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The forced estate

But you must agree that you could confuse even God himself
with such questions: where I stepped, how I stepped, when I
stepped, what I stepped in? I'll get confused that way, and
you'll pick up every dropped stitch and write it down at once,
and what will come of it? Nothing will come of it!

– Dmitri Karamazov in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov

 

IN THE ELECTION year of 2010, when both major parties were punitively handed a pineapple in lieu of a mandate, the most honest thing said by a politician was that he wouldn't always be honest. Yea: this was the Gospel According to Tony. Mr Abbott, the small-target Opposition Leader, gaffed in alerting the audience of the ABC's The 7:30 Report in May that his remarks were only dependable when they were delivered in speeches or pre-arranged policy announcements. '[S]ometimes, in the heat of discussion, you go a little bit further than you would if it was an absolutely calm, considered, prepared, scripted remark,' he told Kerry O'Brien.[i](He was responding to an adroit question about his changed stance on introducing new taxes, something for which he'd lambasted the Government.) The 'gospel truth' came only with 'those carefully prepared scripted remarks.'

The government, of course, ran hard with their 'foney Tony' moniker, attempting to destabilise an opponent who had proved canny in inoculating himself against such toxic faux pas. The Canberra press gallery and acolytes skipped gleefully alongside the shambling caravan. There were predictions the 'foney Tony' line of attack would be pushed right up until the election. Surely Abbott's credibility could not survive such candour? But the whole thing blew over within a couple of days; the media cycle is always in need of new grist. Soon enough there was a new Prime Minister. Not in their wildest dreams did the journos imagine they would enter August asking Prime Minister Julia Gillard whether she and her hairdressing partner would become the Lodge's first de facto couple. Kevin, was it something you said?

Abbott's honesty served as a kind of a how-to for the modern political novice: never, ever stray off script, even in 'the heat of discussion'. Honesty of any hue is a weakness. Abbott is notable for occasionally forgetting that 'those carefully prepared scripted remarks' are everything; Annabel Crabb described him as having Truth as a sort of 'parrot squawking on his shoulder.'[ii]There's nothing new in tagging politicians as liars, but lying isn't even the crutch of the modern politician: instead there are sins of omission; there are 'weasel words,' half-truths and distortions, none of which is expressly a lie but rather legerdemain.

'Abbott moments' are rare in modern politics, unless you are a Queensland senator: the interview subject keeps it reined in, on-message; chooses their words very carefully; meets questions with questions and demands for answers with yet more questions, or elaborate postmodern forays into obfuscation. Or they will so doggedly stick to a semantic point so as to invalidate the interviewer's question. After all, they can't afford to get caught out. To the objective viewer it seems like more than half of a politician's time goes into not being tripped up, staying 'on message' and making the question the one they wanted asked rather than what it was, with perhaps another 40 per cent of time dedicated to polling results and focus groups. Winning the day's media often seems the goal entire. Rudd's reign was infamous for its early morning 'cheat sheets', scripts for the day arriving via Blackberry in a fascinating act of electronic ventriloquism.

Why can't a politician give a straight answer? It's impossible to accept that this is their native tendency; their ducking and dodging, their risk-aversion and small-targetism is a response to external factors. It's survival behaviour: the entire aim is survival; to misspeak inflicts a wound. There has been an admission of defeat and a recalibration. They are resiling from the glare of inquiry.

 

CONSIDER A SOCIETY without the media scrutiny of affairs of state. It already exists, to varying degrees: in China, in North Korea, in a Russia where journalists are poisoned or irradiated and left to die in London hospice beds because they asked the right questions. The former examples are of soft, state-run edifices to transparency, while the latter cases transpire in a state where a free press extends only so far as the martinets permit. There is no doubt that the citizens of these states and countless others – Iran, Zimbabwe – suffer barbarities unimaginable in a secular Western democracy, and that these wilful failures are a result of ignorance of human rights and democratic conventions, but also most importantly the lack of a rigorous journalism to hold decisions to account, report atrocities and bring a light in to the armoured darkness of dictatorships. These are the things that elevate reporting beyond a mere daily record into a sacred and vital duty, a calling for those with brave and curious minds who would not let bastardry and folly stand on its weak foundations.

To the unschooled visitor, the sacred and vital duty of the press in Australia would appear to be gaffe-hunting and articles about budgie smugglers. When the political blogger Grog's Gamut sighed and threw up his hands after day fourteen of the federal election, labelling the journalists on the campaign trail as undertaking a 'round-the-country Twitter and booze tour,'[iii]those crying out in support ranged from anonymous citizen commentators to the managing director of the ABC, Mark Scott. The blogger had been interested in the details of that day's major Coalition policy announcement of support payments for severely disabled students, but on the opened floor the press gallery was only interested in Mark Latham, Labor leaks and foreign ownership of farms...the current big 'narratives' of the campaign, rather than anything to do with the announcement. The response of Grog's Gamut, who had a personal interest in the policy ignored that day, was cutting:

It is a sad thing to say but we could lose 95 per cent of the journalists following both leaders and the nation would be none the poorer for it. In fact we would probably be better off because it would leave the 5 per cent who have some intelligence and are not there to run their own narrative a chance to ask some decent questions of the leaders. Some questions which might actually reveal who would be the better leader of this country.

Crikey detailed another example at a Julia Gillard press conference for aged care funding in early August:

None of those issues were addressed by the journalists at the press conference. In fact, Labor's policy barely got a look-in. Instead, Gillard was bombarded with questions about how the media was managed at today's meeting with Kevin Rudd, her body language during the meeting with Rudd, and Mark Latham's presence as a 'journalist' for the Nine Network. It was an unusually striking example of the media displaying its pack mentality and demonstrating, almost with pride, its inability to focus on issues of substance.[iv]

At another presser a journo asked Ms Gillard whether the continual questions about Kevin Rudd were an annoyance and distraction to her campaign. The media event was to detail the extended coverage of the National Broadband Network; as Grog's Gamut noted, prior to the conference Sky News correspondent Kieran Gilbert agreed the policy would be a positive for the ALP 'if it got coverage.' Something is distinctly broken and wrongheaded in this approach.

This is not to imply that the entire Australian media are lightweight. The ABC, continually berated by conservative paranoiacs, hoards a stable of forensic, impartial interviewers the likes of Kerry O'Brien, Leigh Sales, Chris Uhlmann and Tony Jones. Ten, not renowned for political clout, offers Hugh Rimington, while Nine's elephantine perennial Laurie Oakes still finds a way to ask the hard questions and unassumingly become the news. We enjoy a smattering of strong print and electronic reporters and analysts: Laura Tingle, Phillip Coorey, Lenore Taylor, George Megalogenis, Peter Hartcher. These are all accomplished individuals, with tremendous political lucidity. So why is their output, and that of their lesser colleagues, so often disappointing in its approach to fine detail? Most importantly, the gaffe: why are they so obsessed with the gaffe?

The simplest guess is manifold: media thrives on audience; media is a constant trundling beast; to wit, in the age of internet and multiple twenty-four hour news channels, the onus is on our reporters and commentators to produce compelling content that self-sustains like a bushfire. Sydney Morning Herald political reporter and columnist Lenore Taylor suggests the result of the twenty-four-hour media cycle is 'that the media as a whole spends less time debating serious issues.'[v]She cites the Prime Minister's comments on the cheapened political discourse: 'Not everything can be reduced to a tweet,' says Julia Gillard. 'While you are doing a press conference, someone is tweeting about it. By the time you've walked back to your office, journalists are interviewing journalists about what the announcement may or may not mean. We all have an obligation to help sustain those deep conversations – I don't mean uncritically. I definitely don't mean that.'

Meanwhile, for many journalists policy dissection is an afterthought. This eternal media cycle long ago caught on to the fact that we glory in a gaffe, journalists and readers alike.

Personality politics trump the stretch-testing of new policies by journalists. Witness the breathless fascination with Mark Latham's intrusion at political handshake opportunities, given terabytes of coverage. This media-staged event fascinated the media. While the former Labor leader compiled a 60 Minutes report that was unedifying in the extreme, Sky News cameras followed him and journos filed copy. 'Latham was the ultimate pseudo-event and the way every news outlet gave it oxygen was a low point,' said Mark Scott in his speech at the Melbourne Writers Festival. The reason they were all interested, of course, was that with such a volatile former leader there promises to be fireworks! A whole day of election campaigning was lost to reporting about Kevin Rudd's admission to hospital for emergency gall bladder surgery, while reporters on the trail amused each other by punning song titles via the #ruddsongs hashtag[vi]and the evening news was padded with footage of the erstwhile PM visiting hospitals. ('Fourth estate showing off how big a bunch of pricks they are, worst still they aren't even funny pricks,' @seanjhross wrote.) Or recall the inane lines of questioning: should people pay for the sauce on their meat pies? What kind of Australian male drinks a light-beer shandy? All electors want stability and accountability, but there is a growing weariness with the chummy, self-referencing 'small potatoes' insularity of journalism. An elector, one who is engaged with politics in any way, is only interested with the personalities of their elected officials to the extent that their actions and beliefs impact their judgement. They certainly aren't interested in Abbott's preferred tipple, or what Gillard has on her pie.

Our men and women of the press strive for self-perpetuating 'human interest' stories. The most profitable of these, in terms of content generation, results from their efforts to trip-up their quarry and pounce on them lolling on the ground in their bespoke suits. In October, Abbott passed on a trip with Prime Minister Julia Gillard to meet the troops in Afghanistan en route. He was pilloried not so much for the declination but the way he couched it as wishing to avoid 'jetlag' – a poor choice of words, certainly, but hardly damnable. However, in the vacuum of a parliamentary recess the media ran with it, and kept running: heavy mainstream media coverage for two days; updates, opinion pieces, online polls. Comment was sought by Gillard, counter-claims from Abbott. Remarks on the issue from both sides of politics were interpreted by their adversaries as slights on 'our troops' on the ground. The mole-hill was a mountain. Abbott's own trip, which he claimed was prearranged and kept quiet for security reasons, followed a week later. Upon his return Abbott lowered the tone, accusing Gillard of subterfuge and 'low bastardry,' and we were off again. All of it was an unbecoming nonsense. When he made his own tour of the base at Tarin Kowt it felt, through no fault of his own, like a pissing contest. It should never have been so.

Something about the word 'gaffe' itself, the schoolyard bluntness of it, seems like the sound of elation to a dogged political reporter or avid Canberra-watcher. The mere mention lacquers the bottom lip with Pavlovian saliva. A public that revels in YouTube videos of women being hit with a catapulted watermelon is one that enjoys watching someone (particularly of a political colour they dislike) flub their lines. But gaffes happen. People misspeak. Even the most lauded actors flub their lines. When Abbott spoke of the degrees of his honesty, the attention paid the following day by media and his adversaries was instructive of just how much personality has come to trump policy in the civic theatre. What he said was gauche at best, and at worst pointed to an entrenched hyper-cynicism in the man, but the media was engrossed – it had its narrative for the day – and from the public was, ultimately, disinterested (at least one friend said to me: Politicians lie! There's breaking news!). But as mentioned, the issue isn't lying – it's that the political lingua franca is deadened, its speakers neutered, the discourse homogenised into catchphrases and curly questions played with a dead bat so as to minimise any chance for embarrassment or a stolen march by the foe. Abbott was so remarkable because he went off-script – which he did so rarely in the approach to the election – with candour so unfamiliar to the modern political observer. We seek to hold our politicians to an impossible standard of perfection. And they work very hard to meet it. We demand politicians have the correct response for every situation, have every figure to hand, and are indefatigable. We are watching their every move. Why are we surprised when we end up with automatons?

It becomes a cynical game of brinkmanship: the journalists – 'shunted and controlled and frustrated and increasingly sick and tired' as Scott describes those on the campaign bus – go to greater lengths to catch the pollies out or draw out the great evolving narratives of 'faceless men' soap operas or jet-lag excuses, while the pollies, each minister with cheat sheet in hand, stick to the script. Mark Scott, again: 'The politicians are scripted – they say the same things over and over again. Less variation in response means fewer choices for journalists to report on something you don't want.' In his speech he outlined 'the old maxims taught to politicians' – three in particular resound:

– Just when you are sick of saying it, people are beginning to hear it for the first time.

– Don't answer the question they ask, answer the question you wanted them to ask.

– Don't change the argument, change the audience.

Is it in our interest to promulgate such forensic dissection of remarks, such bringing to bear of what we know – better or worse – about the private lives of politicians on the policies they frame? Wouldn't we prefer the focus to stay on policy, on conviction and ideology and all those words we refer to with milk-eyed nostalgia? Politicians are guilty here, but the media is complicit. What is the point at which a robust journalism that holds elected officials, departments, bureaucrats and programs to account becomes an unwitting accomplice in the deadening of political discourse? If there are twenty-four hours to fill, across diverse platforms – free-to-air and pay television, print and online journalism, the blogosphere and Twitter – shouldn't we then have an opportunity, unparalleled in the history of the democratic fourth estate, for deeper scrutiny, for line-by-line analyses of policy? How and why has a broadening of the stage resulted in a narrowing of the focus?

 

A LOT OF it has to do with the level of noise. It's often lamented that we live in the 'age of the soundbite,' and online, in affording a panoply of distractions, has only made it harder to prod a message through in a clear yet meaningful way. It's not a new thing to see leaders in hard-hats, kissing babies, filleting fish, riding a horse, kicking a football – we can trace it back to US presidential elections in the 1960s, and perhaps further. But the greater the noise, the harder politicians are working, not to mention the journos generating content, and the hard analysis gets marginalised, pushed to the opinion pages or behind online paywalls (try checking out a Laura Tingle article in some downtime at work – good luck if you don't have a subscription to the Financial Review). Abbott masterfully weighed up the Coalition's position, its lack of policy credibility and his own shortcomings and built a platform of only four planks – his 'Action Contract'. You could watch TV, read a newspaper, be listening to radio or peregrinating online and you would encounter the clauses: '1) End wasteful spending. 2) Pay back Labor's debt. 3) Stop Labor's new taxes. 4) Stop the boats.' Abbott and his team drew up these uninspiring electoral tropes and proceeded to hammer them day in and out for six weeks – for all of 2010, really. An informed observer could see there was little or no policy vision underpinning these planks, and if they were ripped up there would be nothing underneath, but our media wielded no crowbar. The message, in all its simplicity, penetrated.

Abbott also set aside his famously forthright (gaffe-happy) persona, pulling himself up to near dead-even in the polls through a strategy of not giving the newshounds a scrap. But did these selfsame newshounds go sniffing down any trails? Certainly, News Limited titles seemed reluctant. The rise and rise of Abbott owed indubitably to superficial treatment by the media. Hardly did one read an objection to his lines about debt and waste. There was plenty to object to, or at the very least scrutinise, had the zeal been there: the Orgill interim report into the Building the Education Revolution (BER) programme found that of 254 complaints (a 2.7 per cent sample of the 10,551 projects completed nationally), a majority raised 'very valid concerns'[vii]pertaining to value for money on projects. From this tiny sample Abbott was able to unfeasibly divine Labor's unfitness to govern a $1.1 trillion economy.[viii]Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, with no apparent affiliation to the Australian Labor Party, praised the stimulus spending as 'the best designed stimulus package of any of the…advanced industrial countries'[ix]and asserted that with all such emergency measures waste is inevitable and a choice had to be made as to whether it would be in government spending terms or the denial of jobs and lost production.[x]Abbott glibly countered that 'You can never justify waste. Waste is never justified.'[xi]One can agree that waste is unacceptable, but one must accept it is inevitable; the imperative is to minimise it wherever possible. So while Abbott was correct in one sense, he was being semantic. Did we get any sustained challenges to his logic from the national media? Outlets did report the Stiglitz assessment, but with Abbott they seemed a little gun-shy. Complicit in this operation of discrediting was Labor, which refused to acknowledge the Stiglitz commentary – was this modesty, perchance? Or just an atrociously managed campaign? In defence of the media, it was hard for them to mount any sort of critical refutations to Abbott's statements when the government was so ineffectual in arguing its own case.

All this may seem to imply the public receiving this sort of coverage is slackjawed and liable to believe any gaffe-happy or agenda-driven story it's fed. On the contrary, one could contend the public is far more politically savvy, erudite and cynical than any generation preceding. News is faster than ever, available across innumerable platforms, and blogs and online comments sections appended to articles overflow with debate. This 'cynicism,' ideally, is the healthiest kind – a cultivated mistrust. The modern information consumer needs to be armed with this just to cut through the rising tide of bilge and bullshit. The difficulty is when this cultivated mistrust becomes so crippling, the questions so concerned with 'narrative' and the answers reiterations, that the information consumer switches off completely. The people on these blogs and comments sections are demanding passionate, nuanced, conscientious journalism.

There needs to be a concerted effort on the part of the Australian political media to ditch the trivia and the pettiness – as well as the methods of inquiry that produce political stagnation – and think of new ways to get politicians talking in a frank, critical way about the issues that will shape this century. To an extent this will always be constrained by partisan politics, and it is the great hope of the new hung parliament – already being witnessed at the time of writing – that mature discussion of matters such as euthanasia, same-sex marriage, water usage, climate change and the war in Afghanistan would be inevitable. The fourth estate, as a vital instrument in a free and fair democracy, has to reconcile content-making and audience-generation in a competitive digital environment with its duty and reason for existence – not entertainment or psychoanalyses, but public discourse and hard-headed scrutiny. Perhaps we're still only just beginning to comprehend the potential for new media. For its part, the ABC has consulted Jay Rosen, the American advocate of citizen journalism and NYU professor of journalism, about how it might better utilise new media, twinned with established channels, to improve mainstream election coverage. A canvassing of the electorate and experts, polling and an assessment of national affairs both immediate and long-range would form part of the national broadcaster's approach, covering issues where they matter, the story informed by the participation of political leaders but not beholden to it, 'asking questions, seeking policy responses and political insights'. The agenda would be framed by those on the ground rather than the elected officials and their interrogators. 'Perhaps,' says Scott, 'it would at least be a way of countering tightly scripted politicians, who want policy discussions only on the day and terms they – not the public or the journalists – have set.'

Most of all, it's incumbent on information consumers to demand earnestness of inquisition, and to strive for maturity in the way our country is governed. Like it or not, you aid and abet every time you tune in or buy a paper or click a link to a story about something unimportant – a new gaffe, a skeleton in the closet, an unfounded harangue. The name of the game isn't, or shouldn't be, condemnation and embarrassment. Sure, we strive to know our politicians as people – there are profile pieces, biographies, autobiographies and memoirs, and they all have their place. But we need more from our news media than hunting mistakes and generating conflict. Politics is not and should not be about gut feelings, nor judging a man or woman on their private actions. One of the most disgusting examples of political reporting this year involved a New South Wales minister, a gay sex club and a camera. What on Earth was the public interest in exposing David Campbell? Unless he was misusing public funds or resources: none. It was titillation, not to mention an unwarranted breach of his privacy. Please hear me: I do not care that Julia Gillard is unmarried. How does atheism affect judgement on ethical and moral issues of state? I have spent much of this piece defending Tony Abbott, when generally I don't like the man or agree with his politics. I was, and am, more interested in assessing any individuals running for high office on their merits and their vision for the nation – on these criteria I made my decision to not vote for Abbott's party, not on the basis of what he drank or wore or whether or not he said something ill-advised or which God he believes in. All told, I came to the conclusion his was a cynical brand of politics, that he proposed nothing that would progress Australia, address the crisis of the environment or work to change the unhappy lot of those on the margins. Which is not to say I voted Labor, either. In coming to a decision, the wider media was of little assistance, and I like to think myself politically literate – God help those who looked for some guidance from the nightly news, or the Daily Telegraph…or Mark Latham.

The election has demonstrated that we're unhappy with what is being served up, both from our politicians and those in the business of scrutiny. There is apathy, cynicism and mistrust in abundance. So what are we doing about it?



[i] http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2010/s2901996.htm

[ii] http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/07/20/2958550.htm

[iii] 'Election 2010: Day 14 (or waste and mismanagement – the media)'; http://grogsgamut.blogspot.com/2010/07/election-2010-day-14-or-waste-and.html

[iv] http://blogs.crikey.com.au/thestump/2010/08/07/journalists-shine-a-light-on-their-own-obsessions/

[v] 'Word-miser Windsor sets political precedent', The Sydney Morning Herald News Review, October 16-17 2010 p. 25

[vi] http://www.sbs.com.au/vote2010/spinning-the-web/blog/1013782/Ruddsongs-saga-proves-journos-have-a-lot-to-learn

[vii] http://www.bertaskforce.gov.au/documents/publications/BERIT_Interim_Report_06082010.pdf

[viii] http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/08/06/2975239.htm

[ix] http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/08/06/2975865.htm

[x] http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2010/s2965891.htm

[xi] Press Conference, 6 August 2010. (http://www.tonyabbott.com.au/LatestNews/InterviewTranscripts/tabid/85/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/7563/Joint-Press-Conference-Devonport.aspx)

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