Journalism 101

Just when I had lost faith in Auntie and was complaining about Lateline letting politicos off without asking difficult questions . . . along comes Maxine McKew filling in for Tony Jones on a Friday night.

It was a fairly simple question on the rather dull topic of welfare (not so dull to people who need it to pay rent or eat), and how many welfare recipients had incurred debts because they had underestimated their income. The relevant minister, Senator Kay Patterson, had already had a pretty good run slagging off the opposition and not answering the question, when this happened:

MAXINE MCKEW: Senator, can I just stop you there? If 1.4 million over the last three years is incorrect, what is the correct figure? Over the last three years, on your Government’s figures, how many families have incurred either one or multiple debts?

SENATOR KAY PATTERSON: Maxine, this is damning. This information from the —

MAXINE MCKEW: Sorry Senator, it’s a direct question.You run this department. Senator, sorry, this is an issue that goes back to before the 2001 election. The PM at that stage provided a $1,000 waiver to deal with the problem and said that was going to fix the problem. Clearly it hasn’t. I’m asking you here tonight — over the last three years, going back to the last election, how many families have incurred debts?

I mean, it was politely worded, but did a journalist just tell a government minister to shut up and answer the question already? And it didn’t stop there. Kay Patterson droned on and on and selectively quoted some figures to show that the government was in fact a virtuous, generous bunch of bolshies who handed out more welfare than Labor did. And then . . .

MAXINE MCKEW: Sorry Senator, you’re not answering the question. What are you doing in this portfolio to redesign the system so that people are not in this position of having to predict their future income over a year. How many people can do that effectively?

SENATOR KAY PATTERSON: Well, what we’ve done is give people $600 per child.

MAXINE MCKEW: Yeah, I know you’ve done that. What have you done to reform the system?

This is clearly unacceptable. What would happen if other journalists stopped taking “blah blah blah” for an answer? What if they did it to the PM or opposition leader, or on bigger issues than welfare payments? Could society collapse? You’re treading a dangerous line, Maxine.

Also a big cheerio to the Sydney Morning Herald’s graphics department for this handy popup accompanying the Virgin Blue bomb scare story, telling us where the device came from. Yes, it’s a map of eastern Australia that shows where Maroochydore is. Thanks, guys!

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