The rolling self-diagnosis of what ails our politics and political coverage continued apace last week. Laurie Oakes devoted his Andrew Olle Lecture on Friday evening to it, a couple of days after Annabel Crabb gave a Sydney Institute talk on a similar theme.

The debate has flared frequently since the 2010 election, most particularly after Lindsay Tanner gave everyone a bollocking in Sideshow. But last week’s lectures were particularly timely given this week News Ltd starts rolling out its paywall in an effort to discover the alchemy that will reverse the decline of text-based media revenue. Or, if not that, then at least milk cash from people who don’t realise you can already get Liberal press releases for free from the party’s website.

Oakes and Crabb offered guarded optimism and some suggestions. Oakes, addressing several hundred senior media industry executives and practitioners, wanted journalists to take the public interest (and politicians) more seriously and devote more time to significant public issues, rather than letting them get churned through the news cycle in a matter of hours. He also thinks we need politicians who are more like Paul Keating and, by implication, less like Gillard and Abbott. Crabb suggests, inter alia, the monetisation of privacy could be the business model of a media future based around quality content for smaller audiences.

Both were thoughtful additions to the debate, and both are a remedy to the reflexive criticism of the press gallery as irremediably hopeless that pervades the blogosphere. But neither, for mine, really got to grips with the central problems confronting the media and politicians. Both acknowledged the end of the age of audience passivity, but Oakes really seemed to be saying that the traditional 20th century model of journalists as key intermediaries between voters and politicians needed to be restored and preserved by journalists doing their jobs better. I call the intermediary idea the sacerdotal concept of journalism, and Oakes’s suggestions, while eminently sensible, were a bit like a Reformation Pope declaring everything would be fine if Catholic priests said mass better.

Crabb, however, understands that the role of the unchallenged intermediary has broken down, that the authoritative position of the media between politicians and audiences is vanishing by the day (the internet interprets gatekeepers as damage, and routes around them), and that the media and politicians — particularly the latter — will just have to get used to it. But I hoped she’d go further with the underlying issue she correctly identified early on, that major party politicians and the mainstream media are in the same slowly sinking boat, because that’s where I suspect the debate is most interesting.

Let’s take a slight detour, first.

During the election, when pieces about how bad it all was and whether it was the fault of politicians or the media or both were proliferating online, I suggested that voters themselves were as much the problem as hacks and MPs. It was voters, after all, who had retreated from all forms of civic engagement, and particularly political activism, over the course of the past 30 years or more, outsourcing politics to a caste of professional apparatchiks feeling their way via polling and focus groups.

For this insolence, I was roundly castigated — Demos will not be mocked — and an early 2010 article I stumbled on recently might give pause for thought. US academics Thomas Sander and Robert Putnam looked at levels of civic engagement among American youth since 2001. Putnam’s name might be familiar because he wrote the key text on civic disengagement, in 1995, Bowling Alone, about the decline of American social capital in the second half of the 20th century, exploring issues such as the decline in trust of others, participation in civic organisations like political parties or even community-focused forms of leisure.

Sander and Putnam found some good news last year: levels of civic engagement by young Americans — although more from middle and high than low-income backgrounds — had been on the rise since about 2001, reversing a constant decline since the mid-’60s. They identify 9/11 as a key motivational event for young Americans, but profess to be “agnostic” about the impact of the internet on this rising level of engagement.

I’m less agnostic. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the rise of civic engagement in the past decade has been among people with the highest levels of internet use and lowest levels of television consumption.

In his original Bowling Alone study, Putnam put a lot of the blame — 25%, he suggested, with a disconcerting level of specificity — for the fall in levels of civic engagement on television. Since its arrival, television has “privatised” leisure time, sucking several hours a day out of other activities including socialising and community engagement, thereby consuming social capital. From the moment it crept into our lounge rooms in the mid-20th century, TV began rewiring how we interacted, on a population-wide scale.

As McLuhan said, “we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us”.

Some have the internet pegged as another atomising medium, TV on steroids, the ultimate solitary experience as you surf on the ocean of content. But, especially since social media usage reached a mass scale, the internet has been the greatest connecting tool in history. It connects and interconnects like nothing before it and users have responded by using it to do what they do offline — establishing communities, networks and relationships.

Some critics such as Malcolm Gladwell — whose basic argument is that people did stuff before the internet so, well, what are you on about? — and mainstream media deadenders such as former NYT editor Bill “Hugo Chavez is the President of Brazil” Keller insist that somehow it’s all not real, that bonds forged online can’t be compared to those offline and don’t matter anyway, claims that have been discredited by research showing strong complementarity between online and offline bonds.

Take the current Occupy protests across the US and several other countries. This movement has emerged from the internet, a real-world version of online communities. Protesters in the US, London, Frankfurt and Australian cities are likely to feel a far stronger sense of community and a greater sense of identity with their Occupy counterparts in other countries than with many, and probably most, of the inhabitants of their own countries.

And if this strikes you as odd, or even somehow inappropriately unpatriotic, it only shows you’re still thinking in analog terms. Community is no longer anchored to place (where you live, where you work, your country), as it has been throughout human history, but anchored to commonality of interest, connected by the internet. In a double blow to the significance of place, you don’t even have to remain stationary to connect to an online community any more. Mobile internet services keep you permanently connected to whatever community you select into, wherever you are. Geography is still important for many of the communities we participate in, but the internet severed the causal link between geography and community. It’s the start of a post-geography era that will be one of the key historical events of the Gutenberg age.

The community-generating power of the internet is in direct contrast to the atomising power of television. The internet connects where television isolates. While newsprint and radio are less isolating, television symbolises the atomisation implicit in mass media, which bases its business model on establishing a hub-and-spoke relationship with consumers, dominating and mediating the way they understand the world and blocking out competing sources of information or, for that matter, anything that might distract them from their roles as passive advertising target and contented consumer.

(By the way, the atomisation that’s at the heart of the liberal economic project is a separate matter I’ll deal with in a coming piece on economic reform).

The internet won’t restore a prelapsarian world from the time before the idiot box ended our bowling nights. The communities and connections established won’t be like those of a geography-based world. They’ll be communities we choose for ourselves, because empowered audiences now don’t just decide for themselves what news articles to consume, they decide the worlds in which they’ll participate.

Which brings us back to politics and the media — two industries, by the way, that not merely share a past as gatekeepers but that are structured on geography. Our political system is based on an arbitrary fixation with the nation-state and geographically determined electorates (an idea inherited from the Brits), and the mainstream media continues to mostly operate, and be regulated, on the basis of location.

The internet thus doesn’t just threaten the business models of former gatekeepers industries and empower once-passive audiences. It reverses the long-term process on which the mainstream media and major party politics are based, the one as business model, the other as delivery system that took advantage of the mass media’s hub-and-spoke model to reach voters. The internet ignores the basis on which politics and the media historically have operated.

What to do?

Well, so far, not a lot. One of the characteristics of gatekeepers is that decades of exploiting a privileged position robs them of the capacity to innovate; indeed, they come to see innovation as something to be feared and attacked as it threatens their incumbent position.

This has led to the recurring phenomenon of digital natives successfully innovating in pre-digital industries while incumbents look forlornly at falling revenues and wonder what to do. Crabb suggests the media might need to find a model to monetise personal data for niche services, but digital natives, in the form of Google and Facebook, are already doing that. Google is good at spotting such opportunities — it makes billions from advertising revenues (supposedly in terminal decline) while the mainstream media scratches its head looking for a business model. So is Apple, which Steve Jobs drove into the space left unoccupied by the copyright mafia, which was convinced it could preserve its analog business model for content. So are online retailers, who’ve left bricks’n’mortar rivals in their wake. A similar process is under way for governments and political parties. GetUp has established a progressive political voice (one that takes credit for everything under the sun) while Labor appeared to fall silent. So, too, WikiLeaks and other whistleblower sites, which work on an understanding only recently achieved by governments following the WikiLeaks cables, that the internet and connectedness flatten information hierarchies.

The problem isn’t so much whether the major political parties and the media will work out a response to the challenge of the internet, it’s whether they’ll do so before someone else does. The short history of the internet says they won’t, that they’ll be left behind by smarter, more innovative digital natives who grow organically on the internet, rather than trying to make the internet fit the demands of the analog era or bolt it on to analog models. The politicians and the press probably have more time than other industries to understand their plight and react to it. But society is being rewired once more, and not in a way that benefits them.

Peter Fray

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