“I’d say to you: don’t write crap. [Laughs from audience] It can’t be that hard. [Applause from audience] And when you have written complete crap, then I think you should correct it.” (Prime Minister Julia Gillard, National Press Club address, July 14)

And on that note, it seems fitting to launch our new weekly segment Sideshow Alley. Most of our readers are familiar with our semi-regular Friday Wankley — well, this item, co-written with former finance minister Lindsay Tanner, broadens the brief beyond examples of shoddy media coverage to also call out our politicians on feeding the beast.

Each week we’ll nominate the latest offerings to the service of dumbing down politics by journalists and/or politicians, and at the end of each month we’ll be asking Tanner to write through his pick of the best/worst example. He writes in introduction:

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My book Sideshow has raised awareness about the decline of serious media coverage of Australian politics. It’s highlighted a number of common abuses by journalists and politicians that generate cheap stories and easy publicity at the expense of accuracy and relevance.

The challenge now is to ensure that we increase the pressure on the mainstream media, and therefore on our politicians, to lift their game. If you believe democratic politics needs informed public debate that is reasonably accessible for most of the population, this is a crucial challenge. It’s time to take on the world of stunts, gimmicks, photo ops, announceables, and Round the Worlds. The more we can expose the ridiculous trivialisation and distortion that now passes for political coverage, the more the media will be under pressure to raise the standard of reporting.

I am delighted that Crikey is picking up the baton with its new Sideshow segment. I would like all Crikey subscribers to keep an eye out for outrageous examples of the Sideshow syndrome, and to submit them to Crikey when they find them. Monthly prizes will reward those who uncover the best of the best. So go to it: there’s no shortage of material out there!

Not this week, that’s for sure.

Julia Gillard’s Sunday carbon tax announcement set off a torrent of coverage, pushed along by the prime minister’s promise to criss-cross the nation to communicate her “Clean Energy Future” and Tony Abbott’s pledge to fight “Labor’s toxic carbon tax”. Anyone would think we were in the middle of an election campaign. Oh wait, that’s two years away. Monday’s tabloids were typically measured:

Go here for a snapshot of all the front pages from that day for an interesting exercise in compare and contrast.

Gillard met an almost equal measure of gratitude, support and scepticism on the ABC’s Q&A on Monday night (though you wouldn’t know it from AM‘s coverage of the discussion the next morning, which lead its 7am program and hinted at not a single positive comment … what did news outlets do on Tuesdays before Q&A existed?).

Abbott’s team faced a renegade Green at a community forum in the Melbourne suburb of Frankston, who was promptly frogmarched out of the building.

Gillard had an awkward encounter with a deeply unimpressed lady who would not be moved from her assertion that the prime minister was lying. The woman was also quick to point out she “was not stupid” in what proved to be a nail-bitingly awkward confrontation. Abbott, in hard hat and vest, stuck to locations like Peabody Energy’s Wambo Mine in the Hunter Valley. No mention of the industrial city of Whyalla which he predicted would be “wiped off the map” ahead of the government’s announcement of compensation to the steel industry.

And families featured heavily this week. The papers are fond of rigorous scientific sampling of a broad cross-section of the community on the big issues, and equally, politicians are fond of kitchen table time and the resulting photo opp. While Gillard visited 10 Monaro Place, Emu Plains in Western Sydney, The Daily Telegraph door knocked the not-so-impressed neighbours. Meanwhile, the Herald Sun surveyed families in Green Street, of course …

On the air waves, the chatter on talkback was typically astute…

2SM (Sydney)
Breakfast – 11/07/2011 – 06:06 AM
Graeme Gilbert

Caller Jimmy says if you’re not for democracy then by definition you’re against it. He says if polls across Aust say that the people don’t want a carbon tax then aren’t Julia Gillard and the Greens by definition enemies of Aust. Gilbert explains how the house of representatives and senate work.

4CA AM (Cairns)
John Mackenzie – 11/07/2011 – 11:44 AM
John MacKenzie

Caller Robert says he has been doing research at the Earlville Council Library and has discovered that the planet was formed 4,000m years ago and that the dinosaurs all died except for crocodiles. Robert talks about how the dead animals turned into coal. Robert says his research shows carbon dioxide is not causing the rise and fall in the world’s temperature since it’s creation. Robert says it doesn’t matter what Australia does because China and Japan are not doing the same. Robert describes the Australian Government’s carbon tax as a scam similar to ‘the Nigerian scams.’ MacKenzie comments that Alan Jones and many books say the same thing. MacKenzie says he doesn’t know the impact of man-made CO2 on the warming of the planet as there are scientists on both sides.

ABC 774 Melbourne (Melbourne)
Breakfast – 11/07/2011 – 05:52 AM
Red Symons

Caller Robert rings to explain the carbon tax to Symons. He says he was at the Collingwood vs North Melbourne match yesterday and it was very cold. Everyone was saying they’ll be glad when global warming kicks in. Robert says in the last warm period in Europe, they used to grow crops on Greenland. He says ‘this carbon dioxide thing’ is a guilt thing put on humans, and says the universe is in control, not politicians. Robert says carbon dioxide is one part carbon and two parts oxygen, and we need the oxygen and the trees need the carbon, so there shouldn’t be any problem.

Meanwhile, the far-from-scientific exit surveys from The Courier Mail forums gave us these kinds of results. Analyse this:

Abbott’s appearance: Audience opposition to the tax rose from 36.6% before the forum to 51.4% after Mr Abbott spoke. Support for the tax also rose from 25% to 32.1%, while the undecided vote fell from 38.4% to 16.5%. When voters left the forum, 51.2% were against the government’s carbon tax. The interesting number came in the 22 people who changed their mind from undecided during the forum. Only 15 were won over by Mr Abbott while seven said they now supported the carbon tax.

Gillard’s appearance: Of the 112 people who cast their vote as they entered the forum, only 23 people, a mere 20.5%, said they were in favour of the carbon tax. Another 42 people said they did not support the tax, 47 said they were undecided and another five did not cast a vote. On the way out of the room, support for the carbon tax had doubled to 41%. Ms Gillard drew support from both the previous opponents and undecided voters. About 28%, or 33 people, said they did not support the tax and about 31%, or 36 people, said they remained undecided.

The take home message from these numbers? People seem to be … information hungry. And is there any wonder why when you get a gander of our pick for this week. In a crowded contest, the clear winner was The Daily Telegraph on Tuesday for this:

To quote:

“Last week the Prime Minister promised to wear out her shoe leather touring the country touting the $23 a tonne carbon charge, which will hit middle-income earners like a stiletto heel to the forehead.

“Yesterday, she chose a pair of black court shoes with bows on the front, which were made from a polluting cow and arrived in Australia on a carbon-emitting jet from their country of manufacture — China.

“The government is so worried about air travel it has imposed the carbon tax on domestic flights and is encouraging farmers to find ways to reduce the amount their cows belch.”

Hypocrisy, thy name is Gillard’s court shoes with bows on the front. We don’t know about you, but we’ve learnt a lot here.

*What did we miss? Email us at boss@crikey.com.au with “Sideshow Alley” in the subject line.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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