Games the media play

Australia faces a crisis of leadership. That much is obvious from even a cursory assessment of leading opinion polls.

Our traditional loyalty to major political parties waxes and wanes but does not deviate all that much from norms that have been established over a few decades. Few of us are swingers, no matter how much some might secretly fancy that appellation in a sexual context. Seems that as chaste as we are in the bedroom, so we are at the ballot box.

But we do demonstrate a judgmental streak in our performance assessment of political leaders. A few soar as high as a kite for a while – especially if they disburse the public purse to enhance their standing with voters – but once we get to know them their appeal usually fades as quickly as a sunset in the tropics.

So, if we accept the principal pillar of democratic practice – that the majority view should prevail – where do we turn if effectively all of the key political leaders on offer make us turn up our toes? It is a pathetic state of affairs any way you look at it.

This dearth of talent and appeal at the heart of our political process makes wonderful grist for the media mill. Outlets of public record have a field day, every day, in creating controversy, fomenting frustration and stimulating scandal. Keep those presses printing, those valves vibrating and those dishes disseminating is their unstated mantra since large audiences attract large advertising budgets. It is a capitalist media proprietor’s wet dream.

Does it serve the public good? Not very well. Then again, it is not an obligation on the free ‘press’ to do so. They are entitled to challenge their audiences in any way they see fit so long as they adhere to fundamental standards of honesty, accuracy and right of reply.

Even so, they should be subject to scrutiny and the current contretemps over federal leadership of the Labor Party raises issues of substance.

Speculation about leadership challenges and spills has proven to be a touchy subject for mainstream media over the past two decades when questioned about their role. It is a perfect bookend to the chicken and egg conundrum. Does their reporting and speculation tend to cultivate a challenge or do they scrupulously maintain balance and simply respond to events without attempting to lead debate?

Absolutely nothing is provable in the ephemeral mists of leaks, background briefings and  protected sources. However, anyone familiar with the political process and political reportage would appreciate just how easily media influence and stimulus can engineer self-fulfilling predictions that are presented as genuine analysis.

It is arguable that The Australian (among other media outlets) has done much to bring the current impasse between Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd to a head. It is doubtful there has been a deliberate ‘conspiracy’ to create a leadership crisis but journalistic instincts suggest very strongly that analysis has preceded events fairly frequently in this particular episode. That does not for a moment ignore that Kevin Rudd has a pathological determination to win back the prime ministership no matter what the cost to the ALP or that Julia Gillard’s lacklustre performance as PM has legitimately raised questions about her competency for the office.

The temptation for journalists and other apparatchiks to want to be more than bit players in the occasional major production dramas on the national stage is alluringly seductive. They would hardly be human if they did not get caught-up in the addictive adrenaline rush of impending crisis. Some, of course, cannot accept they signed-on to be a member of the chorus only. These are the real trouible-makers. But all should appreciate their moral and ethical obligations to fulfill their respective roles without subverting the process in an attempt to play kingmaker no matter how far removed they might be from the centre of the action.

There is no viable means of preventing media from influencing political outcomes: such interventions are a small price to pay for the vital privilege of a free press. Nor should it be overlooked that influencing events can happen serendipitously as much as intentionally. Our challenge as consumers of the media is to be aware and alert to how the game is played and remain mindful of the nuances of what is happening. It is an arcane art to read between the lines but it is a bulwark of protecting our democracy. Vigilance and freedom need each other.