Sunday, March 4, 2012

not the six o'clock news

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As Naomi Klein pointed out in No Logo, public space has been replaced by shopping malls and the more our world is privatised, the fewer spaces we have to congregate and talk about anything "serious".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 Australia 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.
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 Australia has no guarantee of free speech in its constitution. [Dare I say, once again, that the constitution is rubbish?]

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.


  1. I never thought of OZ as a country in which the concept of 'revolution' would go down well. However, the more that I - an easy going non-confrontationalist - am incensed by the appalling mediocrity that passes for politics in this country, the more I wonder if it could maybe catch on.

    1. I'd like to think at some point there will be a velvet revolution; someone with a little dignity will catch the imagination of the press and the public, and reset the standards of behaviour. In the meantime, I just hate the thought of more and more legislation being passed, as they are not likely to be undone.

  2. If the government were to regulate the media i dare say the PR companies and spin doctors would have a field day twisting the truth around or even hiding it to suit their agendas or anybody else's for that matter :-).

    1. So, they might have to be a little more creative for their dollar?

  3. I agree with you about the media and its relationship to government but while we wouldn't want to see more regulation of media, there does need to be better avenues for redress by citizens and serious punishment of media for some of the scandals we frequently see exposed in Media Watch.

    1. I'd love to see a fairer means of redress across the board, but we already have a judiciary which is hopefully independent and I'm not sure "watchdogs" or regulators are too successful at protecting our interests as it is. Price is the problem. VCAT and similar informal courts already take care of consumer complaints up to a certain amount, and at a price that allows John and Joan Average access to justice.
      I'm not sure of the solution, but maybe something akin to the VCAT system would allow people to deal with civil matters in a more equitable way. If someone slanders your good name, you should not need a million dollars in the bank to get a shot at justice.
      The civil courts, at least, take common sense and reason as their guide, not rules and regulations which can't anticipate problems too well, or allow for flexibility.