Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 17, 2011

Sideshow, Dumbing down Democracy (2011), by Lindsay Tanner

I don’t know how often it is that politicians are thanked for the work they do but I suspect it’s not very often.  Certainly Lindsay Tanner seemed pleased when I met him at the Woodend Arts Festival and thanked him for his work as Finance Minister during the Global Financial Crisis.  I told him that I had understood very little of the complex forces that were about to plunge the globe into recession, but that night after night as I watched him on Lateline, he clarified the strategies the government was pursuing and I felt reassured that things were going to be ok.  (Which they turned out to be, at least in Australia.  We avoided recession, at least so far).  It seems a shame that politicians are tarred with the same brush and routinely denigrated; it’s a wonder anyone will take on such a thankless job.

So, be warned, I’m predisposed to admire Tanner’s book because I admire the man.  His tenacity, his integrity, his intelligence, his common-sense and his refusal to dumb down for the mass media made him a rarity in Australian politics.  It’s a real pity that he left the parliament, because we need good men and women to lead us, but his book makes it clear why he couldn’t stand the frustration any more.  This first paragraph has been widely quoted and is on the blurb because it so neatly encapsulates his argument:

After spending much of my life dedicated to the serious craft of politics, I have to admit that I am distressed by what it is becoming.  Genuine public input into political debate is shrinking, and the notion that politicians are engaged in legitimate democratic decision-making that is fundamental to the nation’s future us being bartered away.  Under siege from commercial pressures and technological innovation, the media are retreating into an entertainment frame that has little tolerance for complex social and economic issues.  In turn, politicians and parties are adapting their behaviour to suit the rules of the game – to such an extent that the contest for ideas is being supplanted by the contest for laughs.  While its outward forms remain in place, the quality of our democracy is being undermined from within. One of its critical components, a free and fearless media, us turning into a carnival sideshow. (Introduction, p1)

Politics in the 21st century matters more than ever it did, but Tanner’s right when he says that democracy is at risk when the people aren’t sufficiently informed about issues to make valid choices at the ballot box.   He’s not talking about the small percentage of us who are interested in politics and will always find a way to be informed about it, seeking out new media on the net and (in my case) badgering politicians of all stripes with old-fashioned snail mail so that they certainly know my opinion and can’t pretend they didn’t receive it!  No, Tanner is concerned about the majority of people who used to learn about political issues almost by osmosis.  Given a choice they wouldn’t have watched or read anything about politics, but because in days gone by entertainment choices were fewer and the idea of individual choice on a home screen was a Jetsons fantasy, they ended up watching the news and current affairs programs and were in touch with national and state affairs by default.  Those programs (even if their political stance was biased) presented the issues of the day with sufficient integrity for voters to make an informed choice, but that’s not so today.

Today what passes for news is most commonly superficial.  It must not be ‘boring’ or people will reach for the remote, choose a DVD or go play on the computer.  So what’s offered is sensation, scandal and sport; and the templates the media use are based on ‘violence, novelty, shock, drama, conflict, celebrity or spectacle’ (p168).    Sentimentality (one sick baby, one unhappy teenager, one couple who can’t pay their mortgage) often means that there is disproportionate public demand for funding short-term high profile pseudo-solutions instead of long-term programs of greater significance.  The emphasis on appealing to emotion most commonly ends up generating fear: crime stories; riots, political unrest and terrorism all generating knee-jerk responses from public and politicians alike.   Provoking anger is a favourite strategy:

 ‘The use of anger’ [Tanner says], ‘as a tool to capture public attention tends to distort public perceptions of reality.  Extraordinary improvements in living standards have occurred over recent decades, but the media’s relentless search for unhappiness fosters extremely distorted views of the realities of modern life. 

Presciently, in the wake of the commentary about the London riots, he goes on to note Matthew Taylor’s critique which

analyses the ‘perception gap’ between the state of British society and people’s assessments of it in an insightful New Statesman article, pointing to the contradiction between widespread prosperity and common narratives of social and economic decay’. (p188)

The tabloid media has long abandoned all pretence at the Fourth Estate i.e. serious journalism and instead provides entertainment.  One liners, gotcha moments, populist opinion & gossip instead of facts – and lashings of pseudo-conflict.  What alarms Tanner is that now the so-called quality press is doing the same thing. (It must be terribly demoralising for intelligent journalists who take their role seriously, and very off-putting for young people hoping to make a career in serious journalism IMO).

More worrying to me is that with the advent of generational change at our national broadcaster, Aunty ABC is heading down the same path, or so it seems to me.   Tanner isn’t too hard on the ABC or SBS*  in this new landscape, though his praise is a bit faint.  They ‘provide some high-quality content in their news and current affairs programs’, he says, but undercuts this by continuing ‘but the sideshow syndrome has influenced them as well’ (p85).  Elsewhere he comments that the ABC has  ‘been infected by the sensationalist temptations of high-profile crime reporting’ (p80).  (He’s not wrong about that.  The arrest of the collar-bomb kidnapper, already done to death in the news, got a lengthy re-run on Lateline last night, (3:23 mins for the arrest in the US + 2:10 mins for the extradition proceedings) at the expense of an illuminating interview about the Qantas restructure (4:45 mins) which ‘ran out of time’).

Tanner’s restraint is interesting considering the ABC’s crucial role as the national broadcaster with a reputation for authoritative reporting, though he does single out Annabel Crabb (the ABC’s chief online political writer) as one who ‘is making a career out of humorous political commentary that rarely deals with the actual content of the political process’. (p19)  The ABC doesn’t have the same funding worries as commercial media or SBS.  It doesn’t have to pursue ratings and it doesn’t have to chase advertising for its funding model.  As long ago as the 1980s Tanner says that Four Corners abandoned a program about corruption in the trade union movement because ‘the pictures weren’t strong enough’  (p55) but it’s clear that he’s still holding out hope that the ABC bias ‘in favour of serious subjects’ will continue.  (p196) I wish I shared his cautious optimism.

That the web offers some alternative is beside the point because an effective funding model to pay for quality web journalism hasn’t emerged yet.  It’s also segmented, hard-to-find and difficult to assess for integrity.  While the mass media remains influential, it matters that most political coverage is rubbish.  The effect is that it makes voters cynical, disengaged and open to manipulation by populist demagogues like Sarah Palin.

Tanner’s thesis is that hapless politicians have no alternative but to submit to the new media reality.  It’s a vicious circle: journalists captive to commercial imperatives seek simplistic headlines that won’t tax the brains of people who’d rather read about cricket or celebrity goss.  Politicians have learned the hard way that the only way to get the publicity and image they want, is to comply.  Tanner says that there are two rules that govern politicians’ behaviour now: ‘look like you’re doing something’ and ‘don’t offend anyone who matters’.  This seems a little too cynical, but he’s  been on the inside, and I haven’t, so perhaps he’s right.

Fortunately the real business of government goes on regardless, unreported by the media, but the relentless 24 hour cycle means that there’s no time for conviction politicians. Charisma rules, yeah!   Tanner says that the demise of political leaders in sudden-death coups occurs so often because the media doesn’t favour idealists or anyone with a complex agenda.  He thinks that the rise of the Greens is due in part to the fact that they haven’t dumbed down their agenda and so they appeal to more politically sophisticated voters (who know that since the Greens can’t hold government in their own right, their daffier policies will be filtered by the realities of political power.)

Alas, having read Tanner’s perceptive and thoughtful book, I now find myself critiquing my sources of information about politics: The Age, The Australian, the ABC TV news, Q&A and 7:30.  Endless recycled combat over refugees and climate change.  Crime, crime and more crime (as long as it’s violent).   Inane gossip.  Soppy sentimental pap (often highly intrusive) about high-profile victims of this-and-that.  No attempt to challenge politicians saying stupid things that obviously aren’t true or relevant.  Vox pops from people who know absolutely nothing about the topic.  Why feature Joe Blow’s gloomy opinion about the state of the share market when he’s obviously an economic illiterate?  I want an expert to tell me if I should panic…

Lateline is the last bastion for brain food and even that has its tabloid moments, and it’s not just a new interest in crime as noted above.  It recently featured an entirely predictable debate between a representative from the Australian Petroleum Producers and Exploration Association and a representative of the lobby group formed to oppose coal seam gas mining.  This is a hot topic of significance for our national economy but there was no expert opinion to shed some light on the facts of the issue, i.e. a geologist to verify or dispute the claims being made by either side.  The whole segment was a completely pointless exercise in broadcasting, merely meaningless conflict designed to cement already opposing viewpoints. Update: BTW I found out more about this issue in a great review of Living on Luck by Paul Cleary at Inside Story, but I’m still in search of expert opinion about the science.)

Tanner thinks there is some hope for radio because it’s not dependant on the visual.  I’m not so sure.  Radio National’s Breakfast program is a travesty of its former self.  What used to be a serious current affairs program, the only one of its kind and a staple for political junkies,  is now peppered with the presenter’s personal taste in ghastly music and her interminable breathless gushings over sport and American celebrities.  Instead of meeting its charter obligations to provide content not offered elsewhere the ABC has dumbed down this program with increasing amounts of trivia and the ratings have (predictably) gone up.  But at what cost?

The newspapers, so long my staple reading over breakfast, are now mostly not worth reading either.  We subscribe to both the major broadsheets but I skip over all the dross, and check out the feature articles in the middle.  Most often I abandon them because they’re either narcissistic navel-gazing or so predictable that I could write them myself.  The public intellectuals they feature are stuck in the same combative positions over the hot topics,  and don’t have anything new or wise to say.  So these days I usually read a book instead.  I miss what I used to find in the papers, though, I really do…

So Lindsay Tanner’s book struck a chord with me, and I’d like to see it included on secondary school reading lists so that our future citizens are alert to the games being played with our democracy.

As you might expect, the substance of this book has been hijacked by some in the media. It’s much more nuanced than most reviews give it credit for and Tanner looks at issues from more than one perspective.  He cites a lot of other analysts expressing the same concerns too.  He also makes it clear also that the political sideshow is a global phenomenon, not just Australian, though he says it might matter more here because we have compulsory voting which means people who know nothing about politics still have to vote.

There’s an interesting critique of Sideshow at The Monthly, better than most of the predictably reactive reviews by don’t-blame-us journalists, but still a bit angsty that there are no salacious revelations about the Rudd government!  I like the one at Crikey too, and John Stowell’s at Farrago confirms the deleterious effect on young people with political or media ambitions.

*I stopped watching SBS the day they started screening ads so I can’t comment about them.   I just buy their DVDs when my friends berate me for having missed an important series.

© Lisa Hill

Author: Lindsay Tanner
Title: Sideshow: Dumbing Down Democracy
Publisher: Scribe 2011
ISBN: 9781921844065
Source: Personal library, purchased (and autographed by the author) at the Woodend Arts Festival, $32.95

Fishpond: Sideshow: Dumbing Down Democracy


  1. I too admire Lindsay Tanner, I think he was one of the few true ‘Labor’ men who remained true to Labor’s ideals.. Labor has lost its way, and I think this has been realised by Tanner. As to the media they do have a lot to answer for: they too have lost their way. I would recommend the SBS news on at 6.30 p.m., weeknights. It is very well presented, not only for local news but also overseas news.



    • Hi Meg!
      I think that both the major parties have lost their way, alas, but maybe that’s a function of the kind of dumbing-down that Tanner is on about. I don’t think independents are the solution: that leads to instability in government and too much power for sectional interest groups, Brian Harradine and Steven Fielding being the classic example of that.
      I’m not usually home from work in time to watch the news before 7pm, alas.


  2. Any politician who can write that first paragraph you quoted has my vote. Pity he’s left politics. You think you have it bad. Ghana/Africa is way way worse. In Ghana, we actually have full press freedom which is squandered on mindless stuff and arguments that do not inform at all. I’m also starved for expert opinion on many issues. Things are so fast moving, decisions are made without any informed public input, It’s just frightening. I’m not an expert but I do think you should panic. I have.


    • That’s not good, Kinna – but can I say how nice it is to hear about an African country that has full press freedom? I’m a member of the Melbourne Chapter of PEN, an international organisation that monitors breaches of the right to freedom of expression. My role covers Africa, and it seems that every other week or so I’m writing to some African government that’s locked up a journalist for spurious reasons. My brief is to remind them of their obligations to UN Conventions about Free Speech and to demand that they release a journalist or give him a fair trial or provide humane conditions for those in custody. So I guess I had a jaundiced view of the situation in the continent as a whole and it’s really good to know that there are countries that abide by the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

      As you rightly say, however, in Ghana as here in Australia, it’s important that this freedom is used wisely.


  3. […] with its conflict-ridden agenda and its gotcha moments in our current political climate.  See my review of Lindsay Tanner’s Sideshow if you want to know about […]


  4. […] up writing after retiring from the parliament, and wrote a splendid book called Sideshow (which I reviewed here) but I think he should stick to writing about the political scene. Comfort Zone is a […]


  5. […] or the factional brawling contributes to the problem.  [Lindsay Tanner wrote about this in his book Sideshow back in 2011.  That is a book well worth reading if you are interested in the role of the Fourth Estate in […]


  6. […] or the factional brawling contributes to the problem.  [Lindsay Tanner wrote about this in his book Sideshow back in 2011.  That is a book well worth reading if you are interested in the role of the Fourth Estate in […]


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