elsewhere were actually advertising businesses supporting cultural institutions.

Industrial era journalism was a craft subsidised by the advertising. When advertising separated from the newspapers, the journalism lost its subsidy. Now, companies like Fairfax Media are seeking to put a market value on journalism itself. Good luck with that.

In her new book, 'Fairfax: The Rise and Fall', Colleen Ryan - a former editor of the Australian Financial Review - seeks to assemble (from obviously high level sources) the definitive account of Australia's oldest and most venerable media company.

The story traces the company from its beginnings in the 1840s in the then convict settlement of Sydney as a family-run publisher under John Fairfax; to its glory days in the mid-20th century under the founder's great grandson Sir Warwick; to the disastrous privatisation bid by Warwick Junior in the late 80s; to the years of mauling by merchant bankers and junk bond owners, and finally to, its long, slow demise in the digital era.

This is Ryan's second book on Fairfax. Her earlier work ('Corporate Criminals: The Taking of Fairfax'), was co-written with another former AFR editor Glenn Burge. That title focused on the fiendishly complex Tourang bid for Fairfax in the early 1990s, which involved a virtual Sopranos cast of Packers, Kennedys, Blacks, Turnbulls and other big swinging dicks of the era.

For this book, Ryan uses as a framing device the 2012 raid on a dying Fairfax by iron ore billionaire Gina Rinehart who is seeking to turn the once proudly independent mastheads into mouthpieces for her fringe political views. In the Rinehart raid, the author sees an echo of the vainglorious tilt at the publisher a quarter century before by young Warwick, another spoilt and indulged scion who felt cheated out of his inheritance and wanted to prove something to a dead father.

The most compelling chapter is the final one, on the ongoing bid by current Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood to build something new out of the ashes of the terminal print businesses. This is a company whose share price has fallen from above $6 to as low as 38c in late 2012. As a comparison, online employment company Seek, a start-up which then Fairfax CEO Fred Hilmer could have snapped up for a song more than a decade ago, now has a market cap two and a half times that of Fairfax.

In the meantime, the lifeblood of the institution - if not the business - has been the journalism. Ryan writes of the flood of tears that ensued last year when the company axed 20 per cent of its staff, including some of the most respected and experienced names in journalism.
"Despite having cut loose one in every five journalists at Fairfax, Hywood maintains that journalism is the future of the company," Ryan writes. "It is now the business, whereas in the past, the real business was the classifieds - jobs, homes and cars. Journalism may have dominated the culture, but the company made its money from the classifieds."
And there's the rub. As Fairfax moves this month to the New York Times-inspired 'freemium' model (in which readers only to start to pay a subscription once they pass a certain amount of free stories each month), the big question is what sort of journalism this more meagre income can sustain. More critically for the company's survival, how much longer will institutional shareholders, having lost so much money on Fairfax,  give Hywood to turn the now much smaller ship around?

On that score, Ryan writes of a frank assessment of Fairfax's prospects by the South African-born fund manager Simon Marais, one of the company's biggest investors.
"As far as Marais is concerned, a listed company is a business that operates for shareholders, not for anyone else. He sympathises with the notion that an independent quality press is important for democracy, for government accountability, but concludes that the Australian public simply refuses to pay for it. Marais has worked out that it would cost less than three cups of coffee a year per head for the entire Australian population to ensure the viability of Fairfax. But he says no-one will do it, and that is not his problem. He doesn't think it's the Fairfax's board's problem either."
Perhaps Marais is right. Perhaps, the days of large, publicly listed media corporations that subsidise journalism under the umbrella of advertising are over. Look at News Corporation. It just split itself into two, essentially telling founder Rupert Murdoch that his legacy, loss-making, publishing assets will have to make their own way in the world from now on.

My feeling is if enough of us are concerned about the maintenance of quality, investigative, accountability-style journalism, we would be better off digging into our pockets, sacrificing those three cups of coffee and directly subsidising a non-commercial enterprise that fosters this important work in the interests of democracy.

If the legacy media is dead, perhaps it's time we built a new one.

'Fairfax: The Rise and Fall', Colleen Ryan, Melbourne University Publishing, 2013

See also: Eric Beecher: 'The Death of Fairfax and the End of Newspapers' - The Monthly

Monday, July 1, 2013

Noise Vs Signal

One of the curses of being a news journalist is that the 'news' (a hazy concept at the best of times)  must always fit the available space. The space for news has been expanding exponentially in recent years as new digital, real-time platforms emerge. At the same time, the resource to fill that space has been dwindling. What do you think happens?

In financial journalism, which is my background, the consequence of this growing mismatch is that journalists lower the bar for news or broaden its definition to the point where noise is frequently mistaken for signal. So they give greater currency to the ephemeral, the transitory and the superficially dramatic despite the needs of their presumed audience whose focus is necessarily long term. (I say 'presumed' audience because the actual audience tends to be the minority who live for the noise as well).

In political journalism, likewise, the constant need for a new 'story' to fill the ever expanding space  keeping the ever diminishing ads apart means the public is assailed by headines misrepresenting the 5-minute obsessions of insiders and partisans as of wider significance.

The noise-to-signal ratio is intensified and reinforced by the mutual interests of those doing the reporting and those being reported on. In the case of financial journalism, the source of much of the 'news' is the sell side of investment banks and brokers whose business model is transactional - they want people to trade. And 'news' provides the hook.  Journalists don't tell their audience that this is the case because it would undermine the pretence that any of this short-termism matters.

In political journalism, as we have seen, the sources are frequently anonymous and almost always talking their own book, just like the brokers and investment banks spruiking initial public offers to mug punter 'mums and dads'. Flattering themselves as Bernsteins and Woodwards - brave agents of the people against untrammelled power - some politicial journalists romanticise the notion of anonymous sources as something other than what they are - a source of easy copy to feed the insatiable appetite of the daily news monster.

This is a rather long-winded way of theorising why with a few notable exceptions, the Australian press gallery these past three years has treated the public with contempt - serving the interests of insiders and allowing themselves to be manipulated for the purposes of a story.

In an op-ed last year, former Age editor Michael Gawenda put his finger on it, noting that journalists reporting on the Rudd-Gillard saga were placing the principle of respecting anonymous sources ahead of their primary function of telling the public what was really going on.
"The rules of engagement in Canberra no longer serve our interests," Gawenda wrote. "They encourage and support dishonesty from politicians and timidity and yes, dishonesty from reporters and commentators. The rules of engagement protect 'insiders' and keep the rest of us, we poor punters with no access to 'secrets', more or less in the dark about what's really going on."
Of course, given the return of Kevin Rudd to the prime ministership, the defenders of this 'inside talk' journalism will say 'see, we were right all along. The challenge to Gillard was real.' Well, yes, it was fairly apparent from the beginning that Rudd was not going to go quietly and it is undoubtedly true that the division in the government hampered Gillard these past three years (which makes her legislative achievements all the more impressive BTW).

But it is worth asking to what extent the constant anonymous briefing and media feeding off that in pursuit of the greater narrative was a factor in generating the very outcome that the leakers were engineering? And to what extent did the media's obsession with this story for three years cut the space given to other issues by rounds reporters outside Canberra on issues like education, health, climate change and the huge structural change in the economy?  Most importantly, to what extent did excitement over the Rudd-Gillard soap opera divert attention from scrutinising the Opposition's policies (or lack of them)?

Gillard, for all her virtues, was a lousy communicator. But she did give one great speech as PM. This was in January this year at the Press Club where she set out clearly and simply the huge economic challenges facing Australia and the difficult choices the nation faces - a uncompetitive exchange rate, an economy transitioning away from labour-intensive manufacturing to capital-intensive resources, a dearth of infrastructure, and a structural deterioration in the budget alongside a growing call on it by an aging, savings-short population. Those are all strong news stories on their own, each deserved follow-ups and they all have greater relevance to the wider public than the day-to-day scuttlebutt and rumours inside parliament house.

It's true that Gillard did herself no favours in that January address by upstaging herself with the announcement of the election date. But even that was not enough for the popular press, who decided the biggest story from the event was her new 'hipster' spectacles. In the meantime, the public remained pitifully uninformed of what really may decide their own futures.

In recent weeks, the respected economist Ross Garnaut made some of the same points as Gillard did in that speech, challenging Australians to face up to choices about how to respond to hard times after two decades of extraordinary prosperity. In a veiled reference to the deceitful campaign against the resources super profits tax by the mining industry (the issue that in my view was the greatest catalyst for Rudd's 2010 removal), Garnaut also spoke of new barriers to productive change in our political culture, ones that elevate private over public interests and the immediate over the longer term. It seems there is a real story here - one that will affect our kids more than what glasses the PM wears - but who's telling it?

Everywhere these days, you hear people saying they are "sick of politics", they are over the circus in Canberra, they are fed up with the soap opera. One gets a sense that what they are really sick of is the noise. They are sick of the constant he said-she said predictability of partisans with dug-in positions. They switch off on hearing  the cute talking points and transparent spin from all sides of politics that trivialises important issues (like why we need an honest, accountable media for instance). And they are completely over being treated like mugs by journalists who recycle every bit of self-serving anonymous backgrounding because of their desperation for a story to justify their own existence.

Journalists can say the leadership speculation stories scored strong hits on their websites. Yes, and so do financial headlines that read 'Fund Managers' Secret Stock Tips'. People need substance. But all they get is  the journalistic equivalent of junk food. They need signal. But all they hear is noise; shrill, constant, meaningless and inconsequential noise.