Dumbing down the media or shooting the messenger: Lindsay Tanner’s Sideshow

LINDSAY TANNER PRESS CLUB ID

Lindsay Tanner, a former minister for finance in the Labor Government, today (Monday 2 May) publishes “Sideshow” in which he attacks the media for dumbing down political discussion of democracy. I spoke to him on the eve of its release.

Andrew Jaspan: You’ve been in the political game for quite a while. Was there a particular moment when you recognised and became distressed by what you call the “Sideshow Syndrome”?

Lindsay Tanner: Nothing that I can recall. I don’t think there was a sudden flash of light where I went, “Oh no, look what’s happened.” It was more something that crept up on me. It’s just been an evolving sentiment. But I suppose during the course of 2007, when I actually started to note things down, cut articles out of papers, that kind of thing, was when I was starting to become more conscious of it and think there is something happening here, rather than just the ordinary politician whingeing about the media sort of thing, which is very easy for politicians to slip into of course.

Andrew Jaspan: It’s interesting because you’ve got so many examples … I was impressed by how you’ve been assiduously cutting things out of the newspapers as you’re going along.

Lindsay Tanner: Well essentially I have. Obviously while I was a minister I didn’t really have the opportunity to write the book and I think it would’ve been seriously devalued because people would’ve seen it as a player complaining about the umpire. Whereas now that I’m out of the game I don’t really have any self-interest in pushing these views, I’m not really a politician anymore. But yeah I did, started out with maybe I’ll write an article about this and then I got to the point of thinking oh there might be a Quarterly Essay in this and then eventually it was, well actually there’s a book. And of course the more I thought about it the more I noticed things. And part of the problem here is that it’s quite an insidious thing, that people in the game, whether they’re journalists or politicians just instinctively default to politics as a sport, as if that’s what matters, and overlook the content. So political reporting and political combat more and more is about a process which is quite removed from what it’s supposed to be which is big national decisions being made by elected representatives.

Andrew Jaspan: It’s interesting you say a sport because at times politics is represented in the media as a race between two players.

Lindsay Tanner: That’s right, in fact there’s been quite a bit of interesting academic work done in places like the United States on this issue, and of course to be fair to the media that in turn is being driven by popular demand. You can’t blame commercial organizations for avoiding producing and distributing a product that doesn’t sell.

And so it’s very much influenced by popular sentiment. And one of the key points I make in the book is that Australia’s in a very complacent mood of, it ain’t broke don’t fix it, don’t trouble me with big scary complicated issues, I just want to have a laugh. And I think that’s influencing the media as well.

Andrew Jaspan: I’d like to narrow your focus on Australia, and ask whether the size of the market is a function of the Sideshow Syndrome. In a country that can only support a few major serious players, is this what happens?

Lindsay Tanner: Look I think that’s a very salient point. And in fact it’s probably something I should’ve mentioned in the book but didn’t. Because I think there’s also a supplementary point that’s also important. That is the fact that Australia doesn’t have a single dominant city. A lot of countries overseas without our kind of population, or even many countries with a much bigger population, have a completely unchallenged dominant city which controls the public life of the nation. You think of Bangkok and Thailand, London and the UK, Paris and France, there are other cities but the national life is dominated there.

Australia of course is different, we have got Melbourne and Sydney, Brisbane is emerging and Canberra is the capital. Together with a small population and a very dispersed population, I do think that makes it difficult for organisations to get a critical mass whereas if that 22 million were in a smaller space with a dominant city of five or six million people, it might be a bit easier.

Andrew Jaspan: Bearing that in mind, you seem to suggest that the syndrome gained pace in the 80s and 90s but it has now really taken over the media. But what I want to put to you is that back then we only had a few of these very entrenched metros but now there is much greater choice of information. You can pick up quality information domestically from websites like Business Spectator, and also read every morning what New Yorkers are reading in the NYT or WSJ, or Londoners from The Guardian, Telegraph and Independent.

Don’t we now have a better overview with these multiple choices?

Lindsay Tanner: That is true but it is very important to remember that the use of that choice is restricted to an educated engaged minority. The problem I think at its heart is that in the world that is now disappeared you had mass media that genuinely were reaching a mass audience that went way beyond the insider group of the better educated, higher income more politically engaged group, out into the community and that they were sufficiently serious and engaged in national issues that that meant the bulk of the population who weren’t that interested had some connection with the major issues of the day.

The problem with the new media is of course, and I’m not a critic of this, I just think it is a reality, is that they disaggregate so what happens is that people are able to narrowcast to niche audiences and give them a much better more concentrated greater product and of course the old mass media product just can’t compete.

Therefore what you might see as the transmission belt of higher quality material to a much wider audience has broken down. For people like you and I who are by definition highly engaged citizens, there is a much greater range of choice and options than we had 20 years ago but the trouble is the vast bulk of those options are really only connected with a minority of the population.

Andrew Jaspan: Let’s move to the 2010 election because you blame the media for a level of “inanity” and public “disgust” at the way the election was conducted. What about Labor’s role in all of this? A very interesting ANU/QUT piece of research found people felt a great deal of disgust about the way in which the Labor party machine killed Rudd.

The second issue was that there was no ability to have a serious discussion about why Rudd had to go because that was closed down by your party headquarters at Sussex Street. In addition, you say the parties treated the voters at the election like eight year olds, surely saying to the public “that wasn’t the real Julia and but now here is the real Julia” is the tactic of an eight year old?

Lindsay Tanner: Without commenting on that specific thing which I see as a symptom of the problem, it is important to emphasise that I am not trying to point fingers and allocate blame here because I think that you’re dealing with a problem that everybody is contributing to but nobody is really at fault for.

To me the election campaign last year was the final installment of a long process where political habits have been modified and attuned to a changing media environment and it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy and we really did get to a new low last year.

And yes you can, at one level, blame individual politicians and say you shouldn’t have done this or you should have been more brave, or you should have said this, but for example when you see the thrashing around that Tony Abbott had to go through on industrial relations at the commencement of the campaign in order to ensure that he wasn’t under siege about WorkChoices from the media for the whole campaign, and that he had to go to the absurd lengths of promising absolutely not one tiny bit of change to industrial relations law for any reason full stop, then you see where the silliness is coming from.

Andrew Jaspan: Hang on, let me pause you there, throughout that campaign Julia Gillard said “If you vote Liberal today, you will end up with WorkChoices tomorrow”. Now that’s not a media confection, that’s the leader of your party saying if you vote for Tony Abbott, you’re voting for WorkChoices.

Lindsay Tanner: Yes, but the point you are missing is why does Tony Abbott have to go to such a ridiculously extreme length to say that is not true, that he precludes himself from making routine, ordinary refinements to industrial relations that any sensible government is going to leave itself space to do

The answer is because he is being asked unbelievably loaded questions on a daily basis where the response “we will not bring back WorkChoices” is not deemed to be sufficient and where he is asked questions like “will you rule out, will you guarantee”, so the problem is ultimately a product of the way journalists approach their task and this mad gotcha mentality where politicians are always being backed into corners and being prevented from giving reasonable and balanced answers because if that’s all they do, they are portrayed as leaving the door open.

So if Abbott does anything other than the absurd things he was forced to do, then the media portrayal of that in the next couple of days will be “Abbott leaves door open for return to WorkChoices”

Andrew Jaspan: Surely the media is just doing its proper job which is to scrutinise an assertion by the leader of the Labor Party that if you vote Liberal, whatever you may think, you’ll end up with WorkChoices. Surely they are just asking the question?

Lindsay Tanner: I don’t agree with that. I think if they accepted a “No, its not true answer” and moved on I’d agreed with it, but of course that is not what happened. There are other examples of this, government and politicians being backed into “no worker will be worse off” or “nobody will miss out, every child gets a prize”, when you are dealing with vastly complex big national changes. Where there are so many people in so many circumstances, to guarantee that out of millions and millions of people, with big structural changes, there’ll be not single situation where somebody can legitimately say the underlying cause of this problem for this particular individual is this change, that takes you to public policy absurdity.

It is not politicians who are driving that, it is media and journalists who are asking relentlessly these loaded questions and then creating situations where until you give them the answer they demand you are deemed to be saying the opposite.

Andrew Jaspan: Let me remind you that a number of Labor party candidates said they were gagged by Sussex Street, particularly talking about immigration issues, despite them wanting to have a serious debate about the issue. Why did your party stop a serious debate about a very important public policy issue?

Lindsay Tanner: I don’t have a problem with politics as a collective endeavor where people are expected to basically advocate the party line. Apart from anything else, that clarifies voter choice, it ensures that when voters are facing the choice between Liberal and Labor, they’ve got a pretty clear idea of what each is saying rather than getting half a dozen different versions.

I think the critical thing here is that there was the slightest chance that these individuals would actually be covered in a fair and balanced way, and there would be a genuine debate in the media, then I think it would be a fair idea. But let me tell you, there is absolutely zero chance. What you would get is gaffes and Labor splits or Liberal splits or person x attacks person y, the way it would be reported would be grossly distorted and very, very bad for the political interest of those involved.

In an ideal world where everybody was sitting down in a thoughtful way thinking “maybe there is a different angle here we should consider”, then good, but the trouble is we don’t live in that ideal world, we live in a world of sensation and trivia where attacks and scandal sell newspapers and thoughtful; consideration doesn’t. That’s the reason why that happens.

Andrew Jaspan: In the world of blunt retail politics, what you’re really saying is we need to have clear brand out there so people can have a clear choice. Into that you do talk about the inordinate amount of time that Rudd spent on trying to dominate the news cycle with the announcement agenda. That’s not really asking for a serious debate with the public about issues, that’s really just trying to constantly spin what Labor’s doing.

Lindsay Tanner: That’s right and I make no criticism of him or anybody else, John Howard, for doing that because all they are doing is playing the game in accordance with the rules they are presented with. The critical fact here is that the media are the oxygen of politics and politicians, without that oxygen politicians die, they do not exist.

Andrew Jaspan: So politicians don’t have a choice?

Lindsay Tanner: They have a very limited choice.

Andrew Jaspan: Could Rudd have withdrawn from trying to constantly spin?

Lindsay Tanner: Put it this way, the crucial fact here is that the people who make the decisions about what is covered on the six o’clock news or published in the Herald Sun or The Age, how it is presented, who is given a voice, who is denied a voice, what issues are important, what are not, the people who makes those decisions are not politicians.

Politicians live or die by access to those media, but the terms on which they get access are not within their control and therefore inevitably they make choices, and some try to shape how it works more than others and inevitably they make choices designed to maximize their appearance in that media and their positive image in that media.

That therefore means that they react to signal about what will get coverage, what won’t, what will portray them in a positive light, what won’t. You are quite right that they are not inert absolutely passive players in this, it is an interactive process, but I think the key to understand for people who haven’t been politicians is how much at the mercy of the media you are if you want to be successful, because without the media no one knows you exist.

Andrew Jaspan: At the end of the day, one of the key reasons electors voted Labor in 2007 was they thought it would deliver real action around climate change. However you want to spin it, the party didn’t deliver, and I think a lot of voters punished the party by switching to the Greens (including losing your seat) because there was a feeling that this was a party that couldn’t deliver.

Lindsay Tanner: Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that Labor’s diminished vote in 2010 was caused by the media. I want to make this clear. I’m not saying it all would have been fine but for the media. I certainly don’t assert that. What I am talking about here is why politicians behave the way they do. I certainly don’t suggest the decline in our support in 2010 was because the media was nasty to us. There were obvious substantive issues there, and I’m not getting into a commentary about the role they played but the decline in our vote, the loss of my seat to the Greens, they are not caused by the Sideshow Syndrome, there are other issues in play.

Andrew Jaspan: Can I just change tack? You portray the problem as being one of the media dumbing down, I’m just wondering if the real problem for Labor, particularly at the last election and for the last administration, is whether it just wilted under the scrutiny of particularly papers like The Australian. I’m thinking of the stimulus, pink batts, the NBN, the boats.

Is this what you mean when you say Labor politicians have become captive to the media and can’t get its message out?

Lindsay Tanner: I think all politicians at all times are unavoidably captive to the media because without the media they don’t exist and nobody knows who they are and what they’re on about. I was captive, everybody is captive. But how you handle your captivity does still involve some serious choices that do influence the outcomes.

I tend to think that you can still get reasonable messages out there, it is just getting harder. I think the landscape is a bit mixed. The question of why things went ordinary for Labor in 2010 after being in a pretty politically strong position in 08 and 09 involves a lot more factors than just the relationship between the government and the media. They are not factors I’m going to ventilate publicly, some of them are pretty well known and widely debated and discussed like the problems with the insulation scheme and one or two other equivalent things.

I certainly don’t assert that Labor’s political problems are a product of excessive media scrutiny or anything like that. I think on the margins the nature of the problem I’m describing, the Sideshow Syndrome, help to make these things worse. But what I dislike is more and more the political is ceasing to be about the content of big issues and big arguments and different points of view about the future of the country, and it is becoming this game where you have this toxic interaction between media and politicians.

And whether it advantages or disadvantages a particular group of players in any specific contest is debatable, but the overall picture is the thing that appalls me.

Andrew Jaspan: I understand that. But you and I could hardly accuse The Australian of dumbing down and just being infatuated with trivia and gossip. What I’ve just put to you is that they took you to task on the stimulus, on the schools building, these are all very serious policy and delivery issues.

Lindsay Tanner: I’d say two things there. One is that it is true to say that broadly a fair proportion of the content in The Australian remains reasonably serious; however, the Australian was the outlet that had a nearly full page feature article in the middle of the election campaign from Tom Dusevic on the handshakes of various politicians, for God’s sake, as if that has any significance to anything.

In the book, there are examples from The Australian of highly distorted and stylised and sexed up content so they are by no means immune from this. Also, The Australian is a relatively low circulation publication that influences things a bit. Really, all that illustrates is that the Syndrome I’m describing is not a universal, 100% all outlets kind of thing, obviously there is huge variation in the Australian media.

What I’m talking about is the aggregate, the net total you get when you look across the landscape where the centre of gravity has shifted. You can see it even influencing the ABC.

Last night I was interviewed on 7.30, and had a very good interview by Leigh Sales who is a top class performer. The intro announcement at the start of the program described me as telling people what is wrong with politicians in Australia, when in fact the focus of my book is about the media.

That is the ABC. I don’t think it was deliberate, it is just this unthinking sort of distortion because obviously an ex-politician attacking politicians is more interesting than a politician attacking the media.

Obviously there is a lot of serious content still in The Australian. In fact, some of the best journalism you’ll see in Australia in recent times has been in The Australian, but also some of the worst.

Andrew Jaspan: I’m interested in your views on political sketch writing. I recall my former CEO when I worked at The Age telling me that he found most serious political reporting boring and the only thing he ever read was the sketch writing.

I notice that you quote John Hartigan saying that most people are “bored with the politics of politics”. Maybe entertaining amusing politics and having a laugh is what the bosses and owners actually want. How can you change that?

Lindsay Tanner: I think that is them interpreting the desires of the readership. Not having been party to that conversation, my suspicion would be that the CEO you were talking to was actually reflecting the patterns of demand in the community, which is this all a bit of laugh. It’s politics, who cares? It is fun to have a giggle about it.

I think that tells us the problem we are dealing with here is not just about individual media outlets, journalists, political parties. It is about all of us. It’s about the whole community.

I don’t object at all to sketch writers, and I think they have a significant place. I was a huge fan of Matt Price for example, a person who had a rare capacity to lampoon without wounding. Every now and then I was on the receiving end. But he was able to see the silly side of people’s behavior and positions, but not in a nasty or vindictive way.

I think I got likened to a sheep once. There was a column where I was called the Jan Brady of the Labor party, always saying “what about me, what about me”, and I actually thought they were funny and well written and not vicious.

I think the real problem though is that when the serious stuff shrinks to become invisible, all you’re left with is the sketch writing. It is OK as long it is a minority part of the picture that is helping to both illuminate and the bit of sugar that helps the medicine go down. That’s fine, that’s good. But if all you’ve got is sugar and no medicine, you’re not going to get better.

Andrew Jaspan: Although I’m very impressed by your supporting evidence for what you call the Sideshow Syndrome, I think the book is a bit thin when it comes to the solutions. Is that because it is not really the point of the book, which is to show the problem and lead to a discussion? Or is it just that is it in terms of the business of running a media organization or company, that’s not really your forte?

Lindsay Tanner: I think your criticism is fair and think the answer is that a) there are no obvious solutions and b) there are some things that might appear to be a good idea but would actually be disastrous like direct government intervention or regulation or whatever. The nature of what I’m trying to describe here is a systemic social problem that is not easily amenable to the notion of “Ok, there’s a problem. Let’s fix it”.

Andrew Jaspan: Like you, I am concerned about where serious public information is going to come from, and you have brought right into centre stage a debate about the quality of the media and its role.

Yet you finish up saying that you’re not prepared to give up without a fight on the Sideshow Syndrome. But just at the very time you bring this book out, you say “That’s it from me”, I’m now disappearing to be a private citizen and into the world of merchant banking. I thought you might want to, having raised this issue, keep on the good fight.

Lindsay Tanner: I have got no doubt that I will in some specific ways, but one thing I have committed to doing for a range of reasons is not becoming a commentator on contemporary politics. Inevitably, all of the mainstream media I’m doing, the first thing they are doing is to draw me into commentary not about how the media portrays politics or how politicians respond to that but about Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, the government, the carbon tax.

I’m not going to engage in that. I’ve put out this book because it is something I feel pretty strongly about. I think that is a pretty serious contribution to the fight, and from time to time I may well engage in other things. But I don’t expect you’ll see a one-person crusade on this issue from yours truly, because I’ve got other responsibilities.

Andrew Jaspan: Thanks very much Lindsay.

Note: Lindsay Tanner is the inaugural Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at Victoria University where he will contribute to thought leadership in research and knowledge transfer in the area of economic, industry and social analysis.

We’d like to hear from readers on this discussion. It’s an important one to have, and Lindsay ends his book with a call for a debate on the state of the media, and its role in defining debate, serious or otherwise.

Sideshow: Dumbing down democracy, Scribe Publications, $32.95.