The blogger, the press pack and that speech

With the ACT election just over, a Federal election looming, and the US election this very week, it seems like a good time to review a couple of books that inhabit that world: The Marmalade Files by press gallery journalists Steve Lewis (News Ltd tabloid national correspondent) and Chris Uhlmann (political editor of the ABC’s 7.30); and The Rise of the Fifth Estate: social media and blogging in Australian politics by Greg Jericho (political blogger Grog’s Gamut).

The latter, a non-fiction work with elements of memoir, was issued by independent Australian publisher Scribe in September, the former, a work of fiction, by HarperCollins imprint Fourth Estate in late July. Both are worth a read if you are interested in Australian matters of state.

Sometimes, like the during the week of Julia Gillard’s sensational misogyny speech last month, I become a little obsessed with politics, watching every minute of 7.30, Lateline and the Insiders and tracking events live via Twitter types like Latika Burke (@latikambourke).

Speaking of favourite women political commentators, how fascinating is Annabel Crabb’s Kitchen Cabinet series, with its one-on-one, in their own homes over a kitchen stove/dining table interviews with our most memorable politicians? Can you believe Barnaby Joyce served her a meat with meat dish on this week’s episode, knowing she’s a vegetarian (and pregnant at that)? As a fellow pregnant vego, watching him chopping up all that animal flesh made me feel a little ill on her behalf.

After two stints working at Parliament House, I know that in between all of the buzz and intrigue sits a whole lot of dullness plus some serious nastiness. Dipping in via mainstream or social media is quite enough for me.

On that topic, it has been infuriating to watch senior journalists like Uhlmann and Financial Review editor Michael Stutchbury react to criticism of the mainstream media’s coverage of the mind-blowingly powerful Gillard speech. Most Australian newspapers and television reports paid little attention to the speech, focusing instead on the other events of that day, including the resignation of then-Speaker Peter Slipper.

Social networks and the rest of the world’s mainstream media, meanwhile, were all about Gillard’s 15-minute showstopper. It’s been watched more than two million times on YouTube. That’s at least three times as many viewers as the ABC’s 7.30, and doesn’t include the number who watched it live.

Uhlmann and Stutchbury were among many who played down the significance of the speech. Stutchbury said on The Insiders, “This rant, it goes around the world, it’s a bit of a social media thing, but it will turn people off … I think she’ll get a lot of negative feedback …

“Most of society, most of the suburbs out there are your John Howard full-time working breadwinner and a part-time working mother. Society is not like either what’s in Parliament House or on a lot of the social media sites.”

No? No part-time working mums on social media sites? HELLOOOOO. Has Stutchbury ever visited Twitter or Facebook? Or read any of the hundreds and hundreds of blogs written by Australian mums of all political views?

Uhlmann said, “[The speech has] won plaudits from around the world, but it was based on a very weak foundation … What will matter is how it is received here, and in the suburbs where people live, not among the like-minded in social media’s echo chamber.”).

Because no one who is on social media lives in the suburbs or has varied political views, right?
The whole incident would’ve made an excellent additional chapter to The Marmalade Files and to The Rise of the Fifith Estate.

The Marmalade Files is full of ever so slightly tweaked real incidents from Australian political life over the past five years or so, with the addition of a couple of major deviations – the popular foreign minister and former ousted PM falls into a coma, for one. It’s fun joining the dots between the fact and the fiction, especially knowing the authors have plenty of first hand experience with such characters and their machinations. The “thriller” plot isn’t quite as gripping as you might hope, though, in part because the characters remain very cardboard cut-out.

Jessica Rudd’s novels cover similar territory, but are more engaging and I’d recommend them ahead of The Marmalade Files.

Jericho’s book touches on the way politicians use social media, but is largely about exactly the scenario that occurred after Gillard’s speech: the mainstream media’s often defensive and dismissive reaction to the rise of hundreds of competitors in the form of political bloggers and tweeters.

He includes a useful list of Australian political blogs in an appendix, and the book is essential reading for anyone who is struggling to grasp the impact of new digital voices on our political system, or who has been watching developments closely and is keen to learn more.

The chapter “Where are all the women?” examines gender issues in the blogosphere, so Jericho has already delved into sexism and politics. I hope, then, that Scribe will release a new edition including the author’s take on the events of mid-October 2012.

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Charlotte Harper

Charlotte Harper is a Canberra journalist, blogger, editor and publisher who has worked in newspapers, magazines, books and online. She runs digital-first non-fiction publisher Editia and covered book industry developments at before joining A former literary editor of The South China Morning Post, Charlotte has also written about books and technology for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Canberra Times. She once edited a mobile phone and gadget magazine, and is a published author, of a book about digital publishing – Weird Wild Web (Penguin Australia 1999).