Too much information
Lindsay Tanner’s ‘Sideshow’
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Recently I had dinner with a group of friends including a well-known political journalist. When I told him I was working my way through the proofs of Lindsay Tanner’s new book, his interest was piqued. He put down his fork, fixed me with his gaze and leaned forward to ask a series of questions.
“Does the book spit on Gillard?”
“What does he say about Rudd?”
“Any news in it?”
At which point my journalist friend resumed his meal and showed no further interest in the book.
If Lindsay Tanner had overheard this exchange he might have been a little amused, but not surprised. His new book, Sideshow: Dumbing Down Democracy (Scribe, 240pp; $32.95), isn’t calculated to excite tabloid editors. Rather, it is a withering critique of the media and a revealing first-person meditation on the frustrations of political leadership in the information age.
Parliament House was unusually busy on Thursday, 24 June 2010, the day Tanner quit politics. The previous evening Julia Gillard had taken the short walk from her office on the eastern side of the parliament’s ministerial wing into the prime minister’s suite to challenge Kevin Rudd’s leadership of the federal parliamentary Labor Party. The day unfolded quickly. A caucus meeting sealed the change, Rudd gave a moving resignation speech, Gillard visited the governor-general and Labor MPs filed into the House of Representatives to take up their new configuration on the Treasury benches. As Question Time ended, Tanner’s announcement that he was leaving politics was one final surprise. At the time he was keen to stress his departure was not a comment on the government or a response to the ascent of his long-time rival Julia Gillard: “This decision is driven entirely and absolutely by matters of personal circumstances. There are, frankly, two little girls and two older kids who need me more than the country needs me.”
In Sideshow, Tanner is more candid about his motivation to leave politics. He confesses that by the end of the first term of the Labor government he found himself “very pessimistic about the future of Australian politics” and “quite content to leave”. He admits his “departure from politics was made a great deal easier by the descent of our public life into the artificial media world of virtual reality”. He laments his powerlessness to get issues of substance into the national media, complaining that serious reforms he pushed through as finance minister (including the transformation of Medibank Private) “received very little media coverage”, while less substantial policies of the Rudd government, such as FuelWatch and GroceryWatch, took centre stage. “Glorious irrelevance,” he says with disappointment but no bitterness, “awaits any politician brave enough to push back against the rules of the political sideshow.”
Tanner’s book has a lot of integrity, but it comes at a cost. Tanner is unflinchingly candid about his own experiences but maddeningly silent about the other key figures in the Rudd and Gillard governments. There are no intimate revelations from behind the cabinet doors, no quotable quotes, no bitchy thumbnail sketches of his former colleagues or opponents. Readers hoping Tanner would deliver an inside perspective on the momentous political events of recent history will be sorely disappointed. The events, key personalities, achievements and controversies are all absent.
Tanner’s silence on the Rudd and Gillard governments is, perhaps unwittingly, one of the most revealing things about Sideshow. His reluctance to dish up dirt on his colleagues is understandable: he wants to criticise the media beast, not feed it with more gossip. But it still seems extraordinary that, after a decade spent working with his parliamentary colleagues to rebuild the modern Labor party, Tanner’s first book upon retirement contains scarcely a positive sentence about the government they formed.
Sideshow is part first-person narrative, part academic treatise. Tanner interweaves his own personal experience over two decades in Australian politics with analysis of political trends from around the world. It is a style that will be familiar to readers of his four previous books – all of them substantial, all of them bristling with challenging ideas. I read the first book Tanner wrote as an MP, Open Australia (1999), while I was at university. It was thoughtful, wideranging and intellectually adventurous. It was like nothing I’d ever read from an Australian politician. It was one of those books you want to read with a pen and a highlighter, to catch and preserve the ideas that fly off every page.
For much of Sideshow Tanner steps back from personal experience, positioning himself as a detached observer. Here he speaks in a familiar voice: a clear methodical presentation of his case, backed by a gentle wit. This is the same voice that made Tanner a strong parliamentary debater and pitch-perfect media performer. In the bear pit of parliament, Tanner at the despatch box would buoy the backbench. He was a reliable and powerful weapon in Question Time. Labor MPs sat forward when he rose to speak, their faces lightening as if to say, “we’re in safe hands.”
In Sideshow, Tanner presents his case in two parts: first, that the modern media’s coverage of politics has become trivial; second, that politicians feel compelled to respond with trivialities to the neglect of substance. The opening chapters of the book are the strongest. Tanner documents the sometimes shocking practices of the modern media. He describes the ploys and tricks of political journalists, many of whom, in his view, are constantly seeking to sensationalise and trivialise the day’s events.
Sideshow is certainly not the first publication to criticise the media’s coverage of politics but Tanner is the first former minister to detail its destructive impact on executive government. Tanner’s book is chilling because he admits his profession’s complicity in blurring the line between politics and soap opera. Tanner reveals that many politicians obsess about media management to the detriment of good government. He describes how our national leaders devote much of their day to spin, media tactics, tricks and stunts. He claims they are too focused on “winning the nightly news” with trivial announcements, populist rhetoric and contrived photo ops. Most dangerously, he says, politicians succumb to ‘mediathink’, where the initial mass-media response to a policy announcement is given more weight than the substance or long-term consequences of the policy. Politicians fret too much about the reception any policy might expect to receive in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph on the day after announcement (the so-called ‘Tele test’). The result is a government of “banal slogans, robotic delivery and trivial policy announcements”. Tanner argues that this interaction between politicians and the media produces a “travesty of traditional notions of democracy”. “Genuine outcomes,” Tanner laments, “are completely swamped by transient appearances.”
If the strength of Sideshow is its description of the soap opera that now passes for political coverage, its weakness is Tanner’s analysis of the causes and consequences of this trend. For one thing, Tanner gives the media far too much of the blame for the trivialisation of politics. Increasingly, it is people themselves, not media barons, who choose what they watch and read. The Australian media presents a spectrum of political coverage; the fact that many more people choose to watch Today Tonight than Four Corners isn’t the media’s fault, just as the lamentable closure of the Bulletin isn’t the fault of its publisher. The public simply stopped reading it in sufficient numbers for it to continue. (Its owners used to joke that it lost so much money it ought to be printed in red ink.) But Tanner can’t bring himself to point the finger at the public. As a politician, he knew better than to blame the voters and, as an author, it seems he’s unwilling to blame the audience.
The second serious problem with Tanner’s argument is his analysis of what is causing the dumbing down of our polity. Tanner again blames the media and the “mounting commercial pressure” journalists face to expand their audiences by mixing entertainment with information. This is correct in an obvious way (of course the media respond to commercial pressures) but doesn’t get to grips with the fundamental source of the change.
One possibility is that the dumbing down of traditional news bulletins and the parallel rise of specialised news platforms is merely a predictable response to technological change. New technologies – principally pay television and the internet – have enabled media companies to segment their consumer-base and deliver more tailored products to more clearly identified audiences. Every industry takes advantage of new technologies to better target their consumers. For example, the explosion in telephone technology has led to a massive shift away from the once-ubiquitous home fixed line, enabling telecommunications companies now to offer an array of mobile devices to different consumers.
The same is true of the news media, which is witnessing a seismic shift away from traditional platforms. Tonight, around half as many Australians by share of population will watch the evening television news bulletin on major commercial networks as did in 1980. Over the same 30 years, the proportion of Australians who read a daily newspaper has plummeted from 32% to 16%. That doesn’t necessarily mean Australians are consuming less news, it just means they are consuming news through an expanding variety of platforms. An interested person can now, at any time of day, get more political news coverage via the internet and dedicated television channels than ever would have been available on the 6 o’clock news.
As specialised content providers cherrypick niche viewers, traditional news media will reposition itself to cater for the remaining audience. Traditional channels know they can’t compete with the in-depth coverage of the day’s politics available from specialised channels and internet platforms, so they differentiate their offering by making it more general and more entertaining. If this argument is right, it leads to a more nuanced conclusion than Tanner’s dire predictions. Perhaps rather than destroying quality political journalism, modern media has merely made it available through different channels to different audiences. Australians interested in serious political journalism can now consume more of it; others are free to consume less. Tanner’s book poses the question, “How do we stop the media dumbing down the nightly news?”; but in a diverse modern media landscape the more relevant question might be: “How can we attract more people to serious political forums?”
Only two countries in the western world punish citizens for not voting in national elections. Australia is one; the other is Liechtenstein. Even in ancient Athens, the birthplace of citizen democracy, voting was regarded as a civic duty but attendance at the assembly was voluntary.
Berkeley academic Aaron Edlin has used choice theory to explain turnout in American elections, where voting is not compulsory. Edlin concludes that people are more likely to vote when they believe the election is important to their lives: “as the stakes and importance of an election increases, say, because candidates are farther apart on the issues or because it is a Presidential election, more people will choose to vote.” The same principles might also explain why, as Tanner observes, many Australians are disengaging from serious political discourse. Choice theory predicts that a rational person’s appetite for political news, just like their propensity to vote, will fluctuate in proportion to their perception of its import to their lives. Put simply, in times of war, natural disaster or threat to prosperity, people will tune in to the serious business of national leadership. At other times, some might choose to follow politics less closely.
On this analysis, many voters didn’t engage with the 2010 federal election because they took the view that their wellbeing would be little different whether Julia Gillard or Tony Abbott became prime minister. They made a rational choice to spend less time keeping up to speed with political issues and more time with their family and other priorities.
According to this theory, the responsibility for the quality of our national debate lies at least as much with politicians as the media. If politicians don’t offer differentiated positions on significant national challenges, the public makes an understandable choice to devote less time to serious politics.
These alternative explanations for the perceived dumbing down of political discourse have subtler implications than Sideshow suggests. Quality political reporting is still out there, but in different locations. And the breadth and quality of the national discourse responds endogenously to the import of the issues facing the nation.
This analysis produces an obvious solution to the public’s disengagement with serious politics. To widen the political debate, politicians need to convince people of the importance of the issues they are debating. If politicians only offer focus-group slogans, citizens will, of course, respond by allocating less of their time to politics.
Over his 18 years in parliament, Lindsay Tanner had been pinned with many of the labels used to describe ascending talent: ‘rising star’, ‘intellectual’, ‘moderniser’, ‘heavyweight’, ‘future leader’. He also managed to avoid many of the pejorative terms that tend to go with the territory: ‘power-broker’, ‘factional hack’, ‘head-kicker’. Tanner’s many admirers were drawn to him because he is not only a Labor star, he’s also a Labor intellectual. He is one of the precious minds capable of generating the kind of substantial ideas that can inspire a party and renew its policy agenda.
But Tanner’s public persona as a modernising union leader, dynamic Labor thinker and successful frontbencher contrasts starkly with the frustrated author of Sideshow. In public, Tanner presented the image of a confident and successful minister, but Sideshow contains a very different self-portrait. Tanner presents himself as a practical administrator, keen to get on with the business of governing, but frustrated at every turn.
This is why Tanner’s choice not to write more about his personal experiences in the Rudd and Gillard governments is significant and intriguing. The reader can’t help but wonder what transpired to cause this U-turn in outlook. The answer may have to wait for Lindsay Tanner’s next book.
Watch a conversation with Lindsay Tanner on SlowTV.
Andrew Charlton is the author of Ozonomics and Fair Trade for All (with Joseph Stiglitz) and two Quarterly Essays, ‘Man-Made World’ and ‘Dragon’s Tail’. From 2008 to 2010 he was senior economic adviser to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. He is co-founder of the strategic advisory business AlphaBeta.