More sizzle than substance in election coverage
Sunday, with Election 2010 barely twenty four hours old, the first heavy hitting advertisements of the campaign hit our screens and appeared in our Sunday newspapers. They had surprisingly high production values for election ads but in my view they went straight to the heart of what this election is all about – the fight over which political journalist will win the most viewers.
We’ve heard that Channel 7 will go “Beyond the spin”, a new ABC TV Channel is competing with Sky News, Sky News is still great and Channel 9 still has Laurie Oakes.
After two days of the campaign we’ve seen more advertising by news organisations for their election coverage than we have from the major political parties.
But that’s okay, because if media coverage of election campaigns is about one thing it is the ability of the media to talk about itself, set the agenda and then analyse it’s agenda while ending up disappointed with politicians for not talking about the media’s agenda. And, this election we will have not one but two 24 hour TV stations featuring journalists talking to other journalists about what third journalists have written or said.
The question for those of us who’d like politicians to be a bit bolder, engage in more reform and set out a more exciting policy agenda is, how much could the media improve things if it tried?
Quite a lot actually, if it decided to concentrate on the substance of debate rather than the sizzle.
Depressingly, most coverage in election campaigns covers a tried and tested formula of cliché, recycled storylines and inaccurate prognostications. Thank god for something like The Punch which is one of the few places that actively tries to encourage debate of substance and a diverse range of views from more than the usual suspects.
But, already this election campaign we’ve had a couple of old standards jumping out of the box first up.
The interminably inane statement that “the election will be won and lost in the marginal seats” has already been used over a dozen times by journalists on my count. Like, duh. . Look forward to, “it’s not going to be a uniform swing” coming soon from a pundit near you.
We’ve had almost as many ridiculous prognostications saying it will be won in Queensland and New South Wales – take that the rest of the country with its 22 seats officially classified as marginal. Your issues (mining tax anyone?) don’t really matter.
And I look forward to these perennial staples of cliché in weeks to come.
The badly behaved candidate scandal will be right up there. A candidate (usually some no hoper in a safe seat of the other party) will express a genuine opinion or may slightly stray off the party office issued talking points and the media will overreact in such a way, blowing it all out of proportion, that will result in the main political parties choosing ever more robotic candidates next time.
And then we’ll have the thousands of column inches that will be written about the worm, which may or may not relate to who won the debate but will certainly have absolutely no bearing on who wins the election.
The spend-o-meters, are also up and running, a mindless calculation of what each side has promised, devoid of all analysis, telling us nothing about the actual promises – certainly not whether the proposed spending will benefit Australia or not
Stories about campaign events will almost certainly overwhelm by a large margin stories about each party’s policies. But, if more column inches and air time were spent discussing the policy announcements and their impact on Australians’ lives wouldn’t the quality of our political debate be improved?
Most commentators ignored Julia Gillard’s announcement of a $200 million program to help build affordable homes in our major cities yesterday. Imagine if the media had focussed on who and how such a policy would benefit, where it would make a real difference or indeed the flaws or missteps in making such an announcement. Would Australian’s be more interested in the election? It’s possible.
Given the way the media covers elections in such glib terms, it is hard to believe that it is all the fault of our politicians for dumbing down their messages. The reality is that many political journalists are obsessed by the processes of politics rather than the substance of policy and while ever this remains the case there is little reason for political parties to change their tunes.
It’s okay for journalists to find the arcane manoeuvres of politics more interesting than the policies, but not to then criticise political parties for also playing that game by providing a major story of the day with appropriate pictures and putting all their effort into creating TV ads.
For those who despair about the level of political debate in this country – elections unfortunately offer no respite. So far, this election is true to form with the press less concerned with the contest between Gillard and Abbott and more concerned with the contest over their own egos.
So, moving forward what can we expect from this election campaign? More of the same I’m afraid – August 21 can’t come soon enough.
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