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Can democracy survive the media?

By Patricia Edgar
Posted Friday, 13 May 2011

Lindsay Tanner's newly published book Sideshow claims that over the past two decades the media nationally and internationally have been dumbing-down democracy through shoddy journalism which emphasizes entertainment over serious discussion.

Tanner's argument is not new. Media scholars have long known that media technology has changed the nature of politics. Radio almost destroyed the Monarchy before George VI found his voice and as Marshall McLuhan astutely observed back in 1964 with television, The Medium is the Message.

The miniaturisation and diversity of technology have resulted in a highly lucrative competitive, commercialized genre which dictates form over content. It is not surprising news values have been debased in the process and that politicians talking policy are not a priority for the news bulletins. The news culture Tanner describes is inherent in the beast.

The more interesting material in Sideshow is where Tanner describes the behavior of politicians and political parties in response to the evolution of news as entertainment. Tanner firmly believes politicians are victims simply responding to the conditions set by debased political journalism. As the media are a critical component of our democracy a politician has no choice; either they go along with the sideshow or they become irrelevant to the electorate.

Tanner claims the November 2010 election campaign was the worst ever with a deeply cynical public voting for 'none of the above'.

In his acceptance speech at the recent television Logies veteran political journalist Laurie Oakes, who has been working for decades in the Canberra Press Gallery, likened his addiction to journalism to that of a crack cocaine addict. Oakes was the journalist who reported two major leaks during the election which derailed Labor's campaign and turned off voters. Leaks generally result in stories about conflict and deception making for headlines. They are an example of the 'gotcha' journalism Tanner describes and that in Oakes' words 'gets the adrenaline flowing '. Tanner canvasses the idea in his concluding chapter that the Press Gallery should be moved out of Parliament House to sever the incestuous link between politicians and journalists.

Tanner's assumption in Sideshow that if the media performed its job more professionally and effectively the standard of politics would improve, is wishful thinking. John Howard learnt how to reach the masses and it was not with erudite content. Tanner agrees, the masses are not interested in politics and no amount of subsidized quality content will entice them. Education is not a solution as the better educated abandon mass media for specialized media. Direct government regulation would be counter-productive.

Tanner acknowledges the importance of the ABC for the democratic framework and sees some hope in talk-back and community radio, but he sees them as limited because they reach an 'elite'; those already interested in social and political issues. Tanner doesn't have a solution to his dilemma because there isn't one that will achieve what he most desires: a willingly well-informed electorate. You can take a horse to water?

Yet the evidence is there from recent history that as an electorate we have good instincts. We were shocked by the drought and responded when water restrictions were imposed. We voted for action on climate change and our politicians let us down. An honest face is very powerful on television and we recognize one.

Tony Windsor is a model. You don't need to agree with him to believe he answers questions honestly. Malcolm Turnbull is admired by both sides of politics for his principled stance on climate change policy. Tanner was one of the few politicians who would answer a direct question and he won respect for that. Undoubtedly his disappointment with the way he allowed himself to be sucked into the media circus has led him to write this book. But he absolves himself and other politicians too readily.

The main problem is the extent to which politicians have bought into the game the media organizations play. The media's purpose is clear and they don't conceal it; they are chasing audiences. Politicians have a different role to play; they are not in the entertainment business, they are elected to govern the country. But too many are clearly suffering from the Laurie Oakes' syndrome. They are as addicted to media coverage as are the political journalists.

For democracy to function we need politicians focused on policy. As well we need an effective communications system that alerts us to the major issues to be solved to live in a sustainable collaborative way on this planet. A well-funded, independent ABC, not beholden to Government or any force, is part of that mix.

' Elite' is not a dirty word. It simply means a group of people exercising the major share of authority within a larger society or organization ? like Parliament. In democratic institutions people have their say but leaders must decide. The system may be flawed but it is the best idea we have managed to come up with to govern societies.

The fact that the public are so turned off their politicians provides the evidence that political behavior must change. Tanner provides data showing the percentage of people watching the news is falling. Newspapers are struggling for their existence; circulations are falling while population is increasing. Young people are using social media and are the least likely demographic group to follow politics. Given people are watching less and reading less about politics why is it seen as imperative to play the media's game?

The people who decide elections are better informed than most and there is evidence these people understand what is going on. They have lost respect for both government and media institutions. So politicians need to demonstrate leadership, get on with the job and stop play-acting in the media circus. They should be setting the agenda not the media claque.

Patricia Edgar is an author, television producer and educator. She was the founding director of the Australian Children's Television Foundation.