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Stuck on the spin cycle

By Bill Calcutt - posted Friday, 16 August 2013

In previous OLO articles I have observed that a ubiquitous social media and the pace and immediacy of a 24 hour media cycle can challenge the community's capacity to absorb and comprehend a torrent of often complex and contradictory information. In such an information-rich environment it may be difficult for the community to develop a sense of perspective or distinguish issues of real national importance.

Public issues can emerge and disappear so quickly there is little time for analysis of meaning or determination of the facts.

Given the competition for consumer attention from diverse sources the pressures on the commercial media to project simple but dramatic headlines that can cut through the clamouring information 'noise' can be overwhelming. Struggling to retain readership and differentiate their product, the commercial media's reporting of issues has become increasingly lurid and sensational. In such a highly competitive environment media outlets race to create the next great controversy or scandal, moving on once they have bullied some sort of official or personal response.


Some sectors of the media have largely discarded objective reporting for subjective opinion, with the associated coverage often being superficial, exaggerated or designed to engender an emotional reaction. Such coverage can depict public affairs in Australia as being in a constant state of crisis, not unlike a TV 'soap opera'.

The response of the community to the increased complexity and uncertainty of a sometimes chaotic and often overwhelming information stream has varied widely. Some have turned to media 'interpreters' who can simplify issues and reassure listeners about the essential truth of 'common sense'. Others have become enmeshed in the day-to-day drama played out in the mainstream media, with their 'reality' changing constantly as the story evolves. Others have disengaged from public affairs entirely to focus primarily on maintaining personal relationships and networks. Many are shocked at the vicious and intolerant abuse that is often expressed (usually anonymously) through online blogs and forums.

These technology-enabled changes have had a profound effect on the conduct of politics in Australia, where elected representatives have traditionally relied on established media channels to communicate with the electorate. The pressure on politicians to package their messages in simple sound-grabs, to respond immediately and credibly to real-time events, and to avoid making mistakes, is enormous. Weekly opinion polls place unrelenting pressure on elected representatives, reinforcing the immediacy of the political conflict. Under such intense media scrutiny Australian politics has developed an overwhelmingly defensive and reactive dimension, with elected representatives routinely resorting to obfuscation and rationalisation.

The intensity of this environment has broken down long-established political norms. An acrimonious, bitter and polarised political contest has become more individualised, with antagonists increasingly resorting to personal denigration. Debate often degenerates into puerile and exaggerated invective over the most trivial matters, with the relentless pettiness feeding growing community cynicism. Constant questioning of the mandate and legitimacy of political representation has increased community uncertainty and eroded respect for both politicians and democratic institutions. For some in the community it seems that national leadership and moral authority have been divorced from the exercise of political power.

For citizens who are engaged with political processes and concerned about national issues the degradation of public discourse in Australia is viewed with dismay. The apparent inability (or reluctance) of Australia's current political representatives to genuinely engage with major national and global challenges in the 21st century in a sophisticated, principled and transparent manner is inexplicable. While Australia is a young and evolving nation it has a history as a robust democracy with a consistently sceptical and discerning electorate. The absence of a contemporary and coherent narrative on Australia's place and future as a prosperous and humane nation only serves to reinforce the perception of Australia's current political culture as reactive, shallow and parochial.

The ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus observed that truth is the first casualty of war, and it seems this axiom applies to Australia's contemporary political conflict. One of the more perplexing characteristics of the current political environment is the willingness of representatives to resort to rhetoric and propaganda (spin) in order to avoid accountability and shape community sentiment. The tendency towards expediency exploded after 9/11 when political leaders decided that the severity of the threat of international terrorism justified a militaristic response, and dubious intelligence was subsequently used to justify the invasion of Iraq.


In the decade since 9/11 political leaders have continued to assert simplistic and absolutist positions on a range of increasingly complex social, economic and environmental issues, effectively treating the electorate with contempt. Elections are now contested on whose version of 'reality' is most credible or appealing.

Arguably the most extreme of these positions involves Australia's policies towards and cruel treatment of people seeking asylum here by boat. Despite the relatively small numbers and limited social and economic impacts the issue has assumed huge political dimensions in Australia. History will show that our disproportionate response has sullied our international reputation as a civilised, humane and generous nation, and left many Australians feeling ashamed and politically impotent.

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About the Author

Bill Calcutt worked in a range of intelligence roles in the Australian Security Intelligence Organization and the National Crime Authority from the early 1970s till the mid 1990s.

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