The Politics    Friday, May 6, 2022

Testing times

By Rachel Withers

Image of Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese leaving after speaking to the media in Sydney yesterday. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese leaves after speaking to the media in Sydney yesterday. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Journalists have convinced themselves that they are doing a public service in openly bullying a prime ministerial candidate

How to explain the media’s obsession with tripping up Labor leader Anthony Albanese? It’s hard to fathom why reporters keep doing it, especially when voters seem to hate it. And it’s been well articulated by many – including Albanese himself and Greens leader Adam Bandt – that this “gotcha” journalism is turning people off politics, and that it’s not a useful way to help them decide who to vote for. The media’s justification for these types of questions seems to be that they are making sure the Opposition leader is “up to” the job of prime minister – a Coalition talking point that has been repeated ad nauseam by respected journalists over the past 24 hours. (It’s still not clear how being able to memorise things makes a candidate “up to the job”.) But it was today’s ludicrous question from one journo that crystallised the problem with how many in the media see their role in this election. “How are you going to stand up to Xi Jinping if you can’t stand up to us?” the journalist asked, a hawkish question that also buys into the idea that our powerful trading partner should be challenged rather than dealt with. Many reporters, it’s clear, see their role as antagonist, bullying Albanese to see how he withstands it, rather than asking questions about his policies or informing the public about what an alternative government might offer them.

A quick clarification here: there is nothing about these “gaffes” that prove Albanese is or isn’t fit for the job of being PM. The fact that Scott Morrison is so adept at ducking and weaving his way out of questions he doesn’t like (which he did again today, when asked an equally pointless question about whether he would quit parliament if he lost the election) does not make him “up to the job” of leading the nation, as each and every crisis of his term has proven. Most of the nation’s leaders of the past decade have come by the prime ministership without undergoing this gruelling “test”; even those who have apparently passed it have floundered in the top job. Their ability to run an election marathon has little to do with the act of running government. Some have argued that it’s not the fact that Albanese doesn’t have the figures at his fingertips that is the concern, but the fact that he can’t seem to handle a hostile press pack. It is indeed unfortunate that Albanese doesn’t have the wit for a “Google it, mate”, or the shamelessness to turn every question into an unrelated stump speech. But what does the ability to withstand multiple people shouting at you have to do with improving people’s lives? About as little as being good at Question Time.

As the editor of The Monthly, Nick Feik, writes, “the election campaign is no way to decide how to run the country”. The “context” of the past nine years in Australian politics – the rorting and incompetence, laziness and cruelty – has been abandoned in the campaign, he notes, with the focus now entirely on “the presentational prowess of the two main candidates”. Yesterday’s obsession with Albanese’s presentational prowess – or lack thereof – has meant that the substantive NDIS issues have again fallen by the wayside, with the focus instead on the fact that Albanese can’t reel off six “points”. (Oddly, the Labor platform seems to have 12 points or 10 points, depending where you look.)

Albanese doesn’t need to be able to recite dot points (during an event that was supposed to be about renewable energy, no less) for Labor to be able to implement its NDIS plan – he wouldn’t even be the one directly implementing it, since he would have a minister for that. But that hasn’t stopped the Coalition from packaging it into attack ads, leaving Liberal senator Hollie Hughes (the mother of a disabled child) free to declare that she is “horrified at what this incompetence may lead to”. The Liberal Party policy page doesn’t mention the NDIS at all. We still don’t have an answer to Ethan’s mother’s question about NDIS cuts. And yet the media keeps convincing itself that it is doing a public service in checking whether Albanese is “up to it”.

You’ve got to wonder whether the journalists doing this are hearing these criticisms, if they are in any way capable of self-reflection. Twitter explodes after each episode of the Gotcha Game, but the media does not like taking criticism from Twitter (often with good reason). Questions have also been raised, however, by respected journalist and academic Margaret Simons, who wrote after Albanese’s Day 2 rates error that the focus on “gaffes” was missing the real issues. Even veteran Michelle Grattan has labelled the style “ugly journalism”, while acknowledging that it presents “hazards” for which Albanese needs to be better prepared. But why are we accepting these pointless, ugly hazards at all? And are the journalists involved able to see that this doesn’t help anyone, doesn’t prove anything, no matter how many times they declare that Albanese “can’t afford another blunder”?

As that journalist who asked the stupidest question of the campaign thus far acknowledged himself, elements of the press pack are intentionally pushing the Opposition leader in order to test him, to see if he can “stand up for himself”, and by extension Australia. We currently have a prime minister who is very capable of standing up for himself (and only himself, even when he pretends he’s defending Australia from “sledging”), and look where that has gotten us. Perhaps we need a government, and a media, a little less focused on talking points and scoring points, and a little more focused on trying to make the country a better place.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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