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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

Tanner on gotcha « Previous | |Next »
April 30, 2011

I have yet to read Lindsay Tanner's Sideshow: Dumbing down democracy. This text, from what I gather, describes contemporary politics in terms how the media and the politicians and even the electorate have caused the dumbing of down politics to a series of sound bites and robotic performances, where focus groups set the direction. Politics is a carnival sideshow.

In an interview with The Age Tanner says:

When I got into Parliament and throughout most of the '80s and into the '90s, right across the political spectrum, people were on about big issues, big ideas, big battles. That era seems to have passed and we have descended into this world of announceables and gimmicks and stunts and I really believe the two prevailing rules of political behaviour now are: one, look like you're doing something; and, two, don't offend anyone who matters.So you end up in this kind of faux politics, where basically people are pretending, or they're actually acting out roles in many areas and the content of the challenge is sidestepped because the price that would be paid for tackling a serious challenge is just too high...

Tanner's central thesis is that the media-politician relationship has become a damaging vicious circle: the media turns politics into entertainment, the politicians, knowing what's good for them, give in kind, and the results are public cynicism and often bad decisions. Politics defaults to politics as a sport and it has drifted into a really tawdry, low-rent space.

His argument is that political habits have been modified and attuned to a changing media environment, and that the gotcha mentality (with its loaded questions) results in politicians always being backed into corners where they play it safe and defensive to avoid the media talk of gaffes, splits, person x attacks person y etc. So they are forced to play the media's game.

In conversation with Andrew Jaspan Tanner says that the media are the oxygen of politics and politicians, without that oxygen politicians die, they do not exist. Politicians have a very limited choice in the new media landscape:

Politicians live or die by access to those media, but the terms on which they get access are not within their control and therefore inevitably they make choices, and some try to shape how it works more than others and inevitably they make choices designed to maximize their appearance in that media and their positive image in that media.

This media dumbing down is why politicians behave the way they do. Politicians are unavoidably captive to the media because without the media they don’t exist and nobody knows who they are and what they’re on about.

The political is ceasing to be about the content of big issues and big arguments and different points of view about the future of the country, and it is becoming this game where you have this toxic interaction between media and politicians.It's an accurate account, even if a little light on the way the politicians have acted to hollow the political over and above their response to media as entertainment.

The Canberra Press Gallery, who just want Tanner to do a kiss and tell, ain't going to like the criticism but they will find it harder to dismiss Tanner than Latham.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 11:47 PM | | Comments (13)


It's good to see this problem getting a decent airing, although as Grogs Gamut points out, most of the media are treating the story as just another gotcha. And Grog rightly points out that a lot of political journalists don't know the difference between policy and politics.

Apparently Tanner refers to a couple of bloggers for good policy reporting. If politicians are so sick of stupid media, isn't it time they made better use of bloggers? If they really wanted decent policy reporting, shouldn't they be engaging with people who are actually interested?

"And Grog rightly points out that a lot of political journalists don't know the difference between policy and politics."

Especially the carnival barkers at the shock jock sideshows

Grog Gamut says that:

'The book’s central thesis is that the media and politicians are locked into a dumbed-down, trivial, vicious circle, that is for the most part instigated by dumb, lazy journalism, and dumb media organisation that encourage such journalism and coverage of politics.

His judgement is that that Tanner’s thesis is well argued and accurate.

Makes the politicians passive doesn't it. That's hard to accept on face value given the antics of the NSW Right.

Let's not let our fellow citizens (aka consumer) of the hook! Yes... this sounds elitist... yadda, yadda, blargle... but I am damn sure that the proportion of aggressively dumb, barely educated, self-absorbed voters is higher than it's ever been.

BTW. A few days ago I was in Thailand. Interesting that on of the major papers over there was carrying an article bemoaning the rise of "populist" politics. Seems we're not alone. Lazy pollies all over the world are increasingly opting for the low road to easy votes.

The media response has come in exactly as predicted by Tanner.
There could not be a better confirmation of his thesis than if he had written their responses, as a parody of course, himself.
There have been multiple examples of whooshing sounds at medium altitudes as various journos, print and TV, have missed or misinterpreted Tanner's points and given him, on bright shiny platters, case study examples of what is wrong with the work they perform for their managerial masters.
The irony is overwhelming.

Pity about the poor public tho'.

I watched the 7.30 interview with Tanner conducted by Leigh Sales. Even though it was structured around his book Sales was primarily interested in Tanner's kissing and telling about the inner workings of the Gillard Government.

To try to give an example of what you talk about in terms of the superficiality overriding policy, I want to talk about one particular policy area around climate change. We know that Labor dumped the ETS when polling got a little bit rough. Was that the right decision in a policy sense for our nation?

And so on and so on.

Pity about the poor public? Oh my.

Here's what I really don't GET, fred... why is it that DESPITE the pitiful journos and their slithering managers, there are a bunch on blogs and forums where (some) people discuss the serious topic of the day? Why is it that DESPITE the mindless dribble that passes for "news" some people manage to keep themselves informed?

What is it about the "poor public" that makes them so eager to swallow the pablum that's spewed at them? What is it that prevents so many of them from even TRYING to think for themselves?

As far as I am concerned, the "poor public" is simply getting what it demands.

Well, to answer your question mars08, its cos some people, most people, have hard working busy lives that leave little room for exploring away from the mainstream spin.

I'll try the anecdotal line with which I think most people here and in Oz will empathise.
Before I was retired and after the kids had left the nest I used to be on the road to work before 7am and head home again usually after 6pm to arrive home 7pm ish.
Ms fred was doing roughly the same.
We would sit and 'de brief' our day for a while and then prepare dinner, often a poorly planned dinner at that, cos the weekend was pretty much reserved for outside housework, shopping and the like.
[Thank the gods for microwaves and freezers.]
Then dishes and finally collapse in front of the TV, maybe watch bloody Collingwood on a Friday night.
That where we got most of our news from.
"Remember this slogan: "More people get their news from Channel 9 than any other source"?
See, that why its called mass media, cos its what the masses of people who are busy living and working and bringing up kids and washing dishes and mowing lawns and shopping for tucker do.
They watch and read the mass media.
The last week or so has been almost constant pure propaganda for religion [Easter], militarism [Anzac], aristocracy [that wedding].
You can't blame the people for what Murdoch and the ABC et al put on teev and their front pages.

Bugger all people will read Tanner's book.
I won't.
Bugger all people will analyse what Fran Kelly or Bolt or Shanahan says, they are too busy.
Its only a handful of political tragics like us who, for our sins, are interested in this stuff.

People do think, but they think about the things that are important to them, like their jobs, kids, family, housework, hobbies and so on.

They don't have time to do much else.

Fred all that may be true but if it is, you need to accept the logical implications. The fundamental requirement of a democratic society is an informed and engaged citizenry. Your analysis makes it clear that is not what we have in Australia; moreover you obviously believe people have no real wish to inform themselves or get engaged (they don't seem to be too tired to get interested in other things). If your interpretation is correct, and I'm not suggesting it isn't, then it's time we stopped kidding ourselves this is a democracy and turned our attention to improving our form of representative government so it's more, ummm, representative.

Fair enough, fred.

But I am a tradesman, sole-parent, caring for a teenage daughter. Yet somehow I seem to manage.

On the other hand, I have no idea about who is starring in Australian Idol, where Kate Middleton got her dress or who won the footie on the weekend.

Maybe I'm one of those rare political tragics, but I also don't think I have right to an opinion when it comes to the footie or Australian Idol.

So, what gives the misinformed "poor public" a right to an opinion on how the country is being run?

Ken [and mars].

Oh I agree with you Ken.

This is not a democracy.

As you say a "fundamental requirement of a democratic society is an informed and engaged citizenry".

We don't have that.

How can we achieve such?

But I'm nor too sure about the statement that the citizenry is not engaged.
A statement with which I'm presume mars would agree.

Let me try to reconcile the apparent contradiction of an uninformed unengaged public still being engaged.
[Preface by "IMO"].

In Australia most people, and particularly the right wing pundits, presume that politics equals the farce that is parliamentary personality party politics.
That the antics of Gillard and Abbott and the like is what politics is all about.

But of course thats not true, such is only a tiny bit of what politics really is.
We have to look at the other ways politics goes on in our society.
I'm [loosely] defining politics as people being involved in the decision making processes that go on in our society and that impact on the way we live.

So, for example, big corporate leaders are politically active and powerful.
Eg their opposition to a mining 'tax' and to a carbon 'tax'.
Lots more powerful and influential than me because they have millions of dollars to play with and direct access to their mates in the mass media who will push their line for them and they can bribe/threaten the public with stories of "we'll all be rooned if ....".
Now just taking that one power clique in our society out of all the power cliques that operate [eg religion, farmers and irrigators, males, bankers]we really should be amazed that so many people have not swallowed the bullshit of the carbon lobby .
Considering the barrage of propaganda the OO has pushed [see Tim Lambert's Deltoid for details] with help from the ABC, IPA, polluters etc, it really is quite amazing and a credit to the sense and perception of the Oz public that there is still majority support for action on climate change in Oz.

Thats a pretty smart, semi-informed at worst, ethical response.

But the trouble is the public is not powerful.

You, Ken and mars, and I can't print several newspapers that distort info every day.
We are not Rupert.

Nor, on a different tack, can we preach hatred and prejudice and bigotry every Sunday morning regarding gays and abortion and the like.
Yet despite hundreds of years of brainwahing and indoctrination most Aussies support the rights of g/l people.
Considering the power and influence of the bigots that a pretty good response from the public isn't it?

What I'm suggesting is that its wrong to say that the public is unengaged.
We are in two senses.
We are all engaged in politics daily when we impact, or are impacted on, by the decision making processes that occur in our society outside that narrow field [parliament and the front page of the OO or Channel 7's headline] that the pundits define as politics.
We impact on politics by the influence we have in our work and our friends and so on. By membership of groups, even footy club membership is political, just not according to Piers Ackerman types.

Its just that we don't have the impact of Twiggy or Rupert or Pell et al.
We, the public, are [comparatively] powerless.

We need empowering.
So that when a million of us get off our bums and march through the streets of our cities to protest against an impending attack on another country [Iraq], as we actually did not that long ago, then the political process actually is impacted instead of just rolling on barely noticing.
The second sense of being engaged.
Direct action.
But it didn't succeed.

We need empowering.

Thats chapter two.

the Canberra Press Gallery only interested in Tanner's thoughts on Kevin Rudd’s demise and the performance of Julia Gillard. That is what they are demanding .

fred... I'd suggest that the pollies will continue to barely notice "when a million of us get off our bums and march through the streets"... as that million doesn't come from the electorates that matter.

In fact, some voters ARE ALREADY empowered. You, I and the party pollsters know who they are. They're the one's who get their pre-packaged opinions from the Daily Telegraph, A Current Affair and Alan Jones.

Frankly I don't give a damn about their choice of footy club membership. But their vote pisses me off no end.