Come in Spinner: The sounds of silence

What do Melbourne’s centre of pub music, The Tote, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s reference to the dog that didn’t bark have in common?

They are both about how silences are not silences but really absences and, thereby, throw light on some 20th century literary theory while also providing a quick guide to how successful lobby groups and politicians operate.

You only realise how omnipresent some lobby groups are until they disappear from the media briefly. The public health lobby (currently mainly anti-alcohol and anti-obesity) is one of Australia’s most effective PR and lobbying groups. They churn out a range of studies, statements, conferences, events which all contribute to their goals.

With alcohol those goals are restrictions on availability through restrictions on licensing; bans on advertising and sponsorship; and, steep increases in taxation.

There are other approaches, such as those advocated by Obama adviser, Cass Sunstein, and Richard Thaler in their book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness, but generally the debate in Australia focuses on controls and is underpinned by the assumption that people have to be regulated into taking responsibility.

Now the anti-alcohol lobby is somewhere in the media almost every day – normally when in the print media, squeezed between the increasing number of full page ads for cut price booze. But recently they seemed to be a bit quieter when The Tote was forced to close down because the State Government had imposed stricter licensing regulations. Indeed, the lobby almost disappeared from the debate and none of them seemed to be rushing out statements that this was an unintended consequence and that there might be drawbacks to tighter licensing. More recently, although, with the State Government backing down, there has been the odd unsourced piece, such as one by Melissa Fyfe, in The Sunday Age which argued this sort of licensing was never a priority and that there were many other things – roll out the usual policy suspects – which were far more important.

The same silence applied when the news of the Israeli Government using false Australian passports for the hit team that got a rather ugly arms dealer (who was also travelling on a false passport) broke. The pro-Israel lobby is in the media almost as frequently as the anti-alcohol lobby (although they get their assumptions tested and questioned more than the health lobby does, and debate about Middle East issues is robust in Israel and increasingly in Australia) but during the passport episode they fell silent.

Politicians also fall silent when their opponents are in trouble and making the news. or when comment is considered unwise. During the recent Grand Prix when Lewis Hamilton was caught by police hooning around St Kilda the Grand Prix’s Ron Walker called for some understanding of his position. Under normal circumstances anyone making such a call would be excoriated by politicians and the media, but in this case silence largely prevailed. Of course, these incidences are not silence but situations in which what would normally be there is absent.

It was just such an absence – the dog that didn’t bark – which allowed Sherlock Holmes to solve the mystery. Similarly Edward said in Culture and Imperialism that the surprising absence from Mansfield Park is the Caribbean sugar plantation slavery Sir Thomas Bertram must have relied on to finance his British lifestyle. This was made graphic in Patricia Rozema’s 1999 film Mansfield Park where the issue was a key part of the plot.

So what makes lobby groups effective? In the case of many lobbies, such as the anti-alcohol lobby and the Israelis lobby, it starts with framing their issues as a Manichean choice between, for the anti-alcohol lobby, good and evil where pure public health people battle to improve the public’s health in the face of the evil manipulations of alcohol and snack-companies. With the Israeli lobby it is a tiny (but militarily strong) democratic nation defending itself against anti-Semitism and some maniacal religious fundamentalists (although Israel has a few of these as well).

Of course some alcohol and snack companies do behave badly, and Israel does face existential threats. But the point about effective framing is that it removes any nuances and dictates how the entire debate is conducted.

The second key tactic is de-legitimising opponents – sometimes through vilification. Anybody who has ever worked with alcohol companies or taken a research grant is not entitled to be heard whatever they have to say. An academic acquaintance of mine happened to say that a proposed NH&MRC guideline of anything more than two standard drinks constituting binge drinking may be counter-productive. Behind the scenes he was confronted with enormous pressure from colleagues, public health professionals and his own Faculty. Naturally he pulled his head in.

The final tactic is relentless and ruthless pushing of a few co-ordinated key messages which re-inforce the central framing through every available channel.

The reality is that much of what many lobby groups do, and their agendas, are never really discussed. The recent UTS-crikey study, for instance, focussed on business-driven PR and not the stuff pumped out by non-business campaigners in areas such as health, education and the environment. As a friend said to me about the UTS study, you don’t have to be a listed company to have a pecuniary interest, just look at all the researchers, lobby groups, environmentalists calling more for money for something they want or support.

Ritual declarations of interest: I have worked for the alcohol and snack food industries, and public health lobbies; have been criticised by, and criticised, the anti-alcohol lobby; and, am a long-time supporter of the Save Albert Park campaign.