Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 20, 2020

2020 Yarra Valley (online) Writers Festival Sunday Sessions: ‘The Politics of Our Words’

One more from the inaugural Yarra Valley (online) Writers Festival Sunday Sessions for May and June: this one on the topic ‘The Politics of Our Words’ featuring the former ABC and Walkley Award-winning journalist Kerry O’Brien and Rick Morton from The Saturday Paper, in conversation with Peter Wilmoth.

Wilmoth began by asking O’Brien how things had changed over his many years in journalism: Politicians, O’Brien said, were more likely to engage in the interview in the past. Over the years since Whitlam there has been a build up of the media minders, to a point where it’s become a dark science of spin.  Politicians today are so defensive—and they have been trained to pre-plan for the tough questions and to build in the message of the day rather than respond to what’s put to them with an honest answer.

Asked if he thought the change from the Old Parliament House to the new one had made any difference to this, O’Brien said that the old building offered easier access to politicians, and the new building is not like that.  It spread everything out and created enclaves, not just for the journos but also for their own members.  But the rise of spin has had a much greater impact: it’s all about manipulating the media, stage-managing the interview, and minimising any damage.  It’s not about an honest engagement with the public.

Talking mainly about TV but also about press conferences and interviews for print, O’Brien talked about the pressure on the journalist: when the politician is stage-managing his responses, the journo needs to interrupt, but it’s difficult to do that without bullying or being rude.  So it’s important for the journalist to feel confident that the viewer is reading the situation in the same way.  He says that feedback at the ABC suggests that their audience did interpret the situation as the politician being evasive. That has contributed to the base cynicism that people feel about politics.  When politicians are more concerned about looking authentic than being authentic, it’s  a form of dishonest theatre.

O’Brien is also worried about the trend for politicians to speak direct to the public without taking questions from the media.  It’s the media that keeps them accountable. [Though I would say that an effective Opposition has an important role to play as well.] The more those in government speak directly to the public without any mainstream media accountability, the more we have to fear.

Wilmoth then asked Rick Morton about a trend we see in current affairs TV: frustrated journalists — David Speers, Jon Faine and Leigh Sales — are criticised for talking over their guests.  Morton agrees that it’s very difficult because it’s the journo’s job to get answers.  He shared an anecdote about a press conference in which the PM denied something that he knew was a fact.  In a packed press conference where everyone is jostling to put their questions, it’s difficult to follow through even when the facts are to hand, and he appreciated the backup from other journalists afterwards when they inquired further about the issue.

Wilmoth raised the issue of politicians stonewalling, and cited a famous interview with Kelly O’Dwyer about the Royal Commission into the Banks.  O’Brien is pessimistic: he says that the audience expects this kind of behaviour so it has less impact.  He’s really worried that the same symptom is right through the democratic world, he believes that the media has been crucial in democracy over the years, but it has all changed.  The media is politicised now, and polarised, which is not as it was for most of his career.  In the past journos were more interested in doing their job, but now it’s about pushing an ideology.  A growing spectrum of complexity, he says, is heading in a downward direction.

Wilmoth raised the current situation: COVID_19 has mostly had bipartisanship: what impact might that have going forward? Will there be less confrontational political reporting?  Morton talked about the consensus beginning to fracture with criticisms from within the National Cabinet where previously the focus was entirely on dealing with the pandemic.  He thinks that the focus on ‘who won the day?’ or ‘who won at question time?’ or the factional brawling contributes to the problem.  [Lindsay Tanner wrote about this in his book Sideshow back in 2011.  That is a book well worth reading if you are interested in the role of the Fourth Estate in supporting democracy]. He would like his industry to focus more on the policy issues and how they impact on people.

O’Brien is pessimistic about divisiveness and the erosion of public trust.  He thinks that post COVID_19 politicians and the media will revert to type.

Wilmoth said that the ABC was at its very best during the bushfires, bringing people information that they might not otherwise have.  But a lot of other media outlets operate more as advocates rather than as reporters. He asked a Dorothy Dixer about whether the ABC was now more important than ever, and of course O’Brien said that he thought it was.  But he had good reasons: journalism is under pressure from social media, budget cuts, polarisation and so on.  He is concerned that budget cuts are weakening the ABC.  Morton talked about the pressures on the print media, and how people tend to read in silos that reinforce their existing opinions, plus audiences are fracturing into left wing/ right wing/ pro or anti identity politics and so on.  Trust in journalism has fallen through the floor because it’s attacked from the left and from the right.  It’s difficult to tackle subjects that go against the ideology of their readers.

What about long form journalism? The problem is that it attracts less of an audience, and perhaps the shorter attention span is becoming the norm.  It becomes a vicious circle when media organisations fret that they’ll lose an audience if they print long form so they don’t do it.  This is contrasted with the Tweets of [That Man in America] and this led O’Brien to be a bit alarmist, suggesting that social media in the hands of someone like Goebbels could be disastrous.  He’s very worried about America in general… Morton discussed the abusive treatment of journalists in America, and talked about their problem that they have to ‘keep a straight face’ about some of the ridiculous things that are said, and at the same time have a responsibility to refute dangerous conspiracy theories without reinforcing them with criticism.

The next question was about the role of Facebook and Google: Morton noted that they are systematically hoovering up and stealing the content of journalists, and how difficult it is to make them pay for it.  At the same time, people have noticed the decline in the quality of the traditional media and won’t pay for it.  O’Brien says that he’s now reading more broadly than before because he can access it online, paying for some of it and not for others.  Obviously, that changes the dynamic of how the media functions.  He had an amusing little rant about the decline in standards of the media, and how he had abandoned some programs altogether, and gave the example of 60 Minutes which is not as it was.  He’s less patient than he was!

There was some general conversation about how there’s no time for the kind of mentoring that used to happen, and how people have moved higher up the hierarchy through the process of attrition rather than experience and expertise.  It was rather sad to hear the younger journalist feeling disheartened and demoralised about politics because everyone is performing…

Kerry O’Brien’s memoir was published in 2018.  Rick Morton’s One Hundred Years of Dirt was included in the YVWF session How Weird Does Your Family Have to Be?


You can still buy tickets for future YVWF events:

3pm Sun 24 May          Why Short Stories Have Big Impact | Sean O’Beirne (A Couple of Things Before the End), Josephine Rowe (Here Until August), Alice Bishop (A Constant Hum) & Alice Cottrell (Kill Your Darlings)

3pm un 31 May          Charcoal Sketches | Sean Dooley & Michael Veitch

If you have enjoyed these reports, consider supporting the Yarra Valley Writers Festival!


  1. I agree, as you might expect, that the prevalence of performance over truth is in the process of destroying how our democracy works. But further, politicians are extending every day how far they can go without being pulled up, to the extent that ministers now routinely break the law (eg. about who has authority to spend).


    • I am hoping that, rather than this being a cultural shift, it’s more of a response to the fact that on both sides of politics we have had a decade of irresponsible instability, starting with the dumping of Rudd. It’s meant that on both sides of politics there’s been poor Opposition because they’ve been preoccupied with other stuff not relevant to representing the people.


  2. Given my former incarnations as journalist and then PR director, I’d have been rivetted by this event. It’s obvious that politicians have taken too readily to the idea they should follow a script – no really good PR person advocates that. We teach people how to put across a key message but not to the point the politician sounds like a robot and never answers a question.

    There’s an interesting point about whether we get aggressive journalism because the politicians are so evasive that the journos feel they have to be even more pushy. And then those very same politicians complain they are being badgered…… Generally I’m on the side of the journalists but sometimes they get too carried away with their own interest and never give the politician a chance to answer….


    • I agree, it’s not as simple as that… because sometimes what the journo is after is not an answer, but a gotcha moment.
      An obvious case in point is the current trade problem with China. Anyone with any brains knows that the less said the better, and it is *not* in the public interest to have politicians criticising our major trading partner. Better to leave it to the diplomats, but instead I’ve seen journos dancing to America’s anti-China tune so they push and push to get a negative answer about China. They just want a gotcha moment so they can headline it.
      I enjoyed this conversation but I did feel that there was more to the story sometimes.


      • the media over hear are also intent on having those gotcha moments about the 1) failure to get enough PPE for health workers 2) failure to meet their own goals for testing by a woeful margin. 3) shouldnt they have done lock down earlier ….yes, politicians should be accountable but what does it achieve if the journalist gets the answer they are looking for. We’ll just be in the same spot as we are now..


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