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How not to write about local government

Journalists these days tend to forego the hard work of learning about policy and just write about the political “horse race”. What’s worse is that they frequently get the details of that wrong.

I’m a big fan of The Conversation, the news site that delivers academic expertise to a broad audience (Misha Ketchell, my former boss at Crikey, is managing editor). But I think they made a big mistake in employing Michelle Grattan as chief political correspondent, and her piece today on the local government referendum is a case in point.

Grattan exemplifies the “horse-race” school of political journalism, where everything is focused on the political standing of the players rather than on what they’re actually doing. Its staples are leadership challenges, opinion polls, scandals, “gaffes”, inside sources and so on – things that obviously fascinate those in the press gallery but have a more limited appeal for the general public.

The worst of this sort of journalism can be seen in America, where the time that media organisations devote to so-called news programming has far outrun the resources they are willing to put into actual reporting. But Australia seems to be catching up.

I wrote about the local government referendum at Crikey earlier this week (I think it’s still behind the paywall, so if you haven’t already subscribed then you should). I quoted a Nielsen poll that supposedly showed 65% support for “recognising local government in the Constitution,” and commented as follows:

That would have been an accurate description of the Hawke government’s proposal, back in 1988 (which was heavily defeated). It proposed to recognise local government, but not to give the Commonwealth additional powers. The current question is completely different: there’s no explicit recognition, but there is a new power, for Canberra to fund local government directly, on such conditions as it thinks fit.

So the support that Nielsen found shouldn’t be taken too seriously. The usual pattern in referendum campaigns is that support plummets once debate gets properly underway and people realise (or, depending on your point of view, are fooled into believing) that there’s more to the question than the government is letting on.

Grattan, however, takes the Nielsen result at face value and even remarks that “Recognition of local government has been put twice before in referendums – in 1974 and 1988,” apparently not knowing or not caring that they asked completely different things.

Grattan is obviously in favor of the referendum while I’m against, but that’s not the source of the problem. Her whole approach is centred on the politics of the referendum: what it means for the government and opposition, not what it might mean for public policy. Looking at the merits of the question, for her, would be like judging the worth of a football team on the basis of what they were going to do with the premiership after they won it.

Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with writing about “politics” in a narrow sense rather than writing about policy. That doesn’t make you a bad journalist or a bad person. But there are two very important reservations to make.

Firstly, that sort of journalism shouldn’t be the driver of political coverage. When you put the opinion poll on the front page and bury important policy developments on page ten, you’ve got things the wrong way around – not least because it makes it hard to understand what’s moving the opinion polls if you don’t know anything about policy.

Secondly, if you’re going to write about the horse race you still need to get the facts right and not fall for the spin. Yet Grattan, remarkably, quotes the version of the local government proposal from Anthony Albanese’s press release, complete with its rogue full stop, just three days after Anne Twomey – in the very same publication – had exposed its deceptive nature.

If we’re going to talk about the referendum, let’s understand what we’re talking about. This is not about some abstract “recognition”; it’s a proposal to allow the federal government to fund local government via the same process of tied grants that it now has for the states. You may or may not think that that’s a good thing (I don’t), but can we at least have journalism that engages with the facts.

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