‘You have come down here to see an election – eh? Spirited contest, my dear sir, very much so indeed. We have opened all the public-houses in the place. It has left our opponent nothing but the beer-shops — masterly policy, my dear sir, eh?’ The little man smiled complacently, and took a large pinch of snuff.
‘And what is the likely result of the contest?’ inquired Mr. Pickwick.
‘Why, doubtful, my dear sir, rather doubtful as yet,’ replied the little man. ‘Fizkin’s people have got three-and-thirty voters in the lock-up coach-house at the White Hart.’
“The man who is not a socialist at twenty has no heart, but if he is still a socialist at forty he has no head.” (Aristide Briand (1862-1932)) Well, Aristide, Prime Minister of France 11 times, was certainly a Socialist when young, but perhaps felt himself as an international statesmen becoming more right-wing as he became older.
It is an aphorism that is endlessly quoted, with knowing smirks, by the Right, most famously by Churchill, trying to counteract the opposite observation – “Although it is not true that all conservatives are stupid people, it is true that most stupid people are conservative.” – by John Stuart Mill. And trying to counteract modern studies showing that politically conservative people have on average a lower IQ than politically progressive people.
Not the point I want to discuss though, though related.
“In 1969 Robert Wilson, director of the National Accelerator Laboratory, was testifying before the US Congress. He sought funding for a particle accelerator (forerunner of the Large Hadron Collider at Cern where the Higgs boson was discovered in 2012). Asked by Senator John Pastore how his project would help defeat the Russians, he responded: “It only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another . . . are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets . . . new knowledge has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending.”
was sent to me by my old friend Rob Banks, who knew that I would enjoy it.
It made me think of this, from H.H. Kirst’s “Gunner Asch goes to war” (What, you don’t know Kirst and his great creation Herbert Asch? Shame on you. Rectify at once, if you can find it, and the later works):
‘Sergeant Asch said “I’m not going to die for this sort of Germany”
“But who’s asking you to?” said Kowalski
“There must be another Germany, which is worth dying for”
“Man!” said Kowalski “Perhaps one day there’ll even be a Germany which is worth living for!”‘
Something to bear in mind as we are in the year marking 100 years since the war to end all wars began. And in Australia we are just a year away from the commemoration of ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) troops (as well as British troops) landing at the start of the failed attempt to invade Turkey. An event now commemorated by Anzac Day on 25 April, and said to mark the true beginning of Australia’s nationhood. An event so important to the Right in Australia that the Education Minister (a title impossible to use seriously) appears to want the whole education curriculum built around it.
Here we are 8 days since the election that swept Tony Abbott and his Neanderthals to power (although not quite in the Qld-style landslide they and Rupert Murdoch were hoping for) and they have, astonishingly, not yet rolled into Government House to be sworn in.
For the media, including the ABC, the election seems not to have happened. They (rather like a Japanese soldier still hiding out in the Philipines and following the Emperor’s orders 50 years after the end of the war) are still bashing Labor, stirring up leadership tensions and ignoring policy issues, while Rudd supporters still trot into tv studios to talk about the future of the Party they damaged so badly, Graham Richardson is still billed as a “Labor powerbroker” (the word “power” being wrong), and scum from the RW think tank the IPA, busily planning the Hayekian paradise, are merely identified as “conservative commentators” by the ABC, rather in the way they might identify Genghis Khan as a “Chinese Horseman”.
There is an odd belief that tends to sweep through the political commentator class as we get closer to election time. Goes like this:
“We, the best and the brightest, we, the gods among men that comprise the political commentator super heroes, have always been able to predict the outcome of any and every political context down to the last decimal point. These days, since opinion polls have replaced goat entrails and astrology as guides to political futures, we are so exact in our prognostications and pontifications, that countries don’t even need to hold elections, a great cost-saving of which our Dear Leader Rupert thoroughly approves.
However, because we are totally honourable people, we have to admit that, just occasionally, the voting public let us down, get it wrong, elect, in spite of being told by us what to do, the wrong person. Not often, you understand (I mean, Harry Truman, really), but we are perfectionists always striving for total accuracy. Therefore forget about opinion polls, let us tell you the surefire way of predicting the outcome of an election – bookmaker’s odds on the outcome.
You see the odds are certain indicators of the outcome of a horse race, sorry, political contest, because they are the result of real punters putting up real money. None of this ‘pleasing the pollster because he seems nice’ nonsense, what we want to know is the opinion of people who have wagered the mortgage of their house on being certain that Mitt Romney is going to win. And if enough people wager enough houses on an outcome then that outcome will be certain”.
Australia and its states are soon going to be ruled by governments incorporating misogynists, monarchists, homophobes, religious fundamentalists, austerity mode neo-conservatives, developers, nuclear power advocates, climate change deniers, anti-public service ideologues, right-wing think tanks, Rupert Murdoch, xenophobes, mining billionaires, shooters, radio shock jocks, irrigators, nationalists, loggers, militarists, commercial fishermen, bankers, red necks, haters, fools.
Have I missed any?
Hooray, hooray, The Guardian newspaper now has an Australian edition as of this morning. Glad cries from progressives, more and more perturbed, no, angry, at the increasingly blatant right-wing bias of all the other mainstream media in Australia, not just the 70% of newspapers owned by Murdoch, but the others (mainly Fairfax), the radio talk shows, and the public broadcaster the ABC. Please please, came the cry, come to Australia, oh lovely Guardian newspaper where reality creates a left-wing bias, come and save us. And here, at last, they are.
Me and The Guardian go way back. Began reading it in 1973 when I lived in England, caught up with it again on later visits, saw the Guardian Weekly on occasion, leapt, with glad cries, on the internet edition as soon as it became available, and now, at last, the Australian version has arrived.
One of the reasons I, we, are so pleased to see it pop up on our computer screens this morning as we went to read the UK edition, is the hope, indeed expectation, that a new player in the Australian media could break the narrative mould that has contained all mainstream journalism in the country for three years. You all know the narrative – Julia knifed Kevin the once and almost future king; Julia was dishonest about the Carbon Price and misogyny; dysfunctional government; scandals; hung parliament preventing legislation; Abbott the genius Opposition Leader; inevitable election loss for Labor, and so on and on.
Nothing can be written outside those frames. No Opposition action can be criticised, no Government action can remain uncriticised. No political stunt by Tony Abbott can be treated unseriously; no performance by Julia Gillard can be treated uncynically.
With the Guardian, we all hoped, escaping both the dead and self-interested hands of the gang of Australian media chiefs, and the circle jerk of journalists scared to step outside the rigid narrative because of peer pressure and laziness, would be able to write its own narratives as seen through fresh eyes and provide a circuit breaker.
So, did our media benefactor turn out to be Havisham or Magwitch?
Grotesquely unfair to judge anything much on the first issue of course, but expectations have been so high that it would be ridiculous not to. The lead article, by Editor Lenore Taylor was an exclusive interview with The PM Julia Gillard. Something of a coup I guess, although the PM presumably is also hoping The Guardian will be a narrative changer and was probably happy to oblige.
So, how does this exclusive begin?
“Julia Gillard refuses to commit to political career beyond election” is the title of the piece, and the sub-heading is:
“In exclusive interview with Guardian Australia, prime minister declines to confirm that she will stay in parliament if Labor loses”
Now this is the kind of gotcha journalism (including those weasel words “declines to confirm” and, in a separate piece later, “tight-lipped”, an even worse cliche) that the recent narrative thrives on. It’s the classic “have you stopped beating your wife, yes or no?” question which will provide a journalist scoop however it is answered. It is just another form of the narrative that the government is heading for inevitable defeat, the cause hopeless. And to answer it the PM has to accept the premise on which it is based, therefore adding to the narrative. In any case the question is meaningless. A win in the election and she goes on, victor of the new “sweetest one of all” election win. A loss and almost inevitably she would resign as an MP – no precedent for anything else really.
So not a very promising start for a new age of journalism. The heading is all nudge nudge wink wink, the gotcha question and its non-answer becomes “news” picked up by the ABC, in the now standard circle jerk of anti-government journalism. The Guardian narrative indistinguishable from the old narratives. And it continues to not be a breath of fresh media air blowing through the corridors of power:
“Gillard claimed Tony Abbott’s signature policy for women, his $4.3bn paid parental leave offering mothers 26 weeks’ leave at their full wage – a benefit worth up to $75,000 – was in fact an anti-women policy, and against Australian values. The scheme – which has been strongly backed by some feminist commentators – is to be paid for by a 1.5% levy on big business.”
Notice the “claimed” here, the standard way any Labor announcement is described. Notice too that the “claim” is immediately rejected by Ms Taylor with the remark about it being “strongly backed” by ” feminist commentators” (take that Ms Gillard) with a link that leads to Eva Cox whose support for the scheme has been attacked by many other “feminists”. But, let nothing get in the way of a good narrative.
Later still we have: “After a term in office wracked with leadership tension and political scandals, Gillard also reflected on the challenges of political leadership and her personal feelings during the last botched challenge to her leadership, which rival Kevin Rudd did not, in the end, join.” Well, there was indeed leadership tension, strongly enabled by the media, but I’m not sure the government was “wracked” by it except in the 2010 election. But political scandals? Really? AWU was a beat up. The Slipper and Thomson matters have been strongly questioned by independent media, questions which the mainstream media have refused to follow up. Seems the Guardian won’t be either, being happy just to accept Opposition spin about scandals.
And there is more: “Asked what her agenda would be if she did defy the polls and win re-election, she nominated the two policies Labor sees as among its strongest achievements this term – the national disability scheme and the schools funding package – saying both would need “patient nurturing” to be fully implemented.”
There you go again, “defy the polls”, and we are back to the inevitable triumph of the will of Tony Abbott. And just two policies eh? Over 500 pieces of legislation through a parliament in which the government is out numbered. A record for any government I think, even ones with strong majorities. Yet Ms Taylor provides no context for the two policies.
There are one or two interesting and new things in the interview. The comments on abortion, for example, and her obvious hurt at being betrayed by Simon Crean. The main piece ends with the comment that John Howard said he was likely to retire if he won on 2007. I assume this is included in an attempt to justify the gotcha heading. But the Howard thing was in the context of the political reality of the Howard-Costello “wracked with leadership tension” Liberal Party of 2007 and earlier, and the Labor meme that a vote for Howard was a vote for Costello. A question as to Howard’s intentions then was good journalism in the way that a question of Gillard’s intentions are not.
The Guardian adds a couple of elements to the main story, but does so in separate pieces. One is the PM’s discovery of “Game of Thrones” and becoming something of an addict. Fair enough, a bit of colour. But it has to be turned into symbolism about how the series represents the Labor Party, and her favourite character represents her. The sort of tabloid/women’s magazine frippery we don’t want from the Guardian.
And the other part is twenty questions from twenty leading Australians. I thought this was an original approach, although the questions, necessarily, were a somewhat odd mixture, but they provoked some interesting responses, and this does seem to me an approach that could help fragment the usual narratives. We shall see.
But then, quite beyond my expectations, as I settled down to write this post, came an addition (big advantage of an online newspaper) to the story. The PM’s office had decided to answer the gotcha question, for once taking the initiative before the media gets up a head of steam. “But after the story was published, Gillard’s office said in a statement: “The PM is focused on securing a Labor majority government at the next election and will serve a full term.”"
If the Guardian hasn’t yet convinced me they will live up to the high expectations of them I developed 40 years ago, perhaps the PM’s office is beginning to exceed the very low expectations I have of them based on their performance over the last three years.
Hopefully the Guardian will come, like Pip, to heed the warning of Mr Jaggers, to “Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There’s no better rule”.
In journalism as in life.
Journalists with secret sources a cornerstone of our democracy eh? Not so sure. Oh, I know that “I will never reveal the names of my sources” is the Hippocratic Oath of Journalism. And yes, yes, I know all about Watergate. But still, surprisingly, I have me doubts.
Seems hardly an Australian media political story these days, and reflected from there into Twitter, which doesn’t include “senior government sources” “senior ministers” “a number of backbenchers” “Labor insiders” “political observers” “a former power broker”, down to that deepest of Deep Throats the ubiquitous “Some” who frequently appears “saying” things, as a source of stories inevitably damaging to the government.
Now journalists defend this anonymity by arguing that it is an essential part of their trade to protect identity of sources otherwise no whistleblower would ever come forward. In this narrative (for it is just a narrative like all journalism these days) these intrepid journalists find honest insiders willing to lift the lid on some terrible political wrong-doing hidden behind closed doors, and the public must be kept informed.
But it is impossible to think of such a story in recent years. Instead the “whistle blowing” the “leaks from insiders” all have a single theme and purpose – to “reveal” and exacerbate whatever personal tensions exist within the Labor government. Either because it suits the agenda of a media proprietor, or of the Opposition, or of someone who wants to retrieve a Field Marshall’s baton from a knapsack in which, they believe, it was prematurely stored.
That is, this kind of Leak Journalism is not aimed at the public interest but at private interests in the Great Game of politics. The identity of informants, where they do actually exist (and I suggest some are, like the dead body in World War 2 Operation Mincemeat, not real people at all) , is not being protected because of the value of their information to the public, but to hide the nasty political games they are actually playing.
What’s more their anonymity has become a way of journalists inflating the apparent value of sources, of effortlessly increasing them in both numbers and rank to give a totally false impression of the meaning of a story. Pretending that the journalist has 50 whistleblowers, instead of one whistleblower 50 times. And a way of hiding secret agendas, political and business. And of disguising the informant who is a member of a think tanks, pushing a nasty neoconservative economic agenda on behalf of paymasters. And of pretending that “inside information” from the Labor Party isn’t in fact coming from a cunning Liberal troublemaker. And so on.
The media has been completely happy with fake whistleblowers, helping them, for example, to churn out endless fake “Rudd challenge” stories with no more effort than pushing a programmed function key on a keyboard. But the media have treated with contempt those ultimate real whistleblowers Assange and Manning. Their stories needed investigation, work, writing, and, more scarily, would actually involve speaking truth to power. A function once primary for journalists but no longer.
Anyway, think it is time for a change to this “secret informant” business. Some say all informants’ identities should be made public, in the interests of transparency, unless there is an extremely good reason for not doing so.
What do you say?
Twitter provides so much inspiration for blogging (and vice versa) that you could, given an infinite amount of time and pep pills and typewriter ribbon, blog all day and all night. I thought today I would illustrate some of this, picking up on a number of stories and blogging briefly about them.
Here is the first:
Shoky Joky (@IH8SHOKJOKS)
25/03/13 9:03 AM
#AmAgenda – Fifield says “we never saw anything like a challenge to John Howard”. That’s just a lie which @Kieran_Gilbert accepted. #MSMfail
There are dozens of similar tweets just in my timeline every day, and I don’t want to talk about individuals here, this exchange could represent any Opposition member talking to any journalist. But let’s consider what is going on.
For the benefit of my younger readers (those born after 2007), here is some of John Howard’s political history. From 1983-1993 he was engaged in a life and death acrimonious struggle with Andrew Peacock for Liberal Party Opposition Leadership during the first ten years of Hawke-Keating.
They undermined each other and exchanged places after leadership coups several times, the battle ending only when Peacock lost the 1990 election and resigned but not before supporting John Hewson as his successor and blocking Howard from regaining leadership.
After Hewson lost in 1993, the almost comedy team of Downer and Costello took over after deposing Hewson in another bitter coup. Downer eventually resigned in 1995 and Howard got a triple bypass and, Lazarus-like, rose again. With a deal done with Costello that he would accept the Deputy Leadership if Howard agreed to step down within a reasonable period.
It never happened, Costello became more and more aggrieved, was more and more publicly at odds with Howard and determined to replace him. The bad blood between them was obvious, and much remarked on (and the exact parallels with the Hawke-Keating relationship). By 2007 it was also becoming obvious Howard could lose the election, and some of his most senior ministers went to him (in an exact parallel to what would later happen to Rudd) demanding that he resign and hand over to Costello. He refused and went on to lose of course.
Now all of this has happened just in the last 30 years. The bitter Costello challenge of Howard is within the last ten years. This is recent Australian political history. You might not remember the precise sequence involved in Howard-Peacock and so on, but if you have any involvement in Australian politics you would have to know the substance of it.
In short, in 30 years Howard was “challenged” over and over again. The only difference between Hawke-Keating and Howard-Costello, and Howard and Rudd, was that Howard was able to tough out the later challenges (as he had failed to do in the earlier ones) whereas both Hawke and Rudd succumbed to their’s.
And yet here we have an Opposition member apparently flat-out denying the reality of history, never happened, Howard was never challenged, (implying only Labor has challenges). And he in turn is allowed to rewrite history because his statement goes unchallenged. We have, it seems, always been at war with Oceania.
I repeat, this is merely a single example of something that happens daily now. I don’t know whether the Opposition deliberately lies or has fooled itself into its own alternative history reality of a King Howard who lived where:
“The rain may never fall till after sundown.
By eight, the morning fog must disappear.
In short, there’s simply not, a more congenial spot
For happily-ever-aftering than here in Camelot”
And happily-ever-aftering we go.
On the other hand I don’t know whether Australian journalists are operating under instructions never to question even the most blatant untruths; whether they are personally disinclined to; or whether knowledge of Australian political history is no longer a requirement for employment in Australian political journalism. Those who forget political history are doomed to report it badly.
Whatever the reasons, this turning of journalism into merely a matter of holding a microphone for a politician to speak into is extraordinarily damaging to Australian democracy (and elsewhere, much the same seems to be true of the US and UK). The average punter doesn’t retain political memories in the way us political tragics do. Just as he or she doesn’t have expertise in, say, medicine, or plumbing, or car engines, or climate change, and trusts specialists to provide it, so they trust experts to provide background, context, for politics.
If they are told, confidently, that John Howard was never challenged, by someone whose statement itself is unchallenged, then they are likely to accept it as true. History has been successfully rewritten, and, being so, will successfully alter the mindset of the voter to accept that leadership disputes have only taken place in the last year, and only ever take place in an inherently unstable Labor Party. A message that fits with all the similar messages, based on other rewritten histories, already implanted.
Media organisations used to have Fact Checkers, a role which seems to have largely disappeared these days. But in a broader sense the public once saw the media as a whole as a Giant Fact Checker responsible, on their behalf, for keeping the bastards honest. That role has been totally abandoned it seems and now the bastards have no constraints on their dishonesty.
It seems to be increasingly falling to the Social Media, Twitter and Blogs, to take over that vacant media fact checker role. Australia still won’t be Camelot, but we’ll be happier with our politics after that happens.
Or perhaps I am wrong. Check me.
The most significant woman in the World in the last 20 years was a very young White House Intern. No, not the best, or the brightest, or the most powerful, woman in the world, but the most significant, the one whose existence changed history the most.
Look powerful male leaders have always taken advantage of their power (that “powerful aphrodisiac” as Kissinger put it, and I guess he knew) to take advantage of young women. But there have also been many extramarital relationships for leaders apparently based on equality of personal power. Millions of both kinds over the centuries, including Kings (and two of the Queens) of England.
So why do I single out the Clinton-Lewinsky “relationship” [hard to think of word here] for special mention? Two reasons.
Going back through time many American presidents have had extra-marital relationships. Even in relatively recent times of course we have Kennedy (and in very different way perhaps Eisenhower, though before he became President) and perhaps Carter (though he seems not to have inhaled). None of the other recent presidents seem to have (and most seem very unlikely to have, but who knows the mysteries of human attraction?) as far as we know.
Recent British political leaders? Seems not. There was of course Profumo (but then I would say that, wouldn’t I?), though that’s about all.
And Australian leaders, senior politicians? Well, there was Hawke and D’Alpuget, and presumably Gorton and Gotto. Then there was Cairns and Morosi (did I imagine it being said recently that it was young John Howard, of all people, who discovered them in a broom cupboard or something?), and Evans and Kernot, and that’s about it to my knowledge.
But the thing about all those is that little or nothing was said about most of it in the Press at the time, no front page compromising photos, no salacious titbits read out by radio shock jocks. Nor great political capital made, presumably on the basis that those in the glass houses of as yet undiscovered indiscretions probably better pull the blinds down. Oh there was some “Nudge, Nudge, Wink, Wink” but then it was “Say no more” and that was that.
But with Bill Clinton it all changed and the political world would never be the same again. His “indiscretion” with young Monica Lewinsky was turned into a weapon to smash his Presidency, impeach him for heaven’s sake. Look, sure, it was inappropriate use of power in workplace, no question, bad behaviour. Should have been punished, and steps taken to look at the structures of the White House in terms of sexual harassment and how to prevent it. But the reaction was far out of proportion, and it seemed clear Ms Lewinsky was being used by powerful forces who hadn’t the slightest interest in sexual mores.
Soon made obvious by the trotting out of a whole lot of more mature and non-White House ladies, all apparently called Gennifer (having the same names may have made things confusing, or simpler, I guess), though my memory may be faulty, said to have had relations with Clinton. And on and on. So effectively that the business of government was badly impacted, paralysed, as lawyers and committees proliferated, and shock jocks pontificated. Which was of course the aim, the start of the new tactics by the Right in America to make it impossible for a Democratic President ever to effectively rule again, as Obama has now discovered.
You could argue that taking private lives from off-limits and into the Blitzkrieg Politics that Attwater and Rove introduced meant that nothing would ever again be unthinkable as a political tactic. Swiftboating, Birtherism, Filibustering, Sequestering, and just plain Racism all were legitimised in a sense when Monica’s red dress, and descriptions of Clinton’s genitals, were accepted as legitimate political discourse.
And it only got worse. Clinton was so politically damaged by the unprecedented all-out assault that in turn he was no use to, in fact counter-productive for, the Gore presidential candidacy. Instead of being able to build on his role in a succesful and productive presidency, and use the once very popular Clinton in the campaign, Gore was effectively forced to campaign by cutting loose from his history, his actual qualification for the top job. Ms Lewinsky’s red dress had stained Gore’s campaign, and the stain could not be removed. The result, as we know, was to end in the tears of the hanging chads (in itself another development o tactics in the absolute lust for power of the Right), and, incredibly, the election of the most foolish and incompetent man ever to hold the Presidency.
And the result of that, of course, was 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, the rise of terrrorism and the mad-brained “war on terror”, loss of political freedoms for Americans and others who copied them, trillions of dollars in unfunded expenditure compounded by tax cuts for the rich, deregulation of banks, the eventual virtual collapse of the world finances, and the continuing failure of American action on climate change as the world slowly melted.
So, a major shift in not just American history and society, but that of the whole world, a shift that has continued to resonate for twenty years, and goes on. And a big influence even on the fate of the actual planet we all live on. A thousand consequences launched, unexpectedly, at the first time a vivacious young lady walked into the Oval Office.
Helen of Troy? Pffft!
Although, wait a moment, wasn’t it actually Bill of Arkansas who launched the thousand war ships, Clinton himself who pulled the temple down?
Helen of Troy? Reinstated.