Not very long ago, during the annual meltdown into the pleasantly torpid stasis that is the great Aussie January holiday time, Peter van Onselen zapped out this Tweet:
Peter van Onselen @vanOnselenP
I'm concerned I haven't been clear enough about how I think the government is going: they are a complete joke and need to lift their game.
From van Onselen, that was quite, well, shocking.
More especially because just two days before he had tweeted:
Peter van Onselen…@vanOnselenP
The way the government has kept faith with voters up until now should give them the political capital they need to sell the Medicare cuts... 13 January 2015
While the Tweeps suggested he was in ‘irony font’ with that one (no, I don’t believe ‘PvO’ can ‘do’ irony either), in between the two tweets, Peter had dashed off a few others:
Peter van Onselen @vanOnselenP Jan 13
The govt start 2015 with a move putting the focus on health...consistently polled as a Labor strength. Plus the new minister is on holidays
Peter van Onselen @vanOnselenP Jan 14
What is wrong with this government, it is like watching a circus...
Peter van Onselen @vanOnselenP Jan 14
Yesterday the PM was explaining why the Medicare rebate cut is necessary, today they are backing down on it. They are SO incompetent...
Peter van Onselen @vanOnselenP Jan 14
Me: "what's going on?" (re Medicare rebate). Liberal MP: "How would I know, I'm only a minister". Adults in charge...
And two days after his ‘concern’ that he hadn’t made his apparent position on the government ‘clear’, came these:
Peter van Onselen @vanOnselen Jan 17
Yep this is what happened. Others didn't want to make the damaging change, PM insisted. He was warned, didn't listen.
Peter van Onselen @vanOnselenP Jan 17
There is a staggering amount of discontent with the PM amongst his colleagues. Day one back at work and hitting the phones...not pretty!
There’s general agreement in the Twitterverse, at least from more progressively minded Tweeps, that van Onselen is the weathervane, the cut-tin mainstream media rooster perched on the roof peak of Australia’s fourth-estate political commentary. Indeed, van Onselen oscillates on his rooftop so rapidly that it seems the only way to determine his ‘speaking position’ is unfailingly to remind ourselves of upon whose rooftop he roosts (Rupert’s of course: Sky, The Australian, the Sunday Times).
Take a look, though, at just a few of the columns van Onselen had written for The Australian during December and January and one just might suspect that van Onselen had ‘turned’:
- December 3, 2014 ‘Respect the only answer for Abbott’: ‘Only a popular and well respected prime minister can mount a recovery for the government now, given the dire state of the polls.’
- December 13, 2014 ‘Peta Credlin has become the story and that’s bad news for Tony Abbott’: ‘The volunteer firefighter, surf lifesaver and pollie pedalling fundraiser, who could almost always win over anyone he met, now seems to be living in a prime ministerial bubble …’
- December 23, 201: ‘Tony Abbott’s reshuffle a rebuke for Julie Bishop’: ‘The Bishop slight within Abbott’s reshuffle didn’t end there ... Make no mistake, this was a deeply politically calculated and calibrated reshuffle …’
Well, almost suspect a turning — until you read this consummate bit of van Onselen sleight-of-hand: ‘ALP needs big-picture manifesto, not small-target strategy’, which, along with his sage advice to the ALP, includes these kinds of statements:
However dysfunctional Abbott’s team has been and continues to be, it pales into insignificance alongside what occurred under Rudd-Gillard-Rudd …
Bowen’s knowledge of financial issues and governance combined with Leigh’s outside-the-box thinking just might lift Labor’s economic credibility …
Really? Pales into insignificance?
Really? Lift Labor’s economic credibility? Not evidenced-based statements, these.
Van Onselen has been, and I think still is, a cake-and-eat-it academic who plays at journalism, or perhaps vice versa. His journalism, so-called, has always been and remains biased towards the LNP and its ideology, positions and policies. But he writes and speaks from a pose of academic distance. This translates into the false-prophet scourge of political journalism today — assuming that a position of so-called journalistic objectivity is achieved by putting the all-omnipotent boot into one’s own side, when perceived as needed, while measuring out in teaspoonfuls sage advice on how that home side can improve. Like the prime minister whose advisor he once was (when Abbott was Workplace Relations Minister in the Howard government), van Onselen is, while taking on the role of providing professional and fair reportage or commentary, the spinning weathercock incapable of offering his own political position for scrutiny, incapable of acknowledging that he is, indeed and inevitably, partisan. And that way reader distrust must inevitably lie.
Van Onselen’s almost naive posture of objective commentary could never hide his inevitable, default-position wish for a successful conservative government — even though he’s been pretty busy throwing Tony under a bus for quite some months. No, van Onselen hasn’t turned, but like a number of the fourth estate who gave Abbott and the LNP an unexamined free ride into power and the people a federal government not worth the examining, let alone the living with, he seems, variously of course, open-mouthed in surprise at what collusion in deceiving a citizenry and changing a government has wrought and, apparently, he has been fearful enough to show it. But not responsible, of course. Never that.
The 19th of January this year marked the 500th day of the Abbottian era of federal politics and political journalism.
While Peter van Onselen was spinning away, how have other political journalists fared in the now 500-plus days? In Peter Hartcher and Mark Kenny — two Fairfax journalists who in this first half of the Abbottian reign assumed that a calm, consistent, steady and above all ‘adult’ period of governance had been ushered in on the 7th September 2013 — we can spy a reluctant shift becoming more emphatic over time.
In ‘Abbott’s in, now what?’ (November 30 2013):
The Abbott government has been quietly putting in place processes for a substantial agenda of economic reform. But none of that is yet showing results. In the interim, the news is full of Abbott's poorly managed events and Pyne's broken promise.
His government wants Australians to go to their Boxing Day barbecues remarking on how the new government is in charge, and looking after things that matter to ordinary people. They have a lot of work to do.
In ‘Tony Abbott choked by lack of vision, not ideology’ (June 21 2014):
… it was Hewson’s negative model of politics – how to lose an election by telling the people the truth – that had a greater impact on his apprentice than any of his positive lessons. Abbott so far has resisted the urge to utter a word of criticism of his former employer …
Besides, Abbott is not taking a vindictive approach to critics from his own side of politics.
In ‘Abbott unmasked: ideological warrior marches to the right’ (September 6 2014):
Abbott has set out to resume the Thatcher-Reagan revolution where Howard left off. He intends to advance it to a new apogee … To date, he has failed to take the country with him. But he has only just begun.
In ‘Tony Abbott’s national security address a siren call to the nation’ (February 26 2015):
By choosing to foster fear and division, by failing to embrace truly meaningful security recommendations such as a gun crackdown, Abbott has inadvertently exposed his weakness, not his strength. If we withdraw the benefit of the doubt, we see a failing leader merely posturing on national security in a sad effort to hold his job.
In ‘PM Tony Abbott’s “positive” poll shows he’s a dead man walking’ (March 2 2015):
Tony Abbott's supporters will claim today's poll as proof that there is life in his prime ministership yet.
Only a superficial reading can support this conclusion. In truth, it shows that it is already dead.
In ‘Abbott is a new man, but the left can’t see it’ (September 14 2013):
The truth is, Abbott in government is likely to be populist, political and pragmatic, rather than right-wing, reactionary and regressive.
In ‘Abbott in China shows skills beyond his years’ (April 10 2014):
But Abbott has spent a political career surprising those who underestimate the power of his intelligence, his people skills (funnily enough), and perhaps most importantly, his directness.
In ‘Abbott weak on home front, but a lion abroad’ (September 26 2014):
Despite his promise of smaller government and a smaller country, it has been Abbott's face-to-face relationship building and his deft leverage of Australia's Security Council presence, that has defined his administration's greatest heights – such as they are.
In ‘Abbott’s choice: change or face the axe’ (January 30 2015):
In a succession of dud decisions, their PM's gone quietly rogue, unburdened by the normal checks against gross error built into the system.
It’s the surprise at a failing Abbott, but even more the gravitas of the now-constant admonishing from some political journalists who before the 2013 Federal election failed to examine the kind of Abbottian government we were likely to get that … well … surprises. Never mind ‘don’t write crap.’ I just want to holler: ‘How in the name of every billion words poured onto the hapless heads of the previous Rudd/Gillard/Rudd government, not to mention on the heads of the Independent seers Windsor and Oakeshott, who detailed so fully what would come with an Abbott-led government, could YOU not see this coming?!!’
I said to a mate recently that I was trying a look at whether and, if so, how Australian political journalists had managed to see through their own bias ‘for’ the Abbottian government and question its people and policy directions across its thus far brief era of custody. The mate’s response was that I should also consider ‘who cares?’ (implying himself).
So let’s consider who does care. Who cares whether political journalists and especially the press gallery, with noses pressed so closely to the ever-murkier glass of the chamber where the House of Reps sits, might have come to any realisation of what many have called their pre-election years of collusion or complicity or betrayal — or even treason?
Well I do.
And so, probably, do you, and every person who reads online blogs in Oz analysing the political state of the nation from a ‘progressive-ish’ point of view.
And every person of any and all ages and demographics who hit the streets, often for the first time in their lives, in the countless citizen protests, marches, demonstrations, sit-ins, vigils, lock-ins and lock-downs that erupted within three months of the Abbott government’s election and ceaselessly continue. Jonathan Green, host of ABC RN’s Sunday Extra, on the 14th December 2014 and in his last program for the year, ‘The Year That Was’, introduced a discussion segment with Melbourne-based playwright, activist and Guardian Australia columnist Van Badham this way:
There's a booming protest culture in Australia with almost as many people taking to the streets as the Vietnam protests of the sixties.
Green begins the segment suggesting that one way 2014 could be described is as ‘The year of protest’. Van Badham, in a brief but startlingly complete overview of protest activity across Australia in 2014, describes that parade of protest as a ‘carnival’ and pinpoints the use of social media as its vital and growing resource. (The Green and Badham discussion runs from 1 min 50 sec to 7 min 16 sec.)
Add, too, to those who care, every person who has been picking up in ever-increasing numbers on independent and ‘citizen’ online media outlets as they have grown ever-more dissatisfied with the fourth estate, this phenomenon being tracked especially by Margo Kingston’s No Fibs and David Donovan’s Independent Australia. (Very worthwhile reading lies at both links.)
Then add some well-known commentators on the state of Australian media.
Andrew Elder cares. Elder has been continuing his severe school for the serious reconstruction of recalcitrant political journalists all through the Abbottian era, handing out praise when considering it due and biting off those typing fingers considered fiddling about with irrelevance when not. Or savaging those media organisations, especially Fairfax (and no doubt soon the ABC), whom he considers have sunk to hiring the inept and avoiding the oncoming ‘brightest and best’ of future political journalism.
Tim Dunlop, eminently accessible as commentator on the media, cares, recently offering in ‘Is media objectivity an outdated mode?’, quite the most readable re-expression of the debate on the consequences of so-called objectivity and balance that has raged for decades across western journalism.
Dunlop compares two articles ‘reporting’ on Abbott’s Monday 23 February speech on national security (in front of six Australian flags): one by Michele Grattan and the other by Lenore Taylor.
About these he states:
… you could argue I am comparing chalk and cheese in that Taylor's piece is labelled analysis while Grattan's specifically isn't, and that's fair enough.
The bigger point, though, is: what even is the point of the sort of “straight” reporting Grattan has produced?
By striving to be "objective" her article is actually biased towards Mr Abbott's position. How does that help anyone? Except Mr Abbott, of course.
The bottom line is that governments and parties and various interests groups spend vast fortunes finding ways to manipulate information and public opinion. (All those flags behind Mr Abbott on Monday didn't appear by accident.)
Worse, the media is too often complicit in the manipulation.
Well, of course.
(And by the way, Hartcher’s pieces are labelled ‘analysis’ and Kenny’s ‘comment’. You spot the difference.)
Dunlop concludes by arguing that now social media can be the ‘journalist’s friend’ if they can bravely ‘own their own positions’ because ‘engagement with the audience is the new objectivity’. How? Because on social media a reader can demand the contexting of facts which, when only merely reported, can be intrinsically biased towards one side of politics or the other.
Last words to van Onselen:
Peter van Onselen @vanOnselenP March 3
I have to say, Tony Abbott is doing a good job of showing contrition on the GP copayment. Taking blame himself for the lack of consultation
Peter van Onselen @vanOnselenP March 3
.@MjrElvisNewton can I hire you to work your way through the right who slam me as a leftie to tell them all I'm actually one of them?
No, still don’t think Peter can do irony.
So, can we smell chunks of the political fourth estate on the run?
Or is it the scent of those who refused to see but — surprise, surprise — are now open-eyed and so very disappointed?
Are some turning?
What do you think?
(First published by The Political Sword 15.3.15 as "Surprise, surprise ..." and reproduced with permission.)