The Politics    Wednesday, August 5, 2015

OK skeleton, out of that closet

By Sean Kelly

Source
Thanks to the internet, the lives of politicians are about to get a whole lot harder

“One of my former colleagues, a hard-nosed reporter who has put countless political pelts on his wall, once told me that everyone in public life has something to hide. Who goes down in the flames of scandal? The politicians we decide to go after.”

That quote comes from a Vox article about Hillary Clinton and the eternal journalistic pursuit of Clinton scandal. The author goes on to make the obvious but important point that “two things are crystal clear: If there’s no investigation, there’s no scandal. And if there’s no scandal, there’s no scalp.”

Bronwyn Bishop, now the ex-Speaker, learned that the hard way over the past few weeks. Once her opponents and the media had found her weakness they were able to dig up many other examples of poor behaviour. But first she had to become a target.

Sometimes it’s not an individual MP that the media goes after, but a single issue. In this case, Bishop’s lavish spending has given way to a free-for-all on other MPs’ spending. Since the PM sacked Bishop and announced a review of the entitlements system, stories have emerged about new Speaker candidate Philip Ruddock and about Tony Burke, manager of Opposition business and one of the most effective prosecutors of the Bishop case. The stories are focused less on alleged breaches of expenditure rules (which is where the Bishop case started, though she continues to deny any rules were broken) and more on the mere appearance of unnecessary overspending.

Whatever the merits of those stories, and however hot the issue right now, it seems unlikely more MPs will suffer the same consequence as Bishop for the simple reason that the political parties are now backing off from going after individuals. Labor went hard on Bishop, who had made herself a target by her unabashed partisanship in the supposedly non-partisan role of Speaker. (All Speakers may be biased, but some are more biased than others.) But Tony Abbott and Christopher Pyne today chose not to go hard on Burke, probably because they know that there will be many MPs on both sides vulnerable under the new standard being set.

Now, think for a second about the various Bishop stories that emerged recently. Many of them were quite old, and could have turned up at any point before Bishop was Speaker. So why didn’t they?

The first reason we’ve just gone through: nobody had decided to go after Bishop, not seriously. The momentum wasn’t there.

The second is that data has been difficult to mine effectively.

Today, Dan Nolan, software developer and Twitter savant, produced this incredibly convenient table of the highest entitlement claimers in Australia.

It is a problem that parliament hasn’t produced something like this itself, but what amazes me more is that nobody, in or out of parliament, has done it before.

This is one of the glories – and, for politicians, one of the terrors – of the internet age. So much information is so much more available than it once was.

Andrew Kaczynski’s career provides a parable of this new era. A few years ago he was majoring in history, busy with the demands of being a regular 22-year-old – except when he was embarrassing US Republican primary candidates with freely available footage and information. In his spare time, he dug up footage of Mitt Romney lecturing about flip-flopping, which was then used in an attack ad against Romney. He discovered that Senator Rand Paul had plagiarised parts of a speech from the Wikipedia article of the movie Stand and Deliver. (Declaration: parts of that last sentence were plagiarised from the Wikipedia article on Andrew Kaczynski.)

Simply by deciding to go after the past of Republican primary candidates, while other journalists were concerned with the day-to-day demands of the campaign, Kaczynski was able to produce significant stories again and again.

I’m not trying to suggest media outlets should pour more resources into this type of thing. They are facing horrible choices about the allocation of scarce funds and that is a longer discussion for another day.

Nor do I present this as an argument for “citizen journalism”. That too is a separate, complicated debate that cannot ignore the necessity of upholding important standards of ethics and accuracy. This is more about individuals – like Nolan and Kaczynski – with the specific skill sets (and perhaps time) to go after certain unexplored treasure troves of data, and what stories they are therefore able to break that other people have missed.

It is becoming clear that there is a cornucopia of low-hanging fruit out there. Low-hanging does not equal insignificant. Some of those facts will be entirely unexpected, will come from overlooked sources, and will have the potential to influence election campaigns. The lives of politicians are about to get a whole lot harder.

 

Today’s links

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.

@mrseankelly

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