May 072011
 

If you were ever wondering whether Lindsay Tanner’s book, “Sideshow: The Dumbing Down of Democracy” was striking chords with the media circus it criticises, have a look at Chris Kenny’s op-ed in todays Australian.

“The real insight in Tanner’s book is accidental. By revealing an obsession with media coverage, a focus on journalistic agendas and a conviction that to win politics you must win over the media, it demonstrates a failure to truly understand the beast.”

Does it, indeed? There is nothing ‘accidental’ about the innumerable quotes and examples of infotainment-cum-aggressive posturing attitudes media have adopted over the past 40 years in relations with politicians. Tanner is quite deliberate in his research and pointed in his critique. He understands the ‘beast’ much, much better than Kenny is prepared to admit, indeed, it would appear Kenny is the one stung by the book and it’s revelations. The Shakespearean phrase Me Thinks She Doth Protest Too Much comes thundering to mind.

The entire piece is a whinge from start to finish. Kenny attempts to belittle the literary effort by comparing Tanner’s book to that of Peter Walsh, former finance minister in the Hawke government. Walsh’s book – Confessions of a Failed Finance Minister – is a memoir of his time in government, his job and activities of those around him. Tanner’s book is nothing of the kind and frankly couldn’t be further from comparison. ‘Sideshow’ deals with one man’s perceptions of a media industry driven by the need to entertain as opposed to report fact, which in turn requires those who wish to use the media to sell a message to adopt the same or similar raison d’être in order not to be left behind by the circus. Those perceptions are quite valid because Tanner identifies what we see daily as news, as little more than what it really is. Hyped tales of daring do, dramatisation of otherwise humdrum events and sensationalist pictorials imagining that which could never be obtained by normal media resources.

Take, for instance, the death of Osama Bin laden at the hands of US commandos last weekend. Big story, factually, but the problem for media outlets was a lack of just that. Fact. Even now a week later we’re still being drip-fed snippets as they become available from the various vested interest sources in America. So, instead of fact last Sunday, we’re presented with a CGI production of very impressive proportions which portrayed what some artist skilled in the creation of such things presumed the helicopters and commando operatives looked like going in, how they moved on the ground and what the final moments would have been had the artist been there. That’s not news. That’s entertainment. Just as recorded vision from the Multi-Function Display in a fighter jet of a laser-guided missile striking its target is entertainment for the masses, while behind the vision a disembodied voice states the boring facts. This is what Tanner is identifying. The need of media to constantly tart up its presentations believing real news to be as boring as batshit to the great unwashed, so they must be entertained to keep them reading that newspaper or watching the tube on that particular television station.

It is patently clear that two elements exist in Kenny’s piece. His ardent conservatively biased ideology, and his bitterness that a mere politician, in this case former politician, should dare to critique his profession and even worse, get the critique right. Here’s a pointed piece from Tanner’s book which I found particularly pertinent to the media’s lack of attention to real issues and concentrated focus on the imaginary or spin-worthy. This is Lindsay Tanner from Chapter Three of his book, ‘Sideshow’:

To my great relief, my departure from politics was accompanied by another display of journalistic oversight. At the end of 2009, my wife and I purchased a property well outside Melbourne. In January 2010, our inner-Melbourne home was placed on the market. It sold at auction in February, and in May we moved to our new home. Many people knew about it, but no one in the Press Gallery noticed. Eventually, in June, Michelle Grattan published a story about my change of circumstances.

No journalist seemed to realise that this might have been a prelude to my departing politics. Facing a very difficult task to hold my seat in the face of a strong challenge from the Greens, a residential move from inner Melbourne to country Victoria raised some obvious questions about my intentions. I told journalists I had been looking for a flat in the inner city, which was true because of the new employment I was contemplating, but no one thought to put me on the spot about whether I would still contest the forthcoming election.

Of course, we all know what happened in June 2010, and now we know why on that fateful night Lindsay Tanner was at a Canberra hotel having dinner with a couple of friends, as opposed to running around Parliament House like the proverbial chook. He was already on his way out and had been for months. Did the media pick up on it? Not at all, it seems. The media were too pre-occupied between January 2010 and June 2010, with fantasising about whether or not Julia Gillard would attempt to roll Kevin Rudd. Big deal!

So, Chris Kenny I put it to you that Lindsay Tanner’s book has nothing to do with your perception of conservative ideology being better placed to handle media flirtation, aggression or criticism. I’ve seen John Howard just as flummoxed by media as any other PM before him or after him. Pretending that Howard was a better player than Rudd or Gillard is a purely partisan view and has nothing whatever to do with whether or not Lindsay Tanner’s tome nails it’s subject. Clearly it does exactly that, else we’d not be reading snarky columns by partisan journalists in a partisan rag attempting to mount a strawman argument against a claim which said journalists simply aren’t prepared or willing to address. Tanner is correct. The media is dumbing down democracy and not just in Australia, but globally, as anyone who follows politics and has read ‘Sideshow’ will understand. Politics in the modern age is being directed by media. That politicians attempt to use media is understood and both rely upon each other for pertinence in the eyes of the electorate. However it is also a fact that politics is merely one part of what media does, while media has become all that politicians appear to focus upon and in that frame, media can be held responsible for aiding and abetting that dependency. If there is one truism in Kenny’s piece it’s his reference to maggots and blowflies. The rest of it is an attempt to denigrate one side of politics to the benefit of the other and a transparent attempt at that. Tanner has hit his target with his book. Chris Kenny, in true obfuscatory fashion for a partisan journalist, says he’s aiming at one target, but tries hard to hit another. He fails in both pursuits, simply exposing himself for what he is. Just another clown media circus.