Is there anything more depressing than a media scrum and the press conference that follows it when a politician is being pursued today? At the Addison Road Community Centre in Marrickville I witness the background reality to how politics is played out for the public’s so-called benefit – looking into a glass bowl full of piranhas pursuing their ‘Gotcha’ moments and simplistic ‘angle’ journalism.
A large bus rolls in and out they spill. The well-dressed and the grungy, with their cameras, recording devices and microphones, all jostle and confidence as they hurry to secure positions before the arrival of the candidate who might well be our next Prime Minister, ALP leader Anthony Albanese.
The media sets up around the back of a large hall – converted into the Addi Road Food Relief Hub during the pandemic lockdowns and still operating in the wake of the floods up north and continued economic struggles across Sydney. It’s a visible example things are tough, signalling how community organisations are doing much of the heavy lifting the government is failing to do. A location chosen for those very obvious reasons.
A few television journalists begin practicing their lines for the cameras. They will deliver the same lines after the press conference as the ones they were rehearsing before. Why would they change anything in their script unless something radically unexpected occurred?
It’s here in Marrickville, the heart of his local electorate of Grayndler, that Anthony Albanese will stump for an address on the campaign trail. Supposedly, it’s meant to focus attention on inequality and labour rights in Australia. Some are more interested in such issues than others.
“Anthony Albanese is playing it safe in his home electorate…” Does I look better saying it here? “Anthony Albanese is playing it safe in his home electorate…” How about I try over there? The background might work better. “Anthony Albanese is playing it safe in his home electorate…” Many stabs later the journalist finally gets it just right.
Negatively characterised as a figure captured by the interests of inner city elitists, Albo makes the point that Grayndler contains the greatest number of boarding houses of any electorate of Australia. Plenty of battlers living here; plenty of down and almost out. On top of them are those Albanese refers to as “the working poor”, the casually employed who can barely keep up with their rents. Then there are the families who find themselves sliding out of their once secure and comfortable middle class lifestyles into something very uncertain. It’s a frightened world out there and with good reason.
The story of Albo’s beginnings as the only child of a single mother in a housing commission home has become so familiar it can feel a little wrote when he retells it. But today he alludes to his mother having to come down her stairs “on her bum”, step by step every morning, her body wracked by arthritis, living with her disability unheralded for years. The story has a hint of anger to it, and that is no bad thing. It’s a reminder Albanese really is from a working class background that was never easy, and that ‘having a go’ did not come with silver spoon encouragement.
It’s worth noting that Albanese does quietly visit Addi Road without a press retinue. And that he does take an interest as our local member in the community centre and its work, from packing emergency hampers to launching a public school arts exhibition. Meeting him on such occasions you get an encouraging sense that somewhere inside the hard Labor machine man there are loyalties from childhood that have not evaporated entirely into his ambitions.
You also get an insight to his character that never boded well for the campaign trail: that he is much better at five minutes of conversation than those rehearsed sound-bites and slogans that fall like deadwood from his mouth. Since his car accident and weight loss and general health improvements, he nonetheless seems fresher, faster and more energetic, less weary in mood and speech than the perpetually tired figure of the past. There’s some speculation a recent bout of Covid may have impaired his synaptic alertness and rhetorical skills slightly, and fears that although he is back on the campaign trail and looking fit after the previous week’s illness and isolation, he is still be recovering mentally. For this he will be made to pay.
The background whispers away from the cameras is that journalists affiliated with Murdoch have been told to amp up the pressure and force errors in Albanese’ game, especially now he is vulnerable. Punish him on details; irritate and harangue him; make him crack and stumble. Naturally the right side of the media gives Scott Morrison a much kinder game. Of course, left-leaning and progressive media approach Morrison with a similar critical zest too, but there is a little less vindictive and strategic organisation to their approach.
Down at Addi Road the media pack, right and left, mingle like old friends inside the same fish tank. One senses ‘the Canberra corruption’ in their demeanour, the way a proximity to power has over-inflated almost everyone’s sense of importance. You lose confidence in all those involved. It’s akin to seeing an algorithm come to life and acted out, and – whatever your political persuasion – the embodiment of such biases is most discouraging.
As proceedings open there is very little interest in poverty, inequality, climate crises, jobs, health, education, housing… anything of substance whatsoever. Predictably, there is much focus on Albanese’s recent stumbles and a hunger to make more occur. A great effort is made to get under his skin. From whoa-to-go it becomes a meaningless theatre, enacted to service headlines and sell papers, to fit radio and television grabs, and bring in audience clickbait. This is the driving focus behind the ‘questions’.
While a media circle tightens around Albanese, another circle outside the scrum begins to become impatient. These are the charity volunteers and curious locals who’ve arrived to check out the action. A partisan audience mostly in Albo’s favour, to be sure. But as questions get emptier and more persistently combative, one senses the rage of the public rising against the media. I wonder to myself how unpleasant that could get over time?
Many people have long ago lost all trust in the media. Others will wonder why I am surprised by what I witness happening; or argue every election cabaret has worked this way. But seeing the sheer density of the cynicism, stupidity and arrogance of the press pack is something to behold.
Afterwards a major journalist tells me the press conference the day before was “even worse. To be honest it made me ashamed of being a journalist.” Another leading media figure says he feels “disgusted”. Though hardly a heavyweight reporter, I’ve spent forty years of my own life freelancing across the arts and features sections of papers and I have to say I felt much the same.
One expects that a circus of this kind might still contain the cream of Australian journalism as well as all the usual barnacles and sensation hounds. But if this is the state of top-tier political journalism in Australia it is a very disturbing measure..
I sensed a media in crisis, a profession that seems to have lost its way entirely. Worse still, a Fourth Estate, the very eye of democracy, so mediocre and corrupted it was offering us nothing as a country. No cool objectivity, no serious analytical probing, only opinion-driven editorial stands and service to the house of bias and clicks.
It was clear to me there were very few individuals working in top-tier political journalism who were actually interested in engagement or depth when it came to generating responses from the ALP’s Prime Minister material candidate. I say this as someone concerned with not just with my own political interests, but for the state of analysis and thought in terms of where we might go in public conversation.
It’s been a grimly superficial run since the day I describe now. ‘The eye of democracy.’ That phrase goes round and round in my mind. The media really should be ashamed at the level of its conduct and its willingness to turn everything into a product… forsaking labour rights, health, housing, education and indeed our children’s future as well.