It started with one of The Drum‘s hosts complaining that it was hard to find conservatives to appear on the ABC. Dr Julia Baird listed some names of people they’d approached who had declined: Miranda Devine, Rita Panahi, Chris Kenny… all people who already have a prominent platform to voice their opinions. Baird later claimed that the problem was ‘silos’:
It’s incredibly frustrating to witness silos of ideas calcify in Australia. But when conservative advocates, thinkers, pundits and policy analysts like those from the IPA do appear on the show, Twitter automatically erupts with abuse – irrespective of what they actually say.
And it ended with Greg Jericho using the image of a ‘virus’ to describe conservative thought:
It has led to the point where there are barely any conservative commentators worth reading or listening to. It’s not that there are no intelligent conservative thinkers, but the lunacy of climate change denial and distrust of expertise has so infected the conservative media that prominence is now almost exclusively given to those for whom a worldwide conspiracy is more believable than reports by multiple universities and public agencies.
As a conservative, I find these contributions to public debate unhelpful. They don’t engage critically with the underlying problems of public debate that affect both ‘sides’ of politics, and they encourage smug, centrist responses: conservative thought is calcified and diseased.
And what it strangest of all is that Baird and Jericho both have platforms where they could make public debate better. In smaller ways, we can all make debate better. But we don’t and we need to know why.
At its most basic, the proposal is simple: instead of drawing any attention to the worst of public debate, broadcast something better instead. Before quote-tweeting another of Mark Latham’s imbecilic assaults on public discourse, why not just retweet a variety of Indigenous accounts instead? We keep rewarding attention-seekers with more attention for reasons that baffle me. Is it that we think that this time — this time! — they will feel shame for what they’ve said? No good comes from drawing attention to them, so why do it?
When you amplify these voices, you encourage the perception that they are ‘mainstream’ conservative opinions. And they’re not. Talk to people who aren’t engaged with Twitter and you find very few people who know who Andrew Bolt is. Talk through any of his ideas with traditionally conservative voters and you see how rarely you’ll find strong agreement with his opinions. Most people have more important issues to worry about than whatever has upset Bolt this morning. Ackerman, Devine, Albrechtsen, Kenny. Nobody’s heard of them. And yet we want to inflate their importance within the media bubble more? Why?
Why would more reasonable conservatives go on The Drum? It’s not a forum for considered, thoughtful discussion. It’s a forum for showboaters like Gray Connolly to vent thought bubbles about topics they have no idea about. The Drum is about 25 minutes long and usually covers about three subjects. That’s a bit over eight minutes per subject. It then has four people talking. What sort of discussion between four people can happen in eight minutes? A typical episode jumps from the economy, to national security, and then to some political theatre. What group of four people can have an insightful grasp of the breadth of topics such that they could give a quality 2 minutes worth of content?
And then you get to Baird’s point: even if you are expert enough in the wide span of topics and can nail a point accurately, insightfully, and thoughtfully in 2 minutes, you’re exposed to the #auspol cranks.
It’s a game which rewards those who are impervious to criticism, who can dart from topic to topic to drop hot takes that cause a stir, and who can get attention. Structurally, there is a problem with commentary.
We can frame it differently again: what is the purpose of commentary? My (idyllic) view is that commentary is supposed to help shape the language that we use to interrogate political concepts. I think that (good) opinion writing is essential to democracy. But, descriptively, that’s not its purpose at all. Media outlets measure engagement: the best commentary is that which is shared and reshared and discussed and clicked. Q&A was notorious for setting up contrived controversies just so it could recycle the content for spin off stories. And if the latter view outweighs the idyllic view, you incentivise those who will create that kind of explosive, controversial, contrarian content rather than those who will advance a discussion in a constructive way.
Because the most important part of the discussion that Baird and Jericho missed was exactly the same problem faces the Left. Way too much airtime is given to vapid, gormless nitwits who can squawk soundbites on any and every topic. The desire to get more ‘STEM’ voices on The Drum now has medical researchers and physicists talking utter, utter nonsense about politics, but it flies because they mouth mantras of the centre-left to appease the audience.
But at least with the trollumnist right we can respond more effectively. When you’re outraged by something, when you see something that is offensive, when you read something that is designed to provoke anger, find the voices that get routinely overlooked by the media and retweet those instead. Amplify the good to drown out the bad.