In Melbourne last week for the Australian Fabians AGM I picked up a copy of Lindsay Tanner’s book “Sideshow”. According to the back cover, Tanner “lays bare the relentless decline of political reporting and political behaviour that occurred during his career. Part memoir, part analysis, and part critique, Sideshow is a unique book that tackles the rot which has set in at the heart of Australian public life.”
Lindsay Tanner is a serious politician. Minister of Finance at the time, he announced his retirement from Parliament the same day that Julia Gillard ousted Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister of Australia. He says the two events were not connected, and on the evidence of his book it is easy to believe him. His basic thesis is that political discourse is no longer serious, and that he was but a member of the entertainment industry, with the media having reduced politics to what he calls the “sideshow syndrome”. For Tanner, “modern politics now resembles a Hollywood blockbuster: all special effects and no plot.” Family is more important for him than that.
I have met and talked with Lindsay Tanner on a number of occasions, and he has indeed made a serious contribution to Australian politics. Tanner’s submission to the review of the Australian Labor Party set up by Simon Crean when he was ALP leader was in my opinion easily the best, and unfortunate in that it was almost totally disregarded.
However I found this book disappointing. He says it is based on a long collection of material over several years, and it reads like that with opinion after indiscriminate opinion all pointing in the same direction of a dysfunctional media causing a dysfunctional politics. Even Tony Blair of all people is roped in to condemn manipulation in the media.
The relation between media and politics is crucial to mediating discourse in a democracy. This is even more true in New Zealand than it is in Australia, as advertising on the broadcast media to present a political view in New Zealand is strictly, and in my view rightly, restricted, so the free media are even more important here than in Australia. But in the partisan world of politics, it is all too easy to shoot the messenger.
I think the media – journalists and reporters – generally tell it like they see it. In the political media, now that they poll regularly, they tell us how most people see it as well. As mainstream channels like newspapers decline, and broadcast media diversify, serious and detailed political comment is now often found in the business pages or on the blogs as well as in the political pages. Readers or listeners take their news from a variety of sources, and as always place most reliance on personal contact.
Politicians and political parties may not like how the media see it, but in my opinion should not waste time complaining about the media, just concentrate on the best way to get their message across in a way that people understand and will respond positively to. Political communication is all about gaining conviction and acceptance of one’s point of view. After all, that is the politician’s job description.
Tanner completely lost it for me when he quotes Greg Sheridan of the Australian describing Obama as the “first pure celebrity candidate”, and in another place says “he was well positioned to benefit from the sideshow syndrome. He navigated the new realities with great skill ..yet these circumstances are very unusual, and very specific to the United States. It is hard to see how inane slogans such as ‘change we can believe in’ and Yes, we can’ strengthen democratic engagement with substantive issues.”
In the first instance this completely overlooks the fact that Obama built his political career as a community organiser in Chicago, and learnt political communication the best way, from the ground up. Secondly, in the specific circumstances of the United States slogans such as ‘Yes we can’ are hugely effective – it certainly energised the base.
At the same time I was in Melbourne I picked up a copy of “The Monthly”, which also had a review of Tanner’s book. You can read it here. Perhaps the last word belongs to Andrew Charlton:
To widen the political debate, politicians need to convince people of the importance of the issues they are debating. If politicians only offer focus-group slogans, citizens will, of course, respond by allocating less of their time to politics.