Karma police, arrest this man – he talks in maths, he buzzes like a fridge, he’s like a detuned radio. — Radiohead
So the first day of New Paradigm Politics didn’t go so well. The media took a relatively minor difference between Wayne Swan and the independents and — you’ll never guess — treated it as evidence the happy couple were at each other’s throats before they’d even reached the honeymoon suite.
And in what is now a well-established ritual, the Press Gallery, in turn, copped a bollocking online from observers frustrated that a different kind of politics was being treated in the same old way by journalists apparently incapable of viewing events in Canberra as anything other than a two-horse race. Annabel Crabb promptly penned a dissection of the clash on the ABC site, suggesting the traditional Gallery obsession with dispute and disunity might take a while to adjust to the dissent-rich environment in which we’ll live at least until the next election, and suggesting some ways it will need to change.
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It is true that one of the benefits of this minority government is that a particular obsession of modern politics, the maintenance of strict unity of message by all elements of a government — preferably by saying as little as possible — is now impossible. Journalists will be served up a regular diet of dissonance, and many will feel impelled to offer that as evidence of impending disaster, either because they’re partisan and want to create the sense of a government in crisis, or because they’re incapable of understanding politics in any other way.
One of the reasons why journalists will struggle to adjust is because a minority government messes with their conception of the role of political journalism. The Press Gallery is one of the last holdouts of what I’ve called the sacerdotal view of the media, in which the journalist — or more correctly the Journalist — acts as intermediary between a remote source of authority, and the masses who need to be guided in their understanding of the ways and actions of that authority. The model has been breaking down for a generation, but the coup de grâce is being administered by new media, which dramatically reduces the distance between journalist and reader and multiplies sources of interpretation far beyond those who happen to control printing presses or transmission towers.
Minority government plays the same trick at the other end of the relationship. Suddenly there are multiple sources of authority. It used to just be a Manichean structure of Government and opposition. Now journalists will need to take seriously several independents and a party, the Greens, that the ABC simply pretends doesn’t exist and News Ltd, in the context of last year’s bushfires, in essence called terrorists and murderers.
Which means, for example, those dreadnoughts of dead white male journalism Kerry O’Brien and Barrie Cassidy, who were just too damn important to bother interviewing Bob Brown during the election campaign, will have to think a lot harder about whom they talk to. Indeed, the ABC, which is entirely reliant on a bipolar political landscape for its balance-without-judgment editorial approach, will have to entirely rethink its notions of fair coverage.
But I’m not so sure political journalists will adjust. They don’t have the same imperatives as major party politicians, whom voters have deprived of the option of operating in the usual manner. There’s a sense, even from senior commentators, that they dislike this new environment because they saw nothing wrong with the old one. The old one served up conflict and simplistic, easy-to-report narratives of winners and losers and endless material to convince audiences that interesting things were happening, even when they weren’t. They have one template of “good government” — unified, disciplined, reformist, “on-message”— and anything that deviates from that is necessarily poor politics.
For all the media’s incessant criticism of politicians who refused to say anything interesting, and risk-averse political parties offering no leadership, politics-as-usual was easy to cover.
But let’s try all this from a different perspective. See how this grabs you for a gloom-and-doom prognostication.
The mainstream media only ever tells us half a dozen or so stories. The details and circumstances differ, of course, and they populate them with different stereotypes as necessary, but in the end it’s the same small number of stories designed to reaffirm mainstream social values and maximise the chances of selling stuff.
Major party politicians, and partisan media outlets are a miniature version of this. They only want to tell a couple of stories, the same ones over and over again, about themselves and their opponents. Anything else is just interference.
The Rudd Government was the most extreme example of this, abandoning even the goal of telling stories in favour of endlessly reiterating motifs, a form of content-free buzzing designed to fill the media cycle. It brought to mind the Karma Police line about a detuned radio.
This was partly in reaction to the fact that both the media and major political parties face the problem of a disengaged audience, one that uses mainstream media less and less, and in particular, that consumes mainstream political coverage less and less. Conversely, the segment of the population that actively engages with the media and politics is empowered, informed and aware. They can shape the media they consume, and if they don’t like it, create their own content. They can share the media they like and discuss it as others consume it. And younger users aren’t interested in, or don’t understand, traditional forms of political journalism anyway, but engage with ideas via other formats like comedy that are regarded as lightweight by traditional political journalists.
This has meant the fragmentation of a once-collective intellectual space, created by the mass media, into a collection of niches, in which media users shape their media consumption to their own preferences. The new media environment empowers us all to consume exactly what we want, how we want it. This facilitates ghettoes of agreement, where users shut out content they disagree with, or interpret it through the prism of their own views and interact only with people who share those views.
In short, we’re letting a thousand echo chambers bloom.
The fragmentation drives a circle — vicious or virtuous, depending on your perspective — in which the media tailors its product to appeal to these niches. There are sound reasons why The Australian, for example, has moved from being a conservative paper, with a diversity of opinion from the Right, to being a rigidly pro-Coalition outlet — because that better reflects the views of a readership that heavily skews old, white and male.
Political debate is thus increasingly a dialogue of the deaf. Politicians offer the same couple of narratives over and over. The mainstream media reports politics using the same core set of stories, over and over. Politically-engaged users rely on media that confirms their biases. The rest of the community tunes out. There’s no communication, only noise from everyone speaking at each other without listening.
Will a new political paradigm change that? In its core themes of instability and disputation, it actually risks reinforcing it. The stories the media and politicians tell may well remain the same. Engaged users will become more and more empowered to shape their media consumption to reflect their prejudices and more and more angry about the mainstream media. Mass audiences will fragment into ever-smaller groups.
We’ll just endlessly, futilely buzz away at each other without listening, like a detuned radio.