Panels, politics and process
There may be few things in life less satisfying than falling backwards onto a bed of Panna Cotta. Not that I’ve done it but it seems like something that would be ultimately pointless and vaguely unsettling.
I have the same feeling about the panel shows on television or radio where politicians of differing parties (or their surrogates) are asked to speak about the issues of the day. Like the go-to dessert on Masterchef, they are everywhere. They all seem the same and even adding something extra, like a jus of visiting US comedian or UK outrage-generator or Deep Thinker, doesn’t make it not Panna Cotta.
They all end up being immovable object meets unstoppable force, talking points at ten paces. It’s the ultimate expression of the triumph of politics and process over policy.
But they persist because, like the dessert, they are easy to make and can be prepared in advance. In these days of Doing More With Less, the hours to fill stay the same, but the people filling them are fewer. It’s not just an Australian problem either with both US and UK news channels full of their own ceaseless political panels.
Having been both the host and the producer of political programs, trying to fill an hour or three every day for every week is like living in Groundhog Day. No matter how hard you work and how good a job you do in a day, at the end of the day it resets and you’re left to do it all again the next day. And the next. And the one after that.
Having regular, reliable people who can talk on any given subject at the drop of a hat rostered on days or weeks in advance means that’s one or two fewer slots to fill. To stretch an analogy a bit too far, they are the tub of ice cream in the freezer of programming.
But it ultimately makes for really really boring television. It looks like it should be dynamic and interesting, with a bit of conflict or -more rarely-humour. It doesn’t deliver, at least not any more. Like watching a movie your toddler loves, it’s good the first couple of times, but then the interest fades and by the 12th viewing you know what the words will be before they’re said and you’re sitting there willing it to end, unless you’ve already walked away to do the dishes.
So they’re not entertaining. They mostly don’t tell you anything you don’t already know. Because by the time an issue has gotten to the Parliament, positions are or are becoming entrenched, the debate becomes one of process (how are we going to get this done) and politics (how are we going to make people like/hate this, who is winning/losing). They look like everything people hate about politics.
The good news is the fix for this already exists. Well, mostly.
It’s possible to do dynamic and entertaining a myriad of different ways while adding informative and interesting to the mix.
Facts and focus help. The spread of fact checking and ‘explainers’ in Australian political coverage has been a great thing. They help set the stage or the ground rules for what follows. Opinions are grand but opinions without facts or evidence are just old-man-yelling-at-clouds.
It’s why Insiders continues to work in a way that Q&A doesn’t. At least for me. Journalists who know the current issues inside out, who can inject some facts and explain things without the vested interest of a politicians illuminate rather than confuse.
Q&A tends to suffer from everyone on the panel getting their two cents worth in. The politicians disagree with the politicians using the full force of their talking points. The visiting comedian/thinker gets asked to weigh in on an issue they may never have come across. The discussion moves on from subject matter expert so everyone can get their view in.
Hearing lots of different points of view is worthwhile and hearing from politicians who make important decisions that affect people is also worthwhile. But they don’t have to be on the same panel. They don’t have to be on a panel at all.
The old standard of an interview with a single politician/person where the interviewer has had some time to prepare is a thing of beauty and wonder. It’s even better when a politician actually has something beyond the script to say but that’s not always a necessary ingredient for illumination as David Speers or Leigh Sales regularly show.
A panel of subject matter experts on or people affected by a particular something is also much more compelling viewing or listening. The Drum on the ABC does some good focused discussions, and Geraldine Doogue’s RN Saturday Extra is always a delight.
Just occasionally politicians, when the discussion is narrowed and the people involved are willing to park the hyper-partisanship, can make a really good panel. When I worked at ABC News24, my then colleague Latika Bourke came up with a fantastic idea for a regular half hour discussion with two politicians on an issue outside the day-to-day brawling. It was one of the most satisfying panels I hosted and the one on which we had the most positive audience response.
The problem is the things that work (in my opinion) cost a bit more.
Prepping for an interview takes time. Checking facts and piling up evidence takes time. Finding a panel of people to talk on a particular issue who are all available at the same time takes time. Finding a diversity of voices, finding people who aren’t already on your tv or radio, finding new voices takes time.
And time means people. An extra producer or researcher. Or two. Another journalist to do an explainer. Time with graphics to put to together a fact check. People who can help make it look good. People who can make sure informative is fun rather than worthy but dull
The thing I’m not sure of is whether it’s the answer in terms of getting eyeballs to the TV. To invest more money needs a guaranteed or at least probable outcome in terms of ratings.
But the adage that conflict makes for good ratings seems not backed up by evidence. Fox News in the US is full of people who largely agree with each other, as is Sky News after 6pm
Reality shows may seem to be competition and conflict based. But if you look at them in panel terms, they are full of people focussed on the one issue; building a house, getting the girl/boy, surviving the pit of scorpions.
Will this get people who don’t care about politics watching?
Most people have lives. They have jobs to worry about. And children. And finances. They enjoy catching up with friends and family, and watching sport, and doing a bit of exercise. They go on holidays or car trips or for a walk. They do all of this without once thinking or worrying about what the politicians they elect do.
They tune in when something interesting happens, or something that affects them happens. But mostly when they tune in they see politicians arguing with each other over something that is essentially meaningless for most people’s lives.
This is not a reason not to report robustly and consistently on politics. Constant and high quality reporting holds politicians to account and attempts to keep them honest or honest-ish. People need reporting for when they choose to tune in. Knowing it’s there, that someone is keeping their eyes on ‘the bastards’ is comforting, and means they don’t have to do it.
The answer to people not being interested is never a reason to do less of it. Rather it is to do it better. By improving the experience of watching a debate, there may be a better chance people will enjoy what they are being served up.