Democracy's in trouble with or without Rudd

Feverish with leadership speculation, political journalists have blurred the lines around their role in the democratic process. It does parliament, and their readership, no favours.

Who owns Australia, and who should determine its future? Why its citizens of course (pedants may prefer 'subjects of Her Majesty!').

Parliament House, home to a highly complex set of procedures designed to enshrine the right of citizens to have their voices heard through their elected representatives, is out of balance.

The seriousness of this imbalance cannot be overstated – if, that is, you think democracy is important.

The balance that has been upset is three-cornered. 

The electoral/parliamentary machine with its myriad rules for proper conduct of the 'representative' function is one corner.

Media owners and the journalists they employ are in another corner, aided by an army of unpaid bloggers and tweeters who embarrassingly often publish stories every bit as good as the professionals.

And what's the third corner? It's on the tip of my tongue. Can't quite get it ...

Oh yes! The people; the demos; the voters that journalists are there to serve, just as much as the parliament is there to serve them.

And surely the people are getting tired of the imbalances that have grown during the life of the Gillard government. Those imbalances are all on display in Canberra this week, and manifest through the 'leadership crisis' in the Labor Party.

Today's papers are full of speculation again that the Rudd camp is about to seize power, or that Simon Crean will be made leader once more (it didn't help their polling much last time he took that job, in 2001-2003).

And what could be unbalanced about that? Surely voters have a right to know what's going on?

The trouble is, this is a crisis made as much in the offices of the press gallery as in Labor's Party Room. The backgrounding to journalists by 'senior Labor sources' that has appeared in the Fairfax and News Ltd papers for months is a fact. It happens. However on two occasions the most senior political writers in the country have got the interpretation of this 'fact' completely wrong.

First, in 2010, The Australian newspaper did, indeed, flag the 'knifing' of Kevin Rudd on the weekend before it happened – saying that 'mutineers' were circling. But on the day of the coup, the same paper ran the headline PM's position is secure, party's is not  above a story that stated that "the school of thought that it would be suicide to engineer a leadership change has prevailed". Or so the senior Labor sources said.

There's nothing particularly wrong about all that. Journalists are human, and sometimes make the wrong call. But what happened next was far worse.

In February 2012, Kevin Rudd challenged Prime Minister Gillard, hoping to take back his old job. But Rudd's tactics completely sucked in the nation's top journalists – five reporters were said to be receiving direct briefings from Rudd and his then 'numbers man' Alan Griffin. They were 'senior Labor sources' just as Joel Fitzgibbon might this time around be considered a 'senior' source.

And perhaps because of their seniority, or perhaps because the newrooms in question either collectively liked Rudd (more a feature of the Fairfax papers) or disliked Gillard (an accusation the PM herself directs at News Ltd), the papers ran stories for days in advance making a Rudd coup look not only possible, but highly likely to succeed.

Meanwhile, less 'senior' sources around parliament were telling anyone who'd listen that they simply couldn't abide the thought of working for Rudd again. The ballot was held, and it was shown how wrong several top journalists had got the story – the vote was 71 to 31 in favour of Gillard. As News Ltd papers noted at the time, it was the "biggest win in a Labor leadership ballot in 30 years". So much for senior sources.

The same process is underway right now. Many journalists are repeating the sentiment of a recent Sydney Morning Herald article which, after the thrashing Labor took in the WA poll, asked "Would it help if a skywriter blazed the message in huge white letters across the Canberra skies? ... Federal Labor may be a hopeless case. But it does have one alternative. Its name is Kevin Rudd."

Many journalists believe this. But it does not follow that they are doing the voting public any favours by repeating it. Journalists are not neutral observers in this case – the more that sentiment is repeated, the more damage is done to Labor's standing in the polls, and, ipso facto, the more likely a Rudd coup becomes. Journalists, en masse, are voting in the next Labor leader.

Parliament will be a place of high tension today, as ownership of the media is debated in the lower house – at the time of writing it looks as if enough independent votes will side with Labor to pass the core of the media regulation laws, though that could change. Alongside the regulation stories, the major mastheads will publish leadership stories as fast as they can be generated.

All exciting stuff for readers. But the delicate balance of voter/MP/journalist is out of kilter. Even a decisive win by Rudd – that is, journalists 'getting it right' – won't change that.

Let's have elections to choose our representatives; the ruling party to choose its own leader; and our media-owners/journalists to tell the voters what's happening, without fear or favour.

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