The Possum Box

Thoughts of the Pollytics Community

Archive for June, 2008

Awaiting the awakening-The Media and Kevin Rudd

Posted by Possum Comitatus on June 23, 2008

By Ad astra

All of us see the world through the lenses of our own unique spectacles, finely honed over time by our background, beliefs and biases. How we view the world affects our judgements. Thus we should not be surprised that what journalists write reflects their unique biases. But could it be that it is not only the lenses through which they view the world that are giving them a biased reading, but also that their unfamiliarity with the new political order is distorting their view? In a piece dated 16 June: The rats’ problem with Rudd, The Piping Shrike says: “… it is pretty evident that the press does not understand what Rudd is about.” The article is well worth reading.

Most columnists have worked through the Howard era, some from the beginning. They witnessed a politician emerge from a political bloodbath to lead his party to four election victories. They saw him mature and gradually settle into a style of leadership and pattern of behaviour, which although not necessarily applauded, became the accepted paradigm. His actions became predictable, his style familiar, and his way of doing things accepted as the norm. Along comes Kevin Rudd. From his first day as leader he slipped into election mode. Conscious of the daily and weekly news cycles, already familiar with breakfast TV, and experienced in the workings of the public service, he set about fashioning messages for the media throughout its cycles. This was sustained throughout the official election campaign period and continues to this day. So much so that one journalist recently caustically commented that Kevin Rudd was still acting like the Leader of the Opposition, which sounds like code for ‘Kevin Rudd is still in election mode.’ John Howard, the norm by which journalists have been accustomed to judging events, would not be behaving like this. So Kevin Rudd must be ‘abnormal’. Could it be that Kevin Rudd’s media modus operandi is now the norm, and that this will continue to the next election? If so, columnists need to get used to it and adjust their perceptions and judgements to the new reality, instead of indulging in what The Piping Shrike terms ‘analysis-by-history’, or what Marshall McLuhan would have termed ‘driving while looking in the rear-view mirror’.

Many commentators have ridiculed what they see as Kevin Rudd’s focus on process, when after all, ‘it’s outcomes that count’. Educators and businessmen know that the outcomes they desire are the product of sound process. So they get the process right in order to achieve their outcomes. Political processes include enquiries, committee deliberations, reviews, assessments and such events as the 2020 Summit where opportunities to ‘think outside the square’ are provided, where new ideas provide the basis for debate. Could it be that for Rudd such processes ARE the message? Are journalists who criticize ‘process’ as familiar as they ought to be with the importance of sound process in rational decision making, and how it influences political outcomes, or are they still in Howard-era mode where there was less emphasis on process? The 10 billion water plan and the NT intervention were two initiatives characterized by minimal process – little consultation and short preparation time for what were major undertakings with far reaching effects. John Howard was lauded by some as ‘action man’. By way of contrast, examples of process-intensive initiatives of the Rudd Government are the Ken Henry review of the tax system and the Ross Garnaut report on climate change. These processes address complex issues that take time to digest. Columnists need to adjust to this level of complexity and the time frame needed for satisfactory completion of such projects instead of rashly applying to Rudd the pejorative slogan ‘all talk but no action’. Process IS action.

In the same breath they disparage Rudd’s ‘lack of long term planning’. If the following are not long-term planning, what are they? The Henry tax review, the Garnaut report, the review of Federal and State health services, the so-called digital education revolution, Infrastructure Australia that met this month, the NT one year progress report just out, the push to tackle obesity as well as excessive drinking, and a response by year-end to the outcomes of the 2020 Summit, and so on the long list goes. So many in the media either don’t see this as long term planning, or chose deliberately to ignore it so as not to undermine their ‘no long term plan’ mantra. They seem unable to comprehend that a government can have a short term agenda to match the daily and weekly media cycles AND simultaneously have a comprehensive set of long terms plans that unfold over time. The media has habitually looked to the May Budget as the prime indicator of the Government’s agenda, but after the first Rudd/Swan budget they seemed to be left wondering. They need seriously to also look elsewhere.

Not satisfied with criticizing the Rudd focus on process, they also criticize what they see as a LACK of process. Greg Sheridan in his June 12 piece in The Australian titled The new Mad Hatter scathingly described Kevin Rudd’s recent foreign policy initiatives as “…utterly amorphous content on the run, half baked, with no detail and no credible prospect of success.” The tenor of the article was cringing, expressing as it did discomfort with a PM who is not afraid to state his views on the world stage, is willing to take the initiative as a middle power leader, is prepared to express his vision for international diplomacy, and has the courage of his convictions. Notwithstanding Sheridan’s predictions of failure, Japanese Prime Minister Fukuda said he was “deeply impressed” by Rudd’s remarks in his Kyoto speech about regional cooperation and security, and Indonesian President Yudhoyono expressed similar sentiments. Clearly Kevin Rudd has a different approach to foreign affairs than did John Howard. In initiatives where other nations are involved, he seemingly prefers to promote ideas rather than offer a detailed plan, and then seek a response, in this instance via an envoy, Richard Woolcott. If much detail had been woven around the proposal before it was promulgated, would columnists have then been writing condemnatory pieces accusing Rudd of pre-empting proper debate among the nation states affected?

Those who have sneeringly referred to Rudd’s foreign policy announcements as ‘thought bubbles’ need to realize that in international affairs Rudd’s focus is to initiate a process and await the outcomes. While it’s reasonable to critique Rudd’s approach, journalists should view it not against the Howard approach, but instead adjust to the reality of a new paradigm for foreign policy.

Rudd’s comment that the G8 nations should apply the blow torch to OPEC to produce more oil evoked ridicule from the media and the Opposition, but by so doing he successfully reinforced his internationalization of the oil crisis in the eyes of his domestic audience, and underscored the relative impotence of individual governments to do much about it. Most of the media seemed to miss this. Many journalists are critical of Rudd’s ‘failure’ to tell the public unequivocally that petrol prices will continue to rise, and accuse him in advance of cowardice and lack of resolve to bite the bullet on the cost to voters of emissions trading. They seem not to ask themselves why he would do that ahead of the receipt of the Garnaut report. To oblige journalists digging for a dramatic headline? One can imagine it: ‘Rudd admits petrol costs will skyrocket when his Government introduces emissions trading’. Any prudent politician would want to handle this potentially explosive issue thoughtfully, and prepare the public incrementally for the unpleasant news so that successful adaptation can occur. As an aside, George Megalogenus believes the public may be more aware of this than is acknowledged by many journalists; adaptation may be achieved more readily than imagined.

To sum up, this piece suggests that some, but not all of the media have failed to recognize the modus operandi of the Rudd Government, and even when they have, feel uncomfortable with it after almost 12 years of the Howard Government and are therefore unwilling to acknowledge or accept it. They live in a past age when everything was different and easier to understand. Moreover, they may resent Rudd calling the media tune when they have done that for so long. So we should not be surprised at the top-of-the-front-page story in The Weekend Australian on 21 June: Anger builds around Rudd as chaos reigns at the top, a story replicated in several other papers. Forget the content, which is insubstantial and in places confected, the real message is that a large and influential section of the Fourth Estate has targeted Kevin Rudd’s character, style and behaviour, painting it as deeply flawed. It is hard to see any motive for this other than to diminish him and thereby erode his popularity with the people. Expect more of this.

Finally, a 19 June article in The Possum Box by Changa’s Boots, Australian attack bloggers and the Overton Window , suggests a more sinister process may be at work, at least among journalists who take extreme positions. In the Overton Window, what might look like unintentional bias is a deliberate attempt to make less extreme positions seem ‘middle ground’ and therefore more acceptable – a cynical mind-game, undertaken for covert political purposes. If this is the tactic of Australia’s ‘extreme’ writers, we have in our midst a menacing, calculated process to influence public thinking, almost in the manner of mass indoctrination, George Orwell style. This would be much more damaging to democracy than uninformed or biased journalism, about which we protest so much.

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A Gambler’s Take on the US Election

Posted by Possum Comitatus on June 19, 2008

By The Political Tipster

One of the benefits of living in the UK and commentating on the US Election is that I am actually able to back up my views with hard cash. In my case I have already made a decent return of 24% on my model portfolio since September and won over £1,000 (with £500 of that already hedged) on other accounts. Now, I’ll admit that most of that comes from buying McCain in early September when he was around 20/1 to win the Republican nomination. However, I believe that my take on the election is better than the ‘conventional wisdom’ of the punditry or the so-called ‘wisdom of crowds’ that the betting markets like to kid themselves that they have. Although my belief, expressed on my web-log ( immediately after ‘Wrightgate’ that Obama only had a 10% chance of winning this year’s election was probably too extreme, I believe that McCain has about a 70% chance of winning with the plausible outcomes, excluding some scandal or tragedy, ranging from a McCain landslide to a narrow Obama victory.

Now Obama does have several advantages. The American economy is in extremely poor shape while in the longer term the American education system is mediocre and America’s competitive advantage is being sapped by wasteful spending in some areas and underinvestment in others. Although the thirty year period of global economic re-adjustment that has led to stagnant wages, as an unfortunate by-product of lower inflation, may have reached its peak there is a sense that the idea of ‘drowning government in a bathtub’, as advocated by the tax activist Grover Norquist, is over. Indeed, the conservative journal National Review Online railed against what it termed as ‘no government anarchism’ after one Republican Presidential debate last year. Obama has youth, the groundbreaking nature of his candidacy and an active bottom up organisation on his side. In contrast McCain’s organisation is pathetic and his staff have neither strategy, vision or organisation. Indeed, McCain’s staff seem to be trying him to get him to act like the dog in James Thurber’s short story, afraid to attack Obama because of a perceived backlash, afraid to move to the centre because that would offend the ‘base’ and most importantly afraid of mentioning the war in Iraq, even though McCain actually leads on this issue in the polls. There is also Bush’s desperate unpopularity to contend with as well.

On the other hand you could argue that on any objective reading on the contest McCain is the better candidate. While Obama trundled around in Chicago and Illinois local politics, getting his hands dirty and achieving little, few would dispute that McCain has a record of achievement, both as a War Hero and as someone who has been involved with many huge events, such as his support for the war in Kosovo, campaign finance reform, the compromise on judges that enabled the Senate to function and most famously the ‘surge’ strategy in Iraq. He has a large following among independents and some conservative minded Democrats, as evidenced by the endorsement of Joe Lieberman last December. In contrast, not only is Obama inexperienced but he also seems to have a worldview that is fundamentally at odds with the majority of Americans. His has made repeated number of gaffes such as; his assertion  that Iran does not post a threat, that people are ‘clinging to guns and religion’ and his longstanding association with characters such as William Ayers, Jeremiah Wright and others raise serious questions about the type of foreign policy an Obama administration would pursue.

In my mind this election could either go one of two ways; firstly it could be a repeat of 1972 where Richard Nixon won a landslide victory over George McGovern or it could be a repeat of 1976 where Gerald Ford managed to pull back from a thirty point deficit to nearly shock the nation by beating Jimmy Carter. At the moment the majority of the parallels seem to be with the Ford-Carter contest of ’76. However, when one factors in the idea that Bush isn’t quite as unpopular as Nixon (at least not yet), the fact that the experience of the Carter administration is still fresh in people’s minds and that McCain still has time to return to the centre on domestic issues, go on the offensive over Iraq, reorganise his campaign staff or to surprise everyone by picking Joe Lieberman as his running mate (available at a generous 20/1 from Ladbrokes), an outcome that is closer to the Nixon landslide is definitely possible. This makes a McCain victory a value bet.

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Australian attack bloggers and the Overton Window

Posted by Possum Comitatus on June 19, 2008

By Changa’s Boots

One concept that’s been picked up by US left of centre bloggers in the last little while is the Overton Window. I want to talk about it on the Possum Box because I think we can use it to think about the strategies of some of Australia’s right wing attack bloggers and columnists.

Ever since it was raised in a post on Daily Kos (which in turn was picking up on a post from a Libertarian think-tank) it’s been provoking discussion among the netroots. The basic proposition on Kos was this: while the Democrats are still playing to the essentially 1990s strategy of triangulation for the centre, Republicans and their fellow-travellers are constantly working to shift that centre by articulating extreme views that expand and change the limits of political acceptability.

Kos puts it like this:  “[The GOP] know that by playing to their base in very well-crafted ways, they can shift the very definition of what the middle is. By introducing radicalism into the public discourse (and taking initial heat for it), whatever used to be radical within this context becomes moderate by comparison.” Except, as some of Kos’s correspondents point out, the GOP don’t even need to take any heat – that’s what Fox News, shock jocks, and wingnut bloggers are for. It’s a no-risk, all benefits strategy for all concerned – not least because radical positions for the “opinion leaders” of the right can be career-building, and can help to nurture a niche (albeit crackpot) audience.  It’s a long-term strategy for committed political actors who are not seeking election, wherein the electorally focused GOP become beneficiaries/patsies of their more extended, focussed policy advocacy. (Obviously, the strategy depends on policy advocacy working on the GOP, too.)

The strategy is named for one Joseph Overton, who was vice president of a conservative think-tank called the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. He was quite systematic in setting it out – his primary concern was education policy (taking down public schools and arguing for home schooling yada yada yada), but he rightly thought it was applicable to a range of issues. The continuum on which you can place any particular policy proposal, according to Overton, goes a little something like this:

* Unthinkable

* Radical

* Acceptable

* Sensible

* Popular

* Policy

By shouting long and hard enough on behalf of radical proposals, you can alter their position in the public mind. Even by proposing unacceptable proposals persistently enough, you can make slightly less extreme proposals seem moderate by comparison. Intuitively it makes sense, and it’s a useful explanatory device for the shrillness of much of the discourse in the right-wing blogosphere in the US. Voila: the culture wars in a nutshell.

How does it apply in Australia? Well, our right-wing think-tanks may be slower of wit and less weighty in terms of policy development than their US colleagues, but who needs them when you can work the Overton window in the Murdoch papers and the blogosphere? Let’s take the Bolt/Blair/Albrechtsen axis, for example. On issues like the stolen generations, climate change, feminism and the “war on terror” they articulate positions that are pretty far removed from mainstream opinion (if election results and polling are any indication). But their rhetorical style and the prominent platforms they enjoy mean that they can run lines that make slightly less OTT positions from the Liberals seem like the soul of reason.

In a variation on the Overton, they also work hard at simplifying complex debates and shift the ground in a debate. “Name just ten”, “global cooling?” and “Rudd is spin not substance” are lines they all run in various forms that aren’t just out-there death-beastery, but active distortions of the topics under discussion. They also selectively misrepresent whole categories of their opponents – academics, artists, bureaucrats, the “guilt industry”, Greens, Left-wing journalists, NGOs – by presenting radical positions taken by misguided individuals as the norm, or taking isolated remarks out of context and treating them as the core of the opposing argument.

The aim is not really to win any substantive policy debate (think of Blair’s blogging style, and you’ll realize it’s simply not geared for that purpose). Rather, the focus is smearing and discrediting opponents, throwing doubt on established premises in policy debates, shifting the goalposts through simplification, and most importantly of all, keeping the conservative base on-message. Want some examples? How about Blair’s concerted attacks on Tim Flannery? What about the daily red herrings of Bolt and Blair on climate change? Witness Bolt’s constant, simplistic demand that opponents produce people who were stolen “because they were black”. And then there’s Blair’s deployment of groupthink to whip up the “winged monkeys” into regular attacks across the blogosphere, often on bloggers who have not sought any kind of engagement with him.

The beauty of this kind of advocacy is that the columnists themselves never have to fight an election, and aren’t accountable to anyone except their employer. The consistency of their lines of attack suggests that, if there isn’t actual orchestration going on between them, their common master certainly approves of and values their lock-stepped views. Win, lose or draw for the Liberals, they can take comfort in the knowledge that there will be righties on big soap-boxes spruiking for them, and furthering their own careers in the process.

If all this is true, what should the left do?

For the Rudd government, the advice on this basis of the right’s Overton strategy would be: be bold. Seek not the centre, because it isn’t a stable target any more. Spend some political capital in an effort to seize the agenda, and benefit by isolating these people. Make the culture wars no longer worth fighting by depriving them of relevance. Do not fight on their chosen ground.

For the rest of us, perhaps the best strategy is to ignore them. Bullying tactics aside (naming anonymous bloggers, trying to make trouble for people at work, or directing the monkeys at people struggling with drug addiction), it’s all sticks and stones. I really enjoy reading blogs like The Blairboltwatch Project, but I wonder whether it institutionalizes Blair and Bolt as blogospheric voices, and risks misrepresenting their Overton-ing for serious invitations to debate. And I’m sure all of Planet Janet’s Christmases came at once when Paul Keating had a shot at her in the Oz recently. Maybe we all need to get better at practicing an aikido debating style: jump out of the maddies’ way when they attack and watch them go arse up on the other side of the room.

Seriously, though, the lesson here might be not only that we can’t win back the right-wing base through reasoned discussion, but that some right-wing commentators just aren’t seeking debate in good faith, and are just running lines in the hope that less extreme (but no less sympathetic) positions are adopted. Which side of politics heeds them probably doesn’t matter too much to them at the end of the day, but continuing apparent relevance does. The proper response is not to pander to a shifting centre, but to inspire it with good policy, clever advocacy and straight talking.

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VALE: The Queensland Liberal Party 2008

Posted by Possum Comitatus on June 14, 2008


The QLD Nationals are poised to get their biggest break since Luke Shaw was awarded jury duty.

No matter what the outcome or even the form of the proposed merger of the National and Liberal Parties in Queensland the Liberal Party loses big-time.

There is little doubt that the Liberal Party will merge with the National Party in Queensland. However, this marriage of convenience will leave a legacy of devastation, fragmentation and recrimination that has Labor supporters salivating and really that is no change from where the QLD Liberal Party currently are right now.

The Liberals in Queensland have always been the National’s horse-trading mates, but frankly the Nationals are far better at it. From a National Party perspective the merger is the corollary of the Liberals’ situation; for the Queensland Nationals any form of merger is a no lose situation because at worst it neutralises a huge threat and at best it harnesses a stronger urban brand that resonates with inter-state migrants.

With the increased education and urbanisation of Queensland, the traditional demographics of the National Party have receded to the point that winning the 1983 election in their own right, through a helpful Gerrymander, can now be seen as their political high-water mark. Since that time Queensland Liberals have drifted to the further to the right, re-forming the coalition on National Party terms and performing a support role during the short-lived Borbidge/Sheldon government 1996-1998.

Since Queensland has adopted an optional preference electoral system, divided conservatives have discovered that the fragmentation of non-Labor vote combined with high preference exhaust rates have hurt them at the ballot box. The simplistic solution has been for the conservatives to form One Big Party (the Pineapple Party) to challenge Labor. The gorilla in the room is that philosophically the Liberals and the Nationals represent entirely different constituencies. Deep down the National Party thinks its everyone’s god-given right to chain-clear land with D11 Bulldozers, that sits very awkwardly with urbane, educated blue-blooded Liberals. A coalition left wriggle-room, a single party forms one big target either way.

Many Liberals have already formed a silent merger with the Queensland Labor Party. This may sound impossible, yet populist moderate Labor leaders, Beattie and now Rudd and Bligh have attracted the moderate, small “l” liberals in Queensland for over a decade. Votes and political donations have flowed freely, even if formal party membership hasn’t. The official Liberal Party remnant in Queensland is bankrupt financially and electorally gutted (8 out of 89 seats). That it is acquiescing to merge with the Queensland National Party shows that it really is just the equivalent of the NSW-right faction of the Liberal Party led by David Clarke. Liberals in other states simply would not recognise the Queensland distortion of a party that has purged internally to the point that it only has two neo-National Party factions anyway.

Winning state government is academic to the current Queensland conservatives. The motivations here are about securing opposition positions and status for at least the next 5 – 8 years (current, plus 1-2 more terms). Troy Buswell in the WA gets a deservedly hard time for sniffing seats, but at least he shows an interest in them! The Queensland Liberals aspire at their most optimistic to winning back blue-ribbon metropolitan seats such as Clayfield (think Vaucluse, Toorak, Cottesloe) that really are amazingly and consistently Labor held.

The so-called Liberal Lord Mayor of Brisbane City, Cr Campbell Newman, this week introduced a Tax and Spend Budget that any old-school Keynesian would be delighted with. Cr Newman won re-election in March this year under a personality brand of “Can Do” Campbell that treated the Queensland Liberal Party with the anonymity it deserves. For a Queensland conservative, or any of the national Liberal oppositions for that matter, he did have the novelty of actually having some policies.

It is the abject laze of the Queensland Liberals to formulate policy combined with the sustained, most appalling electoral performance of any Liberal Party (okay, Kim Campbell Canada 1993 was a star, but that was just the one time) that has left them formally abandoning Liberal Party principles and joining the National Party. This will create a vacuum of moderate conservatives in Queensland the equivalent of the DLP to the ALP through the 60s and 70s. On that basis, we are not even halfway through this cycle of Labor dominance. Minor right-of-centre fringe parties and independents as well as the Labor Government will be the beneficiaries of this looming merger disaster. Bring it on!

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Is the media in Australia suffering from groupthink?

Posted by Possum Comitatus on June 14, 2008

By Ad astra

‘Groupthink’ is described by Irving Janis as “A mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.”

Recurrent themes in the Australian media suggest that groupthink is alive and well among political journalists. Here are some examples.

‘Narrative’ has become a buzz word. When Glen Milne first used the word some time ago on Insiders, he seemed very pleased that he’d discovered a fashionable new word he could use. Now many columnists accuse the Government of not having, or not stating a narrative or story that portrays its plans and aspirations. No one has defined what such a ‘narrative’ should look like, or what it might contain. The plans and fiscal policies detailed in the recent budget seemingly do not count as ‘narrative’ although they describe short, medium and long terms plans and how they are to be processed and funded. What the columnists have in mind is a mystery, but they enjoy using the word in a pseudo-authoritative way. Perhaps one day mere mortals will discover their meaning, if indeed they have any common understanding of the word. Is the widespread use of ‘narrative’ a manifestation of groupthink?

Another idea that has gained currency is that Kevin Rudd and his Government manifest “more symbolism than substance”. This has been purveyed by the Opposition and has been taken up by many journalists. Where is the supporting evidence? There has been symbolism, important symbolism, for example in signing Kyoto and saying ‘Sorry’, but that has been accompanied by substance in the form of numerous announcements and parliamentary bills, so much so that the Opposition is protesting that there are too many bills to pass in the time provided. It’s hard to see how it can be argued that there is little substance, yet complain in this way. So is it media groupthink that perpetuates what appears to be a myth? Is it a handy catchphrase without much substance itself?

A related term is ‘stunt’. The Opposition has often accused Kevin Rudd and his Government of stunts. The term is now frequently used in the media. Alexander Downer proclaimed the call for an Asia Pacific Community a stunt, although in the same breath, he said it was a good idea. Already this is being echoed in the media. Greg Sheridan uses the less offensive term ‘half-baked’ to describe this and other recent foreign policy initiatives. ‘Policy on the run’ is a similar phrase used by politicians, now the stock in trade of almost every journalist.

Possum Comitatus points out the frequency with which ‘political crisis’ is used in political commentaries. ‘Crisis’ means ‘a time of intense difficulty or danger’, ‘a turning point that defines recovery or death’. ‘Disaster’ is a commonly used alternative. But why not use ‘problem’, ‘predicament’, ‘difficulty’ ‘dilemma’ or ‘quandary’? Not dramatic enough, I expect. Groupthink demands no deviation from a common position, but a more extreme manifestation of it is acceptable. Columnists do not enjoy being outdone, so exaggerated language is the norm.

‘Honeymoon’ is another word that flows from many a columnist. Dennis Shanahan looks longingly for its disappearance in almost every column he writes. He has many fellow-travellers. They believe that newly-elected governments enjoy a period when the members of the public have honeymooners’ stardust in their eyes and can see no fault, but that disenchantment soon sets in and appeal fades. This distorts the metaphor. How many honeymoons quickly deteriorate into disillusionment? Some do, but most settle into a comfortable relationship that lasts for years, sometimes a lifetime. After only six months, do they expect a surge of those who voted Labor to believe they’ve made a terrible mistake and reflect their disillusionment starkly in the opinion polls? That hasn’t happened; few marriages evolve that way. So why do so many journalists persist with the concept of a ‘honeymoon’? Is this another example of groupthink?

‘Control freak’ is a term used to describe Kevin Rudd. Andrew Bolt labours this term incessantly. ‘Kevin24/7’ is an accompanying term used to describe a manic approach to work. These terms have been picked up by many journalists and joined to stories of overworking the public service, undervaluing their advice, and exercising power plays over them. No doubt there is some truth in this, but the manner in which these sentiments have been slavishly replicated by many journalists suggest groupthink is operating.

The appraisal by journalists of the performance of Government members in parliament seems too to be another example of groupthink. Peter Costello was classed by many commentators as ‘a stellar performer’ in Parliament. They saw his sarcastic, voluble, and at times raucous utterances that ridiculed the Opposition as humorous and politically telling, performances that many ordinary citizens found repugnant. The new Government is said to be unable to match him. Groupthink has many columnists now riding along with this, asserting that the Government is not ‘cutting through’.

Journalistic responses to the June 3 Newspoll provide another example of groupthink. Although the two party preferred figures were the same as in the two previous polls, much more was made by Dennis Shanahan of changes in the preferred PM and satisfaction/dissatisfaction figures. Several columnists, and radio and TV news bulletins picked up on this aspect, hardly mentioning the static 2PP figures.

Thanks to groupthink, the ‘can you guarantee’ syndrome has taken hold. Tony Jones is the master of this approach, which seeks to corner politicians into saying something most sensibly refuse to do. There are few iron-clad guarantees in politics, yet although Tony knows this he persists ad nauseam hoping the interviewee will break. Kerry O’Brien, Laurie Oakes and John Faine too are connoisseurs of this technique.

Media groupthink now seems to be moving towards belittling Kevin Rudd and his Government, reinforcing the approach of the Opposition. Perhaps this is a manifestation of the ‘tall poppy syndrome’; Kevin Rudd has had it so good for so long, it’s time to cut him and his Government down to size. Journalist after journalist now insist ‘the wheels are falling off’. What value do they see in demeaning a Government that has two and a half years to run, elected convincingly by the people just six-months ago? What value is it to the Australian public to thwart the Government’s agenda? Do they do this because groupthink is inherently unthinking?

The ‘news’ for newspapers, TV and radio furnished by ‘video news release suppliers’, a phenomenon labelled ‘churnalism’, sounds like marketed groupthink. Rather than passing from journalist to journalist, material passes pre-packaged with little journalistic input.

Possum Comitatus points to groupthink when he describes a “…world of the Opinionatas – a sort of deafening echo chamber of electoral ignorance and lemming like commentary.” We saw a classic example of that recently over the subsidy to Toyota to build a hybrid car. A piece in The Age was changed in a matter of hours to bring it into line with a contrary piece that appeared in The Australian which confidently asserted that the car would have been built without a subsidy. Now of course The Australian has recanted this in a page four ‘correction’.

Groupthink is usually seen in cohesive groups. It could be argued that members of the media, and in particular the Press Gallery, do not constitute a cohesive group, as they come from a variety of media outlets. Yet they work together, they read or watch each other’s work, they appear together on programs such as Insiders and Meet the Press, and they socialize together. Few of them seem to be willing to be the ‘odd man out’. Even journalists that are generally considered fair-minded are sometimes induced to join the pack on contentious issues. Very few are willing to express a view that differs substantially from the mainstream. David Marr, George Megalogenus, Brian Toohey and Laura Tingle are examples of such fiercely independent journalists that spring to mind. Most of the rest prefer to fall in with the crowd.

The result is media of indifferent quality, which generally follows the leader in promulgating facts that are often inaccurate or distorted, embraces fashionable concepts and buzz words, and indulges in ‘copy-cat’ commentary that does little to inform or enlighten. Perhaps the only reassuring aspect of this lamentable state of affairs is that so many of the voting public let most media offerings pass harmlessly over their heads.

Many in the media abuse the power inherent in the journalistic pen. Where have objective, informed, balanced reporting and commenting gone? Often the two are confused as journalists seek to promulgate their views rather than the facts. It’s a pity that the small coterie of good quality journalists is diluted by such a motley collection of writers of indifferent, and in many instances, low standard. Groupthink seems to be the genesis of much of the pathology they exhibit.

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Posted in media | 42 Comments »