Scoring points and slipping up


The editor of the Sydney Morning Herald’s opinion page, Julia Baird, is currently riding the merry-go-round of book signings and media interviews following the release of her book, Media Tarts: How the Australian Press Frames Female Politicians.

One stop on that ride was as a guest of ABC radio presenter, Richard Glover. They discussed the small number of women in top positions in both politics and big business. Observing that individual women usually have good reasons for stepping off the executive escalator, Glover lamented that society pays the price of losing the differing perspective which women can bring to these male-dominated environments.
Baird agreed. In turn, she observed that even if women do stay on the corporate track, they are encouraged to do away with their ‘femaleness’ which diminishes the benefit of their difference.

The idea that women are ‘encouraged’ to change to fit the mould, which reduces the value they can bring as individuals, is an interesting one to make during the federal election campaign. Baird and Glover went on to explore this phenomenon in relation to politicians in general, male and female.
Baird produced the following gem: ‘We have to decide if we want [our politicians]to be humans or just automatons who perform brilliantly in press conferences while journalists throw banana skins under them’.
What is the role of the media here? Do journalists build up these ‘automatons’, then turn on their own creations? Do they report on politicians in a certain way because of what these politicians really do or are? Do politicians interact with the media in a certain way because they know what the media wants to hear?
Whoever is responsible, the ridiculous tango being danced between politicians and the media means we, the consumers, get political commentary that often borders on the farcical.

A cynic would say it’s a mutually beneficial arrangement to prevent anyone getting to the real issues. The politicians aren’t kept accountable, and the journos don’t have to do any real investigation.
Think about it. When was the last time you encountered some genuinely insightful political reporting in the mainstream media? If it was recently, can you honestly say it was merely an example of a steady stream of such quality reporting? Or were you surprised by its subtlety and depth: an exception to the usual offering of drivel?

Most of what passes as political reporting today is better described as ‘keeping the political score’. Even experienced and hard-nosed journalists often don’t get past working out who scored more electoral ‘points’ on any given day. Most have given up trying to extract some modicum of policy insight from our increasingly reluctant politicians.

A typical day — especially in an election campaign — goes something like this. Politician A makes scurrilous claim about politician B; politician B denies and responds; journalist tallies up the sensation score and reports back to a salivating public. It’s a kind of publicly funded electoral boxing match, where each day represents a new round.
As voters, currently our role is to do no more than declare a winner in these punch-ups every three years.

Is that enough for us, or do we want more? Do we want genuine engagement with our representatives, who recognise our ability to digest more than a sound-byte?
The media could start turning things around by refusing to just report ‘the hits’, and abandoning the ploy of trying to make politicians ‘slip up’ to land a good story.
They could, instead, insist on some real insight from those who claim to run the country.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Australia’s Health 2004

Australian Labor Party News Statement, 10 March 2004

G.H. Mooney and S.H. Blackwell (2004), MJA Vol. 180, 19 January, Whose health service is it anyway? Community values in health care

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.