Inside Story

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Tell me why I don’t like Mondays

8 February 2017

There’s plenty of politics on ABC TV’s weekly evening marathon, but is the national broadcaster taking it all seriously enough?


Underpowered: Q&A host Tony Jones with policy analyst Helen Andrews, Victorian premier Daniel Andrews, journalist Daisy Cousens, climate activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez and environment minister Josh Frydenberg on Monday night’s program.

Underpowered: Q&A host Tony Jones with policy analyst Helen Andrews, Victorian premier Daniel Andrews, journalist Daisy Cousens, climate activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez and environment minister Josh Frydenberg on Monday night’s program.

With the start of the parliamentary year, there’s another reason you might want to shoot the whole day down. Or the latter part of it, at any rate. On the ABC, Monday is the night for political television, and if you are among the growing number of people who are repelled by the current state of politics but at the same time compelled to follow its relentless unfolding, you may find yourself couch-bound for hours on end.

Given the roller-coaster ride of Donald Trump’s inauguration and the embarrassment over his first phone call with Turnbull, not to mention the Centrelink debt furore and the expense scandal that led to Sussan Ley’s resignation as health minister, there is something rather quaint about the national broadcaster’s adherence to the convention that the serious business of politics doesn’t get under way until February.

Last Monday’s marathon, beginning with 7.30 and continuing through Four Corners, Media Watch, Q&A – with the new post-show Q&A Extra broadcast on News Radio and Facebook Live – and finishing up with Lateline, risked looking like catch-up TV. Stan Grant has done a sterling job on 7.30 over the summer, but the ABC has generally been well behind the pace when it comes to covering the rolling crisis (or is it catastrophe?) surrounding Trump’s first two weeks in the White House.

Ley’s replacement, Greg Hunt, had his debut interrogation as health minister from Leigh Sales on 7.30, following a report from Tracy Bowden on teenage suicides in Grafton and the Clarence River Valley in Northern NSW. Bowden ended the story by asking a grieving father what he would like to say to the health minister. The response was searing. “Don’t look at the spreadsheets and don’t look at the numbers. Tell him to come for a drive. Go and see the different organisations in the community and talk to the people who deal with it.”

Back in the studio, Sales asked Hunt if he could do that. The comeback was immediate: “Yes I could, and yes I will.” Hunt has made it known that he has experience of mental illness in his own family, and he spoke with genuine conviction about there being no substitute for talking with relatives and frontline workers. Youth suicide and mental health would be his absolute priorities in the job, he said, and he willingly addressed questions raised about the loss of services to regional and rural communities. Sales, on form after her break, rightly pressed him on the equally urgent matter of timelines. A two-month wait to see a psychiatrist for vital medication, or a three-week wait for admission to a psychiatric unit for a patient in a state of total breakdown is effectively a failure to respond.

It’s all very well for the ABC to remind viewers that they can call Lifeline or Beyondblue if they are in need of help, but what does the minister seriously think these organisations have to offer in response to a phone call? We should not underestimate the importance of a sympathetic voice on the other end, but essentially all they can do is provide referral for further help from a GP or local support officer, who will in turn have to explain the waiting times for actual treatment, and its cost.

Sales couldn’t resist finishing the interview with a question about Cory Bernardi’s imminent split from the Liberal Party. Hunt lost all the credibility he’d just earned by making a scattergun statement about how his party worked for the good of all Australians and how deeply he himself was committed to it. Outside the terms of the interview was the fact that this is a party that cuts funding for social and mental health services out of a commitment to the welfare of the budget over merely human forms of welfare. Sales cut him off, insisting on a response to the Bernardi question, but it was she who had steered the interview off course, veering back towards the prevailing media obsession with the dramas of party infighting instead of sticking with a policy issue that is of paramount social importance.

Australian Story provided a brief but welcome interlude with a profile of Sophie Cape, the former Olympian ski racer who has found a second career as an artist after her sporting life was curtailed by a horrific series of injuries and surgical interventions.

Extreme mental toughness is a rare and somewhat troubling human attribute, but we may all need more of it to cope with the hazardous volatilities of a world in which the most powerful nation is effectively ruled by a president who wants to reprise some of the fun he had hiring and firing people on The Apprentice. For those needing to catch up on what’s been happening in the US through its extraordinary winter of discontent, Four Corners offered an abridged version of the whole Trump story.

“A Helluva Ride: The Trump Revolution Begins,” a report from the ABC’s Washington correspondent Michael Brissenden, is well worth catching up with on iView. It takes us back through the latter stages of the election campaign, closes in on key moments in the inauguration ceremony and other formalities, and reviews Trump’s track record in public life through a series of well-focused interviews.

Michael Caputo, senior adviser and campaign runner for Trump, offers the closest connection to the man himself. Contrary to prevailing accounts in the Washington and New York press, says Caputo, the White House is “exactly where Trump expected to be.” Trump’s prescience operated in ways that blindsided the political pundits, Caputo stresses. His game plan in the primaries was to be so confrontational that none of the other candidates would have any oxygen. As for what is to come from here on – strap yourself in, says Caputo, because he’s gonna break some eggs.

Brissenden engages in some revealing dialogue with Trump supporters, emphasising the widely different demographics from which they are drawn. At a street party, Gays for Trump stage affectionate impersonations and seem more interested in the image than the issues. They trot out the standard propaganda lines, mentioning “crooked Hillary,” insecure borders and jobs going overseas. But for all the ludicrous and outrageous aspects to the Trump story, there are also elements that are deeply sad. A trip to the rust-belt states of Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, once Democrat heartlands, reveals people utterly demoralised by the loss of jobs and industries. Obama shut down the coal industry by executive order – “he kicked the props out from under us,” as one guy comments – and depression conditions prevail. Houses are for sale but no one’s interested. No one buys cars any more. There’s no manufacturing.

The risk, as one Democrat congresswoman comments, is that they’ve invested their faith in a charlatan and will be betrayed all over again. No doubt it is true that, as Obama claims, he could and would have done a lot more for the rust-belt battlers if the Republicans had not blocked all his social policies, but Democrats still have a lot to answer for in this constitutional debacle. Where were their priorities during the campaign or the primaries? The congresswoman’s concern for these dispossessed people takes on a much steelier edge as she turns to defend her own turf, declaring vehemently that Trump is mistaken if he thinks he can dismantle “everything that we’ve achieved” and everything that underlies the mighty culture of American democracy.

But perhaps he can. That is the heart-stopping, nerve-shattering reality of this moment in US politics, and Brissenden talks to a number of those on the Republican side who are facing up to it. David Kramer, a foreign policy adviser during George W. Bush’s administration, was one of the signatories to a letter warning that Trump could be the most reckless president in US history. Kramer hopes it won’t turn out that way, but if it does, he warns, Australia and other traditional allies of America will have to rethink their position. “It’s possible there will be utter chaos,” says Jennifer Rubin, a conservative columnist for the Washington Post.

Ethics lawyer Noah Bookbinder has been busy filing suits against Trump for violating a clause in the Constitution that prohibits members of the government from accepting gifts or making profit from foreign heads of state. Whole floors of Trump Hotels are leased to foreign administrations. What if these lawsuits come to nothing? “If we have a president who knows he doesn’t have to follow the law,” says Bookbinder, “we are in uncharted territory.”

Uncharted territory is opening up in all directions right now, and the average US citizen is faced with a wilderness of alternative realities. In Trump’s America, the growing obsession with fact-checking has found its nemesis in the rise of fake news. Monday night’s Media Watch was devoted to a brisk introductory tutorial on this phenomenon, but fake news is not a topic that lends itself to the cut-and-dried approach that is Paul Barry’s hallmark.

Barry went through some of the more egregious examples, focusing in particular on the story that tens of thousands of fraudulent Clinton votes had been found in an Ohio warehouse. It’s easy to get sidetracked by the sensationalism of some of the Hillary fictions (charged with murder for Benghazi deaths, emails linked to a paedophile website, diagnosed with tongue cancer) and it’s gratifying to see the myths exploded by skilled journalists like those on the New York Times who identified the photo accompanying the story of the Ohio ballot boxes as one lifted from a 2015 story in Britain’s Birmingham Mail.

This is just the kind of sleuthing Barry and his team like to do on Media Watch, but they failed to capture the implications in the way they are spelled out by Charles J. Sykes, a former conservative talk show host writing in the New York Times about “Why Nobody Cares the President Is Lying.” “In a stunning demonstration of the power and resiliency of our new post-factual culture,” writes Sykes, the Trump camp have effectively turned the charge of fake news against their opponents, levelling it at the New York Times, CNN, the Washington Post and other trusted and prestigious news organisations, leaving no one’s credibility untainted.

The politics of reversibility is the name of the game. The real and the fake, the facts and the fictions, the truth and the lies, the rights and the wrongs are mirror images, and the deciding judgement will be made by whoever is most powerful. As Orwell’s 1984 tops the Amazon sales charts, America is facing the prospect of cognitive meltdown.

There has never been a more important time to hear the voices of intelligent and principled conservatives, especially those who are knowledgeable about the constitutional aspects of what is unfolding in the US. It’s a shame no one with that kind of knowledge could be found for this week’s Q&A panel, given the amount of time devoted to discussion of Trump. Those on the panel might have at least spent an hour watching Brissenden’s report.

Journalist and political analyst Helen Andrews, a declared supporter of Trump, defended his actions on border control and other matters without displaying the slightest regard for the constitutional implications. Daisy Cousens, a fellow at the Menzies Research Centre, said somewhat coyly that she was a millennial, and millennials like Trump because he supports free speech – and he reminds her of one of those relatives who embarrasses you by saying weird things at Christmas parties but you love him because he gives you the best present. Yes, she actually said that.

A policy analyst should surely be able to discuss the context and particulars of a policy direction, and offer an appraisal of its relative merits and demerits. Andrews was offering not analysis but advocacy. A fellow of a research centre might be expected to bring some substantive knowledge and rigorous critical understanding to an issue. Cousens offered little above the level of downright silliness.

Environment and energy minister Josh Frydenberg and Victorian premier Daniel Andrews made more considered contributions, but neither showed any knowledge of the critical aspects of what is happening in Washington. The other member of the panel, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, is a sixteen-year-old climate activist from Boulder Colorado, renowned for his powerful and precocious talents as a speaker, but they were not on display here. He was too much on-message, and not agile or authoritative enough to take command of the discussion.

Given what is at stake in the United States – spelt out so clearly in the Four Corners program – it is utterly irresponsible for our national broadcaster to feature speakers on a major current affairs program who aren’t equipped to address issues in a knowledgeable and insightful way. In the follow-up inaugural episode of Q&A Extra, Tracey Holmes and Georgina Downer took viewers’ comments on climate change, immigration and right-wing populism. The discussion was meandering and rather flat. Perhaps the format will enable some more dynamic interaction with the wider audience, but this is the bargain basement of the opinion trade, and the bottom is falling out of the market.

At this critical juncture, when public intelligence is at risk of being drowned in the propaganda swamp, all this opinion-mongering can only make things worse. Monday Monday, can’t trust that day. •

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Nothing for the casualities of globalisation: Cory Bernardi speaks to the media after announcing his defection from the Liberal Party at Parliament House yesterday. Mick Tsikas/AAP Image

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