Brexit and the oral culture of journalism

For anyone following the trainwreck of Brexit, Richard North’s eureferendum.com is an indispensable source. North was (and, at least in principle, still is) a Leave supporter, proposing a model called Flexcit (roughly, the Norway/EFTA/EEA option), but has long since broken with May, Johnson and the rest of the Brexiteers.

North is scathing about the low level of analysis of just about everyone involved in the debate, the only consistent exceptions being Pete North (not sure if or how they are related) and his former employer Christopher Booker who, despite being on the denialist fringe of the climate debate, seems to make sense on Brexit.

I’ll ask a question about Brexit over the fold, but I mainly wanted to cite this important observation. Attacking a recent report, he writes that the author

proudly announces that his piece “is based on conversations” with certain prestigious persons, rather than to reference to primary sources. This so typifies the “oral culture” approach of what passes for journalism, with not even a passing reference to the Commission’s Notices to Stakeholders.

It is probably this superficial, prestige-driven approach which defines the popular Efta/EEA narrative. The average journalist would have a nose-bleed if they ever had to look at a copy of the EEA Agreement. In-depth “research” means looking up back copies of the Financial Times. As for the politicians, they seem to make it up as they go along.

The point about the oral culture is spot-on, I think. I remember observing long ago that journalists, unlike bloggers, assume that they can ring anyone up about anything and expect an answer. That has a huge influence on the way the media work.

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Tweet trouble

According to Chris Mitchell at the Oz (paywalled, I think), I’m the mastermind (or at least a mastermind) behind the original version of Emma Alberici’s now-rewritten analysis of company tax cuts. Here’s Mitchell

In Alberici’s case a lot of weight was given to left-wing academic John Quiggin and economist Saul Eslake, a prominent commentator whose position on the central question — do corporate tax cuts eventually trickle down as increased wages? — seems to have changed over the years.

It’s nice to be so influential, but there’s just one problem. In Alberici’s original article (here), I don’t get a mention.

But maybe Alberici is presenting my ideas second-hand. Sadly, the arguments I’ve put forward on the topic don’t get a run either. Here’s the summary of my piece in Crikey (also paywalled, I fear)

Optimistic tax models put the average Australian at being 0.1% better off under the proposed company tax cuts. And the good news is they’ll only have to wait 25 years for that tiny benefit to appear!

Alberici doesn’t mention this.

So how did I get top billing? The villain, as usual, is social media. Twitter user (tweep?) Matt K asked me whether there were any mistakes in the Alberici piece and I said no. Apart from a couple of replies to further questions, that was my entire contribution, as you can see from the thread of the conversation. But, as they say nowadays, it went viral, at least insofar as a comment on tax policy can go viral.

Before I knew it, I was being attacked from all directions. Helen Razer said I was a bogus “leftist”, while Aaron Patrick at the Fin hit me from the right because I mentioned Marx and Engels in the draft introduction to my book. To be fair, Razer wrote to explain her position. By contrast, Patrick’s whole technique is verballing and out-of-context gotchas’, so I don’t expect that to change.

I do get a passing mention in the revised column, but since my name is mis-spelt, I think it’s safe to assume that I’m not a primary source. Obviously, Mitchell didn’t get around to reading the original (maybe the research skillz of Newscorp aren’t up to locating it) and assumed that I was quoted there.

While I’m on the subject, Mitchell had an amazing piece a while back (not worth linking, since Paul Kelly and Mark Latham have already trodden this ground many times) about the end of freedom of speech in Australia. The burden of it is that decent, ordinary Australians like Mitchell and Andrew Bolt, limited as they are to major national newspapers and broadcast media, can’t say what they think about Muslims, lefties and so on any more without people on Twitter saying what they think about Mitchell and Bolt. As Tim Dunlop says in a similar context, any less self-reflection and they’d be vampires.

Gotcha!

Like most people, I don’t like being suckered. But I was well and truly suckered by Aaron Patrick of the Australian Financial Review today. Patrick wrote to me saying he was doing a feature article on penalty rates and I gave him a long interview setting out my position. In particular, I made the point that, if (say) a 10 per cent reduction in wages produced only a 1 per cent increase in hours of work demanded by employers, the average worker would end up doing more work for less money. This is a standard point in the analysis of minimum wages.

As it turned out, I was wasting my breath. All Patrick wanted was the concession that lower wages might produce some increase in employment, thereby justifying the Gotcha! headline ‘Even union economists accept cutting penalty rates creates jobs’.

Given my history with the Fin, I shouldn’t have been surprised, I guess. But my general experience, even since Michael Stutchbury became editor, has been that most AFR journalists are straightforward professionals.

Also, most journalists these days understand that the game has changed with the rise of blogs and social media. Twenty years ago, the only response to a shoddy smear like Patrick’s would be a letter to the editor, which might or might not get published long after the event. Now, I can respond here and on Twitter, Facebook and so on. My readership might not be as big as the measured circulation of the AFR, but, after you deduct all the people who only look at the business pages, it’s not that different.

In any case, Patrick and the Fin are on a hiding to nothing with this one. Most people work for a living, and most have worked out by now that when the bosses talk about flexibility and productivity, they mean “work more for less”.

“White, heterosexual Christian” isn’t an identity?

At the Oz, Paul Kelly has a piece headlined’ http://www.theaustralian.com.au/opinion/columnists/paul-kelly/donald-trumps-election-a-rejection-of-identity-politics/news-story/147b11c08b64702d3f9be1821416cb72. This is bizarre, given that Trump’s appeal was obviously directed at white, heterosexual Christians upset that the US is no longer being run entirely by and for people like them.

In a sense, it now is. Trump’s Cabinet, like the Republican party as a whole, is overwhelmingly reflective of the identity politics of a former majority unwilling to adjust to the reality that it is now a minority. The vagaries and the biases of the electoral system have given this minority a lot of power, but it is fragile and tenuous. It’s precisely this fragility that is giving Trump’s brand of identity politics its ferocity.

Of course, Kelly’s unstated premise is that “white, heterosexual Christian” isn’t an identity, it’s just the norm against which deviant identities are defined. This is on a level with the kind of low-grade bigot who uses the term “ethnics” to describe people of all ethnicities other than Anglo-Celtic.

Campbell Newman: the gift that keeps on taking

A little while ago, it was revealed that the Queensland taxpayers were picking up the bill for Campbell Newman’s indefensible defence in a defamation action brought against him and Jarrod Bleijie (aka Boy Wonder) for accusing two Gold Coast lawyers of being bikie criminals, apparently on the sole basis that they were fulfilling the professional obligation of providing some bikies with a defence. The bill amounted to $0.5 million, and was greatly increased because Newman and Bleijie refused to mitigate the damages by apologising.

Now, thanks to the Oz, we learn how we are paying for the new State Executive Building, which Newman and then-Treasurer Tim Nicholls assured us we would get for nothing as part of a complex land deal. In reality, it turns out Newman left us on the hook for a 15-year lease at above market prices. Of course, the Oz being the Oz, this is presented as the fault of the current Labor government, which denounced the deal at the time and has continued to do so.