Danger of government by media reaction

CORPORATE managers in Australia should now get out their risk lists and add a new heading: a media blitz. In just a few days, a media blitz following one Four Corners program has put in jeopardy a $320 million-a-year industry – the live cattle trade with Indonesia.

Don’t get me wrong. I do not condone cruelty to animals. The questions we should be asking are not, how did the media put a sudden stop to the industry, but how did the industry begin in the first place and once begun how did it get to this appalling state?

It is a classic of government failing to regulate effectively in an area of market failure. Markets do not give a damn about animal welfare. And you have to wonder whether governments give a damn about cruelty to animals unless they are forced to by public opinion.

If Lyn White from Animals Australia could get this footage it is a fair assumption that the Australian industry knew what was going on and the Government should have known. Industry has now admitted as much.

White said she gave her video footage to Four Corners rather than the Minister or “proper authorities” because she knew proper authorities would do nothing. Last year she gave the government footage of cruel slaughter in Kuwait and nothing happened.

When Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig was asked by the ABC if live exports would still be continuing if White had given him the video he dissembled, talking about a dialogue with industry on self-regulation.

Sadly, if you want a timely response, go to the media. Politicians, for example former Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner, are saying the media drives them to stunt politics rather than long-term sound policy. It is true, but only up to a point and it certainly was not always the case. The releation ship between politicians and the media is a symbiotic one.

Yes, media likes conflict, personality and the unusual, but it does not ignore news of consequence and impact. If politicians concentrate on the former rather than the latter, the media will follow.

It cannot all be a media problem. After all, when politicians are in their own environment and can impose strict rules on media coverage – in Parliament, particularly Question Time – they behave appallingly.

The GST – more than a decade ago – was the last major reform in Australia. Since then it has been short-term bread, circuses and conflict.

In this environment, small wonder pressure groups and others concerned with how policy will develop join the media fray, highlighting conflict and exaggerating in order to gain attention.

Small wonder the number of whistleblowers grows as public servants despair of getting good policy done and bad practice weeded out.

It is not just Labor. The Coalition after the GST went the same way. Indeed, it behaved in exactly the same way as Labor over the cruel, unnecessary trade in live animals. It was only after television footage of gruesome mistreatment of exported animals to Egypt that the Howard Government in 2006 suspended the trade. As now, it is not as if the government didn’t know what was going on before the footage was aired.

It is government by knee-jerk reaction to media coverage. The trouble with it is that it will be disruptive not deliberative, and emotional not reasonable.

This is why corporate managers should put “media blitzes” on their risk-management lists. You will never know when and where it might strike or how big the fall-out might be.

Of course, a better way would be for government to pretend there is a television camera around all the time. Would we engage in this practice if the public knew about it?

The other worrying things about government by media reaction, is that government usually only acts if the media coverage is emotional or visceral, causing a groudswell for action — as this case so amply illustrates. Often that means video coverage on television, because sound and vision appeal to the emotions. Written evidence and reasoning is rarely enough. Time and again serious, detailed, written evidence and agruments pointing to government laziness, illegality, incompetence or unconstitutionality are ignored.

Nothing seems to change, for example, with the ineptitude of defence procurement despite endless exposes, particularly in The Australian.

There are some other worrying trends if governments are to be so susceptible to media coverage: the nature of “balance”; the influence of social media; and technological changes.

In these days of politicians, particularly Tony “Dr No” Abbott, willing to say anything, however exaggerated, wrong or inconsistent just to score a short-term political point, the media’s ethical duty to provide “balance” is no longer sufficient to get the truth to media audiences. All they get is a “he said white, she said black” and no-one is any the wiser.

The influence of social media is subtle. It is slowly eroding the usual restraints to the traditional media. Any idiot can bang up any amount of unvetted tripe on the social media – wrong, defamatory, credulous, tasteless, obscene or contemptuous. Once the material is public on the social media, the traditional media then feels it can make reference to it in greater and greater detail. Before the advent of social media, traditional media would not have gone near it.

And technological advances make it far easier for people to record video and audio and to do so clandestinely. The advances make it easier for them to publish to the world on the internet and thence to be referred to in the mainstream media.

With government taking ever more cognisance of this worsening media world, government is becoming more debased.

It will take a certain amount of political courage to rise above it.

As it happens, I think it was a good thing for Four Corners to publish the video and for something to happen to stop the cruelty. I am just saying that a more caring and competent government would not have allowed things to come to this pass in the first place and that if media reaction is to influence government so much while the malfeasance not splattered emotionally across the TV is ignored, we will suffer from ever greater maladministration.

In this instance, people’s livelihoods have been profoundly affected. It would have been avoided if the trade have been more properly policed in the first place.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times on 11 June 2011.

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