Sport or substance?

Tracy Watkins opines:

. . . So what’s the moral of the story? That so much of the political discourse these days is seen to be more focused on the game playing and the sport of politics, rather than the substance. And that is contributing to the sense that politicians are increasingly out of touch with voters.

We in the media can cop some of the blame. In our drive to explain the “why” and “how” of politics it can look like we’re focusing on personalities rather than policies.

It’s also no secret that there is a voracious appetite for personality-driven political coverage, while the appetite for policy-driven stories is more niche.

People are interested in people but playing personalities is no substitute for informed and intelligent analysis of policy.

I don’t condemn that; to an extent, I’ve always believed that we vote for our politicians as much on character or judgement as the policies they hawk.

Their credibility is central to whether we believe in their promises.

Credibility, character and judgement are not the same as personality-driven stories and the latter can often distort the former.

But in the hot house of Parliament – where politicians and the media collide regularly on the chaotic weekly caucus run, or “on the tiles”, which is where MPs stop for journalists on their way into the House – it’s all too easy to lose perspective.

It’s also a chicken and egg thing. Politicians pay armies of spin doctors to churn out policy positions in soundbites, and the leaders spend hours being coached by their media minders on how to answer questions.

If this was all about enabling a substantive policy debate, or holding their opponents to account, fair enough.

But that’s not it, of course. It’s mostly about framing the narrative, and staying on message. It’s about winning the game in other words.

The media doesn’t have to buy into this, but the time pressure most journalists work under makes it difficult not to.

The stakes are high so it’s not surprising they play the game this way. Winning power means getting to bend an economy and a people to suit their vision.

But that’s also why we deserve much better. 

So once Ardern names the date, let’s all pledge to strip this election back to its essentials, and focus on the story behind the personalities and the soundbites.

That would be a welcome change, but sport is so much easier to get across than substance so I won’t hold my breath waiting for the change.

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