The following observations will come as a surprise to the incorrigibly cynical, but politicians invariably are in public life to make a difference. It's very hard to address constituents' problems, devise and implement new policy, craft speeches that might stand the test of time and so on if you're constantly responding to media requests for comment on everyone's complaints.
I asked my press secretary how many media queries we typically handle in a single day: 25 on a quiet day and 50-plus when an issue is running. Almost every media outlet has a health reporter who is expected to generate a story regardless of whether there's any real news: hence the constant flow of beat-ups, usually on the themes of "bitter pill" or "miracle cure".
A sense of proportion is an absolute prerequisite for modern politicians, but even then it is very hard not to focus on the merely urgent rather than the really important. These days, many of the most important and difficult debates don't occur in parliament but in lengthy live media interviews where politicians are expected to have instant answers to every question and a single mistake can be disastrous.
A particular feature of these contests is the ambush interview. These don't just feature an interviewer whose style typically resembles that of a prosecuting counsel with a recalcitrant witness but add a sudden change of topic usually based on a random fact invested with sinister significance. I experienced a classic example of this genre during the last election campaign when the mere fact of a meeting with the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, George Pell, was taken to be evidence of a conspiracy and my momentary inability to recall it was taken to be a deliberate lie.
In my view the media have always had an inherent bias towards change over stability, the novel over the tried and true, and the uncertain over the predictable. That's just the way things are. No change is no story.
It's true that there are now effective conservative voices in the Australian media, such as Piers Akerman, Andrew Bolt, Christopher Pearson, Janet Albrechtsen and Miranda Devine, with people such as Alan Jones on radio. That hasn't altered the dynamic of the newsroom and, if anything, has intensified the "give no quarter" attitude of the Left-liberal media mainstream.
A media staple since the 2004 election has been the rise of the so-called religious Right. This motif testifies to the historical amnesia and cultural impoverishment of most younger journalists, in whose minds views that would have been orthodox a generation ago now seem odd or evidence of religious brainwashing.
I'm not aware of a single position from any politician to whom this tag is applied advocated on the basis of scripture or an appeal to religious authority. Every position has been argued on the basis of human values, not religious teaching. Yet it is now rare for stories about particular politicians on particular topics not to be embellished with gratuitous adjectives such as "devout Catholic".
A senior journalist from a leading paper today called my office wanting to know whether I had discussed stem cells recently with Pell. As if it were anyone's business; as if such a discussion would somehow discredit any position I might hold; and as if any journalist would dare cast aspersions on conversations between a non-Christian politician and a leader of their faith. The journalist was told that from time to time I did indeed have discussions with the Cardinal; they were always instructive and I wished they were more frequent. Two generations after it was thought sectarianism had finally vanished from public life, this is doubtless evidence that I am the Vatican mole in the Howard Government.
It's worth noting that when Bruce Baird, Steven Fielding and Barnaby Joyce invoked their Christian consciences to oppose the Government's immigration bill, there were no calls to keep religion out of politics. Media outrage is confined to expressions of the church's moral teaching, not its social gospel in what is, at the very least, a chronically politically correct double standard.
For what it's worth, I find the "Captain Catholic" tag uncomfortable because I'm no less prone to the deadly sins than anyone else. I just take the church and its teaching seriously in a way that was almost universal scarcely a generation back.
What's at work here is not just journalists' lack of understanding of the Christian culture that underpins our society, including its pluralism and separation of church and state, but their reluctance to extend a fair go to what's unfashionable.
Australian journalism needs to be more intellectually curious and less implicitly judgmental.
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