Probing the media’s groupthink

According to the ABC’s Barrie Cassidy “even the most popular decisions taken by this government [are] essentially public relations disasters”.  It’s one of those self-fulfilling media memes, resulting partly from Labor’s deficient PR skills and partly from Tony Abbott’s cynical, relentless negativism, but even more so from the media’s own determination to portray a picture of muddle and crisis whether it actually makes any sense or not in a given situation.

The current situation with asylum seekers is quite a good example.  How many Australians are aware, for example, that the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat since Julia Gillard announced the “Malaysia Solution” almost 6 weeks ago has fallen by more than fifty percent compared with last year?11. KP: Compare last year’s total of 6,879 with the 300 or so who have arrived since Gillard’s announcement. [] Of course Tony Abbott is claiming that the deterrent effect flows from the SIEV sinking tragedy at Christmas Island late last year and no doubt that is a factor.  But at the very least you’d expect that such a large drop in arrival numbers might have dampened media enthusiasm for the simplistic “government in crisis on asylum seekers” line. Announcing the Malaysia Solution before a final deal had been done might have been a high risk strategy for Gillard, but it’s a strategy that so far has actually worked!

An even more egregious example of media groupthink is provided by MSM coverage of Twiggy Forrest’s threat to launch a High Court constitutional challenge to the government’s mining tax legislation.  As Adele Ferguson breathlessly informed us in the Fairfax press:

The Gillard government’s credibility is about to take another battering as one of its more complex and ad hoc tax reforms – the minerals and resources rent tax – faces the threat of a constitutional challenge in the High Court.

But why would the government’s “credibility” take a battering merely because a disgruntled businessman takes a case to court?  Just about every law ever passed by Parliament creates winners and losers, and the losers frequently take it to court if they have enough money.  Forrest’s antics would only pose a threat to the government’s “credibility” if credible legal analysis suggested that a legal challenge had a significant prospect of success.  But Ferguson made no effort to obtain any expert commentary on that question.  Nor did the ABC’s Chris Uhlmann on last night’s 7:30, although at least his questioning of Forrest was less credulous than Ferguson’s frankly silly article.

In fact Twiggy’s own utterances on the supposed constitutional question have been just as silly as Ferguson’s article to the point of being almost incoherent:

ANDREW FORREST: If it’s unconstitutional, if it’s unfair, if it discriminates against Australian companies and favours multinationals, I think, on behalf of so many other companies, and really, all Australians, that’s a precedent too dangerous not to challenge.

CHRIS UHLMANN: You must have tested that with your lawyers, what are the answers to those questions?

ANDREW FORREST: At this stage it looks highly unconstitutional, but clearly Canberra has different lawyers.

CHRIS UHLMANN: On what grounds though, because it’s not unfair if it’s just being better for one company than another?

ANDREW FORREST: Certainly. But if it discriminates against the States, if a State is taxed more heavily against another State, then that goes straight against the Constitution. Western Australia recently, as is of course their right, increased their royalties, we immediately have discrimination now.

CHRIS UHLMANN: Why didn’t you complain about that?

ANDREW FORREST: Well simply because it’s their sovereign right. They own the metals in the grounds, we don’t, it’s been under the Constitution, owned by the people of the State. So they have every right to put it up.

But further, schools, hospitals, police, etc, are getting paid. We’re not funding a great big dinosaur called the NBN (National Broadband Network), where we’re going to waste a good $30 billion.

CHRIS UHLMANN: But that really has nothing to do with it, the Federal Government, does have a right to raise taxes, it raises company taxes, against you for example, so it can raise another tax …

ANDREW FORREST: And it can do it again, and I’ll happily pay it. And I’ll happily pay this tax as well, no problem, provided of course that it doesn’t let multinationals off and just penalise Australians.

But the problem for Twiggy is that the taxation power (Constitution s 51(ii)) prohibits discrimination “between States or parts of States” not between Australian companies and multinationals (assuming for present purposes that Forrest’s claim about multinationals is actually correct).  And the fact that the WA State government has increased its mineral royalty tax cannot as a matter of law or logic make the Commonwealth’s MRRT discriminatory (as Uhlmann gently pointed out).

Even if the Commonwealth MRRT had a differential impact on some States or parts of States as opposed to others (which Forrest does not seem to be claiming anyway), that would not make it discriminatory for taxation power purposes.  In R v Barger 22. KP: (1908) 6 CLR 41 [] the High Court ruled that a Federal excise duty requiring manufacturers to obtain a license to produce agricultural implements, including a requirement on licensees to provide specific employment conditions in factories where agricultural implements were produced was not a discriminatory tax for constitutional purposes. Although the excise duty might in practice have a differential or unequal operation depending on the locality of the taxpayer, this did not arise “from anything done by the Parliament”. The law was not discriminatory on its face, and therefore did not offend section 51 (ii).

Conroy v Carter 33. KP: (1968) 118 CLR 90 [] concerned a Federal law regulating the egg industry contained provisions requiring owners of hens kept for commercial purposes to file particular information with the Egg and Egg Pulp Marketing Board. However, the law also empowered the Commonwealth to enter into arrangements with a particular State for the collection of levies and the regulation of the poultry industry generally. Clearly, this carried with it the potential for differential and thus discriminatory regulatory regimes. Nevertheless, a statutory majority of the High Court held that the law was not discriminatory within the meaning of section 51 (ii)).   A law will only be “discriminatory” for the purpose of section 51(ii) if it expressly discriminates against States or parts of States on the basis of locality. The fact that it may in practice have a differential or discriminatory effect is irrelevant.

It is highly unlikely that any challenge to the MRRT based on its being a “discriminatory” tax would succeed.

The other argument that Forrest seems to be flagging (though not clearly) is that the MRRT might infringe Constitution s 114, which prohibits the Commonwealth from imposing “any tax on property of any kind belonging to a State”.  Generally speaking, minerals within the boundaries of a State are the property of the Crown in right of that State (i.e. the State government).  A mineral lease gives the holder the right to dig up minerals within the lease area, process them, sell them and keep the sale proceeds less mineral royalty.  However the minerals themselves remain the property of the State until sold by the miner. Accordingly the Gillard government will need to be careful how it drafts the MRRT.  The tax will need to attach to the miner’s estate or interest in the minerals rather than to the minerals themselves, but drafting the legislation to avoid any problem with s 114 is hardly rocket science.

So why is the fact that Forrest is mouthing off about a High Court challenge a threat to the Gillard government’s credibility?  Because it fits the media’s current groupthink meme and apparently for no other reason.


About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic at Charles Darwin University, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law) and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 12 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in he early 1990s.
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59 Responses to Probing the media’s groupthink

  1. john walker says:

    There was an old adage for teachers: only one big concept at a time, and if you repeat it three times, a quarter of the class might get it.

  2. derrida derider says:

    Oh come on, this government couldn’t sell a drink to someone dying of thirst. Having seen them up close for some years now I’ve concluded that their POLICY smarts have actually become fairly good (they’ve definitely improved with experience) but their MARKETING smarts remain nonexistent.

    For all their obsession with spin they are spectacularly bad at it, simply because they don’t realise that effective spin is something you create over a period through framing effects, not something you do as a reaction to today’s news cycle. Product differentiation matters too – Gillard’s recent arbeit macht frei lines played straight into the tory’s hands, for instance.

    They should hire John Howard as a consultant – now there’s a man who knew all about effective framing. He won an entire culture war that way.

  3. hrgh says:

    Short Twiggy: It’s just… the vibe… of the thing.

  4. Patrick says:

    That last line is gold, DD!

  5. Mobius Ecko says:

    Big difference derrida derider, Howard mostly had the media onside even cowering the ABC, but the Labor government has had the media against it from day one, in fact even before then.

    How can you frame or market anything if everything you do is turned into a negative against you? Even when this government does what the media, big business or the opposition wants it’s turned against the government as a negative.

    When they do what they believe in, it is attacked and turned into a negative whilst the media harps on about no conviction or framework. When Howard did this it was almost universally lauded in the media whilst the Labor opposition pointing out the flaws was ignored or downplayed, the opposite of what is currently occurring.

    The government successfully produce policy after policy, even in the face of a hostile opposition and in a minority government, and they are criticised for being a “do nothing government”. When their effort in any area can’t be fobbed off as doing nothing it is falsely portrayed as grossly failed policy.

    Does anyone have anything concrete the government can do to get through all this negativity, not statements like “bad marketers” with no substance, but a substantive solution on how they can break through?

  6. Ken Parish says:


    I guess there WOULD be an effective and striking way to frame Labor’s agenda, certainly better than Gillard’s faith in education and hard work meme (as you say).

    But it is currently a little tricky given that Gillard is rather hamstrung with getting real runs on the board until after July when they can be much more confident of getting Bills through the Senate. Until now they’ve had to run the gauntlet of Fielding and Xenophon as well as the Greens. It was almost miraculous in those circumstances that Gillard managed to get the NBN legislation through let alone the contentious stuff she currently has on the slate:

    – carbon tax
    – MRRT
    – Malaysia Solution and PNG detention centre (although these probably don’t require legislation)
    – Gambling pre-commitment legislation
    – Cigarette plain packaging legislation.

    Once some of these come to fruition, I would hope to see Gillard et al framing everything roughly along these lines:

    While Tony Abbott winges from the sidelines, Labor has simply got on with the job of government and made the tough decisions that needed to be made in Australia’s interests. Tough decisions aren’t always popular in the short term, but government is about doing what’s right not pandering to the prejudices of radio shockjocks.

    No doubt Mr Rabbit will keep being a Nattering Nabob of Negativism because he thinks it’s smart politics to do so. He thinks Australians are mug punters who are easily fooled. he’s wrong. Labor keep making the right decisions even when they’re tough ones (as they often are). Making the tough decisions has meant that Australia’s economy is the envy of the rest of the world, with lower debt and lower unemployment than just about any other western nation.

    The tough decisions … the right decisions … not populist poseur prattling.

  7. Nicholas Gruen says:

    What DD said in spades. Govts can frame over the long term. Oppositions must ride the cycle.

    But its also possible that Ken’s scenario comes in. It Did for Howard who was about as dreadful at the politics of govt in his first term.

  8. Paul Bamford says:

    … Govts can frame over the long term. Oppositions must ride the cycle…

    … and Tony Abbott has shown himself as an excellent bicyclist. For example there was his recent trip to Nauru to spruik the restoration of the Howard Government’s “Pacific Solution”. The media response? To bend over and cry “You peddle it Tony! Go you good thing! Pedal me! Pedal Me!”

    This government couldn’t sell a drink to someone dying of thirst? Maybe not, but one reason for that is that they have to get the message out through a host of media organisations who’re insisting that the thirst and the threat of impending death are only in your imagination.

  9. Patrick says:

    I don’t honestly understand how anyone can think that the media is anything to do with the government’s immigration mess!!

    The reality appears to be that the government has substantially ceded every point except the physical location to the opposition, so not sure what message you want the media to spread for them…

  10. Ken Parish says:


    I’m not suggesting that the Gillard government’s PR handling of the asylum seeker issue has been any better than abysmal. However you’d still think that an even slightly diligent media might have examined the remarkable drop in arrivals of more than 50% over the last 6 weeks. In fact it may well be an even greater drop than that. I only arrived at that figure by dividing the total number of arrivals for last year evenly by 52. In reality, the great majority arrived in the dry season (i.e. now) because that’s when the seas are calm and the voyage relatively safe. Maintaining a relentless crisis narrative in the face of those facts is a little strange, don’t you think? Abbott demanded “stop the boats” and that seems to be what’s happening.

    Finally, the Malaysia Solution (if it is eventually finalised) is qualitatively different from Howard’s Pacific Solution. As I have pointed out before (and Peter van Onselen also made the point the other day), the Pacific Solution was largely smoke and mirrors because Australia had little choice but to eventually accept asylum seekers interned on Nauru who were found to be refugees. That is, the migration priority advantage conferred by embarking with the people smugglers was only slightly impaired. By contrast, people returned to Malaysia will have no visa priority whatever, if anything quite the reverse. It’s a critical distinction whose importance can’t be over-emphasised.

    It’s certainly true that Gillard has implicitly ceded the Coalition point that Labor was foolhardy to abandon the deterrent approach (unless it was prepared to go the whole hog and abandon universal mandatory detention). But the Malaysia Solution is undoubtedly a superior brand of deterrent (if Malaysia ends up agreeing on terms Australia can accept e.g. the general amnesty being talked about).

  11. Nicholas Gruen says:


    The media covered Tony Abbott’s visit to Nauru for no other reason than that it was a stunt that he put on, there were pictures and it manufactured some news so they went along to process it into news. Nothing more, nothing less.

    This is pollie stunt driven coverage. It’s why the media, whether they’re marketing themselves to the latte sippers, the stockbrokers or the hoi polloi, pay tens of thousands of dollars each campaign to be on the ‘campaign bus’ where pollies put do stupid things to create ‘vision’ for the television cameras, and the journos job is to take the wholesale feed of manufactured news and add value so it becomes retail manufactured news.

    Then on Sunday they all talk about how the wholesalers went in getting the journos to reprocess their wholesale manufactured news into retail manufactured news. Sometimes the value that the retailers add to the wholesale news turns out to add more value to their opponents. It is important to emphasise that one cannot spend too much time talking about this process. It is political analysis – and a society would die without political analysis. Naturally Sunday is a very interesting part of the political week.

    Although I miss it, I am reliably informed that Insiders is very very interesting for the light it sheds on these processes, not just looking backward over the week just past, but looking forward as it were. It sets up the next week. And so it goes.

    It is even more interesting if Parliament is sitting. Then Question Time can be discussed. Question time is when Parliament holds the executive to account and gets to the bottom of all known issues. However, whatever the issues, what really matters is who won the debate – meaning who’s body language held out through the aggro the best. The good thing about this is that one can analyse question time without any knowledge of the issues being discussed. And it comes in handy on Insiders (I am reliably informed).

  12. Patrick says:

    KP, I don’t know for myself, but Stephen Bounds’ comment in an earlier thread strongly suggests that, contrary to the implication in Peter van Onselen’s article,

    Hmm … sometimes being “even-handed” can be just another kind of debating tool. Peter van Onselen slips in a nice sleight of hand in his article. Check out the difference between:

    …once the deterrent stopped the boats, the overwhelming majority (more than 70 per cent) of the 1637 people sent to Nauru … were granted asylum in Australia or abroad.”
    … the one-time trick of conning boatpeople that it blocks entry to Australia won’t work again, because it isn’t true

    Notice the “or abroad” bit slipped in for the first assertion? It’s used to make it seem that over 70 per cent ended up in Australia.

    But Chris’s Bowen press release back in 2008 has the raw numbers and in fact only 705 of 1637 people (43 per cent) ended up in Australia. The others were resettled overseas.

    So strictly speaking, you could easily argue that Nauru had the desired effect since a majority of asylum seekers did not achieve asylum in Australia. It’s a shame that this point is not addressed since it undercuts Peter’s key argument that Nauru couldn’t work if tried again.

  13. Ken Parish says:


    The truism about lies, damn lies and statistics really is true. The relevant number of people in Bowen’s press release is 1153. That is the number of Nauru detainees found to be refugees. The rest were found not to be refugees and were no doubt in most cases deported back to their homelands. That would have occurred irrespective of where (or even whether) they were detained.

    Of the 1153 found to be refugees, 705 received visas to come to Australia, just over 300 (AFAIK) to New Zealand, and the remainder in very small numbers to other countries. As Foreign Minister Stephen Smith later observed:

    “John Howard was out there, (then immigration minister) Philip Ruddock was out there saying that none of those people would come to Australia.

    “Ninety-six per cent came to Australia and New Zealand.”

    I can only agree that this would have had a powerful deterrent effect on asylum seekers. Imagine the conversation:

    MOHAMMED: “Mustafa, did you see this? We’d better forget getting on that boat with the people smugglers and stay here in the refugee camp for another 17 years instead. Allah be merciful. We might end up in New Zealand instead of Australia. Why, those infidels can’t even pronounce their vowels”.

    MUSTAFA: “Insh’Allah. But I hear they have very warm feelings towards their sheep so they can’t be all bad.”

  14. Alan says:

    Labor has never got a good run in the media. It was said that the Murdoch press would report a former prime minister’s daily walk on Lake Burley Griffin as ‘Whitlam can’t swim’. The Greens get a worse run in the media, but are managing to consolidate and expand their vote.

    Antony Green just posted a stunning set of numbers of the NSW election. NSW Labor managed to lose every demographic and every region in the state. NSW Labor managed to lose seats it had held for over a century. How did NSW Labor achieve this happy result? It is what happens to you when your idea of government is keeping up appearances.

    Some things have changed. The media is now somewhat less competent in both training and resources, somewhat less competitive, somewhat less impartial, and much more incestuous. Journalists work in smaller numbers, with much less support than they did. The concentration of media ownership, and the ABC abandoning (Howard’s doing) its role of quality leader has induced a certain sameness in reporting across all media. People like Chris Uhlmann regularly confront their interviewees with gotcha moments based on things they did not actually say and regularly cut off their answers so they have little chance to explain their position. And then there is a widespread and disgusting practice of journo-on-journo interviews…

    Labor could overcome those things, had it not lost its heart.

    Why are we hell-bent on live human exports to Malaysia? Because it is there. Because somebody on the prime minister’s staff noticed that Malaysia is nowhere near the mythical suburb of Boganville, Western Sydney and it did not occur to them to ask about caning.

    I suspect the media get away with what they do because, second only to such illustrious figures as Joe Tripodi, Julia Gillard embodies the whatever-it-takes school of government by keeping up appearances. A strong labor party could survive the prevailing narrative. A weak party that thinks setting your alarm clock early is a mark of deep personal virtue has no way to do so. A party that even thinks the alarm clock is worth discussing is going to find itself very weak indeed.

  15. Dehne Taylor says:

    Alan says’….Some things have changed. The media is now somewhat less competent in both training and resources, somewhat less competitive, somewhat less impartial, and much more incestuous.’

    I challenge this. Most journalists now have a degree in journalism (albeit from a Dawkins university). when I first started interacting with the press gallery at PH and beyond, many years ago, almost all had dropped out of uni and saw it as a badge of honour. I recall many a Budget lock-up where the whole press gallery awaited for the senior journalist in the room to deliver his judgement, and then wrote their contribution upon those lines.

    As to an ‘unfair’ coverage by the media of asylum seekers arriving by boat, you guys are having yourself on. Howard stopped them because his government employed a policy that was effective – evident from both the numbers and other aspects of the Government’s policy. The current government has a problem – clearly with numbers – and. perhaps, with its policy.

  16. Alan says:

    It is a brave commenter who defines a PhD as their sole criterion of competence.

  17. Dehne Taylor says:

    Who’s talking PhD’s? I was referring to getting past first year of a degree course.

  18. Patrick says:

    In all honesty Dehne I think journalism degrees should be banned asap. What can one possibly learn in a journalism degree that makes one a better journalist than having actually studied something – possibly even something you might one day report on, like Law or History or Foreign Countries (science is clearly a bit much to ask).

    Alan, it probably didn’t help that Whitlam was a right royal arsehole – what did happen to the staff of the Australian embassy in Hanoi again? Labor’s left should never forget that they own Australia’s immigration policy as surely as Howard does.

    Also, anyone who is not on medication and still thinks that Labor doesn’t get a fair run in the media needs to get on some, or otherwise needs to account for Kevin 07.

    KP, I agree that on that basis the media look pretty bad. But not as bad as the Labor mugs who clearly haven’t managed one coherent press release setting this out for them!

  19. perplexed says:

    Just heard that the Reps have voted down the Malaysia Solution. I think this sounds more symbolic than really closing this Faustian option to Gillard. But it does appear to have slowed boat arrivals and my inclination is to hope than someone in the Government is currently working on a Thai solution, a Bangla solution. All you need is a flexible foreign affairs counterpart in a prospective host country to maintain the facade for a few months. The media will do the rest. Eventually you might find an agreeable host country willing to do Canberra’s bidding…for a price. Cambodia anyone?

  20. Ken Parish says:

    That’s not in online newspapers yet, perplexed. However my understanding is that the government does not need any legislative backing to implement the Malaysia Solution if and when a final deal is struck. Moreover, even if there was some resolution today it doesn’t mean Parliament would necessarily oppose such a deal once the details are known (i.e. if, as is essential, there are protections to ensure security and humane treatmentn for those sent to Malaysia). OTOH you can predict that the Greens won’t support it, and Abbott won’t either even though he would certainly do it if he was in government.

  21. Mr Denmore says:

    Good journalists don’t need PHDs. They do need to be widely read self-educators; full of energy, curiosity, determination and raw intelligence. Good journalists tend to have strong bullshit detectors and recognise news when they see it. Most of all good journalists are able to write coherently, concisely and vividly, while meeting tight deadlines. Most of these things can’t be trained.

  22. Patrick says:

    Amen to that Mr Denmore – have you watched the Wire? You will need to get through the first four seasons to get to the one on newspapers (and you can’t skip any or it won’t make sense) but you won’t regret the time spent!

  23. Alan says:

    On Malaysia, if the vaunted parliamentary and negotiating skills of the Gillard leadership actually existed they would now drop the Malaysia solution. The issue is not legislative backing, the issue is keeping yourself on a collision course with MPs and senators whose backing is essential to your continuance in government.

  24. Mr Denmore says:

    Patrick, you’re the third person is recommended The Wire to me! Thanks for the tip. I’ll go and get it out tonight.

  25. Paul Bamford says:

    Nick @ 11,

    I suspect that we’re in furious agreement about the media coverage of Mr Abbott.

    I find The 7.00pm Project’s coverage of Tony Abbott a useful antidote to the regular news coverage of Tony, regularly showing Tony pulling one of stunts on climate change and the carbon tax, then turning to the camera to ask if they want another take.

  26. Nicholas Gruen says:

    We’re not in agreement Paul. All your examples come from Mr Rabbit. What do you think Julia Gillard and all the others do. This is just how it’s done these days.

    They all do ‘doors duty‘ – to my knowledge anyway.

  27. Pingback: Club Troppo » Source Amnesia, media and guarding against oneself

  28. Dehne Taylor says:

    Patrick and Mr Denmore,
    Be interested to know how many other courses you would ban for careers you think don’t (i),need formal training and (ii)consist of skills that ‘can’t be trained’.
    Mind you, looking at some of the comments on this blog, economics seems to fit your criteria. Perhaps there’s a good US TV show with the answers?

  29. John J says:

    Patrick wrote:

    ‘Also, anyone who is not on medication and still thinks that Labor doesn’t get a fair run in the media needs to get on some, or otherwise needs to account for Kevin 07.’

    Well, Patrick, that was in 2007 and Rudd didn’t do too badly in media coverage in his first year and a half in office. But after the failure at the Copenhagen Conference in 2009, the MSM seemed to turn on him and Labor and they haven’t stopped yet. The dogs scent blood and look forward to the excitement of an Abbott administration. I can understand Murdoch’s workers following their master’s lead, but I don’t know why Fairfax and the ABC tag along.

  30. Patrick says:

    Dehne, I’m sorry if US TV shows upset you. Have you seen the Wire? It is thematic, which is a fancy way if saying that each season deals with a different topic: drug gangs; the docks, unions and organised crime; the urban education system in black America; drugs in politics; and journalism. Each theme is presented against a consistent backdrop of modernity, implicit incentives and the decay of ‘traditional’ social institutions – well that’s my take in it at any rate. It works far better as both a description and a critique than nearly any piece written in the media or by academics. You should try it.
    As for your second question, well I train people in how to do law, as part of my day job. It so happens that I support the UK model of not requiring law degrees for entry into law firms, since I find only a relatively marginal difference between law students and others. Now that may be because I’m an exceptional teacher, and I’m open to that theory, but at present I’ve attributed it to the lack of real value in the Underlying law degree.

    Alan, that is an amazing tale. Interestingly, the turning point in the global right-wong media conspiracy against honest simple socialism was, by your telling, not endogenous but rather coincided with an event named after Copenhagen. I do find this fascinating since my recollection is that the global civilised media thought that Copenhagen was a clysterfyck, and that KRudd in particular had promised themoon and delivered mouldy cheese. If it helps, President Hopey-Changey fell a bit flat too.
    Further, my recollection was that it was in that cute little town where it became apparent to the half-awake world that global meaningful carbon action was a vanishingly remote possibility.
    Do you think that explains some of it?

  31. Patrick says:

    Sorry, Alan, the last bit was directed to John J.

  32. Mr Denmore says:

    Dehne, I wasn’t proposing to ban courses for journalism or any other career. I was merely saying that in my experience there is little correlation between the abilities of a journalist and the extent of their higher education.

    It’s the one occupation where being a dilettante is actually an advantage. Specialists have a place, of course, but nothing would ever get written if everyone sat around wringing their hands worrying about footnotes.

    The best journalists are those able to write a quick first draft of history on the run without getting bogged down in the detail, but also without dumbing it down to the point where all meaning is drained away.

    Too much time in academia tends to work against those qualities, at least in my humble opinion.

  33. Ken Parish says:

    I suspect the situation with journalism might be a bit like the legal profession. The best practical training for a law career is hands-on articles of clerkship with a good firm that takes its obligations seriously and provides training in a wide range of practice areas.

    However it became apparent a couple of decades ago that good articles of clerkship were no what the vast majority actually received. Cost/competitive pressures meant that new graduates were just treated as cannon fodder cheap labour and given minimal useful training. As a result authorities established graduate diploma/practical legal training courses lasting 6-9 months and involving a supervised law firm placement aspect. Students are set up in “dummy” law firms and undertake simulated real matters in the main areas of legal practice. It’s sub-optimal but a lot better than the articles most new graduates previously received where they were just (un)glorified paralegal clerks/ filing and photocopying assistants.

    I suspect that the increasing commercial pressures in the media (especially major problems for print media of falling print circulation and inability to monetise their online offerings) may also mean that “on-the job” training nowadays is grossly inadequate. Thus it may also be that a journalism degree, although it can never be as good as the best of old-fashioned on-the-job cadetships etc, may be the best that can be done in modern conditions.

    In more general terms, I guess the major problem I have with Mr Denmore’s overall approach is that it bemoans the current degraded state of the MSM and yearns for the good old days (which I doubt actually existed anyway, but I wasn’t an insider so I can’t really say – but it isn’t obvious from viewing the stuff they produced). However Mr Denmore seldom details how a modern MSM proprietor could sustainably go about (re)creating quality without going broke in the process. I have an equally low regard for the Murdoch media especially, but Rupert didn’t create the Internet or make most of the decisions which have resulted in the old traditional MSM business model no longer working.

    PS – Personal disclosure. My daughter is studying Journalism at Monash, so I have a personal interest in upholding the value of that qualification. And I must say I’ve so far been quite impressed with its quality and approach.

  34. Patrick says:

    ‘sub-optimal’! Do they call you the master of the understatement KP?

    As for journalism, I actually think the best training to be a journalism is to learn about something and then start writing about it. This is, for example, how the Fin Review and Economist recruit the overwhelming majority of their journalists (and editors etc). The major French and German papers likewise, interestingly, although in France that may be more to do with the incestuous nature of French ‘society’ than anything else.

  35. Mr Denmore says:

    Ken, what you talk about happening in the legal profession (using interns as canon fodder and cheap labour) has been happening in journalism these past two decades as budgets have been squeezed. And, yes, the same thing has happened in media, with on-the-job training all but disappearing.

    My wife runs courses for Fairfax journalists (in sub-editing and writing) and finds that much of the time the interns don’t turn up because they’re too busy churning out low-end copy to keep the ads apart.

    I’m sorry that you think I’m merely pining for some imagined ‘good old days’ in journalism. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Ask anyone who has been around for the Australian media for several decades. There genuinely has been a marked deterioration in quality and training in the 30 years since I entered the craft and I think that’s evident in the output.

    But don’t get me wrong. Journalists have also improved in many ways since back then. They are now much more likely to have tertiary degrees. In my day, it was more of a trade and youngsters came in at 17 or 18 and were employed in a cadetship where virtually all the training was on the job. That system had virtues (in building street smarts and craft skills), but it also meant many reporters worked with little historical knowledge or understanding of civic institutions.

    Journalists these days are also naturally more tech savvy (they have to be) and are adept at using a range of tools (while 30 years ago, we just had to know shorthand and typing). And research tools are so much more sophisticated and readily available now than they were when doing research meant going to an old clippings library, usually staffed by a grumpy old lady with glasses on a chain.

    What HAS changed for the worse is the speed of everything and the pressures on journalists. The required volume of output has steadily grown, while resources on the ground have thinned. Everyone is just too busy to learn anything new or to reflect on whether what they are doing and the way they are doing it could be improved. There is little reflection. And I think that shows in output.

    As for Murdoch, I think he is a pox on journalism. His papers bear a decreasing relationship to the truth and the encroachment of commentary into supposedly straight news becomes ever more evident. He and his editors are perfectly entitled to their views, of course, and have every right to express them on their editorial pages. But news is different.

    None of this would matter if his publications did not dominnate the market so much. He controls 70 per cent of the metropolitan print market in this country. And in any other industry that would be deemed by the ACCC as unhealthy market dominance. This leaves few career paths for journalists outside of the Murdoch domain. Fairfax appears terminal and the ABC is rapidly going down the commercial road.

    New opportunities will emerge in the new media space eventually. Crikey and New Matilda are fledgling examples, but no-one’s making any money there and it’s hardly the way to secure a reliable living. Journalists are not entrepreneurs by nature. They’re wordsmiths and dreamers and generally lack commercial nous. My view is we need a new young Murdoch (without the romantic attachment to print) and with an understanding of how to build money-making media applications that resonate with the new generations. But first I think we’re going to have to redefine what journalism is.

  36. Dehne Taylor says:

    The current state of both the legal profession and media should come as no surprise to an economist. These are two professions that politicians on all sides protect very skillfully from those ‘dreadful’ market forces. Since Australia started deregulating its markets in the late 1970s- early 1980s, the Law Society has successfully resisted every attempt to undo its monopoly powers – at one stage the then equivalent of the ACCC was led by a lawyer who kept moving deregulation of the legal profession down the list, every time it got to the top of the list. Similarly, politicians have created ridiculously high, and unnecessary, hurdles for anyone attempting to start their own newspaper, TV or Radio Station – on the grounds of ‘public interest’, of course. Thank goodness, that for the moment, politicians are still having trouble grasping this internet thingy and how they might regulate it. (The other profession that has also been very successful in fending off change is that run by your local chemist).

    BTW, Patrick, I started to watch the first series of the Wire but after 4 episodes gave it away. However, wasn’t aware that each series has a changed theme – so will give it another try.

  37. Patrick says:

    Now we are in furious agreement, Dehne.

  38. Mr Denmore says:

    We are ALL in agreement. The government regulates the legal and profession and media at the expense of the community. I’m quite happy for Rupert Murdoch to be free to make money as he sees fit; I just don’t think he needs any protection by the state.

  39. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Profit based journalism focuses on maximising reach and minimizing cost. Like commercial radio, you don’t end up with a good product. Profit based car making, profit making bread making – is the best way to make bread. Profit seeking isn’t a great way to make culture. Just like profit based parenting isn’t a good way to make kids.

  40. Patrick says:

    That is a superficially convincing argument, I agree. In fact I agree so much that I used to believe it.

    But now I’m not sure. After all, most of the best paintings (by my lights at least) were painted for profit by professional artists who either sold their work starved or found another job.

    And the most convincing anti-evidence, for me, is the Wire ;) or rather, HBO in general. As usual I found that Tyler Cowen put it better than me (and there is even a diagram for the economists of this site) – in fact that post helped affirm my thinking.

  41. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Yes, they’re fair points Patrick, and thanks for the link. My concept is a rather loose one, still subject to refinement – to which you’re helping. But compare the ABC and BBC with their similarly high ratings counterparts and you get my drift (I hope).

    And yes cable makes a difference – but I think there’s also more to it than that. I think there’s an inherent interest – beyond ‘consumer surplus’ in the producer of cultural material having something to offer – something to say, something they want to contribute – and it’s an inimical economic structure for the provider to be simply optimising the consumers’ willingness to pay. That’s what you want in a car or bread or whatever, but it somewhat misses the mark in culture. (It’s people’s squeamishness about this that leads to not-for-profit structures in health and education being a very important form of production – alongside profit making).

    Still you could certainly argue that the alternative forms of ownership and production are far from perfect and that high consumer surplus seeking by profit seeking entrepreneurs is the best one can practically do, or at least is an important aspect of the best possible arrangement.

    (As an aside a Radio National broadcaster once told me that RN would be the easiest to privatise – effectively – ie without loss of (cultural) worth because one could go for a subscription model and it’s cheap to run. It could still be high quality. Not that they were recommending it. And not that I think the ABC structure is necessarily optimal.)

  42. Dehne Taylor says:

    Nicolas, I agree that your views should remain subject to refinement.
    You are setting up a straw man by arguing that culture (in this case your proxy being ‘the media’) is something beyond ‘consumer surplus’ whereas cars and bread markets operate in the manner of a free market. Only, a few days ago you were waxing lyrical about how good it was that taxpayers were now subsidising R&D for more firms and comparing the outcome to the taxpayer subsidised Button car plan (which, incidentally, some of us recall as a whole lot of Australian convertibles being shipped to the US to rot on its docks so Australian car manufacturers could claim additional subsidies from the taxpayer). As to the operation of bread ‘markets’, I’m currently living in Paris and I know that piddling amount I’m paying for the heavenly stuff they produce here only comes about because of the industry ‘assistance’ afforded French farmers. I would argue that it is very difficult (impossible even?) to find a ‘free market’ for any good because, somehow, government is involved. Hence, advocating freeing up the media market is not about reducing it to a free market, per se, but rather it is about reducing participation barriers, which in turn, is likely to allow access to a more diverse group of players (rather than just public broadcasters and a handful of commercial conglomerates).

  43. desipis says:


    Profit seeking isn’t a great way to make culture.

    I tend to see it as an information problem. Market theory presumes an ‘informed consumer’, yet an information product, as news media is, requires uninformed consumers. This means consumers lack the means to efficiently judge the product their paying for, and in turn the producers have no incentive to produce a quality product. Thus without an external pressure (social, cultural, political, regulatory, etc) to maintain a standard, a profit motive will result in a race to the bottom.

  44. Nicholas Gruen says:


    Half your luck to be eating Parisian bread. I wasn’t arguing against greater freeing up of the media, only that it was looking in the wrong direction for solving the kinds of problems we’ve been talking about on this thread. A lot of the media’s current pathologies are in substantial part supported by cost minimisation and audience maximisation – so I’m not too sure that intensifying those forces will improve the problems as I see them and could make them worse.

    I’m happy to discuss the Button Plan but I don’t think this thread is the best place. But it has to be assessed against its practical alternatives. They were the Lynch Plan which maintained penalty tariffs at 150% outside of quota and the IAC’s plan which offered 50% tariff protection to assembly operations with no hope of achieving viability (for ten years!). For the sake of argument on this thread, I’m happy to accept your criterion of good policy which is the plan which removed assistance fastest. The Button plan allowed firms to count exports as local content (thus levelling the playing field within the industry between import replacement and export).

    This left the pathway open for firms to export at much lower levels of disability than the 50% they would otherwise have to pay for imports and then use their ‘credits’ to import components – and cars – duty free. So it’s true those leaking Capri’s were dogs. But if Ford hadn’t been as crappy a company as it was – and is – they stood a chance of being the beginning of some niche for us (which emerged in larger cars later) and even in the poor state they were in, they lost us a lot less money than the Geminis, Colts and Lasers that were phased out at the same time – which couldn’t have happened under either the Lynch Plan or the IAC plan.

    Well, there you are – I seem to have discussed the Button Plan ;)

  45. Nicholas Gruen says:


    I don’t think information theory works to help you much – though I guess it’s an important idea that ‘the news’ is by definition sold by people who know something to people who don’t.

    But from the perspective of understanding this market, people know how crappy the news is, and what kind of rubbish they’ll be served up even if they don’t know the details of the day. They know that if John Howard stumbles on his way up or down a podium, if Julia Gillard responds to John Faine asking her if she’s saying “Mr Rabbit” that it will be on the news that night – but they tune in. They know that whatever electoral coverage they tune into they’ll be treated to a race-call rather than any presentation of the issues and the respective policies.

    And the suppliers of that content do it because people demand it – or rather they’ll watch it and it’s cost minimising and audience maximising. It’s a bit like KFC. People know it’s not good for them, don’t really like how it makes them feel, but it’s very instantly gratifying, and they come back for more.

  46. Patrick says:

    Well, Dehne, indeed your luck to be eating French bread. Nick, there is the Noisette bakery on Bay St in South Melbourne for you, they serve very good bread. Also at South Melbourne market there is excellent sourdough – so all is not lost.

    Dehne, having perhaps not lived in France so long, is probably eating ‘les baguettes standardes’. These cost about 75 centimes d’€ (not sure exactly, at the moment) or indeed whatever is the price fixed by regulation for that year. To this extent, this represents a small-scale version of the subsidised food programs ran by numerous arab states, to such powerful effect.

    But the French go further, they protect not just the price but the quality – each baguette standarde must contain the proportions and ingredients réglementaires, no more or less.

    And what’s the twist that makes this a tale? Well, if you experiment with les baguettes ‘rustiques’, or ‘de campagne’ or in some bakeries (such as the La Bannette franchise) ‘farinées’, these breads which are not fixed-price are almost always far yummier…

    So as far as I can discern, profit-seeking remains a pretty good way to make bread.

    Desipis, I’m not sure that the information required is the same – I don’t think the Economist, for example, or this blog for that matter, pitch themselves at an ‘uninformed’ audience as that phrase is commonly used. The fact that each offers ‘new information’ indeed means that their audience was to that extent ‘uninformed’, but I think you will agree that the information each offers is not the information required to judge the quality of each…

    In the same way consumers can choose alternative news media on the basis of numerous factors, one of which may be accuracy. I’m not sure there is a structural market failure as you intimate. But then again, I’m not sure I understand the model of market failure which you are implying: you seem to suggest that ‘absent external pressure’ competition will result in a race to the bottom – but of course such external pressures, particularly ‘social’ pressure, are an integral part of the very idea of a market and in my experience, most markets only result in a race to the bottom when they are fixed or non-competitive (consider, for example, cars…).

  47. Mr Denmore says:

    Barriers to entry to new media players (if we defined ‘media’ very broadly) are actually very low now. Unfortunately, there is no sustainable business model in the online, wireless environment (as yet) to sustain quality journalism.

    In the meantime, in the mainstream old media space, while growth is completely absent, profit margins are still substantially better than in digital media. The government artificially creates barriers to entry for new players in radio and television through onerous regulation which actually protects the encumbents.

    In print, the huge capital investment required and the expensive distribution model works as a natural disincenvitve to newer would-be competitors.

    With technology changing faster than government regulation can cope, it will be interesting to see the outcome of the current federal government inquiry into media convergence. I fear, though, that whatever is decided, will prove to be immediately redundant.

  48. Alan says:

    I know the French are cheese-eating surrender monkeys, but the bread régime described by Dehne sounds fairly unlikely. There is a fairly tight regulation of the contents of bread sold as “pain de tradition française”, “pain traditionnel français”, “pain traditionnel de France” in terms of Décret n°93-1074 du 13 septembre 1993 pris pour l’application de la loi du 1er août 1905 en ce qui concerne certaines catégories de pains, but Légifrance has no record of a fixed price.

  49. Alan says:

    Correction, the regime described by Patrick

  50. Nicholas Gruen says:

    You find out all sorts of things on Troppo. So thanks Alan for the information about Légifrance. Patrick too, I am grateful for your suggestion, but we’re way ahead of you. We were into Noisette like rats up a drainpipe the moment it turned up. Very nice it is too.

    John Kay has interesting views about life in France. He’s a fairly straight, social democrat type who favours free markets for making things and I presume reasonable levels of redistribution (though he doesn’t write about that much) but makes no bones about his love of French life and so seems to be pretty relaxed about a lot of the regulation that seems to underpin it, even though it seems pretty crazy to us.

  51. Patrick says:

    Alan, embarrassingly, you are right. The price hasn’t been actually fixed for 25 years, I had always understood that it was, and clearly had never needed to independently validate that – silly me!

    That said, all the other more expensive breads are much better.

  52. Alan says:


    Perhaps a case of probing the blogosphere’s groupthink, or, less cosmically, watching too many Yes Minister reruns.

  53. desipis says:

    people know how crappy the news is

    Do they? People don’t just consume news media in order to find out events X, Y and Z happened. They consume it to find out which of X, Y and Z was important. News is sold as keeping people informed and aware, so I don’t think we can leap to assuming people consume it knowing its crap. I’m not sure the average consumer is able to distinguish between humourous trivialities that displace real stories and those that are used to fill a slow news day. Or identify a media beat up when they see it.

    Patrick, the Economist and this blog are providing a different product to that of news media. People consume the former to access ideas and points of view which they feel they have the skills to analyse and consider. People consume news to be informed about important stories of the day. There is an expectation of truth and relevance placed on news media that I’m suggesting the average consumer isn’t able to assess. Thus this expectation isn’t able to form a part of any market demand. If those factors aren’t going to help differentiate their product in the market, media producers aren’t going to put money into them.

    I rather like the French bread regulation as described above, where it’s not about limiting what people can sell, but on what people can call what they’re selling. In a way its protecting “traditional French bread” as public good trademark, so consumers can be assured of what they are buying. It’s about recognising the limits of consumers ability to differentiate products in the market and providing alternative mechanisms to supplement their ability.

  54. Dehne Taylor says:

    Patrick et al. Thanks for the info on where to find the bread regulations of La belle France. A source I would probably never have known of, otherwise!
    Sorry about any misunderstanding about bread in France having a regulated price – what I was trying to demonstrate (and obviously failed to do) was that true ‘free markets’ for goods and services don’t really exist and the price of bread in France is a good example of a market that at first glance, might be thought of as being ‘free’. That is, I suspect that the price of the bread I am eating is lower than it would be in ‘a free market’, because the French Government intervenes in agricultural markets and subsidises the producers of the bread’s ingredients.
    Patrick, thanks for the info on different types of baguettes, but being my 10th visit to Paris I discovered this some time ago. In fact, within 150m of our doorstep we have six boulangeries (only two of whom belong to chains)!

  55. Alan says:

    And yet, as with media, the result of being less ‘free’ is a better quality. There is a confusion in your argument between the freedom to shop and the quality of life. It seems to me that all Décret n°93-1074 du 13 septembre 1993 pris pour l’application de la loi du 1er août 1905 en ce qui concerne certaines catégories de pains really does is let you know what you’re buying.

    Now in the United States, their food system is highly regulated and subsidised (just like their healthcare system) but I am not completely convinced that the baguette is all that desperately inferior to Wonder Bread. Their congress has consistently intervened in the market in ways that sit strangely with the Washington Consensus. The US agriculture department bans farmers from advertising that their meat is not killed in the big and not very healthy abattoirs.

    Amusingly the new governor of Wisconsin’s latest foray into free market policy is to ban small brewers from selling their stuff at the brewery door.

    Gimme a good old fashioned décret and a baguette any day.

  56. john walker says:

    Will never forget the Rue Mouffetard Market , Trying to choose between 300 odd fromages was awful.

    Regulating against adulteration and misleading advertising is OK , no?

  57. Patrick says:

    Well, within limits, Alan. The French still make sugar from beets, after all, and miracously this costs less in French shops than Brazilian cane sugar…not a phenomenon repeated in any other countries with a port as far as I am aware.

    But I wouldn’t defend anything to do with US agricultural regulation or policy, unless it was comparatively with Europe – at least you are allowed to irradiate food in America, which might have saved a few organic Europeans from being dead.

  58. Alan says:

    And the US still pays massive subsidies for the production of corn ethanol (over 40% of their entire crop) and miracously this costs less in American shops than Brazilian cane sugar…

    I don’t propose to get into throwaway lines about food irradiation. I suggest the limits you mention, like the evils of French bread price fixing, may be ideological rather than factual.

  59. john walker says:

    irradiate food : something done to dead chickens to prolong their lives.

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