Politics is a television medium. It has been for nearly 50 years. But TV has changed in that time. Artifice in the aid of the entertainment was formerly tolerated. Now, thanks to the 'reality' TV phenomenon, we seek out representations of 'authenticity'. Guess what happens to politics?
The driver of the reality television phenomenon is well known. Starved of funding and their business model broken, networks experimented with cheap and cheerful drama formats that needed neither writers nor actors - just an 'unscripted' competition franchise that pitted desperate amateurs against each other.
Of course, it didn't take too long for savvy participants in these shows - dating back to Survivor, Big Brother, The Weakest Link and Australian Idol - to crack the key to on-screen longevity: Appeal to the broadest possible audience without appearing to be trying; in other words the trick is achieve a kind of scripted 'authenticity'.
These days, we are all sophisticated viewers of reality TV. We know the scenarios are heavily formatted. The only really unpredictable element of these shows is the ability of participants to work around the artificial constructs while conveying in some sense an element of how 'real' they are. Insert mentions of "incredible journeys", "discovering my passion" and "putting it all on the line".
Now cast your mind to Canberra - The Big House - and the 150 or so participants thrown together after each election to see who emerges as media winners in a competition that's all about doing politics without being seen to do politics, winning opinion polls while proclaiming not to care about polls and, most of all, communing happily with the "real people" without looking like it's an effort. Who do you think is winning that race?
The story so far: In the red team, Julia Gillard "lied" about the carbon tax to gain power. And she backstabbed popular Kevin before that to stay in the show. In the blue team, Tony Abbot is just as duplicitous, but is somehow getting away with it. We know he can't wind back the carbon tax and restore the private health insurance rebate and subsidise brown coal producers and grant universal un-means-tested maternity leave - while providing a sizable surplus - without telling a few porkies. But we've collectively decided that blokey Tony is the authentic housemate while shifty, backstabber Julia's the fibber. So Julia is heading out of the house and Tony's staying on.
Mainstream media journalists - po-facedly locked into their modernist scripted role as 'independent' intermediaries - play along with this charade because they are part of the show themselves (often withour realising it). And even if they are sufficiently self-aware to see how redundant it is to have 'observers' when everyone can see what's going on backstage in real-time, they can't really afford to give up the pretence because it keeps them employed as 'commentariat-bots'. (BTW, how well would Glen Milne fit into the Master Chef judging panel? He could shoulder charge the contestants who displease him or toss red wine into their faces).
Anway, colour writers like Annabel Crabb represent a belated rearguard stab at post-modernism by the ABC (always about six steps behind intellectual fashion) to get behind the curtain with the political actors and wink at the audience, but her self-consciously ironic schtick is just a little too cute and respectful to fill the subversive role it is clearly designed for. We desperately need a Jon Stewart, or better, to just dispense with the gentle ribbing and ridicule the entire circus for all it is worth.
While we wait for someone to deconstruct the crumbling edifice for good, the rest of us go onto Twitter to spar with a mainstream media contingent that has an uncanny tribal propensity for circling the wagons when under attack. When losing the argument, the journos declare a demarcation dispute and loudly proclaim that, anyway, they are the professionals and the real insiders and the rest of us are hopeless amateurs unaware of how politics really works; like Matt Preston sniffing that you really need to wear a cravat to judge whether the prawn cocktail is off.
It should be clear to anyone with any instinct for these things that the media and political culture, as it has been played now for about 40 years, is exhausted, burnt out, past its use-by date. At the same time, the ideological season is turning - the accepted wisdom about 'free' markets always being right and politicians being inferior judges of risk and opportunity than those supposed 'captains of industry' (in reality salaried managers with little skin in the game either) has been ripped to shreds by the global financial crisis. Dead political paradigm. Dead economic one too.
While we wait for what comes next, we are all left watching the reality show called contemporary politics - two teams of alpha individuals playing up their minimal differences and trying to win us over as authentic, while the
It's excess baggage. We just haven't woken up to it.