Tuesday, April 10, 2012


Late again. This was printed in the Canberra Times on 31 March as I attempted to find a reason that might explain the disaster that engulfed Queensland Labor . . .

But it still helps to have an editor

The decisive, terrible and swift execution of Queensland Labor was followed, less than twelve hours later, by Anna Bligh’s announcement she would immediately abandoning the ship she’d confidently steered onto the rocks. Just days earlier she’d guaranteed she’d be continuing to work on as a happy local member even if the party was consigned into electoral purgatory.

Perhaps everyone should have known the promise wouldn’t count. She probably had her fingers crossed as she uttered the words. So what does it mean? Bligh broke her word. Shoulders’ shrug across the nation. She asked the gullible public to believe ‘facts had changed’. Yet the one constant truth – that her government was heading into a void – had never changed. That was the whole point about why she was asked for her commitment in the first place.

Before Saturday, the overall result was never in doubt. Today no one can underestimate enthusiasm voters will bring to the job of banding together in impromptu lynch mobs to string-up Labor MPs. Reason is discarded. Even Labor recognised this in its last desperate campaign add, begging voters not to provide Campbell Newman with an overwhelming majority. They ignored the plea.

The question is why, and what does this say about our society?

Firstly, the politics. Although polling in those final days had suggested Bligh’s personalised attacks on Campbell Newman had backfired, any sudden surge of antagonism normally recedes by the time people mark their ballots. This time it didn’t. Anger at Labor, specifically the broken-promises and lies that have become so much a part of modern electoral machinery, overwhelmed ordinary people. It’s as if a thin film of blood obscured their vision as they walked into the ballot booths and blasted Labor into oblivion. Today the party, belatedly, admits this was a ‘trust’ thing.

The diagnosis is perfect. The implementation of any remedy is, however, invisible to the naked eye. Redefining the term simply represents word-play. It won’t work.

The spin-meisters say trust is the issue; this needs to be rebuilt. But the politicians are seemingly incapable of changing their ingrained ways. Take Julia Gillard in South Korea this week. The PM (who’d begun with the usual tripe about what an honour it was to have come to the third time to “your beautiful country as Australia’s Prime Minister”) was asked about racial discrimination in Australia. Her answer? “We do stand resolutely with you on security challenges,” Gillard simply spruiked at the young woman who’d asked the question.

When the PM accuses the press of “writing crap” she was, in part, correct. It may well be that the comments were provoked by the media’s accurate relating of the recurring stench of problems surrounding Gillard. But the problem begins with the politicians. They confidently feed the media the rubbish it’s expected to regurgitate. Increasingly, the words spouting out of the mouths of politicians refer to a vastly different world to the one inhabited by most of us. It seemingly represents the triumph of post-modernistism: a plethora of different realities. Unfortunately, the political use of language will never be enough, by itself, to construct authenticity.

Perhaps the clearest example of this, at least as it applies to what used to be called civil society, can be seen on the internet. This has equipped everyone with the ability to disseminate their views. Normally by SHOUTING. Now, it is important to express your innermost feelings, but just because you believe something absolutely doesn’t mean everyone else has to as well. Conviction is not the same as objective reporting. Journalism requires sticking to facts. But it also requires thought and effort, from both the reporter and the audience.

Nobody reported that Bligh was going to do a runner and desert the rump of her colleagues, until she actually announced the fact. Reporters suspected she would – that’s why the question had originally been asked. But if Bligh flatly denied what others guessed would occur . . . what was the story?

Journalists are paid to sift through the many happenings of the day and utilise the perspective they acquire from intimate knowledge of the players. Then, supposedly, they to attempt to edit this information into units of knowledge they call ‘stories’. The best of these combine an accurate reporting of whatever’s happening, illuminated by a detailed understanding of the background to those events. A vital process called ‘editing’ adds to this perspective. It (hopefully) provides depth and weight to the scrappy bits of paper that can then be used usefully to line the bin and start the fire. But few modern homes have fireplaces. Today everyone wants an internet connection. And this is having an effect on the public sphere.

There’s no turning this back, of course, and this is not just another “we’ll all be rooned” pleading from someone trained back in the days of Gutenberg. The concern is to understand what’s happening to society and how it’s changing. The salient point is that in the brand new world where everyone is empowered to be a reporter, the only thing lacking is an editor. Yet it’s this vital editorial skill that journalism is really all about. It’s not just what you put in – it’s how it’s arranged, what you leave out and, perhaps most importantly, about the audience having trust in the way these vital judgements are being made.

How would our sophisticated journalist have rated Bligh’s ‘promise’ to remain if the party lost office? Would the one-time Premier really have continued on, month after month, sitting on the backbench without an opportunity to respond while her reputation was trashed? I doubt she ever intended to, but I can’t prove that: it’s just a suspicion. That’s why it’s worth adding value with the perspectives of reporters. Did they say Bligh “confidently affirmed” she’d be staying on as Premier, or merely that she “claimed” she’d remain? Did Bligh “declare” she’d remain in parliament, or simply “allege” she would? How sceptical were the reports?

Something is being lost as everyone seeks to find their own voice. The result is a cacophony of sound. Everyone is giving vent to expressing their own feelings. This is good. The problem is that instead of creating new forums of trust the internet is allowing our own convictions to redouble into a loud, but hollow, crescendo.

We’ve stopped listening. Trust is eroded. The immediate corollary is that voters swing wildly. First one way, then the other. The fragile social sphere has never been more vulnerable.

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