Turning the worm

What would you most like your children to be when they
grow up?


Are you laughing, crying or both? You know
if they did, they’d rate right down there with used car salesmen, porn peddlers
and lawyers. Even hardened public relations practitioners who sell toxic sludge
to kindergartens shudder at the s-word.

Why is that?

In the wake
of claims and counterclaims about degrees of truthfulness in relation to issues
like ‘children overboard’ and the Iraq war, and the undoubted damage done to our
democracy in consequence, it’s tempting to look for scapegoats. Political
leaders are an obvious target – and some make it easier than others to cast
stones. Those who do their bidding in the public and private sectors are next in
the line of attack. The men and women of Australia who count the numbers, sign
the papers, sniff the wind, craft the lines and feed them to the media … who in
their turn swallow the processed goop, and disseminate it for a living. As Tony
Wright, national affairs editor of The Bulletin, recounts this morning:

‘A reporter following the prime minister’s election campaign trail these
days is the captive of cryptic messages that pop up on his mobile phone … Armed
with our SMS directions, we gathered at dawn in the foyer of the Marriott Hotel,
a Gold Coast establishment trying very hard to be a Hawaiian resort, outfitted
in a startling assortment of beach-walking attire, awaiting the prime minister..
We were Pavlov’s dogs. We knew Howard, perhaps the fittest 65 year-old leader in
the world, would do nothing but put down his head and charge off at a pace that
required the rest of us to scamper, and he would utter hardly a word. Yet
bidden, we would follow.’

The c-words readily spew forth at the spin set:
complicit! collaborators!

Purging according to class, like any act of
revenge, can feel really good at the time. Fabulous actually. But how far does
it take us? If we start airbrushing photos for our own noble ends, and
categorically demonizing our own ‘enemy’, are we really doing things differently
from the people we love to hate?

As role models for our children, there’s
no doubt the Andrew Wilkies, Mike
and Jane Erreys of our times are a better bet than the Max Moore-Wiltons, Ross Hamptons and Jane Haltons. But as the fundamentalism driving these
whistleblowers out of the closet shows, there’s also no doubt we need to admit
more complexity and ambiguity in our politics. Even when we’re dealing with
sludge-shoveling spinmonkeys.

I am no apologist for liars, cowards and
opportunists. You know who you are. But on the question of truth and telling it, the line between (legitimate) persuasion
and (illegitimate) propaganda is not always as bright and shining as we’d like
to think. Effective persuasion depends on nuance and context, experience and
instinct. We all gild some lilies, and arrange them to best advantage and in the
best light, to get the best results from our communications with others. To some
this is deception, to others diplomacy. And it’s nothing new. As British media
commentator Ian Hargreaves observed in his recent book Journalism: Truth or

‘The first recognizable public relations agency was born in
Boston in 1900, but the idea of ‘persuasive speech’ is at least as old as Plato.
Classical notions of vox populi, vox dei point to the emergence of
public opinion as something whose significance rulers are obliged to recognize.
‘Not without reason is the voice of the people compared to the voice of God’,
wrote Machiavelli, leaving rulers with the choice of whether to ‘caress or
annihilate’ the owners of those voices.’

If our rulers and their lackeys
try to spin their way around or over our opinion to hold power, don’t we have
our own obligations? If we value the voice of the people – it’s ours, remember –
shouldn’t we be more alive to their strategies for silencing and manipulating

One strategy is ‘sexing up’, inappropriately exaggerating or
emphasizing information for best political effect. Its kissing cousin is
‘dumbing down’, inappropriately omitting or downplaying information for similar
effect. To combat both these strategies effectively, we need to understand them
better. Not just in terms of fine principle. In their messy, bittersweet human
application as well.

Use this week’s issue as a launch pad for that. Also
read our election analysis in the Up
section of NewMatilda.com. It’s being updated – and archived
regularly as the campaign rolls on.


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