Odds and sods – part 1

The blog is taking a break and will be back in June. Meanwhile over the next few days it will publish some odds and sods of material collected over recent times.

The state of contemporary journalism

These days much media coverage of most issues is skewed by Pavlovian responses.

You get some of the detail, little of the context and a false sense of balance when the rational is contrasted with the ridiculous.

Recently one of Australia’s leading issues management scholars and commentators, Tony Jaques, passed on a thought which sums up the problem: “I remember reading once that if today’s media had been around 2,000 years ago they would have given us a blow by blow description of the crucifixion and completely missed the significance of Christianity.

Some elements of the media are starting to bell the cat on the issue. Christopher Warren writing in crikey (1/5) cited US journalist Wesley Lowery who derides the ‘paint-by-the-numbers balance’ of contemporary journalism and asked – is this a problem here in Australia?

“Peter Dutton is attempting to shut Australian media out of the feel-good bipartisan acceptance of the Uluru Statement from the Heart by locking the opposition into rejecting the Indigenous Voice to Parliament. And in trying to make it party-political, he’s trapping the media to ‘both-sides’ the debate along the fissures of the traditional Labor-Liberal divide,” Warren said.

“It’s time, says US journalist Wesley Lowery in a key essay in Columbia Journalism Review, to abandon “performative neutrality, paint-by-the-numbers balance, and thoughtless deference to government officials”.

Denis Muller, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Advancing Journalism, The University of Melbourne, cited some pushback by journalists saying: “A good example was the challenge on Melbourne commercial radio 3AW by Tony Jones to Sussan Ley, deputy leader of the Liberal Party, who opportunistically seized on the approach of Anzac Day to say the Voice could seek to alter Australia’s national public holidays.”

“The worst of the reporting does not impose even these tests. An example was a front-page story in The Australian, amplified by Sky News, in which Opposition Leader Peter Dutton said the Voice could offer advice on interest rates.”

Powerful pharmacists?

 In the 2002 book on lobbying in Australia, The Influence Seekers, Peter Sekuless contributed a chapter entitled, The Pharmacy Guild: A case study of Australia’s most powerful lobbyist.

He cites The Power Index, an online `newsletter focussing on ‘Who really runs Australia’ claiming the “president of the Pharmacy Guild of Australia is the most powerful lobbyists in Australia” – more powerful than the Australian Industry Group and the mining industry.

The Index essentially measures who speaks out in the media so has its limitations. But its finding was sort of conventional wisdom in Canberra for some time.

The Albanese Government is testing the continuing validity of this view by increasing current 30-day supply to 60 days for patients with stable but ongoing conditions. This was a recommendation of clinical experts at the independent pharmaceutical benefits advisory committee in 2018, but the measure was not implemented by the former Coalition government.

It is estimated that general patients will save quite a lot with the measure. Needless to say, the Pharmacy Guild announced it would run a major campaign against the plan. On a visit to our local pharmacy this week the major campaign seemed to be two photostatted A4 posters attacking the PM and his ‘irresponsible action’.

None of the staff in the pharmacy mentioned the poster or the campaign – possibly because they were just too busy for any conversations beyond the chat about the medicines and information about what you owed.

If the Influence Seekers goes to a second edition would any chapter on the Guild be the same?

Science and objectivity

In October 2020, Nature endorsed Joe Biden for president of the United States. It was not the first time it had endorsed a candidate for a country’s highest elected office as they also did in the recent Brazilian election nor were they the only scientific publication to do so. But why does Nature cover politics?

“Influential political voices are eschewing rigorous evidence and interfering with or undermining the functioning of independent judicial and regulatory bodies that rely on rigorous science and evidence. This has been noticeable in other countries, too, including Brazil, India, Hungary and the United Kingdom. It’s hard to know whether this is a long-term trend or global phenomenon, or something specific to certain places and circumstances. These are questions that researchers are investigating. Scientists are also testing strategies for ways to bridge the political divide”, the Nature editorial said.

However, it is clear not even objective analysis and recommendation can change some people’s mind as a recent Nature Human Behaviour study has suggested that Nature’s 2020 endorsement led many supporters of now former president Donald Trump to lose trust in science and in Nature as a source of evidence-based knowledge based on a randomized experiment involving 4,260 US adults, carried out in mid-2021, during the COVID-19 pandemic, by Floyd Zhang at Stanford University in California.

…and they died for their belief.

It’s deadly to be a Trump Republican

 A September 2022 working paper on excess death rates for Republicans and Democrats found that: “Political affiliation has emerged as a potential risk factor for COVID-19, amid evidence that Republican-leaning counties have had higher COVID-19 death rates than Democrat- leaning counties and evidence of a link between political party affiliation and vaccination views. This study constructs an individual-level dataset with political affiliation and excess death rates during the COVID-19 pandemic via a linkage of 2017 voter registration in Ohio and Florida to mortality data from 2018 to 2021.

“We estimate substantially higher excess death rates for registered Republicans when compared to registered Democrats, with almost all of the difference concentrated in the period after vaccines were widely available in our study states. Overall, the excess death rate for Republicans was 5.4 percentage points (pp), or 76%, higher than the excess death rate for Democrats. Post- vaccines, the excess death rate gap between Republicans and Democrats widened from 1.6 pp (22% of the Democrat excess death rate) to 10.4 pp (153% of the Democrat excess death rate).

“The gap in excess death rates between Republicans and Democrats is concentrated in counties with low vaccination rates and only materializes after vaccines became widely available.”

Oh well there is probably a good side to this – the US gene pool might be better as a result.

Defence nonsense

 Regular readers might recall the evidence the blog and its friend John Phillips gave to the Joint Standing Committee inquiry investigating war powers reform including the suggestion that the Defence Department evidence should be discounted on the basis that an organization unable to provide troops with the resources on time, on budget and able to be effectively deployed had little credibility.

Needless to say the committee was nobbled from the outset by the Albanese Government ruling out any change.

Tony Jaques, who as well as being an issues management expert is also a distinguished military historian who published a monumental Dictionary of Battles and Sieges, recently emailed saying that he had read the Defence submission and noted its comment that:

An informed parliamentary decision-making process would require access to sensitive information and generate risks to ADF operational security and key intelligence relationships.

 He asked: “And this argument holds water? And it explains why Colin Powell stood in front of the UN with photographs and PPT to justify Iraq had WMD and why the US et al should invade? One wonders how the CDF could let such a flaky doc out of the Dept.”