Monday, 19 March 2012
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