28 April 2014

Being subject

The recent royal visit did not demonstrate continuity, but its opposite. The old tropes are inadequate and this country is undergoing fundamental change, which traditional media can barely describe or even understand.

When agents of the Murdoch media tapped Prince William's phone, they set off a chain reaction that none of them could have foreseen. Other celebrities need to keep themselves in the public eye to land the big roles and boost their going rate. Prince William's position, and the privilege that comes with it, does not depend on publicity. He does not need the media and has been raised to disdain them; they killed his mother. He pressed charges, against the conventional wisdom that keeping the media onside is a Smart Move.

The Murdoch media lost a royal editor and a key investigator ('professional journalists' having lost their investigative skills), and investigations are underway as to how high up the Murdoch hierarchy the phone-hacking went.

UK Labour leader Ed Miliband realised that no amount of Blairite grovelling would ever get Murdoch onside. He cornered the Cameron government into calling the Leveson Inquiry and giving it sweeping powers. That decision set Miliband above political-class hackery and forced press gallery to snap out of its clich├ęs as they no longer served to describe him.

In Australia, Murdoch has a much tighter grip over the media, in its own right and in setting a tone that the timid non-Murdoch media seems bound to follow. The coverage of the recent visit by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince George can only be described as fawning. There was no sneering, no crap about elitism or dressing rudeness up as iconoclasm: the Murdoch media observed protocol scrupulously, because even the slightest departure from propriety would have rebounded on Rebekah Brooks and her co-defendants. Kiss the hand you cannot bite.
IN this era of butt selfies and slut walks, Kate Middleton, aka the Duchess of Cambridge, is a revolutionary.
In her clumsy way, this is what Miranda Devine was getting at with the above quote and the rest of her piece. Name me one person more responsible for "this era of butt selfies and slut walks" than her owner, Rupert Murdoch. Devine got where she is through an accident of birth and by doing what she was told. For her sins she has been tasked to write about someone who's also been obedient and attained an even more lofty position. By shouting out to the Duchess she is trying to validate herself. She is trying two psychologically tricky things that I doubt she has ever done before: she is conferring superior qualities onto someone who is younger and prettier than her, with even fewer career achievements; and she is sucking up to someone who can do her career no good at all, someone who can be forgiven for being ignorant of her very existence.

The Murdoch media has also done its best toward a less powerful entity than the royals, one on which it relies but over which it exerts greater control: the Abbott government.

As I've said, the month or so before the Budget involves discussion on spending priorities, particularly in terms of what gets cut. The royal visit was the biggest distraction going. There are no big sporting contests to distract attention, and pensions and healthcare are so primal that debates cannot be left to wonks and spinners. Media space devoted to a handsome young family is media space not devoted to cuts, cuts, cuts; nor to Bill Shorten's attempts to pry open the doors to the crypt to which the Murdoch media has consigned his party.

The herd of media at staged photo ops, scrupulously obeying the conditions of those events, is self-validating for those involved and for those who employ them, in ways that public opinion cannot hope to penetrate.

The one that was most telling about this government was the picfac at Katoomba. Clearly, the royals' publicity machine wanted images of "the real Australia", the outback, while the government wanted them in the cities for economic and political reasons. As British racists claim that "the wogs start at Calais", so do insular Sydneysiders believe that the outback begins at Echo Point; and that, dear reader, is why the royals were photographed there, a place of real significance to Aborigines but from which almost all trace of Aboriginality has been scrubbed.

That said, one can only do so much. Those pictures where the Duchess attempts to maintain a sunny disposition in the leering company of Abbott, or where Prince George turns his grimacing face away from Abbott, undoes any cudos he and his media people hoped to get from the visit. The Cambridges were polite to Abbott, but they weren't loyal; they weren't grateful. They made him look cloying and desperate in ways no Labor leader has managed to do for long.

You'd think that such an ardent monarchist would have found a way to deal with the actual royal family. If anyone can integrate the royals deftly and comfortably into our national life, surely Abbott is the leader to make it happen. After his non-engagement with Prince Charles and his embarrassing schlockfest with Prince Harry, as observed earlier, the question must be asked: does the constitutional monarchy really have a future in Australia? By treating them as photo props, he makes the royals appear more alien to this country than they would otherwise be. After this royal visit Tony Abbott has made it easier, not harder, to argue that the monarchy is superfluous to our country.

You'd think that experienced newspaper people would realise that one of the key roles of a constitutional monarchy is to honour those who died fighting in their name. Every time the Queen or Prince Charles visited this country, they laid a wreath and spoke warmly of those who fell. By honouring those remembered at the going down of the sun, and in the morning, they preserve their own positions and they know it. How silly is it, then, to be surprised that the royals might pay tribute in the same way they always do? You can either be a credible paper of record or you can disgrace yourself with ignorant drivel, but not both.

Of course, in 1999 most Australians voted against a particular form of republic that would disrupt the political system as little as possible. Peter Brent believes that Australians will never vote for far-reaching reforms, and he is entitled to his opinion. It is possible for pollsters to be surprised, even ambushed, especially as political journalists have taken to cowering behind them and only predicting things that have already happened.

Beyond the Murdoch media, and beyond the questions that pollsters dare not ask, the political system is being remade. The Coalition, having enjoyed hefty margins and considerable goodwill, are sinking without a concomitant rise in Labor fortunes. The idea that Clive Palmer and Tony Windsor, as former members of conservative parties, are basically Coalition people has been proven to be delusional to anyone who will face it. There is a vitality in this part of our political system that the Greens have only in fits and starts, and which is dormant in the majors.

At some point, one-off victories here and there will form patterns that not even pet psephologists can ignore. Those victories will have effects on the political system that press gallery veterans can't understand or explain. Piping Shrike is right to say that the rise of Palmer is an indictment of the politico-media complex and not, as they would have it, of the electorate. The constitutional monarchy, like other aspects of the Constitution, might not be revolutionised but nor will it be as immune from change as Abbott and Brent would hope.

Rupert Murdoch's business model involves staying close to the political system. Yet, Murdoch's media do not help you understand what is going on within that system: the differences between what this government says and what it does, and how else we might be governed better. If members of the alternative government, and those emerging as alternatives to both the incumbents and the previous government, regard Murdoch media as an obstacle then it cannot last.

The royals don't need Murdoch, or Abbott, and it would be best if they did not come again for a while. Abbott and Murdoch, on the other hand, need one another more as each day passes.


  1. Andrew Neil was a delightful man to watch on Q and A last night.

    His analysis of The Murdoch empire was interesting and relevant to our own political culture here.

    His observation that News Ltd may engage in a similar trajectory here with our own politicians was a dire warning to Malcolm Turnball who was on the panel and looked uneasy.

    If only our conservatives were that nice and classy.

    A must see episode for many of the loyal readers of this blog who are concerned about the power and abuse of this dying old media.

  2. Abbott and Murdoch need one another....

    That's the scariest sign that our democracy has been comprimised

    This government has gone too far on many issues including the freedom to be a bigot.

    Thanks again for your outstanding contribution.

    Whilst I agree that the Royals are irrelevant to many people..they're more progressive than our current government.

    Marriage Equality and the environment amongst many other notable causes and charities.

    The celebrification of them as a couple has contributed to their appeal.

    Smart move by the firm to resurrect a tired old institution and modernise it for the masses.

    They're an attractive alternative and are above politics which makes them more credible than our current political class.


  3. I always enjoy your take on life Andrew.

    I disagree though with your assertion that the royals do not need the media. In fact you made it clear that they do when you talked about the photographic settings. Image making stuff.

    I think the royals are popular again because they are celebrities. Our Mary is also very popular for the same reasons Kate M is. Both are good looking slim, pleasant women who are not blue-blooded. They encapsulate the Disney princess dream, sweet nobodies who at least did not have to kiss a frog before moving to the palace.
    I think too that the Royal Family have come to represent the comfort of familiarity in a world of constant change and uncertainty.

    1. "They're not blue blooded..."

      Mary was from a middle class family and when she wotked in Melbourne was seen around Sth Yarra and Brighton as her old hunting grounds.

      Sweet Catherine acquired that posh accent by attending a very exclusive school in the U.k and went to the same University that many blue bloods attend .

      It was an agenda by many well to do parents that their darlings would be rubbing shoulders with the blue bloods

      Miss Catherine was the lucky girl to win his heart...

      That's the reality!!

  4. As your last paragraph put it, the royals don't need Abbott but boy, does he sure need them. The relationship between the royals and Abbott is not symbiotic, but parasitical: Abbott will use anything within his grasp to further his own position to the detriment of all other people and positions. Abbott's announcement of our own knights and dames before any official royal assent had been given is proof positive of their relations. Being the young media professionals that they are, the royal visitors handled themselves in our country very well, tolerating a parasite included.

    1. I thought the Australia Act 1986 meant that we entered a 'go it alone' phase and we didn't need to ask mum for her approval.


    2. No, the Australia Act meant we don't have to refer to the UK Parliament or the Privy Council - however we still have a monarch (the Queen of Australia) who grants these honours on the recommendation of the government. Had Abbott squared it away with the palace before the announcement? It would be the minimum of courtesy if nothing else.

  5. Andrew, I'm not with you when you say that "Name me one person more responsible for "this era of butt selfies and slut walks" than her owner, Rupert Murdoch." I think you are talking about the kind of vulgarity and online narcissism characterised by some people by "selfies" (I think they're pretty harmless, but wev).
    Slutwalk, on the other hand, was conceived as a response to the common trope that women invite sexual assault and rape by the clothes they wear. Similar to a Reclaim the Night march. Some agree with that form of protest and some don't, but it did not come from Murdoch.
    (It's also a common mistake to claim that the point of slutwalk was to dress in revealing/colourful/skimpy, aka "slutty", clothes. Women wore a great range of clothes, from the revealing (I have a right to freedom of movement regardless of what I wear) to the frumpy (I wore this and I was STILL raped / harassed/assaulted).

    1. Lachlan Ridge30/4/14 1:39 pm

      So why did slutwalk receive widespread coverage in Murdoch's papers when Reclaim the Night events or academic studies on sexual crime do not?

      See how it works? It's all about Murdoch's publications giving the readers a perve, the substance/context of the perve material is irrelevant. Fairfax and other media are increasingly following suit with prurient click bait. Why? It attracts eyeballs, which is their primary moral measure of anything. Do you think the Murdoch press really care about the faux outrage they kindle? Or the substance of these issues? No, it's about them.

    2. It's the mixture of prurience and prudery about those modern phenomena which the Murdoch press is so invested in.

  6. What a joke what a joke!
    Our leader has brought back knights and dames and has predicted that the infant Prince George will be our king, fifty years hence and yet today has brought us the black news that Team Abbott wants to turn us into America.
    Oh lord! Surely there can't be anyone out there who is shocked or surprised by this? And yet, I fear that there are people who believed all the rubbish shoveled at us before the election.

  7. Few of the proposals contained in the audit will be taken up whispers Ross Gittins through a hole in the SMH pay wall. Don't worry.

    I am worried. For two reasons. A 1200 page document looks like a blueprint to me. Members os the govt have been saying things which echo what I have heard is in the document. It is clearly their shtick but whether they can manipulate the politics is another matter.
    Secondly I am concerned by the ho hum attitude of journalists to political scare tactics. These have reached giddy heights. Is anyone else sick of it?