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.