The journalist as courtier: COVID19 edition

Well, certainly wearing a mask walking down the streets of Melbourne makes no sense at all

Brendan Murphy, Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, March 9. 

The philosopher Mary Midgley styles her own writing as that of a critic. She means something urgent by this – not something AcademicInTheBadSense. This publicly available essay is a great read on the subject as usual from my mate Mary, but here’s a passage from elsewhere to give you the sense of it:

Plumbing and philosophy are both activities that arise because elaborate cultures like ours have, beneath their surface, a fairly complex system which is usually unnoticed, but which sometimes goes wrong. In both cases, this can have serious consequences. Each system supplies vital needs to those who live above it. Each is hard to repair when it does go wrong, because neither of them was ever consciously planned as a whole.

In that spirit, I present this close reading of a recent news article by David Speers. He’s an excellent case study because he works hard for his reputation of being even-handed, even in the culture of abusive partisanship that prevailed when he was in the Murdoch stable.

Also, journalists keep up an incredible pace of output which puts me in awe of them. So we shouldn’t judge them by the standards of those who have much more time to consider their view. Nevertheless, Speers’ article presents an excellent example of what I call ‘the journalist as courtier’. My critique amounts to these points which shouldn’t really make much higher cognitive demands on the journalist.

  1. While journalists’ job is to report the doings of power, they should do so in an open-minded and, where appropriate, critical way, particularly when reporting governments’ reasoning.
  2. In reporting disagreements between the government and its inevitable critics, the journalist should be fair to those critics whose points are worth reporting. It is journalists’ job to foster this debate as part of their critical role in democratic deliberation in our political system. Thus they should be putting such critics’ views to government and reporting their response to the public.
  3. It is understandable that the journalist wishes to entertain their audience – but they should entertain the reader whilst attending to the debate they’re reporting. Here the debate, which is supposed to be the subject of the report, plays no structural role in the reporting/analysis. It’s just part of the scenery – along with various bromides about ‘tough choices’ – life and death no less.
  4. Not delivering on points 1-3 effectively neuters the media’s second most important function – after informing the public of facts – its role in subjecting power and authority to scrutiny.

(With apologies for formatting – not WordPress’s strong suit!)

Content of the original article My comment
It’s the question most house-bound stir-crazy Australians will no doubt be asking over this unusual Easter weekend: when will life return to normal?
The flattening of the coronavirus curve in Australia has beaten even the government’s expectations. A product of that success has been a rapid gear shift in sentiment. Small objection, I’d like to see a little less of this attributed to our success just because the flattening of the curve came too soon after the lockdown to have been all its work. It’d be nice to have snuck in an acknowledgement of our luck.
Only weeks ago there was a clamour to shut everything down. Now some are daring to dream of when they might visit the local cafe, pub or beach. Nervous corporate chiefs are signalling the economy can’t handle six months of this.  
The gathering pressure to ease restrictions is happening around the world, even

in countries ravaged by COVID-19.

Nearly 20,000 people have died in Italy but the daily death-rate has now dropped substantially. The government there is about to announce a timeframe for the gradual easing of its lockdown. Younger Italians are likely to be the first allowed back to work.  
Spain, where more than 15,000 have died, will begin an “orderly de-escalation” of restrictions in two weeks. Other European countries have already allowed some businesses to re-open.  
In Wuhan, where the virus first emerged, the 76-day lockdown has finally come to an end. Locals have been allowed to leave their homes, although they will be tracked via mobile phone data to ensure the healthy don’t come into contact with those still infected.  
At least two options on the table  
The clear international consensus is that lockdowns cannot be contingent on a vaccine eventually being found. It’s not clear to me what point is being made beyond the self-evident one that the lockdown can end once a vaccine is found. 
As Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy said this week, “we don’t know if and when a vaccine will come with this virus”. It was a wake-up call to those who think this will all be over once the miracle-workers in lab coats hurry up and find the answer. A vaccine may never come. Which should concentrate our minds on the crucial question of the relative attractiveness of the two non-vaccine alternatives, their relative costs and benefits and how to optimise each.

  1. eradication
  2. herd immunity
This leaves Australia with a couple of options: try to eliminate the virus completely and then remain closed off from the world indefinitely or learn to live with it and manage the caseload as much as possible. Doesn’t help us focus on the choice.
What the experts are saying about coronavirus:  
It’s already becoming clear the first option isn’t really an option. As Professor Murphy says, trying to eliminate the virus entirely means “you don’t have any immunity in the population and you really have to control your borders in a very aggressive way and that might be for a long time”. The CMO and his deputy have consistently pushed this ‘it’s not an option’ line. I’ve never seen them pinned down on it.

Meanwhile whatever official advice the New Zealand government is getting thinks it really IS an option. So we’re not just accepting officialdom as having the definitive view. Only Australian officialdom will do.

Certainly, if we got the numbers down to manageable levels and went to test and trace the economic benefits would be enormous and it seems that’s where we’re headed. But it’s not clearly articulated. Note the courtier’s framing the answer in terms of the authority figure served up by the system. Someone who seems to have been consistently unable to clearly articulate choices and some risk framework for assessing them. When the modelling they claim to be relying on was finally released it was immediately revealed as fatally wrong by John Quiggin.

The Prime Minister has also made it clear taxpayers can’t sustain the extraordinary economic lifeline indefinitely. The $200 billion worth of measures including the JobSeeker and JobKeeper payments “have a finite life”, he says. Waffle.
The second option of gradually easing restrictions, allowing some businesses to re-open and trying to deal with a “manageable” caseload in the community presents some particularly tough calls for the National Cabinet. These are literally life and death decisions. Tough calls.

Life and death no less.

One wrong step could prove disastrous. We could see another Ruby Princess type catastrophe or worse. I guess two wrong calls would be even worse. Three doesn’t bear thinking of. And four? Don’t talk to me about four! Four catastrophes? Are you kidding me?

So those guys who are making these decisions are making really tough calls. Did I mention that?

Now when you finish reading this article, you’ll remember everything I have told you, but you’ll know next to nothing about the ways in which these calls are being or should be being made – here or anywhere else.

Armchair experts don’t have the facts Presumably written by the subbie – who is ‘on the same page’ as the author in wanting to have a whack at armchair experts, even if the article provides no support for this comment.
The National Cabinet will once again rely on the expert advice of state and federal chief health officers as it plans this exit strategy. But as Professor Murphy frankly admits, “there is no clear right answer. There are lots of potential paths.” Brendan is frank. Frank about his own confusion and preference for muddling though. Now we all have to muddle through this in our ignorance, but the question is this: What are the arguments for different courses of action, whose got a better case and why.

He who is frank about there being no right answer was also frank that there was a wrong answer. And that was the answer that the New Zealanders are pursuing as we speak.

The chief health officers need to see more accurate modelling of how the coronavirus is behaving in Australia before making any decisions. That’s another week away at least. I can tell you how this ends. Fairly soon we’ll move to test and trace with eradication entering the talking points as if by magic when some armchair residents have been saying that, if it’s not the obvious path to aim for all along, it’s the obvious and most important question there is. Everything else is subsidiary to that. 


In the meantime, armchair experts are full of advice, just as they were heading into this crisis. Everything has been suggested from Wuhan-style mobile phone tracking, to “immunity certificates” for those who have recovered from the virus. The armchair experts include people like Bill Bowtell one of the architects of Australia’s response to the AIDS epidemic which pretty much sets the world standard. He’s even an Australian – which keeps things simple if you think that foreigners are – well, you know – unAustralian.

On the two sample armchair policies, the first is underway to some degree and being expanded and I presume something like the second may be on the way.

But what’s really sad is that the one thing that really matters – the eradicate/herd immunity choice – has been the subject of much better armchair commentary than the government officials or politicians have come up with or been pinned down on by journalists.

More likely is a staged easing of restrictions in the safest pockets of Australia, ongoing protection of the elderly and those in remote Indigenous communities and a persistent message to wash hands and keep your distance from others. So is this is a herd immunity strategy? If so why aren’t we easing up on the lockdowns now by trying to increase spread somewhat among our young?
Given the most dramatic impact on the curve came from closing Australia’s borders, they’re likely to remain shut for a long time. Pause for cognitive dissonance.


For now, the Prime Minister isn’t allowing this debate to run too far, too fast. He is rightly worried about complacency, particularly this Easter weekend. The ultimate signoff from the court by one of the courtiers.

The PM is in charge of the debate – steering where it ‘runs’.

He is very worried about complacency – as we all are here in Australia.

If the daily infection rate starts to climb again, the debate will just as easily swing back to the need for even further restrictions on life as we know it. A bit of waffle to ease you back into another day in the lucky country.

I’ve been arguing something similar about the RBA’s management of the cash rate since late 2013 – and journalists scrutiny of it. As I wrote in a recent Tweet “the RBA didn’t cut rates agressively steering us into a genteel slowdown since 2013. Hindsight has shown them to be wrong. But their foresight was foggy because their arguments were loose and impressionistic. And they weren’t subject to proper scrutiny”.

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1 year ago

I suspect he’s providing a form of square up, as in a referee who has made a clearly wrong call, for the treatment on insiders and q and a a couple of weeks back.

1 year ago

I don’t usually watch Q and A either, but was told to watch this one. And same for the insiders episode.

Long story short, the respective hosts (Speers and Hamish McDonald) both appeared to be uncomfortable with the treatment of their guests (Murphy being one of the guests). The episodes both had overly emotional guests who made any clean air very difficult. Didn’t help that in one case, the other guest was factually wrong, and obviously so. Would likely have felt unfair to Speers and McDonald, who are both even handed and well respected and proud of their reputations (from my observations). I think well deserved good reputations as an aside. Speers is among the best political journalists in the game.

Hence, I suspect the potentially over friendly treatment you’ve identified may be akin to a square up call to even the playing field a little. Your first point about him being even-handed is correct, I just think it’s playing out over a couple of different interactions.

1 year ago

On second thought. I probably should just have said long story, and left off the ‘short’.

No wonder my first post was obscure.

1 year ago

Why do you think he’s written the piece in that way then?

The CMO isn’t a political figure.

John Quiggin
John Quiggin
1 year ago

A great piece. Two very minor qualifications

1. The modelling was the best possible when it was done, in February, using only the data from Wuhan. We didn’t know lockdowns could work, even in China, and even they could, it’s clear the modellers didn’t consider them being applied here. They were modelling handwashing and asking people to keep 1.5 metres apart. The problem was releasing this modelling in April, and implying that it was current.

2. The Deputy CMO, Paul Kelly, broke ranks with Murphy on Friday, and started talking R < 1. The rhetorical shift is happening already with "squashing the curve" being the code word for eradication, while sounding as if it is a better version of "flattening the curve"

Jon Buttery
Jon Buttery
1 year ago

Excellent article! It’s almost as if they have to have a dichotomy and there’s nothing to report on the usual Liberal/Labor split, so we’ll do the Government v. ‘armchair experts’.

Completely misses the incredible strength of the debate from outside MSM in social media as you noted. Also misses the degradation of the advice and expertise available to Government. And misses the fact that much on the ground is driven not by Government but by networked social media. And the lack of transparency of the Government of its modelling. Just a few minor points of plumbing …

I think we can safely say that this report is from ‘in the bubble’.