Monday, September 12, 2011


In Sideshow: dumbing down democracy  former politician, Lindsay Tanner, argues that politics in Australia has been reduced to politicians aiming to look as if they are doing something whilst being careful not offend anybody. He contends that this is the result of the interaction between the media coverage and political actions.

In the late 1960s those of us studying Australian political science at ANU were asked to consider whether the media could be seen as the third arm of political decision making along with the parliament and the courts. In 2011 it can definitely be argued that media coverage shapes the way politicians make decisions and also present those decisions to the public.

Tanner provides examples from his own experience as well as from the literature written on this topic to illustrate his points. Political decisions are often made or altered in reaction to opinion polls or to the views of interest groups whose views are expressed in the media whenever a topic is raised. Political announcements are often shaped by the media and presented quickly to ensure that it looks as if the government is doing something, when often they are not, in order to diffuse a situation. The television program, The Hollow Men, Tanner suggests, provided graphic coverage as to how this works.

Media prefer to publish stories that have images, rather than reports of facts. The media also tends to prefer to publish headlines and grabs of information using parts of quotes, often taken out of context, that dramatise a story or give it a particular slant. Tanner argues that at press conferences journalists have a set of predetermined questions aimed to collect a response to go in the almost written article. This is the age of celebrity and political leaders are expected to be celebrities and to entertain. Politicians also play the media game when they want a view expressed to further a cause.  

Tanner discusses the 'dumbing down' of the media as they try to maintain their circulation or audience. He argues that television news and public affairs programs on commercial TV have become entertainment with little or no serious news content. Even 'serious' newspapers are looking more to entertain than to provide detailed political reports and news stories.

The book provides an interesting insight into the state of political processes and the media from the viewpoint of someone who has existed in and sometimes worked the system.

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