The media ‘sideshow’ and its influence on debate

Earlier this year, Lindsay Tanner, ex-Labor MP for the seat of Melbourne, released Sideshow: Dumbing down democracy. After seventeen years in parliament, Tanner had reached the conclusion that the relationship between politics and the media was becoming increasingly destructive, and that consequences were emerging for the health of Australian democracy.

In America in the 1920s as modern journalism began to take shape, there was a lively debate about the role of journalism in a democracy. What became widely recognised from this time on was that the media has an obligation to serve the public interest, and that profit motives should not be the sole force in determining media behaviour.

As an aspiring journalist, the relevance of this idea in today’s media world is of prime concern to me. Am I entering an industry that is purely market-driven and in which I must obey market forces in order to survive, or do I have responsibilities to the public that outweigh commercial motives?

Tanner states early in Sideshow that ‘the media are an absolutely critical component of our democracy, because genuine democracy requires an informed electorate’ (page 6). Tanner goes on to argue that democracy is being threatened by the destructive relationships between politics and the media. He sees this as being largely due to the increasing orientation of the media towards entertainment and commercial pressures, which leads in turn to a dumbing-down of public debate.

Tanner’s book does not lay sole blame for this process on the media. He argues that most politicians end up buying into the game for the sake of their own political survival. Political survival depends on media coverage, and coverage depends, at least in part, on politicians playing the media game. Tanner himself seemed to keep largely clear of the media ‘sideshow’; by his own argument it is perhaps inevitable that he was not one of the most popularly well-known politicians.

While I feel that politicians do have a case to answer in terms of their own behaviour, many of the reviews of Tanner’s book, such as David Penberthy’s in The Australian, focus heavily on the responsibility of politicians and divert attention away from the role of the media. For an emerging journalist like myself, however, that approach is unhelpful. The relationship between the public and politicians is largely mediated through the media, and thus it is up to me to know and to understand the ways in which my own future behaviour as a journalist may or may not impact upon the nature of political debate.

Many of Tanner’s points are not new, but what Sideshow does so well is to extensively examine how many features of political media coverage actually have an affect on the behaviour and decisions of politicians.

One of these features is the short attention span of media, particularly broadcast media. This manifests in ‘gotcha’ journalism and in the focus on sound grabs. ‘Gotcha’ journalism refers to journalists picking up on a small slip of the tongue or careless inference made by a politician, and turning it into a news story, usually with negative implications. As a result, argues Tanner, politicians end up scripting everything they say in order not to get caught out.

This ties in with the notion of ‘sound grabs’ – it’s a good idea to have something quick and catchy to say to the cameras, to ensure that it gets coverage in the limited space available on TV news. The problem is that sound grabs lead to the rise in slogans – we’re all familiar with ‘moving forward’, ‘stop the boats’, ‘another big tax’. Slogans like this say little about anything – they’re phrases thrown around that leave no room for complex messages and that become meaningless, yet are reported because they are easy to capture in a few seconds of TV coverage.

As Overland editor Jeff Sparrow wrote on The Drum earlier this year:

… a soundbite culture inevitably favours the repetition of accepted wisdom. When politics becomes a matter of fleeting images, quick clips or brief audio grabs, there’s no room for complexity and nuance. Rather than challenging you or forcing you to think, soundbites tell you what you already know.

This doesn’t mean that complex issues aren’t being discussed and worked through behind closed doors. The thing is, it’s hard to know – the short attention span of the broadcast media means that issues often fall out of the spotlight very quickly, and so it’s hard for the public to tell if something is actually being done about the matter or not. According to Tanner, one of the key rules governing the ‘practise of Australian politics’ is to look like you’re doing something. And so we end up with short-term fixes and ‘announceables’ – tidbits announced by politicians to keep the media and public happy.

Far more destructive than these examples is the media’s tendency towards negativity and to playing on the fears of the audience, both of which Tanner identifies. According to the Centre for Policy Development, fear ‘has become a central feature of both media reporting and contemporary politics in Australia’. Nowhere is the impact of these tendencies so visible as in the debate over asylum seekers in Australia – specifically, asylum seekers who arrive by boat.

The issue of irregular maritime arrivals, commonly described as ‘boat people’, has been heavily politicised in Australia, particularly since the incident of the Tampa in 2001. It is a juicy issue for the media – full of potential as a politically divisive and partisan issue, and an emotive issue with the potential to instil fear in the audience.

The coverage of ‘boat people’ in the media and the response of politicians is out of proportion with reality. Tanner points to an April 2010 headline in the Herald Sun, ‘Someone has to stop this invasion’, as an example of media exaggeration. He states on page 52:

Media distortion of perceived threats can sometimes have far more sinister effects than simply wasting public money … Here, as elsewhere, the flavour of media reporting heavily influences perceptions of basic facts, such as the number or nature of boat people.

Mainstream news outlets rarely remind their audiences that Australia’s total refugee intake in 2010 was 13,750 people – just 0.06% of Australia’s population – a figure that should serve to put debate over ‘boat people’ into context.

But is it really the media’s fault if asylum seekers are a hot button issue? Or if news bulletins are awash with three word slogans and footage of politicians in hard hats?

The former head of news for the Associated Press’s World Services, George Krimsky, has this to say about the role of the press in a free-market economy:

There is nothing in the American constitution that says the press must be responsible and accountable… in a free-market democracy, the people ultimately decide as to how their press should act.

Krimsky blows the idea of media responsibility out of the water with this quote, suggesting that the burden of responsibility is on the people – through the free market – to consume media that IS accurate and accountable. In other words, if we, the consumers of Australian media, want depth of coverage, then we need to choose the media that offers this.

It turns into a chicken-and-egg scenario: is the media sensationalist and driven by entertainment value because that’s what people want, or are people forced to consume it because there is nothing else available to them?

In spite of Krimsky’s harsh words about the role of the press in a free-market democracy, he concludes the same article by saying that if truth doesn’t remain a motivating force for the mass media, then ‘neither free journalism nor true democracy has much hope’.

From my point of view, there’s a responsibility at each level to ensure that politics isn’t dumbed-down and to ensure that the media is responsible and accurate. Politicians have a role to play in this, as they have a responsibility to communicate with their constituents in a manner that allows for rigorous debate on the issues. The public similarly have a responsibility to ask for, and take part in, this debate. And the media has a role to play in helping to create an environment in which this debate can take place.

Journalists are both consumers and producers of media, and therein lies a doubly weighty responsibility in upholding the quality of public debate.

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