The latest kerfuffle over volunteer firefighter Paul Parker manages to encapsulate, in a single vignette, the way the Australian media handles politics. It’s not an edifying story. After shooting to fame with an expletive tirade against Prime Minister Morrison at the height of the bushfire catastrophe, Parker attained the status of a minor folk hero. That was that, until he appeared on Channel Ten’s The Project to say that he had been “sacked” for his actions. The Rural Fire Service (which had earlier suggested Parker had been “stood down due to exhaustion”) issued a not-quite denial, which was eagerly embraced by the PM.Read More »
I will be on @ABCthedrum tonight about 5:30, talking about the nuclear grand bargain
Yesterday I did an interview about the Queensland government’s plans for an infrastructure fund, to which coal companies have been invite to contribute in return for a promise not to increase royalties. I’d prepared on the assumption that the announcement would be about royalties, so I had to do it all on the fly. I thought I’d done OK, and substantively I had, but when I read my comments reported on the ABC, I realised I’d put an “obviously” or “clearly” in just about every sentence.
I didn’t even realise I had this tic. If I’d had the chance to edit it I would have deleted it (I find myself wanting to add “of course”, which I would then also have deleted). I should probably listen to myself on radio to pick up errors like this.
Eryk Bagshaw, recently appointed economics correspondent for Fairfax, is certainly aware of that. In fact, mentions it right near the end of this scare story about the effects of Labor’s rejection of the second-stage of the Morrison government’s legislated tax cuts. But that didn’t stop the Fairfax subeditor running his article under the headline “Average full-time workers to be $1000 a year worse off under Labor”
To spell it out, the trick here is that Bagshaw is looking at workers who earn between $90,000 [the arithmetic mean of wages for full time workers} and $120,000. He estimates that there are about 1.6 million such workers. That’s a bit over 10 per cent of the workforce (about 13 million people). As he admits, the median full time wage is well below this, and the median wage for all workers lower again. Once pensioners and welfare recipients are taken into account, it’s evident that Bagshaw’s “average workers” are well towards the top end of the income distribution.
This is amusing since I had a previous run-in with Bagshaw over this very issue of headlines. On that occasion, Bagshaw was scathing about a sloppily written ACTU press release, which ended up with a totally inaccurate headline. I don’t think a defence of innocent error is available here. Bagshaw’s story is written in a way that would lead any casual reader to make the same inference as the subeditor. Moreover, there’s no obvious reason why workers receiving between $90K and $120K should be of more interest than any decile of the workforce. Certainly they aren’t average in any meaningful sense. So, without the misleading phrasing, the story would probably have been spiked.
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Update: After some pushing, I got the headline fixed.
Original post follows
I’ve complained in the past about the fact that writers in newspapers and magazines generally don’t get to choose their headlines. I’ve read that this is a hangover from the days of hot metal typesetting, when the headline had to be chosen to fit the layout of the paper, determined at the last minute by the sub-editors. Whatever the case, the tradition has endured.
I’ve rarely been happy with the headlines chosen for me, but most of the time they are not bad enough for me to complain. Today was an exception. Following my interview on the dairy industry, which was the subject of this post, the ABC ran a story which focused on a simple piece of arithmetic, quoted as follows
Professor of economics at the University of Queensland John Quiggin said if milk prices kept up with inflation, consumers would have to fork out an extra 46 cents a litre.
“If you maintained the real price of milk with 20 per cent inflation [across nine years] that would be around $1.56 today,” he said.
“Of course there is no economic law that says that all prices should rise at the same rate.
That was accurate as far as it went, though of course none of the points I actually wanted to make got through. The problem was with the subeditors, who highlight the sentence ending “$1.56 today”, and ran the piece under the headline Economics professor says milk should be $1.56 a litre in 2019, something dairy industry hopes for. I’ve complained, but nothing is going to happen on a Sunday, and probably nothing will be done anyway.
This reminds me of a more tangled case, which involved me in a silly Twitter fight recently.
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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.