On political reporting

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Crikey‘s Bernard Keane has written a magnificent 2000-word wrap of the year in Australian politics, 2008: Dashed dreams and mouldy political compromise. Every sentence is worth reading — but especially his observations about the links between politicians and the media.

Politics is more or less based around people of high principles and good will discovering that the obtaining and exercising of power involves doing bad things, distasteful things, amoral things, involves unpleasant trade-offs and not just the famous half-loaves of compromise but stale, mouldy crusts. And it’s all the more that way because its symbiotic partner, its Siamese twin the media, dislikes complexity and nuance, in favour of the same simple narratives, repeated with an ever-changing cast of characters but the same plots and moral lessons over and over again. That’s what sells. And what gets votes.

It’s the media’s job, or one of them, to make much of little and it has done that expertly for much of the year, as it does always. History suggests that, barring incompetence on an inordinate scale, Labor will be in power for several terms, but that’s not going to attract many eyeballs. Instead, the most minor political events are forensically analysed, with each tiny feature placed under the microscope so that it looms large to the viewer despite its irrelevance. Recall The Australian’s concerted push for Peter Costello mid-year, undoubtedly motivated not just by a sense of mischief-making but by the moderate inclinations of the obvious alternative to the failing Nelson. After more than a year on the backbench, not a scintilla of evidence has emerged that Peter Costello ever intended to do anything other than what he said, which was to remain on the backbench until he found a job outside politics. And yet we — as in all of us — devoted many pixels and column inches to his imminent ascension, or the unlikelihood thereof.

Afterwards, we forgot all about that, and probably hoped our readers did too.

Never forget the media has a vested interested in convincing you something is happening even when precisely nothing is happening — indeed, particularly when nothing is happening. It is thus wise – and I’m possibly not telling you anything you don’t already know here — to retain a strong scepticism about all political reportage and analysis, no matter the source. We’re all selling something.

OK, I’m biased. I write for Crikey every now and then. But this is why I’d buy it anyway.

2 Replies to “On political reporting”

  1. @Stilgherrian

    I heartily agree on the point of “this is why you buy Crikey.com.au” … I am also a paid reader of Crikey as my main daily piece of media. I do not spend money on newspapers or magazines as I have noticed the same “EPIC FAIL” of their narrative.

    It takes a brave organisation to write from their perspective. And write against the grain of the large, traditional media especially as it lashes out in its drunken death throes.


  2. @NickHodge: Interestingly enough, Crikey‘s “global correspondent-at-large” Guy Rundle says something along these lines in the introduction to his new book, Down to the Crossroads: On the Trail of the 2008 US Election:

    [In this book] the reader will find something that is far from an exhaustive record of the blow-by-blow events of the campaign — though looking over it, I was pleasantly surprised by how much it had touched on. It rapidly came clear in the reporting that there was no point in simply relating the events that every other Australian correspondent was lifting and rehashing ad nauseam — uselessly, in a world where every newspaper in the world (you know, all the ones Sarah Palin reads) is a Google away. Instead it was an attempt to record the feel of the campaign and the character of the country, the hopes, bewilderments and sloughs of despond of a correspondent who never made any secret of his loyalties.

    There’s a lot in that paragraph. Breaking the myth of journalistic objectivity: how should we interpret the stories of a journalist when we don’t know how he or she intends to vote, or who they hope to win? An idea of how journalists can add value to events — by bringing their own personality to the story and filling it with life. “Google” as a gerund.

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