BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
How our media let us down
, July 23, 2011
Dumbing Down Democracy
by Lindsay Tanner
(Melbourne: Scribe Publications)
Paperback: 240 pages
Reviewed by John Barich
This is an interesting book dealing with an issue vital for democracy. A malfunctioning media does not help citizens vote wisely or prompt politicians to act in the national interest.
Former federal Labor Minister for Finance, Lindsay Tanner, does pick up on some key aspects of the problem.
He correctly draws attention to the fact that journalists today prefer to express their political views rather than report facts. Moreover, the media can brutalise, “cheapen, distort and sometime falsify” the message.
Tanner, however, is not above doing the same thing himself when he predictably denounces the political influence of News Weekly’s publisher, the National Civic Council. By contrast, his treatment of the activities of other pressure groups is minimal.
He ignores the political clout of powerful bodies such as the Business Council of Australia, the trade union movement, Labor’s feminist network Emily’s List, the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, pro-abortion activists and the homosexual lobby.
Incredibly, Tanner makes no mention of the powerful left-wing lobby group GetUp! Has he never heard of it?
It played a pivotal role in the August 2010 federal election, which saw the Gillard Labor Government re-elected, thanks to the increase in the Greens vote which prevented the Coalition from winning any new seats inVictoria. GetUp! may well have contributed to the Greens winning from Labor Tanner’s old seat ofMelbourne.
Tanner lets off the hook the key political media grouping inAustralia, theCanberraparliamentary press gallery, by omitting to analyse it in depth. The gallery wields enormous influence on political reporting and generally operates as a pack led by one or two personalities.
I myself saw it in action first-hand during the 1986 Budget lock-up when Labor Treasurer Paul Keating practically dictated the next day’s pro-government headlines.
Tanner correctly draws attention to the media’s selective treatment of issues. Pro-family activists have long been familiar with the bias of mainstream newspapers in routinely vetoing publication of any articles or letters critical of the political Left’s current cause de jour, same-sex marriage.
Tanner is very sceptical of opinion polls. He observes: “Media outlets employ a number of standard devices to create plausible stories from minimal substances. One favourite device is the dubious opinion poll.”
One can often observe how the left-wing media magnify small incidents in order to distract public attention from events that could damage the Labor government’s standing. A recent example was the media uproar surrounding Liberal Senator David Bushby’s juvenile taunting of Finance Minister Senator Penny Wong, during a Senate committee hearing on May 31 this year.
Bushby made a meowing noise at Wong, prompting the government to accuse the Coalition of being “sexist” and “feral”. (Bushby later apologised to Wong). The prominence the media gave to this comparatively trivial incident enabled the Gillard Government that day to “bury” the far more serious news that GDP figures had shown a dramatic drop in annual growth (minus 1.2 per cent).
Tanner harps on the need for journalists to engage in deeper analysis of public issues. However, he doesn’t rely on particularly reliable sources himself.
He repeatedly quotes U.S.climate-change campaigner and former presidential hopeful Al Gore, overlooking the fact that Gore’s famous 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth was found by a British court of law in 2007 to contain no fewer than nine errors of fact.
Tanner rightly draws attention to how the media have dumbed down politics to a form of entertainment.
Politicians often play along with this by engaging in juvenile stunts. Julia Gillard and Barack Obama playing handball in the Oval Office, while it may entertain viewers, tends to detract from far more pressing issues of public concern.
Tanner lists a series of politicians who seek out appearances on high-rating television programs, but does not mention the long-running Kevin Rudd/Joe Hockey duet on Channel 7’s breakfast show Sunrise.
Tanner accepts that “party conferences have also turned into highly-staged media events”, but does not argue, as he should, that we should return to the days when a conference was a serious forum for policy development. Tanner could have done something about this when he, Rudd, Gillard and Swan jointly ran the country.
Tanner emphases the role of the print media, but lets television off the look. However, it is the latter medium which encourages the political posturing and play-acting that he deplores.
The most revealing statement in the book is Tanner’s belief that people, including politicians, “seek to do things they expect will be rewarded and to avoid doing things they know will be punished”. This is crude hedonism and leaves no room for idealism based on principle, as was exemplified in the distinguished political careers of Labor’s Kim E. Beazley Sr or the Democratic Labor Party (DLP)’s Senator Frank McManus.
All in all, Tanner’s book is worth reading as a primer for further research into the effect of a malfunctioning media on civil society. It certainly confirms what Sydney Morning Herald columnist Paul Sheehan documented in his 2003 book, The Electronic Whorehouse, on how television, especially the ABC, can distort, censor and propagandise.