Friday, 12 October 2012

Clever consumers don't blame the supplier, they just take their coin elsewhere

Coalition MP Joe Hockey has a chuckle
in the House chamber.
You hear it all the time from ordinary Australians, even from people you know had a decent education and should know better. By God you hear it from the legions of syntactically-challenged trolls who flounce around the internet dropping their opinions with all the aplomb of rabbits in springtime who manure the verdant pasture with their stinking scat. Here's an example of the kind of unenlightened chagrin people sometimes bring up: why are politicians so pathetic? And it's not just politicians we denigrate. Yes, we make fun of them because we can, after all we're the boss of them. But people also tend to make fun of journalists, and denigrate them, because, well, because it's so damn easy to do. We've heard them a million times, the popularity rankings across common professions which place journalists and politicians right down there with used-car salesmen and lawyers. Dregs. Offal. Ordure.

But did you notice something? Yes, I said "we're the boss of them", and it's true. It's frankly stupid to denigrate a whole class of people who are elected to office by ordinary Australians. Politicians, as we know, study opinion polls assiduously, and take their cues from them. When to come on strong. When to retreat. And they read the stories that journalists write, and take other cues from there as well. They talk with constituents and listen carefully to what those people tell them. They watch TV and movies and read books, and pay attention to the popularity rankings and the profits and the reviews. Because it's the signals that we send them that determine how they conduct themselves. And it's the same with journalists, who are, like politicians, pretty smart people. It's a little unfair to criticise a journalist for something they write, especially in these days of instant feedback and accurate digital metrics, when the journalist is assiduously watching what stories are most copiously consumed by their readers. Again, they take their lead from the people who read their stuff.

If you want politicians to conduct themselves with more dignity, then applaud good behaviour and punish bad, give your vote to the dignified man rather than the hypocrite. Make that call to the radio shock jock and say your piece, telling him what you really want. Write that letter or make that comment on the online news story, and make it clear what kind of person you want to sit in the legislative chambers of Australia. And if you want journalists to write better stories that more objectively focus on the real issues rather than the day-to-day biffo and the personality competitions, then ignore those stories and pay attention to the stories that deliver what you say you want. Because I do really believe that we are the boss of the politicians, and I do really believe that we are the discerning customers that observant journalists try to please. If any of these people fail to do so, the fault lies with us. We're the ones who reward poor performance because we want it cheap and we want it quick and we want it now, and yes, please flatter me because, you can hardly blame me, it makes me feel so good (I've had a bad week).


David Horton said...

On the one hand, yes, of course you are right, but on the other, not so sure. It smacks of the age-old rationalisation "we are just giving the punters what they want", politicians who are "just representing their constituents".

Yet in practice they only do so if it suits their own ideology, party platform, discipline, interests of their donors, activity of lobby groups, media campaigns. A recent example is probably same sex marriage where opinion polls suggest majority of public in favour but most Labor politicians voted against and Liberals were not given a free vote.

In addition you have absolutely no say (unless you are a member of the Greens) in who is the candidate for each party at the election, and quite often you are faced with the choice only of "Right" and "Further Right" at the actual election.

So while in theory you could punish bad and reward good behaviour among politicians, in practice it isn't that easy.

Media behaviour also not easy to influence. The recent reaction to Alan Jones was refreshing but unique. And I bet even that won't have a lasting impact. If you want a morning newspaper to read on bus or train or over breakfast then again your choice, if you have one at all, is between Right and Far Right, between News Ltd and News Ltd facsimiles. If you want to get news from TV in morning or evening then again your choice these days (sadly) is limited to Tweedledum and Tweedledumber.

And finally the media isn't a passive supplier of goods swayed by its audience. Like Junk food, Junk journalism creates its own demand by clever use of fear campaigns, sex, intrusion into private lives, sex, whipping up outrage, sex, and so on. Comparing the media now with that of even 20 years ago shows how we have been moulded in the tabloid image.

There, feeling better? Great piece as always.

Matthew da Silva said...

After reading your comment, the only thing that I would add to my post is the presence of News Ltd in Australian journalism. (Sorry, but you have not convinced me with your arguments.) Unlike other proprietors, News Ltd's Rupert Murdoch is a commanding presence and one that causes his local executives and, by extension, his editors and journalists, to take a particular line on certain issues. Murdoch's reputation as a Right wing warrior seems, to me, to be deserved. Because of this influence, you can say that by burying its stake in the ground where it has done, News Ltd is operating to drag the entire media ecosystem toward the right. There's also the issue of 'vendetta journalism' that Julie Posetti has pointed out on her blog, J-Scribe, but this is fairly peripheral compared to the mechanism I allude to in my blog post.