Disappointing start for Guardian Oz edition

COMMENT By Barry Tucker                    31 May, 2013

Australian consumers of political news must be disappointed with the first few editions of GuardianAus, which launched last Monday.

With a core of former Fairfax journalists, it is being described as Fairfax lite. A story by David Marr on Cardinal George Pell’s appearance before a Victorian State government inquiry into child abuse was probably the highlight of the first week. A very well written piece of work.

But a story on federal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s virtual forum with 8,000 voters in the Assistant Treasurer David Bradbury’s western Sydney federal seat of Lindsay epitomised the worst of journalism. In fact, it was the most pathetic piece of reporting I have read in the past several years.

Katharine Murphy

Katharine Murphy

To begin with, it is little more than a re-hash of a partial transcript of the forum, provided by Abbott’s office. It seems that the journalist, deputy political editor Katharine Murphy, checked a single fact in the story. This was Abbott’s claim that the moderated phone hook-up was a first. The ALP claims it has already conducted virtual town hall meetings. This appears in the last paragraph, but the claim of a first remains, unchallenged, earlier in the story.

What is a first, perhaps, is that the participants were polled on various issues and responded via hand-held devices.

Ms Murphy has chosen for her introduction the fact of the story: there was a virtual meeting with 8,000 voters. Ms Murphy knows this in itself is not news because she has checked that claim with the ALP.

The real story is in the questions that were asked and the answers to some of them. Participants were polled during the session. One question was: “Are you concerned about rising electricity prices?” That is a leading question and I doubt many would have pressed button 2 for “No”.

Ms Murphy then writes: “Another question concerned the WestConnex, a motorway through west and south Sydney.” That’s it. No answer given. Instead, we are told that Abbott “conducted the forum from the Liberal party’s national secretariat in Canberra”. Funding for the motorway is a contentious issue. Is that why Ms Murphy avoided dealing with it?

Abbott was asked about the major plank in his opposition to the very existence of the federal government, the dreaded carbon tax. Here, Ms Murphy has let the reader down badly. She writes: “Abbott said the Coalition’s plan to abolish the carbon tax ‘should mean a 10% reduction’ in electricity prices.”

Now, that’s interesting because when today’s Nice Mr Abbott was busy being Nasty Mr Abbott he repeatedly claimed during Question Time in the House, and wherever else the opportunity arose, that the real impact of the carbon tax was far greater than 10%. Again, the Guardian’s deputy political editor lets that one go by.

Then we have this: “According to a partial transcript of the event released by his office, Abbott also signalled a planned review of renewable energy schemes would have ‘a particular focus on their contribution to power costs, because we want power costs going down, not going up’.”

The alarm bells should be ringing. Let’s look at that one again. A planned review of renewable energy schemes … a particular focus on their contribution to power costs … because we want power costs going down, not going up. That looks to me like code for a severe blow to renewables. Again, no comment from this supposedly top-flight political journalist. Nothing on gold plating or the huge return to most States from the weird structure of power pricing. No focus, in fact, on Abbott’s spin.

As I wrote above, the real story is in the questions and answers. Abbott was asked a lengthy question about refugees who arrive in Australian waters by boat and “How can we tell them not to come here when we have invaded their land?”

Abbott replied: “Well, I hear what you are saying but if you ask [Indonesian] President Yudhoyono he says that the problem is, to use his own phrase, Australia has put the sugar on the table — and they are coming to this country not because they’re being driven out of their own country because if they were simply being driven out of their own country they would be in Jordan, they would be in Pakistan, they would be in countries like that.”

“They are coming to this country because they want the life that Australia can potentially give people.”

Now, because of the way the quotation marks have been used, it’s not crystal clear which part of the above is Yudhoyono’s and which is Abbott’s. But I think (and I shouldn’t have to think about it) the last sentence is Abbott’s, because of the phrase “They are coming to this country …” What’s interesting about that is the last bit: “… because they want the life that Australia can potentially give people”.

As far as I am aware, it is the first time that I have seen Abbott reported as saying: “They are coming to this country because they want the life that Australia can potentially give people.” Again, it slides right past Ms Murphy. What has happened to Abbott’s blame game plan, to Labor’s failure to stop the boats, to tow-back-the-boats, to “illegal arrivals”? This is a significant shift by Abbott, another flip-flop, but it slides by as something unremarkable.

The section editor, if there is one, the sub-editor, if there is one, and the writer have all let the reader down on the focus and the missing details in this story. The word “told” is missing in the third paragraph and there’s some curious handling of quotation marks.

Oh, I almost forgot. This was a telephone hook-up forum with 8,000 participants, plus Abbott. Did it occur to Ms Murphy to ask if any part or all of the NBN which Abbott hates so much was used to facilitate this event? If it was, that’s a powerful argument in the NBN’s favour. If it wasn’t, that’s a powerful argument that, in some cases at least, the NBN is not all that necessary. There’s no reference to the NBN in this story of a massive phone hook-up.

Abbott is not standing for election on behalf of the people. He is seeking power for the corporate elites, the miners and the media barons who attended the recent IPA 70th anniversary dinner, where he was a speaker. The IPA plan for Australia is not very voter friendly and I think that may be why certain key things have been glossed over in this Guardian story.

The story also says the major political parties are endeavouring to speak directly to the voters by cutting out the news media. I wonder who we can blame for that one?

If you have some idle time to waste you could read the original in full.

Few of those who commented below the story noticed the gaps I’ve pointed out here and not many of the comments are relevant anyway. It’s the usual disintegration into gibberish.