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No more predator press: Australian media must ‘sack the pack’ and start providing actual news

There’s been a quick consensus take on the federal election: Australians have voted for a more civilised, less combative, post-conflict politics. From climate wars to (largely imported) culture wars, Saturday’s vote was emphatic: “Yeah, nah.” 

But what about our conflict-addicted news media, whose model is built around news that promotes the fisticuffs of politics? Are they ready to move on? Doesn’t look like it. Rather, since Saturday night, the political press corp has been struggling to keep up with the Mr Joneses: sure, they might know something’s happening, but they don’t know what it is. 

The political media are still deep in denial over their spectacular campaign failure, despite there probably never having been an election where what the media thought mattered (gotcha, prime ministerial stunts, budget deficits) turned out to be so disconnected from what actually mattered to the voters.

Worse, as the audience seized the power delivered by social media to yell back, to demand something better, Australia’s media sneered with a “you just don’t understand” arrogance. Even the morning after the electoral rebuke, the Insiders panel — all of them among the best of the bunch — were still head-noddingly insisting that Albanese’s week-one “gaffe” had made a difference.

They were able to shift seamlessly from understanding the Fowler demonstration, that candidates can no longer be foisted on a reluctant community, to a round of ruminations about whether there was some electorate via which a defeated Frydenberg could be parachuted back into Parliament. (Umm, no. There isn’t.)

Look back over the past six weeks of reporting (if you can bear it): it’s difficult to think of a greater institutional failure in Australian public life matched with such truculent defensiveness, a refusal to spend even a moment on self-reflection.

As late as Friday, the SMH/Age’s David Crowe (one of the few political writers who had a good campaign overall) tweeted: “Sure, the shouting has been over the top on some days. But I’ve got no time for all the bile directed at the press pack here.”

Here’s an idea: let’s axe the packs. The daily leader stunts to feed moving images and grabs into the evening news contribute absolutely nothing for voters trying to grapple with the issues that matter to them. Those stunts enable the parties to control the agenda in their own interests.

It frustrates our audience and makes journalists less popular. Just look at last week: the testier Albanese got — the more he made the pack the enemy — the better he rated. 

News Corp seems to have already decided how it will approach the new post-conflict political order: with more conflict, not less. No surprise — it’s their business model, after all. It reckons that with independent teals, Greens and Labor reds, they’ll be able to paint a garish horror show for its pay-walled (and declining) grumpy old men demographic.

Time, then, for the rest of the news media to recognise that there’s now precious little useful news in News Corp.

At the same time, traditional news media needs to recognise that there’s a lot more to news than the 20th-century mediums of free-to-air TV, radio and the old mastheads. Plenty of the most interesting work (including in this past election) is being produced in new digital media (including *cough* here at Crikey). The critiques and debates in social media can be bracing, but it’s where the debate is happening. Engage or be left behind.

It’s time to rethink just what the media ecosystem is today.

While we’re at it, time to rethink some of the tired formats, including Insiders with its horse-race focus. We saw some signs of a better approach in some of the 7.30 special reports or from the ABC’s regional correspondents. Let’s move on from the metaphorical finger-in-the-chest interrupting aggression of the standard political interview (as, not for the first time, Tracy Grimshaw’s more sophisticated technique revealed last week).

And time to rethink just what makes “news”. Public integrity, treatment of women, diversity and aged care were all pushed onto the public agenda by journalists over the past term — then forgotten as soon as the election kicked off.

Let’s keep hold of what matters — such as the climate emergency — and shake off the lazy both-sides approach that has powered the climate wars (and maybe recognise that the “economy” is not the same thing as “debt and deficits”). 

And one last thing: the next billionaire who comes knocking with offers to buy news media credibility with conspiracy-laden front-page ads? Let’s send him packing, too.