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The Primacy of Television

Nick Bryant | 06:46 UK time, Thursday, 27 May 2010

When it comes to political influence, television is reasserting its primacy all across the Anglo-sphere. In America, Glenn Beck of Fox News has emerged as the most influential voice in the right-wing commentariat, ousting the radio host Rush Limbaugh. When Sarah Palin wanted to launch a media career, she chose television, again with Fox News.

The former Alaskan governor's unravelling during the 2008 presidential campaign also occurred on TV, first in a sit-down interview with Charlie Gibson of ABC News, when she revealed a rather shaky understanding of the Bush doctrine; then in a series of interviews with Katie Couric of CBS News; and finally in the ruthless parody perfected by the comedienne Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live.

In Britain, a campaign touted ahead of time as the Facebook or Twitter election turned into a largely televisual affair. Obviously, it saw the advent of the inaugural televised debates; and its most talked-about moment came when Gordon Brown called an elderly lady a bigot, a comment caught by a television microphone that was attached still to his lapel. True, the BBC News website recorded its highest ever audience figure as the results started to come through, but one of the main reasons why I found it hard to tear myself away from my laptop that day was because the site was streaming our televised coverage.

In Australia, as well, most of the talked-about moments in politics in recent months have unfolded on TV. Significantly, three of them have come on ABC's 7.30 Report, a fixture in the early evening schedules which has been presented for the past 15 years by Kerry O'Brien, something of a national institution himself, and a broadcaster who used to be the former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam's press man.

First, the programme secured an Australian exclusive by conducting the first interview with the US President Barack Obama. In it, the president put on tape what senior officials had already placed on-the-record: that Kevin Rudd is the international leader with whom he has the closest mind meld.

Second came an interview with Mr Rudd in which the embattled prime minister rather famously lost his rag when pressed by O'Brien about the decision to shelve government plans for an emissions trading scheme. Defending the government's record on climate change in general, and its efforts at Copenhagen in particular, the prime minister noted: "There was no government in the world like the Australian government which threw its every energy at bringing about a deal, a global deal, on climate change. Penny Wong and I sat up for three days and three nights with 20 leaders from around the world to try and frame a global agreement.

"Now it might be easy for you to sit in 7:30 Report land and say that was easy to do. Let me tell you mate, it wasn't."

The deployment of the word "mate" in such a determinedly unmatey voice, combined with the memorable evocation of a realm called "7.30 Report land" produced headlines for days. The opposition also claimed that the prime minister's rather ill-tempered performance - though it was far from a temper tantrum - demonstrated Kevin Rudd had "lost it".

Finally, the 7.30 Report completed its hat-trick last week with a weird interview involving the opposition leader Tony Abbott. It turned into something of a confessional. Indeed, it was almost as if his water in the green room beforehand had been spiked with some kind of truth serum. During the interview, in a rather tortured formulation, Tony Abbott admitted that he could at times be flexible with the truth .

"Well, again Kerry, I know politicians are gonna be judged on everything they say, but sometimes, in the heat of discussion, you go a little bit further than you would if it was an absolutely calm, considered, prepared, scripted remark, which is one of the reasons why the statements that need to be taken absolutely as gospel truth is those carefully prepared scripted remarks."

Again, it produced headlines all week, and most of them negative.

During the Howard years, radio seemed to be the dominant political forum. John Howard was an almost omnipotent presence on the airwaves, at a time when talk-back hosts like Alan Jones were in their pomp. But Kevin Rudd, who partly owed his rise to his regular appearances on Channel Seven's Sunrise programme, was more of a television man. Indeed, for the first two years of his prime ministership, when he was enjoying high approval ratings, he spurned the talk-backs shows, whose hosts felt badly neglected.

Radio, of course, remains hugely influential. ABC's AM programme, the closest thing Australia has to the BBC's Today programme, is a must-listen in the politics and news business. ABC's PM, presented by the peerless Mark Colvin, offers an invaluable wrap of the day. Radio talk-back hosts, like Neil Mitchell and Jon Faine in Melbourne especially, continue to frame the public conversation.

As for online, Crikey has a dedicated following among media types and politicians, but does not yet pack the punch of Politico in Washington DC. The Punch, The Drum and the National Times tend to ruminate on the news rather than make any. New Matilda, the online news and analysis site, has just announced it will stop publishing. As in Britain and America, it is the Australian newspapers which continue to break by far the most stories.

As with the print media, it's become fashionable in recent years to write off TV. Yet it's the media of the moment in Australian politics, and a 24-year-old programme anchored by a 64 year old presenter in a dominion called "7.30 Report Land" is setting the pace.

PS When I wrote the other day that: "So it is that time of the year again when Queensland beats New South Wales at rugby league in the ritualistic hype-fest known as the State of Origin", what I really meant to say was: "So it is that time of the year again when Queensland beats New South Wales at rugby league in the ritualistic hype-fest known as the State of Origin, and when the Blues defence will be completely bamboozled by Jonathan Thurston."

What a shame that rugby league does not have more of a global following, because Thurston is surely on a par with Rooney or Ronaldo.


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