Does the media neglect policy?

BRT - Backpacker Rapid Transit (H/T #Bustration)

In this short clip, Jon Faine from ABC 774 takes Victoria’s Transport Minister, Terry Mulder, to task for point-scoring over the Regional Rail Link (RRL). Despite criticising the proposed new $4.2 billion rail line while in opposition, the Baillieu Government has finally announced that the project will nevertheless go ahead.

You’ve got to admire Jon Faine’s persistence in hammering away at the theme of hypocrisy. The Minister is shamelessly milking the “blame it on the last lot” mantra well beyond its ‘use by’ date and Faine accordingly seems determined to make him pay for his back-flip. Straight up, Faine asks: “You criticised (the RRL) in opposition and now you’re rubber-stamping it and the price goes up, how come?”. Then towards the end of the interview Faine sums up the situation:

So in other words the bottom line is you opposed a program in opposition that you now endorse in government; you said it wasn’t needed and now it is; it was gonna cost $4 billion, it’s now gonna cost a bit more because you’re including the cost of the trains when before you weren’t and two underpasses which hadn’t been factored in; other than that it doesn’t sound as if it was that far off target at all

That’s all well and good. However the trouble is it’s the only issue Faine addresses. He doesn’t address the substance of the RRL. He’s not interested in the main benefits – more peak hour train services in the west – the Minister says the project will deliver. He doesn’t ask if it will be money well spent or whether there might be better projects the money could be spent on. He doesn’t pursue the claim made by some that the same objectives could be achieved at substantially lower cost, or that Geelong commuters will have to travel further, or that neither of the two new stations will have electrified services.

Of course it’s very important that the media calls politicians to account on matters like hypocrisy, but there’s also a question of balance. The appetite of the media for issues of behaviour – by which I mean proprieties and manners, ethics, honesty and dishonesty, hypocrisy, corruption, law breaking, broken promises and such like – crowds out consideration of the substance of policy. Once a hot story about bad behaviour takes flight, there’s not much space for anything else to get off the ground.

Much as I detest spin, I think assessing the quality of the RRL is vastly more important than skewering the Minister (who I think actually might have a point about costs – but that’s another issue). As a general rule, I’d like to see the media look harder at whether policies actually achieve their stated objectives and whether there are unintended consequences. I’d like to see more attention given to who wins and who loses and to the opportunity cost of programs and projects. Even investigative journalism gives much of its focus to catching out liars, frauds, cheats, bribe-takers, incompetents, charlatans and criminals. That’s important, but my feeling is there’s not enough room left for looking at whether programs and projects are actually worth doing in the first place.

Some will say that the substance of policy is dull stuff compared to the excitement and performance of bad or incompetent behaviour. I don’t agree. I think that’s more a failure of journalistic imagination than of the subject matter. Investing billions in a project or program that doesn’t work or rewards some at the expense of others has plenty of potential for drama.

I suspect one reason journalists focus on behaviour is because the cost of acquiring specialist knowledge is too high, so many focus on generic knowledge. Once a journalist has mastered the basics of morality, he or she can apply it to almost any subject area. A story on broken promises or corruption plays out pretty much the same whether it’s in health, business or sport. Fortunately there are some excellent writers who are able to analyse the substance of policy. Even if you disagree with them more often than not, some commentators like Ross Gittins and Saul Eslake focus on content. Some of the best sports journalists can analyse a game or the state of the industry. But far too many give most of their attention to easy stuff like moralising about the latest on-field and off-field outrages of players.

Getting back to the interview, about half way through Faine asks the Minister:

Surely what people want from Government is ……they want infrastructure, they want services rather than endless point scoring. When is it that we get to the point with the Baillieu Government where you stop blaming everything on your predecessors and just get on with doing things?

Well, I would like to see Jon Faine take his own advice and give more attention to infrastructure and services too, and less to scoring points off politicians (the irony!). By all means call the Minister to account for his back-flip but then move on to some salient questions about whether projects like this are good or bad for the city.

I can’t help but think there’s a symmetry here – politicians peddle spin because that’s what the media want. Barrie Cassidy reckons “that modern politics has become corroded by the timidity of governments who are too afraid to offend and too reluctant to persuade”. He wonders if “long term policy development (has) become a casualty in a media contest that has to be won on the day, every day?”.  Fair question, but I hope Barrie asks if the media is complicit in this too.

I’m not meaning to single Jon Faine out as the only culprit – this is an endemic problem in the media in my opinion. In fact I like his style and he’s far better than most. And I think the Government’s decision on the RRL is probably the right one – it’s just that this is the time when the media should be giving priority to testing the rightness of that decision.

7 Comments on “Does the media neglect policy?”

  1. brisurban says:

    How can so much be spent on so little?

    • Alan Davies says:

      And according to the Minister, the cost has gone up from $4.2 billion to $5.1 billion.

      • brisurban says:

        $5.1 billion!

        Alan, what are the potential, cheaper alternatives?

        And given the huge cost of this infrastructure, should people out in that area pay a temporary levy (or council contribution) since they are the ones mainly benefiting from this.

        • Alan Davies says:

          The Ministers says there’s a $880 million “blow out” in costs. Much of this is additional trains. If they have to be purchased to give effect to the additional capacity provided by the new rail line, then I think the Minister has a point when he says the project was under-costed.

          Here is Kenneth Davidson’s argument about cheaper alternatives.

          Here’s my view on some aspects of what public transport users should pay. Re your question about different prices for different geographies, I think not.

  2. Bruce Dickson says:

    Points well made Alan and possibly almost too even handedly.

    If anything, in relation to the ongoing demise of public discourse, education and understanding, you let the media’s role/contribution to the problem off way too lightly. Their failure to ask the questions that matter in all realms of life is the problem.

  3. rohan says:

    Sadly thats what media do – create a headline out of creating an ‘issue’ – sometimes when you read the article, there isnt even a disagreement between the parties ! And sadly this approach means that anyone with an opposite view gets an airing, for instance the few climate change questioners get as much print space as the hundreds of scientists who are sure its real.

  4. david roman says:

    alan to expect the media to be “thorough and painstaking” in researching the policy implications or options or whatever in such interviews is really a big call and possibly unrealistic. While some media commentators, esp the ABC, like to throw the policy debate around in interviews , it usually is pretty trivial and dictated by the length of the response of the politician being interviewed. The media are doing their job really trying to get some “slip up”, some stupid comment etc dare i say embarrassing the politician in terms of their own poor understanding of policy, because the media like the general public believe little of substance is rarely said in such interviews!!

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