When “trust” and “honesty” become election themes we gain a compelling opportunity to discuss the general veracity of our political system, and the ways in which politicians are permitted to get away with lying. Unfortunately this discussion is always led by a holier-than-thou media: by media commentators who actually view themselves as being separate from politics.
But the media is a component of the political system - a sphere in which lies are perpetuated, opinion is extolled, images are emphasised, bias is manifest, and scandal and “media events” are most important.
Indeed, tabloid values imbue the media. Television conflates high and low cultures, blurs entertainment with politics, and facts with fiction. The Greens, it’s said, would force us all into vegetarianism and sell ecstasy to kids.
The ubiquity of television and reluctance of television viewers to look at the medium as more than a vehicle of entertainment has meant both politicians and journalists have had to alter the way they communicate with voters. Whether or not the worm appears on Channel 7 is significant, while for politicians there is an ever-increasing need to focus more on their images and personalities than on policy detail as sentiment continues to mean more than ideology. Politicians today perform for the cameras and attempt to engender a sense of trust in citizens. Honesty is not essential to a politician’s career, but being trusted is: “Trust me on the economy, even though I’ve been known to lie about certain things”.
And because politicians have become masterful at constructing images of integrity, journalists have had to find different angles from which to approach political news and hold politicians accountable. Journalists try to catch politicians unaware or provoke them into making off-the-cuff remarks. “Come on, Pete, admit that you’ll be Prime Minister before the end of a fourth term.” Such tactics undermine the print media’s history of quality journalism and the notion of the media as the fourth estate of democracy. The on-the-spot slip of the tongue is more important than attacking the promise not to introduce a GST, which, funnily enough, was introduced.
Even the most respected newspapers are now inclined to present analysis and opinion about how politicians are presenting themselves, instead of about what they are actually implementing. For instance, my paper of choice, The Age, never reports on a political story without placing beside it a piece of commentary by Michelle Grattan or Shaun Carney that pays homage to Howard’s Machiavellian skill (according to the media, this is something to be revered). The implementation of the GST we weren’t supposed to have becomes good politics, flawless tactics, but never what it is - a lie.
Moreover, not only has political reporting become a topic for interpretation but journalists are obsessed with personalities. It’s Mark versus John. Pete versus … hang, where is Simon Crean? Bob versus that guy from the Democrats. Broadsheets have adopted this approach in order to prevent their format becoming irrelevant; otherwise, all they would do is report what has already appeared on the television news the night before.
Consequently though, no publication is above reporting scandal and innuendo in this day and age, for these are the stories that focus on the individual. That Latham may or may not have had a buck’s night matters more than the stealth-like destruction of Medicare, and the fallacy of the advertising campaign telling us that Medicare has been strengthened. Media outlets clearly must believe that by exposing individuals they are going some way to ensure the political sphere is kept honest; but although major figures are scared of being caught in an extra-marital tryst, they’re certainly not scared of lying on policy.
As long as the media, in its present guise, continues to be the forum in which the debate about honesty in politics is played out, we won’t get honesty. That’s because such reliance is predicated on a simplistic notion of politics, which posits the media as outsiders looking in on the political process. The media, though, is inherently political. And there’s nothing new about this idea.
Consider the following. Citizens have never cast their vote based upon what they actually know about politics. They base their votes on what the media has chosen to tell them about politics and political figures. The picture that the media paints of politics is what politics is. If the media constructs politics so that:
- politics seems dishonest; and
- politicians have to constantly respond to questions that imply dishonesty and lacking integrity;
then as far as the masses are concerned, it is dishonest and vice versa.