It’s important to get your head around what modern media want from politics. It’s depressing, but it’s important. In a nutshell, the answer is entertainment. Politics as a parade of character and frailty, of ambition, frustrated, stalled and realised. Of machination and capitulation. Of victory and cruel defeat. Understand all that and the coverage of national politics starts to make a strange sort of sense; the press gallery’s unhappy knack for reducing the national discussion to some obtusely tedious soap-opera subplot becomes explicable. Tragic. Unforgivable. But explicable. The narrative arcs ebb and flow, depending on the available subject matter and casting.

It’s hard to see, though, how the sexist and demeaning attacks that dogged the Gillard prime ministership could have got traction, least of all any sense of mainstream attention, if the political media had not already crossed some threshold, a point that having been breached permitted the continuing trivialisation of its coverage. The process of change has been long, and is now accelerating. It’s all about personalities now, the political contest cast as a duel to the death between two cartoon leaders with precious little policy detail to their brightly coloured drafting.

And yes, it’s profoundly sexist. Why? Well, take a look at the Australian media: slow change is afoot, but the main mouthpieces, editors, proprietors, publishers and commentators are overwhelmingly male. It’s a demographic parallel of the politics it describes and equally remote from the public it serves. The other frontier now being explored to its extremities by some sections of the Australian media is a particularly enthusiastic partisan campaigning. Combine all this and our media skates out, full of noise and bold movement, onto very thin ice indeed. In that context, sexist denigration seems part of a pattern of behaviour.

The terms of engagement have been redefined, to a point where the coverage of federal politics is barely distinguishable from the paparazzi pursuit of starlets shopping in their leisurewear. The focus has turned from reporting the above-the-waterline detail of a politician’s working life in policy and politics, to a no-holds-barred approach in which the last vestiges of restraint are being worn away by intense commercial pressure, juvenile newsrooms, infotainment masquerading as current affairs, and news that is little but a series of fast, fleeting impressions of colour and movement.

In its more dignified and thoughtful corners, the press notes all this with a tsk of disapproval and wonders, out loud, at the reduction in the civility of our public discourse, at the level of asinine and pointless invective in a conversation whose character it by and large determines.

Is this a wilful blindness? If Australia’s political discussion is lost into a pit of rudeness and tripe, it has been dumped there by press as much as by politicians—how could it be otherwise? The political machine might have got something of an upper hand over the sections of the media charged with conveying its direct messaging — the country’s various politically embedded units, the press galleries. This is the causal argument around the pressures of the daily cycle and the tightness of political media control, an argument that ends in a question: could politicians behave in that manner if the media forced the issue and used its collective intelligence and informational bargaining power?

“If media are to enjoy the privileges they earn as our democracy’s fourth estate, then they need to reawaken a sense of what serving that estate might entail.”

The media do not need to follow the script, after all, and do it more through the mechanics of pack behaviour than any external necessity of their craft. They are free to do as they please, though strangely the tendency among the working press is not to see things this way, but to stand back from the muddled little contest largely of its own making and both wonder at it disapprovingly and respond with pompous indignity to any suggestion that things might be otherwise.

This is a phenomenon worthy of its own social-media presence, according to Canberra-based media academic Jason Wilson, who at the end of the Sattler/blue tie week tweeted a suggested title: “Journalists writing about incivility as if it has nothing to do with them and their organisations dot tumblr something something”. Following up with another rebuke to any of the reading media: “‘Australia’s politics is broken’ well that’s a shame because it’s entirely mediated by YOU.”

The media could play a role in the cure too, of course, but turn a famously tin ear to these discussions. More than that, gallery journos can be downright defensive. Press gallery outsiders just don’t understand the pressures, the issues, the personalities, they say. Which is all well and good. Just fine if the work of these men and women had no broader public impact, if the system was a closed cell whose failures and transgressions could be safely ignored. But the public trust invested in a free press demands a better return than the flabby self-indulgence of so much of the political reporting-as-usual. The unspecified whispers fuelling leadership speculation, the fixation on verbal gotchas, the preference for vapid tennis matches of competing talking-point quotes over a serious analysis of issues.

If media are to enjoy the privileges they earn as our democracy’s fourth estate, then they need to reawaken a sense of what serving that estate might entail. A shorthand for the position might be policy over personality, but perhaps that’s too tempting an oversimplification.

It hardly seems to matter, in any event, because nothing seems more resolute than the collective failure of the Canberra gallery to just get this simple point. Our gallery hacks are rarely called on it, even though the consensus growing among the increasingly audible community they putatively serve seems to be that our press is not to be trusted or relied upon.

*This is an extract from Jonathan Green’s new book The Year My Politics Broke, published by Melbourne University Press

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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