- Former Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner has sparked a bitter storm within the Labor Party after publishing a tell-all book that exposes the inner manoeuvrings of the final days of the Rudd government.
- Prime Minister Julia Gillard has attempted to laugh off revelations by former Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner of her role in the Rudd government dumping its Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.
- Federal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has seized upon revelations of extreme disunity with the former Rudd Labor government from former Finance Minister Lindsey Tanner in a tell-all book.
- The minority Labor government is hanging by a thread after frank admissions by former Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner in his new book revealed still festering divisions in the ALP.
You don't have to be a genius to work out how the news headlines might have gone if Lindsay Tanner had used his book 'Sideshow' and the surrounding media interviews to do a 'Latham' and round on the party that had kept him in politics for two decades.
But quite wisely, realising from bitter experience how the media would revel in a Labor Party catfight, Tanner has chosen instead to focus on the wider theme of how our politics got to become so busted. And he has aimed the bulk of his criticism at a media that in recent years has been like a child with ADHD, running around in a raspberry cordial-fuelled frenzy seeking outrage and excitement at every turn and unable to focus on any one thing for more than a few moments.
Given Tanner's silence since retiring at the last election, it wasn't surprising or indeed illegitimate that in interviews about his book, television journalists like Leigh Sales on the ABC or David Speers on Sky should seek to focus on the former minister's senior role in the last government and the circumstances that led to Rudd's controversial dumping.
But once it quickly became clear that it was not his intention to rake over those coals, the media's response turned rather indignant. Tanner was “missing the point” or burying the lead or, more accurately, simply not telling the story that the media wanted to hear. And when respected bloggers like Grog’s Gamut pointed out that journalists were rather proving Tanner’s very point about treating politics as a sideshow, some mainstream media commentators became characteristically defensive. An exception, once again, was the always perceptive Laura Tingle in the AFR, who noted in Saturday's paper (subscriber) that initial reports of Tanner's interviews almost universally misreported him.
As a former journalist, I can understand that had Tanner tipped a bucket on Gillard, it would have been a story. But he didn’t and it was very clear that he wouldn’t because the point his book was making was that the media thrives most in a climate in which the focus is all on the game of politics, not the substance. Without having a fully formed idea about it, reporters implicity understand their job is about entrapping politicians – even when they are no longer politicians - into rare outbursts of frankness, only to accuse them then of making “gaffes”. Equally, they know that the game works best when they demand that politicians “rule in or rule out” certain causes of action. And when the hapless policymaker succumbs to the inevitable and changes course, they accuse them of a “backflip” or “lying to the Australian people”.
Some in the media are saying it has always been that way, but I strongly disagree. The focus on the fight itself or behind-doors politics has become ever more dominant in recent years. That can be explained partly by the growing sophistication of the spin doctors (usually former journalists who supply talking points to their charges and tell them to stay on message), partly by the worsening economics of the media (fewer journos, deteriorating standards of training) and partly by a gradual blurring of the distinction between journalism and entertainment (the job is now almost entirely about putting bums on seats, eyes on ads and ratings). So it's cheap vaudeville or Punch and Judy. Here comes the man with the black hat. Boooo!!
Highlighting that his agenda in Sideshow is not a partisan one or a lame defence of politicians, Tanner, in an interview with former Age editor Andrew Jaspan, expressed sympathy with the position that his arch political opponent Tony Abbott was put in ahead of the last election over Work Choices:
Yes you can, at one level, blame individual politicians and say you shouldn’t have done this or you should have been more brave, or you should have said this, but for example when you see the thrashing around that Tony Abbott had to go through on industrial relations at the commencement of the campaign in order to ensure that he wasn’t under siege about Work Choices from the media for the whole campaign, and that he had to go to the absurd lengths of promising absolutely not one tiny bit of change to industrial relations law for any reason full stop, then you see where the silliness is coming from.
So, it is most clearly a game. The only wonder is that the press gallery journalists themselves cannot see their agency in it. And they cannot see that the much bigger story here is the one that Tanner is alluding to – the increasingly short-termist and trivial nature of reporting on politics, the focus on entertainment and fluff and the absence of any real hard analysis (the type the modern reporter literally does not have time for) of the underlying policy and the difficult choices involved. Ultimately, it is highly ironic - or tragic - that the scrutiny the media rightly seeks to apply to every other institution it seems unable or unwilling to apply to itself.
Is it any wonder, then, that politicians are reluctant to tell people the truth – the truth, for instance, that electricity prices are going to up regardless, that our tax system rewards property speculation, that a budget surplus is not an end in itself, that we are in Afghanistan purely because our alliance with the US requires us to be and that we cannot afford the middle class welfare that has built up under successive governments.
To quote that Jack Nicholson movie, the entire politico-media edifice has decided that the public can’t handle the truth. And we are all the worse off as a result.
It's a great story. But who is going to tell it?
(Further reading: Journalism academic Jason Wilson finds Tanner's treatise disappointing)