Journalists, like commentators sitting cosily in their freebie box seats at the tennis, are so busy praising Abbott's passing shots on asylum seekers or condemning Gillard's clumsy backhand on the Malaysian solution that they cannot see that global issues such as the unregulated mass movement of people across borders, man-made climate change and systemic issues in financial markets are at a level of complexity beyond the ability of mere individual states to resolve.
Meanwhile, remaining political tragics still desultorily watching the on-court action from the cheap seats are appalled at the lazy baseline play of the supposed contenders - each seemingly waiting for the other to make a mistake. It is political strategy as an end in itself - the strokeplay serving purely to give the media insiders something to fill the white spaces between their proprietors' ads and the rest of us to blog and tweet about.
The whole dismal spectacle seems to be perpetuated by lazy assumptions among the commentariat that "the people" are too stupid to understand they're being had when in fact the real problem is the narrow framing and the view of politics as contest of tacticians in the daily news cycle. New York journalism professor Jay Rosen, a recent visitor to our shores, nails the confected cynicism of the political press as 'the cult of savviness':
Journalists would argue, with some justification, that their savviness is like a suit of armour designed to protect them from the dispiriting circus they report on and allowing them to keep a sort of distance from their subjects. But perhaps the better approach is to remove themselves even further from the day-to-day noise so they can see the underlying signal. And to do that they need to read and observe a little more widely than the confines of a few hundred politicians, staffers and lobbyists in Canberra."In politics, our journalists believe, it is better to be savvy than it is to be honest or correct on the facts. It’s better to be savvy than it is to be just, good, fair, decent, strictly lawful, civilized, sincere, thoughtful or humane," Rosen said. "Savviness is what journalists admire in others. Savvy is what they themselves dearly wish to be. (And to be unsavvy is far worse than being wrong.) Savviness is that quality of being shrewd, practical, hyper-informed, perceptive, ironic, “with it,” and unsentimental in all things political. And what is the truest mark of savviness? Winning, of course! Or knowing who the winners are."
The fact is the disenchantment with mass party politics and the media noise machine that focuses on ephemera and political tactics at the expense of substance is a phenomenon in all the western liberal democracies. The problem is well documented in the US, where critics such as Rosen lambast fake 'neutrality' and he said-she said journalism that treats all claims on issues of public interest - no matter how divorced from reality - as equally valid. It is evident in the UK, where Guardian journalist Nick Davies has written about 'Flat Earth News', in which journalists are reduced to processors of second-hand material, much of it designed to promote the political and commercial interests of those who are paid to provide it.
This suggests the problem is the system itself, and not the people. Many of the suspected causes have been canvassed on this blog in the past year - the increasing speed of the news cycle, the death of the business model supporting quality journalism, the rising demand for content across multiple media as resources shrink and the growing power of the public relations and spin-doctoring industry. So the media is busted, the conventional political machinery doesn't work anymore and nobody is listening to the politicians.
Offering a fresh perspective is former UK diplomat Carne Ross, who in his book 'The Leaderless Revolution: How Ordinary People Can Take Power and Change Politics in the 21st Century' has proposed a networked non-violent "anarchism" to restore a sense of agency to voters in liberal democracies who have lost faith in national political leaders to resolve (and media to accurately report on) increasingly complex global problems. Ross, who quit the Foreign Office in disgust at the Iraq war, says established political institutions - and the media who report on them - have reached a cul-de-sac of powerlessness where they go through the motions, knowing the problems we face (climate change, terrorism, global financial collapse) are too complex and multi-faceted for any nation state to solve on its own - and where real power rests with markets, transnational corporations, cartels and criminal gangs.
"I actually have come to believe that the condition of leaderlessness is an essential condition of stability," Ross told the London School of Economics. "The heroic model of leadership that we have is part of the problem. We attribute to these people qualities that they do not have and that no human can have - the ability to interpret this extraordinarily complicated world and make rational, good decisions about it. No centralising authority is capable of it. The best people to understand it are those that are living it - and that means ourselves."So for all the on-court histrionics, the game really has moved on. The domestic political debate is a shadow play that generates a torrent of commentary and a paucity of consequence. Our leaders are swinging their rackets at nothing in particular and with little purpose other than drawing the applause from a thinning crowd of "savvy" journalists and political tragics living under the illusion that what they do makes any difference whatsoever.