Rats get a kicking too

Tuesday, 7 July 2009 

How is it that the Murdoch press got something so fundamentally wrong and what were the journalistic standards which applied? These are just basic questions which we – I haven’t heard anything from the three editors in question, I haven’t seen any statement from them, but I did see that the Chief Executive of News Ltd organisation said yesterday that it was all fine and dandy.

Kevin Rudd 2 July 2009

As soon as the email was demonstrated to be false, the Canberra press gallery focused its criticism on Malcolm Turnbull who had given the fake email unintentional credibility. As the polls quickly established, the unintended consequence of the saga was to discredit the Opposition Leader and enhance the credibility of the Prime Minister.

So what is Rudd’s problem? It seems he does not like criticism and, consequently, does not see any reason to be gracious in victory.

Gerard Henderson SMH 7 July 2009

Mr Rudd’s claim that critiques of his government are “journalistic retaliation” for criticisms levelled by members of the government is misplaced. Our analyses of this or any government or opposition are grounded in sound principles that are as relevant now as they were in 1964.

The Australian editorial 4 July 2009

There has been almost a touch of genuine bewilderment in the media at Rudd’s follow-up attacks on the Murdoch stable after the Ute-gate fiasco. To the media it seems incomprehensible why, after they set upon Turnbull after the email was exposed as a fraud and pronounced Rudd the clear winner, the PM should then carry on a vendetta.

Of course, it is the media that actually continued it. Rudd’s comments were generally in response to journalists persisting, like Turnbull did last week, in raising the issue. But the decision by Rudd (and Gillard) to bite back came not in spite of ending up in front, but because of it. Leaving aside the largely irrelevant issue of journalistic standards, the Murdoch stable stuffed up and Rudd was putting the boot in. Just as he did with Turnbull, Rudd was using his advantage to settle scores while he could.

The media has a strange relationship to this government and like so much about it, the media is struggling to work out what is going on. It is not so much that the media has that much trouble with the policies of what is arguably Labor’s most conservative Prime Minister since Federation, but rather Rudd’s style, especially the way he treats the media.

The Australian’s Imre Salusinszky, adding his bit to the slew of defensive responses from the Murdoch press in recent days, touched on some more interesting features of this relationship but also the same confusions.

One of the touchiest areas of the media’s relationship, especially for its political reporters, is Rudd’s fondness for programs like Rove. Salusinszky bizarrely thinks he was following Obama’s lead on The Tonight Show, but of course Rudd pioneered these type of appearances in 2007 when Obama was still a terrorist-loving candidate struggling for the Democrat nomination. It was one of his strengths against Howard that year and Howard gives a sly tribute to Rudd’s mastery of the format:

The reason I didn’t do that kind of media is that I didn’t think I would be very good at it. But I also thought the prime minister oughtn’t to do too much of that stuff. I took the view that my responsibility was to go on serious programs. Although I did do talkback radio, I didn’t avoid the serious interviews.

Howard’s chief of staff grudgingly claimed this as an example of Rudd’s ability to appeal to a younger audience, which is often attributed to Rudd being from a younger generation himself.

This won’t do. Rudd may be younger than Howard but hardly stands alone on age in Parliament. Yet it would be hard to think of any other MP (except possibly Garrett) who could do that same type of show (and that includes Gillard, to be returned to at a later date). Politicians avoid that type of show not because it’s ‘easy’ and they yearn the tough questions of a Kerry O’Brien but because it is anti-political. As also on FM stations, the very thrill of the chance to ask inappropriate and scatological questions to leading political figures makes it difficult to do that type of show (as our loveable Shrek found out) while keeping authority.

This is what made Rudd’s latest appearance on Rove such a master-stroke. Rudd needed to defend his personal integrity in Parliament, but it had made him look awfully like an ordinary politician during that week. Finishing it with his appearance on Rove and photo-op with Bruno was necessary to counter-act it. As public relations consultant John Wells put it:

They would have had that programmed in advance of that previous week, and having had the outcome they did and all the shenanigans over ‘Utegate’, it would have reinforced their thinking that ‘We’ve got to get out of here and soften that harsh, argy-bargy parliamentary persona into a softer positioning’.

But the anti-politics of these type of shows has repercussions for what is happening to traditional media as well.

Murdoch may be struggling with the internet but if there is one sure way he has worked out how to please advertisers on his papers’ web sites, it is to attack the blogosphere. Nothing is more guaranteed to get the links and the traffic to the opinions of some otherwise very ordinary commentators. Unsurprisingly this is usually seen by the blogosphere as merely confirmation of the rising influence of political blogging.

In reality though it is less about the new power of political blogging than the declining power and authority of the mainstream news. The internet has exposed a problem that was already there before but now made tangible. The problem is not so much that people are concerned about bias of the press. Nobody who read the Murdoch press during the Whitlam years or read the Sydney Morning Herald’s editorialising against Labor in almost every election since Federation, would have ever thought the press in this country was balanced.

But at least it was known that the line taken by the press represented something in society, the establishment. In political coverage that meant journalists had the best connections to the political class who themselves knew what was going on.

In 2007, however, we saw the unravelling of that whole set-up. We saw a political class that had lost its historical purpose losing its ability to understand, let alone control events. In turn, we saw political journalists losing track with what was going on as their contacts with a disoriented political class became worthless, so, for example, leading to desperate attempts to make polling fit a reality that simply did not exist and create an opening for our noble psephological sites. Finally in the end it produced a government that the traditional political media can’t understand and a Prime Minister, which increasingly bypasses them and whose popularity baffles them. The response by some quarters in the press, such as Murdoch’s new ‘blogging’ site, has tried to adapt to this lack of authority but its writers expose the underlying problem even more. They simply raise the question, who are these people? Who cares what they think?

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 7 July 2009.

Filed under Key posts, Media analysis

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13 responses to “Rats get a kicking too”

  1. Baraholka on 7th July 2009 2:12 pm

    Hiya Shrike,

    Love the site.

    Rudd’s performance on Rove was incredibly tense and guarded. He looked liek a professional pollie way out of his element except for the brief moment when he let his guard down and admitted he was ‘In a state of induced panic’ due to the proximity of Bruno.

    Overall he did not perform well as ‘an ordinary person’…this time.

    All the Best,


  2. Just Me on 7th July 2009 4:31 pm

    “Overall he did not perform well as ‘an ordinary person’…this time.”

    And yet the subsequent opinion polls showed increased support for Rudd and his government.

  3. Baraholka on 7th July 2009 5:21 pm

    Totally due to the Rove interview ?

  4. The Piping Shrike on 7th July 2009 6:18 pm

    Oh Rudd on Rove was absolutely cringing, no doubt about it. I think someone said it was like watching your Dad on it, which to me summed it up.

    But I think he could still do it and not be damaged by it, more than most other MPs. I think the main thing it does is help him not seem too much like an ordinary politician. Basically people want to see our politicians squirm and Rudd is happier than most to oblige.

  5. Cavitation on 7th July 2009 6:18 pm

    Who really is the audience that the mainstream newspapers write for? They obviously write to members of the public who purchase the newspapers, to the advertisers who pay for exposure in the newspapers, and their editors and proprietors. I assume that “The Australian” newspaper is still making a loss, and its readership would have to grow a lot to stop this, and instead, is gradually declining due to erosion caused by the internet. Advertising income has also collapsed, due again to the internet as well as the global financial crisis. Reporters are thus unable to influence these groups to prop up their jobs. So all they can do now is to appeal to their editors and owners to keep subsidising newspapers so that their paychecks keeps coming. Any why do editors and proprietors keep tipping money into newspapers? Mainly for influence and status. So reporters must make the newspaper editors and proprietors believe that they are gaining something in return for the money that is flowing down the newspaper drainhole. Political power is that something, and so newspapers have replaced reporting the news with making the news themselves. In the United States Rupert Murdock’s Fox News channel has practically taken control of the Republican Party. In Australia, the success of this strategy must be a strong incentive to try to replicate it with Rupert’s assets here. This precedent must also be a worry for both Labor and especially for the Liberals. “The Australian”’s reporters for some time have been backing their preferred Liberal leadership and attempting to undermine Labor, in a growing frenzy to achieve some concrete results. At some point, if there is no success, everyone knows that Murdock will turn off the money tap, and then all those commentators and political correspondents at “The Australian” will have to get other jobs, if there are any left by then.

  6. The Piping Shrike on 7th July 2009 6:43 pm

    One thing Murdoch relies on, and is fundamental to his business model, is the insecurities of the political class.

    He needs to make them believe he can make or break governments. It’s why I think the power of the press is often exaggerated.

  7. Just Me on 7th July 2009 7:46 pm

    “Totally due to the Rove interview ?”

    No, despite it. Meaning his (apparently) below par performance on Rove doesn’t figure into the average punter’s assessment of him. At least, not in any negative way.

  8. fred on 7th July 2009 11:46 pm

    “It’s why I think the power of the press is often exaggerated.”

    I don’t know about that, which translated means I’m not sure.
    A couple of years ago I would have disagreed but recent trends and events are making me wonder.
    Despite a constant barrage of negativity from the whole media, arguably following the ‘leadership’ of Limited News and its OO flagship, Rudd and the ALP appear to have been little damaged, if at all, and even possibly had their image enhanced. The polls are up in their favour since the election, trust and other key characteristcs are very high for Rudd compared to low, even dismal, numbers for the currently preferred son of the media Malcolm.
    The only objective evidence suggests that the media negativity has had little or no effect.
    I believe that is a clear change as compared to previous times.
    So what has happened?
    Blogging and the internet in general is surely part of the answer. How much so I don’t know [yet again] but surely the availability of easily accessible to many, free even, informed and contrary opinion and that beautiful ability to cite sources from around the world is at least part of the answer.
    Today it is probably close to impossible to hide from the public the fact that the world is undergoing a recession more severe than ours and not caused by factors peculiar to Australia.
    Decades ago that fact, Australia is part of the world, could be and was kept hidden in that the recession we had to have was seen as purely the fault of the ALP government of the time.
    So maybe the king maker power of the media here has declined, but I still would not underestimate it, particularly with its power to set agendas.

  9. Bushfire Bill on 8th July 2009 1:25 am

    It’s wrong to say “In reality though (the decline of newspapers) is less about the new power of political blogging than the declining power and authority of the mainstream news.”

    If there was no “blogosphere” or internet the newspapers would have no competition at all. Why then would they decline so markedly? Hartigan seems to agree with me. I think you’ve confused the chicken and the egg.

  10. The Piping Shrike on 8th July 2009 9:57 am

    On the power of the media, my view is that it only has power if it is recognised to represent something real in society. The problem we have seen is that it is becoming more detached from anything real in society as have the political class. It is why this government, in the way it responds to this problem (fairly well so far), causes the media problems. They cannot recognise what Rudd’s popularity says about what is happening.

    I think BB, this predates the internet. You could see this decline in authority in the press with the shift in the quality end from hard news to more lifestyle reporting in the 1980s-1990s to try and ‘relate’ to its audience. I think the web has more acted as a catalyst to all of this than the cause.

  11. tweetiepie on 8th July 2009 10:25 am

    TPS, you might find the item “Washington Post Under Fire Over Pay-for-access Plan” from yesterday’s Jim Lehrer’s News Hour of relevance. Two journalist academics discussed the problems facing the US print media and the role of journalists.

  12. Ad astra on 8th July 2009 6:59 pm

    An interesting take TPS on the current debate about the MSM and the Internet and its blogs. Hartigan’s July 1 address to the National Press Club is the basis for a similar piece posted today on The Political Sword: Media wars – where does the blogger fit? http://www.thepoliticalsword.com/post/2009/07/08/Media-wars-e28093-where-does-the-blogger-fit.aspx

  13. Ricc on 29th December 2009 11:29 am

    Came back to this post from the end of year one.

    Missed this prescient comment earlier in the year

    “One thing Murdoch relies on, and is fundamental to his business model, is the insecurities of the political class.”

    Reminds me of Napoleon “More to be feared than 1000 bayonets, are 4 hostile newspapers”

    Fairfax, on the other hand, is feared the way people fear being slapped with wet lettuce – all lifestyle rubbish now.

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