This piece originally appeared in The Age
In the week of Anthony Mundine’s graceless capitulation—and news that his hero, Muhammad Ali, was dying—I wanted to write about boxing. And I was going to riff on Mundine’s cultural status, his awkward fit in Aussie egalitarianism and our unhappiness with noisy self-possession.
But then Christopher Pyne opened his mouth. “This government is starting to resemble a scene from Downfall,” Pyne said, referencing the 2004 film about Hitler’s final days in his bunker.
The Liberal frontbencher is a grubby little willy-willy—not the impressive, swirling columns of the outback, but the small and insignificant ones that form in sandpits. Pyne is all fierce but facile energy, expending itself almost facetiously. There’s a glibness to Pyne, a sort of private schoolboy mischievousness, and the result is a public record of comments that have almost zero enduring worth. But, as night follows day, the willy-willy flares up, scattering gauche hyperbole across our headlines, and we breathlessly report it.
The fresh Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus, said the remarks were offensive to Holocaust survivors, and demanded an apology. But really, they were offensive to anyone naive enough to think it would be a fine idea for our representatives to speak substantively, and for reporters to slap them when they’re not. The press gaggle assembled for Pyne might have better asked this cheap actor if he was aware that he was helping eulogise intelligent debate.
Pyne’s remarks aren’t about insensitivity or the Holocaust or Adolf and Eva choosing cyanide for their wedding cake. It’s about the imperious march of idiocy, and the press taking snapshots as it passes, rather than lying down in front of the procession.
A Hitler quote is hard to pass up for a journalist, knowing also that there’ll be a backlash to kick the story along another 24 hours. But then the story vanishes, leaving a slightly sticky residue on our collective consciousness. It’s the planned obsolescence of our political “stories”—designed and planted by media advisers. But what Pyne said—and how it was reported—gets to the heart of journalistic insecurity, and what media scholar Jay Rosen calls “the view from nowhere”.
Rosen argues that the journalist makes a “bid for trust that advertises the viewlessness of the news producer”. In other words, the journalist’s integrity is pegged to an appearance of objectivity. But Rosen goes on to say, and I’m paraphrasing, the “view from nowhere” can turn toothless, a shallow pose struck to ward off criticism of bias. The poses of objectivity can become inertia.
Take Pyne’s press conference. Some reporters could have a) not reported it, but then risked the wrath of their producer for having missed the obvious “lead”, or b) instead of being bloodless ciphers—and so participants in Pyne’s game—simply said, “Hitler, really?” and asked him a question about the Prime Minister’s economic outline. But that would risk accusations of activism, and so neither happened and we got another news cycle of farce guided by the invisible hand of newsworthiness.
These difficulties—the damned if you do, damned if you don’t contingencies of political reporting—create a peculiar situation that Rosen has described as journalism being less intelligent than its journalists. This logical quandary is queered further by our culture of political tribalism. Almost all political criticism, however reasonable or uninflected, is received, interpreted and responded to as partisanship. This, I suggest, disinclines news producers to assert themselves.
A memorable exception is Leigh Sales’ interview with Tony Abbott last year on 7.30. Sales did not have a “view from nowhere” but a belief that the alternative prime minister should not underservice his intelligence—or ours—with anaemic rhetoric and falsehoods. The result? Both a Walkley award and a (dismissed) complaint of bias registered with our government’s media watchdog. Such are the rewards and headaches of gumption, but it seems worth it to me.
While Anthony Mundine deliberately, if guilelessly, played the anti-hero this week, so too did Pyne. Boxing’s ratings, like politics’, are dependent on confected drama, and the press mostly plays along, crafting heroes and villains and wreathing them in simple but compelling narratives. It’s the same for politics—we’re shackled to an old wheel of manufactured drama that’s kept turning by some of the more empty pieties of objectivity.
Muhammad Ali lies dying—his once beautiful repose long crippled by age and sub-concussive blows—and so I’m thinking about courage, grace, spontaneity and adaptability. Newspapers are on the ropes late in the 12th round, and views from nowhere won’t win it.