Political journalism in the 1930s and now

Observing controversy about The Australian‘s ‘outing’ of Canberra blogger Grog’s Gamut. I have read a great deal of current and 1930s political journalism and that of the 1930s mostly was better.  Noteworthy that commentators in The Australian have a particular view of the nature of political commentary they fail to see any difference between commentary informed by a set of values and purely partisan commentary on behalf of a political party. James Massola:

he had a partisan point of view, worked in the public service and wrote about his department was a matter of public interest. Jericho has told me his views in no way influenced how he did his job in the public service, that he did not write about the policy he worked on, did not leak information nor let his political views influence his work. And as he told me, he has worked for Liberal and Labor governments. That’s all very well. And yes, of course, public servants can and do hold political opinions and belong to political parties. But it is incumbent on public servants to be apolitical in their work, as the APS code of conduct notes. Jericho blogged as a hobby outside work hours. But he sent literally hundreds of partisan political tweets out, during work hours, many of which were ad hominem attacks on the side of politics he did not agree with.

The Australian’s editorial declares:

But Mr Jericho has injected himself into the political debate and is fair game

Political commentary like political history will necessarily be informed by the values of its authors, but to be successful these values have to be distinct from narrow partisanship. It is unlikely a person would be interested in politics without having views, but this does not mean that their writing is entirely defined by partisanship. We should always keep in mind that our sympathies may distort our perspective, the conservative journalists of the Australian were reluctant to admit the extent to which the Howard government before 2007 had lost public support, but they had a point that some observers of the Rudd government allowed partisan sympathies to distort their evaluation of the government’s electoral prospects. Consider the example of Paul Hasluck, he was partisan enough to pursue a political career and aspire to the Prime Ministership but his volumes of the official war history are major works of scholarship, they are not the same as Ellis’ The Red Road.  Paul Kelly’s recent work is so informed by partisanship as to be largely useful as a primary source as a repository of information from interviews. The perspective of many in the media seems to be that having views on policy is equivalent to be a blind follower of one party or the other. Thus substantive arguments about policy are seen solely through the prism of partisan conflict. The Australian is a notable example of this, it is not so much that it is conservative in its editorial stance, but that it mangles facts to confirm with the prejudices of the conservative movement. Here it actually comapres poorly with the Sydney Morning Herald of the 1930s of which I read an enormous quantity of 1930s newspapers for my PhD and book. The Herald provided much more factual information about politics. Some of this is no longer necessary, the Sydney Morning Herald included lengthy extracts from parliamentary debates for example, but the Herald also showed industry in tracking down information about closed ALP and union meetings and providing factual reports. Today such industry would be employed as background for more speculative narratives, have we ever seen hard data reported for ‘private polling’ rather than hints and whispers? The 1930s Herald also kept a fairy clear line between its hyper-partisan editorials and opinion writers and its reportage, although it mostly did not report on Communist meetings and sometimes its subheadings were slanted. On the other hand there were times when I wished for some information about informal politics, questions such as exactly why the NSW left became estranged from Theodore, why did Willis quit politics to become Agent-General in London, what did Willis and Garden think of each other etc. etc. Unfortunately these questions can now never be answered. The value of political journalism is on summarising documents, describing events and providing information on informal politics and intrigue. The later is important but it is actually neglected. Consider for example the current Herald’s Sean Nicholls, his columns mostly repeat that the NSW government is dire political trouble and is headed for a crushing defeat, which is completley obvious, there is no analysis of what the government is doing, or how it has performed or not performed on services. The government’s recent embrace of social liberalism: gay couples having the right to adopt, formalisation of the legislative underpinnings of the safe injecting room, is noteworthy development. Why? political opportunism, genuine conviction, a belief that with all lost better to do something? What do social conservatives in the ALP think? If you were writing history these would be questions to consider but instead we get lame metaphors from Sean Nicholls.

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