I must have missed that moment when we relinquished our brains. You know, that moment when we scooped out the gelatinous orbs that give us independent thought and popped them into a bin for collection. That didn’t happen, you say?
Well then, did I miss the zombie apocalypse? Was I in a coma while ghouls shuffled about and munched on our cerebral cortexes? No? Then how else to explain why we rely so much on the media to do our thinking these days, particularly when it comes to politics?
Contemporary political news is now pitched in a way that suggests, instead of thinking for ourselves, we’ve abrogated our scrutiny of political policies and events for the opinions of journalists. Every newspaper, radio program, tv show and online forum that covers Australian politics and current affairs places an inordinate emphasis on what celebrity and wannabe celebrity journalists “think” about political events.
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I was disappointed by Laura Tingle on Friday. Tingle is one of the few journalists writing from the Canberra Press Gallery that we usually can depend upon to be consistently rigorous in research, forensic in analysis and objective in reporting.
There was however a piece of information missing from her Canberra Observed column that surprised me.
Tingle was commenting on the poor prospects for long-term policy debates due to distractions such as the obsession with “process” or insider stories rather than “outcomes” stories.
She held aloft as an example the case of Jillian Broadbent AO, the esteemed business woman who chaired an expert panel looking into investment for clean energy.
An eminent panel headed by Jillian Broadbent reported to the government this week on the structural problems of getting investment in clean energy.
Broadbent is a member of the Reserve Bank board (appointed by the Howard government), and a director of ASX Ltd and Woolworths. Such an obvious Labor stooge, in fact, that the Coalition accused her of engaging in “partisan activity and partisan criticism” simply for observing that the Coalition “haven’t been very interested in speaking to me, despite my preparedness to brief them”.
Anyone trying to contribute to the current public policy debate, as opposed to anticipating where political fortunes might go next, is smeared in the process.
Any reasonable reader would conclude from this analysis that the Coalition had snubbed and smeared an experienced and independent business leader simply because she wanted to brief them on clean energy investment.
However, Broadbent has an important and relevant role that Tingle did not include in her column. Broadbent is in fact Chair of the Government’s $10bn Clean Energy Finance Corporation, an entity that the Coalition has vowed to scrap on the attainment of government. So why would the Coalition agree to a briefing from the head of such an organisation?
Broadbent chaired the expert review in her capacity as chair of CEFC. In fact, it is called the Chair’s Review in the media release which announced it:
The establishment of the Chair’s Review is intended to assist the Government in framing the enabling legislation, associated instruments and determining what operational issues can be left to the CEFC’s Board after the corporation has been established. Following consideration of the Chair’s Review, the Government will introduce legislation for the establishment of the Corporation in sufficient time to allow the CEFC to fully develop its systems and products before it commences operations from 2013-14.
Amongst other things, the Chair’s Review ultimately recommended ways to prevent, or at least make extremely difficult, the Coalition’s scrapping of the CEFC. It’s hardly surprising then that the Coalition would be disinclined to receive a briefing from Broadbent.
So, in reality, that which was depicted by Tingle as the smearing and snubbing of a dispassionate expert was in fact pragmatic politics.
Politically, there was nothing for the Coalition to gain from meeting with Broadbent. Any such meeting would have sent mixed messages and could have been beaten up by the media as hypocrisy or potential wavering on the part of the Opposition.
By agreeing to chair a government entity, Ms Broadbent has, in fact, “taken a side” and opened herself to reasonable criticism of being partisan. Other business leaders who’ve taken on government-appointed roles have suffered the same fate; although I hasten to add, not all have been tarred with the partisan brush.
None of this was mentioned by Tingle yesterday. In fact the additional contextual information would have diminished the impact of the example she was making of the Coalition’s treatment of Broadbent.
I raised this omission with Tingle on Twitter. She said I was being deliberately obtuse and missing her broader point. In fact, I agree with Tingle’s broader point – that political inside gossip and smears attract more attention and divert resources from considered reporting of political outcomes. It was the selective information used to illustrate a point that troubled me.
The prickly nature of our Twitter exchange prevented me from asking Tingle why she did omit the fact that Broadbent is chair of the CEFC.
The same could be said for opinion pieces written by journalists who report federal politics. Each piece has its own merit (or not), but when there’s a trend in the opinion being advanced, then this is something worth noticing.
Why? Because the appearance of a theme in a string of opinion pieces suggests, not that several journalists autonomously and simultaneously came to the same conclusion, but that an external action or actor initiated that thought.
The external factor could range from something as innocent as journalists musing aloud to colleagues over coffee, to something more Machiavellian like a political operative briefing against opponents. Either way, it’s worth taking note when a trend appears in political opinion pieces.
Such a trend appeared this weekend. At a time when there is seemingly unending mainstream media criticism of the PM and her government, not one but five senior political reporters appeared to significantly escalate their scrutiny of Tony Abbott’s tactics and policies.
In his weekend column, SMH Political Editor Peter Hartcher ran the rule over the Coalition’s known policy positions and found “the Coalition is changing from the free-market, pro-business, economically sound party of Howard and Costello to a populist party under the influence of Abbott and Barnaby Joyce.
“Abbott’s opposition shuts down debate about workplace reform, shows signs of being tempted away from a wholehearted commitment to free trade, proposes a new tax on big business to fund an expensive parental leave scheme, and, while it certainly monitors government spending closely, has yet to explain its own fiscal policy.”
Hartcher’s stablemate, Lenore Taylor, pointed in her weekend column to the new heights in spin being employed by Abbott, “ignor[ing] facts altogether” to score political points.
Yet another Fairfax journalist, the Age’s Associate Editor Shaun Carney, sharpened the policy scrutiny focus even more in his weekend piece:
“Abbott’s assault on Labor has been almost entirely policy-free… He attracts support largely because of what he says he will not do and by his relentless critique of the government. His vision for Australia is defined by his negative appraisal of Labor. Even with the Coalition’s massive opinion poll lead, the time is coming when Abbott will have to do more than that. Perhaps it has arrived.”
Similarly, the West Australian’s Federal Political Editor Andrew Probyn, blogged that “Tony Abbott has sown the seeds of his own destruction. It’s not that he won’t win the next election. He most probably will. But unless he sets about seriously reconfiguring various policies, when he becomes prime minister he will either have to break promises, commit humiliating backdowns or attempt to wheedle his way out of controversy.”
And over in the News Ltd camp, somehow foreseeing this trend, The Weekend Australian’s National Chief Reporter Tom Dusevic contributed a feature on Abbott that examines his policy credentials.
What does this mean? It’s not that these pieces are the first to canvass the need for Abbott to show policy depth and integrity. Incoming Liberal Senator, Arthur Sinodinos, advanced it in his weekly Australian column back in early September. Canberra Press Gallery doyen, Laurie Oakes, covered it in his opinion piece last week on politicians lying.
But other columnists did not pick up the point until now. And all at the same time.
What does this mean? Do the reporters in question regularly chat, and decided last week that it was time to turn the heat up on Abbott’s policy credentials? Is this an indication that the tide is turning for Abbott in the Canberra Press Gallery? Perhaps.
Or has the Prime Minister’s newly-appointed Communications Director turned the heat up on journalists and demand parity in policy scrutiny? Maybe, but he has not yet officially started in that post.
We’ll never know how this alignment of political opinion pieces came about. Whether through independent thought, osmosis or suggestion, they do suggest a turning point; the beginning of a new phase for the Opposition Leader in which he is expected to do more than just oppose.
Time will soon tell whether a new trend has emerged. Stay tuned for more: it will be fascinating to watch.
Postscript: One week later – this from the Financial Review’s political editor, Laura Tingle. And then this from Laurie Oakes. Other notable pieces since then include this from The Australian’s Paul Kelly (paywalled), and this from Michael Gordon.
Shaun Carney’s recount today of former Treasurer Howard sending Treasurer Keating a congratulationary note on becoming the world’s greatest treasurer, caused me to ponder what sort of Opposition Leader Keating would’ve been.While no more than a fantastical imagining, I can’t help think he’d be more in the Abbott mould than the Turnbull one.
Because, when you think back, is there any other modern Australian politician who was more singularly negative in pursuit of their political quarry than Keating was?
My memory is a little dusty but I can’t recall Keating employing the Howard/Rudd tactic of agreeing with the other side’s policies when they had merit. Putting aside that this was a tactic to emphasise the points of difference, I can only remember Keating going for the jugular every time.
While Keating had more rhetorical flair to his parliamentary jibes, he never pulled his punches. Andrew Peacock was the soufflé that wouldn’t rise twice; John Hewson was the feral abacus who’d be done slowly; Alexander Downer was ole darlin’ and the salmon who jumps on the hook for you; and John Howard was a miserable political carcass.
Would Keating have traipsed into misogyny to score a few points? Maybe. The PM who implemented a number of progressive policies for women, was nevertheless known to universally address them as darl’ and sweetheart.
Would he mercilessly court the media to support his policies to the exclusion of all others? Well, yes, because that’s exactly what he did. There was nary a journalist or news organisation that did not support his tilt against Bob Hawke, his destruction of Hewson and the Fightback package, and his ill-fated run against Howard.
Would Keating have abandoned ALP philosophies and overturned public promises to get back the political advantage? Of course! Do the sale of the Commonwealth Bank or “L.A.W. tax cuts” ring a bell?
As astute political observer Malcolm Farnworth said recently on a related topic,
… politics in 2011 may be lively but it barely rates against some of the great upheavals in our history. Those who see the nation beset by crisis really should do some reading.
Perhaps the same observation applies to our perception of Tony Abbott as the most negative politician to have ever walked Australia’s democratic stage.
I have to confess I noticed the PM’s earlobes long before it was cool to do so, back in the days when she was a mere Deputy PM. Once or twice I mentioned them to non-politicos who responded with quizzical stares, but I soon discovered they had been a long-time topic of conversation amongst Labor staffers.
Before you accuse me of trivialising politics by focusing on a person’s appearance, let me let you in on a little secret – whether you like it or not, looks DO matter in politics.
It’s a real shame that Niki Savva stooped so low in her recent article about Ms Gillard’s appearance because the substance of her comments had merit. Politicians ARE measured by their looks, and not just female MPs as decried by Annabel Crabb.
Recent research by the University College London and Princeton University has found that voters make judgments about politicians’ competence based on their facial appearance, with facial maturity and physical attractiveness being the two main criteria used to make these competence judgments. The researchers found that appearance is most likely to influence less knowledgeable voters who watch a lot of television. This research built on earlier work that found voters rely heavily on appearances when choosing which candidate to elect.
Perhaps the most striking example of the weight given to politicians’ appearance was the perceived outcome of the first debate between Richard Nixon and John F Kennedy during the 1960 US Presidential election. The 70 million television viewers believed the tanned, relaxed Kennedy had beaten the pale, stubbled Nixon, in contrast to the radio listeners who thought the opposite. Nixon’s appearance directly affected public perceptions of his competence.
Moving forward to more recent US elections, opponents of 2004 Democrat presidential candidate, John Kerry, were accused of planting a story that Kerry used Botox to smooth his Lincoln-like brow. While no direct link was drawn between this cosmetic practice and Kerry’s competence, the subtle inference was nonetheless encouraged. The same tactic was employed against Queensland Premier Anna Bligh in 2008, which she quickly defused by admitting to the practice and then moving on.
And so, in politics, do clothes maketh the man?
Yes they do, even as far back as 1892 when the UK’s first Labour MP, Keir Hardie, took up his seat in Parliament wearing a tweed cap and a working man’s suit. His failure to wear a top hat prompted the magazine Vanity Fair to declare: “His headgear has endangered the foundations of parliamentary propriety, and provided innumerable paragraphs for the papers.”
We may move more quickly to judge female MPs, but this may be because their hair and clothes present such an array of style, colour and shape.
One writer mused that:
It is precisely because our interior selves are essentially inscrutable (most of us can’t unscramble the psychological coding of our spouses much less the machinations and motivations of public figures) that we depend so much on surface clues. The whole superficial shebang — from hairstyles (who can forget Hillary’s little-girl headband?) to accessories (remember the fuss about Cherie Blair’s pricey Tanner Krolle handbag?) — provides us with the contextual tools to read the Other, the person who is not us, be it the stranger across the room or the stranger angling for political office.
And so we are superficial by nature – judging books by their covers – and this is exploited by others. Political spin and campaigning techniques encourage us to accept a politician’s appearance as a measure of their competence.
A prime example is our twice-removed former PM. Despite Howard’s eyebrow trimming, teeth capping and spectacle refurbishment, and even the final banishment of the comb-over, we still remember him as Little Johnny. While Howard is in fact as tall as the average man he always looked short next to the towering Fraser. The diminutive term may have first been struck to match his appearance, but was later used to suggest smallness of spirit. It was the reinforcing visual image that made it stick.
Numerous other subtle but similar connections have been made between the appearance of politicians and their competence. Would Beazley or Hockey have been more successful if they had been slim and less disheveled? Would Tony Abbott have won more female votes this year if he had not paraded around in his sluggoes and licked his lips during interviews? Does Bob Katter seem even madder because of his hat? Yes. Probably.
Pollsters of any political persuasion will tell you I speak the truth. They know better than anyone how a punter’s vote can be won or lost based on the appearance of the candidate. War stories abound with focus group quotes including “I won’t vote for him, I don’t like his eyes” or “she’s a smart girl but she just needs a good blow-wave”.
So remember next time a politician is ridiculed for their hair or their personal style. Yes, it is superficial, but there is a deeper intent at play. Don’t be distracted or attracted by this sleight of hand – appearance does not equal competence, but it is up to common punters like you and me to prove it.
This post was also published at The Notion Factory.
I have sympathy for people wanting more substance from the Australian media this federal election. Truly, I do. As I’ve previously explained, some of the political media’s obsession with election frippery is due to them rebelling against being tightly managed during the campaign. However, I’ve noticed an assertion creeping into some commentary that the media should not only be covering more policy announcements but actively analysing the policy content.
This seems to me to be an abrogation of the citizen’s responsibility to make their own mind up.
I’m not a journalist and I’ve never studied media but I’ve worked around journos for 20 years. I used to think the main value that drove journalists was the community’s right to know, but this has changed over time to a more didactic role. I think this is why I don’t read newspapers, watch tv news or current affairs or listen to the radio. (I will confess however to indulging myself with an occasional viewing of the Insiders.)
My self-imposed mainstream media blackout is due as much to source bias as it is to journalistic bias. I’m well aware that pretty much all information transmitted by the MSM has been massaged or spun by someone – a press secretary, a departmental or corporate PR officer, a lobbyist or an activist. This message is further “refined” by the journalist with juxtaposition against related information and arguments. By the time it’s published, the information can often bear little resemblance to the facts. So I just don’t bother wasting my time reading such arrant nonsense.
This distortion is amplified during an election campaign. Everyone is shrilly trying to achieve primacy for their version of the facts, with accuracy (or even truth) becoming the victim in these skirmishes.
Why has it come to this? Why have we regressed to mostly superficial and combative election campaigns? Is it because Australians have surrendered their natural scepticism when it comes to thinking about politics? Have we become accustomed to having our opinions spoonfed to us by the media and commentariat? I suspect not. The number of people who make up their mind in the last days and hours of an election campaign are enough to change the government. Nevertheless, we are a politically disengaged citizenry. I believe this is because we have never had to fight for our freedom or the vote.
This disengagement should not justify the media stepping in to perform what is each voter’s civic duty. While I agree with comments made elsewhere that journalists should not simply produce a hesaidshesaid story without questioning the credibility of the source, journalists should not be making any comment on the merits of an argument or policy. That is for the media’s audience to decide based on the information provided by the media, not the media itself. Being intellectually lazy enough to expect the media to provide “objective” analysis leads to an acceptance that what celebrity journalists say about matters or policies is an unchallengable truth – more often than not, it is nothing more than their (sometimes informed) opinion.
Anyone seeking to know about parties’ policies should do what they would do if they were about to make a huge financial commitment like buying a house – do your homework! Visit the parties’ websites, ring or email their campaign offices with questions. Talk to the candidates on Facebook and Twitter. Why leave it to Peter Hartcher or Michelle Grattan or Malcolm Farr to tell you what is a good or bad policy? How can you be sure they have the same values and needs as you?
The days of the media as a “medium” between the news-maker and the news-consumer are almost gone. We have made the transition through internet search engines, video on mobile phones and social media such as Twitter. So why do we still insist on MSM meeting our information needs during election campaigns? It’s time to refuse the election media spoonfeed and make up your own mind!
Astroturfing denotes political, advertising, or public relations campaigns that are formally planned by an organization, but are disguised as spontaneous, popular “grassroots” behavior. The term refers to AstroTurf, a brand of synthetic carpeting designed to look like natural grass.
At any given point in time activists, political parties or business interests are at the forefront of techniques carefully honed to influence public opinion. We never really know for sure which of these has the ascendancy until one of the combatants blows another’s cover.
The nature of the “disguise” has changed over the years. Decades ago, when a vested interest provided a public rationalisation for their actions, they would automatically be met with a variation of the Mandy Rice-Davies response: “well you would say that, wouldn’t you”.
It was clear at this time that those who sought to influence opinion could not credibly do so in their own right. Alternative methods were identified and explored.
As the art of influence became more sophisticated, the players took note of market research that indicated people were most likely to believe what scientists and esteemed scientific institutions such as the CSIRO had to say about contemporary and controversial public policy issues. This finding heralded the “battle of the boffins” era.
This era saw governments and corporates mobilise behind the scenes to identify, solicit and enlist scientifically credentialed third parties to “endorse” their preferred position. Activist and pressure groups refined this dark art even further by strategically placing a number of their field-savvy campaigners into scientific roles in academic institutions, as well as establishing their own think-tanks and creating their own “independent panels of concerned scientists”.
This approach proved to be counter-productive for all concerned. Faced with scientific boffins squabbling over what were generally seen to be esoteric issues, ordinary people turned their backs on the divided scientific community and looked inwards to their core values for guidance.
Arising from this introspective mood is the phenomenon we now know as astroturfing. At its heart, astroturfing is a fake grass roots campaign.
Once the vested interests realised that they had lost the community’s hearts and minds with their battling boffins, they undertook more market research and found that people had reverted to focusing on the mitigation of tangible issues at the local level. Those seeking to influence public opinion studied and learned from the successes of Landcare and Rotary and then established faux local interest groups to support and promote their own interests.
Activist and interest groups followed swiftly with the establishment of similar entities. Some did not make much effort to hide this sleight of hand, with some “local interest” groups publicly sharing fax numbers and postal addresses with high profile activist groups.
Today, the casually interested observer in political and public policy issues is confronted with an array of information sources, some of who may or may not be who they say they are. No wonder there is little confidence in the credibility of most public information sources.
The huge irony in all this, is that people are now demanding that vested interests step forward and publicly defend their own positions. Many people have moved on from the Rice-Davies form of skepticism to a new variation that says “if you are not prepared to publicly defend your own position, product or party then there must be something indefensible about it”.
Activists, political parties and business interests should take note of this change in community expectations. Throw away the Astroturf and step forward. Being prepared to publicly defend your position is the first step in winning new hearts, minds and supporters.
It’s not that the Member for Watson, Tony Burke, isn’t big enough or tough enough to defend himself. In fact I suspect he’s more than capable, being a member of the NSW Right. But after watching the (not so) lighthearted journo jabs at his tweets in my Twitter-stream today, I feel compelled to jump to his defence.
It’s not easy for a politician to hit the right note on Twitter. Some think its just another megaphone with which to blast criticisms at their opponents. Others use it to mouth their own party’s meaningless pap and propaganda.
But Burke has got the balance right. He uses it to make real connections with real people. How do I know this? Because I talked to him about it.
I first started to take notice of Burke’s Twitter-style when he began to tweet about his road trips to Canberra each Sunday before a parliamentary sitting. The old political campaigner in me thought “How clever, to send such an innocuous tweet with such a powerful subliminal message.” In my mind’s eye I could see those of Burke’s constituents on Twitter nodding with approval that their MP drove himself to Canberra rather than take the easier limosine-plane-limosine option.
When I commended Burke on this cunning strategy he demurred. He claimed that he tweets his movements for more modest reasons (1) to let his constituents know where he is and what he is doing, (2) to let journalists know when he is on a plane so they know when he is uncontactable and (3) to let his staff, friends and colleagues know when it is a good time to call him.
Whether he does it for political or practical reasons, I think Burke tweets well.
And I’m surprised that the journos making fun of him today (@BernardKeane “I’ve grabbed a coffee on my way to the study) didn’t think to look a little further into Burke’s objectives before making fun of him.
Like many people, I was deeply moved by Kevin Rudd’s final press conference this week. I held my breath each time he paused, silently willing him to hold it together. I shed a tear when his voice trembled. And I also felt ashamed to be excited by the momentousness of the occasion, when I could see in High Definition the immense anguish it had wrought upon a man of faith and conviction, who was clearly loved by his wife and family.
Kevin Rudd’s world changed irrevocably in a matter of hours. That is the nature of politics – it is a huge and relentless beast, constantly in motion and oblivious to good intentions, time-honoured philosophies and the frailties of humankind. It hungrily and indiscriminately consumes hours, words and souls, all in the name of public good.
Some members of the commentariat have indulged in confected rage over Rudd’s treatment by “faceless apparatchiks”.
This is not so much because of empathy for Rudd, but because they feel affronted by the ruthless installation of an unelected Prime Minister purely in order to win the next election. This indignation is quite amusing to those who have worked within party machines. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a party cannot serve its electorate without first winning and then holding the Treasury benches. As my teenage daughter would say, “well, duh!!”
Rudd was not so much a victim of his party, but of politics itself. It is the undeniable preoccupation of any incumbent side to want to retain government and of the other side to wrench it from the incumbent’s grip. It is the undeniable preoccupation of the fourth estate to convey this struggle with as much drama as possible, while securing stories (or scalps) that differentiate them from their competitors.
Therefore the political beast can best be illustrated as something conjured by Dante. It is the sum of its many parts: politicans, parties, the parliament and media. Perhaps the irate journalists need to look in the mirror before they accuse others of having Rudd’s blood on their hands.
In conclusion, I want to say that I’ve been thinking about others who’ve been mauled by the political beast. Whether they first taunted the creature is another question altogether.
Does anyone ever spare a thought for Godwin Grech? I was distressed to hear recently that he is still hospitalized and that his house and possessions have been auctioned off.
I feel sad for people like John Brogden and Nick Sherry who will always carry the scars of their encounter with the beast.
And relieved that others like Grahame Morris and Cheryl Kernot survived their skirmishes relatively unscathed.
And finally I am in awe of people like Lindsay Tanner and Geoff Gallop, who have resolutely stood before the slavering creature, stared into its red maw, and then calmly walked away.