Immersion journalism for democracy


June 15, 2013

For more than a decade I argued inside and outside election planning meetings at the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age that we must do immersion journalism in key seats.

Rushing in and out of seats on the circus bus and making a few calls to profile marginals was crap, I argued. My last experience on the bus, during the 1996 election, convinced me never to do it again. I wrote of the experience in my book on Pauline Hanson’s free-form, authentic encounters with Australians during the 1998 election campaign:

‘Any honest look at the disillusion in the Australian political landscape has to face up to the media’s complicity — inadvertent and otherwise — in the gamesmanship of the electoral process. The leaders and journalists are actors in a play, bound by intricate codes of etiquette and self-interest. We pick their spin, they pick ours, and both sides look only at each other, as journalists present our theatre reviews to an ever more disconnected public. Little wonder that the public has come to distrust us, the media, as much as the politicians.’ (Off the rails: The Pauline Hanson Trip, Allen & Unwin, 1999)

Send a journo to a key marginal to LIVE for the whole campaign, I urged. They will get the direct mail, they will meet real voters, they will see the circus from the outside in and know how real people respond to it. They will attend the candidates forums and read the local media and see how the national debate plays on the ground. They can tell a deep, grounded democratic story, weaving local and national.

Eyes always rolled. I could hear inner voices muttering ‘Mad Margo’. It never happened.

Now I’ve got my chance and I’m going for it. After announcing new directions for No Fibs in my first column last Saturday I asked for volunteer citizen journos to report how democracy plays out in the seats where they live. Safe or marginal I didn’t care, because all democratic stories are important and different.

I had four requirements, apart from my personal instinct after telephone conversations that the volunteer was curious and genuinely wanted to explore democracy in their seat and communicate their story honestly to readers. My CJs use their real names, are not a current member of a political party, commit themselves to the Media Alliance code of ethics and will read the pieces of the other CJs on the journey.

Each will write a scene setter explaining the seat, who they are and why they are on the journey. From there we will see what happens. The Geek is working on how to present the project, and I hope readers in the seats covered wish to tune in to our reporters and help them out.

I was frustrated this week at the inadequate performance of local media at Mal Brough’s menu doorstop, and the failure of MSM investigative follow-up of the guest list, restaurant staff and gaping holes in the multitude of overlapping versions of events. I was reminded of several conversations I have had with MSM journos about why the Ashby scandal has been buried. If I was an MSM editor I’d send a reporter to Slipper’s seat, the one Brough is contesting, to get the story where it happened, I fumed. No money, they replied. Citizen journos need to step in and fill growing gaps in MSM coverage.

Here are the No Fibs CJs so far:

Shane Willsmore @willsmore298 will report the seat of Sturt.

Lisa Kremmer @LisaKremmer will report the seat of Macarthur.
Alison Parkes  @AlisonParkes  will report the seat of Mitchell.
Jack Sumner @preciouspress will report the seat of Bennelong.
Margaret O’Connor @MargaretOConno5 will report the seat of Eden Monaro

Georgie Moore @gemoo4 will report the seat of Higgins
Luke Sulzberger @LukieSulz will report the seat of Melbourne Ports

Jan Bowman @JanBowQLD will report the seat of Griffith

If you would like to volunteer send me a DM, especially if you live in my home State of Queensland.

Now to No Fibs’ week in review. We kicked off with Gratton Wilson’s A letter on the future from an activist elder.


Wilson is now working on a piece comparing the parties climate change policies. Gratton was part 3 of our series on new political activists, followed by another writer on No Fibs debut, Cam Klose, who told his story of helping to build a community movement to back a community political candidate – Chasing involved democracy in Indi: @Indigocathy v@SMirabellaMP

Cambell Klose

Cambell Klose

Kevin Rennie then gave us a top-draw fact check piece Security storm surrounds convicted Egyptian asylum seeker

Panorama of completed banner: 55 silhouettes for the 55 refugees in ASIO immigration detention limbo. Photo credit Takver

Panorama of completed banner: 55 silhouettes for the 55 refugees in ASIO immigration detention limbo. Photo credit Takver

Courtesy of @Turlow1 we published a transcript of Mal Brough’s denial-of-admission menu doorstop The Mal Brough 48 Hour Special: At first the menu is real, then it’s not and a Storify of Twitter’s #menugate saga.


The week ended with a passionate rave by my favourite punter Noely Neate, who decided the gender war against the PM had become so ugly and intense and pervasive she might vote for her as a matter of principle: #FFSF what the hell is wrong with you people

Parenting Tip: Don’t encourage your daughters to aspire to the highest office in the land, may take until many more generations before the dinosaurs die out :(

Parenting Tip: Don’t encourage your daughters to aspire to the highest office in the land, may take until many more generations before the dinosaurs die out :(

Our citizen journos will begin their reports on the seats where they live next week.

First Citizen Reports on Seats

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  1. Well done Margo, and congratulations to the citizen journos. I’m looking forward to the articles and especially Sturt, and Higgins

  2. Yes. I like that idea. Will watch with interest.

  3. Jan Birkett says

    look forward to this…well done for the effort, Margo :)

  4. Liz Johnston says

    I wish I still had the passion, plus the wellness and energy to volunteer Margot. This is a great adventure and congratulations for taking it on. It cannot be easy for you after the general buffeting I’m sure you suffered, as I did, from the slings and arrows of working in mass media. .

  5. Robin Van Gunst says

    More power to you Margo. Love this idea. May even be tempted to crank some out myself.

  6. What a great idea! What about WA though?

  7. A great initiative Margo, first time I have seen info a out it, but will be watching out for the updates and CJ reports. Well done.

  8. Brilliant idea, thanks so much Margot. Perth! Who will volunteer their passion and expertise?

  9. dannylewis says

    I would love to do it (I’m in Wakefield) but I don’t want to commit myself in case I can’t follow it all the way through.

    Part of the problem of having 4 young children is that plans often have to change at the drop of a hat!

  10. Great idea Margo. I will eagerly wait to read their reports.

  11. Anyone going to do Lilley QLD? (Wayne Swan’s Seat)
    Sorry, I am ruling myself out a a CJ, as I am now so over most of them, I see the Seat as “Three turds on a Green”, considering that Labor, LNP and Katterites all hate the Greens.

  12. I live in the “safe” Labor seat of Perth, and have done so for over three decades. I have also been a chair of three school boards in the electorate as well as being the Research Officer for the Deaths in Custody Watch Committee. My advice from the servicing of this seat by its MP for two decades, don’t live in a safe Labor seat.

    With the past incumbent (Dr Rick Charlesworth) I never had any issue at all of making an appointment and speaking about my passions of; Aboriginal Affairs, school education, and TAFE. However, since Smith, two decades and not one appointment and not one initiative for the working class eastern area of his electorate.

    I believe that it is noteworthy that his first electorate office was in an ex Bishop’s residence. He sees himself as above us mere mortals, and as an ex career soldier and officer, and given his government’s stand on various emoluments to my brothers and sisters in and out of uniform, and as an ex member of the Labor party, I shall be voting for tother side for the first time in my life.

    Consider these numbers: some 300,000 veterans in Australia, each with not less than a spouse and a child, all of whom would vote as the veteran. Not an unreasonable stereotype. A million people already convinced to not vote Labor. Some seats have over 7.5% of enrolled electors as veterans or their families. This alone could defeat the incumbents.

    Like I said, if you vote Labor, live in a marginal seat. I shall be distributing pamphlets for those with a commitment to remunerate those whom wear the uniform and serve in harm’s way.