We are all to blame for the dumbing down of politics
Sex and alcohol used to be the weapons of choice if you wanted to attract fellow uni students to a meeting. The ad industry has known for decades that sex sells.
And now we have the internet to tell us in even more precise detail just how attractive humans find sex, scandals or booze – preferably all three.
So should we be surprised that, as Lindsay Tanner’s new book Sideshow highlights, the media don’t love good policy, but they simply adore “sexy” stories?
Billion dollar announcements, funding fights (such as welfare crackdowns), or the fabulously named (by a journalist) “Sin Taxes” - hikes to the cost of alcohol and cigarettes - are all deemed worthy of coverage.
Serious discussion about policy, including op eds from politicians wanting to further explain their decisions, are often not. But who is to blame?
Perhaps it is the fault of the politicians, who develop the complex policy, but cannot find a way to package it simply and easily for mass consumption. This is undoubtedly true.
The current political landscape, and ascendancy of Tony Abbott has shown the power of the single line. “Stop the Boats” and “Great Big New Tax” are two cracking grabs that he’s used to devastating effect.
However, as one political adviser departing the Howard Government once said to me: “It’s a lot easier to throw grenades from Opposition and run, than to govern and clean up the mess”.
Simple lines are easy when on the attack, but they lack the substance necessary to explain Government policy, which is by its very nature, complex.
So, is the media to blame? Tanner seems to think so, rightly pointing out their obsession with the personal (like Julia Gillard’s hair colour) and the trivial (if she’ll get married) and a lack of interest or space for the detail of Government’s real work.
But the media are only reflective of society. They are a business after all, and we are their consumers. Aren’t they writing and broadcasting to us, their audience, and merely giving us only what we have so clearly shown we want to consume?
While the media and politicians are both, to varying degrees, responsible for the dumbing down and sensationalising of politics, they would not do so if not for their audience – us.
Generally speaking, we are not interested in the detail of policy. We want good hospitals, roads and schools, but with a minimum of fuss and cost. We like our news delivered in easily digestible bites, nothing too complex, because life is complex enough.
Labels are good – Gen X, Gen Y, metrosexual, fashionista – because they help us to identify issues without having to think too hard. Detail isn’t good, it bores us.
We click on stories about Pippa Middleton’s arse, Justin Beiber’s back, anything to do with bikinis or bras, and nothing to do with politics.
When our most popular source of information is limited to 140 characters – not words - it is clear that both politicians and serious journalists have a mammoth task in communicating meaningfully with us.
So the next time you complain about politics, the poor standard of Government and reporting or sensationalism in the media, pause for a moment and think – perhaps it’s not them, it’s me…
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