I was engaged in an interesting conversation last week about politics and media coverage. It was a chat about the way that the media and politicians engage in the to-and-fro of politics and journalism. Well, to be honest, in hindsight it was actually more a case of me listening and my fellow dinner guest imparting his opinion, which I was happy to indulge. But then I thought about it for a while and here I am blogging about it.
Thinking back to last week and being a fan of openness in government, I wish I had chimed in with what I would usually say about the way that journalists and politicians should communicate.
The conversation revolved around the way the US media and politicians interact in the political discourse there. Essentially the idea my family friend put forward was that he likes the way that major politicians in the United States of America interact with the media and that the same formula should be followed here in Australia.
As many of you would know, American politics is dominated by set press conferences and interviews and you will rarely see so-called ‘door-stops’. Come to think of it, I am not actually sure I have ever seen that kind of interview situation, that kind of interrogation used in US politics.
Contrast that with Australia. Random interviews are conducted on doorstops, as politicians emerge from their vehicles, leave church, finish up at events and so on.
Of course Australia also has your stock standard, walk to the lectern, make a statement or announcement and then field questions kind of press conference. There is of course that key difference though and that is we have, as part of our system, the ability to ask questions of our MP’s at just about any time.
Is the way that we as Australians do political journalism without flaws? Certainly not.
A big problem with political journalism in Australia is the apparent lack of understanding and an inability to dissect the policies of our political parties and that is by far the biggest problem with political journalism in Australia.
There is, from time-t0-time a problem with the ‘maturity’ of political journalism. There are times when the questions directed at politicians are incredibly stupid or asked in a belligerent manner.
A problem also exists when largely trivial matters dominate the news cycle. This could be due to the fact that there is a lack of policy experience in the media and commentariat, or, as far as the wider journalistic landscape goes, a push in political journalism further towards what makes ratings than to what should be widely known about policy by the general public.
Of course, a general misunderstanding of policy exists within the general public too and even a number of politicians lack policy knowledge, but the latter have the means to articulate their views clearly to the public at their disposal.
Political reporting and journalism in Australia too, despite the more extensive media presence ‘in the field’ does not guarantee the cessation of something that the cynics, or as I like to refer to them in terms of politics, realists, rail against. Unfortunately, never ever will any level of media coverage of politics compel MP’s to answer questions in a truthful manner.
Thankfully, from time-to-time, they will however be caught out in their lies. The best chances of that happening are with an ever-present media like we have in Australia.
In a vibrant liberal democracy, we should be as open as possible and that includes a media with as much opportunity to ask questions as possible even though politicians tend to obfuscate and spin their way through what some describe as ‘answers’ to questions.
This should be the case even if we are uncomfortable at times about the conduct and depth of media coverage devoted to politics.
‘Question Time Ahead of Time’ has appeared on this blog for some months now. It was written as a way to inform the public about the issues of the day that were more than likely going to be the subject of questions from both the Opposition and the government. It was written in a way as a public service, so that you, the faithful readers did not have to go through the excruciating pain of parliament if you chose not to, but still wanted to keep abreast of the parliamentary discourse.
Sadly, this has become too predictable, too transparent. This does not apply to one side more than the other. Both sides of politics have been relentlessly consistent about the areas of policy and politics that they have chosen to prosecute during this, the 43rd parliament of Australia.
On the Opposition side, we’ve had, the carbon price, the Minerals Resource Rent Tax, asylum seekers and the Thomson and Slipper matters be the big focuses of Questions Without Notice since this particular preview piece started. We’ve also had in recent times, the new spending priorities of the Labor Government given significant attention during parliamentary sessions.
On the government side there has been a number of different issues canvassed, but they too have been regularly canvassed. These areas of policy have included the comparative strength of the economy, education reform, health, infrastructure, workplace relations, business and the environment.
Let this be a warning to our politicians that repetition is grating and plainly, just f-cking annoying. There has to be a better way and that has to involve variety. But this is just as much a fault of the 24-hour news cycle as it is about our politicians, where even in 24 hours of news there is generally less than a handful of issues covered in any real depth.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation is copping it from all parts of the political spectrum these days with regards “balance” as well as impartial reporting of news events, though much less the latter. But lately it’s been the left, the core constituency of the ABC that have been the loudest to decry the direction that the publicly funded news organisation is taking in relation to their approach to guest spots on the 6pm political panel show The Drum. All this has been happening while many on the right of the political spectrum still continue to amp up over what is still seen as a left wing bias of the entire news organisation.
The biggest complaint of recent months has been that the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), particularly through regular guests Tim Wilson, Chris Berg and James Paterson appears more than any other think-tank on the daily political commentary show.
It is a simple fact that the IPA has appeared more than any other think-tank that exists in the Australian political landscape. IPA guests have taken up 42% of the appearances of representatives of these organisations for the of the period between June 2011 and June 2012 according to an investigation by Andrew Kos for Independent Australia here
The investigation found that the next highest appearance rate for think-tanks was the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) at just under half the rate of the IPA (at 18%), followed by Per Capita with 16% of appearances and then the Centre for Policy Development responsible for 10% of the guest spots over the year examined.
So clearly the vast majority of think-tank appearances have been as a result of guests from the Institute of Public Affairs. An undeniable fact. But does this automatically translate into a right-wing bias on the part of our state-funded national broadcaster? Sorry, rhetorical question there. The answer is a clear ‘no’.
Sure the IPA and the other major right-wing policy body the CIS have dominated 60%, over half of thinky body spots on the show but to measure bias because of the higher appearance of one or two think-tanks over any other is a pretty ridiculous measure.
A much better way would be to measure based on political leanings of each individual guest, cumulative over each and every time that The Drum has aired.
Even without having done the raw numbers it is also an incontrovertible fact, that, like the IPA dominating the guest list, those that outwardly appear on the left of the political spectrum strongly outnumber those that identify with the right side of the political spectrum. You simply lose count of the times when two of the three panelists are of the left.
The very idea that you can have any form of political balance on a panel when a show, before it even starts has an uneven number of people as commentators, regardless of political affiliation is completely laughable.
The same goes for the other major free-to-air program in the realm of politics, Q&A and the Sunday program Insiders. With the formeryou have a regular panel of another uneven number, 5 guests where again people of the right side of politics are always strongly outnumbered. Sure, you’ll find your regular Q&A panel has a wider diversity of guests than The Drum, which usually leans toward those of the left that support Labor but there’s still not an overall balanced cross-section of views displayed due to the panel size and choices.
As for Insiders, again, like The Drum, you have 3 panelists, journalists from both Fairfax and News Ltd and the occasional freelance writer. Again too you have a political imbalance, always slanted to the left, partly because of the number of commentators on the show, partly because of the overwhelming number of writers who identify with the political ideology of the left.
So please, to my friends on the left, quit with the whingeing and whining about what you perceive as a right-wing political bias creeping into the political programs of your ABC. You have nothing to worry about, it’s still tilted nicely in your favour. You only need to start worrying if the number of guests representing your beliefs is tilted in the other direction. If balance is truly what you want, then call for an equal number of spots on each of the political shows. But I suspect that deep down you might just be complaining you don’t like what you’re hearing from a small number of people.
The fact that now everyone, left and right, are getting their knickers in a knot tends to indicate that maybe, just maybe, the ABC is heading toward less of a bias toward the left.