Filtering noise from the real news

14/05/2009 - 00:00


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A lot of talk but little action seems to be the order of the day.

Filtering noise from the real news

I'M writing this editorial in the lead-up to the federal government's annual budget but I've got no intention of commenting or speculating on the fiscal outlook.

Far more noteworthy is the manner in which the airwaves and newspapers have been bombarded with carefully planned pre-budget leaks, speculative stories and lengthy analysis.

And, disturbingly, there have been numerous stories that are a vague and unknown blend of all of the above, leaving the reader none the wiser as to what is really going on in Canberra.

This bombardment has grown in intensity over the past month, to the point where many people are thoroughly exhausted by the saturation coverage (of an event that hasn't even happened as I write these words).

How much reader appetite will be left for the 24-page and 36-page budget lift-outs in most newspapers?

There are two major factors driving this trend. First, Canberra is home to many highly competitive journalists whose job is to write about the nation's political machinations, irrespective of whether anything substantial is going on. Second, the Rudd government is taking the art of orchestrated news management to new highs.

It's very different from the mid 1980s when I worked in Canberra, initially in the Commonwealth Treasury and latter for The Australian Financial Review.

There was always a healthy degree of pre-budget speculation. And we all had vivid memories of veteran TV journalist Laurie Oakes getting his hands on the entire 1980 budget, a couple of days before then treasurer John Howard stood up in parliament to address the nation.

That was a genuine scoop that set the hares running. It also inspired many young journalists, who constantly race to beat their peers to a good story and end up writing wildly speculative stories masquerading as breaking news.

Canberra journalists aren't the only hacks guilty of this, but the hothouse competition in the press gallery means this is a bigger problem in the nation's capital.

Similarly, the Rudd government isn't the only organisation guilty of orchestrating the news, but they have taken it to a new level.

Meanwhile, where is the constructive focus on the really big issues facing the nation?

Let's take global warming, for instance. This was one of the big campaign issues at the last federal election, with Kevin Rudd taking the high moral ground and lambasting his opponents.

A carbon trading scheme was the centerpiece of his government's response, yet those plans have been watered down, revised and delayed to the point where nobody is happy. Environmentalists think the government is weak, and business is unsure how to prepare for a scheme that is poorly defined.

The federal government - and most of the states - have also set renewable energy targets, but usually with targets in the year 2020 or thereabouts, leaving plenty of wriggle room.

In the meantime, what is happening in the real world? Australia still relies overwhelmingly on coal-fired power, ambitious renewable energy projects struggle to gain financial support in a credit-constrained world and nuclear power continues its revival (see page 26).

Let's take another example of news management on a completely different topic.

The federal government gained huge publicity last weekend when it announced plans for paid parental leave. There was wide support for the concept, in part because the government scotched fears that private sector employers may have to carry the cost. (Though it's also worth noting that BHP Billiton announced its own plans last week for paid parental leave, at its own expense.)

But what baffled me was that the government plans to do nothing until after the next federal election.

Considering the way in which carbon trading has unravelled since the last election, how can we take this seriously?

Lots of talk, little action. Stay focused on the real world.


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