Forgive me for “spinning”
Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott offered broadly similar policies. They spoke in the same robotic measured manner and tone. They even looked the same in a middle-aged-couple sort of way.
A dead-heat result suggests that the electorate now regards both major parties as having converged into a single, indistinguishable political mass held together not by the natural force of gravity, but by something even more powerful: spin.
What we are seeing, and what we will see more of in the future, is the “blandification” of those seeking high office. Spin is a lubricant that gets politicians where they want to go.
It shouldn’t surprise that the ultimate sell job, the holding of an election, is governed by a machine that controls or spins behaviours (inputs) to achieve outcomes. After all, according to census results, there are now two jobs for people who manage the news (13,000 public relations consultants) for every person who actually produces the news (6000 print journalists).
The paradox is that while the community recognises and abhors spin, that very same community also responds to spin.
Politicians are in the business of selling their ideas (and their personalities). If carefully scripted behaviour, in the form of dress, mannerisms and wordage, maximises connection with the electorate through the media, then so be it. Political strategists should alter their product only when it is clear that the market is buying something else.
Can you imagine an old-style colourful politician such as Paul Keating operating in today’s political world? His every put-down would be scrutinised, evaluated and ultimately condemned across the 24-hour news cycle that now governs the political cycle.
The rise of pay-TV has been instrumental in this process: there’s simply more air time to fill now than there was 20 years ago and this has lifted the intensity of debate.
If news of the day is on a continuous loop, or if there are multiple news updates as there is on free-to-air TV, then any strong political comment (let alone colourful behaviour) will always be fodder for discussion. Politicians do their utmost to have this process work on their behalf through carefully timed announcements that are designed to deliver positive spin.
But should a politician let slip a single unguarded comment, then the system is just as capable of working in the opposite direction. The political lesson is simple: either change behaviour to avoid being mauled by negative spin, or lose electoral relevance.
Politicians are like creatures of nature, seeking to survive a process of Darwinian evolution. Colourful and exotic creatures are wiped out early; big lumbering dinosaurs are cut down by negative opinion formed by continuous media scrutiny. Those who prosper are sleek and streamlined creatures that can morph into and procreate (ideas, at least) in any environment.
Part of the evolutionary agility required of a modern politician is an ability to put on a hard hat and connect with builders, to kiss babies and connect with mothers, to don riding boots and mix it with the rural set, and to talk with purpose on any subject at any time without leaving a point of contention for negative media scrutiny. And then to do it all again the next day.
This has been the road map for politicians for the past decade. The new development in this election has been the role played by citizen journalists. The blogosphere and Twitter are now powerful tools in the formation of opinion. They combine with the 24-hour news cycle and traditional media to inform and shape mass-market thinking.
A single political gaffe is now fatal because the mistake is played and replayed; experts are called in to discuss nuances; talkback is whipped into a frenzy; then the largely anonymous Twitter and blog formats swoop and gleefully flail the wounded.
With so much at stake, is it any wonder that politicians’ behaviour and sound bites are stage-managed?
The 2010 election was the most managed election in Australian history. But it won’t be as staged-managed as the next election or the election after that.
Greater access to broadcast technology (including Twitter and blogs) combined with anonymity emboldens many to take and disseminate extreme views. Can there be anything more self-satisfying to an anonymous blogger or twitterer than to have their tweet or opinion admonishing the behaviour of a big-name politician cited on television?
The herd abhors errant behaviour; any comment, inappropriate inflection, real or perceived slight, or downright mistake, is seized upon with indignant righteousness within the blogosphere.
And it is all done under the guise of holding politicians to account. But are we holding politicians to a higher standard than we apply to ourselves? And is there any latitude in this process to allow for human error?
Those in business who think this often anonymous scrutiny from the masses only applies to politicians should think again.
Throughout this decade, anyone in high office will be increasingly scrutinised by a proliferation of media and social media, and the opinion that swirls around both. The blandification that ensures the survival of politicians will also be adopted by the business world.