RN Breakfast: A Platform for Cheap Politics?

PROPOSITION:  Australian media outlets have an obligation to limit the oxygen provided to politicians embarking on gratuitous politicking.

I was sitting in the car the other day (in fact, now a couple of months ago).  The radio was on, and it was Christopher Pyne, Leader of the Government in the House, being interviewed by Fran Kelly on the ‘Breakfast' program on Radio National.    The interview itself was short and nothing special.  To be honest, afterwards I could not remember the exact questions being asked (until I reluctantly listened to it again to write this article).  But I did remember thinking that there was something very wrong with the interview.

I have a lot of respect for Fran Kelly.  I believe she is an excellent radio host, and an important figure on radio and the Australian political landscape more generally.  She is clear, concise, and very well-informed on a wide range of topics.  As an interviewer, she throws out direct, probing and intelligent questions.

From what I could glean, this particular interview was essentially an attempt at a broad recap and or previewing of some apparently 'key' political issues at the beginning of the Federal parliamentary year.  Pyne, as an important Government figure and seasoned politician, with the ability to wax lyrical about a wide range of issues, was evidently a good choice for the purpose of such an interview.  

Kelly raised numerous issues, including the latest political polls, the Adani mine, s 44 of the Constitution, energy, economic growth, etc etc (blah blah).  Pyne (without missing a beat from last year’s parliamentary sittings, launched into signature mudslinging, political buzz-word spinning, generic Australian-federal-politician-being-interviewed mode.  Unsurprisingly, he called for the resignation of a Labour Party member, claimed that Bill Shorten was just like Jeremy Corbyn and not suitable for government, called out Labour’s lefty populist agenda, and generally tried to aim as much mud at the Opposition whilst giving the Government and its political agenda a nice preen.  Fran Kelly barrelled things along, with one or two probing questions, but with an apparent key focus on covering all the key issues to start off the political year.  

At the conclusion, I remember a combined feeling of bemusement and overwhelming frustration.  Far from being enlightened about the key issues facing the nation and the Government's policy agenda for 2018, I felt as though my brain had been shrunk after being (re)exposed to the all-too-familiar, narrow, negative, political narratives that surround Australian federal politics.  I was hardly inspired to engage further with pressing political debates and issues; I just wanted to angrily jab the off button on the radio.

On reflection, I found it interesting that the majority of my frustration was not with Pyne and his all too familiar political rhetoric, which failed to provide any insight or inspiration with regards to the minor matter of governing the nation.  Do not get me wrong, Pyne’s (and most of Australia’s politicians') failure to demonstrate any proactivity, positivity, and clarity with regards to policy shaping generally makes me want to beat my forehead against a wall, or thorny cactus even.  But, on this occasion, I was intrigued by the fact that my frustration was largely directed at Kelly.

In truth, the interview had probably gone to plan: a barrelling recap, with the assistance of the voice of a central Government figure, of many stories that are at the centre of Australian politics as far as it manifests in the daily media coverage.  Yet, that was also why it was so jarring.  It was the provision of substantial airtime on a premier national platform for the spouting of superficial, useless platitudes and political gaming.  There was nothing new about Pyne’s responses, and Kelly, with her substantial experience interviewing Australian politicians, probably could have answered the questions for him.  And yet, despite this, Pyne was provided with this platform to play low-brow politics; a platform to provide nothing new, nothing positive, nothing of substance or enlightenment - just as he and the majority of his colleagues in Canberra (on all sides of politics) are want to do.  

In providing such a platform, in full knowledge of the type of interview that was likely to occur, it made me wonder to what degree Kelly was and is complicit in continuing a national media coverage that focuses on petty politics rather than policy.  Perhaps not every interview with a politician will be the appropriate forum for incisive policy questions and progressing positive debate.  But, I think that the majority should be.  Politicians’ primary job is to create and shape policy.  We should, therefore, be providing platforms for the purpose of discussing policy in a substantial and in-depth manner; for the clear framing of policy with a sense respect for the voter, and weighing up the various arguments around such policy.  If we know that we cannot get that type of discussion from a particular politician or political commentator, then I question whether a platform should be given to them at all.

There are many other radio hosts, reporters, and media personalities who are far more guilty than Kelly when it comes to providing a platform for essentially cheap politicking.  Indeed, as far as encouraging the examination and discussion of key policy points, I believe Kelly is one of Australia's best within the confines of her chosen medium.  Perhaps it was for this reason that I was so frustrated.  If one of the best in the country was providing a platform for useless superficial politics, then I could not help but think that the media coverage of Australian politics is not in a good way.

Some say that we get the politicians we deserve. (See Donald Trump and the US.)  Indeed, that’s the whole idea of democracy, right?  If we expect citizens to live a conscious life, to take responsibility for their reality and the community in which they live, then they have to be informed of that reality.  This is where the media plays such a crucial role.  The media can inform us to help us make conscious proactive choices towards the better realisation of us - perhaps to even vote based on actual policy.  I suggest that if we know that a politician is just going to play meaningless political games, then let them find their own platform.  In the meantime, use the best platforms for the best ideas and policies.  Inform the nation so we can realise a better reality.

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Not that it is worth your time, but here it is in case you want to have a listen.  http://mpegmedia.abc.net.au/rn/podcast/2018/02/bst_20180205_0736.mp3