Sandy Levinson comments on recently deceased senior American political journalist Tim Russert:

David Remnick has a very fine comment on Russert in this week’s New Yorker. He notes, among other things, Russert’s thorough preparation for his interviews and his desire to make news by trapping his subjects in politically embarrassing conversations where they were contradicting what they had previously said. Remnick writes, “Google was his tool and Gotcha his game.”

Along with shallow footie commentary-style “analysis” of public affairs, the “gotcha” and the “gaffe” are the stock-in-trade of Australian political journos too.  It’s arguably an inevitable consequence of mass democracy where most people pay little attention to politics and are only attracted by a glib “Hey Martha” story they can instantly understand and digest without effort.  But the media’s “gotcha” obsession is irritating just the same, and may even be damaging to effective political governance.

Witness the press gallery glee earlier this week when Kevin Rudd misread his cheat sheet notes and quoted the Budget inflation projection as 3.75% instead of 3.25%.  It’s such a relatively rare event given Rudd’s obsessive preparation and public servant-crushing work ethic.  Oh for the days of poor old Kim Beazley, who could regularly be counted on to mix up Karl Rove and Rove McManus, one Ian McFarlane with another, or remember the names of only 4 of his 5 South Australian Senators.

Fairfax’s Annabel Crabb now seems to be trying to restore the halcyon days of Bomber gaffes by embarrassing the current crop of pollies into abandoning their cheat sheets and winging it on memory during Question Time.  She even cites Brendan Nelson as the very model of a modern major-general political leader:

He laces his oratory with detail both complex and obscure; within one sentence, he might canvass the GDP of Swaziland and then mention the bloke who runs the Mudgee IGA, just to show he’s not faking it.

I don’t like her chances. Given Nelson’s current poll ratings and performance, it’s probably not her best argument.  Moreover, Crabb’s next sentence should have provided her with a big clue as to why:

His obsession with memorising facts and figures, while he was education minister, quickly earned him the nickname “Rain Man”.

Nelson’s micro-managing style made him a dreadful Education Minister, presiding over development of a system of federal oversight in which DEST interferes in every detail of the administration of the tertiary education sector in a way that makes rational, efficient, flexible management all but impossible. Although I don’t have “hands-on” experience of his record in the Defence portfolio, I suspect it was similarly obsessively inept.

There’s a strong argument that you actually don’t want a bean-counting detail person as a minister, still less prime minister. They can employ trusted, carefully selected bean counters to “sweat the small stuff”. A leader’s job is to ensure a coherent “big picture” policy direction is maintained, and to keep abreast of how those policy directions fit with the government’s strategic and tactical political thrust.

In fact one emerging criticism of Rudd is that he may in some respects be a “detail” person without a “big picture” orientation or a coherent policy direction, obsessing over finessing the details of controlling the 24 hour news cycle without taking the time to reflect on where it leads.

Update – Maybe this and this are part of the explanation for Rudd’s emergent problems:

“Politics is like an umbrella, you need to build alliances,” he says. “What Wayne (Goss) and Kevin did was systematically pull out the spokes of the umbrella until it wasn’t an umbrella any more.

“We won Queensland in 1989 after the Coalition was battered by the Fitzgerald corruption stuff. We should have been in government for 10 years. Instead we won in ’92, limped over the line in ’95 and were out six months later.”

One senior public service figure in Canberra – a strong supporter of the Labor Party – analysed it this way: Rudd is trying to play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Naturally, as Prime Minister, he’s the conductor. But he also wants to play every instrument. He’s technically proficient at many of them, but the audience is watching one man trying to do everything.

It’s too early to begin predicting a one term Labor government, especially with the inept Nelson as alternative PM.  However, with difficult issues surrounding oil prices, inflation and unduly raised expectations, and a micro-managing PM who seemingly can’t see the wood for the trees or learn to delegate, I suspect either Turnbull or Costello could well and truly give Rudd a run for his money much sooner than anyone imagined in the light of Labor’s decisive election victory and still stratospheric poll ratings.   

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 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 the early 1990s.
This entry was posted in Politics - national. Bookmark the permalink.
Notify of

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
15 years ago

Aannabel Crabbe seems to have garnered a reputation as one of the more intelligent and interesting political commentators. I have no idea why.

Focussing on minutiae like this is banal and so trite it blows my mind. Newsflash, Annabel: politicians are expected to be across a hundred and fifty billion different things, do I give a shit if they need some notes to articulate how many angels are dancing on the head of a particular pin? No.

Complex problems engender complex answers; when you start seeing simple answers, simplistic solutions are not too far away.

Watching Nelson’s dismal performance on the floor, re the gusty little aussie battlers in western sydney, with a wheelchair in the back of a tarago, etc. Should be enough to persuade anyone that being able to quote <b<made up anecdotes is no particular mark of distinction.

Michael Kalecki
Michael Kalecki
15 years ago

We oust a micro-manager obsessed with controlling the news cycle and get another.

I suspect we are merely experiencing the teething problems of a new administration.

Sometimes people forget just how bad the New government was in 1996 but it got better

Michael Kalecki
Michael Kalecki
15 years ago

given that Nelson has been married three times it follows he must have some half Nelsons

Pavlov's Cat
15 years ago

The press uses question-begging as a main tool in the Gotcha game, as in a recent question to SA’s shadow health minister Vicki Chapman about the emergency doctors’ blackmail tactics: “Should the Government cave in to the union [she meant the AMA] and give them the pay rise they’re asking for?”

Chapman did what they all do and simply ignored the question, in this instance rightly so. The baby journalist was simply trying to corner a conservative politician into either (a) supporting a “cave in to the union”, or (b) saying on the record that doctors shouldn’t get what they want.

This is distantly related to another favourite press ploy, of describing even the smallest and most sensible change of direction by anyone in the public eye as “an embarrassing backflip”.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
15 years ago

“Aannabel Crabbe seems to have garnered a reputation as one of the more intelligent and interesting political commentators. I have no idea why.”

She’s employed as a political sketchwriter, not as a forensic political analyst. The sketchwriter’s stock-in-trade is humour/whimsy etc and she’s pretty good at it.

My take on the Press Gallery glee at Rudd’s slip-up wasn’t that it was so much about the slip-up per se as it was about the torturous linguistic lengths that Rudd went to in ducking ownership of it – thereby, prolonging the agony.

15 years ago

all so much speculation on behalf of a bunch of ‘usual suspects’. If today were 12 months after the election and installation of a new government, I’d be concerned, but it’s not.

Tony T
15 years ago

When Rudd proclaims himself Emperor Kev we will have to call him Reign Man.

Or maybe Rein Man.

Michael Kalecki
Michael Kalecki
15 years ago

Tony knows 24Kev is a republican.

Proclaiming himself Emperor would mean getting the Bone apart for elbe

Roger Migently
15 years ago

From what I saw, Russert wasn’t nearly as good a journalist (if that is what he actually was) as the post-mortem legend suggests. He may not have been a particularly bad one but imho he wasn’t extraordinary. Obama said, “There wasnt a better interviewer in TV” and Dan Rather claimed, “Tim Russert was a beacon of quality journalism…a leader for what is best in American journalism.” If that’s true, American journalism is stuffed.

Pappinbarra Fox
Pappinbarra Fox
15 years ago

the half nelson gags have already been done to death. A pun is only good the first time. After that it is drollery at its thinest. I think partickg doesn’t “get” the crabster. As Sir Humphery would say “Very Droll Annabelle”

Judith M. Melville
15 years ago

Roger Migently, think you are spot on about Russert’s low level of journalistic expertise.
Saw him interview a few times myself and never thought it was something out of the box.