Couldn’t agree more Tony

Tony Blair on modern politics.

From Crikey, but you can read more (pdf) here.

The media world — like everything else — is becoming more fragmented, more diverse and transformed by technology… The newspapers fight for a share of a shrinking market. Many are now read online, not the next day. Internet advertising has overtaken newspaper ads. There are roughly 70 million blogs in existence, with around 120,000 being created every day. In particular, younger people will, less and less, get their news from traditional outlets.

But, in addition, the forms of communication are merging and interchanging. The BBC website is crucial to the modern BBC. Papers have podcasts and written material on the web. News is becoming increasingly a free good, provided online without charge. Realistically, these trends won’t do anything other than intensify.

These changes are obvious. But less obvious is their effect. The news schedule is now 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week. It moves in real time. Papers don’t give you up-to-date news. That’s already out there. They have to break stories, try to lead the schedules. Or they give a commentary. And it all happens with outstanding speed. When I fought the 1997 election — just 10 years ago — we took an issue a day. In 2005, we had to have one for the morning, another for the afternoon and by the evening the agenda had already moved on.
You have to respond to stories also in real time. Frequently the problem is as much assembling the facts as giving them. Make a mistake and you quickly transfer from drama into crisis. In the 1960s, the government would sometimes, on a serious issue, have a cabinet lasting two days. It would be laughable to think you could do that now without the heavens falling in before lunch on the first day. Things harden within minutes. I mean,you can’t let speculation stay out there for longer than an instant.

I am going to say something that few people in public life will say, but most know is absolutely true: a vast aspect of our jobs today — outside of the really major decisions, as big as anything else — is coping with the media, its sheer scale, weight and constant hyperactivity. At points, it literally overwhelms.

Talk to senior people in virtually any walk of life today — business, military, public services, sport, even charities and voluntary organisations and they will tell you the same. People don’t speak about it because, in the main, they are afraid to. But it is true, nonetheless, and those who have been around long enough, will also say it has changed significantly in the past years.

We devote reams of space to debating why there is so much cynicism about politics and public life. In this, the politicians are obliged to go into self-flagellation, admitting it is all our fault. Actually, not to have a proper press operation nowadays is like asking a batsman to face bodyline bowling without pads or headgear.
And, believe it or not, most politicians come into public life with a desire to serve and by and large, try to do the right thing not the wrong thing. My view is that the real reason for the cynicism is precisely the way politics and the media today interact.

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Robert
Robert
14 years ago

Right, that’s a modern politician’s view, and to what purpose? A brief admission of “fuelling the trends” (article, The Age) and a bit of comment amounting to a bit of a whinge.

The fact is no politician has made a stand. There hasn’t been leadership in this issue. Politicians have followed the trends – “fuelling” them as Blair admits – and run the game through the final rinse cycle. We know how it’s done, it having been done here to sickening effect this last decade. It could be argued, also, that in following the developing trend since the advent of television, politicians have grown to use the final rinse cycle to their own ends to the point of treating the public with contempt and abuse.

It’s now an ‘age-old’ debate. The media feeds the desires of the public, politicians squirt their quips into the cycle, and on it rolls.

But the public are more aware than that – it comes down to the time they have, rather than inclination (the public do sit up and take notice, their interest is inherent), and the medium through which they can obtain their news and meet their interest.

A disparity had grown until the advent of blogs or online media. That disparity has not yet been filled, but it certainly has the potential to do so. Good content is growing online, tho not yet enough, and not yet easily or quickly found.

An online investigative journalist of note would wreak merry havoc in Australia, and several would change the play entirely, but we are a while away from that.

And it’s often been questioned of politics that someone to make the stand, to suffer short term heat and heaps of it, to reset the calibration of the media pack might, just might, be incredibly successful in today’s game. My belief is they would – if they withstood the fallout and pushed on through the system into sharing depth and information using the current cycle on a longer term basis, they’d create their own pace and their own cycle. There are certainly enough outlets who’d take their point of view along the way (ie, going from show to show) as the calibration is reset their way – bearing in mind that attempting to do so is news itself. It would be bedlam until that calibration was reset, and that’s the stopper of course, but gee what fun it would be to witness!

Even if a politician doesn’t have the vision, guts and skill to do so, no doubt the gap will be taken up elsewhere, and the online breed will force its hand, and arguably force the politicians for more transparency and depth – but, again, that would be a way off yet.

TimT
14 years ago

Tony Blair is talking in the context of European politics and media – and specifically in the context of British politics and media.

Our media is nowhere near as large or diverse or competitive as the European/British media, so consequently, his criticisms don’t necessarily apply here.

It is true, however, that what few media sources we do have pick up on developing crises/stories/etc in a lightning-fast way. They remain extremely competitive, but sometimes they are competitive over stories with little or no substance.

paul frijters
paul frijters
14 years ago

Nick,
I have no doubt Tony is right in his observation. The intellectual question is what the underlying forces are that have lead us to this situation of politicians having to defend themselves in real time all the time, and why the media has become a game of sniping. My best-guess is that politicians have lost power relative to other actors in their society because they dominate public debate and public opinion formation less than they used to. The lowered cost of information dissemination has made it possible for many more actors to try to steer the mainstream debates than hitherto. Loss of power inevitably means loss of standing and status. Like the weak teacher who is over-run by rowdy kids, so too are politicians now set upon by the media because they appear so weak. I dont think its personal or vindictive or has anything to do with lies or truth. The reduced barriers to participating in the national debate have simlpy eroded the ability of politicians to control the agenda and we the public, who (like Robert above) yearn for someone to lord over us, are punishing them for their apparent weakness by expecting the impossible from them.

Robert
Robert
14 years ago

That’s a bizarre reading of my comment, Paul, and of the greater public. I’d simply say we are seeking a fairer reflection of our politicians – something akin to our own lives. To blame the media for this situation is a cop out. That the politicians have lost effectiveness is because the public is sick of their crap. The politicians are anything but powerless – they have it at their fingertips or on mic at any time. And it has everything to do with truth and lies, frankly. Further, I think the public are a much more forgiving lot than you’ve made them to be.

It could be more likely that the public barometer has registered so much spin and are sick to death of the crap that they feel some vindication when a politician is torn down, and the balance has been lost. The media seek more of this to satisfy a hungry public, and the politicians seek more to spin the crap. At the end of the day, the public want leadership and character (very different from wanting to be lorded over, whatever that means, and hardly likely by the look of it), on matters of importance from those in power and the positions to do so, and are willing to accept the humanity and failings of a politician in light of a fairer go all round.

Have a go at your local member, for instance. Blessed with brilliance? No. Expected to be? No. But have a go at the perks, for instance, after two terms….

I don’t think it’s rocket science. A fair go pretty much sums it up all round.

Robert
Robert
14 years ago

Nicholas, I find Blair’s comments interesting, but also tepid. A brief answer for the thread right now in relation to taking a stand, particularly, and treating the public with a slightly higher regard generally would be, but not limited to, choosing an issue (it need not be a blockbuster to start with) and saying you will be providing your views to be considered through a passage of time of, say, six weeks (ie, establish publicly the ground you are wanting to work on), and that you are intending to explore the issue more fully with the public (establish that), and that you fully expect there’ll be all sorts of riotous commentary on account of this (establish that), and make then a comment pointing towards some depth (enough to whet the appetite and get the interest up and running). And, then, do as you say, each time framing your explorative sharing of the issue with the public in terms of the above structure.

At the end of the six weeks, show the process publicly. Explain what has occurred, where the process failed and where it succeeded, and then try again, with another issue or some such.

These are points grounded in successful negotiation. As with successful negotiation, respect is accorded all round, and the nature of the process is brought up when otherwise a successful negotiation would be doomed – that is, include the process openly in the substance.

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paul frijters
paul frijters
14 years ago

Robert,
I’m sorry, but you appear very naive to me. You basically are proposing to have politicians streightjacket themselves into a regimented regime of doing as you want them to do, reducing them to farcical puppets mechanically reacting to news. Take for instance your recommendation:

“choosing an issue (it need not be a blockbuster to start with) and saying you will be providing your views to be considered through a passage of time of, say, six weeks …. At the end of the six weeks, show the process publicly. Explain what has occurred, where the process failed and where it succeeded, and then try again, with another issue or some such.”

you dont live on the same planet that I do if you think this has any chance of working. The general public patiently waiting for 6 weeks for an answer on a topic? Do you really thing the general public will learn to come to accept this patience after a period during which a fatherly politicians slowly re-educates them? Come on! I repeat what I hinted at before: this smacks of ridiculing politicians and belittling them because you see them as weak for reacting to stories immediately. You want your politicians to be strong even though the reduced cost of media participation has made them weak.

Robert
Robert
14 years ago

Nicholas, imagine Blair taking the Australian public through the structure, or process, above – in Australia! Which outlets would he use, and when? Noting, pointedly, a lack of the Fleet Street utter rubbish. [And minus Iraq].

There is ground for hope in this country.

I think one of the reasons Rudd shot high in popularity was that, unlike those before him in the ALP, he was willing to speak about the media process. It wasn’t overly done, but he did mention the existing media process and the public immediately felt he was talking to them and listening to them: one of them. This has become something albeit slightly of a hallmark of his leadership and the party – he and the ALP will refer from time to time to elements of the media process. This, interestingly, has forced Howard to respond or at least raise the media process as well, something he hadn’t done before.

Rudd’s attempts are ever so slight but they do go a long way, showing I think how readily the Australian public respond to the speaking of ‘the unsaid’. The public appreciate it, not being treated as fools and being fairly media aware.

In effect, Rudd is talking directly to the person, rendering the media transparent in the process. It’s very interesting. By including the media process in the public discourse, the media is rendered invisible. These are snipits, but tantalising nevertheless!

Robert
Robert
14 years ago

Paul, the process above is not about withholding “an answer on a topic”. It’s about including the public and the media in an open dialogue as you lead through the unfolding of a topic – the exploration of it, the educating of the public with it, the bringing along of the public through something of its depth. It’s about using the 24 hour cycle to break it, and recalibrate it on that issue to another point in time.

Robert
Robert
14 years ago

Yes Nicholas, ‘Howard on talkback’ is very interesting. And with cameras. Perfect – there’s the nightly “news”, “talking and listening to the people”.

On Rudd, I’m not big on it, yet there was a clear distinction in how he took Howard on, on arrival. It was born of his campaign foundation of “style”. Howard would comment, Rudd would respond not by harping on the “substance” of Howard’s comment per Beazer Crean, but by remarking on Howard’s use of the media. Highlighting this sort of thing by Howard has since grown to become part of the ALP strategy, from time to time.

In response, Howard returned fire and would talk about things like “that’s the oldest trick in the book” and so on, as he goes on to talk about tricks in the book; ie, identifying media usage by an opponent has become something of a campaign issue now. Rudd doing this has been a bit of a circuit breaker from the old comment/harping scenario and helped engage the public. I mention these bits and pieces really only in the absence of anything substantial otherwise, which would go more to your viewpoint.