On a fantastic episode of South Park Eric Cartman was kidnapped by a deranged serial killer, tied to a chair and (in the true fashion of Thomas Harris) is forced to watch the murderer’s slideshow of his vacation experiences. In painful desperation, Cartman screams ‘Oh God. I am so bored somebody help me’!
Now think back to how you felt watching the great debate between Turnbull and Shorten or any speech you hear by the regular attendees on Q&A. You’re not buoyed with excitement, are you? If you want to be entertained sadly you need to watch the Trump vs. Hilary debate. Well, 50 per cent of it anyway.
Now, politicians deal in complicated problems. There’s little that they can reasonably answer with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. But obfuscation is the name of the new game. Commitments are replaced by aspirations. Every promise is conditional. Anything said can be unsaid. Why settle for a ten 10-word answer when you can run out the clock.
When you ask why this is so, one explanation comes to mind. Politicians are terrified of the ultra-specific questioning flung at them by (usually ABC) interviewers. These excruciating attempts to pin down politicians for all time with their answers with absolute categorical commitments are a blight on intelligent thought.
The most pitiful example of this is the question of leadership. Interviewers somehow think the public will be enthralled when some minister, shadow minister or former leader refuses to rule out any conceivable situation where they may challenge for the top job.
And this is populist garbage. Sarah Ferguson, Leigh Sales and Tony Jones couldn’t care less who’s ruling in or out their future leadership ambitions. It just isn’t standard practice that someone explicitly states that they will contest a leadership ballot before the crunch. And they know that or at least their producers, who do all the actual work, do.
They invite on their victims, probably giving them the impression there will be a substantive discussion, you know like whether the government has an economic policy or whatever. Then once the gazelle is in the studio with the doors locked they can open fire. Hectoring them with all the usual, ‘will you stand’, ‘if he resigned’, ‘if so and so refuses to challenge will you put your name forward’.
My favourite is the linguistically challenged, ‘if you are drafted by your colleagues would you accept the leadership’? Well if you were drafted, doesn’t that entail that no one else was available or willing to do it? And for the sake of one’s party and electoral prospects isn’t it fairly inconceivable that someone would say ‘thanks but no thanks’. John Howard had no choice but to assume the Liberal leadership in 1995 because there was no one else. Bob Carr likewise had to become NSW Labor leader despite his own reluctance.
We’re probably not far off from a ‘journo’ (ugh!) asking ‘well if your leader kicked the bucket, then would you stand?’ Terrifying isn’t it?
And what about that incessant interruption that you see on Q&A and 7:30. That ‘sorry to interrupt’ is carefully designed, not to extract an answer, but to paint the guest as an avoider of questions and the interviewer as a fearless warrior for the truth. Please! This is brand reinforcement, pure and simple. The great news satire Frontline, was spot on when one of the reporters ambushed a dodgy lawyer at his home hoping he would slam the door in his face only to have the guy invite him in. ‘We want the guy on camera not answering the question’ said Martin Di Stasio. There’s nothing worse for journalists when the subject wants to cooperate.
In the UK, probably the only country with a political culture more irritating than our own, there is a germ of honesty to be found. If you can fight through the avalanche of drivel that gushes from the Blairites, the Cameroons and the EU fanatics. And if you can deftly sidestep the rivers of froth that emanate from the snarling mouths of the Corbynistas, the Scottish Nationalists and the Guardian, you may just traipse upon an aggressive up and comer, Jess Phillips. She has a bit of the Trump brashness in her which has given her a significant profile for a Labour MP just elected in 2015.
In a sit down with the likeable Owen Jones, Phillips, in response to some polite questions said if Corbyn began to damage Labour’s prospects (Ahem!) she ‘wouldn’t knife him in the back, I’d knife him in the front’. Jones later asked ‘Would you like to be leader one day?’ Phillips responded without any clever construction, ‘I am ambitious for the Labour Party and if I thought that me being the leader of the Labour Party would help more people like the Labour Party I would do that absolutely’.
Now there’s nothing newsworthy there. And leaving aside the threat to disembowel Jeremy Corbyn it’s not mean spirited. But I know what you’re thinking. Imagine if an ambitious backbencher down in Oz, announced their leadership intentions at a time of leadership instability. Tony Jones’ head would explode, Leigh Sales would be donning war paint and the Insiders crowd (which has all the representativeness of a Mississippi bridge club) would interrupt live coverage of the Queen’s funeral.
Pathetic isn’t it but sadly it is what our political ‘journos’ (ugh!) have reduced our otherwise fine democracy to.
And there are insidious consequences to all this. Non-responsive hyper-bland politics creates its equal and opposite effect. Trump and Hanson, both of whom are unfit to lead, have emerged as the confident, plain-speaking defenders of the ignored and maligned. It doesn’t matter what they’re promising, it is enough that they speak in regular language and give voice to the concerns of their voters.
Modern politicians in the Clinton, Cameron and Turnbull mould are bland, standardised, make no jokes, and show no humour. Bizarrely this hyper-risk avoidance is intended to be beneficial for the politician who engages in it. In reality, they are only avoiding the appearance of looking human. But their media strategists, rather like a doctor in the 1940s advising that Camel cigarettes were good for a patient’s health, must be advising them that the effects are not negative.
Christopher Hitchens said that the trick to Bill Clinton’s surviving scandals and indiscretions was the complete inability of his opponents to do him damage, ‘if he doesn’t hurt he doesn’t suffer’. The stock-standard politicians, who have been systematically weakened, cower from the first signs of political difficulty and problems that need attention keep getting postponed. But politics doesn’t stand still.
The present generation of (ugh!) ‘journos’ has created the lightweights it constantly beats up on, the side effect of which is the politically incorrect Trump’s and Hanson’s. Now that the by-products of their experiment have escaped the lab we can see how useless conventional political journalism has been at uncovering what is important to the voters. But that’s our problem, not theirs.