Sportsplay journalism

I just took a call from an Australian political journalist whose work I’ve admired since the 1980s. The topic of this journalist’s story for tomorrow’s paper: the politics of the 2020 summit. I did something I’ve never done before, and basically said “why on earth are you writing about this?”.

I’m generally an admirer of the Australian media. On a typical day, I’d take 1-2 media calls, and in my own experience, Australian journalists are a bunch of bright, careful, and diligent people. But for reasons I can’t quite fathom, much of the coverage of the 2020 summit has been abysmal. Day after day has seen stories on whether the invitation list is biased, whether the powerpoint backgrounders are sufficiently comprehensive, and when the submissions are going to be released. With a few exceptions, I’ve seen barely any discussion of actual policy issues. Of course the 2020 summit has flaws, but to only focus on the personalities and organisational stuff seems to me a terrible missed opportunity.

As US academic Gary Orren once wrote:

This type of coverage focuses alternately on strategy and tactics (‘inside baseball’), the leaders’ missteps (‘gotcha journalism’), or what the news ‘really means’. Invariably, though, the interpretation and commentary presumes to lift the curtain on the wizard and reveal the charlatan behind it.

Perhaps the coverage I’m complaining about is a feature of leadup coverage, and we’re about to move from sportsplay journalism into substantive analysis. I don’t mind a bit of discussion of the politics of the summit, but if it entirely crowds out a debate about the country’s future, it would be an opportunity lost.

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6 Responses to Sportsplay journalism

  1. Mark Davis says:


    You make a good point about the shortcomings of the news coverage.

    As a working journalist, can I offer one explanation for those shortcomings?

    Maybe there has little reportage of the substance of the summit (the ideas) because the organisers have not released any information about the substance.

    As of Thursday night, the most comprehensive source for the ideas statements lodged by the 1000 participants remains your own blog where you have posted statements by around a dozen participants. The summit organisers have not released publicly any of the statements.

    Journalism, like nature, abhors a vacuum. So, with no information available about the substance, news coverage has focussed instead on the other issues you mention.

  2. Mark is exactly right. The Victorian reception for participants on Tuesday night was held in half-dark at the Melbourne Museum, and that was entirely appropriate given the very limited information we’ve been given about how this thing is to run.

    I found out at lunchtime today that the productivity / education stream will have sub-streams – a really basic organisational detail.

    And this morning our session was told one of our conclusions by the PM.

    With nice weather forecast this weekend in Melbourne, the opportunity cost of being stuck in Parliament House in Canberra for two days is steadily rising…

  3. Guy says:

    There does seem to be a bit of a focus on the negative at the moment when it comes to the summit. Perhaps that has partially been given succour by the Rudd Government’s lacklustre communications and marketing in relation to it, but I also think it would be nice to see a bit more public brainstorming about the future of the country in the media, given the opportunity presented.

    There’s around 1000 folks out there in particular who the government thinks should have a few ideas worth airing – why can’t we see the media get the jump on a lot of these people’s ideas and get them splashed across dining tables and lounge rooms across the nation?

  4. Guy – But the way these ideas will probably be presented – very briefly, with little argument or evidence – means that they are unlikely to convince anyone who isn’t already convinced. Any outcomes will just reflect the prior conventional wisdom among people in the group.

  5. Labor Outsider says:


    I don’t want to be too critical here – especially as I quite enjoy reading your blog. However, I think your attitude to the summit is a little naive.

    I think it is great that you are so engaged with ideas that may improve Australia’s prosperity, but it is highly debatable whether the 2020 summit will make a useful contribution.

    Think about it. The government has released very little substantive information about the summit itself.

    Many delegates appear to have been chosen for political correctness reasons rather than an ability to meaningfully contribute to debate.

    The background papers are truly appalling (they look like they were written by undergradutes) and seem designed to lead the summit to confirm much of the government’s existing agenda (there are two pages in the economy background paper devoted to broadband and none to taxation).

    There will be no time for substantive debate about the proposals – which means that those that go forward will reflect the current progressive consensus on these issues (just look at the ideas that came out of the ACT summit and the youth summit, which together implied a substantial expansion in the size of government and may as well have been written by the NUS or Young Labor).

    The 2020 summit continues the government’s emphasis on the politics of symbolism. If they cared about substance, and were truly concerned with “evidence based” policy, they would have narrowed the summit to a small number of specific policy ideas or problems, provided detailed background research for them, and allowed people to thrash out the specifics over the two days.

    As an aside, it is hard for an economist to take a goverment seriously that appoints Steve Bracks to review the future of the automotive industry in Australia, and sidelines the Productivity Commission.

    So, it seems perfectly reasonable for people, including the media, to be sceptical about the summit – including those that genuinely care about Australia’s future prosperity and what the appropriate role for government in contributing to that prosperity is.

  6. Pingback: Australia 2020 Summit - Links (End of Day 1) | Guy Beres

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