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Train track media narratives

When a political event unfolds, you would expect that each media outlet, and each political journalist might report that event from a different angle. You would expect a diversity of opinion and commentary in the stories, depending on the subjective and independent analysis of the individual journalist. But, my research into the stories told by the media shows this is not how political journalists behave. Instead, a media narrative springs up immediately to explain the what, why, how, when and who, and this narrative is adopted as given by the rest of the pack, with very few, if any, journalists willing to look at the story from a different perspective. Simply put, it is much more common for the political media to all tell the same story, and democracy is the loser.

I wrote recently about the success Alice Workman from Buzzfeed had in questioning the facts behind the AFP’s raids on the AWU, and how her reporting blew a hole in the media’s usual ‘unions are corrupt’ narrative, simply by investigating how it came to be that the media arrived at the scene ahead of the police. This type of brave, swimming-against-the-narrative-tide reporting is the exception, not the rule, in the Australian political media. Usually, political stories follow a far more uniform pattern of characterising the ‘facts’ of events as a ‘given’, in what I call the ‘train track narrative’ – as if the train only has one option – following the other trains ahead of it, instead of weaving its own path.

The train track media narrative was exemplified this week by the media’s reporting of the ongoing parliamentary citizenship saga. There seem to be some train tracks which are particularly popular, used as templates in media reporting, like a train set to auto-pilot. For example, there is the ‘they’re just as bad as each-other’ template. It appeared to be a relief to most journalists last week when Labor finally had some citizenship problems of their own. David Feeney’s lost paperwork and five others who claim to have taken reasonable steps to renounce their citizenship, who didn’t receive a response to their correspondence in time to tick that box before the commencement of a new parliament, have been a gift to this template narrative.

As the results of the audit came in, immediately it was the Labor MPs under a cloud who were the focus of the media’s attention. Just to name a few, we had Katharine Murphy at the Guardian making the story all about Labor. The ABC also did their best to paint Labor as the losers in the story, framing Labor’s cross-bench-supported bid to send all un-confirmed citizenship cases to the High Court as a ‘failure’, right there in the headline. Adam Gartrell and James Massola for Fairfax wrote a similar story under the heading ‘More Labor referrals loom as Bill Shorten’s horror fortnight ends with infighting’. David Speers, in the Daily Telegraph, reported Turnbull’s week as ‘the best for this year’, while labelling Shorten’s week a ‘shocker’. And so on and so forth.

To a casual observer of this story, it would seem that Shorten’s Labor opposition were the only party in parliament last week who had any issues with citizenship uncovered in the audit and that Shorten was mismanaging those issues by refusing to sort them out via the High Court. This narrative, however, doesn’t reflect the true reality of the situation.

Let’s look at some of the big things missing from this ‘thank goodness Labor can now be bashed about citizenship problems too’ narrative. Not only is Turnbull facing a by-election this weekend over his own citizenship problems with John Alexander in Bennelong, a by-election which could undermine his government’s numbers on the floor of the parliament (you would think this was a huge story, remember Craig Thomson?), he also has more citizenship problems uncovered through his pathetic attempt at an audit which looked more like a rabble of scant paperwork and disorganisation by the Liberal Party, who clearly have never had a proper process to deal with the requirements of Section 44 of the Constitution.

A reminder at this point that the Liberals and Nationals are in GOVERNMENT. The political stakes are higher for government than opposition I would have thought. The audit showed there are at least four Liberal MPs who still haven’t lifted the cloud of citizenship-doubts through their statements, who need to be referred to ensure they met the requirements the same as everyone else.

Even if you want to leave Josh Frydenberg out because his mother was a Jewish refugee, which Labor have chosen to do (as sympathetic as we all feel towards Jewish refugees, I’m not sure what this element of the story has to do with Frydenberg fulfilling the requirements of the Australian Constitution), there are still four who definitely need to be referred, as argued by Labor and the cross benchers – including Julia Banks, Nola Marino, Jason Falinski and Alex Hawke.

Falinksi has been named in the Daily Telegraph today as being ‘snared’ in the saga – a fact that was obvious last week as soon as the audit was released. All four of these Liberals aren’t arguing that they’ve taken ‘reasonable steps’, as the Labor MPs are, but rather are claiming not to be dual citizens of their respective ancestors’ birth nations, ignoring the fact that S44 requires that dual citizenry AND rights to dual citizenry be denounced.

So have their rights been denounced or not? The High Court are the only ones who can decide this. But even a non-lawyer like me, whose only education in S44 has been to follow the citizenship drama since June, can see that these four have a problem, just by looking at the paperwork they’ve submitted through the audit. Anyone reading media stories, however, this week would think these four MPs were being unfairly targeted by mean-big-bad-bully-Labor, who apparently coerced the cross-benchers into believing their conspiracy against the Liberals for political point scoring. That’s how the ‘they’re just as bad as each other’ story was old last week.

The fact is, Turnbull is shit-scared to send these four Liberals to the High Court because he knows that they are on shaky ground, and if even one or two of them was forced to a by-election, his government’s wafer-thin majority is at risk. So, why do journalists not report from this angle – from the angle that Turnbull blocked a bid by Labor to check both their own and Liberal citizenship cases – to get it all sorted at once – when it is clear that Turnbull would only fight to block the referral if he himself had doubts about his MP’s eligibility? If he thinks they are fine, as the journalists seem to agree, why not let the High Court lift the cloud and everyone can move on, starting 2018 afresh?

The media narrative straight out of the blocks in reporting the citizenship dramas unfolding last week was to rush for the ‘Labor are now on the bad-guy scoreboard and just as bad as the Libs’. But it is Turnbull, not Labor, who has the most to lose, and it is Turnbull’s MPs, not Labor’s, who can’t claim to have taken reasonable steps to renounce their citizenship. This is the crux of the story.

It stuns and frustrates me in equal measure that the political journalists are so quick to all write the same story, that they misrepresent the truth of the citizenship saga, and fall into unquestioning line with each other, leaving the public in the dark about what is really going on. There are many sides to every story, and when journalists all choose to go along the same track, the lack of diverse opinion is not just a bad look for their professionalism, but is also detrimental to democracy. We all lose when journalists don’t do their jobs well.


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  1. pamelac65

    Agree. It is extraordinary how suddenly Labor are the Baddest of the Bad Guys bu popular media consensus.
    What about the LNP who have not provided proof which puts them in compliance with s 44? Are we really expected to just let it go becasue they have lost so many already.
    Mind you if we think that ALP get a raw deal from the Canberra Press Gallery, what about the Greens. Heard an interview on RN this am with Richard Di Natale which was accusatory and rude. Richard stated clearly that 13 companies which paid NO tax last year had donated substantial amounts to LNP and ALP. Fact.
    He was then hauled over the coals for naming Channel 10 who did not make a profit. This completely ignore the fact that if they could not make a profit why spend big on political parties? fair question I thought. Not according to interviewer who treated Greens leader like a pariah.
    I dont think that I am partisan when i say that Greens are treated with less respect in interviews that LNP.

  2. Zoltan Balint

    Do journalists go to school these days to learn how to think or are the kids given a job because they know how to google and how to follow others. My opinion is if there is a crowd ask the quiet one just looking on to find out what is happening.

  3. Zoltan Balint

    Pamelac65 you are obviously a Greens supporter. So was I until Milne and di Natale decided to attack anything not Green even if they distroyed the world. Di Natale is upset because he did not get as much. If he wanted relevance he would use diplomacy and only fight one enemy at a time.

  4. Peter Fraser

    Spot on Victoria, what does go on in their collective heads?

  5. Conrad

    The ‘train track’ thesis is so evident in each week’s programme of ‘Insiders’ – so often their (usually pro-Murdoch right-wing) discussion just reiterates the narrative and views already well churned over in the weekly press coverage. The ‘cast’ are not even ‘Insiders,’ just a gaggle of viewers on the fringe, with a very limited capacity to engage in serious analysis. On the whole the archaic, rigid, cold-war-fixated Julia Bishop’s Defence White Paper was just accepted in the major newspapers – only later on did assiduous news searching uncover the fact that Hugh White (the brainiest person in Australia) considered it to have major flaws.
    I wish they would clean out the cast of Insiders and replace them with some true creative journalists: Queen Victoria Rollinson, and Vanessa Van Badham of The Guardian as prime candidates.

  6. economicreform

    So-called journalists have become merely puppets for the ideology espoused by the media owners. The mainstream media have largely failed to inform, and are now largely engaged in propaganda, diversion and entertainment. Only the independent media offer any hope of providing a realistic perspective on world events.

  7. Andrew J. Smith

    Good article; spoke with relatives yesterday in Melbourne how we no longer have a media and the disappearance of critical thinking from the English Expression syllabus in the ’80s.

    The train track example is similar to dumbed down binaries eg. us vs. them which precludes broad analysis and nuance vs. glib one line comments and. PR slogans; censorship by omission.

  8. Zoltan Balint

    Censorship requires intelligence to control facts. What we have presented as news these days is omission of facts due to lack of intelligence. But … in my last job I was asked to give my answers to problems and I always asked when they started to walk away happy … how do you know what I told you to do or think is correct. That is the problem these days, no one bothers to confirm anything. They just look for the first thing that confirms the opinion they had to start with.

  9. Michael and Joan Dickins

    Completely agree with you Andrew. In the 60s Critical Thinking was called Clear Thinking in English Expression syllabus. Those lessons learnt all those years ago have stayed with me.

    Occasionally I go to my local media, grab a coffee and read the Herald Sun to read the latest Andrew Bolt nonsense, and be offended by another strident, right wing claptrap article from one of Murdoch’s stable of media hacks.

  10. totaram

    “The opinion they had to start with” has been provided by their chosen “think tank”. For the coalition this is the IPA. Nothing further needs to be said or discussed.

  11. Ricardo29

    Victoria, rework this article a bit and offer it to the Walkley Magazine, which is read by many is very pertinent. I am a former journalist, now retired, but I felt the same as you about the ‘glee’ with which many outlets picked up the Labor problems angle. So disappointed too that so many outlets let Malcolm get away with his attack on Bill, instead of grilling him about his unwillingness to be part of a bipartisan referral of all questionable MP’s. I think his recalcitrance and petty politicking will come back to haunt him.

  12. Steve Laing

    If Feeney turns out to be not a dual national then surely the court will not chuck him out. Unlike a number on the other side who clearly did no check at all, the lack of evidence is what the MSM focuses on. Bias? Just a tad.

  13. Phil

    Exactly, Victoria. I was angered with the Guardian’s Katherine Murphy’s focus wholly on the ALP and Bill Shorten – seemed to me to be a diversion of the worst kind. She seems to have a deeply ingrained bias against the ALP and in particular against Bill Shorten – and it shows no matter how she writes.

    I think the concept of balance in journalism is absolutely wrong headed – I’m not interested in reading an entire article on the machinations of the Opposition in lieu of the machinations of the Liberal National party in power since it is they who are writing the legislation and interpreting existing legislation.

    I don’t think the corporate entities that form what we refer to as the ‘main stream media’ deserve to be so named – with the exception of the emasculated ABC, all the TV stations, radio stations and newspapers are corporately owned and answerable to shareholders and the advertisers, not to the public. They are not a fourth estate at all, and they do not serve national interests – they serve corporate interests and ought not be regarded as a free press or as media.

    They are simply business enterprises who sell audiences to other corporations and to politics on the right using their primary product i.e. entertainment, often gratuitous and titillating or purposefully controversial. They package what is glibly called ‘news’ in an entertainment format to meet their advertisers objectives – this variously involves spreading lies by omission and by propagandising in support of their owners political bias to the right.

  14. John O'Callaghan

    When Cassidy was interviewing Dreyfus he practically accused him of picking on ‘Our Joss”,…Friedenburg is the teachers pet in the media,and Cassidy did’nt take too kindly to Dreyfuss picking on óur boy” it is pathetic and sad to see a once great journalist like Cassidy being reduced to a Murdoch IPA whipping boy yes man!

  15. Michael Jordan

    We all lose when journalists don’t do their jobs well. Exactly. That is a major problem.

    Not only Murphy at the Guardian. I find Grattan at The Conversation to be another typical example. Journalistic flair, sure. Academic rigour, not so much!
    Anyone remember that she asked Gillard to resign, fawned initially over Abbott until predictably the wheels fell off due to his sheer incompetence. She immediately commenced to hero-worship Turnbull. That didn’t work out too well either, did it? It seems a shared, severely flawed ideology again is failing dismally. Nevertheless she keeps on producing her shallow daily drivel regardless.

  16. Zoltan Balint

    To know what good wine tastes like you need to have drunk a lot of bad wine as well. To know what good journalism is … . Josh Frydenburg is an interesting case (although i would like him to go away) where a country striped his mother of citizenship over 50 years ago AND it was only 7 years ago that it decided to reverse the issue. Did it tell all the people involved or did Josh need to check every year what the situation is. But I do ask how and who found out about it.

  17. Matters Not

    The politics of citizenship is now a technical issue. Details are important. Thus:

    striped his mother of citizenship over 50 years ago

    So when Frydenburg’s mother came to Australia – was she travelling under a Hungarian Passport? If not then whose? Perhaps Josh could be asked? Presumably, he has checked. And then told us. Who asked him? Anyone have a link?

    These days it’s all about black letter law isn’t it?

  18. Matters Not

    Re Cassidy and Murphy – more power to their arm.

    They are not obvious barrackers. Nor should they be.

    They are journalists. Yes – rare these days.

  19. Matters Not

    Re the assertion:

    But it is Turnbull, not Labor, who has the most to lose

    Not sure about that. In the last election campaign, Shorten’s credibility grew and grew. While he will never have the charisma of a Hawke or a Whitlam (my opinion which is most probably age related), he was building trust. He seemed to speak honestly. He was someone who could be believed. But in recent times he clearly over-reached.

    Politically, Turnbull is finished. He knows it. He has nothing left to lose. Like Joplin might sing – Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose …

    I am still shaking my head that Shorten would bet the (credibility) rent when there was no need. Plenty of time for that down the track.

  20. Wun Farlung

    Malcom do nothing is on Q&A tonight wilol watch but not expecting aqny questions that are’nt Dorothy Dixers

  21. Matters Not

    Seems that Trioli is attempting the leather look tonight.

    But it’s coming across as latex. Trying to be the domin… ?

  22. John L

    KM has lost the Guardian for my wife and least when Lenore Taylor was writing, she wasn’t afraid to get stuck in, but, Guardian Aus is trending the same way now as it’s main rag in the UK. ABC…? It has plummeted in e ecent months, L Sales is just another LNP fawner, and the rest of the network is more and more like a Murdoch station, when it comes to political comment.

  23. Paul Davis

    The prime minister performed outstandingly tonight on QandA….. actor Glenn Robbins should be pleased that the PM chose to channel Uncle Arthur so masterfully.

  24. Gilly

    Thank you Victoria The Murdoch poison is spreading as MSM see themselves as being players not portrayers

  25. Vixstar

    There is some hope left especially in Queensland we were against the usual suspects Murdoch faux news, the trotting out of old Howard, the washed up Turdball and Poorleans whacky circus and we got Anastacia back in with a 48 seat majority. We are chuffed I noticed it didnt make much news in the major papers but to Labor supporters it gave us a massive boost of hope for the future , Adani will be on our next list to beat it into oblivion just like the ignorant liberal supporters. Go kk in Bennelong we have a chance to f*ck them off well and truly.

  26. helvityni

    It was all about Mal; ME, ME, ME…
    He avoided answering peoples questions, instead we got long rants about his narrow world view…..

    Those men on Manus did NOT drown, so why punish them for surviving…Why not allow them to go to NZ..? Another rant about how few NZ has taken. Why then not allow them take those 600 still rotting on Manus….

    Why on earth would they want come back to Oz…?

  27. helvityni

    MN, no dominatrix will get tangled up with Mal; the ‘dominating’ comes from him….

  28. Jan

    I agree with Michael Jordon re Grattan. Even when she is giving a daily spiel on RN. She always manages to make you walk away from the radio and go and do something else. She has no cut-through. It’s insider-opaque, yet careful waffle.

  29. Andrew J. Smith

    Related issue is one of shared culture and values amongst ageing culturally specific media and political types who no neither understand nor reflect diverse Australian society, but each other and become self reinforcing?

  30. peter mccarthy

    I think Michelle Grattan peaked with Utegate, then fell for Tony Abbott’s spin when she cracked it with Gillard. Too painful to read in this day and age. That she fell for Abbott’s patter has never ceased to amaze me. Tony has always been bleedin obvious in how he bullied his way through politics. Easily as obvious as Trump in the US. You expect casual observers to fall for it but not a real Journalist.

    Lately I am seeing that Malcolm has won over the population with SSM. After watching his effort of claiming responsibility for the outcome and blaming Labor for it taking so long, I beg to differ. Sure he will try to overstate his part in the process, but good Journo’s should be picking apart his BS, not falling for his narrative.

    Voters seem to be more discerning than some commentators.

  31. Johno

    Q&A, couldn’t watch it, too over Turnbull’s soldered on grin.

  32. PeteP

    Given the 4 new LNP members appear to have a case to answer, or at least referral to the High Court, how is it that Fizza can just up and say they don’t need to be referred and he is not going to refer them? I did not think it was up to him.

  33. Glenn Barry

    Wonderful article which highlights the complete bias I have been frustrated by in recent weeks – it has become so obvious and I am quietly crying inside because the ABC is also infected – perhaps irrevocably it seems at present.

    It all brings us to the inevitable conclusion that Australia is no longer even close to a functional democracy.

  34. Wayne Turner

    The MSM in this country ruined our former democracy long ago. The gullible falling for them,is how we ended up with this mob,and the idiot Abbott.

  35. Freethinker

    I do not have and never much expectations of the media including the ” journalists” in The Guardian.
    I do not defend or making any allowances to Lenore Taylor. She is the Chief Editor in the Guardian and during the election she has plenty of opportunities to direct the Guardian to neutral position instead of allowing the bias reporting by Murphy
    The comments by the Guardian readers about Murphy’s bias behavior was there to see by the editors and they have not do nothing.

  36. Tom Miller

    —Great article by Victoria Rollison—and when is Turnbull going to explain his accordance with s44 in terms of his ancestry and his right to Israeli citizenship? Emily Garner has had a lot to say about this on Facebook!

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