Many will surely see in Lindsay Tanner’s Sideshow what they want to see. Critics of the Press Gallery have taken to Twitter to explain how its 200 pages vindicate their belief in how out of touch and irrelevant the Gallery is. Working journalists are likely to see an attempt by Tanner to, as he himself put it, “blame the umpire” and duck responsibility for the dumbing down of politics that everyone, in one way or another, agrees has happened in recent years. Current and former politicians, whatever they may say in public, are likely to agree with him and lament their own incapacity to utter the same condemnation.

In promoting the book, Tanner has taken flak for a couple of things – not offering any solutions to the problems he details, and refusing to comment on current politics. It’s legitimate for journalists to ask Tanner to comment on current policy issues of course, but it’s now equally legitimate for Tanner to decline to answer on the basis that he’s now a private citizen. His book, after all, is no policy opus, but deals with politics itself. And he does muse on some solutions at the end of the book – more of that later — but his main concern, he says, is to identify the symptoms of a growing and significant problem.

That he does very well, and very entertainingly, even if at times Sideshow reads like Tanner’s personal payback on journalists who’ve offended him in some way or other over his years in politics. Some – most particularly Laura Tingle — get the Tanner stamp of approval; the rest… not so much, and plenty get either a mild rebuke, if they’re lucky, or a detailed examination of what many might agree in retrospect were not their finest career moments.

It’s like an extended version of a Tanner answer in Question Time — lots of evidence and logic and not a little snark in the service of a greater point.

Two things mitigate the hit list tone: Tanner is happy to include examples of when he himself donned the clown wig and floppy shoes of the political circus and (too few) other examples from his colleagues during the Rudd years. More to the point, Tanner has done plenty of research to explore the trend to trivialisation, personality-based reporting and dumbing down both in the media and in the craft of politics, not just in Australia but in the US and the UK as well.

But a couple of issues warranted further exploration. Tanner, while not suggesting it’s the fault of anyone in particular, singles out the media and politicians, and to a lesser extent voters themselves, for blame. Absent, though, are the political parties – and especially Labor – which have provided an institutional framework for the dumbing down of politics. It’s impossible to look at the debacle of the NSW Government, and the travails of Federal Labor over the last 13 months, without seeing the dead hand of the party machine helping steer its parliamentary wing to destruction.

The reliance on focus groups to make up for a lack of core party values – or to supplant core party values considered inconvenient – and the promotion into Parliamentary ranks of men and women whose only life experience has been of the distorted reality of machine politics, have been key ingredients in the dumbing down of politics. And, as much as the other issues identified by Tanner, this is not a problem that’s going away. To watch the departure of Karl Bitar is to know, with cold certainty, that we shall indeed look upon his like again.

Tanner also talks, with plenty of academic work to back him up, about the impact of competition on the media and the growing pressure not merely to cut costs but for newspapers to mimic television’s story selection. While Laurie Oakes might cavil at the assumption television’s political coverage is automatically less substantial than that of newspapers (who was the harshest critic of the Mark Latham stunt during the election, after all, than Oakes himself?), on a simple level of resourcing of course Tanner is stating the obvious. What he touches on repeatedly but never really explores, though, is that the devil he is really wrestling with is fragmentation of the mass media space into self-selected niches.

Fragmentation not merely reduces revenues from the direct loss of audiences but removes some of the most appealing demographics from the mass market, higher-income and better-educated audiences less willing to be passive media consumers.

The problem is redoubled in political journalism, where the most engaged audience members — again, likely to be higher income and more educated — see the mainstream media as simply one input into their own conversation about politics, rather than an end product in itself. The loss of the unitary mass media space most of us grew up with, and the public interest focus of the journalism it carried, is the core of the issue Tanner is taking aim at here. That loss is not entirely a bad thing.

As Timothy Wu points out in Master Switch, that unitary space is an artificial, 20th century creation of big, domineering media companies, rather than being a reflection of the natural order of things. And its idea of political journalism had its flaws – particularly the dominant model until the 1990s, involving middle-aged, middle class white men engaged in ritualistic exchanges while the rest of the country looked on passively, only allowed to know what producers and editors determined.

Tanner is hardly the first Australian politician to lament the problem of the Press Gallery failing to report on what he believes are the important issues. John Howard famously decided to go around the Press Gallery and directly to voters via talkback radio. Kevin Rudd adopted a similar strategy, using formats like FM radio and venturing onto light entertainment shows that Howard, even at his be-tracksuited best, would never have dared go near. But Rudd’s frequently excruciating appearances on Rove fit nicely into Tanner’s criticism of celebritisation and trivialisation, whereas Howard’s use of talkback was considered masterful.

There’s an element of opinion snobbery automatically implicit in any judgment about “dumbing down”. Tanner himself is a fan of “shock jocks” (well, most of them) because, as he perceptively notes, they effectively focus on significant policy issues in ways ordinary voters understand, and provide a good platform for real engagement by politicians.

But both Howard and Rudd were in pursuit of the same objective, to reach disengaged voters without using the traditional mechanism of political media. When I discussed Sideshow with Tanner, I suggested to him that we’re witnessing a plague of disengagement as voters vote informal, vote for third parties and skip election campaigns entirely by using pre-poll votes (which is most common in wealthier, better-educated electorates).

Tanner — who at the end of the book wonders about his long-standing support for compulsory voting — pointed out falling rates of electoral enrolment as well.

There are of course tools available to reach out to the disengaged, to try to re-engage them in politics; the traditional mechanisms of old white male journalism, mass-movement political parties and leafleting may no longer work but people are connected now far more fundamentally than ever before. However, connecting with them effectively requires ceding control to them, to let them drive the conversation, to let them do the grassroots organising.

The internet may be one of the key causes of the dumbing down of politics but it also represents a so far – in Australia – under-utilised tool for people in public life to engage with voters in ways the lost mass media of the 20th century never could. The technology is there; whether the will to use it and the mindset to enable that use is there, however, is a question Tanner might best direct at his erstwhile colleagues.

After all that, there’s a lingering sense that Tanner is a man out of time. One of the enduring memories of Question Time during the Rudd years was Tanner approaching the Dispatch Box clutching handwritten notes, to deliver answers devoid of the incessantly-repeated key words of Rudd Labor. Few “working families” featured in his careful explanations; rarely were “tradies” lauded for their key economic role and quintessential Australianness. Instead, all we got was logic, evidence and wit.  His decision not to contest last year thereby spared him the fate of enduring a campaign diametrically opposed to his approach to politics. Rather, he seems more like a leftover from an earlier, better era.

He first entered Federal politics when he won Melbourne in 1993 and was there to enjoy, if that’s the right word, the last three years of the Keating Government. Beset by fiscal problems from a lingering recession, a fractious backbench (another new arrival, Wayne Swan, was particularly troublesome) and Keating’s own increasingly eccentric style, it was doomed from the moment the Liberal Party saw sense and returned John Howard to the leadership.

But Keating never took his foot off the reform accelerator, flooring it on issues like national competition policy, enterprise bargaining and superannuation – never mind the republic and reconciliation —  even as defeat at the hands of the reviled Howard loomed. For Keating, parliamentary terms were to be sucked dry of the potential to deliver major reform, no matter what.

Tanner has been trying to provide something of a corrective to too nostalgic a view of the Hawke-Keating years, saying the task of prosecuting reform was easier then and is now much more difficult. It’s not merely the speed of the media cycle and the media’s attitude toward reform (entirely focused on identifying and promoting the views of anyone losing from or not benefiting from it), but also because voters no longer see the urgency of the reform case after decades of growth.

Keating, Tanner says, may well have struggled in the sort of environment Tanner and his then-colleagues found themselves after 2007. But for all that, it’s probably fair to say Tanner wishes they’d adopted a rather more Keatingesque approach to the task of governing than they did, that they’d experimented, as he quips at the start of the book, with “governing well.”

Peter Fray

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