Politics and the Media

So the past few weeks I’ve been working on one of my final essays for this semester. The course was Charisma, Fame and Celebrity and I chose to look at how the role of the leader in politics has changed due to the rise of televised media. I was going to look at polling and Twitter/blogs of amateur journalists, but couldn’t fit it in ><.

So first up, what charisma is isn’t very clearly defined. It’s more a case of you have it or you don’t have it, but there seems to be very little doubt (particularly in journalism) that is does in fact exist. Most of the modern work on charisma is based on Max Weber (although charisma was first a Greek word, which was then widely used in Christianity until quite recently when the meaning became more secular). Weber predicted the fall of the charismatic leader due to the ‘bureaucratic political party machines’ (although, clearly has not made it impossible, just very difficult for a charismatic leader to rise above). They usually arise in times of crisis, and can better survive poor performance or avert blame during such times.

In Australia, there appears to be a growing ‘personalisation of politics’ – also referred to as ‘presidentialisation of politics’ – where we single out a leader as the One whom all policies and ideas come from, rather than a whole party or cabinet voting on them (I saw more studies for this than against it, though both exist). In America this might not seem such a big deal, but in Australia it is the parties themselves who decide on a leader. They might choose a new leader because the old one has been ineffective (either in policy-making or failure to win government) for so long, doesn’t represent the party’s ideals, has received poor polling, things like that. While looking at some stats, it seems like leaders have a shorter life span than they used to – but I didn’t look at this in much detail and didn’t have the word count to go into it in any meaningful way.

The blame for less charismatic leaders is squarely put on televised media – although the politicians are complicit in this process as well. Joshua Meyrowitz has a great chapter in his book No Sense of Place on the history of American Presidents and how before tv, any ‘ugliness’, disability or health issue, and presidential scandals were able to be confined from the public. The way they manipulated – or perhaps, worked with – the media to establish a certain image was much more in their control. But no longer! Now we pretty much all have tvs, access to 24 hour news, and news can spread wide and very fast. It seemed to be that the appearance of a charismatic leader partly relied on the distance between the leader and the people, which is now almost impossible as the media will endlessly go on about a leaders personal life, their hair colour, their shoes etc. There also seems to be evidence that politicians have gone along with the media to try and get the attention they need (after all, you can’t vote for someone if you don’t know they exist!).

Barrack Obama is generally considered to be an exception to this, particularly in his first election. Remember how damn excited everyone was?! Although it was quite a bit lesser, people were like that for Kevin Rudd before he got in. While Tony Abbott has been called a ‘charmer’, neither he nor Julia Gillard are gifted with charisma. Part of being charismatic depends on being recognised by followers that one IS charismatic.

In Tanner’s Sideshow, he says “a short-term focus, extreme risk aversion, and minor announcements are all symptoms of the permanent campaign” (111), and I think we’re getting that quite clearly in Australia at the moment.

And now for the fun bit, a video by the Chaser boys from their series The Hamster Wheel. Enjoy! XD

Recommended Reading

  • Julia 2010: The Caretaker Election. Ed. Marian Simms & John Wanna. Canberra: Australian National University Press, 2012.
  • Ginsborg, Paul. Democracy: Crisis and Renewal. London: Profile Books. 2008. Print.
  • Farnsworth, Stephen J & Lichter, S Robert. The Mediated Presidency: Television News and Presidential Governance. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. 2006. Print.
  • McAllister, Ian. The Australian Vote: 50 Years of Change. Sydney: NewSouth Publishing. 2011.
  • McKew, Maxine. Tales from the Political Trenches. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press. 2012.
  • Megalogenis, George. Trivial Pursuit: Leadership and the End of the Reform Era. Collingwood: Black Inc. 2010.
  • Meyrowitz, Joshua. No Sense of Place: The impact of electronic media on social behavior. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1986.
  • Potts, John. A History of Charisma. Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan. 2009.
  • Tanner, Lindsay. Sideshow: dumbing down democracy. Melbourne: Scribe. 2011.

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