anthony albanese
(Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

When Labor was in a doldrums period in the mid-2000s (before brief success and then a return to the doldrums), there was intense debate about what Labor needed to do. Bill Shorten added his take: what Labor needed to succeed was more success. He was laughed at for that, but he was sorta right.

Once you’re on the upswing, your words acquire weight and force. But getting back to that point relies on your words having meaning and force. And round it goes.

The paradox of opposition has been a factor for a long time. But, hell, the Opposition used to actually get reported on. It used to be thought that the proceedings and decisions of an opposition party national conference would be worth reporting on at some length, and with some comprehensiveness, by the major press.

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Yet one scours the national papers and sites for any sort of report, even in summary, of the decisions made and the alternatives proposed. All I can see on the online versions of coverage are: a single story on energy policy in The Age and SMH, a running blog in Guardian Australia with a few preview stories from days ago, and a cheap gotcha in the Oz about the zoom not working for the online event. The AFR’s story today is mostly a political strategic assessment, leading with the announcement that Albo’s cutting down on the grog.

OK, given that it was online it wasn’t the most exciting conference in the world to cover. And there is every reason to believe that Labor wanted it to be reported low key, so as to keep focus on the government’s women problem.

But that’s all the more reason to cover it diligently. Labor announced a major change of direction from the established consensus, with a return to state-directed manufacturing efforts. Since that would shape how we live in profound ways, and marks a real political difference opening up, it should have been widely covered and considered in real time, and today as a conference wrap-up. We did so, but we do not purport to be the newspapers of record, or the full mainstream.

All the more reason why they should have had such coverage. And in the past they would have. Make no mistake about it, it’s not just your imagination or faulty memory if you’re older (i.e. if you’re a subscriber), this is real civilisational decline.

Your correspondent has recently been reading through whole years of the dailies from the 1950s through to the 1970s, and as well as coming to some conclusions about what was of the time — 40% of Melbourne’s Herald in the early 1970s was Pentridge prison escapes and hand-drawn lingerie ads as far as I can tell — there’s also the fact that things like political conferences, their decisions and debates get reported, even if there’s no drama. This was on the principle that the public should have a ready, synthesised account of what an alternative government might look like.

The absence of anything like that — quite possibly there’ll be something in the Saturdays, but then again, quite possibly not — is part of the general disconnect between politics and everyday life that the mainstream media is not merely reflecting but contributing to.

One doesn’t expect anything from The Australian except game-playing and sabotage. As a national paper, the Oz has been a net negative contribution to the national life. We would have been better off as a country if it had shut down during Murdoch’s cash crisis in the late 80s (well before the actual rot set in, quality wise). New Zealand has pretty average media, but it’s a better place, and the increased divergence between the two countries is substantially due to the presence/absence of News Corp.

But not expecting much from the national broadsheet (that expectation is a measure of the decline itself) doesn’t absolve the Nine papers and Guardian Australia. It especially doesn’t absolve them from questions about their absolute bias towards, and dominance of, stories fashioned around individual experience, atomised selfhood and fragmented existence.

We all know the excuses as to why these stories — from the confessional to the pretty non-forensic reporting on social (especially gender) issues — get prominence: because of the fabled algorithms, and the capacity to track individual story uptake.

That has developed in leaps and bounds from a generation ago. We genuinely live in a society where many people now have no “horizon of the social”. They simply don’t see social life as anything more than the sum of atomised stories and connections. But once again that has been exacerbated by the media’s willingness to feed back such hyper-individualism to the reader in a manner that quickly becomes not merely circular but centripetal.

Yes, it matters what the opposition thinks and believes. Yes, their views should be featured by a media concerned to hold the government to account. The absence of that creates a curious disconnect, whereby the government’s actual policies and broader actions are reported, often uncritically and unanalytically, while a series of social problems are reported without context, connection to political happenings, or in anything other than a socially atomised fashion.

By now, in the ex-Fairfax papers, the government should be being pilloried, filleted and shellacked for the absolute failure of the vaccine rollout in Australia. This is a failure all the more damnable given our success in tamping down COVID-19 through lockdowns.

We could have been the first larger country to really, totally knock off the threat. Instead, we’re at the edge of going back in because of a sort of somnambulant inefficiency, a simple and basic lack of application by everyone from Scotty on down to Greg Hunt; a gurning, poly-incompetent failson if there was.

We used to do this. Media used to do this. Oppositions used to do this.

We now seem to live in a media and politics sphere where that whole category of direct contestation — what oppositions are proposing about how we might live differently, full incompetence by government — has been replaced by a near-exclusive focus on conditions in government for staffers: a soap-opera, serious enough in its events, but in which a political elite act out their dramas while we observe and choose our heroes from among them to represent us.

Can we get some genuine social, collective, programmatic politics back into the mainstream press? News Corp is a lost cause. Guardian Australia may have become a place where the algorithms select the staff. Fairfax editors will have to talk back to the Nine right-wing consiglieres who run the joint and give us Uhlmann and, hahaha, Parnell McGuinness.

But do they have the actual conception of politics I’m talking about? Or has it been lost there too? If do, we’re largely gone. I cant see many other places where this sort of thing is happening, save for outright autocracies. If so, we appear doomed to be a sort of giant drifting suburb on the ocean, absent a metropolis, for some time to come. Labor, may we succeed soon. But will it be? And what will it inherit?

April fools! Everything’s great here! Your house is worth $2 million! You’re rich! It only cost your life to pay for it! (Conditions apply.)

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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