“Here comes the future and you can’t run from it / If you’ve got a blacklist I want to be on it.” (Billy Bragg)
There was a certain wretched symmetry this week in Fairfax’s offshoring of jobs, and subsequent industrial action by Fairfax staff, and Parliament reaching the latest of its recent nadirs with Tony “Running Man” Abbott’s sprint from his own dignity.
The media and political parties are tightly bound together, and always have been, right from the emergence of mass political parties in the US in the 1820s at the same time as a mass media created by the transport revolution. They have similar business models and use similar tools. And they need each other: politicians need communication platforms to reach voters; media companies need political influence to secure their competitive position.
The ultimate version of this co-dependent relationship is a monstrous hybrid, part state, part media empire, like Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy where the soft-core porn of the mogul’s TV networks eventually became a prime ministerial lifestyle, or News International before its fall, a company so fully integrated into the British state apparatus that police conducted investigations in consultation with company executives, public officials were systematically bribed and the company provided key personnel for the prime minister.
The Australian media now faces its own nadir. Two of the three metropolitan networks are in financial difficulties, and both major newspaper companies are taking another turn in the vicious circle of cutting costs, thereby ensuring a poorer product, thereby likely to exacerbate, or do nothing to halt, the decline of revenue. This is partly cyclical, the result of cautious consumers and therefore lower ad spending.
The federal government, as governments do, is giving substantial help to the television networks via a licence fee cut and tens of millions in handouts for digital switchover assistance. Newspapers, which rate lower on the impact scale electorally, are getting nothing beyond their usual steady flow of government classified revenue, without which a paper like The Australian might well become unviable even for a company that has long endured its unprofitability.
The woes of newspapers of course are anything but cyclical. They’ve been trying to repair a broken business model and export it to the internet, where despite quality iPad apps and declarations of success about subscriber numbers, it hasn’t worked any better than offline.
Moreover, levels of trust in all commercial media have also fallen significantly over the last 18 months.
The major political parties have been dealing with similar problems for much longer. Their memberships have been in decline for decades (partly as a result of the decline in social participation that was a direct product of the atomisation caused by the mass media). But unlike newspapers, political parties have access to tools of control. Their response has been to establish a complex funding system that pumps cash straight into their veins via public funding and compulsory voting. They’ve also used information technology to compile vast amounts of information on voters, beyond the reach of privacy laws.
Some other sections of the media have adopted a similar approach of using coercion to prop up their business model. The copyright industry has been kicking and fighting against the internet virtually from the moment it arrived, and has succeeded in co-opting governments into enforcing copyright, a responsibility the industry itself used to have to pay for.
That’s not an option for newspapers, which started giving content away free themselves a very long time ago.
But coercion is no longer enough for the major parties. They too have suffered a recent collapse in trust. The deep dislike of both major party leaders among voters is but one symptom of the current sense of rancour toward traditional politics from voters. Australians are staying off the electoral roll in greater numbers, to the extent that governments are now using datamatching and datamining to automatically enrol them. They’re voting informally in greater numbers. They’re voting for third parties like the Greens in greater numbers. It’s the era of disengagement, albeit one hidden by a complex system that seeks to compel political participation no matter how unwilling.
One way to address disengagement is to create a stronger, more compelling brand. This is behind News Ltd’s ever more aggressive political coverage, not merely directed at Labor and the Greens federally but the O’Farrell government in NSW, and its promotion of in-house brands like Andrew Bolt, who offers certainty, if not much in the way of journalistic or intellectual rigour. Clearer branding can cut through a more cluttered media environment and catch the eye of disengaged consumers. The same goes for politics: Tony Abbott has been highly effective partly because he offers a clear, simple message (basically, “no”) in a cluttered and confused environment.
As both examples suggest, it’s easier to offer strong brands when you’re being negative. It’s far more difficult when you’re being positive, because arguing coherent ideas often involves nuance and detail, both of which are death to cut-through. And neither may be a long-term strategy, as Tony Abbott’s high levels of voter dissatisfaction and The Daily Telegraph’s status as Australia’s least-trusted metro newspaper and flat-to-declining circulation demonstrate. But The Telegraph at least will never have to offer a positive agenda as Prime Minister. Well, not directly at least.
Another means of addressing disengagement is to surrender some control. Both Labor and the Liberal parties are mulling over preselection primaries, and Labor’s most recent major review, by party elders Bracks, Carr and Faulkner, recommended significant decentralisation of power, proposals that have been rejected. Newspapers, too, struggle against the idea of ceding control to users online, adhering to their traditional role of controlling debate and dictating its terms and often railing against critics. For both, however, surrendering control offers uncertain rewards and no clear solution to their systemic problems, a step into the unknown that only has the virtue of not being what hasn’t worked before.
Both the media and the major parties find themselves stranded, stuck with an old business model that no longer works. Politicians at least have been able to prop themselves up by coercing Australians into supporting them. But the two are closely interlinked. One cannot survive in their traditional form without the other. A means of re-engagement must be found, and that can now only happens on the terms of the people formerly known as the electorate and the audience. The first party or media company to solve that dilemma stands to accrue a very great first-mover advantage.