“When social significance is attributed only to what is immediate, and to what will be immediate immediately afterwards – always replacing another identical immediacy – it can be seen that the uses of the media guarantee a kind of eternity of noisy insignificance.”
– Guy Debord, Comments on Society of the Spectacle, 1987
When Julia Gillard delivered what was her best and most substantial policy speech as prime minister recently – one in which she also announced the date for the federal election – the media’s focus was on her new “hipster spectacles”.
Coming a close second for attention was a manufactured controversy around the fact that her chosen election date of September 14 coincided with an obscure (to most Australians) Jewish holiday. That elections always are held on the Jewish Sabbath, necessitating pre-poll votes by that community, was lost in the noisy instant outrage.
As tasteful, considered and non-partisan as ever, News Ltd’s online publication decided to combine these two non-stories. Even better, it managed to choose an image suggesting “Hipster Julia with four eyes on the future” had delivered a ‘Sieg Heil’ to Jewish voters (see image below).
In the days after the speech and election announcement, even the serious media managed to avoid discussion of any of the substance of her address, instead whinging about her calling “the longest election campaign on record” (ignoring the fact that the country had been in a virtual non-stop campaign since the last election) or indulging in tiresome insider musing on what it all meant tactically.
Keeping the pre-ordained narrative of government-in-chaos rolling along was the dramatic arrest in the ensuing days of former Labor MP Craig Thomson. In this case, the convenient tipping off of the media (by unknown law enforcement/political figures) had sinister echoes of the unhealthy cosiness between police and journalists exposed by the UK phone hacking scandal. There looked to be a good story there, but oddly enough, no-one in the mainstream appeared to want to pursue it. (For insight, see this investigation).
But wait, there was more. The resignations of cabinet ministers Chris Evans and Nicola Roxon – despite their plans being known by the PM last year – was taken as further evidence of the government campaign falling apart at the first hurdle. You see it’s easy. You just take random events and stitch them together into a story that serves the interests of your corporate masters.
Chipping in from the sidelines and squaring the circle (or should that be swatstika) on the Third Reich references was a perpetually excited opposition politician, who felt that we were witnessing a Downfall moment. He later retracted the comment….well sort of.
By the start of the new week, the red cordial brigade had switched its attention to Newspoll, which in press gallery circles is treated like the Delphi oracle, such is its presumed proximity to the political deities. And, of course, Newspoll’s findings of a savage swing against the government was treated with due reverence, cementing as it did the chosen narrative. Never mind that weeks before – during the summer lull – it had the parties at virtual neck and neck. You pick and choose what suits the story.
Suffice to say, it was a smorgasbord of outrages that kept frenzied fingers typing in the nation’s newsrooms, in all service of the spectacle. Throw in other recent momentous events like Gillard’s partner making an off-colour “gaffe” about prostate exams and the driving record of the PM’s chosen Senate representative for the Northern Territory and it all felt suitably armageddon-ish. Which is what you want, really.
But irrespective of your political allegiances, just reflect for a moment. How much of this rolling tapestry of meaningless means anything to you? As much as these 24-hour outrages fill news bulletins and occupy the space between the ads in tomorrow’s fish-and-chip wrappers, what is the impact on you and or your family of Julia’s new specs, or the fact the election is being held on Yom Kippur or the confected arrest of a former MP on charges of charging ice creams to his expense account or the inevitable reshuffling of the ministry?
Now contemplate some of the issues raised in the PM’s policy speech – the impact on your retirement income of the biggest financial crisis since the 1930s, the end of ever rising house prices, the challenges of parenting AND caring for aging parents, the consequences of climate change and extreme weather events, the impact of a structurally higher Australian dollar on the industries where many of us work, the need to find a new driver of growth after the mining boom, the challenge of an aging population and its call on health services, the need to ensure adequately funded public education so children are not disadvantaged because of their parents’ lack of means, the structural shift lower in federal budget revenue and how we might fund future calls on the public purse….
Whoever wins the election this year, these policy challenges are not going to go away. Against that background, the role of the media should be to challenge politicians of all sides about how they will meet them, how they will fund them and what their long-term vision for the nation is – beyond the empty platitudes of mateship and the kitsch Australiana that lazy politicians lean on.
These big questions are what real politics is about. They are hard issues and they resist neat right-left, white hat-black hat analysis. Perhaps that’s why our media focuses instead on ephemeral noise, 5-minute outrages, constant polling and clever spin. It’s easy, it’s cheap and it feeds the spectacle. Because reality is so much harder to deal with. Debord:
” In societies where modern conditions of productions prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into representation. The images detached from every aspect of life fuse in a common stream in which the unity of this life can no longer be re-established. Reality considered partially unfolds, in its own general unity as a pseudo-world apart, an object of mere contemplation . . . The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.”
- Bernard Keane, ”Chaos’: Or How to See the World Like a Political Journalist’, Crikey
- Rob Burgess, ‘Gillard’s Ghost of Chaos Past’, Business Spectator
- Martin McKenzie-Murray, ‘Politicians and Journalists in Lockstep in March of Idiocy’, SMH