News National Media’s obsession with personality politics isn’t all bad

Media’s obsession with personality politics isn’t all bad

Pauline Hanson
Pauline Hanson and James Ashby have both been criticised over One Nation's operations. Photo: AAP
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You could be forgiven for being frustrated with the mainstream media’s cover of federal politics and its obsession with personalities over  policies. Can it be justified?

Just consider some of the recent ‘stories’. Tony Abbott publicly slaps down his nemesis Malcolm Turnbull and we’re presented with wild leadership speculation for days.

Exactly what is Bill Shorten’s relationship with Senator Kimberley Kitching? Does Senator George ‘Bookshelves’ Brandis realise he is making a fool of himself with his linguistic contortions?

And why does Finance Minister Mathias Cormann go for morning runs with Immigration Minister Peter Dutton during Canberra sitting weeks?

When Federal Member for Dawson George Christensen posed with a stock whip over his bare, meaty shoulder, his profile was lifted to the point where his every subsequent utterance — both public and within earshot of media informants — has become national news.

The mass media appears more excitable and easily diverted by political personalities and their gossipy doings instead of focusing on crucial national policy outcomes: the deficit and jobs, education (Gonski), health obesity, infrastructure, foreign policy and jihadi recruitment.

While much of the criticism for the frenzied media coverage of superficial stories is valid, if the voyeurism goes beyond the 24-hour news cycle, I would argue that coverage of the personalities of politics is more than justified. They are our national leaders, after all.

First rough draft of history

If journalism is the first rough draft of history, every factual or hearsay contribution — no matter how seemingly trivial — can be justified. The more the merrier to better inform the public about what is really going on.

While Australia’s still-punitive defamation laws constrain press freedom, particularly when it comes to exposing the corrupt, the slush funds and the string-pulling, responsible journalists work hard to get as much as possible on the record and for which media lawyers can find public interest defences.

Careerist MPs often try to use journalists through the off-the-record convention, which means you can use the material on offer but without attribution to the source. This provides a rich field of gossip and speculation directed mainly at the personalities involved in the power plays. 

George Christensen resigns as whip
George Christensen fronts Good Weekend.

In the career-driven game of politics, the cult of personality becomes the main tactic for those who aspire to the pinnacle of executive power; think Hawke, Keating, Howard (yes, Howard), Rudd, Gillard, Abbott and Turnbull.

But with the marketing of the personal attributes of the leader becoming fundamental to building political traction or momentum to win over the voters, politics has become all personality.

A popular personality can make the difference in winning power.

Maintaining personal popularity when in power, of course, requires a separate seminar.

The disruptors – Donald Trump and Pauline Hanson

Now we have the personality phenomena of Donald Trump and Pauline Hanson destroying traditional voting patterns. Trump won votes from rust-state Democrats and Pauline Hanson seems to be winning votes from both the National Party and Labor. Just how successful she will be is about to be tested in the West Australian state election.

With racist dog whistles and the rhetoric of prejudice, Trump and Hanson have used media coverage of their personalities with devastating effect. Mr Trump snookered his Republican rivals for the ultimate prize — the presidency.

Pauline Hanson and her right-hand-man, James Ashby, have built what seems to be an unstoppable profile through blanket media coverage.

She has become a provocateur of protest, developing an outlet for enraged voters without much specific policy detail. Banning the burqa has become more powerful currency than decent NBN coverage for regional Australia.

But should the media stop allowing itself to be diverted by the cult of personality? The answer is no.

The real challenge is for Ms Hanson’s political rivals to take her on.

Quentin Dempster is a Walkley Award-winning journalist, author and broadcaster with decades of experience. He was awarded an Order of Australia in 1992 for services to journalism. He tweets at @QuentinDempster

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