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Judging the sales pitch: #mediafail

As I mentioned last week, I am researching political narrative by investigating the words that come out of politicians’ mouths and are written in press releases by their spin doctors. This research is in the field of political communications. And what has occurred to me through this research is that just about every political journalist in Australia is also interested in political communication. But the problem is, that’s all they’re interested in. The wrapper on the shiny policy launch. The sales pitch for the budget. The salesman for the new policy car. Of course I find any discussion of political communication fascinating and often worthy of a citation in a paper. But that’s just me. The rest of the community doesn’t need to hear about the success of the policy spin job. They care about the actual policy. The thing in the wrapper. The car the salesman is trying to sell. The impact that product is going to have on them. And that is where the political journalists in Australia let the community down. Because they never delve further into the cake than chatting with each other about the icing.

A perfect example of this type of journalistic style is Peter Hartcher. All the time. As the political editor for Fairfax’s Sydney Morning Herald, you would think Hartcher might be interested in political policy. But no. After many years of a total dedication to Labor leadership tensions due to his role as Kevin Rudd’s full-time-leak-recipient, he’s taken a few months into the Abbott’s government to work out what his new narrative might be. And predictably policy outcomes still don’t make an appearance. Instead, it would appear he’s settled on the well-worn ‘they’re just as bad as each other’ narrative to report on the Abbott Liberal government. Because that gives him plenty of opportunity to continue with his dedication to Labor bashing.

For example, this article from yesterday, helpfully titled ‘Tony Abbott’s Coalition making same mistakes as Labor’ might appear to the untrained eye as an article comparing the previous Labor government’s mistakes with the new Liberal government’s problems. But look closer. This article is not about politics. It is about political communication.

In fact I agree with Hartcher that Labor’s communication strategies were, in the most part, not up to the task of selling their highly successful progressive reform agenda and, along with disunity, were a key factor in their 2013 election loss. I’ve written about this failure myself. But, as part of the mainstream media’s synchronised failure to give credit where credit is due, again Hartcher misses to make the point that Labor’s policy success during the previous two terms was phenomenal, particularly in a hung parliament. Over 500 pieces of legislation were passed by the Gillard/Rudd government in their last term. And comparing the first 7 months of Gillard’s government with Abbott’s government is a ‘look at the scoreboard’ moment which should be impossible for journalists like Hartcher to ignore. 127 to 7. Including Abbott’s Knights and Dames farce. And it’s not like Gillard’s policy successes were minor. The Carbon Price, the Gonski reforms, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the mining tax, the National Broadband Network. Literally just to name a few. But because Hartcher has decided Labor failed to sell these policies, he’s perpetuating the perception, through his influential position of political editor in the mainstream media, that these policies were failures, when really all he is commenting on is the communication strategy employed by the politicians.

A great example of this is Hartcher’s example of one of the policies mentioned above, which happens to be the policy I’m studying for my thesis: the mining tax. Hartcher says:

“The mining tax is a prime example. A perfectly reasonable policy, based on rational economic principles, that would have given Australia some lasting benefit from a passing boom.

But it was doomed by political mismanagement. It came out of nowhere, met a firestorm of opposition, was rewritten in a political panic, and soon disappeared into ignominy.”

When you read these sentences, they seem fair. Hartcher has given the mining tax policy a sort-of-thumbs-up by calling it a ‘perfectly reasonable policy’. But there’s a key element of this ‘doomed’ mining tax that you need to take into account, which happens to be the other topic of my thesis: I’m not just focusing on what politicians say, I’m also investigating how the mainstream media reports what politicians say. Even if Labor politicians while in government were saying ‘the mining tax is a perfectly reasonable policy’ until they were blue in the face, the public didn’t hear this if people like Hartcher refused to report it.

Out of curiosity, I had a look at what Hartcher said about the mining tax the day after it was announced. I found this article: It’s not the economy, it’s the election stupid. Remember what I was saying about the ‘they’re just as bad as each other’ narrative? This was a moment where Hartcher could have analysed the mining tax policy from the perspective of a political journalist interested in policy outcomes. This is where the public could have found out how the mining tax is designed to redistribute profits from billionaires and rich investors (mostly foreign) to the people who own the resources: all Australians. This is where, just imagine, Hartcher could have given the Labor government even 500 words of credit for developing a policy aimed at reducing wealth inequality by sharing the windfalls from a once in a generation mining boom. But no. Hartcher wasn’t interested in this type of article. Instead he accused Swan and Rudd of introducing the policy with the populist motive of winning an election. To improve Labor’s sales pitch. Because, low and behold, this is the only part of politics Hartcher focuses on. And in doing so, he’s letting down his audience, he’s letting down his profession and most importantly, he’s reducing politics to a PR exercise.

When the audience thinks they’re reading a comparison of Labor and Liberal policies, but they’re really just reading a review of the party’s communication strategies, the community might actually start to think the policies of the two parties are just the same. And look where that has got the community. It’s got us Teflon-Tony Abbott as Prime Minister with a majority of voters who seem to know little about what Abbott’s government was going to do, and are shocked at finding out too late that they don’t like any of it.

I wonder if this has ever occurred to Peter Hartcher. Abbott’s opinion polls dived soon after the public saw for themselves the new government’s policies. But if the public had a chance to read about Abbott’s policies before the election, Abbott’s budget would not have been a surprise. By judging Australia’s political journalists on how informed the electorate is about political policy, it’s clear that Hartcher and his colleagues have comprehensively failed. Their devotion to the reporting of political communication instead of policy leads them to blame the failure of Abbott’s budget on the budget sales pitch. But what if the icing isn’t the problem? What if it’s the policies in the budget that are to blame for Abbott’s problems? How about journalists have a look at what politicians are doing instead of focusing solely on what they are saying? What if Hartcher admitted you can’t polish a turd? Or does he know too little about political policy to make this call?

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  1. Dan Dark

    Great article once again Victoria.. Thanks 🙂

  2. bobrafto

    polish a turd? good one!

    But they keep on trying don’t they especially in the house of the setting sun of Murdockpia.

    Now Rupert will soon expire, pushing up daisies so to speak and I’m sure there will be a raucous round of applause around the world when that happens, if not a collective sigh of relief.

    Will it be business as usual when the Devil’s sons take over or will there be change?.

  3. Matters Not

    But if the public had a chance to read about Abbott’s policies before the election, Abbott’s budget would not have been a surprise

    That’s a strange assertion. On the eve of that election Abbott went on TV and said:

    No cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to the GST and no cuts to the ABC or SBS.”.

    I heard about that ‘policy’, I read about it. I ‘knew’ about it. I suspect that the majority of the population also ‘knew’ about such promises and therefore would have been most surprised when the budget was delivered. Broken promises writ large.

    As I said it’s a strange claim.

    Having said that, yes the journalists let the voters down. They didn’t pull apart the magic pudding that Abbott put on the table prior to the election. The ABC, for example, never did a 4 Corners type investigation into Abbott in all the six (6) years he was opposition leader. In many ways they deserve what is now being dished out.

  4. Florence nee Fedup

    What is worse for Hockey and Abbott is the nasties in his budget are still emerging. Coming from all those hundreds of bodies and regulations they so proudly demolished.

  5. Florence nee Fedup

    By the way, there was no great savings in repealing most. Add up to very little in the scheme of things. Pure ideology and prejudice.

  6. Kaye Lee

    Not to mention “When it comes to education, there is no difference between Labor and the Coalition. We are on a unity ticket. No school will be worse off under the Coalition”.

    Some say that Abbott has been successful in getting his message across – only if you don’t care about being lied to. Or perhaps the voters truly think they will be $550 better off with the carbon tax repeal. I wonder if they have added up how much that loss of government revenue is costing them in other areas.

  7. Möbius Ecko

    Look at this word cloud:

    What’s so very telling is it came from a survey of committed Liberal supporters on their thoughts of Abbott. The best they could come up with is “good” and there are as many negatives, some very damning, as there are positives. It really is taking the MSM an awful lot of effort and cost to keep selling the Abbott lemon.

    This comes on the back of more leadership speculation, don’t the media love that, of Bishop the younger now vying for the position. It’s based on domestic statements she’s made and her supposed superlative effort as Foreign Minister, that has shot ahead since MH17.

    How quickly the MSM have forgotten her recent past gaffs with the leaders of other countries and those she has put off side by unnecessary and undiplomatic tough rhetoric. SBY is still posting negative Tweets against Australia, but you won’t see the MSM mention them.

    So now the puppet masters have their standby puppet in waiting for when the current one strings fray even further.

  8. kerrilmail

    Totally agree Victoria, and this explains the success of Abbott in the eyes of the media and the lazy voters. The LNP could not be judged on their policies as they hadn’t yet written them., instead focussing on the”look at me” moment on a daily basis. Political journalists were dazzled by the fluoro shirts, goggles and hairnets and reported accordingly. Bob Carr was not far wrong (possibly because he is both journalist and politician) when he mentioned Abbott’s behaviour as being like a magician. The majority of Australian voters, at least it would appear the majority, don’t want to have to analyse or understand Government policy and the LNP well know this. The public want to turn on the telly or read the paper while they have a cuppa and do as they are told. This has been in place for years. People find politics boring. Question time has nuances well beyond most voters and the ABC is so drab. Will the next move be reality TV politics?? Will voters engage more if Joe and Chris have to pass the challenge of who makes the best budget cake??? Will those who didn’t vote join the phone poll for whether Pyne or Burke recites the wittiest objection???
    The media has a lot to answer for.
    Except of course the AIMN.

  9. lawrencewinder

    “But if the public had a chance to read about Abbott’s policies before the election, Abbott’s budget would not have been a surprise.”…All they and the journo’s had to read was the IPA wishlist.. it was there.

  10. Gilly

    Shallow reporting leading to a hollow Government.

  11. bobrafto

    m going to post a Pickering article, before anyone gets the wrong idea I have been blocked from posting on his site, cos I had the temerity to highlight his computer betting scam ripping off punters to the tune of $15M and with enough evidence to sink a battleship, the QLD cops turned a blind eye. However Pickering promotes hate against Muslims and his followers just lap it up. Anyway here it is:


    PM Abbott’s pet signature policy of Paid Parental Leave was always a dead duck. There has never been such a woolly-headed idea from either side of politics. How can a thought bubble to shore up Tony Abbott’s lack of female support be promoted as a “productivity” measure when multi billions are proposed to lure women out of the workforce (possibly never to return) to have babies on welfare?

    If Abbott wants equality with Public Service entitlements then the pampered Public Service should be brought back to the reality of the struggling private sector.

    The policy ideas pouring from the Coalition’s party room are proving excellent targets for the Opposition.

    Forty job applications per month for the unemployed! What idiot thought that one up?

    Cabinet’s resident religious nutter, Kevin Andrews, and his $200 counselling vouchers to keep married couples together, belongs with the other nutters on the cross benches.

    He and his wife coincidentally own a counselling service, but no thought of declaring an interest.

    Now another brilliant idea! People will be forced to spend their dole money on healthy stuff.

    And another one! The $7 co-payment is likely to be reduced rather than increased to where it might dissuade hypochondriacs and might actually raise some money above the cost of its administration.

    The budget is a disastrous mishmash of offsets that was never framed around the likely acquiescence of a likely new Senate.

    Abbott deferred treating the gangrenous open sore of Industrial Relations until after the next election in fear that he may have lost the last election.

    He is solving the Islamic threat with, “Oh, when they return they’ll have to prove they weren’t involved in Jihadist activities”. WTF is next? Perhaps anyone visiting Thailand will have to prove they didn’t have relations with little boys?

    If they are Islamic and their passport says Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan, send them back, or charge them. Why try to dance around the problem?

    His mate Campbell Newman is completely out of his tree, restructuring the judiciary to quickly cope with his enforcement of undemocratic legislation before the High Court throws it out.

    Meanwhile a seditious, extreme Left ABC has been slapped on the wrist with a used condom for openly trying to dismantle Morrison’s successful Sovereign Borders policy.

    His newly appointed, homosexually confused, Human Rights Commissioner is undermining his boss, while Malcolm Turnbull remains unrestrained to do the same.

    It seems Morrison is the only Minister with balls enough to grasp the nettle and dare the extreme Left to challenge him.

    When 70 per cent of the electorate doesn’t like its PM, it’s time for that PM to show strength beyond a universally acceptable MH17 response. This Government is sinking fast to the equivalent of a Fraser administration which achieved and mended nothing.

    Abbott is not only handing ammunition to that despicable union thug, Bill Shorten, he is losing the very constituents who worked very hard to get him there… the true blue believers!

    Abbott’s wimpish stance on everything controversial is encouraging the far Left and discouraging his Conservative base.

    His personal approval polls won’t improve until he either shits or gets off the pot!

    I will stop now before I type something I might regret.

    Now with all his shafting of Abbott and when one reads the comments, I’m still trying to get my head around the mentality or lack of it of the commentators and here is the link

  12. halsaul

    Good comment Gilly. I absolutely think Victoria nailed it too. We have “career” journalists that are unprofessional by not reporting the facts. Unadorned and without their personal opinion over-riding all else. I realise also they may risk their employment by not “toeing the line”. It’s not as if it wasn’t blatantly obvious how unworthy & incapable this IPA run LNP was. We now endure the fruits of electing and Australian Tea Party. am very concerned how LNP are placing “their people” in strategic positions that will affect legislative decisions including High Court, even when Abbott & co. are no longer in power.

  13. PencilsandPostcards

    I dumped my subscription to the Fairfax papers because of Hartcher…he was fixated on giving Julia Gillard a very hard time and in such a way that really lacked any standards of decent journalism.

  14. martin connolly

    Gee I felt I might have written that piece, except I don’t write that well.

    I have thought that Hartcher has been, throughout much of the last government and all of this one, a … erm … waste of column space.
    He is one of the reasons I keep an eye on my Fairfax subscription. He is, as you say, always a smidgen above the puff piece, with little or no actual research or analysis in evidence. I understand the columns by Reith, Vanstone, Sheehan et al, and now Hartcher is in that list. Fairfax should really consider what value he gives – for me it’s zero, or worse.

    This country has needed journalists who will do the work, but the Canberra press gallery and many ‘political reporters’ have just grown fat and happy regurgitating the same old same old.

    People will stop reading local fluff (note to Fairfax), but people don’t stop caring. During the Indonesia spying thing, I looked only at overseas web sites for information. More recently, for information on MH17 or Gaza, my Google search has

  15. bensab3Rhona Eastment

    Thank you Victoria. The media and mining industry and LNP (and shock jocks) all sang the same nasty scaremongering tune regarding the super profits mining tax and Labor didn’t stand a chance. Such a shame the real truth only comes to light well after the damage done. If media had followed tried & true ethical standards the outcome could have been so much better. So many lies told, promises of policies and costings ‘in good time before election’, but never fulfilled, weasel words which it seems majority swallowed, led to election of the most deceitful government I am guessing ever known in Australia’s history. Why are they still there? They talk of mandates. I don’t believe they can claim mandates when lies and scare tactics distorted issues so much the public didn’t ‘t understand what policies they were voting for.

  16. corvus boreus

    “Only Labor could ‘devise’ a tax that raises no revenue”.
    Only Hoe Jockey could take a hunting dog, demand it be blinded and hobbled, then disparage it’s hunting abilities.
    The Mining Tax would have generated a luck-foad more revenue in it’s original proposed form.
    Good article, Victoria R, thank you.

  17. Kaye Lee

    Tony is so embarrassing when confronted with facts. Take this exchange in 2012…


    The only people who are really going to be celebrating the passage of the mining tax are our overseas rivals. They’ll be celebrating in Canada, they’ll be celebrating in Chile, they’ll be celebrating in parts of Africa because jobs and investment that would be going to Australia will now be going to other countries.


    Investment in the mining industry next year, though, is forecast to go up to $120 billion. That’s from $95 billion this year.


    Well no one is saying that the mining industry will die overnight because of the mining tax but it will certainly not expand in the long term at the rate it should because of this new tax. You see, what we’ve got here is a government which sees an issue and immediately thinks, “aha! An opportunity to tax!” This government has never seen a problem that it didn’t think could be fixed with a new tax, a new programme, a new bureaucracy.

  18. Bradley Temperley

    Great article. What is the scoreboard for legislation? I’d be surprised if only 7 Bills of any size and shape passed in 7 months, but 127 sounds fair.

  19. mars08

    …I’d be surprised if only 7 Bills of any size and shape passed in 7 months…

    What we need to know is how many Bills were pushed by the government in that time. I suspect they were just waiting for a more agreeable senate before trying to get the important stuff passed.

  20. Florence nee Fedup

    Seven before budget session seems to be it. Yes, MP spent much time with nothing to do during sittings. Much of the budget legalisation, is still to see light of day.
    Hard for Opposition to oppose, until one sees the legalisation.

    Will attempt most by regulation., Will, as usual with this government, will come unstruck.

    Same as Morrison has been with those 157 for the last month.

    If they were waiting for the new senate, we should have seen a deluge of bills. Has not occurred.

  21. donwreford

    Abbotts, obsession with the dead, millions of dollars of taxpayers money allocated to finding missing plane, flight 370, in the Pacific, the allocation of money Mr Abbott’s, policy, is as long as it takes? the search for this plane could take years and more than likely will never be found, now Abbott’s, concern with Malaysian plane MH 17,the obsession with the body parts to be cataloged, and data relating to missing bodies is all very well, the taxpayer will again be the people who foot the bill, what is the state of a body falling from the sky? after a attack at 22 thousand feet, and all in a war zone.
    The money spent would be of greater benefit directed to the living of those who are in poverty and are hungry, rather than money spent on the dead.
    If your concern and identity is national, you may well support this program of money spent, if you are supporting the planet and do not have a nationalistic identity, a reasonable concern would be all who are living or dead are of equal importance, the idea that some people should have huge resources directed to them as opposed to those who are regarded as more disposable, is subjective in terms of value.

  22. John Fraser


    @Victoria Rollinson

    Research the way Abbott talks when he is in political mode.

    "Let me say ….. let me just say ….. all Australians …. all Australians want … blah blah".

    For those who remember Telegrams its that way of speaking …. "I … stop ….. just …. stop … want …. to …. repeat … just want to … etc etc".

    Then have a look at Abetz's stuttering, emphasis on every second word, political speech mode …. kinda sounds like someone who has had a brain injury and is learning to speak.

    Its as confected as Abbotts.

    I've got a sneaky suspicion its an American speech therapist Tea Party style to make the person using it stand out from the crowd.

    Slowly though, Aussies are waking up to Abbotts style.

  23. Florence nee Fedup

  24. John Lord

    I read his article and similar thoughts occurred to me. His writing and when he was on the Drum was often two faced.

  25. Geoffrey England

    Great read Victoria as always.
    An accurate assessment, particularly of Hartcher….that failure of a journalist who appears to be victim of his own lack of intelligence and forensic ability.

  26. randalstella

    A well reasoned article. And whaddya know?: actual analysis of the moral equivalence that is the base station for the ‘privileged’ attacks on progressive reform.
    Some few of us have harped on about moral equivalence, all over the place. It might as well be Swahili for the response received.
    For example there was a much-supported ‘fair-minded’ article by Waleed Aly that reeked with moral equating of Abbott’s mob with the last ALP Government. It was duplicitous in a way that was cleverly defensive of major unmentioned interests – and may be as smart as a Media character like that can get.
    These people simply cannot be trusted. It is a moot point whether, as slick as they are, they have the necessary intelligence for the moral competence to do any better. We certainly cannot afford to depend on them.

    The point of greatest danger to general awareness, of ‘non-political’ voters becoming mass ciphers for secret corporate gangster politics, comes in these terms: “Look, they’re all the same these pollies. You can’t trust any of them.” It is the ‘fair’ fall-back position of pseudo-progressive comment. It stops arguments. Progressive thought is bluffed by the prospect of being berated by a right-wing crazy.

    So long as they are considered fair and acceptable, these terms remain this danger of tricking the inattentive. They are not fair – as the example of Gillard shows us starkly. They need to be rebutted in everyday conversation, where they lurk as deadly peril to an equitable society; often spouted by those with much to lose.

    The corporate interests in the MSM can only do so much manipulation. The deciding influence has to be taken up in general public attitude and comment. The dirty derogation of Julia Gillard .was managed this way. It is an episode crying out for serious analysis and undaunted research; as an exposure of cultural malady.

    Moral equivalence is peddled right across the MSM; and is aided by a culture that accepts a lack of analysis as if a knowing ‘handle’ on the topic. It fits the shallow concern for appearances, run on fashion and manipulation. It suits the MSM because it gives them almost unlimited power.

    It means that there is no alternative in general Media to the full-on propaganda of Murdoch. Apart from the explicit gangster rap of Murdoch, insinuation does progressive politics in as conclusively as the MSM can manage..Generally, Murdoch king-hits. Fairfax et al kick the fallen head. The ABC calls it ‘balance’. None of them seriously challenges the mugger.
    It is to the great advantage of the corporate culture that has its efficient mouthpiece, the MSM: there is no need to look around to employ the intelligent, those able to analyse on the facts, those uninterested in mere gossip and invention; those concerned for investigation, not remodeling gossip.. The Hartchers are thick on the ground; clever with slight and innuendo; incapable of realising the difference between ‘selling the Message’ and policy substance. After all, everything they write is selling. That’s what they are there for.
    Thus such sods write with serious sanctimony. Those who know any better are not employed. Or do not ‘star’; languishing at a prudent distance from the battlefront.

  27. oldfart

    what I find truly astounding about this government is that, they have passed 7 pieces of legislation in 7 months which in effect should have presented the opposition with a small target. Yet, some how they managed to generate large numbers of clusterf*cks and stumble from one to the next.

  28. Laura

    Thank you Victoria. You articulate beautifully the current obsession with words rather than substance. It explains the notion endlessly espoused by so many in the media that the problem with the last budget was that the government have failed to SELL it to the Australian public. I hear this sentiment so often in the MSN and wondered when i would hear that the problem with the budget is not the sales pitch, but the fact that its a turd.

  29. michaelattoowoomba

    Kaye Lee, quote ‘tony is so embarrasing when confronted with the facts’ end quote..Sorry,tony and the hole bunch of lying @###**** ARE JUST simply embarrassing in every way. I would humbly suggest,to mention tony or any of his crew in the same sentence as the word ,fact
    is to me incomprehensable,sorry to interrupt. [lack of capitals in his name intentional ]..Michael F

  30. michaelattoowoomba

    Dan Dark,Thanks for that terrifying insight as to what we can look to in Aus,if we let this current bunch continue.
    Michael F

  31. trevor

    That guardian article is a look into the program that F*ck-knuckle Andrews is so keen on introducing to penalise the un/under employed. Just what the heck do the Abbott Rabble expect people will do when they are breached or face 6mnths without benefit for being part of the unlucky Hundred of thousands of unemployed fighting to get one of less than 2oo,ooo available jobs..

    The Victoria Rollins article is great as is her usual output. The media in Ozland whether they be the Political hacks who so love to insert themselves as the story, whether print or TV have long ago allowed their petty bias”s to take place of objective reporting as they compete for the award each month as to whose head gets public recognition the most.

    Occasionally there is a degree of objective reporting, you know some facts instead of Party political regurgitation of Minister’s press releases..

    And then, since the Abbott Rabble’s election and avoidance of Media scrutiny, except for the favoured mouth piece, the Media has decided upon a policy of deriding any labor polly and outright hostility toward the non govt pollies cause the govt won’t play.

    I say to these reporters, to get off their collective arses, out of their workplace and do some work, you know search for stories, facts, double check sources, put some meat on the bones, instead of this lazy reporting and even though there are some “old school” juornos still rattling around, this new breed believes someone owes them.

    But apparently it’s easier to and basic fare for TV current affairs to engage in low tactics to kick the victims and run trite infotainment as news.

    As for Abbott and his congaline of Masquerading Lieberal MP’s running their divisive agenda and trying to work their majic by repeating the days lines from Credlin Central which is supposed to assauge the publics suspicion of a Government that can’t govern, can’t listen, can’t serve and can’t learn, games about up Abbott, You’re a Failure, outta ya depth, fighting outta your weight ya mug. a disgrace, a grub, a thug, a boor, an imposter and mouthpiece for Vulture Capitalism..

    Export Abbott not Refugees

    Peace is not rearming for war.

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