The debate was a pretty tedious hour of television, but who was responsible for this? The journos who asked silly questions or the debaters themselves? Find who was at fault here:
The “great debate” was of course a fizzer – boring repetition of well-established positions by the two leaders with absolutely no stimulus to anything new or unexpected. This was not their own fault. None of the journalists on the panel of interviewers appeared to have given a moment’s thought to any of the issues, but instead all of them rehearsed “questions” that have been reiterated to the point of tears for many months.
What’s the point of journalists who in their big test, as much of that of the leaders, can’t think of a single new thing to ask? Of course the answers were scripted – everybody knew that such leading figures of the press gallery are incapable of any originality of thought.
The subsequent interpretations of the debate by the panel and others have also been totally unsurprising. Latham was declared the winner. In fact, Latham did perform very well – he came over as intelligent, on top of the issues, and well presented. This would only have been surprising to people who do not know Latham or who think that his tantrums of the past were completely unplanned. They were however part of a deliberate strategy to put his claims to the leadership in the minds of the gallery and of the caucus – a strategy which paid off early, much to the amazement of the pundits.
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Howard performed with great confidence and polish, but that is something which we have come to expect of him. So the real result was that they both appeared as plausible leaders. Latham won only to the extent that some people did not think him capable of this.
The so-called “worm” result was implausible. It has already been pointed out that the result was virtually identical to that in the last campaign while the election outcome was of course quite different. There is a clear bias in the selection of this studio audience, both in its composition by comparison with that of the electorate as a whole and in some aspects of its preparation.
It is well known that in groups formed for the purposes of what is called “deliberative polling” the activities of so-called facilitators have a very great influence on the final result. Perhaps there should be an independent observer (not a journalist) involved in supervising the whole setup of the audience, from selection to briefing, and the operation of the worm. Or at least a much greater degree of transparency.
The glimpse we were given of the device rather like a TV remote which was held by each member of the audience was not reassuring – not many people without a good deal of practice could hit the right buttons while keeping all their attention on the speakers. There was even an obvious built-in tendency for users to get stuck with either the positive or the negative responses. And exactly what is the method by which the responses are aggregated? Is there an override?
It was a pretty tedious hour. Of course the journos blame this (like everything else) on the PM and his spin doctors. They seem to think it would be better as one of those free-for-alls called press conferences where everybody mills around trying to get a word in, or an interview in which one or more panelists has open slather to prosecute the hapless interviewee.
There was a good example of this kind of thing on the Channel 9 Sunday program in the morning, when John Anderson, the deputy PM, was pestered repeatedly on the supposed increased exposure of Australia to terrorist attack as a result of our participation in the Iraq war, and made the mistake of varying the terms of his reply by making the obvious admission that this was an arguable position. Of course it is – but is it right? However it was enough to be labelled a GAFFE. This was a triumph for journalism. Gotcha! And then they have the hide to complain about the leaders giving boring, rehearsed and stereotyped replies.
Since it was the gallery’s affair (it is a closed shop) everybody in the Monday morning papers (and on the ABC) was positive on the Ramseymeter – the clear winner being Mike Seccombe in the SMH, who claimed that Howard “was clearly the more nervous participant. He was breathy, his voice quavered, he stumbled over words, he was stilted and uncomfortable”, etc etc. This, in a word, crap. Howard apparently “raised derisive chuckles at least a dozen times”. From whom? And of course Latham won and “you could see in Howard’s eye he knew it.” Clearly Mr Seccombe’s forensic talent is wasted – he ought to be in the lie detector business. Or perhaps selling used cars. In other words this was a fairly typical Seccombe essay in anti-Howard bias – easily a 9 on the Ramseymeter.
He was rivalled only by Matt Price in The Australian who did a deep psychological analysis of the behaviour of the worm and its audience, on a basis of total ignorance, but inadvertently gave the game away on Anderson’s “gaffe” by admitting that it came nine “questions” after he had denied the very same assertion. But Matt isn’t up there with Mike in his colour (murky pink) writing, and really only scored about a 7.
It seems I was nasty to Sally Loane by pointing out the sheer idiocy of her necktie analysis of politics. But she missed a great opportunity with the debate. Instead of sticking to the Howard and Latham ties she and her consultant “gentlemen’s outfitter” could have taken the opportunity to compare and comment on the ties worn by the male members of the panel. There was an interesting contrast. That the journos’ ties were ignored, like everything else about them, merely served to demonstrate precisely the point with which these jottings began: while politicians are mercilessly picked over, their interlocutors are treated as somehow beyond criticism and examination. Forget the bloody ties – it’s the bloody stupidity of the questions which matters. Which was the silliest question?