When politicians and journalists dance incestuously

My following book review appeared in yesterday’s Sydney Sun Herald newspaper:

Lindsay Tanner
(Scribe, $32.95)

“Australia and its people deserve much better than the carefully scripted play-acting that now dominates our nation’s politics.” So begins former ALP minister Lindsay Tanner’s timely examination of the toxic relationship between corporatised media and its political cousins. Politics is about the art of the possible, as long as it’s short, entertaining and doesn’t offend any major interests; Tanner laments these undeniable modern facts.

Of course, Tanner is hardly a disinterested observer and he (perhaps too lightly) critiques himself and the Labor Party for their various sins of omission, avoidance of tough decisions and obsessing over the 24/7 news cycle.

Tanner targets the Murdoch press, Fairfax empire and ABC for often ignoring policy details and instead running with humorous commentary. Such frivolous writings (like seemingly endless panel shows on TV) are relatively cheap to produce, take little effort apart from witty insights and contribute to the carnival feeling of modern politics. It’s no wonder so few members of the public express respect for the mainstream media or politicians; elite incestuousness results in an unhealthy cosiness between political advisers and press gallery reporters.

“Exclusives” are often simply sanctioned leaks to push the day’s agenda. Tanner is right to despair at this kind of debasement of democracy.

And yet so few politicians take on the corporate press, afraid of the penalty. When Greens leader Bob Brown, during a press conference on May 19, challenged the Murdoch papers on their vigorous campaign against the proposed carbon tax, News Limited journalists reacted with comical defensiveness. Tanner would surely congratulate Brown for having the temerity to push back against an agenda that solely favours business interests at the expense of average voters (not that it’s framed that way).

Tanner worries that “civil sensibility” is dying with the rise of “infotainment” but it’s a potentially dangerous argument. Before the internet age, the mainstream media solely decided which voices were heard and which perspectives shunned. In the new media age, ideas and thoughts can be transmitted often without the filter of the mainstream and gatekeepers worry they can no longer entirely control the message. Tanner seems ambivalent about this development but real civil society proponents would welcome it.

The former politician is on firmer ground when he critiques and condemns the horse-race nature of modern politics. Who’s up and who’s down in the polls is a constant headline of front-page stories and lead news on ABC radio. It’s arguable whether such information really contributes anything significant to public debate except meaningless questions by journalists to a prime minister and opposition leader about their feelings over the latest numbers. Tanner wonders if many in the media are “simply lazy and cynical”, led by the agenda of a corporate boss. With Australia having the most tightly controlled print media environment in the Western world, he clearly has a point.

“After decades of amateurism, politics is rapidly catching up with the advertising industry,” Tanner writes. “The manipulation of our psychological characteristics that has been central to advertising for decades is now coming to the fore in politics.” Naturally, politics has always been about selling a message, person or legal bribe, and at least in the 21st century most people can both see past the spin and don’t accept what they’re told by journalists or politicians. That is surely a blessing in disguise.

This book isn’t full of possible solutions to the sideshow problem. Tanner wonders if compulsory voting should be abolished (he’s a reluctant supporter) and about the removal of journalists from Canberra’s press gallery (he believes the media’s myopia would change little) and increased government funding for quality media (he argues this could bring more diverse perspectives to the fore).

Overall, Tanner’s thesis is dire. He has little faith in his former parliamentary colleagues being interested or willing to break out of a system that rewards sound bites over substance. He sees little appetite in the corporate press for reform; it is, after all, press conferences where journalists routinely ask politicians for their views on any issue of the day, whether it’s relevant for a prime minister to comment or not. But a quote is sought and usually given.

If Tanner’s intention behind this book is to highlight the growing disparity between rhetoric and reality in the Australian political landscape and the contempt shown by media elites towards the general public, he has mostly succeeded.

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