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Mauled by the media monster

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COMMENTS

2 May 2011 11:12

Retiring politicians have an occasional habit of issuing a big valedictory warning to their nation.

Think George Washington’s farewell advice against foreign entanglements and permanent alliances or Dwight Eisenhower's farewell fulmination about the military-industrial complex.

The new monster troubling departing politicians is the malign influence of the modern media.

Tony Blair set the standard with his farewell speech, describing the media as a 'feral beast' that overwhelms politics and saps the nation's 'confidence and self belief'.

Australia's former Finance Minister, Lindsay Tanner, has followed the Blair example with his book 'Sideshow: Dumbing down democracy'.

Some politicians do take on the media while still in the arena rather than as they hit the exit ramp: Barack Obama last week did his bit for the silly distractions argument by skewering 'sideshows and carnival barkers'; although, the President rather undercut the let-us-be-serious tone by then hopping on the plane and flying off to be interviewed by Oprah.

The Tanner effort is a sustained and passionate argument, but ultimately notable for what it lacks: the politicians. Here is a man who has devoted his life to politics and was one of the Gang of Four that ran Australia from 2007 to 2010. He kicks the Oz media with gusto — and often with good cause — but the blows delivered to the political class are passing or glancing.

Tanner is determined not to damage the Labor Government he has just departed and that makes for a curiously one-sided rant.

The symbiosis between politicians and media means one can't be understood without constant reference to the other. In his effort to be true to Labor, Tanner wimps out by talking about only one side of the relationship — what the media are doing to politics.

The former Finance Minister laments that the media have become a 'carnival sideshow' where the 'contest of ideas is being supplanted by the contest for laughs'.

He argues that the 'creation of appearances is now far more important for leading politicians than is the generation of outcomes'. The cult of celebrity is driving out complexity. 'Big ideas and crucial reforms' are subsumed by the need for 'announceables and soundbites'.

Just consider those points for a moment: for our pollies, appearances matter more than results and the crucial must bow to the needs of the doorstep. And this strange perversion of values is caused by journalists?

In the world Tanner describes, the media run the artificial reality show and the politicians have walk-on parts.

Tanner is most interesting when he glances back at the political side of the symbiosis. The asides are tantalising. For instance:

'During the interminable discussions within the government around presentational issues, I sometimes joked with colleagues we should experiment with governing well: maybe that would go down well with the focus groups and polls'. Please, tell us more.

In Chapter 5, The Power of Choice, on the media's agenda-setting role, Tanner offers this tantalising single sentence: 'Many stories reflect processes of information trading between journalists and sources where each is seeking to manipulate the other'.

Exactly right, but that is the start and finish of any thought on how ministers and minders and oppositions operate — and plot and manipulate — in the subterranean information trade that pulses through all politics and government. Instead, the rest of the chapter is on the arbitrary way the media decide what to cover.

This is a market not a monopoly, but not the way the former Finance Minister explains it.

One of the most interesting bits of the book is when the mutual mechanisms of the symbiosis get some discussion. The issue of 'spin' momentarily takes centre stage in a chapter entitled 'Politicians fight back'. Suddenly, Tanner is talking about all the techniques used to drive or deceive the media, although he maintains it is all the fault of the journos:

'What is now universally derided as 'spin' is, in fact, a whole range of techniques that have evolved among politicians in response to changing media dynamics. In essence, these techniques, though highly manipulative, are inherently defensive'.

Sorry folks, our leaders may deceive and dissemble, but it's all defensive. The media made me do it.

The suite of techniques includes a preference for general not specific answers, use of 'weasel' words and stock phrases, attack your opponent or attack the interviewer, never admit doubt, withhold information to deny 'oxygen' to a bad story, leak information selectively to create a false impression through the media, give favoured journalists choice stories in return for positive treatment, set targets years ahead, juggle dubious statistics to suit — skipping between cash/accrual/nominal/real or proportion of GDP indicators.

And if all else fails, try a calculated display of contrition, 'manufactured to soften the impact of public criticism'.

If the list is a bit complex, Mark Latham boiled it down to five tactical ploys in routine use:
1. Buy time
2. Create a diversion
3. Create an illusion
4. Deliver up a sacrificial lamb
5. Make a small announcement

Sideshow reduces this to two key rules that now govern the practice of Australian politics:
1. Look like you're doing something
2. Don’t offend anyone who matters

The nation that made swearing an art form has apparently produced a political class of timid, mealy-mouthed wimps.

In 2010, Lindsay Tanner was close to the centre of the most cyclonic year in Australian politics since 1975, but only a few soft zephyrs touch this account. Here is the one substantive comment on last year:

'The democratic process is undermined by the dominance of cynical apparatchiks who are skilled at manipulating the levers of political power but believe in little other than their own career advancement. The sideshow syndrome punishes idealists and activists and elevates cynical machine-politics to paramount importance. It fosters politics without beliefs. It has little tolerance for leaders of conviction such as Paul Keating. The removal of Kevin Rudd as prime minister had very powerful echoes of the sideshow syndrome. The two charges against him — poor poll figures with an accompanying loss of community engagement, and an autocratic governing style — are hardly unusual in Australian politics. Paul Keating's path from 1993 to 1996 bore some resemblance to Rudd's, but he wasn't removed by the Labor caucus. The dominance of media imagery and the machine politics it encourages is the difference. When a political leader is in trouble nowadays, patience isn't an option. Rudd went from being in a strong position to suffering political decapitation within a few months. Even though the election wasn't due for five months, fears of irresistible media pressure led many Labor MPs to conclude that his position couldn't be recovered. This sudden-death context is altering the nature of political leadership. Leaders will find it increasingly difficult to take necessary but unpopular decisions in the hope that they will succeed in the longer term because they probably won't get the opportunity to have a longer term'.

On the final page of the book, Tanner is 'appalled by the childish quality of the 2010 election campaign', and amplified that with Barry Cassidy on Insiders, lacerating Labor's 'Moving Forward' slogan (and the Coalition's slogan effort, too) as inane, content free, bland, and meaningless.

Lindsay Tanner may yet give us a great book on Australian politics, but it will be delivered on the other side of the Gillard government. Those reading Sideshow might reflect that media have always lived by simplifying and exaggerating. And in a free society, the duty of media is to report on the rulers, not necessarily make it easy for them to rule.

Tanner lets fly with some excellent zingers, such as the ultimate sentence of the first chapter: 'Modern politics now resembles a Hollywood blockbuster: all special effects and no plot'.

Nicely done, but if tempted to enter Tanner’s Sideshow, take with you a second companion — an excellent journalist writing about how the pollies play.

In 'Trivial Pursuit: Leadership and the End of the Reform Era' George Megalogenis travels over the same ground as Tanner in less than half the wordage while dispensing just as much sarcasm and sorrow about the state of Oz.

The difference is that while giving the media plenty of kicks, Megalogenis argues that it is the politicians who are the problem.

Where Tanner stays his sword, Megalogenis judges that Labor returned to office in 2007 unready and unable to lead: 'The Rudd enigma explains some of it. He came to office with more than 600 promises to implement and a determination to win every day in the media. Ambition and indecisiveness linked arms to create an unusual model of leadership. Rudd talked, and talked. In the end, he was all doorstop and no delivery...This wasn't an exercise in leadership but a form of politics as celebrity'.

Unhappy is the land where the doorstop has the same status as a decision.

Photo courtesy of Penguin Books Australia.

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