Tuesday, 14 September 2010
Annabel Crabb has continued the introspection and self-criticism that seems to have overcome some in the Press Gallery since the election. It basically runs along the line from some in the blogosphere, and repeated by Gillard on Insiders on Sunday, that the Press Gallery is focussing too much on trivia and not enough on policy.
Such self-criticism right now seems odd. After all, it is hard to think of politics being so trivialised as it was by the major parties in the election we’ve just had. It wasn’t the press that decided to slap the make-up on Gillard, do her hair and have her sprawling about on lounges for the Women’s Weekly, an extraordinary way to treat the office of Prime Minister of Australia. It was deliberate Labor tactics, after a couple of nods to western Sydney, to dumb down the campaign and let it all rest on a isn’t-it-terrific-we-have-a-new-Prime-Minister-who-happens-to-a-woman meme.
Gillard claimed on Sunday that Labor’s campaign focussed on the economy. But that only came after the whole ‘keep it light’ tactic fell apart in the disastrous second week. As it was, the ‘economic debate’ was really about showing there wasn’t one, namely that Coalition attempts to present an economic alternative was a fraud carried out with rubbery figures.
This sense of responsibility that seems to be worrying the press really came out of two events during the campaign that had actually more to do with the weakness of the political class than naughty behaviour by the press. The first were the leaks reported by Oakes and Hartcher that triggered a collapse in government polling. It was not really the leaks themselves that were such a big deal; that Cabinet was worried about the cost of the PPL scheme would be immediately apparent to anyone who compared Labor’s stingy scheme against what passes for normal around the rest of the world. The polling slump was more because it exposed the hollowness in the government that first led it to dump a leader on a flimsy pretext and that now looked to be reverberating back and getting out of control.
The second event that caused the press angst, especially for some more senior reporters, was the appearance of Latham. Once again the sight of a rogue former leader surely says more about the state of the party he led, than the TV station that employed him. Latham made some in the press especially uncomfortable as it blurred the line between politics and the media – but that is exactly the point. The press are hardly blameless, but is the standard of reporting really deteriorating faster than the politics it’s covering?
The angst is more a sign that the relationship between the media and the political class is changing. For forty years we have had what would be best described as a non-partisan press. This does not mean it has been unbiased, far from it. But it does mean it has generally been careful to be seen as non partisan.
It wasn’t always so. For at least the first half of the last century, the Australian press generally wore its political allegiances on its sleeve, from protectionist v free trade in the earlier years of Federation, to the more upfront opposition to organised labour, especially by the qualities in Sydney and Melbourne. Papers that represented the voice of the metropolitan establishment, like the Sydney Morning Herald, had no qualms about calling for a vote against Labor election after election.
It was in the post Menzies period in the late 1960s, however, that things started to change. The establishment itself began no longer speaking with one voice. Issues like allegiance to Britain and the Monarchy, the White Australia Policy and the segregation of indigenous people, all for which there had normally been an iron-clad consensus, came up for contention. While re-thinking was already evident on the Coalition side, it was the rise of Whitlam in Labor that signalled the change in the outlook political class as he began the modernising project that has occupied the political class until Rudd.
In the press the change in thinking was marked by the switch of the Melbourne Age to a more small-l liberal paper under Graham Perkin. However, the clearest protagonist for this change in the media was the rise of Murdoch. With his grudge against the Melbourne establishment for the dumping of his father from the Herald and Weekly board, Murdoch starting with the Adelaide News, but more importantly, with the launch of The Australian in 1964, signalled a new model in the Australian media that would be replicated elsewhere in the world.
In a way, Murdoch was Whitlam’s mirror. Whitlam’s modernising project effectively began the distancing of the major parties from their social base as he began cutting Labor’s ties with the union movement. Murdoch’s business model was developed around what that meant for the media.
Murdoch’s business model is often misunderstood. Most notably the confusion comes around what are seen as his ‘vanity’ projects, like The Australian, The London Times and the Wall Street Journal. On their own, the economics of these papers are doubtful. But what they do, however, is buy political influence with a political class that is becoming more detached from its social base and so more vulnerable to media influence as to what society ‘really’ thinks.
The power of the media often gets over-stated. Ultimately people form their views based on their experiences. The media may influence how those experiences are interpreted, but ultimately are limited by what those experiences are. The media cannot make things up out of thin air and be credible. However, one reason why the media’s power tends to be exaggerated is the hollowing out of the political process. The more detached from a social base, the more insecure is the political class and the more it understands it as losing a “battle of ideas” through the media.
In Australia, a key turning point came in 1975. What exactly Whitlam’s project of cutting Labor’s ties from its social base would actually mean, especially during a time of economic turmoil, raised uncomfortable questions for the left. These could be hid not only behind the Dismissal but also the virulent press campaign, especially from the Murdoch stable, that turned against a government it had supported to power.
After 1975, it became much easier for the left to exaggerate the power of Murdoch than the realities of what was happening to Labor. Ironically, this attack by the left on Murdoch only helped his business. It made a struggling national newspaper of insignificant readership appear like a major source of influence. Over the years, especially during the Howard years, which raised even more questions about the future of the left, Murdoch and a stable of right wing ‘thinkers’ seemed to have more influence than they really had, supported by a left only too willing to find excuses for their problems in the ‘MSM’.
One way The Australian negotiates this influence, especially with such a small readership, is with Newspoll. It may not have much influence on how the electorate thinks, but it can at least tell a detached political class what it actually is that the electorate is thinking. The influence of Newspoll over the political class is an asset it ferociously guarded when it was questioned by psephology bloggers in the run up to the 2007 election.
But the sensitivity around Newspoll highlights a contradiction in this model that was starting to become evident even in the final stages of the Howard government. The problem in the left, that had so supported Murdoch’s business model, was becoming more evident in the right. While the press were feeding off the weakness of the political class, they were getting caught up in it as well.
For the liberal Fairfax press, this was already long evident. As Labor’s modernising project wound up during the Keating years, ending up with the republican debacle of 1999, the Fairfax press, especially The Age, became lifestyle shadows of their former selves. The right and the right press went on to have an Indian summer under Howard that came to an end under Rudd
By by-passing the normal political power bases, Rudd exposed the problem of the media. Because if the political class was detached, the media was as well. The press gallery was reliant on political power bases that were now being side-lined. It was why Rudd’s highly popular agenda against the normal political channels was so incomprehensible to a press that were so reliant on them.
In the end, those power bases, and the media, had their revenge as the faction leaders leaked to the press to undermine Rudd, in a way that another victim of the tactic, Morris Iemma, so well described. This earlier leaking of course we are all supposed to forget as we blame the campaign leaks, and implicitly Rudd, for Labor’s current state.
The fall of Rudd and the vacuum exposed by the election has seen some divergence in the reaction of the press. The right have been emboldened by their role in the downfall of Rudd and are now campaigning against the government that has replaced him.
The liberal press has been more introspective. However, press calls to focus more on policy show that there unlikely to be any easy fixes. The problem is in the word ‘policy’. People don’t vote for policies as such; political participation isn’t a shopping trip where you fill up your basket with the right policies. People vote for programmes, or more specifically, the parties that are supposed to reflect their interests through those programmes. Policies might be all we have on offer in the new Parliament but it is more likely that whatever the press does, many voters will switch off altogether than be absorbed by the fascinating toing and froing of a handful of independents.
The right seems to have no introspection but is likely to suffer from the same problem of detachment. There have been reasonable comparisons made between what News Ltd are doing here and their role in the Tea Party movement in the States. But what is distinctive about this campaigning compared to what News Ltd did during the Whitlam years is the weakness of the political right. Indeed in Australia, and in the US, the right media are almost looking to take the place of it. But it can’t. It can no more make a social movement out of thin air, or the “battle of ideas” than the political right can. What we have is the right, both political and in the media, caught up in the same delusions that have taken the left nowhere for so many years.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 14 September 2010.Filed under Media analysis