Policy arrives at tipping point

Journalists aren't encouraged to think outside the box, so the government needs to change the question.

This is a story about stories. There are lots of reasons why Julia Gillard's government is in trouble at the moment, and many would like to blame the media and Tony Abbott's negativity.

To understand the dynamic, we need to examine the way the media works. To get our analytical functions working, let's start by examining the reporting dynamics of something completely outside politics: the new Joint Strike Fighter.

This is, if you like, the RAAF's equivalent of Labor's ''grand project'' and over the weekend the few planes built have been grounded. A crack has been found in the engine turbine. We're told (when it finally arrives) the JSF will be shiny and magnificent - in fact transformative - but we can't see any technical specifications. They remain classified. A bit like the way Labor is planning to pay for its new projects, and how transformative they will actually be.

Now normally, journalists aren't encouraged to think outside the box. If the government issues a weighty report on, say, our relationship with Asia and announces Hindi will be taught as a priority language, it's not up to reporters to point out that most educated Indians prefer to use English anyway and that the entire idea is pointless and stupid. Until, that is, you arrive at a tipping point.

Four Corners has obviously ''tipped'' when it comes to the military. Last Monday, its report was based on the comfortable assumption the RAAF has decided to buy the wrong plane. It may have - although not for the reasons outlined in the show. Still, when a hugely profitable multinational corporation such as Lockheed Martin cites ''confidentiality'' to a journalist, it's like a red rag to a bull.

Four Corners has built up a reputation allowing it to go head-to-head with massive corporations. Military projects in general have a history of cost overruns, failed designs and waste that provides fertile ground for inquiries. Playing ''find the impending disaster'' is easy, as Labor is realising to its cost. Select something that people care about, add in some facts (that may or may not be relevant) and then jump up and down about mismanagement/waste/general stupidity that's being covered up by your political, business or bureaucratic opponent.


The best journalism does this by offering detailed analysis; carefully weighing up competing facts and uncovering new elements. Unfortunately, most reporting (just like politics) isn't like this. Stories work best when you take the simplest route: amplify criticism. It's much easier to emphasise one part of the story at the expense of another, even if doing this does sometimes require a degree of exaggeration.

Four Corners began accurately, by reporting the JSF is having technical problems, will cost more, and arrive later than scheduled.

But then the program turned tabloid. It showed, for example, pictures of a computer simulation in which great numbers of the new fighters were supposedly being shot down.

The only problem is that nobody - certainly not Four Corners - has any idea of what the actual capabilities of the plane are. So the war-game could just as easily have shown all of the new fighters being destroyed, or none, although perhaps either of these results might have exposed the fundamental flaw in the scenario. Program rubbish in, and you'll get rubbish out.

This was the underlying problem the shallow, simplistic, yet attention-grabbing Four Corners report failed to address. There was certainly no new evidence adduced conclusively to prove there is a crisis lurking around the corner.

In fact, given the eagerness with which the program seemed determined to blacken the plane's reputation together with its inability to do so, I ended up feeling more secure about the purchase than previously.

Until now, the first four generations of fighters have improved on the technical and performance envelopes of previous aircraft. This meant that if a jet turned tighter, flew faster and zoomed higher than an earlier version, odds were it could win a dogfight. Not any more. The whole idea of a fifth-generation fighter is that opponents can't see it.

This is why it's impossible to write the rules for an aerial battle simulation without knowing the exact electronic signature of the new planes.

The point is that we just don't know how the JSF will perform in combat. It does mean that the long sequences in the program showing analysts shaking their heads over the pitiful performance of the aircraft were complete tosh. Not, you understand, that anything they asserted is necessarily wrong. There are real issues concerning the JSF and its embedded concepts that deserve detailed, critical examination. But good television has its own rules to follow. Just like newspaper columns.

Issues that don't fit neatly into the format for a TV show, or easily lend themselves to the use of HUGE CAPITALS in print, probably won't get the treatment they deserve. Instead we revert to comfortable assumptions reinforced by simply grasped stories: the top brass are incompetent, that's why they buy sub-standard aircraft. Corporations are unscrupulous, bureaucrats are hopeless, and politicians (at best) represent a combination of all of these traits.

Which brings us back to Labor and the media. Journalism has rules. Stories work better when contrast is drawn between good and bad.

That's why reports are framed the way they are. Normally reporting reinforces the status quo - until the broader perception of competence is shattered. People who understand the JSF say there are problems with the purchase but they're willing to trust the RAAF.

After five years of government, perceptions of Labor are similarly etched in stone but the media's paradigm is, necessarily and irretrievably, based on ineptitude. The working hypothesis is that the government can't manage money; it is an incapable manager.

Secrecy surrounding the JSF means it will take years before we know if the correct decision was made but we're reminded of the government's failings every day. Abbott has established the new paradigm: Labor can't manage. Until it finds an answer to this question, Labor may as well give up.

Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.