The School of Athens

The School of Athens
The School of Athens by Raphael (click on picture to view short documentary from Columbia University)

Sunday 16 January 2011

"What's done cannot be undone" - why not? (published October 2010)

Colleagues and scholars from coast to coast, across Bass Strait and all the ships at sea.

Dateline: Australia, Federal Politics 2010.

Last week's newsletter, "The most disturbing poll numbers of all" (attached below) which showed more than 8 in 10 Australians believed that politicians and journalists did not rate "very high" or "high" on honesty and ethical standards; generated a troubled response from its recipients.  (It was received by about 1200 journalists and media people, and every Senator and Member of the House of Representatives.)  

The politicians and journalists who replied were concerned about how poorly they were perceived and that this perception had not altered over the thirty years in which the research had been undertaken.  

It should be equally concerning to every citizen because both politicians and journalists play a critical role in the effective functioning of our democracy.  In fact, it could not function properly without them.

However, while this is true, two vital points need to be understood:

First, the public's poor perception of politicians and journalists does not exist due to random chance, or as the result of supernatural intervention, or even as the result of an Act of Parliament - it exists entirely as a result of the actions and behaviour of politicians and journalists, past and present.

Second, these poor perceptions have been around much longer than the quantitative Morgan research.  

Consider these flattering qualitative accounts of politicians:

Aesop: "We hang the petty thieves and appoint the great ones to public office."

Socrates: "I was really too honest a man to be a politician and live."

Plato: "Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber"..........."mankind will never see an end of trouble until... lovers of wisdom come to hold political power, or the holders of power... become lovers of wisdom"..............."when the tyrant has disposed of foreign enemies by conquest or treaty, and there is nothing to fear from them, then he is always stirring up some war or other in order that the people may require a leader."

Cicero: "Nothing is more unpredictable than the mob, nothing more obscure than public opinion, nothing more deceptive than the whole political system."

Thomas Jefferson: "Whenever a man has cast a longing eye on offices, a rottenness begins in his conduct."

Benjamin Disraeli: "In politics, nothing is contemptible" and "It is much easier to be critical than to be correct."

Robert Louis Stevenson: "Politics is perhaps the only profession for which no preparation is thought necessary."

Charles De Gaulle: "I have come to the conclusion that politics is too serious a matter to be left to the politicians."

John Kenneth Galbraith: "Nothing is so admirable in politics as a short memory."

Ronald Reagan: "Politics is supposed to be the second-oldest profession.  I have come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first."

And of journalists:

Jean De La Fontaine: "Every journalist owes tribute to the evil one."

Oscar Wilde: "Bad manners make a journalist."

Arthur Schopenhauer: "Journalists are like dogs, when ever anything moves they begin to bark."

Evelyn Waugh: "If, for instance, they have heard something from the postman, they attribute it to 'a semi-official statement'; if they have fallen into conversation with a stranger at a bar, they can conscientiously describe him as 'a source that has hitherto proved unimpeachable.' It is only when the journalist is reporting a whim of his own, and one to which he attaches minor importance, that he defines it as the opinion of 'well-informed circles.'"

Graham Greene: "A petty reason perhaps why novelists more and more try to keep a distance from journalists is that novelists are trying to write the truth and journalists are trying to write fiction."

Janet Malcolm: "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse."

Claud Cockburn: "Evidently there are plenty of people in journalism who have neither got what they liked nor quite grown to like what they get. They write pieces they do not much enjoy writing, for papers they totally despise, and the sad process ends by ruining their style and disintegrating their personality, two developments which in a writer cannot be separate, since his personality and style must progress or deteriorate together, like a married couple in a country where death is the only permissible divorce."

William Butler Yeats: "I hate journalists. There is nothing in them but tittering jeering emptiness. They have all made what Dante calls the Great Refusal. The shallowest people on the ridge of the earth."

Harold Evans: "In journalism it is simpler to sound off than it is to find out. It is more elegant to pontificate than it is to sweat."

Carl Bernstein: "The lowest form of popular culture - lack of information, misinformation, misinformation, and a contempt for the truth or the reality of most people's lives - has overrun real journalism. Today, ordinary Americans are being stuffed with garbage."

And finally, of politicians and journalists together:
Franklin P Adams: "When the political columnists say 'Every thinking man' they mean themselves, and when candidates appeal to 'Every intelligent voter' they mean everybody who is going to vote for them."

What are we to make of it all?

Aristotle claimed that "man is by nature a political animal."  

Does this mean that such behaviour is in our DNA?  To manipulate, deceive and distort?  That there is no possible chance of any change?  That these perceptions are so set in stone that it has been and will forever be thus?  That what's done cannot be undone?

Not quite.  There is a slither of hope, a beacon of light, a possibility to overcome the impossibility; and it lies in the troubled response from politicians and journalists.  

Understanding how they are seen is the first important step.  

As Robert Burns wrote, in his poem "To a Louse":  "O wad some Power the giftie gie us, to see oursels as ithers see us!
It's very clear how others see politicians and journalists.  There's no divine intervention required.

Understanding why they are seen that way is the second important step.

Sir Isaac Newton determined, in his Third Law of Motion: "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction."

It is similarly clear why.  The contemptible actions of politicians and journalists have resulted in a contemptible reaction from the public.

It is most important to understand how and why both professions are perceived so poorly, because when we consider the other professions which rated more poorly in the Morgan research, we find real estate agents and car salespeople languish there.  People do not trust real estate agents and car salespeople; they only deal with them because they generally have to, not because they want to, and while it may be unpleasant for politicians and journalists to admit, they are viewed similarly - something that both professions need to fully realise and accept.  

The important difference is, in your correspondent's experience, while most real estate agents and car salespeople do not much care how they are viewed by the public, most politicians and journalists care a great deal.  Moreover, the existence of a Ministerial Code of Conduct, a parliamentary standard of behaviour and the Australian Journalists Association's Code of Ethics, indicates, at least, a willingness to be better than the flattering accounts above suggest - this is the slither of hope.

Where does this leaves us?

To make any lasting change to the status quo in any field and at any time, two components are required: an attitudinal change and a behavioural change.

If most politicians and journalists care about this poor perception, as opposed to not caring, then the first half the attitudinal component of the change already exists.

The second half is resolving to genuinely do something about it; not think about it, or consider it at some time in the future, but to actually decide to act, and act now.

Then the behavioural change, which is critical, is actually doing something about it: constructively, consistently and permanently. 

What needs to be done?
There are two illnesses infecting both professions that need to be cured: falsehoods and cynicism.

On falsehoods: 

Socrates believed "false words are not only evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil" and this is what has happened to the soul of the professions of politics and journalism.

The public believes politicians and journalists are not very honest or ethical, and this perception has resulted from consistently poor experiences with wilful misrepresentations, distortions and outright lies.  

The expectations of the public is almost at rock bottom.

What is required to repair this situation is for both professions to constantly exceed the low expectations of the public.  The more times the expectations are exceeded, the more chance the perceptions will be improved.  

Realistically, however, because these perceptions have been ingrained for so long, it may take ten positive experiences to overcome every single negative experience just to progress a little.

On cynicism:

It is disturbing how cynical the political world is.

Politicians' cynicism stems from their belief that the public is rather "thick" and that they can be easily exploited.  But it is the "thick" public who have consistently rated the politicians poorly on honesty and ethical standards, so perhaps they are collectively much more clever than they are given credit for and can see through the rubbish they get fed.  

Treating the public like mugs, reflects poorly on the treaters not those treated.

As for journalists - too many confuse cynicism with scepticism.

Scepticism is a good thing to have.  It comes from the Greek word, "skepsis", which means to question, to ask, to think about.  To be sceptical is evidence of an enquiring mind.  It indicates a positive, healthy, forward looking view on life, best summed up by Julius Sumner Miller's refrain "why is it so?"

Cynicism, however, is a bad thing to have.  To be cynical is to doubt the motive behind every positive action and sneers at those trying to inject some goodness into society.  It indicates a negative, unhealthy, and backward looking view on life, and its corrosive nature pervades every aspect of the cynic's work and life.  The cynicism feeds on itself in an ever downward spiral, sinking lower and lower into an abyss.

Eliminating falsehoods and cynicism would be an excellent start to improving the standing of both professions.

For politicians, a few more items worth considering:

1. Only make promises you can deliver and then deliver on each of the promises you have made.  If for some reason you are unable to deliver on a promise, then explain why to the public; truthfully and completely.

2. Stick with your principles; irrespective of any pressure.

For example, for members of the ALP, if you believe in taking action on climate change, including putting a price on carbon, then commit to undertaking those actions.

Equally, for members of the Coalition, if you believe in further labour market reform, then commit to undertaking those actions.

3. Always remember you are elected to forthrightly lead public debates, not meekly follow public opinion or, worse, pressure from media personalities.  Consultation and public feedback is important and necessary, but only as a guide to informing policy development not determining it.

4. Abraham Lincoln said "the legitimate object of government is to do for people what needs to be done" and in doing so government should do what people cannot do by individual effort.  Remember this when developing your policies, rather than what might get a headline in tomorrow's news.

5. Do not be frightened to say these normal human phrases: "I was wrong", "I've made a mistake", "I've changed my mind", "I don't know", "I'm sorry" or "I have another view to that of the majority of my party".

6. Do not be consumed by the 24 hour news cycle and thinking up clever sound bites; you are elected to do a job on policy development and good governing, or alternative governing - not entertainment.

7. The public owe you nothing, it is you who owe them for electing you to Parliament - something that is often forgotten in the political world.

8. Understand very clearly that every time a member of the public meets you, or sees you on TV, or hears you on radio, or reads you in print; more than 80 per cent of them did not rate your profession as "very high" or "high" on honesty and ethical standards - then always think three times before you actually communicate anything and ask yourself "is what I am about to say going to reinforce that poor perception or help to improve it?"

For journalists, a few more items worth considering:

1. When a politician says that they've changed their mind; resist the urge to interpret the change as a "backflip" or the very clever "backflip with reverse pike".  If a politician expresses a different view to that of their party; resist the urge to interpret that as a "split in the party".  If a politician has negotiated an outcome to a dispute, which involved a compromise of some sort; resist the urge to interpret the outcome as "caving in to pressure".

2. In this celebrity era of news, journalists are still journalists whose job it is to report the news, not become the news or, worse, create the news.  It is the politicians, not the reporters, who are elected by the people.

3. Interviews are meant to be information sessions for those watching or listening, wanting to learn more about an issue, they aren't meant to be a cross examination of a hostile witness.  "Gotcha" moments add nothing to the debate and do not impress the public, rather they merely aggravate them.

4. While journalists are meant to be even handed in their reporting, that doesn't mean having to report drivel.  If one side of politics makes a sensible policy announcement, whether government or opposition, and the other side denigrates it without any reasonable basis, then report it that way - "this side is making sense and the others are talking complete tripe."  Of course, if both sides are talking drivel, report that - drivel does not deserve respect.

5. Avoid being dazzled by the trivial, most notably the "gaffe".  This phenomenon of the political world excites like no other, but in truth they are basically irrelevant.

6. The important status given to "leaks" and the journalist who "breaks the story" is unwarranted.  In almost every case these "leaks" are not exposing corruption via a whistle blower, but rather are the vindictive venting of a disaffected soul who finds a willing journalist to convey their bitterness.  It's essentially gossip and belongs in the pages of a gossip magazine.  It's lazy journalism and when such "stories" are inexplicably lauded by the profession as if they are some exciting investigative journalism, it's little wonder that one former Prime Minister referred to the profession as being full of "vacuum cleaners and bottom feeders."

7. Opinion is not fact, it is opinion; something that seems to be misunderstood.  Opinion is interesting to read on the opinion pages and that's where it should stay.  Similarly, editorialising is for the editorial page, not the front page, or the headline of the news bulletin.

8. It's the same final point as for the politicians.  Understand very clearly that every time a member of the public meets you, or sees you on TV, or hears you on radio, or reads you in print; more than 80 per cent of them did not rate your profession as "very high" or "high" on honesty and ethical standards - then always think three times before you actually communicate anything and ask yourself "is what I am about to say going to reinforce that poor perception or help to improve it?"


Last week's newsletter "The most disturbing poll numbers of all" stirred a troubled reaction from politicians and journalists concerned about the effect their poor standing was having on our democracy.  

As a result, your correspondent has penned today's item to alert all other recipients of last week's newsletter that if you were similarly, but silently, stirred - you were not alone.

If the public's poor perceptions were created by politicians and journalists, then, assuming they want to, these same politicians and journalists can work to change those perceptions.

Normally a marketer, such as your correspondent, would explain that it is very difficult to change perceptions once they are formed and that both professions are stuck with these images.  What the marketer is actually saying is that it would cost a great deal of money to try to do so, with no guarantee of success, and so would not be commercially viable.  But our political process is not a commercial venture that can be reduced to a financial equation, it is the fundamental basis of our democracy and every effort should be made by its participants (politicians) and observers (journalists) to re-dress this situation.

There have been many speeches in Parliament recently, and articles in the press, supporting Australia's involvement in the Afghanistan War, not least because it is to defend our democracy and way of life.  Do those making the speeches and writing the articles truly believe their actions as politicians and journalists have been in the best interests of our democracy and way of life?  

Many may still say there is no point trying to do anything because it is 100 per cent certain that these perceptions cannot be changed, but the only thing that is certain is that you lose 100 per cent of the contests in which you do not take part.

To quote Robert Kennedy, inspired by George Bernard Shaw, "there are those who look at things they way they are, and ask why...I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?"

"What's done cannot be undone" - why not?

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