Politics isn’t bad; it’s the reporting

As people in other parts of the world fight for the right to vote, too many Australian voters dismiss politics as boring, unimportant, even irrelevant. 15% of Australians believe “for someone like me, it doesn’t matter what kind of government we have”. They couldn’t be more wrong. It’s not politics that is the problem; it’s the way it’s reported.

I don’t believe in such a thing as a “national spirit”, but there does appear to be some truth to the idea that Australians tend to be apathetic. There are probably multiple reasons for our apathy. Perhaps our economic fortunes have made us complacent. I suspect the Liberal Party may be deliberately trying to trash the reputation of politics to win support for reducing the size of government. But I think the most fundamental reason voters believe politics is irrelevant, unimportant, and boring is because political reporting focuses on the aspects that really are irrelevant, unimportant, and (while often superficially attention-grabbing) unable to hold long-term interest.

Politics is reported as though it were a sport or a reality show. Lazily, formulaically, brainlessly, journalists slot every event into a narrative which says one party or person is going up or down in popularity. It’s a “bad week” for some political party or leader; there’s a “good poll” for another; someone is “ahead” in the race; someone is “behind” in the game. The Prime Minister’s latest speech appeared “Prime Ministerial” (whatever that means), but in yesterday’s speech she appeared “weak”, and another speech she will make tomorrow will be a pivotal event because she will “assert her authority”.

The headline political events are not policies but parliamentary stunts, leadership spills and plots, and scandals about individual MPs. For example, on 30 May, the House of Representatives passed legislation to create a Clean Energy Finance Corporation. Also, in an unrelated and unimportant procedural vote, Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott realized he was on the same side as an MP whose vote he considers illegitimate, and ran for the door. The latter event became the day’s major political story.

Journalists implicitly display a holier-than-thou attitude toward politicians, who are almost universally assumed to be motivated by power as an end in itself. This extreme cynicism about the motives of the representatives elected by democracy is oddly combined with extreme idealism about the judgment of the voters. All that ultimately matters is what we “the punters” think when we decide who among those crooked politicians deserve the power they seek.

Currently the chosen narrative is that the Gillard Labor Government is in trouble. Every day, the headlines scream the Government is “in crisis” or some similar hackneyed expression. Yes, Julia Gillard does have the barest majority in the Parliament, and the polls do show Labor’s popularity has collapsed, and there are moves within the party to replace Gillard with Kevin Rudd, but these things are hardly news. There also seems to be a widespread view that contemporary politics is too unstable. I disagree: contemporary politics is too stable; that’s why politicians are failing to achieve very much.

I also think there is too much focus on Parliament: some of the most powerful influences on politics are generally ignored because they have no seats in Parliament. We read endlessly about the power plays of Labor, the Liberals, the Greens, and independents, and different candidates to lead the parties. Yet there is little scrutiny of the arguably much greater power wielded by corporate lobbyists, often behind the scenes. Conversely, the newspapers are saturated with arguments originating from business lobby groups, while little space is given to the views of those with little or no influence, for example, community activist groups outside Parliament. We sometimes hear from economists, but rarely from experts in the physical sciences.

Journalists endlessly interview each other about politics, as if they were somehow experts. The commentators never acknowledge they themselves are part of the game they are reporting – they are the judge who decides who is up, who is down, who is in crisis. Those judgments may be informed by opinion polls, but what is the use of commentary if it only amplifies what people are already thinking? The misguided focus of the media on power plays may help to explain how the current federal Opposition, aggressive on process and vague on policy, has been able to gain popularity.

I say this method of reporting is formulaic because it can be applied to any situation and thus recycled indefinitely, ensuring a commentator can always find something to say in their weekly opinion piece. It’s much easier to constantly naval-gaze about who’s up or down than to critically analyze a policy’s intentions and implications.

Politics isn’t about whether this week’s events make one political party or another look good or bad. Politics is about alternative visions of the future of the world and ways to get there (even if the vision is to keep the status quo or to reduce the role of government, it’s still a vision of sorts). If journalists want to report politics like a horse race, they should start their own reality show. Real-world politics should be covered with the seriousness it deserves. Until then, I fear too many voters will continue to see politics as irrelevant.

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  1. The media know their audience.

  1. […] 2012/07/19: PlanetJ: Politics isn’t terrible; it’s the exposure […]

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