Bullshit, humbug, trolling, and damned lies — the now standard political tool-kit — is, floor by floor, taking down the Australian media’s once solidly constructed edifice of credibility.
It’s a big job, calling for a range of finely engineered machinery, each shaped to meet the task at hand. For bullshit, you’ll need a Morrison shape-shifting spanner. For humbug, why, that’ll call for a Frydenberg power borer. And for trolling? Here’s a Dutton box of sledging hammers for nailing the culture war talking points.
No amount of attempts by journalists to plaster over the holes with fact checking or in-depth reporting seems able to withstand the reputational damage it’s doing to the media.
Part of the problem is that much of Australia’s media (*cough* News Corp) has got on board with the conservative mission, retaining only the semiotics of journalism — its look, its feel, its platforms — to promote conservative talking points. And, yes, part of the problem is the lack of journalistic resources to match the effort the Liberal government puts into what we politely call “spin”, but should recognise more colloquially as “bullshit”.
The core problem is that political bullshit, humbug and trolling are optimised to hack journalism. The craft’s 20th century operating system has not evolved to respond: too many journalists are tied too strongly to what worked (more or less) in more honest times and too resentful to listen to the, ahem, helpful advice that comes from what should be its natural allies in new media and online.
This operating system is still fit for purpose at challenging outright lies and highlighting fumbles, if sometimes later rather than sooner. (Think back to the press gallery’s consistent coverage of the parliament’s sexual abuse scandals, particularly by the gallery A-team.) The enduring accountabilities inherent in the Australian political system — the gallery embedded in the parliament, question time, estimates — make it hard to pull off the shameless lying of, say, a more unreachable figure like Trump.
But Australian journalists struggle with what US philosopher Harry Frankfurt described in 1986 as bullshit. The liar, he says, understands the truth and lies to conceal or mislead. The daggy-dad Go Sharkies! bullshitter or the carefully curated action man PM is indifferent to the truth: he simply wants to persuade at the emotional level.
The challenge for the media goes back to the Faustian bargain that journalists made in the early 20th century when they embraced the opportunities of emerging printing technology.
Mass production demanded a journalism of mass appeal, resulting in an inherent tension between being “useful” (in reporting politics) and “entertaining”. The device for juggling this tension was the replacement of the daily rational “reports” — government documents or transcripts of political speeches — with “stories” that appealed to the emotions, bringing to life narratives with action heroes and dastardly villains.
Politics responded by elevating day-to-day events to “crises” that demanded a big response. The more dramatic the crisis, the more profound the response; the more it fitted a media framework of “newsworthiness”, the greater the media rewards. The master? John Howard, of course, for both good and ill: gun buyback, refugee boats, war on terror, union thugs.
It’s why annual budgets have gone from technical accounting summaries to all-caps EVENTS.
Start with an inevitable deficit resulting from a wetted-finger-in-the-air guesstimate of GDP growth and iron ore prices (less the cost of a century’s worth of accumulated governmental decisions, with an extra percent or two for the costs of this year’s political patch-ups).
Lay the result over with bullshit, lather it up with humbug and you get the media picture of the heroic response of a government making the tough decisions in the crisis of the moment.
In reality, it’s the global right applying the trolling maxim that former US vice-president Dick Cheney laid down almost 20 years ago for right-wing governments: “Ronald Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter.”
Or, at least as the Morrison government and its media supporters seem to have it: deficits matter less than winning the next election.