Let’s ignore question time

Our politics is overly focused on process stories. For instance, I was watching the 7.30 Report (I think) on Monday night, and Melissa Clarke turned a story about the federal budget into one of political tactics and other filler. I’m not picking on Melissa here, she’s a young and I have no doubt very promising journalist. She’s merely an example as I saw her the other night and it inspired me to write this.

Our media needs to spend less time talking about and writing on political tactics, personality and opinion polls in its coverage of politics. In fact, it should aim to reduce them to <10% of all political coverage. I’m not going so far as to say political tactics are unimportant, but this budget (with it’s far reaching changes proposed for a number of areas including healthcare, education and unemployment benefits) deserves far more than this. Yet I’d be willing to say at least half the coverage (probably more on the ABC) focuses on what it means for the government politically, reporting opinion polls and quoting Liberal Senators who plan to vote against it. I’m not saying any of this should not be reported, but it should make up a small minority of the reporting. Almost certainly the budget will be passed with a few amendments negotiated with the cross benches in the Senate (which is normal) and by the time of the next election its political impact will (probably) be limited.

Unfortunately, this kind of coverage is not limited to the budget. Politics is all too frequently reported like sport: who is ahead in the polls, what tactics are being used, who are the personalities involved and how will the other side react (for a particularly egregious example see this – which I am assuming is copyright News Corp or somesuch and if they feel I’m breaching it, I will remove the image on request). I shouldn’t have to say this, but politics isn’t sport. It’s far more important. It has real consequences, and it is those consequences that most reporting should be focused on.

Now, I don’t entirely blame journalists for this. They’re responding to real resource constraints and incentives they have no control over (limited time and funding, what audiences want, management interested in the cheapest/easiest story to make, technological and market changes and a whole host of other problems). It’s a perfect storm which means the casual viewer of the media is exposed to coverage that makes them think all politics is a vacuous process, a game, a meaningless contest for votes, where there is no significant difference between the parties (there is), our politicians stand for nothing (they do, on average) and the outcomes don’t matter (they really, really do – I have a few research projects that will hopefully be done this year which will help show why – I promise to post them when they’re ready).

I think a first step should be all serious media outlets immediately cease coverage of question time in its entirety (as opposed to the present, where it’s the centerpiece of coverage). In my opinion, question time is just theater and of almost zero value. The media should also refuse to cover press conferences and any parliamentary speeches unless there’s substance involved (things like 2nd reading speeches of important legislation, serious policy announcements, or a response to a substantive issue). The freed up resources could be used to cover and research stories of substance (for instance, what would a proposal actually mean to Australians in real terms, what actually was the track record of the last Coalition or Labor government on important outcomes like changes in real wages, inequality, health outcomes etc).

I seriously doubt any of this will ever happen, but it would improve the coverage of politics in this country immensely if it did. In the meantime I will continue to blog (occasionally, like the Senate lecture series) and all five of my readers will be well informed as a result. For the remainder of the Australian population, I guess I live in hope their news offerings improve.


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