My article ‘Lazy Journalism’ was published today, to which this is the link:


One of George Orwell’s many admirable qualities as a writer was his willingness to delcare his self-interest when expressing his opinions. I consider this a key to his legendary reputation for honesty and a test for anyone who expresses their opinions in writing,  whether in an opinion piece or in an article or book supported by exhaustive research.  I write this article as someone who is on the political left and shares the view that Tony Abbott is arguably the most right wing leader of a major party in Australia, ever.

The lazy journalism which I have in mind is closely, but not solely linked to Tony Abbott’s potent one-liners which have characterised his leadership of the coalition and refers more to the broadcast than to the print media. Abbott is a master of the gibe, the verbal equivalent of the pugilist’s stinging short arm jab. He  formulates his ceaseless criticism of the federal government in easy to understand and damaging phrases which have proved irresistible to news reporters, broadcasters and presenters. Rather than thinking for themselves by using their own words and challenging the accuracy of his, they play into Abbott’s hands by using his words. He has taken the art of ‘feeding the chooks’ to a whole new level. The way his glib taunts have become the currency of news reporting thanks to lazy journalism, complicates federal politics and cannot be in the national interest because it seems that only one side of politics is being rigorously held to account. This has allowed Abbott to largely succeed in his aim of dictating Australia’s political agenda, beginning in the lead up to the 2010 election with the ‘failed pink batts scheme’ and the ‘wasteful schools building programme’ barbs.

The seemingly universal adoption by journalists of Abbott’s gibes is also an example of what Steven Pinker, in ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’, calls  the innumeracy of our journalisitic culture. In reality the numbers show that the home insulation programme was not a failure and the schools building programme was not wasteful. Truthful and accurate reporting would have simply referred to the government’s home insulation programme and its schools building programme. Disregarding the above for a moment and the unique circumstances of minority government, those on the left who pooh pooh Abbott’s glibness do so at their peril. In the verbal sparring contest for the ears of the electorate his oponents have hardly been able to lay a glove on him.

The most egregious and insidious instance of Abbott being allowed to misrepresent the truth is his insistence on calling a price on carbon a carbon tax, as if it were to be deducted from people’s income or paid every day like the GST. In reality, only a relatively small number of major polluters will pay the levy on carbon.  Julia Gillard notoriously referred to a tax on carbon before the 2010 election but has since been careful to talk about a price on carbon. Putting a price on carbon equates initially with higher costs for energy and fuel, but we are told the increases will be more than offset for most Australians by monetary compensation. The truth of Abbott’s alarmist claims will shortly be tested.

Historically and ideologically, commercial media companies tend to support the political right, though they may also like to back and even anoint centrist or slightly left of centre winners. Public broadcasters aspire to rise above party politics. Some of the world’s more distinguished newspapers are left leaning or politcally independent – all this I accept. I believe that democracy, inter alia, requires that people are well informed and that lazy journalism, in wilfully or negligently peddling inaccuracy and bias, weakens democracy. In the current Australian context lazy journalism is imposing an inexcusable and preventable additional burden on the federal government. It also contributes to what I am convinced is the case (which I have no way of proving) that part of Gillard’s unpopularity is because she is a woman, which I find disgraceful. I believe the same was basically true of Anna Bligh who has always struck me as being most personable and capable.

I acknowledge that the federal government’s electoral plight is also of its own making. For example, it has been inept in promoting its record of achievements, in dealing with the aftermath of deposing Kevin Rudd, in handling asylum seekers who arrive by boat, and in allowing itself to be bullied by Abbott. Nontheless, it has been able to pass major reformist legislation as a minority administration, which is a remarkable accomplishment.

Two recent events, the leadership contest between Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd on February 27 and Wayne Swan’s March 2 article in the Monthly were the focus of lazy journalism for which Abbott cannot be held responsible. Although regarding the latter event, as with my previous examples, the lazy journalism derives from and favours his side of politics. As I recall, the reason why Rudd was ousted, apart from his leadership style, was that ‘the Australian people’ had stopped listening to him a few months out from an election because he was long-winded, unintelligible and boring. Though I didn’t hear that being mentioned by the broadcast media concerning February’s leadership contest. It appears forgetfulness is also part of journalistic culture.

Unlike Costello failing to take on Howard, but like Minchin and Abbott getting rid of Turnbull, Labour acted decisively. The people having stopped listening to Rudd were now shocked by what happened to him. Talk about shedding crocodile tears and having one’s cake and eating it.  And this disconnect persists with Rudd, the Prime Minister to whom a decisive part of the elctorate had stopped listening in 2010, more popular as a national leader than either Gillard or Abbott in 2012. The fact is that whether Rudd can defeat Abbott or Gillard cannot, should the election occur in late 2013, is presently unknowable. The electorate voted in a minority government in 2010 with all the resulting shenannigans. They don’t like what they have done, but it is a bit rich to heap blame on the ALP, as many do, for this ugly and messy state of affairs.

Much of the reaction to Wayne Swan’s article was predictable, particularly from the political right. But I was dismayed to hear a reporter in an interview with Swan on the ABC’s AM programme suggesting that Swan’s attack on the billionaire mining magnates was ‘the politics of envy’, a snide, pithy put-down which was used by Thatcher and Reagan, the purveyors of economic rationalism, before making its way to these shores. The phrase first made my blood boil in 2007 when it was hurled at those who spoke out against Howard lavishing additional millions of public money on the wealthiest schools in the land. It was intended to brand the left as being engaged in a class war to mask the reality that it is the ultra wealthy right, most notably in the US, but also in the other advanced economies, which has long been engaged in a successful class war against everyone else, ie the 99%. The way the rich are widely admired and politicians, business leaders and the media persist with the nonsense that what is good for business is good for all (what is good for business is above all good for business, meaning owners and top executives), are actually victories in the real class war.

What I find unacceptable in the ABC reporter raising ‘the politics of envy’ in her interview with Wayne Swan was her laziness in willy-nilly confining discussion to the right’s agenda when she had the opportunity to address  Swan’s  concerns about  social justice and a fairer distribution of the country’s wealth. These are serious issues. They deserve to be widely discussed as part of the nation’s political debate, which in my view should include the notion that more equal societies are better societies, given the well-researched supporting evidence. On March 12, prompted by the right’s reaction to Swan’s article, Mungo Maccallum wrote a deliciously satirical piece about the politics of envy and old-fashioned class warfare for The Drum. The Canberra press gallery doesn’t get it about how disgusting it is to see Twiggy Forrest on tv bleating away about the mining tax, wanting to keep the irreplaceable riches in the ground which belong to all Australians, primarily for himself and his ilk.

Peter Kuttner

March 2012