Sideshow: Dumbing down Australian democracy

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard gestures during question time at Parliament House in Canberra May 10 Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The journalistic eye and ear is drawn to the theatre, soap opera and occasional pantomime of politics

My introduction to Australian politics came within days of arriving in the country, when I had to chair a panel discussion in Canberra. It brought together two rising stars in Labor's shadow ministry.

The first was the then-shadow foreign affairs minister, Kevin Rudd, who I came away thinking was clever but charmless. The second was a politician little known beyond these shores, Lindsay Tanner, the then-shadow finance minister. Mr Tanner, I thought, not only had a lively brain but a much more likeable personality.

Not knowing much about opposition politics - it was September 2006, when John Howard was widely expected to win a fifth term - I suggested to my hosts afterwards that Mr Tanner presumably was the leader-in-waiting.

Suffice to say, they must have thought me a complete dunce, since Mr Rudd was so obviously the coming man. Sure enough, within months Kevin 07 T-shirts were flying off the production line, and the Queenslander was well on his way to The Lodge.

Mr Tanner went on to become the finance minister in the Rudd government, but announced the end of his political career on the very day that Mr Rudd was ousted as leader.

Now a recovering politician, he has just published a scorching critique on the media's trivialisation of Australian politics. His basic thesis is that "big issues, big ideas, big battles" have given way to a sideshow, the title of his book.

"Under siege from commercial pressures and technological innovation, the media are retreating into an entertainment frame that has little tolerance for complex social and economic issues.

"In turn, politicians and parties are adapting their behaviour to suit the new rules of the game - to such an extent that the contest of ideas is being supplanted by the contest for laughs."

Two key rules now govern the practice of Australian politics, he says: "(1) Look like you're doing something; and (2) Don't offend anyone who matters."

By reducing his thesis to a short precis, I am not doing justice to his argument. But, again, that underlines his point. Things like blogs and Twitter are all part of the dumbing down process - the distillation of political analysis into, what, 600 or 700 words, or sometimes 160 characters.

Persuasive argument

The first thing to point out about Sideshow, perhaps, is that Mr Tanner could have written a much different and more profitable book. A member of famed "Gang of Four" in the Rudd government - the others were Mr Rudd, Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan - he could easily have cashed in with a kiss-and-tell, dish-the-dirt, fly-on-the-wall number.

It is a measure of the man that he decided to publish something far more provocative and thoughtful.

In so doing, Mr Tanner also knew that he would become a victim of his own critique - that such a serious book would not attract much media attention. As he notes in the book: "Glorious irrelevance awaits any politician brave enough to push back against the rules of the political sideshow."

It is a persuasive argument, and perhaps the book should become mandatory reading in newsrooms across the country, not just in Canberra. And Mr Tanner is right - the journalistic eye and ear is constantly drawn to the theatre, soap opera and occasional pantomime of politics.

As journalists, we feed off petty intrigue, palace gossip, daily tittle-tattle and even political pillow talk. Doubtless, we are guilty as charged.

But the obvious counter-argument is that politicians are complicit, both by design and deficiency - a point Mr Tanner himself acknowledges. If the media coverage sometimes resembles a circus, then it is partly because the politicians and their over-active spin doctors have cast themselves as ringmasters and lion tamers.

Government departments regularly lay on contrived photo-opportunities, knowing that television reporters especially need pictures for the evening news. Sometimes they even lay on confected stunts. The slogans, the short sound bites, the message of the day. These are the invention of politicians and their image makers not journalists.

Is it not the politicians who have stepped away from big ideas, and given us something very small and very narrow to report on? Similarly, if we have a tendency to view politics as entertainment, do they not tend to view politics as sport? Remember Julia Gillard's words in the well of the House of the Representatives as she shook the hand of Tony Abbott for the first time as prime minister: "Game on."

ABC's Media Watch was very strong on this the other week, which you can watch here.

As far as putting our own house in order, one thing, it seems to me, that would improve political coverage immeasurably is to reduce the use of corny puns in television reports especially.

Perhaps there should be Twitter-style rationing - 160 a year. But ideally, much less.

Update, 0940, 19 May: A good thread of commentary. Thanks, as ever. Greg Warner and Kit Green make valid points about the abbreviated comments section, especially in the context of a blog post about the dumbing down of political debate.

As I have said, it is mainly a manpower issue. Shorter comments obviously reduce the workload on our moderators in London. The BBC's Giles Wilson has addressed this issue, and says it is under review. An alternative way to set out more expansive arguments, of course, is to make more than one comment.

A number of you have also raised the question of RSS feeds. This is also explained by Giles Wilson:

"The issue of comment length is clearly one that exercises many of you. In my original post I said I thought a character limit made for sharper comments, and I do believe that, but I also want to emphasise that it's certainly not our intention to encourage people to dumb down their contributions, as some of you fear. Others say that the changes will make debate harder.

"My colleague Alex Gubbay did spell out our thinking about comments when he said that 'this process is essentially about us online focusing more now on encouraging discussion around our content itself, rather than looking to host or manage a community'.

"We are trying to maximise the editorial value of contributions but we do not have unlimited resources to do this. Since it's less efficient to moderate longer comments than shorter ones, length is one of the factors we are taking into account. Making these changes is not an exact science. It is something we are keeping under review, though, so please don't think that your complaints have gone unnoticed."

"Changes to the RSS feeds are something I should have mentioned earlier, and I apologise for not doing so. Whereas we previously offered full text feeds of blogs, the RSS feed of the new pages is headline and summary only.

"I recognise that this is clearly an issue for lots of people, and is frustrating to those who have been using our feeds. The change is an unintended consequence of moving into our main production system, which does not automatically export full text feeds. We are looking at the issue and I hope to be able to come back to you with more detail."