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The Age “Dirt Unit” Story Breaks My Heart

October 5, 2010 Leave a comment

From my current base in New York, I make a point of staying in touch with events back home, by which I mean both Melbourne and Wellington. I read voraciously, and social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter fill in the gaps. To invoke a geek-chic phrase from The Social Network, I consider myself “wired-in”.

But, in important ways, I cannot avoid the tyranny of distance. For one thing, all the surfing and tweeting and Facebooking in the world won’t replace the experience of actually being in a place when it comes to the important art of vibe-reading. Take the example of the Paul Henry scandal in New Zealand that I wrote about yesterday — despite reading blogs, newspaper articles and Twitter feeds on the subject, I know I am missing how the story is really playing; how it is interacting, so to speak, with the zeitgeist. This is a good example because the story revolves around allegations of racism, so it is inevitable that the published vibe is at odds with the actual vibe because everyone is tiptoeing around the subject.

This zeitgeist-reading problem is worse in Australia than New Zealand, I suspect, because their news outlets are far more interested in manufacturing the vibe through pushing particular political agenda and editorial judgments. Take Murdoch’s Australian newspaper which, if I were to read it at face value, would lead me to believe that the predominant concerns of everyday Australians are:

  • The conspiracy among climate scientists aimed at sending Australia back to the economic stone-age;
  • The plot to socialize the world by Obama and his henchmen on the Australian left;
  • The strategic shortcomings, tactical mishaps and endemic corruption of federal and state Labor governments;
  • Noel Pearson’s awesomeness.

This doesn’t match at all with the top concerns of Australians which are:

  • Housing prices
  • Footy
  • Master Chef

When I arrived in Australia in 1998, I thought the Age newspaper in Melbourne was spectacularly good. To this day, it is my default paper of choice — this is all but demographically pre-determined since I am an inner-city leftie with decidedly homosexual leanings. But, like all Age readers I have ever met, it breaks my heart every single day.

There is not enough capacity on the world-wide-web to contain the full extent of my disappointment at the Age newspaper, but Tuesday’s lead story by Royce Millar does a neat job of summing it up:

Labour unit digs up dirt

VICTORIAN taxpayers are footing the bill for a secretive operation run out of Premier John Brumby’s office aimed at discrediting Coalition MPs and Greens candidates in the lead-up to next month’s state election.

Shock! Horror! Call the Governor! Prorogue the Parliament! Ready the handcuffs!

I don’t want to dwell too much on this point because I trust it is obvious: conducting opposition research within a political office is not a crime and it is not even remotely newsworthy. If the public service, and not a political office, were using taxpayer funds to research opposition politicians, then Royce Millar would have a genuine scandal on his hands. If the Premier’s office were using resources to dig dirt on enemies within his own Labor Party, then stop the presses by all means. But accusing political staff of — what? corruption? — for undertaking run-of-the-mill opposition research should be of no greater news value than reports of birds flying, fish swimming or paint drying.

Millar has spiced up his piece admirably by the tabloidesque use of inflammatory language and sentences like this:

[The Premier’s Office] uses expensive corporate investigators to probe the affairs of political opponents, in particular Mr Baillieu. It is not clear who pays for this work, taxpayers or the Labor Party. Another possibility is that it is done free of charge as an undeclared donation to the Labor cause.

That last sentence is so naughty that the News of the World would hesitate. Another possiblity? He could add the sentence “a further possibility is that the work is being funded by narcotics and human trafficking” without making it substantively worse journalism than it already is.

As a taxpayer in a parliamentary democracy, I hope that all sides spend a good deal of their time and resources checking up on the other side. Perhaps if Royce Millar and his colleagues at the Age spent more time holding politicians to account, rather than “exposing” politicians for practicing politics and fluffing bullshit non-stories like this one, political staff could direct their focus elsewhere.

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The Hardest Hard-Arse of Them All

September 13, 2010 1 comment

When told that certain muffins are as bad for you as ice-cream, the idea is not to eat more ice-cream.

Wrong lessons have been troubling me of late, since Saturday night’s Bledisloe Cup especially. I was struck by the extent to which Wallaby supporters were willing to infer from their humiliating defeat at the hands of a sub-par All Blacks all kinds of things except the glaringly obvious. It is canine-testicles to a non-Aussie that the result was a searing indictment on the Wallaby team’s myriad weaknesses. It further struck me that the whining about All Black infringing, and bluster about injuries and poor fortune, are more than just helpful fibs to salve the sting of defeat. They are actually inhibitors to improvement.

The ALP is undertaking a review into the recent campaign which is either (a) recognition that it was atrocious, and therefore an encouraging development or (b) window dressing and, thus, pointless.

If rumours that Robert Ray will head the review turn out to be true, then that is a tremendously good sign. Robert is by far my favourite former employer. He possesses both the most well-tuned — and the least tolerant — bullshit detector I have ever witnessed. His toughness is legenday — but, unike other former factional “heavies”, this is not the product of careful image management and self-instigated myth-making (think Richo, Conroy, etc.) To the contrary, Robert has not the slightest interest in having a public image at all. In the place where politicians usually keep their tender and enormous egos, Robert seems to store an extra brain.

A former Defence and Immigation Minister, as well as a devastatingly forensic and effective Opposition Senator, Robert Ray treats the media with unbridled disdain (except in the rare instances where he finds them useful). In stark, stark contrast to his snivelling and obsequiois colleagues, he never panders to power or patronises voters.

Steve Bracks, another erstwhile boss and former Premier of Victoria, is the other name bandied about. He is a smart and steady fellow — but he is Jimmy Stewart and this is a horror movie. Nice guy, wrong genre.

If the campaign stunk only midly, Bracksy would do nicely. But the scale of the debacle is such that it will take a person in possession of rare qualities: a peerless political mind, unwavering integrity and a gigantic pair of steel balls.

Since one of my many unwritten books is “Robert Ray: Mind, Integrity, Gigantic Steel Balls”, it seems obvious that if Labor want to learn the hard but necessary lessons from its dreadful campaign, then he — and only he — is the person for the job.

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