In between the transmission of Kitchen Cabinet’s special editions featuring the competing party leaders in the 2013 election, it’s an opportune moment to ask: what is it about these human interest-oriented, infotainment-based political media formats that engages us (if indeed we are engaged)?
Many people aren’t, of course. The rise of political infotainment has often been associated with the ‘dumbing down’ of the public sphere lamented by Lindsay Tanner in his Sideshow book, alongside the growing prominence of scandal and sleaze in political journalism, the dominance of spin and the ‘announceable’.
And yet, these hybrids are popular. More popular than most of the more ‘serious’ political media outlets, in which politicians are grilled adversarially by grim-faced interviewers, and so-called ‘insiders’ debate amongst themselves about the merits of this party or that. These formats are crucially important to a healthy democracy, but they don’t tend to reach more than a fraction of the voting population.
Interesting, then, that Kitchen Cabinet has been a ratings success for the ABC, by allowing the pollies to do the grilling, literally. Last night, Tony Abbott could be seen to make a very tasty barbecued steak, washed down with a nice red. As he and Annabel ate their meal, the Coalition leader talked about his life, his formative experiences, his religious beliefs. ‘I’m a pretty traditional Catholic, Annabel’.
What we get is a political interview, Jim, but not as we know it. The suits are off, the alcohol flows (though never to excess) and the mood is friendly, intimate, even cosy. We see - or at least glimpse - where and how the politician lives; what he or she likes to eat, and indeed cook; what kind of person he or she is when removed from the highly constrained, buttoned up environment of more conventional political journalism.
This is an illusion, of course. We can assume as we watch that everything has been carefully prepared to suit both the visual rules of TV, and the publicity needs of the politicians, and that agreements have been reached beforehand around the tone and content of questioning. The material is edited down, so that if Tony or Kevin burns themselves while cooking and lets loose an audible ‘f-ck’, or even a ‘ratf-ck’, as any of us might do in those circumstances, it won’t make it to broadcast. Authentic it ain’t.
Nonetheless, and allowing for the pragmatic compromises required on both sides for these formats to work both as good telly and as democratic resource, we as audiences appear to enjoy the enhanced intimacy they appear to allow. They close the communicative gap between pollie and public, showing the former in a domestic environment we all understand - the kitchen in this case - and revealing that there is indeed, beneath the carefully controlled media persona, a living, breathing person with whom we could easily have a nice chat over dinner. Abbott’s appearance on Big Brother had a similar objective, one presumes: in this case, to connect him, through his daughters, with the reality TV-loving youth of today.
And there is a serious point to it all. In this kind of media performance the politician can address, with more emotion and feeling than straight political journalism allows, issues around his or her public image and reputation.
In last night’s Kitchen Cabinet Abbott again spoke to those in Australia who might regard him as less than sympathetic to feminism and/or gay rights - a major electoral negative for him. His daughters made an appearance too, welcoming Annabel as she entered the Abbott home with her quince pudding.
I don’t know if his doubters were persuaded by this appearance, or if it matters at this stage in the campaign, but hats off to Tony for engaging in this kind of popular political TV. Next up, Kevin Rudd. I wonder what he’ll be serving tonight?