I have started a post over and over about my thoughts on the state of politics in Australia (and indeed around the world) and that of the media reporting on it. It always sounds shrill and melodramatic. Delete delete delete.
My admiration for the Australian journalist, Annabel Crabb has long been established. Her insight and humour is always so refreshing and balanced with a breathtaking intellect that makes me delete delete delete my own attempts. That and she has great hair, wears interesting clothes (she once wore long socks with high heels on Insiders and totally rocked it) and loves food and cooking. I know.
Yesterday I read the transcript of a speech she gave at The Sydney Institute. Here are my favourite parts but I urge you to read it. Yes it is long, yes it will require you to think but seriously, how often to any of us truly do that anymore.
But to understand this argument as a finger-pointing exercise between politicians and the media is to miss the point – quite grievously – of what is going on here. What is going on here is a deep, elemental, structural revolution that is – for both politics and media – a direct challenge to many of the assumptions we have hitherto made about how our jobs are done.
I think the Politicians Versus Journalists argument about standards of contemporary debate is, at heart, unconvincing. Why? Because no politician or journalist is a reliable narrator on this stuff. Because we all have a dog in this fight.
There is no finer example of this than the revelation today than the MD of Channel Nine, Jeffery Browne, sending a letter to the CEO of the St George Illawarra Leagues Club, Peter Doust, expressing their willingness to support the clubs in their campaign against the current proposed reforms for pokies.
As reported on the ABC’s AM radio program this morning, the letter said: By informing the public of the key messages we can try to ensure that the debate about the proposed changes is properly informed, balanced and that the community understands that many local sporting organisations and charities are heavily reliant on this revenue.
To that end I invite you to provide me with examples of the community contribution which your club makes so that we may highlight some of those initiatives during our NRL coverage over the coming weeks.
Curiously there is no equivalent letter sent to Andrew Wilkie, the MP who has proposed the pokie machine reforms or Senator Nick Xenaphon who is supporting them and leading the charge for Channel Nine to explain the comments against the mandatory pre-commitment scheme for poker machines made during the Rugby League Grand Final by Ray Warren and Phil Gould. Its initial response, that they were ‘off the cuff’ kinda fell flat when Ray Warren revealed he’d been told what to say. Thank goodness someone is showing at least a skerrick of honesty and integrity from the Channel Nine camp.
Of course it is of absolutely NO relevance that Channel Nine is partially (25 per cent) owned by James Packer who also has a 47 per cent stake in Crown Limited (which owns Crown Casino in Melbourne and Burswood Casino in Perth).
Back to Annabel:
As far as covering politics goes, we [the media] had a monopoly not only on the distribution of information, but also on its collection. Think about it. We had the press gallery passes that allowed us to attend press conferences and question politicians directly. We had the pigeonholes in Parliament House into which press releases and alerts as to ministerial activities were posted. We had the phone numbers. We had the seats on the prime ministerial plane.
The time of ministers, prime ministers, members and senators is a precious commodity, measured out in coffee spoons to people for whom a government decision might signal life or death for their business, their hobby, or even their child. But we drank it up like it was our right – interviews, briefings, dinners. We milked politicians for their time, and they gave it because we had what they needed – a nicely-regulated megaphone through which their plans and ideas could become a movement. Through which their thoughts could crystallise into change.
For politicians, to whom politics is a means of effecting change, that was a pretty good bargain. For us, who relied on exclusive content, it worked pretty well too. And the collective result was that the exchange which we grandly called a national conversation was actually a protected process, a fairly ignoble haggling session, truth be told, in which politicians, press secretaries, journalists and editors bargained, effectively, between themselves about what subjects could and should be covered.
The proliferation of new ways in which to consume news has led, naturally, to the fracturing of old audiences. Genuine news junkies have no need to watch the evening news anymore, as they’ve been trawling news websites all day and already have more detail than a two-minute bulletin is likely to cough up. They know genuine scoops will spread through the system smartly enough. So, shorn of these more demanding viewers, the network packages news as entertainment, because that’s what tends to grab the attention of those who are not tuning in studiously to eat their veggies, civic-discourse-wise.
This is what tends to be called dumbing down, or the coarsening of political debate. Another way to describe it, I suppose, would be “democracy”. And isn’t that one of democracy’s most annoying elements? People with whose assessments one disagrees getting a vote anyway? The opinions of the lazy and ill-informed having just as much sway as the engaged and industrious?
It’s easy to draw the conclusion – almost irresistible, really – that political discourse is getting stupider. But for a number of reasons, we should be cautious about doing so.
Eating your veggies, civic-discourse-wise. Love it.
I think one should be careful, too, with the assumption that the mass audience of yesteryear was necessarily a more engaged one in the field of politics. Was there ever a merry band of Herald Sun readers, eagerly drinking in page-long treatments of superannuation reform? Or has this reader revolution simply made clearer to us what was the truth all along – that lots of people always bought the paper for the sport and the telly, and not much else?
So true. Just because it’s there doesn’t mean people are reading it.
Politicians yearn for the old ideal of a passive mass audience because it made life easier. Media proprietors yearn for those good old days too, because the same vain illusion under which politicians always lived (the firm and, I suspect, erroneous sense of confidence that 100 per cent of Sydney Morning Herald readers have just read and admired the faithful news account of your excellent micro-economic reform proposals) could be spread to advertisers, who went to bed at night just as restfully assured that readers were feasting on their double-page spread on winter warmers.
But mass audiences are not realistic any more. How could they be? In the new environment, it is a bit insulting to think they ever will be again. In a world full of people who are so different, why would there be a single mass audience for any given kind of news, now that the artificial barriers that once dictated one have dissolved?
This is how audience fragmentation works. As viewers and readers learn how to find the stuff they like, the old gatekeepers, whose job it used to be to decide what people would or should like, are increasingly redundant. That’s why all this hurts so much. Redundancy always does.
But, as we’ve always glibly assured previous victims of the open market, retraining is always an option.
For politicians, though, the urgency is in the here and now, and the potential to communicate difficult arguments to a large audience. The most legitimate concern about today’s fractured media marketplace is that we no longer have a town square. A place where we’re all on the same page. A moment – outside grand finals, or landmark episodes of Masterchef – at which a large chunk of Australians are all thinking about the same thing.
This is a fabulously complicated problem, to which I think the only sensible answer is consistency, and hard work. At times, I think politicians get spooked by this freewheeling Babel of media with which they tangle each day. They are worried about getting a run in the media, to the extent that getting a run becomes the aim in itself.
You’re probably thinking DEAR GOD if this is excerpts how long is the real deal – but as I said, how often do we really think these days?
I’ve decided to stop my internal wailing and hand wringing about these things, to spend more time reading and less time fretting and to perhaps share my thoughts with you all here.
I am also really keen to start a dialogue on this ‘stuff’ – I am by no means an expert and relish the opportunity to hear other’s point of view and insights. So SPEAK UP peeps.