We should feel sad that the little breath of fresh air represented by politicians appearing on Sunrise has been choked by the stranglehold of conventional politics – the spectator sport of political biffo, rather than the real business of citizens summing up and interacting with their representatives.
Most commentators tend to dismiss breakfast television as froth and bubble, but one of the reasons for the success of Sunrise is that, just quietly, it has been experimenting with audience interactivity – including in politics.
In 2004 Sunrise controversially ran its own pre-selection process, inviting candidates to nominate themselves for the Senate. A shortlist was chosen by a “panel of elders” and then viewers voted for their favourites by SMS messaging.
The six resulting candidates – mostly community activists and small businesspeople — were promised priceless publicity on Sunrise and a donation of $10,000 a piece. There were howls of protest from the established politicians. “The Senate isn’t a game show,” said Democrats Leader Andrew Bartlett.
But was Seven’s means of choosing candidates any less “real” than the factional deals, corruption, branch stacking and stitch ups that characterise the preselections of the major political parties?
Seven’s head of current affairs, Peter Meakin, was unapologetic at the time:
The idea that we are out to destroy the democratic process is a bit rich … All we’re trying to do is open the door to people who would like to represent their country. I think it should be possible for people to be able to do that without being churned out by the party machine.
Nevertheless the idea fizzled, partly because of a conflict with ideals of editorial integrity. Channel Seven proclaimed the chosen candidates would be reported according to “normal editorial judgement”, and that meant, in effect, they didn’t get much coverage. None got significant numbers of votes.
But the Sunrise model of interactivity with the audience has continued to be mildly political.
In 2006 Sunrise launched a “Cool the Globe” campaign on global warming, including regular items on how to reduce power consumption and offers of a free kit for viewers that included a form letter to be sent to politicians. In October last year a Sunrise campaign caused Treasurer Peter Costello to reverse a decision abolishing rebates on solar energy.
In November the Sunrise presenters took part in protest marches calling for Government action on global warming. The Sunrise program became greenhouse gas neutral, adding up all the energy used by cameras, lights and so forth and reducing it or offsetting it by planting trees. It became the first media outlet to be declared Greenhouse Friendly by the Federal Government.
This is the context in which to understand the appearances of Hockey and Rudd – a model of politics in the media that was about real human beings and interactivity rather than stage-managed combat. Within the limits of commercial free-to-air television, it was a significant development.
Now that model has proved too hard to sustain in an election year. Conventional politics has won. We are all a little bit poorer.