The forgotten art of political communication

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Monday, 29 August 2011 11:36 by Ad astra
“Julia Gillard is not getting her message out”. “She is not cutting through”. “People have stopped listening”. “Her message is being drowned out by noise”. How many times have we heard that? But how many have pointed out that it is the media that creates most of the distracting noise? How many times have we seen any thoughtful analysis in the media of why this is so? Pitifully few. This piece attempts to fill that yawning gap.

There have been many studies of communication. I won’t attempt to make this a learned treatise but rather will draw on my experience over the years and my more recent observations of politics.

A simple model of communication includes the transmitter, the message, the medium and the receiver, which I shall dissect. It’s much more complicated than that, but let’s start with the basic structure, and apply it to PM Gillard and her Government and Tony Abbott and his Opposition.

The transmitter
The personality and style of the messenger is crucial to getting the message across. We all know how dull and boring speakers put off their audiences. The media accuse Julia Gillard of having a drawl, an ocker accent, and slow speech. Add to that what they often spotlight: inappropriate dress, big earlobes, unusual earrings, red hair, a pointy nose and an ample backside, and any hope that the message she is hoping to transmit might get a guernsey is remote. Distracted by the inconsequential and governed by the media’s modus operandi, the media fails to hear what she is saying, often deliberately, and thereby fails to transmit it.

She certainly does not have the oratory of a Bill Clinton or a Tony Blair, the dulcet tones of Malcolm Turnbull, the lofty words of Gough Whitlam, the acerbic language of Paul Keating, or the scalawag charm of Bob Hawke. She is a Welsh immigrant brought up in South Australia, educated at Unley High School and the University of Melbourne, no doubt attaining her accent and speech from those environments. She seems to be sincere and genuine, although her adversaries would dispute that. So we, and the media, all have a choice: focus on her speaking attributes which we may or may not like, or listen to her message. So far the media has too often chosen the former. The latter might be more edifying for us all.

It certainly helps if the orator has a pleasant mode of delivery, or at least one that does not detract from the message. So if we don’t like PM Gillard’s delivery, we can ignore it and listen for the message, or ignore her, which is what much of the media and possibly the public are doing.

Although it seems to attract little attention from the media, Tony Abbott’s mode of delivery is no paragon. His raspy voice is unattractive, his forced laugh at times bordering on maniacal, his hesitancy off-putting, his but, but, but irritating, his deviousness and slyness unnerving, and his occasional muteness astonishing. But never mind, that’s just Tony!

The receiver
The receiver needs to be considered alongside the transmitter as the latter needs to be geared to the former. There are three common modes of language that people prefer for receiving information: visual, auditory and kinesthetic (or feeling). Those with a preference for visual language respond well to: ‘I see what you mean’; those who prefer auditory to: “I hear what you are saying; and those who like kinesthetic language to: ‘I know how you feel’. People accept messages more readily via their preferred mode, so the transmitter will achieve better results using that mode. It is easy to determine the preferred mode in one-to-one conversations and use it, as those familiar with neurolinguistic programming know, but that is not possible in large audiences.

A public speaker encounters all three preferences, but as visual is preferred by more than the others, that ought to be the mode generally used by the transmitter. However, there are occasions where the other modes are more appropriate; for example in the face of a natural disaster, or a tragedy, kinesthetic language: ‘I feel for you in your tragic situation’, is more suitable.

A good public speaker will mix these modes and use phrases like: “We can see what needs to be done and will find our way through the problem’ and ‘We are listening to what you are telling us, and will respond to your message’, and “We feel your pain, we grasp what is needed, and will carry it through’. Reflect on Julia Gillard’s language. How often have you heard her using kinesthetic (feeling) words: ‘I feel/understand your pain’; ‘I know you are doing it tough’?

Tony Abbott uses a lot of kinesthetic language, as so often his objective is to have his audience feel the pain of rising costs, of ‘toxic’ taxes, of job losses, of businesses closing, of ‘ghost towns’. Sometimes he uses the auditory, usually urging the PM to ‘listen’ to the people. Since he is not heavily into a vision for our nation, visual language does not feature much in his utterances, except of course when he uses the spacer word ‘look’ over and again in tight interviews.

A good speaker will also personalize messages by the use of words such as ‘you’ and ‘yours’, reaching out to the individual elector.

The medium
No discussion of the medium should fail to mention the author of the aphorism: “The medium is the message”, Marshall McLuhan. According to Wikipedia: “Marshall McLuhan was a Canadian educator, philosopher, and scholar – a professor of English literature, a literary critic, a rhetorician, and a communication theorist. McLuhan's work is viewed as one of the cornerstones of the study of media theory, as well as having practical applications in the advertising and television industries.” His 1964 book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man was seminal and echoes still in the corridors of media studies.

“McLuhan understood "medium" in a broad sense. He identified the light bulb as a clear demonstration of the concept of “the medium is the message”. A light bulb does not have content in the way that a newspaper has articles or a television has programs, yet it is a medium that has a social effect; that is, a light bulb enables people to create spaces during nighttime that would otherwise be enveloped by darkness. He describes the light bulb as a medium without any content. McLuhan states that: "a light bulb creates an environment by its mere presence. Likewise, the message of a newscast about a heinous crime may be less about the individual news story itself – the content – and more about the change in public attitude towards crime that the newscast engenders by the fact that such crimes are in effect being brought into the home to watch over dinner… As society's values, norms and ways of doing things change because of the technology, it is then we realize the social implications of the medium.”

McLuhan somewhat humorously rephrased his famous aphorism as: “The medium is the massage” in recognition of the fact that each medium produces a different "massage" or "effect" on us. Read more about McLuhan in Wikipedia here and here

We know that what McLuhan postulated is true today, intensified by the expansion of older technologies, TV and the Internet, and the advent of newer ones such as Facebook and Twitter. The latter has added a powerful new dimension to political reporting because of its instantaneousness.

In his book Sideshow: Dumbing Down Democracy, (Scribe Publications, 2011) Lindsay Tanner asserts that the way the media now operates conditions the way politicians prepare for media interactions. A medium that is more interested in trivialities, conflict, gotchas, setting traps and creating discord, pushes politicians to behave defensively lest any slip up land them into political trouble or bring them into disrepute.

To elaborate on his assertion, he talks about TV, possibly now the major conduit for information to the public, and quotes media researcher John McManus’ four basic rules of TV news: “prefer images above ideas, employ emotion above analysis, exaggerate, and avoid extensive news gathering”. That does not leave much scope for intelligent statements about policy.

Tanner goes onto quote Robert MacNeil, former executive editor and co-anchor of a major US TV news show, who explains: “The idea is to keep everything brief, not to strain the attention of anyone but instead provide constant stimulation through variety, novelty, action and movement… (assuming) that bite-sized is best, that complexity must be avoided, that nuances are dispensable, that qualifications impede the simple message, that visual stimulation is a substitute for thought, and that verbal precision is an anachronism.” Where is the room for content in that formula?

With the medium dominating the scene and focussing attention on anything and everything but significant content, how can a politician hope to transmit anything at all complex, as indeed some policies of necessity must be? Tony Abbott has grasped this reality with his three word slogans. In his perpetual negative mode, he has the luxury of being able to reduce his negativity to short but memorable sound bites. He exploits too the media’s preoccupation with images by pretending to sell bananas, by cutting up meat or by kissing fish. It’s all too easy for the No, No, No, man and his GBNT.

Referring to the cult of the personality, Tanner quotes American commentator Michael Hirschorn: “Mere logic is powerless against a brilliant projection of personality”. Tanner goes on to say: “Reporting of major events, such as federal budgets, is invariably reduced to a series of stories about aggrieved individuals. Because news executives regard politics as boring, stories are rendered through individual life-experiences in order to make them more interesting. Journalist Dan Gardner suggests that ‘the power of personal stories explains the standard format of most feature reports in newspapers and television’ which in turn explains ‘the freak show that has taken over much of the media’. The ultimate logic of this is that politicians become known for their personal characteristics and behaviour, not their policies.”

So there it is – the real content, the real decisions of politicians on important aspects of policy that affects real people, are overwhelmed by the medium and its need or desire to meet other criteria for appealing to or entertaining its audience, such as human interest, sensation, travail, personalities, scandal, and trivialities that titillate. Tony Abbott exploits this every day through his escapades at shopping centres, factories and mines, or driving heavy machinery. The consistent theme is: be scared, be fearful, the Labor dragon is about to slay you and change forever your way of life. In contrast, the media, in pursuing its own agenda of infotainment, drowns out Julia Gillard’s good news messages with noise.

What do other commentators think about what Tanner asserts?

Jay Rosen, professor of journalism at New York University, interviewed by Tony Jones on Lateline last week, began by saying that ‘political coverage is broken’ and supported that assertion with: “I think we've reached the point where politics as entertainment, the 24-hour news cycle, the fascination with media manipulation and spin doctors, the cult of the insider in political coverage - have gone on for so long they've all come together to the point where I think they're not only distorting politics, but they're actually beginning to substitute for it.”

Rosen went on to say: “I think there was a time when the political system decided what policy was, what their stance was going to be, and then of course consulted their advisers about how to present it. Today, as I think Lindsay Tanner suggested in his book Sideshow, which I have read, it's almost the reverse of that. It is, what's going to work in the media is presented first and then figuring out policies that you can announce that correspond to that comes after.

“It is that sense that this crazy mix of politics and news and manipulation and media and journalism has overtaken the political system that I think we need to register and start dealing with.”

Later Rosen said: “… political actors respond to the intensive systems that are before them. I think what we have now is a situation where journalism isn't just representing what political actors do; it is actually changing what they do. And there isn't really an exit from that system no matter what channel you're watching or what news source you're consulting.” Jones wanted to argue that this was a US phenomenon, but Rosen threw the question back at him: “…tell me, Tony, do you not see any of these things happening in the Australian political system?” Tony was having none of that, and went on to say: “It is not coverage that's broken, rather it is the politicians themselves that are broken and what's broken in them is their ever-increasing use and reliance on spin.” So Tony was sheeting the blame wholly to the politicians; the media was blameless.

But undeterred, Rosen came back: “Well, that's true, they are doing that, and it is not just spin, it's focus groups, it's consultants, the notion of the permanent campaign, as I said before - but I think we're mature enough to recognise that political actors and the producers of news are interdependent at this point.

“Ask yourself this: who would be the most likely actor in that system to be able to change? Who has the most freedom of movement, the most freedom to manoeuvre? I would say it is the people in the news media. They could change their game tomorrow if they wanted to, and I think we're at the point where they ought to start thinking about doing that.”

Tony was still unconvinced: “Change their game in what way? It would be hard to imagine us changing our own game here on this program dramatically. We do long interviews; we do probing interviews with politicians. Hopefully we see through the spin. So what is it that you're suggesting should change?”

Rosen explained patiently: “What I mean by changing the game is first of all abandoning the fascination with "inside baseball" as we call it in the United States, or the media manipulators, and begin to return to journalism as a reality check. A much heavier emphasis on fact-checking - calling out lies and distortions - would be a good start - but I think too much of the political press has begun to look at the public and electorate through the same eyes that professional operatives use when thinking of their next campaign.

“I think this kind of fascination with the mechanics of political presentation, staging, media narratives, appearing before the cameras and the arts of imagery - those kinds of things have become the mutual fascinations of the political class and the journalistic class. Maybe you avoid a lot of that on your program, but I think within the press culture as a whole in the United States and, according to Lindsay Tanner, in Australia, these values have begun to overtake the depiction of the real.”

I’ve quoted at length what Jay Rosen had to say, as it was so germane. But there was more. You may wish to read the whole transcript or view this fascinating and informative interview. Click here.  

You also may wish to read his keynote address Why Political Coverage is Broken to New News 2011, part of the Melbourne Writers Festival, co-sponsored by the Public Interest Journalism Foundation at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne on August 26.  

Is it just slavish adherence of the media to a style of presentation that disadvantages those with a serious message, and assists those with a simple if disingenuous message? In my opinion, there is more to it than that. On any reasonable assessment of News Limited media it seems clear that there is a darker reason for PM Gillard and her ministers ‘not cutting through’. It is the deliberate distortion of the facts through omission, cherry picking and dishonesty that lie at the heart of the problem the Government has. A media organization bent on ‘regime change’, which many believe is the case, can powerfully influence public opinion in whatever way it pleases, and News Limited does this overtly and covertly. In my view it is not just the contemporary behaviour of the media that lies behind the Government’s problem; it is malevolence that descends from a proprietorial and editorial level. To assess the validity of that view, you may be interested to listen to Paul Barry talking today on ABC 24 about Crikey’s ‘megaphone index’. 

The medium needs to be considered on a micro level too. At an intimate interpersonal level in informal situations, such as we see in schools and supermarkets, Julia Gillard seems to be personable, likeable, good humoured and well regarded. She has an infectious laugh and an engaging way of interacting with individuals. She has no problems there. Tony Abbott similarly does well in these environments.

At a more formal level in Press Club events or speeches or in press conferences, the PM comes across as more formal, more deliberate in what she says, and in how she answers questions. She know that reporters are waiting to pounce on any perceived slip up or change of language as they did recently over the projected budget surplus in 2012/13. She has learned that loose talk, or even an off-the-cuff remark, could be used by hostile journalists to beat her around the head. Although she controls questions firmly but politely, she has been branded by some as schoolmarmish. On the other hand, journalists have learned that she will not take nonsense from them and will call them out. Tony Abbott does not do nearly as well in press conferences. He dislikes any challenge to his views, and when the questioning gets too tough or persistent for him, he winds up and walks out.

Both are workmanlike in delivering set speeches, but hardly Churchillian.

In parliament Julia Gillard can be persuasive, but also cutting in rebutting Coalition taunts, accusations and tricky questions. She is Abbott’s superior in repartee, but both exhibit well-honed debating skills.

On occasions when dignity is needed she excels, as we have seen in her motions of condolence and in her responses to disasters, as does Tony Abbott.

Altogether I would give her high marks for communication, but most journalists would scoff at that assessment. I would give lesser marks to Abbott, but acknowledge the success he has had with short memorable slogans.

Another component of the medium is the printed word. This is still used, but to what effect? The booklet recently distributed to all householders: Working together for a clean energy future, was an example of how not to inform the public. Accustomed though I am to reading complex scientific documents, I found this one so confusing in its format, so boring to read, so dull in its layout, that I gave up a short way through. It looked as if it had been produced by an earnest but unimaginative public servant, determined to include all the facts, and answer all the questions, if only readers looked long and patiently enough through its lacklustre pages. It was wholly uninspiring.

I can’t claim to know the answer to producing documents that would appeal to the average voter, but what I understand about such attempts at ‘advertising’, is that ads are more likely to be read and understood if fashioned for consumption by children approaching teenage. Perhaps a comic style format might attract readers. It would be an interesting sociological study to research how many read the document, how much of it, how much they understood, and how much it affected their beliefs. I predict the results would be very disappointing.

The online version was well set out and informative, but devoid of illustrations and graphics, which could have done so much to bring it alive.

The message
It may seem odd that ‘the message’ comes so late in this piece, but the reality is that the message, the content of what politicians say, unless it can be reduced to slogan-like phrases, or bite-sized bits, or snappy TV clips, is of little interest to the media in its contemporary mood. It is only through Government sponsored ‘advertising’ or information pieces that the Government can fashion its message. Unfortunately when it has done so, it has done it poorly.

Where does that leave us?
It is a sad reality that the imperatives of the commercial media to compete and turn a profit and the seeming desire of the public broadcaster to follow the pattern they set, leave us with a media that is not conducive to the promulgation of vitally important messages about policy, plans, budgets or decisions, unless they can be placed in fancy dress that appeals to a largely disinterested and inattentive electorate. Politicians go through contortions to dress up their messages, which is relatively easy if they are negative and derogatory, but almost impossible if they are at all complex and will occupy much more than ten seconds of the audience’s attention. The media, particularly the electronic media, has conditioned its users to short grabs, rapidly changing imagery, startling video, outrageous or scandalous utterances, and of course human interest stories, some heart warming, some grotesque. There is simply no room for serious political content.

The transmission might be improved and the message enhanced, but the real problem seems to be with the medium.

The lost art of political communication seems fated to remain lost until and unless radical changes to media style are forthcoming, at least in the arena of political reportage. As Jay Rosen said: “Who would be the most likely actor in that system to be able to change? Who has the most freedom of movement, the most freedom to manoeuvre? I would say it is the people in the news media. They could change their game tomorrow if they wanted to, and I think we're at the point where they ought to start thinking about doing that.” And so say all of us.

But with media hell bent in pursuing its commercial and political agendas, and with an entrenched ‘We’re alright Jack’ attitude such as exhibited by Tony Jones last week where he laid full responsibility for the current ‘broken’ situation at the feet of spin-obsessed politicians, what hope have we got for change for the better? Buckley’s, unless the Fifth Estate keeps hammering away at the Fourth Estate to change its ways and give us all a fair go in trying to grasp and understand what the Government is trying to do for this nation and its citizens. How else can we thoughtfully cast a vote at the next election?

Unlike Tony Jones, this piece is not attempting to apportion blame, but to assign responsibility for the media mess we are in, and express the fervent hope that there is some way out of the abyss in which find ourselves trapped.

What do you think?