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Broadcasting Disruption


In his first press conference after taking the Liberal Party leadership from Prime Minister Tony Abbott on 14 September 2015 Malcolm Turnbull asserted that “we have to recognise that the disruption that we see driven by technology, the volatility in change is our friend … The Australia of the future has to be a nation that is agile, that is innovative, that is creative”.1

Turnbull’s disruption named a force that reflected technological change and which has been reshaping Australian society for several decades. Historian Daniel Rodgers has described the late twentieth century as an age of fracture: “imagined collectivities shrank; notions of structure and power thinned out.” New technologies destabilised familiar patterns of work, social organisation and ideology.2

In Australia, these patterns accelerated in the new century, intensifying economic production, promoting a culture of individualisation – with a tendency to degenerate into dismal soap opera – and disabling the Australian labour movement. These powerful disruptions were vividly illustrated in three programs broadcast by the ABC in 2015.

The politics of The Killing Season (TKS) was a product of the age of disruption; Making Australia Great (MAG) described its political economy. An episode of the current affairs program Four Corners focusing on allegations of corruption and inappropriate conduct by former Health Services Union federal secretary Kathy Jackson and her partner, Fair Work Australia Vice President Michael Lawler, provided a brutal illustration of disruption in personal lives.

The ignoble public dismembering of Kathy Jackson’s career is in part a product of the failure of the union movement to make the necessary structural and ethical adaptations to the age of disruption, a failure extending back to the 1980s. As the Australian economy was transformed – and the Hawke and Keating governments and the trade union movement played a leading role in driving the change – the labour movement itself failed to transform.3 TKS and Four Corners documented the consequences.

Making Australia Great

That Australia has experienced transformative disruption since the 1980s excited MAG presenter and writer George Megalogenis. Screened on ABC1 in three primetime episodes across March 2015, MAG sought to explain Australia’s long boom since the early 1990s and the opportunities it offers for forging, as Megalogenis hopes, a truly great nation.4 A former Canberra press gallery journalist, Megalogenis is an enthusiastic evangelist for this cause, reflected in two impressive book-length studies of contemporary politics including The Australian Moment, of which MAG is essentially a TV companion piece.5 By greatness Megalogenis primarily means economic performance. MAG deftly accounts for the adaptability of governments in the 1980s and 1990s to adjust the Australian economy to the new conditions of globalisation, imposed by the breakdown of Bretton Woods financial regulation, the end of the Cold War, the shift to Thatcherism and Reaganomics and the increasing impact of new technology.

It’s all crisply visualised in familiar terms: chalk board stock market scribblers in the early period give way, as the three episodes proceed from the 1970s towards the present, to computer screens and bright digital representations of graphs and numbers, interspersed with a familiar retinue of talking heads – primarily politicians, interspersed with figures from business and the public service; few union leaders appear.

MAG’s visualisations reflect the point made by cultural studies scholar Graeme Turner that business reporting in the media vastly expanded in the 1980s and “turned business into a spectacle”.6 The MAG viewer is often invited to marvel at a spectacle of dynamic growth.

A compelling optimist, there is a touch of Dr Pangloss about George Megalogenis’s determination to celebrate Australia’s incipient greatness. “I want to talk to the decision makers … I want to go beyond the fog of politics to see Australia as it really is … Can we make something of this moment?” Yet by talking to the decision makers Megalogenis tended to immerse himself in the fog of politics, or at least in the self-justifying rationales of former Prime Ministers and Treasurers.

Tracking a whiggish path of progress from the 1970s onward Megalogenis obscures the negative stimuli that compelled response and generated disruption. The 1983 floating of the dollar is presented symbolically as a stroke of bold innovation, a big bang moment that unleashed the future. The dollar float responded to pressure of circumstance over which Australia exerted little control: the collapse of Bretton Woods and the 1970s Oil Shocks set in train the global financial instability that pitched the Australian economy into turbulence.7

New technology also contributed to the float decision: as Paul Kelly observes, the pressure on the Australian dollar intensified over the late 1970s and early 1980s as computerisation accelerated the global transfer of capital and increased Australia’s exposure to opportunistic trading in the dollar. The float was in some ways a reactive leap into the unknown with both positive and negative consequences.8

Yet Megalogenis is right to note the benefits that flowed from the economic reforms of the 1980s. That former treasurer Peter Costello could remind MAG viewers that no Australian bank sustained a single financial quarterly loss as a consequence of the 2007–08 Global Financial Crisis, while over 500 banks around the world collapsed, is a striking testament to the adaptability built into Australian political economy from the Hawke-Keating era.

That Australia had the fiscal resources to meet the challenge of the GFC, and has enjoyed twenty-one years of unbroken economic growth since the recession of the early 1990s, may not necessarily reflect the greatness of Australian society, but it is an achievement. It was a story that attracted respectable popular attention: focusing on the GFC earned MAG its highest ratings – episode three ranked ninth for free-to-air evening viewing on 31 March.9

MAG concludes by connecting economic and social openness in a cascade of images celebrating Australian ethnic diversity. Megalogenis contentedly strolled through a multicultural festival in his Melbourne home town: “We make our luck when we run an open economy and an open migration program”. “We have to build for a big Australia”, he argues; to continue to prosper Australia must aim for a population of between 30–50 million by the mid-twenty-first century, “because this is the sort of population that comes from being the last rich nation standing”. This ‘populate or perish’ assertion is a familiar cry from the old days of Australia Unlimited in the 1920s, and nearly a century later may remain a wistful and even dubious hope. True to MAG’s narrative form, this optimistic population claim – and whether it is either sustainable or desirable – is allowed to stand unchallenged.10

The problem with MAG is its stark absences. There is little focus on the negative aspects of deregulation – the casualisation of the workforce, the growing divide between rich and poor, the victimisation of welfare recipients through overbearing surveillance and punitive measures.11 Megalogenis barely registers the debate over Howard’s Work Choices industrial relations reforms, yet this debate in the period 2005–7 brought into focus the sharp divide of economic growth: how are the rewards of productivity to be distributed? Who rules in the workplace? Should managers enjoy an unfettered prerogative?

Megalogenis sidesteps the cravenly divided politics that form the subject of TKS: he notes the collapse into the rancorous Rudd-Gillard-Abbott period in a vague generalisation. It is hard to imagine a truly great nation producing such a wretchedly paralysed political culture. Or perhaps the same disruptions that produced profound and rapid economic change have also generated Killing Season politics?

The Killing Season

Besotted with personality politics TKS also struggles to account for the causes of disruption. TKS replicated the media cult of personality and the hothouse narcissism of parliament house politics, evident in the bleak, black and white title frames focused around a pensively posed Gillard silhouette backlit by the looming, starkly bleached image of Rudd’s face. At 8.30 pm each Tuesday for three weeks in June 2015 the insistent melancholy of the andante movement of Schubert’s Piano Trio No.2 signalled another ABC1 episode of spite, revenge and hubris triumphing over nation building.12

The Kevin Rudd-Julia Gillard leadership team emerged in 2006 because it seemed a solution to Labor’s dilemmas, filling a personality and communicative vacuum, although perhaps not addressing a substantial policy and philosophical absence as the labour movement struggled to define a new ideology and organisational practice to adapt to a post-industrial world.13

As Opposition leader Kevin Rudd offered the possibility of renewal, and developed as an effective challenger to Prime Minister John Howard’s government. Yet in many respects Rudd proved more a symptom of Labor’s dilemmas than a solution. The most telling comment on the illusory nature of Rudd’s appeal in TKS was provided by Labor MP Tony Burke. Observing Rudd’s electioneering skills during the 2007 campaign, Burke was awestruck at his leader’s chameleon facility to engage with diverse audiences: “He’d be joking around with [Liberal MP] Joe Hockey on Sunrise and by night he’d be talking foreign policy on Lateline. You had somebody who was just spanning every aspect of communications that no other politician in the country could”. Labor of course won convincingly and Howard lost his own seat in Parliament.14

TKS captures Kevin07 effortlessly engaging with the people in street walks and selfies; he was a postmodern mimic who could convincingly tell a variety of audiences what they wanted to hear. Rudd’s astute election claim to be an “economic conservative” was not so much a policy stance as a media performance, signalling to commentators and the public that he would conform to the prevailing narrative of Australian political economy.

As PM Rudd was sensitive to Labor’s inclusive spirit, represented in the apology to the Stolen Generations on 12 February 2008. Rudd also demonstrated acute foresight about the looming impact of the GFC, as Treasury Secretary Ken Henry attested in both MAG and TKS: Rudd’s leadership was decisive in formulating an effective government response and ensuring that Australians did not experience the economic crisis.

Yet from 2009 and into 2010 Rudd apparently became increasingly indecisive. As both Rudd’s popularity and Labor’s position in the opinion polls collapsed, and as the government wallowed from one policy misstep to the next – over asylum seekers, the response to climate change and the mining tax – Rudd seemed immobilised, unable to link glib script with substantial outcome.15

Embarking on a seemingly endless tour of hospitals around Australia, as TKS records in a blizzard of edited images of corridor walks, meet and greets and encouraging bedside chats, Rudd, dragging despairing Health Minister Nicola Roxon with him, avoiding the pressing need to formulate a coherent health policy.

Meanwhile Opposition Leader Tony Abbott hammered the drumbeat of simplistic and debilitating political attacks on the government, promising if elected to ‘stop the boats’ of desperate asylum seekers regularly arriving off Australia’s north western coast. Fearing Abbott’s ascendancy in the polls, TKS reports, Labor’s factional bosses and the operatives in the federal Labor caucus suffered less hesitation than Rudd. These factional operatives are the often the ‘stars’ of the program. They were the killers, prone to lamenting their function and basking in the professional pleasure of the kill.

In TKS the caucus faction leaders seemingly delighted in recounting their participation in the lightning strike that brought down Kevin Rudd in the space of a single evening. Julia Gillard’s abrupt replacement of Rudd as prime minister in an uncontested ballot on 24 June 2010 stunned the nation, and most cabinet ministers, who had no idea that a coup was underway.

Where had the killers come from, and what motivated them? Factional operatives, privileging polls, were provided with an ascendancy born of the same dynamic that generated Kevin07: filling Labor’s philosophical and policy vacuum not with conviction but process and slogan. Unable to be steadied by the inner resource of self-belief and clear purpose, Labor became all hypersensitive surface, prone to panicked response to the neurotic stimulus of polls and focus groups. Frustrated ambitions found justification in Rudd’s failings.

Several of the factional operators recreated their coup roles for TKS, intensifying the impression of politics as crass and superficial reality TV game. Self-parody began on the night of the coup and continued in TKS, including then junior minister Bill Shorten’s Viet namese restaurant mobile phone number-crunching antics. Available footage did not require Shorten to re-enact his vote gathering for Gillard.

Senator Sam Dastyari from the New South Wales Labor Right faction helpfully re-played receiving news of bad polling in four New South Wales marginal seats, which proved decisive in providing justification for Rudd’s removal. In TKS Dastyari is filmed on a busy city street as he breathlessly and self-referentially recreates his caller’s despair: “Dasher it’s worse than bad: we’re bloody stuffed”. ‘Dasher’ holds a mobile phone model to his ear that did not exist in June 2010, somewhat dispelling the illusion of verisimilitude.

Self-satisfaction is embodied in another Labor senator from the factional Right, Mark Bishop, who asserted of the Rudd kill: “In terms of its professional execution, you’d have to say it was the best”. In TKS Bishop recounts how he soon changed his mind and made overtures to the displaced and aggrieved Rudd, offering to help him metaphorically kill his replacement, Julia Gillard.

Under the forensic probing of TKS presenter and interviewer Sarah Ferguson, Gillard struggled to convincingly justify the coup or deny that she had prior knowledge of the plotter’s intrigues, despite her key role in the government as deputy prime minister. Gillard’s terse assertion that by early 2010 Rudd was “personally miserable … politically immobilised” smacked of a tidy post-coup rationalisation.

Ferguson’s questioning also exposed Rudd’s evasive justifications of the leaks of cabinet deliberations that undermined Gillard during the August 2010 election campaign. Labor’s support collapsed and it was forced into minority government. As cabinet minister Greg Combet noted in TKS, Gillard’s lack of campaign experience as leader also told against Labor, evident in her awkward offer to reveal the “real Julia”, an attempt to regain campaign control through a stronger personal connection with voters that only focused attention on “character issues”.

TKS offered a grim visualisation of Labor’s post-coup divisions: the dismal image of an almost empty Melbourne convention centre on election night as Gillard glumly conceded that a final outcome required tortuous days of vote counting. Gillard’s press secretary Sean Kelly described the event as “a poorly attended funeral”.

In an attempt to secure support from the Greens for the minority government Gillard reneged on her election promise not to introduce a price on carbon and rashly compounded this problem by allowing the policy to be identified as a ‘carbon tax.’ In TKS Wayne Swan, Treasurer in the Rudd and Gillard governments, observed that as a consequence Labor lost control of the climate change policy debate and gave Tony Abbott another line of simplistic, sloganeering attack.

In Parliament the minority government functioned well, passing over 250 pieces of legislation and significant reforms in disability care and education. As PM Julia Gillard found that she was better suited to managing process than strategy and inspiring the Australian people to support her cause – and what was that cause? Gillard struggled and indeed dismissed the need to articulate a narrative of her governing. It could be said she failed to offer voters a reason to believe in her and the government.16

Gillard’s enemies constructed a narrative for her: ‘Juliar’ the Lady Macbeth witch, misleading voters over the carbon tax, executing an elected PM, and perhaps worst of all being a woman. TKS offered graphic evidence of the debased assault on Gillard’s gender, character, family, and her physical appearance, that has no equal precedent in Australian political life. Tony Abbott’s gleeful participation in barely rational public protests – or hate sessions – directed at Gillard, reflected the depth of Abbott’s willingness to cynically divide Australians in his own political interest. Perhaps the most poignant illustration of the emotional impact of this vilification in TKS are scenes of Gillard government Trade Minister Craig Emerson in tearful disbelief that the standard of public life could sink so low.17

TKS observes that Abbott’s connivance in the shock-jock and News Limited assaults on Gillard culminated in the 9 October 2012 exchange in Parliament as Abbott slyly parroted broadcaster’s Alan Jones claim that Gillard’s recently deceased father would have been ashamed of her: Abbott asserted the government should die of shame for it failings. Gillard responded with the controlled rage of the misogyny speech; as TKS records, Gillard never spoke more powerfully or eloquently. Abbott proved impervious to his own shaming, leading the Coalition to election victory on 7 September 2013.

TKS recounts the tawdry details of the claustrophobic caucus intrigue that led to the collapse of the Labor government and Rudd’s defeat of Gillard in a leadership challenge on 26 June 2013. It is sufficient to echo frontbencher Anthony Albanese’s rueful observation, made on the occasion of the 2010 coup, that executing Rudd proved an efficient way of killing two Labor Prime Ministers in one fell stroke.18

TKS records a claim by Craig Emerson that he coined the phrase ‘the killing season’ to describe the dangerous weeks when plotters sense an opportunity to strike down a failing leader before Parliament rises for the long winter recess. Whether or not there is really an identifiable phenomenon as ‘the killing season’ is beside the point: it lives as a legend attractive to politicians and journalists and their sense of inhabiting a vital drama, and which may be recreated as entertainment. The appeal of a killing season may not be wholly evident to a bemused public: the program rated well for the ABC but could not match the popularity of MasterChef.19

Four Corners: ‘Inside the Eye of the Storm’

Neither could Four Corners’ morbid focus on Kathy Jackson and Michael Lawler, ‘Inside the eye of the storm’, overcome the appeal of The X Factor, although it ‘nabbed’ the next day’s news headlines, making it ‘a good Monday for the ABC’, according to TV Tonight.20 Watching the breakdown of two human beings on television makes for the kind of entertaining torment enjoyed by both mainstream and social media. It turns victims into their own self-consuming predators. TKS offered such spectacle on a scale of national theatre; Four Corners reduced the focus to a kitchen melodrama, filmed in the couple’s ‘retreat’ on the New South Wales south coast and broadcast in the primetime 8.30 pm slot on 19 October 2015.21

Barely a fortnight after the ABC lavished program time promoting Mental Health Week, Kathy Jackson, by Four Corners’ own admission in a state of distress, requiring daily professional psychological care, was nonetheless subject to intrusive focus by the camera. This concentration was most punishing and ‘revealing’ not in the trite denials of personal responsibility recorded in the interviews with Jackson – the interviews added nothing new to the public record – but in the silent focus on her distressed face, or seated alone at a verandah table, head in hands and her back to the camera. Kathy Jackson may be guilty of criminal offences and abusing the trust of the workers she represented. If so, her punishment began under the gaze of the camera.

Michael Lawler’s video diary, offered as a highlight of the Four Corners focus on the couple, seemed a prolonged five hour ‘selfie’, his array of pliable and mannered facial gestures as revealing as his conspiratorial rationales. Four Corners claimed that showcasing Lawler’s diary performance and taped conversations with others was justified by stunning revelations. The most Four Corners extracted was Lawler’s boss apparently assuring Lawler that his sick leave could be unlimited, when the same boss had said publicly that that was not the case. This under whelming revelation was also an exposure of Lawler’s self-obsession; it was merely a by-product of the possible entrapment that he seems to have been preoccupied with for several years.

Media headlines following the broadcast manufactured a ‘controversy’ (this being part of the effect current affairs programs like Four Corners seek) over Lawler’s use of an ugly expletive, “cunt-struck”, to describe how his relationship with Jackson may be perceived in the public domain. What was most revealing was the guileless deployment of the derogatory term: Lawler simply said it in passing, without emphasis and apparently without thought for its impact on its subject – Jackson – or how its use might make him appear to the audience.

Established in 1961, Four Corners has been and remains an outstanding product of traditional current affairs television. In this episode it revealed its own struggle to negotiate the ethical traps of the digital age, replicating the predations of social media. All Jackson and Lawler revealed was a woman and man at the centre of their own crisis. Four Corners failed to probe how Jackson’s behaviour, and that of other senior officials of the Health Services Union, may be a product of insular trade union cultures which lack effective systems of accountability, as claimed by the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption, whose hearings provided another media spectacle in 2015.22

Disruption is also replicated in the rapid visual edits of TKS and MAG, reflecting the welter of information that both the public and politicians are required to filter; a disoriented reflex we have normalised. It is reflected further in the politics of the 24-hour news cycle, which TKS amplified as drama. Perhaps this is why the Sydney Morning Herald’s entertainment reporter observed that if the ‘political reality’ of MAG proved too much, viewers could resort to the American sit-com The Big Bang Theory, screening in the same timeslot on the rival Nine Network.23

MAG showed us how the news cycle intensified, at least in the broad process of economic and information acceleration at work since the 1970s: the political economy of disaggregation, with individualism privileged at the expense of collective forms of identity. In the age of disruption we are encouraged to believe that we must fall back on our own resources: masters of our self-government, entrepreneurs in the workplace and in the management of our personal lives.24 Kathy Jackson and Michael Lawler, an “embattled power couple”, according to TV Tonight, received a harsh lesson in personal responsibility, cast adrift in the media gaze.25 Their public melodrama, and that which reduced the careers of two Labor Prime Ministers to vilification and farce, are sensational manifestations of the fate of lives disrupted in the quest to make Australia great.


1‘Transcript: Vote on the Liberal Party Leadership, 15 September 2015, Malcolm Turnbull MP’,

2Daniel T. Rodgers, Age of Fracture, Harvard University Press, 2012, p.3; Hartmut Rosa, Alienation and Acceleration, NSU Press, Malmo, 2010, pp.20, 45.

3Kerrie Saville, ‘The Structural Events Approach – A “Better” Way to Understand Long-term Change in Trade Union Structure: The Australian Story (1986 – 96)’, Journal of Industrial Relations, Vol. 49, November 2007, p.770.

4Making Australia Great, ABC 1, Episode 1 ‘Bad Hair Decades’, Tuesday 17 March 2015, 8:30 pm; Episode 2 ‘Growing Pains’, Tuesday 24 March 2015, 8:30 pm; Episode 3 ‘Australia’s Second Chance’, Tuesday 31 March, 8.30 pm.

5George Megalogenis, The Longest Decade, Scribe, Melbourne, 2006; George Megalogenis, The Australian Moment, Penguin, Melbourne, 2012.

6Graeme Turner, Making it National: Nationalism and Australian Popular Culture, St Leonards, Allen & Unwin, 1994, p.18.

7Tony Judt, Postwar, Vintage Books, London, 2010, ch.XIV; Ed Conway, The Summit, Little, Brown, London, 2014, ch.16.

8Paul Kelly, The End of Certainty, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1992, p.79.

9Courier Mail, 1 April 2015.

10Stuart Macintyre, The Oxford History of Australia, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1986, Vol. 4, p.198.

11Andrew Leigh, Battlers and Billionaires: The Story of Inequality in Australia, Redback, Melbourne, 2013.

12The Killing Season, ABC 1, Episode 1 ‘The Prime Minister and his Loyal Deputy (2006–2009)’, Tuesday 9 June 2015, 8:30 pm; Episode 2 ‘Great Moral Challenge (2009–2010)’; Tuesday 16 June 2015, 8:30 pm; Episode 3 ‘The Long Shadow (2010–2013)’, Tuesday 23 June 2015, 8.30 pm.

13Martin Painter, ‘Economic Policy, Market Liberalism and the “End of Australian Politics”’, Australian Journal of Political Science, Vol. 31, No. 3, 1996; Ashley Lavelle, The Death of Social Democracy, Political Consequences in the 21st Century, Ashgate, 2008.

14Christine Jackman, Inside Kevin07: The People, the Plan, the Prize, Melbourne University Publishing, Carlton, 2008.

15David Marr, Power Trip: The Political Journey of Kevin Rudd, Black Inc., Melbourne, 2010.

16Michael Cooney, The Gillard Project, Viking, Melbourne, 2015.

17Samantha Trenoweth ed., Bewitched & Bedevilled: Women Write the Gillard Years, Hardie Grant Books, Richmond, 2013.

18Kerry-Anne Walsh, The Stalking of Julia Gillard: How the Media and Team Rudd Contrived to Bring Down the Prime Minister, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2013.

19Sydney Morning Herald, 17 June 2015.

20TV Tonight, 20 October 2015,

21Four Corners, ‘Jackson and Lawler – inside the eye of the storm’, ABC 1, Monday 19 October 2015, 8.30 pm.

22‘Dyson Heydon’s Royal Commision exposes corrupt union deals’, Australian, 22 August 2015.

23SMH, 16 March 2015.

24Nikolas Rose, Powers of Freedom, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999, pp.142–145, 156.

25TV Tonight, 20 October, 2015

Small Screens

   by Michelle Arrow, Jeannine Baker and Clare Monagle