Around this time of year - in the southern hemisphere summer - the so-called “silly season” arrives as reliably as bush fires and storm warnings. This is the period when little of substance is supposed to happen, meaning there is not much of import to report.
The silly season is conceived as a matter of supply and demand, a happy coincidence of the decline in the receptiveness of audiences for serious news and current affairs, and the drying up of its supply. People are meant to be too busy with seasonal shopping, carousing, cricket, and beach life to care much about the world beyond. They have effectively switched off and put up the “gone fishing” sign.
Happily, too, parliaments are in recess, and public and private bureaucracies are mainly on “light duties”, meaning that much of the staple diet of daily news is off the menu.
So, newspapers slim down and give much of the available space to “summer reading”, while broadcasters take to repeating favourite information and current affairs programs of the year and postponing news bulletins in favour of “live” sport.
At this time there are the usual syndicated set pieces - seasonal messages from queens, pontiffs and premiers, and pictures of fireworks and ebullient crowds - but only skeleton news crews to cover the rest.
The silly season exposes the industrialisation of the public sphere, and the illusion that the news is principally about what happens in the world, rather than what is recorded by major institutions as happening.
It reveals that the “down time” in newsworthy events is more a matter of collusion between the media, the state and commerce than a genuine absence of significant events that comprise news. Because the conventional newsmakers and news carriers are on vacation, the world - or, at least, the region - is somehow put on hold.
Yet that same world is stubbornly resistant to observing the roster rhythms of media, government and business. Nature might strike at inconvenient times, as in the case of the Newcastle earthquake on December 28, 1989 or the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.
A prominent citizen might die, like Kerry Packer on Boxing Day 2005. Or, in another part of the world, a dictator might be executed, as was Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania on Christmas Day, 1989, and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein on December 30, 2006. A coup might continue to unfold, as is currently happening in Fiji.
Indeed, bad news stories about unpopular government policies (such as industrial relations or nuclear power) or poor business performance (failed mergers or reduced profit warnings) may be quietly released in the hope that the hullabaloo will have died down by the time the media, pressure groups, and the populace have properly woken up.
When major broadcast news and current affairs programs, print and online media, are largely out to lunch or off the air, time and tide do not stand still. If the media are an essential service like power and water, they should not, metaphorically, reduce the voltage and the pressure.
They could take the opportunity to produce different types of news that are less wedded to organisations that dominate the media sphere throughout the rest of the year. Instead of approaching the “usual suspects” for comments, journalists, whose numbers (as well as those of other media workers) would be boosted by the extra seasonal “shift”, could diversify the range of people who speak in, and are covered by, the media. Different topics might be tackled that are less wedded to the daily tennis match pattern of politics and business.
This would, of course, be an extra cost to media organisations, but it would surely enrich the coverage of social, cultural and political affairs at a time when many people have more time to engage with them. Perhaps advertisers would see the benefit in fattening up the seasonal media goose, and governments would find value in year round coverage of public affairs, and provide additional resources for it.
Taking the silly out of the season wouldn’t be a denial of the right to a vacation, and reading and viewing would be no more compulsory than at other times of the year. But it would be a boon for those, even if only an interested minority, who still believe that on every living day more news is discarded than is ever reported. After all, history, to the inconvenience of the individuals and organisations deeply involved in news manufacture, never takes a holiday.