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Journalism

Aug 2, 2010

This is all your fault

Yes, this election is boring and visionless rubbish. The media have to accept much responsibility for the poor state of political debate but in the end the fault lies elsewhere.

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Yes, this election is rubbish, and it represents the lowest point in policy debate since, probably, 1980.

Yes it’s boring, and visionless, and run by two parties that are entirely risk-averse and who have turned their backs on so much achieved by previous generations of leaders. Parties for whom a key campaign strategy is to explain to voters that they have no intention of carrying out reforms they have long insisted were crucial.

But bad luck – it’s your fault. Politicians, and the media, and the business community all share responsibility for this dire state of affairs, but it’s voters themselves who have ultimately brought this about.

Last week, even mainstream media journalists began complaining about how tedious the campaign was. Hitherto, their main complaints had been poor catering and a failure by the Labor campaign to give them sufficient access to Julia Gillard. When blogger Grog’s Gamut attacked the press packs accompanying the leaders for ignoring policy issues (reproduced below), it elicited a very defensive reaction from some journalists (Larvatus Prodeo covered the spat and the broader political ennui enveloping us all).

The media indeed bears some culpability for not merely the dire state of this election campaign but the dire state of politics as a delivery for quality government and public policy. But it isn’t solely or evenly mainly to blame for it.

The role of the media in relation to politics is best understood as akin to that of feeders, the parasites who encourage obese partners to grow larger to satisfy their psychological and fetishistic needs, creating a deeply unhealthy cycle of mutual dependence. The media exploits and encourages a flawed political culture, but they don’t create it or control it.

That’s not to say there isn’t much left to be desired in mainstream media political coverage (let’s leave aside for the moment News Ltd’s anti-Labor campaigning, which extends to smearing Julia Gillard over her appearance, relationships and childlessness). Most journalists indeed fail to cover policy properly, but not because they’re lazy or obsessed with trivia or think their readers and viewers are idiots — to pick three of the criticisms routinely thrown around — but because they lack the specialist skills and the time.

Few journalists have an economics background – and ultimately economics is at the heart of most government policy. Many, it appears, can’t count. More seriously, few have the time to invest in analysis of policy, as political bureaux are cut back.

Instead, they rely for policy analysis on external “expert opinion” and therefore inevitably frame policy analysis as a debate and conflict. This leads to “he said-she said” journalism which offers an easy way out for time-pressed hacks, and in the case of the ABC is actually made obligatory by editorial guidelines as part of the national broadcaster’s unthinking and unreflective quest for “balance”.

This isn’t just a recent phenomenon occasioned by the slow death of the print media. Commercial broadcasters have been cutting back on news and current affairs since the 1980s. Political coverage has slowly become niche journalism. And 24 hour news channels are not a substitute for the long-term diminution of mainstream current affairs. They rarely provide in-depth analysis, but offer instead talking-head commentary and commentary on commentary. In any event, they are only watched by political tragics anyway.

All this makes media complaints about “spin” all the more ironic: the media needs spin, both from politicians and from external experts and observers, otherwise it would have to do the heavy lifting of actual analysis. Political coverage relies on spin and fills columns and airtime analyzing spin, discussing how the spin will be perceived: spin, messaging, propaganda as it used to be called, has become the primary material of the media cycle.

The result is too much cynicism and not enough scepticism. The media not merely covers policy poorly, it covers it selectively. A remarkable feature of the last three years has been the ruthless assault on every claim advanced by the Government in relation to key policy issues such as emissions trading or the mining tax, while the claims of vested interests have been waved through and reported as fact with virtually no scrutiny.

Much of this, true, is the product of News Ltd’s war on Labor. But it isn’t confined to the pages of The Australian, by any stretch. The Financial Review was one of the worst offenders in relation to the RSPT, and the ABC is now the sort of broadcaster where it is typical, rather than a matter worthy of remark, that an irrational and discredited a figure like Chris Monckton is given extensive and high-profile airtime.

In this swirl of self-interest, credulity and inconsistency, the role of the business has unfortunately avoided scrutiny. Despite its frequent calls for economic reform, Australia’s corporate sector is one of the biggest impediments to it. It was amusing to read last Thursday in the Fin the demands of the “Business Coalition for Tax Reform” for “real reform” to be considered in the election. At the centre of those reform demands was a significant reduction in the corporate tax rate, to 25%.

Again, we’ll put aside that the Government tried to pursue a proposal to cut company tax to 28%, and received exactly zero support from corporate Australia while foreign multinationals successfully intimidated Labor into abandoning it.

Cutting the company tax rate to 25% would cost perhaps $8-10b a year. Did the BCTR, or any other of the business groups that support it, nominate what other taxes should rise to make up the shortfall? Did they nominate any area of expenditure that should be cut? And not just something generic like “government waste”, but actual programs where proposed cuts might upset people – lower school funding, fewer roads, fewer doctors and nurses, waiting longer to buy some new warplanes or frigates? No.

This isn’t serious public policy debate. It has no more validity than the bloke at the bar bitching about taxes between beers. The corporate sector, despite calling for it, provides no support for the cause of real reform. In fact it provides the opposite: individual industries or sub-sectors that may lose as a consequence of reform know they can try to derail legitimate reform without opposition from, or criticism by, the rest of corporate Australia, although the latter reserve the right to then criticise politicians for failing to show leadership.

But neither the media nor the business sector can take responsibility for the policy timidity and risk-averse nature of the current generation of politicians.

That’s where we come in.

Tomorrow: how we outsourced government to professional politicians, and are now paying the price for it.

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