Let’s begin with the obvious. The controversy, the imbroglio, the white-hot media circus that has suddenly surrounded Tony Abbott’s comments that "sh*t happens" in Afghanistan — when talking to a US commander about the regrettable loss of life in a military action — is nothing but a beat-up.
As Jeremy Sear writes today, Abbott has been particularly unfairly treated — in Sear’s word, "betrayed." Abbott’s remarks clearly didn’t cause offence to the soldiers he was speaking to at the time, but in fact conveyed an — admittedly clumsy — understanding about the harsh reality of war. Channel 7 reporter Mark Riley not only took Abbott’s words out of context, he ambushed the leader, looking for a reaction. And he got one.
After defending his remarks as being taken out of context — which they manifestly were — Abbott froze up for nearly 30 excruciating seconds, presumably while pondering the injustice of not being able to inflict physical violence on the sneering Riley. It was riveting television. It also marked a new low for Australian journalism, exploiting the death of a soldier for the most craven and opportunistic of purposes.
In former New South Wales premier Bob Carr’s words, Riley’s actions were "a cheap-jack, ‘gotcha’ moment … That’s all it was. Facile ‘gotcha’ journalism." And Carr is right: Abbott was ambushed for a reaction shot, not because Riley genuinely wanted to enquire about the context of the comments. Indeed, Abbott displayed considerable self-restraint in the moment.
Sadly, in today’s media, gaffes and reaction shots are what seem to matter.
Julia Gillard’s emotional speech in Parliament’s condolence motion for the flood victims was similarly newsworthy, not because of what she said, but because she cried. That’s desperately disappointing, because what should count in terms of the coverage of our political leaders are their actions and abilities, not their televisual performance.
But the coverage also reflects a political reality. Most Australians are disengaged from the nitty-gritty of parliamentary politics, and gain their understanding of politics from a few seconds of television on the evening news. That’s why moments such as Gillard’s tears or Abbott’s brain reboot matter. They tell a story in an immediate visceral way that no government report or lengthy debate can match. As Annabel Crabb notes today, the visual image has "a ruthless monopoly" on the political media.
By magnifying and distorting the imagery, our journalists and news editors create a fundamentally shallow and febrile atmosphere for the practice of national affairs. Politicians and their press secretaries and media minders have no choice but to play in this media mud-bath. Getting dirty is not just an option, it is the only option. Without a good image or a good line, even seemingly devastating stories can run dead: witness the amazingly muted reaction that followed the revelation that the Coalition had cooked the books on their election promises, to the tune of between $7 and $11 billion. Many followers of federal politics, including this one, are still astonished at the lack of impact that story had.
Mind you, Tony Abbott and the Coalition can scarcely claim to be innocent victims in the current affair. Under Abbott, the Coalition has ruthlessly politicised any and every aspect of government policy for political gain, including Afghanistan. As Phil Coorey points out today, at the time of Lance Corporal McKinney’s death, the Coalition made noises about the need for tanks and helicopters to support Australia’s troops in Uruzgan province. Leaving aside Afghanistan, the Coalition has attacked a whole range of Labor programs that, on any impartial assessment, have been competent and praiseworthy — exhibit A being the Building the Education Revolution school halls stimulus program, which two separate independent reviews found to be well-managed and effective.
The sheer number of attacks that Abbott mounts almost guarantees that eventually he’ll be caught opposing something that is genuinely popular, as seems to have happened with the flood levy. Part of the problem for the Coalition is that Abbott’s attacking style, which has proved so effective at eroding Labor’s support, goes hand-in-hand with a talent for gaffes. Indeed, Labor strategists are said to be astonished at the discipline with which Abbott campaigned last year, after his disastrous showing in the 2007 campaign. After coming so close in 2010, unforced errors appear to be creeping back into the Opposition Leader’s repertoire in 2011.
And make no mistake, the performance of a leader is what matters in politics in 2011. In an era when a prominent playwright can suddenly pop up everywhere as a political commentator on the strength of his remarks about Julia Gillard’s acting ability — that’s right, her acting ability — the substance of government policy seems to be almost beside the point. The doom-laden prognosis of Guy Debord’s "society of the spectacle" seems suddenly to be all too real.
As a result of this latest diversion, therefore, Labor can begin to gain some breathing space and the Coalition will be forced to circle the wagons and defend their leader for the rest of this first sitting week. Unless someone else cries or laughs or does something else visually inappropriate this week, or Matthew Newton gets arrested again. With the first Question Time of the year scheduled for this afternoon, we shouldn’t discount any possibilities.
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