Public pays the price as politics spins out of control
A couple of years ago in one of his excellent machine-gun sprays Paul Keating lamented the emergence of a new class of political leaders who wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning unless they had focus group research telling them to do so.
The jibe was aimed at the thinness and timidity of what was then the Kevin07 juggernaut. This new political glibness was again in evidence during this year’s campaign, reaching a low point with Julia Gillard’s “moving forward” slogan, a catchline so dead in meaning that The Real Julia had it euthanased.
The debate over the rise of focus groups, spin and message management in modern politics is now being conducted vigorously within the ALP. Labor heavyweight John Faulkner used this week’s launch of the excellent book by former NSW Minister Rodney Cavalier on the shambles that is NSW Labor to take aim at what has been called “the NSW disease‟.
Faulkner describes this as “the churn and burn of political leaders, the perceived short-term focus on polling and the relentless tactical battle for day-by-day advantage in the media, and the endless, constant, politics of spin.”
“It is no secret modern Labor is struggling with the perception we are very long on cunning, and very short on courage. We are struggling with the perception we are wholly and solely driven by polling and focus groups.”
The adjunct of this focus group culture is the obsession with staying “on message” and the best way to stay “on message” is to use public money to create an army of press secretaries to parrot the line of the day.
It is less than 30 years since political parties had just one or two press secretaries seconded to the leader’s office.
Today, the parliamentary secretary for agriculture won’t sit down for a chat with The Stock Journal unless he’s armed with a press release and accompanied by a post-pubescent communications graduate who’s watched too much West Wing.
As today’s investigation in this newspaper shows, the culture of spin is now running unchecked. The public hates it. The public also funds it.
One very important self-critical point though. The media can complain about this new culture but it is also complicit in it.
Reporters should be reminded that press secretaries are not a substitute for contacts, and that you can’t simultaneously complain about the rise of spin doctoring if you’re prepared to subsist journalistically on a diet of press releases, and take a string of government-authorised dot-points as a substitute for independent analysis of the very policies which affect people’s lives.