Election 2013 media panel

The politics of performance

Brian McNair & Stephen Harrington

Audiences like spontaneity and accessibility in their politicians. They tell us this in the research we political communication scholars do, and one doesn’t need a Ph.D in psychology to understand why. The days of deference towards elites are well and truly over, and political leaders are subject to many of the same judgements and performance pressures as entertainers, sports men and women, and even Popes (go Franco, yeah baby!). Reverence towards one’s betters is no longer required, and respect for authority has to be earned.

One consequence of this cultural democratisation is the public expectation that competing politicians in an election should debate each other in conditions over which they don’t have complete control – a live TV debate, for example, as held in Canberra last night.

Formats and approaches vary between countries, and some are less spontaneous than they pretend to be (US presidential debates for example). But to a greater or lesser extent these are risky events for politicians, full of uncertainty, by comparison with the tightly controlled media engagements of the not too distant past.

They are live, and punish errors in performance that could be edited out of a press interview.

They are unscripted, ideally, and thus a test of a candidate’s capacity to respond rapidly and competently to unexpected challenges and questions.

They speak to us, not just in what the candidates say, but their body language.

In this respect, policy is not really the point of this type of political media campaigning. It’s more about appearance and personality, and striking up a more intimate relationship with the audience (in the room, and out there in the country) than routine campaigning allows. Debates allow us to judge politicians on a broad range of emotional and psychological criteria which go beyond who will do what on the GST or carbon tax.

Some say this focus on performance is bad for democracy, but why should it be, as long as it doesn’t exclude more traditional criteria of fitness for office? Was it not Kevin Rudd’s alleged personality flaws which, according to the same Labor party that brought him back to power in a desperate bid for self-preservation, caused his downfall in 2010? Personality, and personal performance, in communication and other spheres, matters a lot in the age of heightened scrutiny and always-on news.

The advantages of the live debate format can be seen in Sunday’s example. Rudd disappointed, while Abbott exceeded expectations. Between 6.30 and 7.30 that evening nothing changed in the competing sides’ policy offerings – excepting Rudd’s pledge to introduce legislation on same sex marriage – but received ideas of the two leaders’ communicative competence had to be rethought in the aftermath. Rudd’s sheaths of notes, from which he read as if to an anonymous audience of hacks, made him look aloof and disconnected and, very damagingly for him, under prepared. Abbott, on the other, while continuing to avoid scrutiny on policy details, emerged looking confident and relaxed. He connected. The debate will prove to have been a game changer.

Obama also disappointed in the US debates last year, and he still won. Rudd can recover from this setback, and another two debates are mooted. The more the merrier, say I, because these events – rare in the tightly organised campaigns of today – are one media space where voters get to see through the veil of spin to the naked truth of who a politician is. They engage and, yes, entertain with the promise of success and failure. In the process we learn a lot about our prospective leaders, so bring on debate number two!

Project Rudd

Back in 2007, the last time Kevin Rudd was party leader in a federal election campaign, he was regularly derided by commentators for engaging with voters via ‘soft’ media formats like breakfast shows on FM radio and, most famously, Sunrise. Most vocal of the critics was Barrie Cassidy, who complained after Rudd cancelled a planned appearance on the ABC’s Insiders program, while finding time to appear on comedy chat show later on the same day.

A lot has changed since 2007. Now it’s not uncommon for politicians from both sides of the chamber to appear on political entertainment TV shows, perhaps realising (just as Kevin Rudd did long before them) that Insiders appeals only to a tiny portion of the voting public, and that the viewing tastes of the Canberra press gallery are not exactly well aligned with those of the average punter. Kevin Rudd’s appearance on Friday night’s edition of Ten’s The Project therefore made very little splash, but it was illustrative nonetheless. Those who think that a spot on an infotainment format such as The Project represents an open mic for politicians to get their message out only have to watch Friday’s episode to see that’s not really the case.

The Prime Minister was pressed immediately on the deaths that have been linked (however appropriately) to the home insulation scheme, which was then followed up by a question from Natasha Exelby, quoting some of the unvarnished criticisms that have been made of him previously from his new recruit, Peter Beattie. Along the way, of course, there were some laughs, and he got a particular ribbing on his performance at photo ops from comedian and regular panellist ‘Lehmo’.

These moments of unpredictability, where politicians step away from the traditional, adversarial political interviews of the sort conducted by Leigh Sales on 7:30, often provide some of the most illuminating moments in a political campaign. As Annabel Crabb has shown with Kitchen Cabinet, genuine insight can be gained when politicians feel as though they can let their carefully-crafted guard down.

Kevin Rudd did OK on The Project. Some of his responses were quick and clever, if a little awkward and self-conscious. For many though, and particularly those younger voters who prefer to get their news from shows like The Project, what he said and how he looked is probably far less important than the fact he’s willing to be a guest on the show in the first place. Tony take note.

Stephen Harrington is senior lecturer in media and communications at QUT. He is working with Brian McNair on an ARC-funded study of political media in Australia.