Thursday, February 16, 2012

Excess Baggage

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 Fourth Failed Estate seeks desperately to convince us all that somehow it means something.

It's excess baggage. We just haven't woken up to it.


  1. This is a fine piece of reality journalism and I congratulate you on it. It seems that the so-called professional journalists, in spite of appearing to be on opposite sides and with some notable exceptions, tend to be cabalistic and unwilling to call each other out for fear of being excluded from the club. Wajini Chakrabarty

  2. Good one.

    I'm also disturbed by the politainment approach that the ABC is committed to. The mix of politics with genuine comedy works for Colbert, Stewart and The Chaser, but in the hands of journalists and politicians as encouraged on Q&A and The Drum it is usually lame and irritating.

    And now food and chat. It's like the T20 version of political analysis - trying to appeal to the uninterested.

    Insight on SBS is about the only show left that actually tries to deal with issues in a meaningful way.

    1. Another great piece. I think you're being a bit kind to Ms Crabb though. A friend described her pieces "a shallow as a puddle after 1mm of rain on a 40 degree day".

    2. I thought I was the only person who felt this way - what a shallow churnalist she is. No understanding of either party, no depth of history (I think I heard her mention Gorton once, and possibly Chifley - but with no understanding of how they worked, or what they achieved (or didn't achieve) in their prime ministership.

      Politics, of course, can be extremely funny. But you need more serious people to do it.

    3. Couldn't agree more with you about Q&A, The Drum, and Insight. I'm very much looking forward to Insight's return.

      I have watched two episodes of the much-hyped Planet America on the ABC and MIGHT try a third. From what I've seen so far, it's down there with The Drum and Q&A.

      Originally I thought Q&A was quite good, but it seems to try more and more to become a comedy. This attempt has been unsuccessful so far (for me, at least), and (again, for me) it is losing its quality as a serious format.

      A. N. Onymous

  3. Fran Kelly on last night's ABC Drum program expressed some concern about what was happening on the commercial TV soap "Home and Away". A fellow guest commented "Fran knows all about soap operas".
    The ABC "let's dumb it down campaign" continues unabated.

    1. I get lathered in 30 mins of ABC Soap each morning's walk:
      7.32am Fran hosts a minister to explain a portfolio matter, but instead she demands 24-hour news fodder, gladiator politics and polls.
      7.42am Fran bitches with Michele over the state of 24-hour news fodder, gladiator politics and polls.
      8.02am News - extracts of Fran fodder, gladiator politics and polls.
      In dire need of cleansing after...

  4. When I was young and at Uni (1970's) I used to watch the news and current affairs programs (TDT)and real affairs of the nation, policy issues and even debates amongst players were common. Hawkey was exceptionally good at destroying Libs with facts. Spin just didn't seem to occur. Now when I get a glance at any of the political program or commentary (and it is a glance as I channel hope), I despair at the inane antics that poses as informed debate and commentary. I have certainly turned off as have almost all of Australia. Reading blogs I get the impression that there must be a large number of party hacks who infest that space. So what we end up with is a bunch of reporters and bloggers who just talk in circles about self supporting crap that they think is important. In the meantime real important problems are forgotten about.


    1. I just assumed that as I got older, I got more cynical and saw through the politics to the media spin underneath, thereby explaining away my memory of politics that seemed to be more straightforward and less childish when I were a lass.

      Maybe my memory is NOT at fault after all ...

  5. Actually the mass media in Oz is far from broken.

    It's marginally efficient at its main aim [making lots of profit for its owners and users [advertisers]] and extremely efficient at its subsidiary aim of propping up capitalism by spreading dis amd mis information that serves the interests of the owners and advertisers.
    For example there is this supporting statement from Mr D's article:
    "Tony Abbot is just as duplicitous, but is somehow getting away with it."
    Yes, he is getting away with it, not accidentally or inexplicably because the 'somehow' is quite easy to detect and the result of deliberate practice and policy of mass media owners, managers, and employees.
    Very successful. Doing its/their job well.

    It really just depends on whose perspective you take.
    Us or them.


    1. While what you say is true about the `commercial ` embedded media Fred, this doesn`t explain the across the board dumbing down of my ABC TV. LatelineLand, 730reportLand and QandaLand are getting lamer by the minute. They `should` be separating the my ABC brand from the rest of the billy-goats.

  6. It's not the mass media, it's the crass media, particularly Their ABC. Sack Mark Scott!

  7. I couldn`t agree more Mr-D. We really need a Stewart /Colbert to tell us, the public, what`s going on as the `newsmen` won`t.

    You nicely described the commentary bots, pretending to be `independent` while watching the Canberra big-brother house too. Well Done!

  8. I stopped reading the Herald Sun five years ago, and started reading my morning tea leaves instead. I'm far better informed.