What I learnt about democracy from Australia’s longest election campaign
After eight weeks of relentless campaigning, debates, information and misinformation, it seems as though the polls are at the same place they were when we started, and that very few Australians have changed their minds regarding who is most suited to lead the country. If anyone does remember this election campaign in the future, in will be marked by two stories.
The first is about Duncan Storrar, a 45-year-old Geelong father struggling to support his young family on piecemeal truck-driving work and a $520-a-fortnight Austudy allowance. He was unwittingly thrown into the national spotlight when he posed a question on ABC’s Q&A about why there was no tax cut for low-income earners in the most recent budget.
In the days following his question, the front page of Herald Sun screamed, “ABC hero a villain: Q&A sob story star exposed as a thug as public donate $60,000.” The Australian described him as an “undressing drug user.” In response to the merciless bullying he faced, a family friend released a statement saying that “Yes Duncan has had a hard life, some of which are his own choices, some due to mental illness. This week, Duncan has been pushed to the brink of suicide. The character assassination needs to stop.”
After being pursued relentlessly for two weeks by the political right, Australia moved on.
The second story is about Andrew MacRae, a 50-year-old North Sydney metal worker who appeared in an ad for the Liberal Party wearing a high-vis vest on a building site, alleging that the opposition has declared war on banks, mining and blue-collar workers. Following the creation of the hashtag #faketradie, his friends and family became worried for his well-being after unions launched a vicious social media campaign against the Liberal Party’s TV ad.
Media watch counted at least 75 separate stories on the fake – or not so fake – tradie. They also counted at least 13 reporters that were hot on his trail at one time or another, while at least the same number were busy commenting on the ‘news’ the sleuths were digging up.
For two weeks the political left made Andrew MacRae the subject of intense ridicule on social media, after which Australia moved on.
At the same time, there was not one single news report (trust me, I looked) listing all the parties running in the senate, describing where each stands on each issue. One would imagine that this is the most important topic a journalist should be writing about when voters are struggling to make up their minds in between this mass of choices. Instead, most of the media focused on the entertaining, trivial and strategic aspects of the campaign, whilst social media became a platform for the bullying of political rivals, in absence of solid policy critique that too many Australians found boring
In an ideal world, the media would take a leaf from Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom. In Episode 2, Season 1, the fabulous executive producer of News Night, MacKenzie McHale, informs her staff of the standards they will be working toward when creating news stories. These four beautiful rules for how information should be presented in a news story are so simple, yet so ignored by most of our journalists who seek to entertain, rather than inform.
1. Is this information we need in the voting booth?
Is the information presented important to that pivotal moment when people cast their votes? Or does it present a triviality irrelevant to the process of good governing?
2. Is this the best possible form of the argument?
Has the story been cheapened, sensationalized or oversimplified? Does it employ hyperbole as a smokescreen? Does it hold reason in high esteem? Does it sensibly examine motives, causes and effects?
3. Is this in historical context?
Has the fact presented been isolated from its historical surroundings, thereby providing little or no reasonable basis for comparison to assist our judgement? Has a figure or statistic been compared to a similar past situation in order to ascertain if we are observing progression or regression?
4. Are there really two sides to every story?
When there is more than one reasonable side, present those sides reasonably. When there aren’t – don’t.
Here’s hoping we learn from this experience before the 2019 Campaign.