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There are many different angles one can come at the Jenny Macklin/Newstart/Adam Bandt/political stunt/$35-a-day/single mothers brouhaha that has fairly dominated a day and half’s worth of empty news cycles. So naturally I’m going to try all of them.

$35 a day for all! For those who are blessedly unaware, the story is vaguely thus: during late 2012, the government decided that, in its then-fetishistic pursuit of a surplus (a pursuit since abandoned, incidentally), it would save a cheeky $728 million over four years by moving about 100,000 single parents from their existing payment to the Newstart allowance. Of course, this received little to no coverage as it happened the day of the Prime Minister’s ‘misogyny speech’. Colour and movement and all that.

Then, on Tuesday, Jenny Macklin, the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, was asked whether she felt if she could survive on $35 a day (presently she survives on about $900 a day). A question which, in my mind seems quite legitimate. Her answer:

“I could, and of course we understand that what’s important for people who are unemployed is that we do everything possible to help people get work.”

A bold claim, suggesting in a couple of words that a 96% pay cut was something fairly manageable. But obviously, such a claim would not go unchallenged. Acting Greens leader Adam Bandt – or perhaps his media adviser – smelled an opportunity, immediately challenging the Minister to join him in living on $35 a day for one week.

This set off the usual round of discussion on Twitter about, well, everything. Preston Towers felt that the original question in the presser was ridiculous. Liam Hogan saw it as the latest in a never-ending round of stunts, as did Megan Clement. All of Twitter started talking about what it’s like to live on $35 a day.

And they were right. It’s a stunt. A stunt performed, incidentally, by Greens senator Rachael Siewert last year – something she blogged about.

The Herald Sun got in the action with this 'one-egg family'I’ve never lived on $35 a day, at least not in any situation that compares even remotely to that of someone with dependents and everyday cost of living, but I know it’s sweet fuck all, an amount so pitiful as to actively inhibit the search for work, rather than support it. If the choice is public transport to job interviews for a month, or $200 for your kids dentist, I reckon the young ‘uns molars win every time. Everyone knows that this is a dud move by the government that will win nary a vote.

But what about the ‘stunt’? The act of challenging the Minister to go without for a week. It was met resoundingly with scorn across most media I consume, yet it’s hard to avoid the feeling that there is a chicken/egg blame game at work.

Most of the criticisms of Bandt’s challenge are around two things: its efficacy, and the slippery slope towards a dumber media environment that it embodies/encourages.

Anyone who feels that, if she takes this challenge up, Macklin would change her mind is, frankly, deluded. If you go for seven short days on not much money, it’s not too much of a hassle, particularly if you have this kind of motivation to manage it. There will be no emergency dental work, or a job interview to get to. She’ll make it, then give a press conference saying that she understands that it’s tough, and that’s why she’s so focused on helping people find work.

Bandt, likewise, will find it similarly easy to fail. I imagine that his daily rent in inner Melbourne probably exceeds $35, so there you go. Everyone continues to hold the position they held before.

But what this stunt has achieved is to get a great many people talking about the government’s policy shift, and in that sense, it’s worked tremendously well. So the stunt has been effective, yes. But also, it does embody the slide into ephemera and triviality that our media increasingly embraces. As David Paris said on Twitter:

The meedja ignored all of the inquiries, reports, experts. This seems to be all they pay attention to.

But whose fault is that? Adam Bandt, as far as I can tell, has close to zero responsibility for making the media grow up. His job is to bring issues that he is politically strong on to the front of the debate. Mission accomplished.

The media report on stunts, scandals, outrages and heartfelt underdog stories. And lists (oh, how they love a good list). If one of these can be harnessed to someone’s ends, go nuts.

And the media does it because we (you, me and everyone we know) read about stunts, scandals, outrages and heartfelt underdog stories. Unless you’re primed to get riled up about impoverished single parents, a headline like ‘100,000 single parents $100/week worse off: report’ isn’t about to get your pageview.

So, while my last post unambiguously lay the blame for bad reporting at the feet of the media for shoddy reporting of the AWU ‘scandal’ (there’s that word again), this time it’s back to the capitalist response. We get the media we deserve. Even more so now that they can see, in real time, what we click on. You want change? Read the worthy, if tiresome, articles quoting experts. Convince friends and family to do the same. It’s not Macklin’s fault. It’s not Bandt’s. It’s not even the journo who asked the question’s fault.

It’s ours.

Pointing the finger

I’ve been lax on my blogfoolery of late. Every time I felt like I had a spare moment to pen something, I found myself consumed by ennui, uninspired by most of what I saw, and that which I did would more easily be expressed in 140 characters than anything more considered.

But I have been roused. This morning, an ordinary, if stinking hot, Melbourne Thursday, I was watching News Breakfast on ABC24 as I prepared for work. They decided to cut to the pre-parliament doorstops to pad for time. First up, we were halfway through Tony Windsor, who, as always, had smart things to say about the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. The journalists were curious about some letter the PM had written. Windsor had nothing to say on that, instead asking if anyone had questions about the Plan. None did, so he left. Next up, waiting in the wings (quite literally) was Chris Pyne.

He had plenty to say.

I’m not going to get into the stuff he tossed around because, frankly, I haven’t paid much mind to it all, but if you want the details, Ben Eltham over at New Matilda has a good summary of all this Gillard rubbish.

Pyne finished his tear, then Adam Bandt stepped up to discuss the various reforms going up before parliament today. News Breakfast cut back to the “anchors” who then repeated Pyne’s claims.

This is why I’m riled up this morning.

Ordinarily I’m loathe to apportion blame when it comes to the carousel of bullshit that is national political discourse. Politicians have a social obligation to look after the national interest. The media have a social obligation to report honestly, and on issues that balance between the public interest and what the public is interested in. The public have an obligation, as good citizens, to pay attention to important issues of the day. The turd load is evenly distributed.

But in this case, it’s the media’s fault.

This is a non-story. Not even meritorious of ‘scandal’, ‘gate’ or even a consistent hashtag. A piece of ridiculous confection that the opposition have every reason to go to town on, given that they have an election to win, and creating the impression, however tenuous, of a corrupt government is great for them, and takes attention away from their “policies”.

The government are desperately alternating between trying to deny the issue oxygen, then having a crack at a controlled burn, in the hope that there will be no further flare-ups.

The public, meanwhile simply doesn’t care. It switched off long ago. The whole Slater & Gordon brouhaha was boring to begin with, unrelated to any issues of importance. Now, it so fiendishly convoluted that only the most tragic or partisan have any understanding of what is happening. I certainly can’t follow it anymore.

But the media simply won’t let it go. There are a million reasons for this, but I think there are two that are paramount:

  1. It’s way easier to report on. Policy is hard. It means that journalists, researchers and interviewers need to read detailed briefers, consult experts and generally get their heads around complicated issues that have real-world effects. Bollocks to that. Repeating “claims” and “allegations” is far more fun, and simply requires turning up at a Canberra doorstop before repeating the claim that the PM has ‘questions to answer’, without actually deciding what those questions are, and having had two discrete opportunities to put any and all questions to her. But that’s the minor reason. The big one?
  2. General Sherman. You may recall in the Simpsons the enormous, possibly mythical catfish that Homer sets off after in lieu of attending marriage counselling. That’s this story. Bringing down a sitting PM is the ultimate in journalistic achievement. For all the talk among partisans about bias in the media (which, of course there is, but it’s down to the individual journalist much of the time, and is usually suppressed by larger organisational biases), every journalist’s prejudice is trumped by getting a “yarn”. No matter how dyed-in-the-wool Labor, any journo would jump at the chance to be the one to break The Story of the Decade and unseat Gillard.

Rather than sit in a boat, fishing for a smoking gun that it is increasingly apparent doesn’t exist, our journalistic class would be better advised to do their jobs, sit down with Marge and explain the ins and outs of the numerous issues that should be on the front page. NDIS, Murray-Darling Plan, melting permafrost, the Kyoto negotiations in Doha, hunger strikes on Nauru, you name it.

In the end, the overall sensation for me in this sea of vacuity is one of sadness. Imagine, if you would, a world where this level of forensic research and doggedness was applied to issues of actual importance. Perhaps the public may have known how a carbon price actually works. Perhaps the public would understand the difference between the paid parental leave schemes of both major parties. Perhaps someone could explain to me how the NDIS works. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps…

So fuck you, media. I no longer want to see Christopher Pyne suggest there are questions to answer.

Don’t let the professionals do this job

Greg Jericho will forever be, in my mind, Grog’s Gamut. If ever I meet the man, I imagine experiencing no small amount of cognitive dissonance between my image of a man with the name of Grog and the head of Ralph Fiennes and the reality of a mild-mannered former public servant and present-day doyen of online political enthusiasts.

I was lucky enough to stumble across his blog some time in late 2009, after seeing him mentioned quite frequently on Twitter and noticing him bobbing up in the comments of the Pollytics blog. He was that rare commodity in political reporting – someone that would dig through the data and present it, relatively unvarnished, with clear explanation. He didn’t assume that his audience was too dumb to cope with a graph, mainly because he knew his audience was small and interested in these things. It was the essential roughage in my media diet that I really needed.

I engaged with him occasionally via Twitter (under my guide as Things Bogans Like – the fact that I’m relatively ignored on Twitter now that I have about 200 followers instead of 8,000 is a topic for another post), and when I noticed he had a book coming out, I was excited to get my hands on it.

Rise of the Fifth Estate is Mr Gamut’s typically well-researched dissection of the growing importance of blogging and social media in the Australian politico-media complex. His focus on such a niche issue allows him a great deal of latitude to drill down to specifics, such as counting the number of political blogs in the country, and the gender of the authors.

Gamut has always, as a PhD and public servant, been given to dry prose and a certain academic remove in his writing, which serves him well in the short form world of blogging. Given a greater amount of space, however, some of the chapters lack real zing, despite frequently interesting subject matter. When writing a book, his data needs a narrative, it needs a story, with people, for us to connect to it.

Which is why, when he turns his surgical eye to his own ‘outing’ by James Massola and The Australian in 2010, the book becomes a riveting, and eviscerating, tale of how Australia’s traditional media deal with perceived interlopers. There was a personal appeal also, as his tale of how he became a blogger resonated with mine, and his eventual garnering of an audience – and admission that of course he wanted one – gives me stamina to keep shouting into an empty internet.

Were the book to be boiled down to one overarching theme it would be ‘Journalists: new media is a thing. Deal with it. But I doubt you can.’

Having viewed Gamut’s ‘unmasking’ via Twitter, The Australian and various blogs and news sites at the time, it was sobering to be reminded of the viciousness and sheer vapid pointlessness of the traditional media’s refusal to deal with reality (and yes, I’m using ‘traditional media’ as a catch-all, generic label. I realise that there are many journalists who do not behave in this way, but allow me some license).

Throughout the book, Gamut offers example after example of journalists refusing to countenance criticism from bloggers and social media purely due to the medium, or efforts by journalists to validate their poor coverage of, for instance, the 2010 election campaign. Indeed, it was this excellent post in July 2010 that kicked off the entire fracas.

Here’s a note to all the news directors around the country: Do you want to save some money? Well then bring home your journalists following Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard, because they are not doing anything of any worth except having a round-the-country twitter and booze  tour.

It is a sad thing to say but we could lose 95 percent of the journalists following both leaders and the nation would be none the poorer for it. In fact we would probably be better off because it would leave the 5 percent who have some intelligence and are not there to run their own narrative a chance to ask some decent questions of the leaders. Some questions which might actually reveal who would be the better leader of this country.

The response by senior journalists, such as Samantha Maiden, revolved around variations of ‘what would you know you’re just a blogger’. Gamut succinctly sums up the criticism as ‘just let the professionals do their job’, a phrase actually used by Matthew Franklin in response to Gamut’s criticisms on Twitter. The stunning arrogance and ignorance of that kind of statement sets the blood a-boiling.

And this is, to me, the takeaway message of Gamut’s book. If the ‘professionals’ give us this and this, while these ‘amateurs’ can provide analysis like this and this, the question needs asking: what the hell are we paying these professionals for? Why on earth would anyone fork out actual dollars to get news of the PM’s ears from our august ‘national broadsheet’? News organisations are at a loss as to how to appeal to readers and sell advertising (or make money in any possible way), and are resorting to anything they can, while attempting to maintain the moral high ground, and it offers us nothing.

Today, ‘news’ is a commodity with low to non-existent margins. It’s right there on Twitter, or ABC24, which can deliver events unedited and in real time. The value is in explanation, detail, analysis and, yes, opinion. Right now, the best of that is free, it’s online and, yes, it’s amateur. The sooner the ‘professionals’ realise that, the better off we’ll all be.