In a Quarterly Essay titled Trivial Pursuit, George Megalogenis wrote about how obsessed politicians have become with spin and the media cycle. Kevin Rudd was the master of the daily announcement, has a massive twitter following and, as we saw, called a press conference in the middle of the night in Washington to announce his resignation – just in time for the 6 o’clock news back home.
Lindsay Tanner, retired Labor Minister, published a book last year called Sideshow: dumbing down democracy. It’s the sort of book I would normally guts down in one sitting, but I could only take it in small doses – the media and politicians seem to work hand in hand not so much to dumb down democracy, as to diminish voters.
The media, it is said, will not give space to reasoned debate or mundane announcements, because readers want emotional reports. Politicians oblige with bullshit.
This would be amusing if it did not mean that the media are framing debate in this country [and in others]. The question might not be “do we get the government we deserve?” so much as “do we get the media we deserve?”
And who is left to “keep the bastards honest”?
Bloggers could have a role to play in re-framing debate, as could YouTube and other social media. Is this enough?
I find it interesting to reflect on the role of hard copy in history – before the printing press changed the west; European rebels were often imprisoned for distributing handwritten pamphlets. Printed pamphlets and newsletters have long been powerful, and played an important part in resistance movements during the last world war. Word of mouth, too, was important.
The days of a “local” member of parliament standing on a platform and delivering speeches or answering questions in person are long gone. The idea of a member representing a local community they knew, and which knew them, are long gone. [We only have to recall how Bob Hawke was parachuted into the once safe Labor seat of Wills to see what the word “local” means in this context.]
As Naomi Klein pointed out in No Logo, public space has been replaced by shopping malls and the more our world is privatised, the fewer spaces we have to congregate and talk about anything "serious". If we want to hand out brochures in Melbourne there are conditions and a permit is required. For gosh' sake, most councils will fine us if we put a for sale sign on a car.
Few of us live in “communities” where we know all of our neighbours, their families, and their family histories intimately. The bush telegraph has been replaced by a media that stands between us and our “representatives” leading to the distortion of messages passing to or fro.
The recent Finkelstein report into the media has recommended
give up on the idea of “self-regulation” and establish yet another taxpayer funded body complete with delegated authority, to keep everyone in the playground in line. Australia
This body would do nothing to ensure anything in the media is worth knowing, or to ensure politicians made themselves accountable to their employers rather than the profit and loss statements of media moguls –ostensibly this body will make “…the news media more accountable to those covered in the news, and to the public generally."
Naturally, its ambit will extend to things like blogs and facebook.
The government is free to pass a law to regulate the media because
has no guarantee of free speech in its constitution. [Dare I say, once again, that the constitution is rubbish?] Australia
Last year saw the publication of a book called Planet Word by J.P. Davidson. The text of a documentary series fronted by Stephen Fry, it’s very readable and endlessly fascinating. Think of a situation where language is involved – hieroglyphics, sign languages used by those who can’t speak, even Klingon – and it’s covered. At the very end of this book is the following:
Propaganda can be blunt or subtle, blindingly obvious or relentlessly and cleverly suggestive, but its aim has always been to persuade and get everyone on message, whatever the method. It’s been used by regimes to lie, dissemble, exhort, convert and cover up. Totalitarian regimes have created huge ministries of propaganda, while democracies have given birth to their bastard offspring – the PR companies and spin doctors.
I’m sure one or two people will agree with me that the news media in this country is a pimp and – let me see if I can make a statement in need of regulation – politicians are its whores.
For all that, the idea of having a government regulate the media is appalling.