Yesterday I bought a copy of Lindsay Tanner’s book, Sideshow: Dumbing Down of Democracy (it only gets released officially next week, but for some reason Dymocks in Canberra already had copies of it).
The book is not a memoir, it is in fact much closer to George Megalogenis’ Quarterly Essay Trivial Pursuit, than it is some tell-all political autobiography. The book’s central thesis is that the media and politicians are locked into a dumbed-down, trivial, vicious circle, that is for the most part instigated by dumb, lazy journalism, and dumb media organisation that encourage such journalism and coverage of politics. So well argued and accurate is Tanner’s thesis that I think this may actually be the first time a book’s thesis has been completely proven correct before the book has even been officially launched.
The book is a very complex and intelligent discussion of politics and the media. It is free of the back biting shite that usually dominates ex-politicians’ books. There’s no “Rudd was this”, “Gillard was that”, and “I would have done it all better if I had been PM”. In fact Tanner often refers to times when he was as guilty of dumbing down things for the media as he was victim of bad reporting. His book is not aiming for an audience who want gossip.
As such it is something completely outside the dumbed-down vicious cycle.
But why do I suggest he has been proven correct? Well here is Tanner on page 22:
Mere trivia by itself, though, is not sufficient to make political content entertaining. A rather bewildering variety of devices is used by journalists and editors to spice up what would otherwise be relatively bland content. In the process, the content is often so distorted that it bears little resemblance to the substance which notionally gave birth to it.
So let’s test that thesis. Let’s see how Tanner’s book has been covered by the media (mostly by news.ltd papers last Sunday by Samantha Maiden):
Maiden: Minutes will define Prime MinisterFormer finance minister Lindsay Tanner savages leaders, media in new book Tanner sitting on ticking time bombInsider lets rip on Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd governments, labelled 'dumb democracy' Ex-minister unloads on Rudd govtFormer federal minister slams govt Labor slogan set 'new records for banality': Tanner Tanner dumps on PM
Now from a look at those headlines, you’d think Sideshow was Mark Latham Diaries Part III. Now Sam Maiden in Crikey on Thursday took issue with the suggestion her reporting of the book was lousy by asserting his publishers should be happy because of all the free publicity she gave them,which I guess means that the corollary of any publicity is good publicity, is that any journalism is good journalism.
But let’s have a look at some of the reporting:
LINDSAY Tanner could drop a bomb on the Labor Party this week by revealing once and for all whether Julia Gillard secretly pushed for an emissions trading scheme to be dumped.
Well yeah, he “could”, except he doesn’t in the book – and in fact states that he won’t in the introduction! So given that is the lead of the piece, it is rather in dire need of a point.
How about this brilliant bit from the Sunday Telegraph editorial:
…A former member of inner-Cabinet's "gang of four", Lindsay Tanner, has pole-axed Ms Gillard….
He takes veiled digs at ex-colleagues, in the guise of a critique of "shallow" media coverage: Julia Gillard dyes her hair red,
This suggestion was also included in much of Maiden’s copy:
Attacking Julia Gillard's Moving Forward election slogan and suggesting she has helped build her brand as a "ranga" by dyeing her hair…
Well now, “pole-axed”, “attacking”. Geez. Tanner must be really on the warpath. How about we let the facts (i.e. the actual book) do their work. Here is the only part in the book where Tanner refers to Gillard dying her hair:
One might think it strange that for a number of years, Julia Gillard has died her hair red. In fact, it’s perfectly sensible: it makes her more noticeable. When an ordinary voter makes disparaging references to the ‘ranga’, that’s a good thing. She has registered as an individual personality in the sideshow. The voter knows she exists.
So Tanner describing Gillard as doing something perfectly sensible within the context of how modern politics is covered by the media is now him “pole-axing” or “attacking” or “letting rip on” her?
In the desperate desire to find a story to make a splash, the Telegraph (and other news.ltd papers) and Maiden proved Tanner’s point completely – they spiced it up and distorted it to the point where it bears little resemblance to the original substance.
Nice work. Such a tactic works great for New Idea and NW, but you’d hope when it comes to the pretty important issue of Australian politics and how it is covered by the media that there might be just a little bit more intelligence used.
But why would Maiden and the Telegraph get the coverage so wrong? Well a big clue lies in this fact:
The Sunday Telegraph did not obtain an embargoed copy of the book, released this week, but was briefed on key extracts,
So eager to be in first with the scoop on what would be in the book, Maiden didn’t trouble herself with actually reading it! But that doesn’t stop her doing some in depth analysis:
The central thesis of Tanner's book is, however, that the media are to blame for modern politics' problems. By retreating from their traditional role of reporting serious political issues and replacing it with infotainment, he argues the coverage "focuses more and more on trivia, gimmicks, and personalities, politicians' behaviour".
Hang on, how does she know the central thesis if she hasn’t read the book?
"The flood of spin, 'announceables', slogans, and stunts that characterises modern politics is a direct result of these changing media dynamics," claims the promotional blurb on his book's website. "In effect, the media are turning political reporting into a sideshow driven by entertainment imperatives because of threats from intensifying competition and technological change."
Yep, she read the blurb, some extracts, and the book’s website. Outstanding work. Great reporting.
She then gives us this:
Tanner raises some legitimate points. And it's rare for such a political insider to write an account of his life in politics so soon after he departed the political stage. In my book, that is to be applauded for the insight it provides. But the weakness of his thesis is an attempt to blame the media almost entirely for the malaise. If the system is broken in Tanner's eyes, like all dysfunctional relationships all the players bear some responsibility.
Well if she had actually read the book she would see that Tanner does write that politicians bear some responsibility. In fact he even admits that he played the game, and he is pretty cutting towards the way the last election played out. But unfortunately for Maiden, he doesn’t give what she really wants – a tell-all (you know the whole “drop a bomb on the Labor Party” bit).
This view is also reflected by a vast majority of the press gallery and was most loudly stated when Tanner gave interviews this week on the 7:30 Report with Leigh Sales, and on Sky News with David Speers.
Here was ABC journalist Hayden Cooper on Twitter responding to Tanner’s interview with Leigh Sales:
So Tanner complains no serious policy coverage. Then when asked serious policy questions, he says "no comment". #abc730
Sadly, the comment just reveals that Cooper obviously has no idea of what is a serious policy question. Here were the “policy” questions Sales asked:
LEIGH SALES: To try to give an example of what you talk about in terms of the superficiality overriding policy, I want to talk about one particular policy area around climate change. We know that Labor dumped the ETS when polling got a little bit rough. Was that the right decision in a policy sense for our nation?
LINDSAY TANNER: Oh, look, I'm not going to enter into a commentary about wider contemporary politics and whether things have been done right or wrong.
LEIGH SALES: But this is actually a very important policy issue that goes to the very heart of the sorts of issues that you're raising.
Sales is right, the ETS is a serious policy issue. But she is not asking about policy – she is asking about politics. She has tried to make it seem like she is asking about policy, but dumping the ETS was political, not policy. The actual construction of the ETS – the level the carbon prise was set, the level of compensation, the various drivers and triggers within the legislation – that is policy.
LEIGH SALES: Do you think that the carbon tax is good policy?
LINDSAY TANNER: I'm not going to comment on that. I'm now a private citizen. I've put out a book that talks about a particular issue. I'm certainly going to comment on that. But I'm not going to comment on contemporary issues of the day. I'm no longer an elected person, I'm not a Labor Party spokesperson.
Again, Sales has not actually asked a policy question. Policy is not “good or bad” – certainly not policy as complex as battling climate change. All her question is after is to get him to say yes (ie agree with the Govt – but sadly, no story there) or to say, no (big splash “Tanner slams Carbon Tax!”).
Cooper followed up his tweet with this:
Sure Tanner has a point. But why didn't he speak up about slogans/dumbing down etc a year ago? #abc730
Which is a bit odd given Tanner in his book makes clear he did talk to colleagues and party insiders about this. What he didn’t do was tell the media – which in the eyes of many in the press gallery means it didn’t happen. Tanner also in the interview with Sales points out that had he written this book when in Govt, firstly he wouldn’t have had the time, and secondly he would have been criticised (rightly, he agrees) for attacking the umpire in the middle of the game.
On Friday, Tanner gave an unintentionally hilarious interview with David Speers that showed that Speers as well is as blithely ignorant of what actually constitutes “policy questions”. Speers opens with a gambit that seems to be that the media has always been crap, so what’s the problem? (Gotta love a man who regards his own profession in such poor light).
SPEERS: You could go back a hundred years and find examples of gotcha journalism and media trivialisation…”
Well I guess it’s ok then…
But the interview really got dopey when Speers asked this:
SPEERS: What about the big issue, and I know you don’t want to talk about this either, but the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. Kevin Rudd has already said that you were one of those who wanted to push ahead you didn’t want to shelve it at the end of 2009 and the start of 2010. I mean if you are serious about trying to have a more informed public debate this is a pretty big issue that still lingers over the Gillard Government, why can’t you help inform this debate by telling us what you did?
Now just for a second, ask yourself what Lindsay Tanner could tell us about the political decision to dump the ETS that would inform us about the actual policy of the ETS? Speers hasn’t asked one thing about the actual policy. All he cares is politics. We know this because he says “ a pretty big issue that still lingers over the Gillard Government”. In other words politically hangs over the Govt. The policy of the ETS has moved on, there are different players around the table, different issues being discussed, different outcomes and outputs being sought, but Speers – and most of the press gallery – are still stuck in the politics of 2010.
Hayden Cooper again was quick to get on Twitter:
As senior minister Tanner was part of that culture just as much as anyone else in gov. No good claiming now that it's not his fault.
Well sorry Cooper – go read the book before suggesting Tanner says any such thing. Tanner in fact often says he played the game and admits he was part of the culture. He admits it wore him down, and in the end he was quite glad to be gone.
Tanner responded to Speers’s question with a lovely, and polite slap:
TANNER: Well David, I think that, with all due respect, that question is a classic example of the problem, because the question is about “the game” of politics, it’s not about the merits of how we tackle climate change…. What your question goes to is who was arguing what, who was manoeuvring against whom, who was taking this position, who was taking that position.
Speers tried to justify himself:
SPEERS: But it goes to the conviction of Julia Gillard, the Prime Minister on this issue.
Again, a politics question. Someone can be convinced that something needs to be done, but can also be a realist that now (or back in 2010) is not the time to do it. That decision is a political judgment call. Unfortunately such a position would require journalists to take a shaded view of the world. And that doesn’t sit well when you you need to come up with a “Tanner Dumps on PM” story.
Speers then tries to put the blame on politicians – that they don;t give straight answers. Tanner responds:
TANNER: Well David, the problem with that is that… if politicians had any confidence that straight answers would be reported straight then maybe you might get some more of them…. Politicians do not have confidence that things they say will not be grotesquely distorted and misrepresented, almost from the minute they’ve said them. That happens on a daily basis. That is why you get spin. That is why you get defensive robotic politicians.
SPEERS: Well I guess if the answer is straight forward it’s pretty hard to distort it.
Geez. I don’t know to think whether Speers is just idiotically naive, or just totally ignorant of how his own profession works.
Back during the last election the funniest question for me came from some journalist at the end of a long press conference with Julia Gillard. The press conference occurred a couple of days after the big spat between journalists and readers on Twitter about the lack of policy in the campaign. The journalist (I never found out who she was), asked this:
JOURNALIST: On policy, did you talk to Kevin Rudd today about how he will campaign in support, or if not, for your position on asylum seekers, and also climate change?
Yep. A question of policy was about campaigning. We would laugh if it wasn’t so bloody serious – because this person is someone who provides coverage of policy to the public.
At the time I just thought the journalist in question was just inexperienced, but now I think that sadly, most journalists (but not all) in the press gallery have absolutely no idea what is policy.
Most think policy is the reaction of polls. They think policy is someone from the AWU saying Whyalla will be wiped off the map. They think policy is a disagreement in cabinet over a policy. They think policy is one line in an Auditor General’s Report. They think policy is someone talking tough on asylum seekers. They think policy is whether or not a website gets a lot of hits. They think policy is total number of fires, but not the proportion. They think policy is a few school principals complaining about poor quality workmanship, but not a report that finds 97 per cent are happy. They think policy is Joe Hockey saying the Govt is full of waste and mismanagement. They think policy is an ad campaign. They think policy is today, and not next year.
I don’t completely blame these journalists who struggle with writing about policy, or asking actual policy questions, because here’s a little bit of a tip on writing well about policy – it is bloody hard. It takes time to research that many in the press gallery don’t have, and it requires knowledge of issues that most completely lack.
When the issue of health comes up, I stay well clear of writing about policy, because health policy is incredibly complex and I am pretty ignorant of how the health system works. And so I rely on those who know what they are talking about – like Sue Dunlevy in The Oz, or Melissa Sweet at “Croaky” (Sweet by the way gets praise from Tanner in Sideshow as an example of bloggers who broaden the quality of commentary). I know a bit about telecommunications policy, but I always fear that an article by Bernard Keane (a bloke, I’d argue, who knows more about such policy than the press gallery combined) will show me up as an amateur.
Policy is hard, so too is analysing a book – you actually have to read it – just reading excerpts or the blurb ain’t going to cut it – not at least if you want to be taken seriously.
Lindsay Tanner has written a thought provoking book that does have faults – I agree he goes softer on politicians than would I were I the one writing the book. But to focus on that is to ignore that his criticism of the media is bloody well spot on. How do we know this? Well take this part from the introduction of his book:
Given the sideshow syndrome, I know that most political journalists will quickly scan this book, looking for shock revelations about the inner working of the Rudd Government . … The relatively small number of journalists who read this book will search for someone to blame for the problems it reports. Somehow or other they will be looking to create a headline that begin with “Tanner attacks…”
Well I guess he was wrong – they went with “Tanner savages…”.
Read the book. It doesn’t offer as many solutions as I would like, but it raises the issues clearly and well. It should be read by all who take politics and policy seriously (and I hope that includes most of the press gallery).