Only The Sangfroid

Mark is of fair average intelligence, who is neither perverse, nor morbid or suspicious of mind, nor avid for scandal. He does live in an ivory tower.

These are his draft thoughts…

Sometimes love is not enough and the road gets tough, I don’t know why… How to improve political debates

There are a lot of Australian hot takes about the US Presidential debate.   There is no good reason for the vast majority of them to exist.  We now have access to some of the finest hot takes directly from the US — hot takes that are sensitive to the nuances and details of the US electoral system that are completely alien to us here in Australia.  When it comes to US politics, hide Australian threads, ignore Australian posts, and do not reply to Australian posters.

What we can reflect on — and, indeed, should reflect on — is how we can improve political debate in Australia so that we do not end up with the shitshow that is the United States.  To answer that question, we need a really crisp idea of precisely what it is that we want from our political system and our political media.

For long-time readers of this blog, this next section is going to be extremely strange: I think most criticism of Australian political journalism is pure noise.  I know, I know!  Here I am, years on end, stating point blank that journalists aren’t experts in anything, routinely make errors, and can’t be trusted with the sort of powers, freedoms, and rents that they’re seeking… and yet I think most criticism of Australian political journalism is noise.  What gives?

Because we do not have a really crisp idea of what we want from our political system and political media, public discussion about them turns more on the political persuasion of the critic than on any deep theory.  Criticisms of Murdoch’s media empire, for example, routinely reflects the critics’ disagreement with the political view expressed rather than whether or not the media is presenting good political content.

And we know this is true because whenever left wing journalists/columnists/content creators use exactly the same techniques as News Corp, the critics think it’s fair game.  The attacks on Rachel Baxendale, for example, are nothing short of unhinged.  There are parody accounts making overtly sexualised abusive comments about her.  The extremely weak tea political views coming from Friendly Jordies is another case in point: his entire schtick is complaining that the mainstream media isn’t covering major stories that he only knows about because he saw them in the mainstream media.  There is a clear level of falseness and artificiality about the criticisms levelled at political journalists.

So what do we want?  And now I return to my hymn sheet: we need a media that can show us the range of reasonable, rational views on an issue in a way that allows people to better articulate their own views.

Why don’t we have that?  The incentives are all wrong.  Cultivating a garden of healthy, diverse ideas is difficult and intellectually demanding.  Hosting a shitfight where contestants fling as much crap at each other is easy.  Challenging an audience to think more critically about an issue is boring and doesn’t get clicks.  Repeating an audience’s views back to itself, on the other hand, makes the audience feel smart; airing the most unhinged, unreasonable takes gets attention.

So what to do about it?  First, we need more ‘John the Baptist’ types of political pundits: the people who are not running for election, who are not themselves ‘party men’, but who can articulate the general political viewpoint without being partisan.  There are too many pundits who have clear links or close ties to particular political parties, forcing them to rah-rah the party rather than champion the political theory.

Why do we need them?  Because these are the people who should be able to have constructive, engaged discussions in a way that shows that two equally reasonable, equally moral people are capable of disagreeing with each other in a productive way.  At the moment, political disagreement causes people to shut down.  They never see healthy discussions.  There are no exemplars to emulate.

Second, we need more ‘pre-trial procedure’ in political debate.  Political disagreement should not be a result of disagreement about facts and, yet, that is routinely what we see.  Instead, we need debates that start from shared facts and build disagreement about values and priorities.

It is scary how often pundits — particularly on current affairs chat shows — respond to questions with completely unsourced assertions of fact.  A recent episode of The Drum has a pundit making a claim about party donations that was easily disproven, but the false claim had been spread nationwide by the time the pundit corrected themselves on social media.  Q&A is often rife with this: a guest will assert something wild, and the audience has no way to know, in the moment, whether the assertion is correct or not.

Third, we need more focus on why we do things in the way that we do them.  Is there any utility at all to press conferences where journalists are exposed to complex information and then, on foot, try to pose questions in reply?  Ideally, a press conference is about journalists checking that they understand the material presented, asking questions to ensure that they convey the information accurately and comprehensively.  But that means standing in a highly competitive environment and admitting that you might not fully understand what’s been said.  So, instead, you get questions that were prepared earlier that have marginal relevance to the information just provided.  It is absolutely appalling that highly complex legal information about the health directions, for example, is filtered through journalists instead of published clearly by the government in the first instance.

All it takes are a few news producers and a few content makers to tweak the way they do things in order to generate a new political culture in Australia.


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