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Sydney Writers Festival 2019, Live and Local (Session 3)

May 5, 2019

And now my final event from the Sydney Writers Festival live-streamed (#SWFLiveAndLocal).program at th National Library of Australia.

“I do not want to see this in print”, Sunday 5 May, 4.30pm

Panel: Annabel Crabb (convenor), with Samantha Maiden, Sharri Markson, Niki Savva

Niki Savva, The road to ruinAustralian journalist Annabel Crabb, as cheeky as ever, introduced the session as being one of the last events in this Festival of lying! (You may remember that the festival theme is “Lie to me”) However, she then went on to say that the focus of the session would be modern political reporting. Her panelists were all established Australian journalists (click on their names to see their Wikipedia entries.)

Crabb got the conversation going by asking whether political lying is different now to what it was in the past? That set them off. It was a lively, respectful discussion involving four women who are clearly passionate about political journalism.

One of the issues about “modern” lying concerned politicians saying things at one time that they revoke later. An example was Julia Gillard’s saying there’d be no carbon tax, and then introducing one. The journalists felt the best policy is always honesty: Gillard should simply have said that yes, she had made that statement, but that circumstances had changed and now there would be a tax. A common circumstance where this sort of lying happens are leadership challenges. The problem is that the politician may be planning to challenge, but is not ready at the time the journalist asks, so they feel forced to lie.

But, Savva asked, isn’t it better to just tell the truth, rather than undermine the political process by lying. Crabb noted that we all now know the language of leadership challenges and so no-one believes their denials.

More egregious lies, according to Crabb, are those where a journalist is given information “in confidence” or “off the record” that the politician denies when asked publicly. For example, Peter Costello had told a journalist he would challenge for leadership one day, but when asked publicly he said he would never challenge. The challenge for journalists in all this is protecting their sources, because trust goes both ways. Samantha stated that “you have to hold your nerve” which I felt was code, in part, for “bide your time”! It’s all a game in the end – and not a game I would ever want to play. However, we need journalists to suss out the truth for us.

Of course, journalists aren’t squeaky clean. There are co-dependent and lazy journalists, they said, but there is also the problem of not enough time, the sped-up news cycle, and that there are fewer journalists.

Crabb moved on to the public’s disaffection with politicians and political journalists, as exemplified by the recent social media attack on journalist Patricia Karvelas over a text from politician Barnaby Joyce. A panelist added the propensity of viewers of the ABC’s The Insiders being quick to criticise. Why does the public not recognise that journalists have contact/relationships with politicians in order to obtain information, Crabb wondered? Maiden put a positive spin on these attacks saying that “in the age of social media you have the joy and pain of knowing what people think about you”! You just need to ignore people being mean to you on Twitter. (Easier said than done sometimes, I suspect.)

Markson discussed her story on Barnabay Joyce and his affair. She explained how long her investigation took –  it started long before the pregancy. Journalists must be sure the story can stand up, or they lose their job. Verifying all the information wasn’t easy, she said. She also explained that she needed to clear working on the story with her editor, for both approval and support. After the story came out, and was clearly the “truth”, Joyce apparently considered a defamation case! Later in the conversation, she reiterated the battle involved in getting any story into the paper. So many hoops! (And then, when you finally get there, “you get smashed in Twitter”.)

This sort of detail about the process was illuminating for outsiders, but Savva asked the important question: was the story politically relevant? I presumed she didn’t think it was, and nor, they said, did journalist Peter Hartcher, but Markson argued that it was because it demonstrated hypocrisy, given Joyce’s position on family values, his arguments against the cervical cancer vaccine for fear it encourages promiscuity among women, etc.

The panellists shared many other recent examples of how journalists obtain stories, of their relationships with their sources, and of how they manage confidentiality (which can include obfuscating the “real” source by using generic terms like “senior MP” etc). Their passion for their work was palpable, but so was their sensitivity to the humans involved, to the implications of different behaviours, and their awareness that it’s not sometimes only about “the truth” but how something looks. (Tony Abbott and Peter Credlin’s relationship being a recent example.) Relationships can be misconstrued. There was a lot of detail of interest to Aussies who know these cases, but the bottom line was the balancing act involved. It was a Niki Savva contact who gave the title for the session: “but I don’t know if I want to see this in print”!

We ended with a Q&A, which mostly revealed more of the same. One however asked where were the reports on policies, particularly policy comparisons. Crabb said “on the ABC website”! Maiden said that she liked writing about policy, and did indeed write such articles, but that, realistically, this writing doesn’t get as many clicks!

Another asked about the Fourth Estate’s role in holding the government to account. Why do journalists, then, call Manus Island an “offshore processing centre” when detainee, and award-winning author, Behrouz Boochani, says that he’s never been processed, that it’s a prison. The journalists replied that we could be Orwellian about language, but they do need to use the names used by the government. They gave examples though where journalists – such as Laurie Oakes – have pushed the government, forcing it to account.

Finally, a questioner asked about the role of the public service. Savva explained that public servants provide the facts, and suggest the questions that might be asked, but that the political staff dress up the information “in a more palatable fashion.” Hmm…

The session was, then, packed full of case studies familiar to the audience. The women were articulate, passionate and bold! Indeed, the clear message that came out of the session was that journalists must be bold, tough, and, as Maiden said early on, must be able to hold their nerve. It’s not a pretty job, but, done properly, it’s an important one. The more we readers understand the challenges and the pressures, the more we might support journalists – and be willing to pay for their journalism.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Sara Dowse permalink
    May 6, 2019 8:35 am

    Gillard’s mistake was buying into the ‘carbon tax’ lie. The ‘carbon tax’ was never a tax, it was a price on emissions. Peta Credlin herself has admitted it was a lie – clever ‘retail politics’ in her reckoning. And our emissions have been rising ever since Abbott ‘axed the tax’. It’s sad to see it still being designated as a tax, by the journalists who should know better, and you too, WG. That lie has cost us dearly, in destroying bipartisanship over climate change, in destabilising governments, in losing Australia precious time and economic opportunity in combatting global warming. What passes for clever politics can too often be dangerous shortsightedness. The market itself, thank goodness, against significant obstacles has been lowering the cost of renewable energy, but cost of warding off irreversible climate change is much greater now than it would be but for that lie.

    • May 6, 2019 9:02 am

      Thanks Sara. You know, I had a mggly feeling it wasn’t really a tax, when I wrote this up last night. I must say climate politics, and all the to and fro about taxes and prices put my head into a spin. I should have gone with my gut feeling and checked my facts rather than believe the journos! Mea culpa. Thanks for putting me right.

      That doesn’t change the main point, though, that politicians should take the hop and explain why they changed their minds, rather than waste all our time and intelligence on excuses. I’m sorry however that the example given was a poor one.

      • Sara Dowse permalink
        May 6, 2019 9:55 am

        Not to worry, WG. But remember I’m in Warringah, and this is really a hot topic here now. Not to say a burning issue!

        • May 6, 2019 3:31 pm

          Oh but, I hate that I got it wrong, particularly given my misgivings. I have added a note in the post to look at your comment.

          Good luck in Warringah, btw. We are all watching.

  2. May 6, 2019 12:47 pm

    Two things. Journalists force politicians to lie by rendering nuanced answers as black and white. And journalists fearful for their jobs rarely call out politicians on outright lies like naming concentration camps ‘detention centres’, Abbott’s complete misrepresentation of Gillard’s policies and on and on.

    • May 6, 2019 3:36 pm

      Yes, I think there is truth in what you say Bill. Nuance seems a thing of the past as everyone wants the easy answers. I mean, all that misrepresentation of the electric cars plan, arcing that Shorten wanted to take away people’s utes! That needed more calling out! I’m not sure it got it though.

      However, every time I’ve heard journalists speak (and I’ve reported on a couple in this blog), though, I’ve got the sense that they are pressured by the fast news cycle, the requirement for clicks, the reduced support for investigation. Not an excuse in one sense, but an explanation!

  3. May 7, 2019 5:52 am

    Thanks for this, Sue. It takes some of the pain out of making choices what to attend at the Festival that you give such full accounts. I’m glad Sara raised the matter of the carbon ‘tax’. That worried me too, and it’s a good example of a ‘lie’ that takes hold, becomes part of the journalists’ collective narrative, and will almost certainly be as entrenched for future generations as Richard III’s supposed wickedness is of us, no matter how thoroughly and repeatedly debunked. (Referring to Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time).

    • May 7, 2019 8:36 am

      Ditto Jonathan. I love your reports, including how you convey the flavour of the experience. I want to build more of that in to mine, though then they really would become treatises!

      And yes, all of that re the ”carbon tax”. I’m really kicking myself that 1. I didn’t listen to my disquiet, and 2. I trusted the journalists blindly!

  4. buriedinprint permalink
    May 16, 2019 12:44 am

    Your point above, in the comments, about the desire for straightforward either/or answers, is an important one: I long for nuanced discussions but I do appreciate the journalist’s reply (which you shared in the post above) about being interested in writing more articles about policy but that readers do not necessarily reward that work by reading it and engaging with it. And, I’m much the same on most days: it’s very hard to grow out of that either/or mindset when thinking about the news today (a lot of ours is influenced by what’s happening with our neighbours to the south) and embrace the both/and reality.

    What a rewarding series of talks you’ve attended and experienced: I’m sure the festival organizers greatly appreciate your attentive coverage.

    • May 16, 2019 8:39 am

      Yes, I long for those discussions too Buried. So frustrating when you hear pronouncements rather than discussion, or without true analysis. We are in election mode at present and the scaremongering through statements about a proposed policy that, for example, would affect .6% of the population is infuriating.

      Anyhow, of course I wrote this for myself and my readers but if it helps the Festival then that would be icing on the cake. We are so lucky to have these streamed events… And at the NLA too.

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