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IA EXPLAINER: Passing the 'pub test'

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One sure way of passing the Australian journalists' official pub test

What is the "pub test" and who gets to decide whether someone passes it? Managing editor Dave Donovan explains all.

'… her conduct invites the "pub test" … And, let's be frank, the minister's explanation struggles to pass.'

~ Sydney Morning Herald, 6 January 2017

Lately, there’s been a lot of discussion in the media about a so-called “pub test” apparently in wide use throughout Australia, especially by the media and political class. Therefore, as a way to assist laypersons, researchers at the Independent Australia Institute of Overused Political Terminology (IAIOPT) have been working overtime to uncover just what a “pub test” actually is.

To begin with, in general terms, a “pub test” (not to be confused with a “pub quiz”) is a usually metaphorical test that seeks to evaluate the thoughts and opinions of ordinary Australians, and apply them in judging potentially dubious activities by public figures, especially politicians.

Though mostly metaphorical, as mentioned, broadcast journalists have been known to sometimes conduct actual pub tests, where they go into public bars with cameras and microphones, and interview patrons about current events. Because public houses frequently contain rather quirky characters with significantly lowered inhibitions, this sort of pub test can make for entertaining television, especially if the subject in question is something intoxicated people may find interesting — such as crime, sport, celebrities, drinking, drugs and sex.

However, the “pub test” most often referred to in the media these days does not involve direct reporting. Rather, it is a more subjective and general analysis of community expectations by the journalists themselves, and involves a reporter providing their evaluation about what “ordinary” people in pubs think about any particular issue, controversy or scandal.

Applying this latter pub test is, of course, attractive for journalists because it involves two of their favourite pastimes — drinking and making things up.

To conduct the average pub test, a journalist will typically go to a pub with the goal of finding out what people outside the media think. To gather this intelligence, the reporter will casually study people in the pub and imagine what they might be thinking. To assist in this task, they may study patrons’ grooming, hairstyles, shoes, clothes, body language and even their drink preferences. Then, using this information and after discussing the topic in question with other people in the media, journalists will reach a conclusion about what the general public thinks about any particular issue. It should be noted that this is an extremely long and exhaustive process and may also be accompanied by bouts of laughter, singing, broken glasses and falling over.

Because the pub test is so thorough and exhaustive − and because it is usually broadcast on every mainstream media channel – it is not subject to appeal and even senior politicians must defer to its awesome power.

For instance, as the ABC reported, following Health Minister Sussan Ley’s resignation:

‘Ms Ley told reporters on Monday that she was confident the investigations would demonstrate she had not broken any rules, but admitted she may have failed the political "pub test".’

So, despite feeling she has not done anything wrong, the minister quit because of the pub test. Or, to be more precise, voluntarily relinquished her senior ministerial role due to not meeting the perceived hypothetical collective behavioural standards of relatively sociable suburban Australian drunkards.

Though not able to be appealed, the pub test is sometimes subject to criticism. For example, former Speaker Bronwyn Bishop, who herself fell victim to the pub test over her decision to charter a helicopter to get to Geelong rather than make the hour drive from Melbourne, appears to see the pub test as yet another reprehensible example of marching socialism.

As “Choppergate” Bishop said, it was alcoholic socialist dogs who went after Sussan Ley. And when it comes to the “pub test”, said Bronwyn, much depends upon which pub you are in. Presumably, few people she spoke to at the Lyceum Club saw anything unusual about her taking the charter helicopter out for a spin. However, not being “ordinary Australians”, those sorts of people are excluded from the subset of imaginary people journalists use to conduct their mental pub test.

For the sake of completeness, it should be mentioned that there are, indeed, some who might argue that the collective political and moral views of Australians are rarely reached in pubs, where patrons more often spend their time betting, watching the footy, attempting sexual congress and trying to kill their brain cells. That the prevailing opinions of Australians usually emerge from sober, sensible people who look at the often morally indefensible goings on of our seedy political class through the simple prism of right and wrong. That talking about a “pub test” suggests average Australians are ignorant and/or inebriated, and base their opinions on drunken conversations with other yobbos. That the pub test is really just another indication of the way mainstream journalists underestimate, infantilise and unconsciously diminish the general public.

Of course, people with those sorts of opinions would never be included as imaginary arbiters in journalists’ fictitious personal pub tests and so their views are irrelevant.

The application of the pub test is, of course, not an exact science.

For instance, replacing Sussan Ley as health minister is former Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt. During Hunt’s time as environment minister, he appears to have spent most of his time receiving awards from the fossil fuel industry and attempting to get a massive foreign coal project into the ground in Central Queensland. This Adani project will, if it goes ahead, become the largest coal hole in the world, cause unprecedented amount of global warming and almost certainly kill of the Great Barrier Reef — which was one of Hunt’s specific environment portfolio responsibilities. And even though Ley lost her job over failing a “pub test” relating to her inappropriate use of entitlements, Hunt is no better in this regard — having a similarly rapacious attitude towards taxpayers’ money, including frequently staying in five star hotels in the Melbourne CBD despite only living 79 kilometres away.

Yet somehow this drip inserted into the Health Department appears to have passed Australian journalists’ official pub test. Either that or they have decided not to apply it to him. Who knows? Maybe he never came up in the imaginary conversations fictitious Australians in pubs are having in journalists’ minds right around Australia?

Let's just hope these reporters aren't driving.

You can follow managing editor Dave Donovan on Twitter @davrosz.

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