Shock jocks grab the headlines when politicians fear real debates


Posted

October 13, 2018 06:24:38

At a protest at the Sydney Opera House this week, there were lots of signs attacking broadcaster Alan Jones and his use of the “bully pulpit”.

Jones had used the platform he has on radio — and an influence it gives him among spineless politicians way beyond the size of audience — to both bully and harangue the chief executive of the Sydney Opera House, Louise Herron, and bulldoze weak politicians into agreeing to let advertising go on Sydney’s great architectural gem.

On the other side of the world, US President Donald Trump — once his Supreme Court nominee had been narrowly confirmed by the Senate — mocked a woman who had come forward to accuse that nominee of sexual assault to a laughing, jeering crowd.

Jones and Mr Trump both share an instinctive capacity to make everyone take notice of them, often by saying things that stretch the bounds of civil discourse, rationality or even good sense.

This wouldn’t matter if others didn’t gratify them by paying attention.

Unfortunately, when one of them is the President of the United States, it is a difficult noise to ignore.

Interviewed about his new book about Mr Trump, Fear, by 7.30 this week, esteemed Washington journalist Bob Woodward said that “people in my business have become emotionally unhinged by Trump or emotionally attracted to everything he does”.

“So you’ve seen in the television coverage here, it’s one way or the other, more often than not. So what’s at the centre, there’s not enough of that,” he said.

“Of course Trump, part of his political skill, is to realise, and he’s realised this for years, that the internet is out there, that he can tweet something and control the agenda, and determine what everyone’s talking about in reporting on it.

“And so there will be a big story coming up and Trump will totally distract everyone in the government and the media, and to a certain extent the country with what he decides the agenda should be.

“Presidents have incredible power. I would argue that Trump has more power now, particularly in the communications realm, than Richard Nixon ever did.”

Jones, of course, isn’t after distraction but attention. It’s not clear that his efforts on this occasion were entirely positive for the causes he was advocating, given the bad reaction it stirred up.

But it had the effect of once again flushing out politicians who, even if they actually agreed with Jones that it is fine to promote a horse race using public buildings, should not have been so dopey as to let it appear that they were simply jumping to his instructions.

This applies to everyone from Prime Minister Scott Morrison, to NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, to NSW Opposition Leader Luke Foley, and to Labor’s Anthony Albanese.

Attention seeking’s a tricky game

Grabbing the attention of voters has become a tricky business in recent years. Voters are turned off and disillusioned. So maybe the shock tactics used by the likes of Jones and Mr Trump should not be that much of a surprise.

But it is also hardly a surprise when most politicians so desperately attempt to control debates that they can’t control by trying to stymie debate about them.

A few classic examples of this have occurred in Australia in the past couple of weeks.

When Scott Morrison appeared in the prime minister’s courtyard a couple of weeks ago with his education minister, Dan Tehan, it was to announce details of a new funding deal for Catholic and independent schools.

In what has become too regular an occurrence, staffers handed journalists details of the deal as they were leaving the press conference, which had been conducted on the basis purely of information initially announced by the Ministers, or garnered from questions.

What is so terrible about the idea of actually giving journalists some information to question you about?

Or for that matter, allow the public to debate issues of interest.

Leaks trump best laid plans

For months now the Federal Government has sat on a report on religious freedom that it commissioned at the height of the marriage equality debate.

Coalition MPs have grown increasingly apprehensive about what would happen when the report was released, with it being seen as an incendiary being launched into the bitter divisions between conservatives and moderates in the party.

This apprehension only grew in the wake of Malcolm Turnbull’s demise, and his replacement by a Prime Minister whose Pentecostal faith seemed to frame his early advocacy of the cause of reform of the rules governing religious freedom.

There was little expectation, as a result, that the report would see the light of day any time before the Wentworth by-election.

But governments kid themselves that they can always control these things and, sure enough, details of the report were leaked to Fairfax Media.

The Government scurried to close the debate, variously claiming that the leaked details did not represent any change from the existing laws, that the report was “of course” a report to the government not by the government, and, what’s more, that it had not even been considered by Cabinet yet.

In any world where a community or electorate had an expectation that it had a right to be included in a debate, none of these ideas would wash.

Strong policy needs debate

But we have reached some point now where politicians seem very confused about the ideas of advocacy and discussion.

It seems such a rare thing that politicians will actually positively advocate a policy position, as opposed to just frame it as a point of political difference with their opponents.

And it seems equally rare that they perceive any rights in the community to discuss an issue, or even a sense of responsibility that they should explain the Government’s position on an issue.

Last week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a major report on the difference between global warming of 1.5 degrees and 3 degrees Celsius.

The ABC’s 7.30, Fairfax Media and Sky all put in multiple requests to talk to Environment Minister Melissa Price about the report, to no avail.

Those ministers who did have to venture out in public, and were asked about it, gave glib responses about Australia already being on track to reach its Paris commitments, a claim that is both questionable and gloriously skates over the fact the Government literally, almost proudly, doesn’t have a coherent policy on climate change just now.

Is it any wonder that issues that grab the attention of our more bellicose shock jocks should, therefore, grab the headlines?

The one thing we can be grateful for at home is that we are at least not in the position the Americans currently confront, where their President not only bullies and berates on Twitter, but in his relationships with other world leaders.

Laura Tingle is 7.30’s chief political correspondent.

Topics:

government-and-politics,

federal-government,

scott-morrison,

australia



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