Thursday, October 25, 2007

Mandate to Change Canberra Press Gallery

By Brian Arnell

Like the government, the media has a responsibility to serve the interests of the public.

The Canberra Press Gallery has a special responsibility to the public because of its accommodation in Parliament House. This gives accredited members of the Gallery a level of access to ministers and members of Parliament available to very few others. This access also confers prestige, which gives weight to Press Gallery opinions.

These privileges are granted on the basis that the Gallery performs a vital, ongoing public service. Currently, the Gallery is not meeting the obligations on which these privileges and the associated prestige are granted.

I have reviewed four newspaper articles and one television report from the two weeks before the calling of this year's Federal Election. The work of each journalist is critiqued separately below.

Michael Brissenden of the ABC’s 7:30 Report, sees politics as a sport and he seems to be a fan.

His report, entitled, "Political ceasefire as nation mourns Australian soldier" was broadcast on the ABC’s 7:30 Report on October 9, 2007.

Brissenden's report focused on the fallout from Robert McClelland’s speech the previous evening. McClelland said a Labor government would speak out consistently against the death penalty, including the execution of the Bali bombers.

However, Brissenden is not interested in the capital punishment debate, only in the competition between Labor and the Coalition. His report includes comments from Howard, Costello and Downer attacking Rudd and Labor. But he does not provide contextual background on the Government’s policy or any comparison between it and Labor’s policy.

His view of national politics as a sporting contest is highlighted by the following quotes. Bolding has been added.

"It may have been Labor's position, but aware of how this was going to play out as the day progressed, the speech forced Kevin Rudd on to the defensive."
"Kevin Rudd may be relatively new to this game, but he's been
around long enough to see a political pot hole when it presents itself, and
as you would expect, the Government's heavy hitters came out

"Time is running out though, will he bring the parliament back next week? Some still think he will. Others are convinced he'll kick the campaign off this weekend."
Steve Lewis of News Limited publications, the Herald Sun and The Daily Telegraph, barely conceals his venom while using unnamed sources, unsubstantiated allegations and loaded language to discredit Julia Gillard.

His Herald Sun headline is "Fighting fire with burning ambition" and The Daily Telegraph headline is "Left to own devices". The lead for both articles is identical. "On a recent night in Canberra, as the wine and chatter flowed, one of Australia's most powerful business figures offered a frank assessment of Julia Gillard. 'It’s her values', he said, barely concealing the venom."

This use of unnamed sources continues throughout both articles. There are four direct quotes from anonymous sources in the Herald Sun article, three in The Daily Telegraph and none of them complimentary.

There are also four paragraphs with references to the opinions of "detractors", "colleagues" and "critics". There is only one "reference" to the opinions of "supporters" but in the Herald Sun version even this is tempered by the use of the pejorative term, "political star".

The articles in both papers are virtually identical, apart from some notable substitutions and additions in Lewis’s descriptions of Gillard's actions and character. The language used in both versions is heavily loaded against Gillard. Interestingly, the descriptions of Gillard are even more pejorative in the Herald Sun than in The Daily Telegraph.

These changes are interesting because they clearly demonstrate the agendas of both Lewis and his proprietor. If Lewis’s impressions of Gillard were genuinely held, why would they not appear in both versions of the article? It is curious that the more disparaging Herald Sun version is available online while The Daily Telegraph version is not.

Below is an example of differences between the versions. Bolding has been added:

"And with that, Julia Gillard shoots off to yet another meeting, planning and scheming for the coming election". - Herald Sun.

"And with that, Julia Gillard shoots off to yet another meeting,
planning for the coming election". - The Daily Telegraph.

In addition to his use of anonymous sources and loaded language to discredit Gillard, Lewis makes numerous unsubstantiated allegations and fails to place his own and others’ assertions in context with known facts. Throughout, he makes no attempt to discuss policy.

An example of Lewis's failure to provide appropriate context is in relation to the allegation that Gillard is a "hard-core Leftie", "very Left" and "hard Left". Even a cursory internet search reveals that Gillard belongs to the Ferguson Left faction, which is often seen as more moderate than the Socialist Left faction. This does not necessarily disprove the allegation against Gillard, but it is a significant known fact that places both the allegation and Gillard's quoted defence in context.

Michelle Grattan of The Age, attempts a cheap and phony "objectivity".

Her headline is "Howard in dilemma as polls fail to deliver", with the lead, "Kevin Rudd is in an enviable position going into the soon-to-be called election".

Grattan continues the initial to and fro between the subjects of Howard and Rudd throughout the article. This attempt at 'objectivity' results in several contradictory statements. Most telling within the first three paragraphs, Grattan contradicts her own lead, with “anyway, the six-month average is historical, not a prediction.”

If the six-month polling average is not a prediction, how is it that Rudd is in an enviable position? Grattan’s self-contradiction can only be understood in terms of a cheap and phony "objectivity".

Michelle "Scoop" Grattan next moves onto Howard, but not before dropping the bombshell that “The Australian Election Study, published by the Australian National University this week, reports (from the 2004 poll) that fewer voters are ‘rusted on’ to a particular party”. Stop the presses!

She asserts that this revelation is "disturbing for Howard, because it suggests people are willing to desert even a solidly performing government more readily than in the past". Grattan forgets her "objectivity" for a moment. If Howard leads a "solidly performing government", how does she explain "Labor’s 57.1 per cent two-party average vote for April to September" she quotes later in the article?

Grattan uses the metaphor of a birthday cake to describe Rudd waiting for election-day and describes Howard as Mr Micawber. Perhaps Miss Havisham (another Dickens character) and her wedding cake would provide a more appropriate metaphor, at least for Grattan herself.

Malcolm Farr of The Daily Telegraph, conjures amazing equations and random quotes to warn us against the Greens.

His headline is "Control of Senate a heavy cross to bear" with the lead, "The question of who is the most influential non-government member of the Senate could lead young players astray".

Farr’s warning to young players should be heeded. But the danger is not the Greens; it is Farr himself. Farr’s answer to his own question is Steve Fielding, sole senator for Family First. He regales the reader with a befuddlement of figures and deft displays of arithmetic to prove the Fielding ascendancy.

According to Farr’s method Family First achieved a 30 per cent success rate compared to the second placed Greens on 1.02 per cent. Farr’s scoring is akin to the rating of prize fighters by win/loss ratios. He compares successful legislative amendments per number of amendments attempted. But this effort is ultimately pointless. As Farr notes himself, "Those statistics don't tell the complete story".

Farr makes much of the prospect of one party holding the balance of power in the Senate. Farr writes, "That outcome could be Senate inertia - not unknown to Labor governments - or a swag of compromises which corrupted the political intentions of a Rudd government". The Hawke-Keating Government dealt with this situation between 1983 and 1993 when the Democrats alone held the balance of power. Ah, but this time it is different. Why?

At this point Farr dispenses with "subtlety" and circumlocution and names his evil. "Payne (Liberal) has been an influential identity in a number of serious Senate debates - while Nettle (Greens) hasn't. But that does not mean Nettle might not defeat the Liberal senator".

The Democrats and Family First "will argue that a Greens-directed Senate would not be good for Australia", Farr writes.

Farr concludes with a quote from Fielding, "It would be a disaster for Australia to have the Greens holding the balance of power", and "The Greens have shown they like to frustrate governments, whether state or federal, Coalition or Labor".

Dennis Shanahan of The Australian, trawls through the latest Newspoll and finds something (anything will do) in support of the Coalition.

His headline is, Costello leaves Swan in his wake, and the lead is, "Kevin Rudd's nominated treasurer in a Labor government, Wayne Swan, is trailing Peter Costello as an economic manager by more than two-to-one".

Shanahan writes, "According to a Newspoll survey taken exclusively for The Australian last weekend, voters favour Mr Costello as Federal Treasurer over Mr Swan by 53 per cent to 21 per cent. Almost one-third of Labor supporters - 32 per cent - believe Mr Costello would make a better treasurer, compared with 40 per cent who support Mr Swan.”

Next, Shanahan uncritically quotes internal Liberal Party polling from Victoria. Unsurprisingly, this polling shows Costello ahead of Swan. This time the margin is 56 per cent to 28 per cent.

Intriguingly this is followed by, "The Howard Government has also kept a clear 18 percentage point margin over the ALP on the issue of economic management". Surely this is a factor in the margin between Swan and Costello unless we ascribe the ALP’s entire 18 percentage point deficit to Swan himself. Apparently this has not occurred to Shanahan.

Another thing that has not occurred to Shanahan is context. Swan is an Opposition Shadow Minister going into an election. Voter opinion of Opposition Shadow Ministers going into the 1996 election is illustrative. The following figures are from Newspoll.

Just before the 1996 election, 34 per cent of voters favoured Peter Costello as federal treasurer. Fifty per cent of Coalition supporters either believed Ralph Willis made a better treasurer (16 per cent) or were uncommitted to Mr Costello (34 per cent).

Just before the 1996 election, 25 per cent of voters favoured Alexander Downer as foreign minister. Fifty-six per cent of Coalition supporters either believed Gareth Evans made a better foreign minister (37 per cent) or were uncommitted to Mr Downer (19 per cent).

My review of the work of five senior journalists has found the following.

Instead of asking hard questions, members of the Gallery hide their personal and proprietorial agendas behind unsubstantiated allegations, unnamed sources and phony "objectivity". They use loaded language to discredit parties and persons and fail to place their own and others' assertions in context with known facts. They rarely discuss policy, cover politics as a game and, worst of all, insert themselves as political players.

The Gallery, like the government, has an obligation to serve the public. The election of a new government would be a signal from the public that they want a change in the politics of this country. If this is the public's decision, the Gallery has an obligation to play its part.

(This article was originally published in On Line Opinion, October 25, 2007.)

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