View from The Hill

The cost of connection

Paul Keating fought against parliament being televised. AAP/Paul Miller

Speaking recently at a function to mark his 25 years in the Canberra Press Gallery Paul Bongiorno, respected journalist for the Ten Network, emphasised the importance of maintaining an outlook that is sceptical but not cynical.

This is a top maxim for how a journalist should approach his or her work. It is also a good rule for looking at life more widely, and especially for watching the political scene.

But at present an excess of cynicism is, I believe, poisoning much of our public debate. This is potentially quite destructive for the political system.

There is a sort of “anything goes” to debate currently, by some participants, commentators, and members of the public who buy in. This manifests itself in a lack of restraint, often a scant regard for the facts, and a reduced level of civility and respect for others’ views.

In this context, the modern phenomenon of our “connected” society can, in relation to the political system, promote both a desirably sceptical approach (its positive side) but also work to stoke cynicism, which is the negative aspect.

Those in today’s young generation have vastly more information at their fingertips and more opportunity to have a say in the political discourse than their parents and grandparents had at the same age.

The role of the internet in changing our lives has been on the scale of the transformational effect of the motor car, the invention of the aeroplane or the advent of television, all of which advanced interconnection.

In politics, the internet works in cahoots with the 24-hour news cycle so that politics is brought to people with unprecedented speed and intensity. And, if they choose, people can tap into politics on a near continuous basis.

You could always write to your local MP, or to the newspaper, about a political issue or a grouch. But how much easier to email.

You could always join a political party. But how much easier to take your political passion to one of the many media or interest group websites. Contrast the decline of political parties with the success of GetUp! internet campaigns.

These days, the voices of the public are listened to as never before. Parties have become obsessed by focus group and quantitative polling.

Media executives don’t just rely on old fashioned news judgement. They use sophisticated research to determine what the audience responds to - in other words, what sells.

Journalists file around the clock to update news services on the internet. Readers flood sites with commentary. But mostly in working hours. You sometimes do wonder how the work gets done - although Katharine Murphy notes in an essay in the latest Meanjin (Autumn 2013) that digital connectedness ‘“condones, and in fact champions, multi-tasking”.

Murphy, now with The Guardian, was the founding author of Fairfax’s live blog, The Pulse. She writes: “A lot of my readers talked to me on the blog while pretending very convincingly to work”.

Her essay is a perceptive insight on the interconnected life, including its addiction and how to handle that.

This connectivity should give people a feeling of empowerment. And in many cases it obviously does.

But there is also a darker side.

“Too much of everything” can lead to people feeling overwhelmed, angry and – ironically – powerless as well.

Some of it goes back to that old joke that it is better not to see how either laws or sausages are made. Paul Keating had this in mind when he was against parliament being televised.

Keating was a superb parliamentary performer, who understood how to play the theatre. But when that performance came into the lounge room, it could look terrible.

Most politicians are in the game to do their best by their electors and the country, according to their various lights. But the democratic system inevitably involves robust and at times ugly clashes.

It’s one thing for people to see this in modest doses. But when they are bombarded endlessly it can be quite off-putting for many, especially because what’s political news tends to be defined in negative terms, with the focus on the bad things that happen rather than the good.

The prolific opportunities to give feedback, through interactive broadcasting (the talk back shows) and via the internet, allow people to have their say on anything almost any time.

But the incitement by some of the shock jocks, who seek to maximise their ratings by being as outrageous as possible, and the fact that comments can often be made on the internet anonymously, mean people say things they usually would not dream of saying in ordinary conversation with their friends and neighbours.

There’s less and less restraint on “venting” and the venting can be spread more widely than ever before.

Some of the intensity that we have been seeing in federal politics is blamed on the hung parliament but I think the changes are deeper, relating to how politics is delivered to the people and how the people send political messages back.

Maybe this release helps our democracy not to blow a gasket. But equally, maybe it degrades the debate and makes the political system appear worse and more dysfunctional than it is.

The connected society, when it is working well for the body politic, should see an electorate that is better informed that in pre-internet days, with voters viewing their politicians with a healthy scepticism, and armed with healthy detectors for apprehending political bull.

But the connected society working badly could eventually make it difficult for any government to operate properly because impatience, intolerance and cynicism led to a system dominated by instant action and reaction.

The question is whether as time goes by the highly connected system will develop its own checks and balances, with the players realising that more self-restraint works better, or whether the addiction to the shouting is too hard to break.

It’s too early to know the answer but how things go will be important for the quality of policy making and government that the generation of those now joining the political debate will experience.

Meanwhile, consider an example of what can happen when there is a short circuit in the world of interconnectivity.

Early on that dramatic Thursday when Labor’s leadership tensions came to a head, Kevin Rudd sent Simon Crean a text. In it Rudd said that Crean should contact him if he planned to say anything touching the leadership.

Crean didn’t see the message. He later explained he had an engagement that prevented him reading it. He threw his grenade, and it had the most dire consequences for both Rudd and himself. It ended Rudd’s chances of a successful tilt at the leadership; it finished the ministerial career of Crean, who was promptly sacked by Gillard.

At a crucial political moment, what happened apparently depended on a man reading, or failing to read, a text.

Most 20-year-olds would be glued to their phone screens, even when doing something else. That multi-tasking. Rudd is a great texter. Crean is not.

The story is a parable for the state of transition we are in.

This article is based on an address given at a University of Canberra graduation ceremony last Thursday.