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Federal Election ’22: Gotcha, ‘Google it, mate’ and a grand reset?

Gokarna Avachat

Gokarna Avachat

Have you ever wondered how and why journalists and editors cover elections the way they do? Don’t know your doorstops from your divisions? Have you ever wanted to be inside the media scrum to see what happens behind the scenes of the biggest media event and most consequential form of democracy in Australia?

During the 2022 federal election the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas will take you Inside the Media Scrum to give you an insider’s guide to how and why the media is covering the election the way they are.

Veteran journalist Malcolm Farr, who has covered every election since 1993 and has written on federal politics for publications across the media landscape, including The Australian, news.com.au, Crikey, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and more, will provide an eagle-eye view of the media during the campaign.

Amanda Copp, Political Reporter for the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia’s National Radio News, is covering her first federal election. She will be out on the road with the major parties and will provide a first-hand perspective of what it’s like reporting on a national election.

Each week Malcolm and Amanda will be filing stories, newsletters, video and podcasts to help you keep across the media in Federal Election 2022. So, sign up for the latest updates and follow JNI on social media to go Inside the Media Scrum.

Gotcha, ‘Google it, mate’ and a grand reset?

Malcolm Farr

Malcolm Farr

With just three words on Wednesday Greens leader Adam Bandt punctured the self satisfaction of the Gotcha brigade of political reporters this election campaign.

“Google it, mate,” he firmly advised a Financial Review journalist who seemingly randomly wanted to see if the MP knew the current WPI (wage price index).*

Bandt further told the National Press Club in Canberra: “Politics should be about reaching for the stars and offering a better society. And instead… there’s these questions that are asked about, ‘Can you tell us about this particular stat?’.”

The Bandt barrage might be too late for Anthony Albanese, but it could energise hopes for greater substance in campaign reporting.

The ambush question

The ambush question can be one backed by information, such as when Peter van Onselen confronted Scott Morrison with the content of unflattering text messages.

Or it can be a mere speculative bid in the hope of a fleeting display of memory failure which could be seen as a confession of ignorance, such as when Scott Morrison was asked the price of milk.

Labor’s Anthony Albanese has been hit by the latter variety, and unfortunately for candidates, the political success of the Albanese gotcha tempted reporters into asking more.

The Australian, Tuesday April 12

This questioning can only work if the candidate hasn’t got the right answer, and as the Albanese situation showed news outlets can portray a blunder as illuminating a policy shortcoming and this can influence a campaign’s direction.

The gotcha is an inelegant tactic sneered at by some journalists and considered a boast-worthy triumph by successfull practitioners.

That Albanese clunker raised the prospect of the rest of the campaign being clogged by questioning on random details aimed not at informing voters but embarrassing candidates.
Adam Bandt might have saved us from that.

Spills and adventures

As Labor’s Bill Shorten said this week, a 41-day election campaign will produce “lots of spills and adventures” unwanted by candidates.

But who would have thought Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese, one of whom will lead the nation on May 22, would lead the pack in those campaign tumbles on day one?

Mr Morrison had difficulty explaining how Alan Tudge was still in cabinet although he wasn’t a minister, and whether taxpayers would be hit for AU$500,000 in compensation to a former Tudge staffer with whom he had an affair.

But coverage of his struggle to respond to news reports of that absurd mess faded in the heat generated by Mr Albanese’s failure to remember the unemployment rate, and the official interest rate, when questioned by reporters.

Mr Albanese’s apology for the shortcoming was refreshing in the incompetence-without-consequences atmosphere Mr Morrison has promoted over three years, but it didn’t rescue him or his carefully laid out image as a long-time student of economics.

The Liberals responded with a new five-year job creation target — which looked like an old one reinforced by population growth — and prepared to capitalise on unemployment figures set for release Thursday. All to keep the slip in the headlines.

Both incidents explained why, in a six-week campaign, party HQs demand of candidates a hyper-discipline which would give news reporters with little more than a string of approved and prepackage words and phrases.

The dismal prospect for journalists — and their customers, the voters — is of being forced to record the pronouncements of regiments of Little Sir/Lady Echoes, batches of cookie-cutter candidates.

There are two ways for journalists to counter this: 1) Careful examination of policies to determine their validity 2) the gotcha question.

That first option isn’t an easy task given both major parties so far have spoken as much about what they won’t be doing — no government plan for an anti-corruption body, no Labor review of jobseeker — than what they will.

The “vision thing”

What used to be called “the vision thing” is absent at the moment, which tends to encourage gotcha-ism.

Further, there is a small and noisy social media audience which wants instant drama and not long reads, and no delays in point scoring, as The Daily Telegraph reporter Clare Armstrong found on Wednesday.

“Ah yes, providing factual context in a question about the actual policy announcement being made today in order to get a proper response, how dare I,” she tweeted in reply to a critic of her questioning technique.

The Albanese incident (swiftly name Albo-amnesia) came from the ambush tactic. There was no reason for him to be asked about interest and employment rates except to see if he knew them. Only his embarrassment would be news.

Scott Morrison shouldn’t feel too comfortable.

He has a terrible memory, he told journalist Katherine Murphy last year, because “I have a flow brain”. Which in simple terms means he concentrates so much on a task that other matters are outside his consciousness.

We will see how a flow brain performs under extended campaign pressure. Will he also be got?

*The Australian Bureau of Statics says: “The WPI measures changes in the price of labour, unaffected by compositional shifts in the labour force, hours worked or employee characteristics.”

Episode 1: Get your go-bag ready

April 6, 2022

Episode 2: Hire me, please

April 12, 2022