The 45th Parliament commenced this week and, as always, many of its activities will be sent spinning into the 24-hour news cycle. Just about everything worth knowing is available at all times with remarkable consistency. No curiosity may be left unsatisfied, and this I believe is to our great benefit.
Understandably, not all are so elated. On Sky News last Sunday morning, August 28th, Minister for Defence Industry Christopher Pyne expressed his concerns about “immediate media”, insofar as it creates a “constant demand” for ideas and solutions from government. Expectedly, he went on to relate the matter to standard fiscal talking points – how Labor are no good at solutions, but his team are, and so on. Nonetheless, on the essential point (about the challenges of new media) he was correct. This was in response to journalist Paul Kelly, who opined that in the prevailing climate, the “electorate are more prepared to vote out a one-term government,” and have become “impatient” with poor governance, as the most recent election seems to demonstrate.
By this, Pyne and Kelly are referring to the so-called “CNN effect,” whereby governments are under more scrutiny in the contemporary news cycle than they ever were in the past. The element that defines this effect is that given the scale of reported events (and blunders and scandals), its impact can bring a government down at more or less any time.
If anything, what one can understand about such a phenomenon is the following: the margin for error on Capital Hill (or indeed at any other seat of government) is today at its thinnest, making it increasingly difficult for a government to favourably direct a policy narrative. (In democratic societies, governments have never managed total press control – nor should they – but the immediacy of the modern cycle has made such a task more distant than ever.)
It also means soundbites can carry greater force than nuanced remarks. The issues with this are easily recognised. By understanding the effects of soundbites, the politician is encouraged to use them more often, and to therefore be cheap on detail. It works because the attention spans of the electorate are not as they once were. As Annabel Crabb has noted, the key is time, the “opportunity for introspection”. In the past, the efforts to which one would have to go to present an idea in a speech or to pen an article for a newspaper and reach a mass audience made it worth one’s time to generate substantive content. Today, content dies as quickly as it is delivered – often in minutes. The supply-and-demand element of it (the political soundbite delivered in recognition of the consumer’s limited attention span) makes it a mutually self-reinforcing dilemma.
Yet there are positives. The primary one is that of increased accountability. The greatest value of a free press has always been its function as a surveyor of power; the 24-hour news cycle empowers the press to deliver an enlarged version of this indispensable mechanism. It requires governments to possess more than just effective public relations, but better policy and more targeted judgements. Failure to do so will be clear for all to see, risking a swift loss of influence, and ultimately, of power.
Admittedly, quality in the press’s examination is by no means guaranteed by its operative freedom. But the opportunityfor valuable, broadly consumed reportage and critique is always there, despite it being frequently squandered in a shameful pursuit to sell non-issues.
So as this new term of government begins, I think the “impatience” of the electorate, as Kelly called it, is a good thing. It does indeed give momentum to a revolving door of politicians and governments, but that is what democracy is all about