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Tuesday, 15 September 2015

A "febrile" media culture or radical transparency?

In his final speech as prime minister today, Tony Abbott ran through his party's accomplishments under his leadership and it was a short list. Some of the achievements are hardly ones you'd want to be crowing about in ten years' time, furthermore. But it was what he said about the media that struck me.

He was vitriolic. Via the proxy of the media Abbott attacked all of his detractors in the country - from Opposition politicians to heads of NGOs, from heads of statutory authorities to public figures generally, and from journalists to people living down the street from you minding their own business right now - by attacking the media. "Febrile" is an epithet that suggests that something is sick and diseased, and might in the blink of an eye be set in opposition to something else that is healthy and whole. Like Abbott's party itself, presumably.

Hardly. And attacking the media anyway is a bit pointless. The media publishes things that people want to read. In this connected world journalists and the managers who work in media companies know more accurately than ever before which stories people are reading, and which stories they want to read. A lot of a media companies' income, in addition, comes from mouseclicks and taps on portable devices. The more clicks, the more dollars the media company earns. This is the neoliberal world Abbott's supporters have devised to do business in, and this is the environment all politicians must survive in. Getting angry at the media, for a politician, is like the proverbial old man shouting at a cloud. A bad workman, as they say ...

But the thing is that the whole relationship between the public and politicians has changed due to the ever-on nature of the public sphere, enabled through social media. There is nowhere to hide any more once the soundbite has been launched into the ether. If there is any dissimulation, or plain treachery, or just day-to-day spin, you will be found out. That then will cause a wave of opinion to start in cyberspace and this will lead journalists to find ways to satisfy the appetite thus kindled. If there is a question asked anywhere in the country, even in the quietest bedroom behind the most securely locked door, everyone can now read it. And new influencers arise all the time to replace those who have served out their effective term in the public arena.

Tony Abbott belongs to a different time, and it will be interesting to see if Malcolm Turnbull, once he is sworn in as prime minister, will be better able to cope with the unique stresses and opportunities of this new media environment. Certainly, he seems to be well connected, the type of guy who might interrupt a press conference to answer an SMS on his smartphone. We'll see. In the meantime, it's still a year until the next election: more than enough time for Turnbull to hang himself several times over. Let the games begin ... 

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