Just as after the 2010 election, the Labor leadership challenge has resulted in another bout of media self-flagellation. Yet just as after the 2010 election, once again what is an obvious break-down in the political system is being turned into a problem of media ethics.

Actually, with a couple of flagellators, maybe a little bit more application to the self might have been more helpful than first rushing to beat up the rest of the media.

One example is Ben Eltham. Writing in The Drum, Eltham was one of those commentators, mainly to be found in the blogosphere, who believed the Labor leadership stoush was nothing more than a media conspiracy – right up to the point Rudd resigned from the Ministry and decided to fill in his new-found free time by challenging for the Labor leadership. Such a view required not only obliviousness to the credible reports coming from the press gallery, but also a complete ignorance of the internal dynamics of a party that they so clearly love.

In Eltham’s case, while at least he admits he was wrong, he doesn’t go into why he took up such a bizarre position. Instead, he goes on to reaffirm again the overwhelming power of the media on the political process. In doing so, he simply makes the same mistake that let him think the media could carry on for months talking about a leadership challenge from thin air.

There’s no doubt that the media is becoming more influential in political affairs. But this is not because the media is becoming more powerful. Indeed pretty well every survey shows that the media has less credibility and is less trusted in Australia than almost anywhere in the world.

In fact, it’s the very acuteness of the credibility problem faced by the media that is understandably causing journalists to become increasingly sensitive to how they are getting caught up in political messes like the one we just had. The source of this closer relationship between the media and the political class is not coming from a media throwing its weight around but from a political system breaking down.

For the last century, Australia’s political system has organised around its oldest party, the Australian Labor Party and for 20 years, both Labor and non-Labor parties have struggled with an eroding base. What we are seeing now are the social problems of both parties now becoming an internal one, and changing the relationship with the media in the process.

This is especially so for the most internally structured party, the ALP, and the clearest sign its internal system was starting to break down was the rise of Rudd. Labor’s first leader not to be sponsored by the unions not only needed the media to rise in the party, but, because of the breakdown in influence of the party’s normal power structures, could do so as well.

Rudd was the master of “destabilisation”, of using the media to undermine internal opponents – but only because the party’s main power bass were becoming increasingly insecure about how to marry its internal way of deciding who to promote with electoral success. What made Rudd especially dangerous internally was the way, as he took on positions of authority and higher public profile, he made an electoral virtue over his distance from those running the “old politics”, especially after he won office.

If the power brokers’ loss of control of the Labor leadership was one sign of their weakness, an even stronger sign was how they won it back. Instead of powerful faction leaders pulling the internal levers as they would have in the past, they were forced to go public. The template, of course, was the breakdown between party and government in the home state of the party’s most powerful faction, the NSW Right.

The destabiliser was himself destabilised as Rudd became the victim of leaks in late 2009 and 2010, especially of the ETS delay and the infamous internal poll that ended up in the media’s hands in June 2010. Finally, there was the actual ousting, a media event in itself as, only a few days after an acquiescent caucus meeting, the faceless men put their faces in front of the TV cameras to present caucus with a fait accompli.

In the run up to the second challenge, both sides were clearly at it. The Rudd side was briefing after every stuff-up, talking about a troubled party and concerns about the leadership. What was necessary, of course, was the party actually to be troubled and losing direction, so journalists would find that insecurity when they asked around after things went wrong. It was especially the internal breakdown exposed by the National Conference and the ministry reshuffle which made the Rudd challenge a possibility. Rudd himself was flushed out with Ministers going on the nation’s airwaves in an extraordinarily vicious public display that would normally have never left the walls of the caucus room and that we are now supposed to forget.

Nor has it ended with Rudd out of the picture, as even the mundane tussle of Ministry spot between the factions now becomes a media event.

Understandably just how journalists should react to now being regularly used for even the most internal machinations is not obvious. A key government member briefing against another key government member could well be argued to be news and the public should be told. The problem is made even worse because clearly the cosy ground rules by which they previously operated even during the Howard years, and which let journalists like Michael Brissenden sit on a story like Costello talking about challenging Howard for two years before deigning to tell the rest of us, have broken down.

Probably one way is to avoid passing on things that are clearly dodgy. Some relatively easy ones are polling stories, because they can be verified elsewhere. That 2010 internal poll, for example, was easy to take with a pinch of salt, simply because it showed what the professional polling did not, that Labor was heading for a massive defeat and that Gillard was more popular than Rudd at the time. Subsequent stories confirm that as for much internal polling, it was managed externally but for internal political purposes, in this case, to build support for Gillard replacing Rudd.

Yet some journalists accepted it. Indeed not only the poll, but the way it was supposed to have been innocently presented to Rudd at the time. Here’s one journalist’s account of what happened, written on the day Rudd was dumped:

On Friday of last week, the party’s national secretary, Karl Bitar, went to Rudd’s Parliament House office with internal party polling that showed just how bad the situation had become in marginal Queensland seats. He wanted to present the material to the prime minister himself. Remarkably, Rudd’s 31-year-old chief of staff, Alistair Jordan, didn’t allow that to happen. He told Bitar to lock the polling away and show it to nobody.

An astonished Bitar told Jordan the polling didn’t belong to the prime minister; it belonged to the Labor Party, and he left the office.

I suspect that was the same polling that showed up on Andrew Bolt’s Herald Sun blog last weekend.

The actions, the dialogue and even the emotions must have been difficult to find out. Could the journalist have been fed it, possibly by someone close enough to Bitar to know he was “astonished”? Even leaving aside the dodginess of the poll itself, could a story about the presenting of a poll that was supposedly done in the best interests of the ALP but somehow ended up in the hands of one of its biggest haters, show a journalist that was, er, rather uncritical when he blithely reproduced it?

Such uncritical passing on of dubious leaked information to pursue a political agenda would not be possible because this, of course, was Barrie Cassidy, and Barrie has told us that not only does he not believe in such things but thinks now is the time journalists come clean on the terms of engagement so we don’t get mis-fed rubbish. Well, let’s not get too worried how some want to spin it, because the truth is staring us in the face like never before. But some journalists might at least make some effort to keep the hypocrisy under check.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 19 March 2012.

Filed under Key posts, Media analysis, State of the parties

Tags: , , , ,


12 responses to “It’s a political crisis, not a problem of media ethics”

  1. @TatteredRemnant on 19th March 2012 10:24 am

    Is that headline meant to be ironic?

    This article is Exhibit A as to why it is, in fact, ALL about media ethics.

    Political crises come and go and backgrounding has always been a part of the media/politician relationship – both for internal and external shenanigans.

    It is part of the political Journalist’s job description to make the call as to whether information should be realised or not. The decision was historically based on balancing fairness to the people involved, the public interest and the maintenance of the journalists standing reputation within the gallery. The system relies on journalistic ethics to inform and direct those deliberations. When Cheryl Kernot failed to disclose in her biography her ‘well known’ relationship with Gareth Evans, for Laurie Oakes the balance shifted toward disclosure of what he had known for some time and he published the story.

    The problem is now is that journalists have more pressure on them to balance the call in favour of the release of information.

    For good or bad, modern political coverage is not a weekly or even daily affair: it’s a minute by minute race-call. And with alternative distribution channels (such as twitter and blogs) a story is more likely now to ‘get out’ and more likely to ‘get out’ earlier, than at any time before.

    The pressure on political journalism and its ethics has never been greater and the old system is popping its valves.

    Our current batch of political journalists are not worse than their predecessors, they’re just working under conditions that make the maintenance of their integrity much more difficult. Not only can they commercially fail if they don’t ‘have a story’, the story is more likely than not going to be told by someone else – leaving them not only failing, but also exposed.

    The more journalists believe that “it’s the pollies what dun it”, the less chance that a sensible discussion of media and media ethics can ever be had.

  2. The Piping Shrike on 19th March 2012 10:59 am

    I really don’t see the change being driven by the media, or if it is, actually the other way. Far from being under pressure to provide constant political news, I would say politics is less important for newspapers/TV to generate readers/viewers than ever before.

    Even qualities like the Age and SMH give far less attention to political coverage and are mere lifestyle shadows of their former selves. I would say politics sells papers less because politics means less to the general public. We do have 24 hour news TV covering politics but they are for an increasingly specialised audience.

    Celebrity journalists are under more pressure to come up with a story than political journalists.

    Newspapers were always (aggressively) commercial enterprises. Politics plays a lesser role in the commercial enterprise, I would argue.

    The real change is what is happening politically. An increasingly undisciplined and chaotic political class is a newer problem to handle than a newspaper boss that has always wanted a story.

    In their way, both Eltham and Cassidy are trying to pretend that the break-down in politics is not happening, which makes them more confused than the average journalist.

  3. Riccardo on 19th March 2012 8:02 pm

    I still cant get over the short memories, of frank and keith. Them were biased. The rest are just playas.

  4. Riccardo on 19th March 2012 8:12 pm

    People preach the death of MSM but i wonder if we separate news into facts and opinion whether we dont have too much of the former. If i want to know what was said in parliament i can google hansard, or watch live broadcasts. The weather is on the meteorology website. The sporting codes can easily promulgate their matches and results using free to air and web. Govt departments and large corporates write press releases.

    And the rest is just opinion, which is very cheap to produce and easily accessed.

    The agglomaration task of media is dead, or at least no longer commercial. Maybe the wire services can charge for difficult tasks like syria or burma but no need for the rest.

  5. Mr Denmore on 20th March 2012 10:34 am

    It’s both, Piping Shrike. Yes, the two-party political system is breaking down. But so is the mainstream media business model. The media has been disintermediated by technology that allows anyone to be a journalist. The MSM has responded to this by playing up their “insider” status, which allowed politicians to “background” journos with impunity.

    The fuss over the Rudd story wasn’t that the leadership challenge was a beat-up. It was because the out-of-control use of anonymous sources created the circumstances for the challenge. By becoming so embedded with the politicians, the journalists had agency in the events themselves. The cynicism about the MSM reflects the fact that the journos can’t see how hopelessly compromised they have become.

  6. mikey on 20th March 2012 11:28 am

    I cannot disagree more with the article. We had two, three years or relentless media speculation based on “senior Labor sources” or “unnamed sources.” Daily front page news. You tell me a person or organisation anywhere that could ignore an attack like that. Sooner or later the media’s pressure would become self-fulfilling. But in doing so the truth is revealed – Gillard’s support was the strongest of any leadership contest. The media were exposed as either completely wrong or as liars. Despite this the inside sources were never revealed. Why would a journo protect the identity of an insider who lied and deceived them for over two years? Why? Because the insider never existed. What other conclusion could there be?

    Having said that, I agree wholeheartedly that there is a political crisis. And as the comments so far point out there is a parallel crisis in the MSM. Mr Denmore is spot on.

    The comment about jounos sitting on the Howard/Costello challenge. That’s not a breakdown of ground rules over time, that’s pure partisanship. Abbott won his leadership by one vote. One! And someone was absent! Surely it makes him the most vulnerable leader we’ve ever seen. He’s failed to increase his own popularity despite the abysmal polling performance of Labor. There are several colleagues sidelined and embarrassed by his posturing and reversals and non-policies. His deputy is a media black hole. Every day he is impotent in parliament. Surely this is a story? Where is the relentless gaze of the media, exposing the leadership tensions of the slimmest grip on party power we’ve ever seen?

  7. Alex White on 20th March 2012 6:55 pm

    PS, I’m sure you’ve read Tanner’s Sideshow — but even if you assume he’s being self-serving in his description that the media and journalists are primary concerned with filling column inches (or television seconds), there’s no doubt that journalists have distorted political reporting since the first newspaper was published.

    And let’s not forget, the journalists (and their editors/producers) make the decision to publish this “mis-fed rubbish”.

  8. The Piping Shrike on 20th March 2012 8:21 pm

    Mr D, I agree that the mainstream media model is breaking down, at least in political coverage. Certainly the press cannot get away with being as partisan, and with such authority, as they could in the past. But then you can’t have it both ways, you can’t say its breaking down while at the same time having greater influence on the political process – unless the problems in the political process are even worse – which I would say they are.

    I did look at Tanner’s Sideshow, and reviewed it back in October. He acknowledged political problems, but saw it as too much giving in to the media undermining it. The point I made was that if the press has one major failing, it is that they are too caught up in the political process to see the extent it is breaking down and indeed, tend to prop it up by treating the current argy-bargy as serious – and that’s where I see the real distortions coming nowadays.

    People talk about right-wing bias, but the biggest distortions I have seen over the last two years have come from the left side of journalism, especially those who think things are normal in the Gillard government and that the problem lies elsewhere: either with the media (Eltham) or with a certain Queenslander (Cassidy).

    The results were outrageous distortions of what was going on with Eltham claiming an imminent challenge from Rudd was a myth and Cassidy claiming the leaking was all coming from Rudd and he was to blame for the 2010 election flop. There is furious re-writing of history going on at the moment and it ain’t coming from the right.

  9. Lentern on 22nd March 2012 9:43 am

    I actually thought Eltham was pretty close to the mark. Was there something so fundamentally wrong with the current Labor government that it had either to overhaul its leadership or limp to a devestating election defeat? Yes but the chances of this Labor leadership doing anything to resolve it were squashed by this media siege , perennially focusing on the dramatic prospect of a leadership overhaul and denying oxygen to the other aspects of government business.

    For the first time since 2010 Labor have just seized the initiative through the drama Bob Carr appointment but up until then in every press appearance ministers have had to wade through a thicket of media speculation to get an unrelated message reported. I’m borrowing from Tanner’s notes here but there was this sentiment of “we won’t let you talk about anything else until something exciting happens with this leadership thing.” Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull were subjected to the same for most of their leaderships.

  10. The Piping Shrike on 22nd March 2012 8:17 pm

    Labor’s problem is not how it is governing per se (although the Malaysian slap down was a bit of a stuff up). Labor’s problem is internal, i.e. that its normal power structures are breaking down and this is perceived electorally as standing for nothing and a loss of authority (or beholden to the independents etc.).

    It was a series of internal events that sparked the leadership challenge (the NC and the minstry reshuffle) on the back of the faction system no longer delivering. This forced the leadership to flush Rudd out. Don’t forget that the leadership played a major part in inciting the challenge, especially Crean’s performance on 3AW.

    I agree the favourable greeting of the Bob Carr appointment is a media event (if that’s what you meant), but a look beyond the media hype will show even for that the faction system is malfunctioning.

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  12. Riccardo on 25th March 2012 7:18 am

    Nature abhors a vacuum and six seats for the qld alp is a vacuum in my book. I wonder what will fill it. The alp at this level will need to be reinvented somehow. Maybe six seats is genuinely representative of a union movement that covers barely ten percent of the pop, the question being who will represent the rest.

    Maybe the agrarian socialists will complete w transition to katter and the lnp will be a broad centrist party, with brisbane interests again able to wag the dog.

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