We live in an era of expanded media and accelerated news cycles, in which citizens have access to more information, and more opportunities to participate in the public sphere, than ever before in human history. Yet pessimism reigns about the negative impact of political media on the democratic process.
Citizens are said to be disillusioned about politics and politicians, turned off by a dysfunctional media. The period running up to the 2010 federal election, and since, has seen regular debate and commentary not just on policy matters such as the carbon tax and immigration, but on the presentation of these by the parties and their spin machines.
Although Australia has a compulsory voting system which, to a degree, masks public dissatisfaction and disengagement, there is a widespread perception that citizens are fed up with the political process, in large part because of the way in which it is represented in the media.
Former ALP cabinet minister Lindsay Tanner’s 2011 book, Sideshow, argues that Australian media coverage of politics undermines effective democratic governance by focusing on the trivial and ephemeral – we recall the brief, if intense media frenzy which followed Tony Abbott’s saying “shit happens” to Australian soldiers in Afghanistan in February 2011. Should he have said “shit”? Does it matter? Do we care? It became the lead news story across the media that day and into the next.
Former Liberal leader Malcolm Fraser, quoted on the cover of Tanner’s book, asserts that “the relationship between politicians and the media degrades public life and diminishes our future”. Media commentators and scholars – in Australia and internationally - have been critical of trends in the media-politics interaction since at least the 1990s, when Jay Blumler identified “a crisis of public communication” in the liberal democracies.
Critics have referred to a process of “dumbing down” of political journalism, of a rise of “infotainment” and the crowding out of hard or “serious” news and commentary in the public sphere by fluff and trivia, such as the style of Julia’s glasses, or Abbott’s swimwear.
There has been one thing largely missing from this debate, however - the views of the public itself; the great mass of ordinary citizens who vote in elections, and who are in the end what it’s all supposed to be about (politics, that is).
What do they think of the way politics is covered, represented, spoken and written about, in the myriad media forms and platforms which take that job on? Beyond the occasional opinion poll indicating that levels of trust in politicians are lower than journalists, or higher than bankers, or roughly equivalent to what we feel for used car dealers, we don’t really know.
At QUT we’ve embarked on an ARC-funded research project which we hope will shed light on these questions. We’re calling the project: Politics, Media and Democracy in Australia: public and producer perceptions of the political public sphere.
It will assist the makers of political media, we hope, to do a better job of engaging citizens in the democratic process.
We’ll be constructing a “map” of all the media outlets and formats in which politics is reported, analysed and discussed in Australia, exploring their interactions, and how they each contribute to the broader goal of an informed, active citizenry.
We’ll be asking political media practitioners – the pundits, the producers, the editors, the writers – what they believe their role to be in Australian public life, and how that role is reflected in their work. Then, we’ll ask ordinary Australians in cities and towns across the country to tell us their perceptions of how effective the twenty first century public sphere is in providing them with the information they need to make rational choices in elections.
We’ll be exploring the role of public participation media formats such as Q&A, and talkback radio, where the public are physically present in the political debate and able to make a contribution. One response of media organisations to the perception that they – and the politicians – are too remote from the ordinary people has been to introduce more interactive, participatory styles of coverage; to engage their audiences more proactively. Q&A is the best example of this trend, and we’ll ask – does it work? Do Australian viewers feel that this kind of live participation, augmented now by social media (see the stream of tweets which crosses the screen throughout a broadcast of Q&A), addresses their issues and concerns more effectively than traditional journalism, in which a presumed expert tells us what it all means?
We’ll explore public perceptions of another trend in political media - the attempt to humanise our politicians. Now, there are those who believe that the “dumbing down” of politics is seen nowhere more than in the rise of light, insubstantial, human interest journalism about political style and personality – the sideshow condemned by Lindsay Tanner. But it might also be argued that, for better or worse, twenty first century citizens want to see their leaders, actual and aspiring, in ordinary, non-professional contexts – to judge them as “real people”, rather than only as members of an exalted elite. ABC’s Kitchen Cabinet, in which Annabel Crabb breaks bread with a well-known pollie is an example of how media organisations are trying to address that desire.
We’ll also ask about the role of political satire in forming the public’s perceptions. We enter this project with a firm belief in what someone once called the “revolutionary power of laughter”. Revolution may not be on the cards, but politicians in a modern democracy should expect critical scrutiny of their efforts to include the kind of joshing they receive on Shaun Micallef’s Mad As Hell. The Project also has that satirical quality, as has The Chaser at its best.
Such programs are not quite what Jurgen Habermas meant when he rather somberly defined the public sphere in the late 1960s, but in 2013 perhaps they can play a positive role in engaging the disengaged with a different kind of political knowledge.