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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

Twitter + politics « Previous | |Next »
November 27, 2009

Twitter is definitely the space to be in if you want to follow the flow of the unfolding events in the fracturing Liberal Party's meltdown this week. The journalists were reporting from Parliament and now from interviews in Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra --the Senate is still debating the ETS. This technology allows political junkies to follow, and comment on, both what is being said by whom about the unfolding events, and the political assemblages being put together to link the different factions across the ETS schism.

The media, like us bloggers, then update a few hours latter online by pulling some of the different flows together with commentary. Twitter has changed journalism. As Julie Posetti points out at her J-Scribe:

There is currently real journalistic value in Twitter. And that value is not best extracted by dropping into others’ sites as a non-user, but in creating a journalistic identity for yourself on the platform; by making new connections outside your professional and personal silos; by genuinely engaging with followers – not just using the medium as another broadcast device....Twitter is entrenching the new news order: where the top-down model of information delivery presided over by an elite few is being swapped for peer-to-peer delivery on online social networking sites …the story-tellers are among us and they’re setting their own news agenda

Who to follow on Twitter? Peter Black makes some suggestions. In his article at Unleashed Alex Bruns acknowledges the significance of Twitter for journalists:
The instant updates, the direct access to sources, the ad hoc exchanges which Twitter and similar services enable can be a powerful addition to the journalistic toolkit, and a significant means for informing and mobilising the masses - for alerting them of a need to flee devastating bushfires or for organising them in street protests against the stolen Iranian elections, to name just two recent examples.

This points to the potential for the deepening the links between journalism and liberal democracy. However, Bruns argues that the journalist's practice in Australia during the meltdown of Liberal Party was different to the bushfires and the Iranian street protests.

His reservations are with the technology itself on the context of the journalism practised by the Canberra Press Gallery. He says:

By enabling an instantaneous, downright hyperactive mode of communication as it does, there's a danger that Twitter will further emphasise process over substance. In the right hands, it is an important tool for tracking the Zeitgeist, checking information, and accessing a wide range of sources quickly and easily; in the hands of a journalist who is already struggling with time pressures and the need to produce copy, however, there is a real fear that the independent, fearless analysis and interpretation of events which should be at the heart of journalistic work will fall further by the wayside.

This is probably right. But, as Bruns implies there are journalists and journalists within the Canberra Press Gallery. Some report on events (news) and some write op-eds (commentary) whilst some can tweet regularly and do an analysis of events by providing an overview of the state of play or interpret the politics behind the surface events.

Bruns unpacks what he means by process over substance:

...much of the journalism Australians were able to witness this week was just that - a breathless coverage of process, a counting and recounting of who said what and which side appeared to have the votes, rather than a serious engagement with the substance of the CPRS bill, the amendments being added, and the wider context of Australia's response to the threat of climate change. Lateline and all the other shows reporting on the political events of the day did little more than repeat - retweet - the pithy comments which journalists and others had already made to each other as they day unfolded.

True, once again. But then the ETS was a political response to global warming by theALP, and one designed to place maximium pressure on Malcolm Turnbull's leadership deepen the fractures within a divided Liberal party and ensure a big Rudd victory in 2010. It was not designed to reduced greenhouse emissions as it was captive to the fossil fuel industry from its early days.

The constant pressure from the Rudd Government in the form of taunts, ridicule and mocking denigration worked ---the Liberal Party imploded over the McFarlane ETS deal and Turnbull's determination to modernize the Liberal Party by bringing it into the 21st century. The politics of the implosion caused by the revolt of the conservatives is the story.

Now Bruns digs deeper as he links the chattering surface journalism to a flaw with the Canberra Press Gallery itself. He says:

Such failings are excusable in the face of the extraordinary political theatre which is playing out at the moment, perhaps, but unfortunately they are not confined to a handful of such special days - even at the best of times, much of the Canberra commentariat generally appears to be more interested in reporting the latest leadership machinations within opposition ranks than in providing an insightful critique of government policy. And there's also a danger that the tweetback loop between politicians, pundits, and journalists becomes even more self-contained, even more disconnected from everyday life.

True, once again with respect to the way that the journalism of the Canberra Press gallery is more leadership politics rather than insightful critique of government policy. However, the Liberal Party implosion does conjoin policy and leadership in that the Minchin conservatives are opposed to climate change, an ETS and Malcolm Turnbull.

The vacuum around 'insightful critique' in the public sphere has given rise to political blogging and the emergence of online journalism that goes behind the headlines. Journalism has stepped beyond the old confines of the Canberra Press Gallery and the feedback loop has been ruptured by different outside voices joining the conversation.

And it is a conversation that is happening, not just broadcasts from those on high.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 12:11 PM | | Comments (13)


I can't agree with Axel's fear that "fearless analysis and interpretation of events which should be at the heart of journalistic work will fall further by the wayside."

Tweets end up incorporated into analysis as smaller parts of the broader picture. People use Twitter to trade examples of analysis. Chris Uhlmann said yesterday that you don't take a given tweet as gospel - rather they lead to further checking.

Yes, there is a bubble of tweeting mps, journos and others, but it's not an isolated bubble.

You're not going to find much in the way of insightful critique on Twitter. But insightful critique does get linked on Twitter, and Twitter contributes to insightful critique.

As always, the political theatre is grabbing attention at the moment, but it hasn't even started to ebb yet and we're already seeing some hefty consideration of how this fits into our broader political system and whether the destruction of the Liberals was the entire point of the CPRS, considering it's clearly not about reducing pollution.

Thanks for this - and yes, fair point about the real intent of the ETS...

But I think the malaise goes well beyond the specific current issues, where clearly there is a lot of process to report - I'd suggest that generally, we've seen an increasing focus in Australian journalism of reporting process over substance. In the Unleashed article, I mention the Australian mainstream news media's near-complete refusal to report anything of substance from the 2020 Summit as one example - most of the coverage there was about the use of butchers' paper, from what I've seen, and made no contribution to the very real question of where we want to see this country positioned in the future...

And I agree with you that that lack of deeper analysis is a gap being filled (to some extent) by political blogs, but it's a sad reflection on Australian mainstream journalism if they're abdicating this responsibility to the bloggers !

Bruns is making a general statement about the Canberra Press Gallery and overlooking the differences within the Gallery. I thought that there was a consensus on Twitter that the ETS scheme was deeply flawed; that it had given rise to a culture of rent seeking and entitlement from business; that Rudd had been captured by the coal lobby and the emission-intensive , trade -exposed (EITE) industry; and that it would do very little to drive change.

A taken-for granted assumption was the enormous influence of big business on politics--both Labor and Liberal. Another was the necessity to shift away from energy generated by cheap and plentiful coal.

So you have a tacit critique embedded in the flow of tweets.

The 'tacit' bit is probably something to think about. You do find yourself taking some things for granted, and possibly not looking for them in analyses. I do anyway.

That embedded critique is practically absent from media coverage, even though it's there in even Barnaby Joyce's critique.

re your statement:

But I think the malaise goes well beyond the specific current issues, where clearly there is a lot of process to report - I'd suggest that generally, we've seen an increasing focus in Australian journalism of reporting process over substance. In the Unleashed article, I mention the Australian mainstream news media's near-complete refusal to report anything of substance from the 2020 Summit as one example - most of the coverage there was about the use of butchers' paper, from what I've seen, and made no contribution to the very real question of where we want to see this country positioned in the future...

I fully agree with this.This is standard operating procedure--surface party politics rather than policy analysis. One reason for this is that many journos in the Canberra Press Gallery do not know much about the policy areas and so just reword government or publicity media releases.

I cannot see this changing with News Ltd or Fairfax because the commercial pressures on the bottom line of newspapers and broadcasters and the savage cutbacks on staff and resources. Hence the vacuum or gap. It is the gap that generates the emergence of what is missing, and the ABC plans to fill the gap with its greater commitment of digital commentary centre that, presumably, builds on the success of Unleashed.

Will that facilitate the ongoing conversation about public issues? We will have to wait and see but I hope so. The blogs haven't achieved this as was once expected---they've become niche players with little conversation between them. The conversation that does happen on Twitter. That is where the Canberra Press Gallery has engaged with the social media and where the journalists are reskilling to engage with an audience now into user generated content, rather than broadcast their opinions to a passive audience.

Maybe the conversation on public issues will flow out from Twitter?

I agree with the case of the 2020 summit coverage as well. Although there is some grounds for the argument that the summit itself was window dressing. That was also another case where blogs did all the debating over possibilities for the future while the news covered whatshername's baby.

I wonder whether some of the stuff raised at the summit would have been taken more seriously if participants had been twittering the thing.

Alex Brun's op-ed on Unleashed is an example of something filling the vacuum left by process over substance. The ABC is hosting this new kind of writing --an analysis of what is happening rather than a description.

We need more of this and on different platforms to Unleashed.

Twitter would have changed the tone of the reception of 2020. Judging by what happens with Canberra Press Gallery's critical tweets during question time (in both the House and Senate) the journo's would have been much more critical of the process and the content.They speak more personally on Twitter and more critical of the strategy of both parties at QT.

For some reason journos have taken to Twitter like ducks to water--especially the ABC journos---- and they find "micro blogging" a very useful way to communicate with others. What has emerged is the shift to communication as a conversation that wanders here and there depending on the flow of events.

Is it useful to relate an impression of the debate just on Lateline tonight, between Laura Tingle, the small "c" Fairfax journo, and (alleged) academic Peter van Onselem, speculating on all the drama and excitement of Abbott's and Minchins machination relative to Turnbull.
Van Onselem had nothing better to contribute than a recitiation of the Murdoch line (all Turnbull's fault for not brownnosing the medeivalists, etc ).
Because in between the clinical dissection of every spin angle that Van Onselem proffered, at the end Tingle made a quiet comment involving the fact that with events seemingly happening so fast, no one had had seemed to have to time to think about what was really happening and what was driving it.
It's just that, passing thru for a quick read, I wonder about whether those better informed than me could suggest whether prospective twitterisation of this week's events caused a slippage of context for the wider public and whether this is just a side effect of twitterisation, or some thing new manipulated as a tool by pro spinners, to help the issue avoid demonstrating to the public what the public really needs to know.
Eg What appear to be confused events, during which which much "heroism" from the denialists,seems to emerge from anempty space, for example and the denigration of Turnbull as somehow "abusive" because he wouldn't kiss the denialist butt, as a watermuddying act to draw attention away from a serious issue of climate change and also, the mental fitness of the oposition to govern, even if it were right on climate change.

I would have been more interested in what 2020 participants would have said than journalists.

News is a niche market to start with, and I suspect that social media fractures the news market even further. News and politics junkies can now drown themselves in news 24/7 from a wider range of sources, but people who never watched Lateline to start with would be getting even less news, let alone analysis or broader pictures.

When we refer to the public, or the public sphere, or public debate, we would do well to remember that the internet provides alternatives to news and debate. So what Laura Tingle said last night is irrelevant if you prefer funny home videos on YouTube.

We talk about what the public needs to know, but what about what the public wants to know? If people judge recent developments to be pointless crap, they'd be right. But how would you go about convincing people to wade through that crap to get to deeper consideration of climate change policy and the crisis in our political system while the headlines are all screaming crap?

I don't think Twitter can be blamed for any slippage. Tabloidisation did that long ago.

Concur entirely.
Pure Roland Barthes, or was it Baudrillard.
Have a beaut neighbour, but when we had a conversation during the latest boat people crisis she couldn't relate more to the thing than through a very, very vague and vaguely fearful Hansonist lens.
No malice, just a tinge of fear and suspicion.
But walking away I felt stunned.

David Speers, the political editor of Sky News, highlights the signiifance of Twitter on politics in Australia.

last week we saw Twitter seriously step up to the plate in Australian political reporting for the first time.New developments, big and small, along with pithy comments were constantly "tweeted" by plugged in journalists around the clock. While still relying on party sources for major developments, I picked up a lot of good information from journalists I trust on Twitter.

He adds that there's also an interesting spirit of information sharing among competing journalists. Pieces of information are put together like a collective puzzle and over the past week.

Speers says that he's been more of a consumer than a contributor to this puzzle because hosting live television on Sky News limits tweeting opportunities.

Peter Van Onselen comments in the Australian on Twitter and Politics in Australia:

By posting stories on various platforms, to a certain extent journalists become players in the events unfolding. After all, the politicians with their internet-connected mobiles in hand can see how the events are being interpreted right at the point where they are in the throws of debate.To be sure, no journalist should get too carried away with the impact they might have on events. But not to acknowledge at least some impact would be the journalistic equivalent of being a climate change denier.

He adds that when journalists try to get material into the public domain at a rapid pace:
they can sometimes find themselves reflecting rather than interpreting the information coming their way.Most journalists have a pretty healthy level of scepticism about what politicians tell them, but real time lowers the bar.

The first level of worked out interpretations comes from bloggers and online journalism during the day