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Book Review - Sideshow: Dumbing Down Democracy, by Lindsay Tanner

June 12, 2011 | Comments: 0 | Views: 171

Lindsay Tanner was the Labor member for the Federal seat of Melbourne between 1993 and 2010. He quit in 2010 for personal reasons, needing to spend time with his young family, and was succeeded by Adam Bandt of the Greens. While Tanner stated his reasons for quitting politics were personal, reading Sideshow makes it clear that he was also prompted by an increasingly frivolous media environment, making a serious political career increasingly difficult.

Tanner never styled himself a chest beating intellectual, but he did have policy ideas and was engaged in a number of issues, which he wrote about in a books like Open Australia (1999) and Crowded Lives (2003). Temperamentally, Tanner was never an egomaniac or show pony politician. While many of the politicians of his time significantly lowered the intellectual tone on important debates, and generally involved themselves in petty party-political skirmishes, Tanner was pretty much the straight shooter. He could fight his battles using his serious minded intellect without descending into clever, circuitous arguments devoid of substance. As a politician Lindsay Tanner was a pretty substantial fellow, someone who entered politics with a genuine eye to the public good.

After spending three years as Minister for Finance and Deregulation in the Rudd Government, it would be natural to expect a fairly tantalising peek into the workings of that government, especially since Tanner was part of the so-called 'gang of four'. Instead what Tanner has written is a book that is principally critical of the modern media, but also catches in its net the politicians who depend on that media, and the population that consumes it. Sideshow is entirely free of any kind of rancour or meting out of blame for the circus we now have for a media. Nor does Tanner try to show himself above the phenomenon he describes. This makes Sideshow read as a mature investigation of the media's role in shaping our society and politics, written from someone who was in the belly of the beast for 18 years.

Only the Dumbest Survive

The way Lindsay Tanner writes it, no one is to blame for what the media has become: a frivolous, sensation driven carnival of gossip and scandal. Rather, the media has grown almost organically into its current state. If anything, the Internet, particularly Twitter and Facebook, has driven the media to be more superficial and lacking in depth. Commercial pressures also mean that media organisations are forced to put up stories that they known will attract readers and viewers, otherwise they go out of business. This is where the populace is to blame. By continuing to be attracted to these superficial stories, the media must keep on its race to the bottom. Tanner sites many a TV producer who says they try to keep political stories to a minimum, as viewers start dropping off in large numbers once a politician comes on the screen. Increasing apathy and complacency on the part of voters, Tanner speculates, may be due to Australia's long run of economic prosperity.

All these elements mixed together - increasing economic imperatives to appeal to the lowest common denominator, the advent of super fast and constant access to information via the Internet, and the need for politicians to get access to this media so they can communicate their ideas and policies - has created an environment where only the dumbest can survive. From this it follows that the quality of our national conversation on a range of serious and pressing issues is hopelessly diminished. No one is paying attention, unless it is some cheap stunt that does not demand too much intellectual effort.

Hence the reason why so many politicians must now act like clowns simply to get the media to take notice. Tanner lists some of the high jinks and sideshow-like behavior that politicians have descended to simply to get media access (Tanner doesn't leave himself out, citing some examples of his own sideshow media frolics.)

More Focused Public Attention Will Improve Media

The shortest way to improve the nation's media is for the public to start paying more attention and simply taking an interest in the politics and topics that directly affect them. Commercial media outlets would then have to respond to the demand for more involved and deeply penetrating work from journalists.

The other options that Tanner considers for improving the media is for more government money to be directed to supporting quality journalism. Overall, Sideshow is a rather realistic (or pessimistic, depending on your outlook) book. Tanner doesn't really see much hope for positive change in the near future, and thinks that the current media environment may indeed be the new normal. Nor does he share the confidence that some place on the Internet as a new force for the broad dissemination of quality journalism. It may, but it's simply too early to tell.

While Sideshow may make depressing reading, it is never dull. Tanner has been bottling these ideas up for many years, and they spill out in the text with a sense of urgency. Tanner also backs up his arguments with a lot of fascinating research and quotes from key media and political players.

Sideshow is very much the truth as its politician-author has come to know it, which makes its candid conclusions all the more worrisome. For voters Sideshow is essential reading, as it gives an insider's account of what it's like trying to live as a serious politician in a media circus.

Sideshow: Dumbing Down Democracy, by Linday Tanner. Published by Scribe. ISBN: 978-1-921844-06-5

Chris Saliba is a book reviewer and writer from Melbourne, Australia.

More of his book reviews can be read at: http://chrissalibabookreviews.blogspot.com/

Source: EzineArticles
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