A choice of sides

I’ve spent some time now mulling over Lindsay Tanner’s book Sideshow. Partly because it’s a bit of a ponderous read (I’m out of practice with academicky texts) and partly because it’s taken me a while to sort out my thoughts. Seeing Tanner speak about his book last week helped crystallise these.

First of all, I’ll say that of course I’m not coming to this with an impartial mind because I am a member of the media. But then, Tanner didn’t write it impartially either — he is (or, rather, was) a politician. And these perspectives will obviously colour our thoughts when the argument he’s putting basically pitches the media against the politicians, with the voting public as civilian casualties.

My initial criticism of Sideshow was that it places too much of the blame on the media, without acknowledging how much a role politicians play (this is a criticism others, predominantly media figures, have also made). I even found myself feeling defensive listening to the former MP talk through his ideas at the ANU last week — and I’m not yet a member of the Press Gallery. But of course I’d say that, right? I’ve come to the conclusion that the question of blame is a bit chicken/egg, and thus too hard to resolve. The politicians need the media and the media need the politicians, and both have changed focus at roughly the same time.

Questions of blame aside, I agree with Tanner’s thesis: that political reporting has become so distracted by the game, the sideshow, that it no longer examines policy or “issues” or helpfully informs voters about what’s going on up on the hill. And that the practice of politics has become this sideshow. Tanner says the two main elements of politics now are to always look like you’re doing something, and to not offend anyone. Combined, these often mean the government never actually does anything. But nobody notices — the media is consumed by the reporting of the government’s intention to do something, or of the minor interest groups kicking up a major stink over that intention. (Community advocates/activists know the importance of this and I’ve even attended community group meetings where members were encouraged to keep writing letters to the editor and phoning politicians on an issue because squeaky wheels get attention — and funding.) The lack of substance comes from all sides as we saw in the 2010 election campaign, which Tanner uses as an example of (hopefully) the nadir of the sideshow effect.

At his author’s talk at ANU last week, Tanner was asked why, during the election campaign, the politicians frustrated with not being able to get their policy messages out through the media didn’t just put these policies up on their websites. After all, the questioner pointed out, the politicians (or their parties at least) controlled their websites’ content. I’ll give Tanner the benefit of doubt and say I’m not sure he completely understood the question as he didn’t exactly answer it. But I thought the point the questioner was making was similar to the point the now-infamous Grog’s Gamut made in his (possibly-even-more-now-infamous) outburst during the campaign. One of the parties had announced a policy about assistance for families with disabled children. Disappointed with the lack of detail about the policy in the media report, Grog turned to the party’s website…and found nothing. Yes, I completely understand that Grog’s main complaint was about the media’s coverage of events and distractions, and I don’t wish to misrepresent him (go read his post via the above link for yourself if you *gasp* haven’t already, or want a refresher). But isn’t it interesting that the politicians, apparently so frustrated at not being able to use the media to make their policy known to the public, didn’t use means they could control to put it out there? Surely Tanner is not the only politician frustrated by the current mess we seem to be in?

My own question to Tanner last week was the big one: How do we fix it? Of course, being nervous and having overthought the thing, I failed to say what I really meant, which what should I, as an aspiring political journalist, be doing to help fix this? How do I break free of the sideshow mindset that apparently has most of the current pack of Gallery journalists trapped? But, since I failed to tell him the (tiny) detail about being a journalist, I didn’t quite get the kind of answer I was seeking. In fact, with all Tanner’s railing against how as a politician he had to learn his lines and stick to them when faced with media questioning to make sure the government’s message and only that was conveyed, I was rather disappointed when his answer stuck to the lines and told me nothing more than what I’d already read in his book. (Part of his answer was about the growth niche publications which people interested in politics would turn to since they offered quality reporting of the issues, rather than the sideshow. This kind of fits with my thoughts on the survival of newspapers, but that’s a rant for another time.)

So how do we fix it? I don’t really know (and I suspect neither does Tanner). I often find myself in the difficult position of seeing some political reporting (or criticism of it) and thinking “if that I was me I would do it differently”. And then I wonder just how exactly, or why I think the pressures from editors and chiefs of staff or political staffers or colleagues or that damn deadline would somehow be different for me.

But I suspect that, just like any addiction, being aware of the problem is a good start. Being self-critical and taking time to think about what you’re doing. (Not that this is always possible in reality  — to any journalists reading this, when was the last time you stopped and thought critically, academically about your work? Or had the time to do so?) Knowing that you should really think about the policy and what is being discussed and not just about who meowed at whom, even if that’s your first news gut instinct. And once you’re aware, try to put that thought into practice. Maybe file the meowing story for the web and then look at what the committee was discussing for the newspaper. Pitch it to the COS. Tell them no one else will cover that. Write it as clearly and entertainingly as possible so people will actually read the damn thing.

(An aside: a friend said to me some months ago that she had decided there were two types of political reporters. There were men who went out with the staffers and politicians and got drunk and gossiped and came across stories. Then there were women, who couldn’t go and be blokey and had to spend hours at their desks reading reports and transcripts and policy documents to get stories. Interesting idea, isn’t it?)

Yes I know this is probably easier said than done. I know I’ve not actually been in the situation to find out. But I’ve got to hope there is some faith for this profession I love.

It’s taken me a while to work out why I like politics so much, but here’s what I’ve concluded: because it’s important. It might be boring, but every thing politicians do affects someone. Sure, you might not care about the decision they’re making tomorrow about which primary schools to close, but in five years when your children are ready to go to kindergarten and it turns out you’ll have to drive them 15km every morning and afternoon you sure will. When I covered council meetings, I made it a rule that I would write something about every single item on the business paper. Even if it was just a brief about someone’s development application for a new garage being approved — because their neighbours would want to know. Politics is important and interesting and needs to be covered properly.

(Final aside for those who’ve made it this far: I’m pretty sure I know what Tanner would think of my #qt #fashion tweets, which I’ve been doing intermittently in various formats since I was at uni. And it would not be complimentary. But I’d like to share this quote from his penultimate chapter, “People live in their hearts”, which talks about the psychology of why people are disengaging from politics:

Psychological experiments reveal that emotional instincts are roughly three times more powerful in influencing voter choice than rational analysis. Therefore hidden signals like body language and appearance are extremely important. (p 179)

Which totally justifies #qt #fashion. But I’m sure Tanner never intended to do that.)

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