The School of Athens

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

Friday, 6 May 2011

Time to respect the citizen

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

Dateline: Australia, Federal Politics 2011.

Lindsay Tanner's book "Sideshow: Dumbing Down Democracy" has sparked an intense discussion about Australian politics.  It is a welcome discussion and long overdue.

Tanner has highlighted that there is a problem in the relationship between the media, politicians and the public, and it is one that, if not addressed, will continue to become worse and to the detriment of our democracy.  

He believes that no one in particular is to blame for this and he is uncertain what, if anything, can be done about it, but he is seriously concerned about the direction of our political processes, and correctly so.

The core problem, in my view, stems from a lack of respect for the citizen and the crucial role the citizen plays in the effective functioning of a democracy.

This lack of respect for the citizen is shown by politicians and their party political machines; by members of the media and the outlets for whom they work; and also by too many members of the public.

Members of the public showing a lack of respect for citizens?  Is that not a contradiction?

Not at all.

A person is not a citizen of a democracy simply because they are born in that democracy (as I was) or immigrated to the democracy and subsequently became naturalised (as my parents were); a citizen of a democracy is a person who takes an active interest in the affairs of that democracy - especially, but not exclusively, its political processes.

The ancient Greeks believed that for a democracy to succeed it required the active participation of all its citizens in the political process, otherwise the void they left by not participating would be filled by the thugs and the third-rate operators hungry for money and power.

Pericles said, "We do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say he has no business here at all."
The Greeks were fully aware that democracy does not come without hard work, sacrifice and constant vigilance, and central to it all is the participation of the citizen.

If the views of the ancient Greeks is not compelling enough, then perhaps there are another 102,861 reasons for all Australians to take their civic responsibilities seriously, as that is the number of their fellow Australians who have been killed in all wars fighting for 'our way of life'.

The public shows a lack of respect for the citizen.
Australians who say they don't care about politics and make no effort to educate themselves about the issues being debated are undermining the democracy in which they live and from which they benefit. 

Draping yourself in the nation's flag does not make you a citizen - it just keeps you warm.
While it is true that the behaviour of politicians (with their endless spin) and the media (with its constant stream of 'beat ups' and interminable fascination with gaffes, 'gates, affairs and scandals) plays a significant role in fostering a well founded cynicism and disgust from the public, it is also the uninformed and uninterested members of the public who bear a great deal of the responsibility.

In his book, Tanner laments the paucity of serious political coverage in the media citing its preference to focus on superficial and vacuous issues, which he fears could determine future elections. 

Media outlets, however, are convinced that much of the public has little or no interest in politics and so by ignoring it, or giving it cursory attention, they are simply responding to the desires of their audiences.

Sadly, both are correct.  However, it need not remain that way.

The media shows a lack of respect for the citizen.
In my various adventures in the commercial world, many times I have heard this phrase used, "It's good business".

When I delved into what the person using the phrase was referring to, it was mostly to do with some sleight of hand or con job that was resulting in customers (whether consumer, business or government) being sold a pup.

When I asked why they thought it was good business to mislead their customers, customers with whom they were trying to develop a relationship, the response would invariably return to the phrase "It's good business".

When I then asked if they would be equally delighted if another company did exactly the same thing to them or their family, the response was almost always one of embarrassment.

Media reporting is exactly the same, though the phrase they use is, "It's a good story."

It's considered good business to beat up a story (via misrepresentations and distortions) because the public, so it is believed, will be much more interested in that than if the bare facts were reported, which may result in no story at all.  This is precisely what Tanner continually refers to in his book regarding the treatment of politicians.

My question to those beating up the stories is the same as to the business people earlier, why do they think it's good business to mislead people? Are they happy then for themselves or their families to be similarly misled by someone else beating up a story?  Or, would they be delighted for themselves or one of their family members to be the subject of a beat up?

Members of the media are members of the public too.  Can they not see that whatever activity they undertake that shows a lack of respect for the citizen is also showing a lack of respect for themselves?

Politicians show a lack of respect for the citizen.

Politicians, too, have a similar case to answer, but the phrase they use to rationalise their poor behaviour is, "It's good politics".

What does this mean?

Often it will mean that they have been successful in garnering electoral support on the back of a campaign designed to mislead, scare, and exploit ignorance and prejudice in the electorate.

Worse, many in the media will often congratulate this type of activity as a stroke of electoral skill; even genius.  

It's genius to mislead voters?  Must be one of those family values we hear politicians banging on about endlessly.

It follows, therefore, that these same politicians would find it equally agreeable to have members of their family misled via the genius of "good politics".

As with members of the media, can't politicians see that every time they treat the citizen with a lack of respect that they are actually showing a lack of respect for themselves?

As for constantly employing spin: it is true, as Tanner claims, that politicians are terrified of saying anything that may be misconstrued by the media and so they say the same thing over and over, or they basically say nothing.  

However, it is equally true that political parties have always wanted to control the "message" and over the years have employed greater numbers of media staff, most of whom are ex-journalists, to undertake this task with increasing professionalism.

Moreover, while ever politicians continue to refuse to legislate to force political parties to engage in "truth in political advertising" there is much less moral force behind their complaints about being misrepresented by the media.

Where to from here?
The Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr said,

"Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.  I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.  This is the interrelated structure of reality."
The interaction between the public, politicians and the media is central to the effective functioning of our democracy and the key aspect of it all is respect for the citizen.

Importantly, it is the one on one interaction between these three groups that will make all the difference and it is the responsibility of all to participate. 

From the media:

While news and media is a business (even for the non-commercial outlets) it is a business like no other.  It has a responsibility not only to its own interests but also to the society in which it operates.  

It is incumbent on the media to see one of its roles in society as that of an educator.

It is important that news, current affairs programs and light news entertainment programs take every opportunity to educate their audiences.

It only has to be subtle, and certainly not a lecture, but they can do a lot better than they do with the stories they cover.  It does not have to include politicians unless absolutely necessary.  But simply saying the viewer isn't interested in political issues (particularly when those issues are real policy issues and not Canberra shenanigans) is a cop out.  It's like a teacher saying the student isn't interested in learning.  More often than not, it's because the teacher is not a good teacher.

The shows, and the presenters who are well respected by their audiences, need to use that respect shown to them and reflect it back to their viewers.

Consider the words of Bertrand Russell,

"No man can be a good teacher unless he has feelings of warm affection towards his pupils and a genuine desire to impart to them what he believes to be of value."
Then combine that with the words of John Henrik Clarke,

"A good teacher, like a good entertainer, first must hold his audience's attention, then he can teach his lesson."
The same principles apply to radio announcers and their audiences, and newspapers and magazines with their readers.  

Every interaction between the media and the public that is a form of education about serious issues, which has been substituted for what would have been a superficial and vacuous interaction, shows respect to the citizen and will contribute to the improvement of our democracy.

Also conveying, only subtly but very deliberately, the importance of the active interest of the public in the political process and, crucially, leading by example by being across all the key issues themselves, will also play an important role.

Additionally, the media should not feel compelled to report every hollow and mindless announcement from government or opposition members, quite simply because it is an insult to their audience and readers.  Indeed, reporters should feel empowered to say to the politician concerned, "you've just given us a lot of old codswallop, I'm not reporting it."  Or, if they feel obliged to report it, then the appropriate headlines should read, "Gillard says nothing" or "Abbott talks drivel".

A few episodes like that might just make a difference.

From the politicians:

The most important contribution any politician can make to improve our democracy is to truly believe their loyalty to their nation always outweighs their loyalty to their party or, worse, their loyalty to their ambition.

It is simply unacceptable and immoral for politicians to knowingly mislead the public because it has been deemed to be politically clever by their party strategists.

Politicians, too, have an important role to play as educators of the public and in doing so, show due respect to the citizen.

When politicians appear on television or radio programs, in what passes for a debate, and merely spout the lines given to them by their parties, is it any wonder that much of the public has no interest in listening to them?

There will be important political differences between members of different parties, and that is a healthy situation.  It would be vastly better if when they appeared in these "debates" that they discussed the merits of the issue and not try to suggest that black is white just because it differentiates them from the other side.

For them, as with the media, every interaction they have with the public that substitutes a serious attempt to educate the public over moronic talking points will be a positive outcome for our democracy.

There is also no problem with them appearing on "non-serious" FM radio or TV programs, indeed it should be encouraged, providing it is not at the expense of "serious" programs.

The audiences of the "non-serious" programs are members of the public too, and they deserve to hear from their elected representatives as much anyone.  It is an excellent opportunity to discuss key issues in a different environment.

As well, politicians should not be frightened to alert the public that it is their civic duty to be involved in the political process.  As Tony Windsor put it so simply, yet so accurately, on the ABC's Q and A program this week, "The world is run by people who turn up".
From the public:

This, too, is a situation where individual interactions will make all the difference.

It starts with the school environment where students are taught the basics of our democracy and our political process.  Equally, it is the responsibility of parents to engender in their children an interest in the affairs of the nation.  

If the parents have no interest, it is the responsibility of their friends and relatives who are aware of the importance of being involved in the political process to, at the very least, encourage some interest in some issues by those who are uninterested, however small.  It will be a start.

If whole groups of friends and relatives have no interest in the political process, then the influence of the media and media personalities will play an important role here as has been discussed above.  

Similarly with politicians, if they take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves to not be party political but rather to see their role as educators, especially when they encounter an uninterested voter, they will be doing a great service to the nation.

Lindsay Tanner's book "Sideshow: Dumbing Down Democracy" has started an important discussion about the health of our democracy.  

He has illustrated that there is a clear problem in the interaction between politicians, the media and the public.

The core reason for this problem, in my view, is the lack of respect for the citizen - from politicians, the media and too many of the public.

Rather than seeing democracy as a gift to us from previous generations, it is all too often seen as a given, a constant, something that has and will always be there.  

But that is not correct.

Many sacrifices had to be made by many people to give us this democracy and it is our responsibility - politicians, media and the public - to take our stewardship of our democracy seriously.

Tanner has highlighted a symptom of the problem, but it is the problem itself - the lack of respect for the citizen - that needs to be addressed.

It is crucial that everyone who lives in our democracy understands that the role of the citizen is central to the effective functioning of it.  It is incumbent on those who do appreciate how important the role of the citizen is that they not only show due respect to that role, but also help educate those who do not.  Doing nothing is not an option.

It's time to respect the citizen.  Our democracy deserves no less.

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