Feeding the chooks?

Earlier today here at Troppo, Nicholas Gruen picked up on outgoing British PM Tony Blair’s op-ed lament about the instatiable appetite of the modern mass media for continuous sensational crisis stories. Not surprisingly given his recent 1Q question about the relevance of motives to policy, Harry Clarke has also embraced Blair’s hand-wringing, especially this bit:

‘….scandal or controversy beats ordinary reporting hands down. News is rarely news unless it generates heat as much as or more than light. Second, attacking motive is far more potent than attacking judgement. It is not enough for someone to make an error. It has to be venal. Conspiratorial’.

‘… there will often be as much interpretation of what a politician is saying as there is coverage of them actually saying it. In the interpretation, what matters is not what they mean; but what they could be taken to mean. This leads to the incredibly frustrating pastime of expending a large amount of energy rebutting claims about the significance of things said, that bears little or no relation to what was intended’.

It’s an entirely valid concern, and a point I should have conceded in my response to Harry’s 1Q gambit.

But I can’t help asking the obvious chicken and egg question. Did all this start with the media chooks demanding to be fed more often, or with the calculating development of scientific chook-feeding strategies by the politicians? The notion of the permanent campaign is most often associated with Bill Clinton’s Presidency, but also to a significant extent with Tony Blair. Fuelled by opinion polling and focus groups, governments seek to control public debate by dominating and shaping media coverage through pumping out stories on a daily (and more frequent) basis that either create an issue or “frame” or “spin” it in a way that is advantageous to one’s own side (usually in an attempt to discredit opponents or create a distraction to divert attention from a story that might otherwise dominate and provide negative momentum for one’s own side). In the circumstances, Blair’s op-ed is quite breathtaking in its hypocrisy.

Although the permanent campaign is most often associated with Clinton and Blair, these strategies in fact began to develop quite a bit earlier. Sydney Blumenthal first coined the expression in 1982, and US Democrats consultant Wally Clinton (no relation AFAIK) explained it like this in 1983:

Whether we like it or not, the day of the Endless Campaign is here. No longer can an incumbent simply go about his or her business after winning an election, waiting until a few months before the next election to think about campaigning. In fact, any official who intends to stay in office would be wise to view his or her victory speech on election night as a kick off-off speech for the next election.

More recently, in The Permanent Campaign and Its Future edited by Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann (1998), the editors explain the phenomenon this way:

We live in the era of the permanent campaign, in which the line between campaigning and governing has been nearly erased. As Hugh Heclo makes clear in the opening chapter, even if campaigning and governing are inextricably interlinked in American-style democracy, the process is distinctly different now from what it was some decades ago. Sidney Blumenthal popularized the term permanent campaign in 1982, but the change in governing style goes back further. Systematic and sophisticated polling in presidential campaigns nearly reached its full bloom in 1960, but the process of tracking public views, or of politicians garnering support from the public for their priorities, is not what we mean by the permanent campaign. Rather, we mean, as Heclo suggests, “a nonstop process seeking to manipulate sources of public approval to engage in the act of governing itself.” In this era of the permanent campaign, the process of campaigning and the process of governing have each lost their distinctiveness. Just as significant, the process of campaigning has become in many ways the dominant partner of the two.

Milestones along the road to the permanent campaign were provided by the Hawke Labor government’s mastery of interest group manipulation (famously encapsulated by Richo’s immortal “whatever it takes” line) and marginal seat strategies which place heavy reliance on the use of detailed database information about voters, not to mention the “attack dog” campaign strategies perfected by the US Republicans in the late 1980s and early 90s. All these developments were embraced, extended and elevated to an art form by the Clinton administration in the US and Blair’s New Labour in the UK (not to mention the Howard government here in Australia). Hence their extraordinary political success during the 90s (and on into the current century in the case of Blair and Howard).

The significance of the emergence and seemingly universal acceptance of permanent campaigning is explained by Ornstein and Mann:

Campaigning intrinsically is a zero-sum game with a winner and a loser. Governing, ideally, is an additive game that tries to avoid pointing fingers or creating winners and losers in the policy battles.

The advent of the permanent campaign makes any such aspiration towards constructive, co-operative national governance well nigh impossible. As Brady and Fiorina comment in one of the chapters in Ornstein and Mann’s work:

The motives of todays members revolve around destroying their enemies rather than developing a legislative product broadly acceptable to the electorate.

Of course, it is naive to think that there ever existed halcyon days in the past when politicians generally co-operated harmoniously in the business of legislation and governance except during short election campaigns when the gloves figuratively came off in ritualistic but still fairly gentlemanly verbal combat. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to imagine Howard and Rudd enjoying the sort of mutual regard that apparently existed between wartime Labor PM Curtin and Bob Menzies, at least as portrayed in the recent ABC docu-drama. I’d be very interested to know whether Senator Andrew Bartlett has detected a deterioration in the level of practical co-operation and civility between opposing political parties even in the time he’s been in federal Parliament. I suspect he would confirm such a trend.

I’m by no means suggesting that our political parties are the sole contributors to the simplistic, crisis-based, tawdry motive-ascribing reportage of public affairs in Australia today, or the resulting dearth of serious, sober analysis of policies and issues that Harry Clarke laments. The media is at least equally to blame, with its insatiable appetite for sensationalist tabloid headlines and black-and-white characterisation of issues which invariably actually involve levels of complexity and subtlety that are simply ignored in favour of pursuit of the cheap shock-horror angle. Moreover, we members of the public are equally complicit: the shock-horror stories (and the tacky Paris Hilton beatups and NT News crocodile stories) are the ones that sell newspapers and attract eyeballs to screens. You can’t really expect the commercial MSM to publish reams of serious, worthy analysis if almost no-one bothers to read it. Politics have become the ‘bread and circuses’ of a sedentary age.

I don’t pretend to have any magical answers to this depressing contemporary phenomenon, nor did any of the political scientist contributors to Ornstein and Mann’s book. It’s difficult not to dismiss what passes for modern public political discourse as mostly an empty, meaningless and increasingly nasty theatre of the absurd. Perhaps some marginal hope lies in the accessibility of some of the more thoughtful, analytical Australian political blogs (including this one). And in the continuing constructive role of the Australian Democrats in the Senate, highlighted by Cam Riley (also earlier today here at Troppo). But those are just about the only bright spots I can perceive. Maybe some of our more optimistic readers can cheer me up?

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
14 years ago

Great post Ken – and no, there is no easy way out of this one.

It is getting worse and worse. It’s one of the things that many of the major thinkers of the 19th century worried about. They understood that elites held important aspects of the culture together and that democracy and the market might fatally destroy them (though in the process of course creating elites of their own with very different values.)

Jc
Jc
14 years ago

Great post Ken.

Believe it or not there are actually very few news junkies around despite what us news junkies think. US figures still show that the vast number of the population watches free to air news. I don’t know the exact numbers but it dwarfs what CNN, FOX CNBC etc. get. Cable gets a tiny fraction.

Back to what you say:

I don’t actually think it’s depressing. I think the choices are wonderful. News is entertainment for the most part except for exceptional circumstances.

Want left wing or right wing slanted news days and there’s CNN and Fox and the BBC. Want financial news and there’s the excellent Bloomberg and CNBC. Want Hollywood news there’s the E channel. There’s even a fashion channel as I learned from my teenage daughter. How about court TV?

With choice comes specialization, which is why we are seeing a huge increase in this form of entertainment.

I think Blair is simply crying out for the days when there were a couple of TV channels.

I would be worried though if I was a cable operator as most kids these days are getting their news from the web…. In other words they’re actually reading!

I think the choice we have these days is fantastic. You can avoid the trailer trash like Paris Hilton stories simply by going to serious information networks that would avoid that sort of thing. NYTimes, Pink and White Times, Guardian, Wash Post.

There’s is no reason to feel bad about our present choices as we now have the best the world has to offer along with the worst. We can avoid the trash.

Here’s a thought:
Cable operators are always looking for fresh ideas to create new viewing. A good idea can always find financing. That’s what the current president did with Fox news. He was Bush senior’s talking head who went to Murdoch after the administration got turfed with the idea of creating a conservative news Channel. It now has roughly about 50% of the cable audience. Now people can say what they like about Fox but the idea and it conception was terrific from an opportunity point of view.

Good ideas now are cheaper to get going than the old days. This is a good thing. A great thing as the barriers to entry is far cheaper the before. With this we will end up with specialization.

Rockie
Rockie
14 years ago

Blair is wilfully ignorant of dialectics, so not cynical so much as hamstrung, like others so bereft.

paul frijters
paul frijters
14 years ago

Ken,
nice post indeed. Its a fascinating topic on which its hard to predict where its all going. Are you willing to give us your prediction as to what’s next and what, reasonably speaking, could be done to improve things?

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
14 years ago

I don’t think that you’d ever get resolution on the chicken or egg scenario here. The technology revolution that the media has surfed for the last three decades means that nothing is safe from scrutiny any more. Consider John Curtin, a recovered alcoholic, who would probably have had difficulty getting elected in the current era, as would secretary bonker, Ben Chifley with the poor abandoned wife languishing at home in Bathurst. These days she’d be doing New Idea photo spreads and appearing on Kerri-Anne to denounce her hubby’s betrayal along with launching her autobiography and a new career in ergonomic interior design and PR.

Fifty years ago, Canberra really was a bush capital where parliamentarians gathered in a kind of sheltered, country club atmosphere, shielded by a quiescent press gallery and a Public Service locked away behind the Official Secrets Act. Ministerial staffers were very few in number and were basically seconded public servants when they did exist.

Elections were stump speeches in community halls, the odd newspaper story and a bit on the wireless news.

Anyone who thinks that this was some golden era of blunt, homespun political honesty is seriously deluded. Nor were issues any more likely to be soberly debated. Menzies won office by portraying Ben Chifley as a Communist.

The permanent campaign is the child of the technological revolution’s intensive 24/7 scrutiny and the serried ranks of spin doctors, media minders, message massagers are its Praetorian Guards.

You might take heart, however, from the knowledge that politicians have never, ever been plain-spoken truth-tellers. The substantive difference between now and then is that they’re far less likely to get away with it.

Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
14 years ago

“Ministerial staffers were very few in number and were basically seconded public servants when they did exist.” Geoff, I think early on there was no such thing as a ministerial staffer. Ministers took some admin support from their department and I guess they would have had secretaries from their electorate offices. That was it. I don’t think there were ANY staffers whose loyalty wasn’t formally with the Departments. Quite a good system in some respects. Lousy in others of course!

Ken Lovell
14 years ago

There was an excellent piece in Daily Kos the other day with a related theme http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2007/6/9/181441/2008. It was sparked by the presidential appeal of Fred Thompson, on the grounds that he’s acted the part of one so impressively on television.

I’m afraid I can’t see any grounds for optimism that anything will change. The consequences are that the quality of government gets worse and worse, because sensible long-term planning is overlooked in the endless chase for political ratings – thus the virtually continuous obsession with the polls.

Sooner or later a national emergency of some kind might jolt the nation into demanding more effective government. It’s unlikely to be a change that improves democratic accountability but then again there’s not much of that under the current system, is there?

At least we can be consoled by Jc’s assurance that the quality of entertainment on offer will improve … I do wish it would hurry up though.

Jc
Jc
14 years ago

Ken L

Perhaps you think we ought to go back to the time we had three channels. That was before 10 got a license. Oh and it was a time when there was no such thing as the web…not even the US DoD.

Ken Lovell
14 years ago

Actually I miss the days when the wireless was king … Jason and the Argonauts, 2GB’s wonderful hour of serials every night, The Goons, Around the Horne … and a stimulating game of euchre before bed-time. You young whippersnappers don’t know what entertainment is (*pulls on fawn cardigan and sulks*).

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derrida derider
derrida derider
14 years ago

Euchre? Euchre?
You clearly had a disgustingly indulgent childhood. We played crib.

Mind you, I do remember being allowed to stay up till 8.30 with a hot Milo to listen to “Life with Dexter”.

Link
14 years ago

Jc says,

“I think the choice we have these days is fantastic. You can avoid the trailer trash like Paris Hilton stories simply by going to serious information networks that would avoid that sort of thing. NYTimes, Pink and White Times, Guardian, Wash Post.”

Theres is no reason to feel bad about our present choices as we now have the best the world has to offer along with the worst. We can avoid the trash.
I want what he’s on.

(I want what he’s on).

On the other hand, this is also true (ish).

“Im afraid I cant see any grounds for optimism that anything will change. The consequences are that the quality of government gets worse and worse, because sensible long-term planning is overlooked in the endless chase for political ratings – thus the virtually continuous obsession with the polls.”

The optimist vs the pessimist?

I think we really deserve to know what came first. I’m thinking it was probably a synchronous thing, but I’m hedging my bets towards the chicken as a sort of morphed and slightly constipated lizard with who went on to grow feathers, and in an ice-age perhaps produced an egg.

Both the press-mind and the political mind have a tendency for wickedness. Not so much a chicken/egg scenario as the comingling of a like-mindedness for guts and glory.

Link
14 years ago

(clearly) I miss the preview button and all the fancy typeface options.

Roger Migently
14 years ago

Steven Poole on his Unspeak blog in a post titled “Aspirational goals” has a nice, relevant piece which includes this:

Tony Still here? Blair criticized the media, calling it a feral beast. Evidently he would prefer it to be a tame beast, docile and obedient as, perhaps, when it swallowed the drugged meat of Saddam can launch a bioweapon attack in 45 minutes and so forth. Happy days they were, just before the war. That the media has since descended into what Blair decries as cynicism is, of course, a terrible injustice that hurts all of society and is spoiling his legacy.

Stephen Bounds
Stephen Bounds
14 years ago

Club Troppo ate my earlier post for some reason, so I’ll try again:

It’s not the chicken or the egg, Ken. To stretch a metaphor, it’s the farmer — that is, “we the people”.

Both the media and politicians react to what sells to the public. If the public demanded better standards of political discourse, we’d get it.

With the Curtin and Chifley examples given by Geoff, you have to ask: why would they be a problem today? It’s not media scrutiny per se that’s the issue, but more that the public hold politicians to impossible standards, and deny them the right to human foibles.

Surely the important yardstick for a politician is whether they improve our lives and our society, not whether they like to drink alcohol or enjoy a morally questionable personal life?

While the media certainly have a role to play in educating the public, they can’t instill a respect for politicians — that can only be changed in the non-profit-driven world of our schools and universities.

Unfortunately, ignorance breeds more ignorance and I can’t see how we’ll ever convince the general population, especially in Australia, that politicians are an essential part of what makes democracies work.

Andrew Bartlett
14 years ago

This topic merits a longer comment than I have time for at the moment. However, I’d agree with Ken’s suggestion that there has been a “deterioration in the level of practical co-operation and civility between opposing political parties”. Which isn’t to mean that there’s no civility at all around – there’s still a fair amount, but a lot of it is surface civility, rather than ‘practical’ civility. I don’t sense as much respect across the divides as one might expect People still say the design/size of the new Parliament House compared to the old had a big effect on this. Although that was before my time (everyone moved to the new house in 1988, I only started out working with Senators in 1990), I’m sure this played a role up to a point for a while, but I’m also sure there’s plenty more reason than this.

It’s probably also a lot to do with the more managerialist approach to politics and the more formulaic approach to day to day message politics. It’s easier to cooperate and have civil respect when you’re genuinely engaging in a contest of ideas. When you’re really just slipping around wrestling in a bullpit of bullshit, while smoke machines are pumping away from all sides and the commentators are more interested in who’s got the best moves (or who says who’s got the best moves) rather than what the consequences are to the real world, practical cooperation is all a bit meaningless, even when you have lots of common ground. Indeed, the more common ground you really have, the more danergous it might be to be seen to be cooperating, because then people might cotton on that most of that frenzied movement and action in the arena in amongst the smoke and mirrors is just bullshit – a bit like world chamionship wrestling really.

(Of course, I use the term ‘bullshit’ as it is deployed by learned philosophers of high esteem, not just as a common crudity.