Come in Spinner: Not even wrong

A producer from a popular radio breakfast show woke me up this morning to ask if I would come on the show to talk about why the Blanchett-Caton carbon ads were not very good and controversial.

I normally try to avoid early morning radio interviews, partly due to standard early morning fuzziness, and partly because of a tendency to say things which are less than measured. During an interview on Newcastle radio about the resource rent tax, when asked about the dire warnings of the mining industry, I remarked that miners had confronted every change in regulation, from removing child labour from the mines onward, as likely to totally destroy the industry. They had survived doing without child labour and I thought they might survive a new tax. This was probably the wrong comment in Newcastle.

The fact is that no-one can really judge whether the ads are any good until research is done on community reactions. Until then it is just a matter of opinion. Moreover, the hostile reaction to the ads was more about the dire state of Australian media and political discourse than about the ads themselves. Some people would object to the ads if they were fronted by the Pope and the Dalai Lama – the ads were not the problem, it was that the message within them was a heresy which had to be rooted out.

After reluctantly agreeing to do the interview, and dragging myself out of bed, the producer rang back to say another producer had found someone else to comment. But by this stage I was awake and started to ponder why the ads had been received the way they had.

First, the News Limited media response was pretty predictably vicious and personal. The breakfast producer reflected the same populist propaganda framing. Every critic of the Gillard Government’s communications skills ought to be asked to explain what they might do to combat the misleading propaganda of the tabloid and shock jock media. If it was the Howard Government it would have already spent hundreds of millions of dollars on mass media advertising supporting its position but the Gillard Government is apparently unprepared to be, as Tony Abbott so succinctly put it in the party room, “pragmatic” rather than principled.

Second, the populist media inevitably frame any involvement of artists in politics as unjustified elitist interventions. Freedom of speech is important for Andrew Bolt but Blanchett and Caton are somehow an exception. Nevertheless, The Institute of Public Affairs is having a free speech seminar soon, with Bolt as one of the main speakers, and I have no doubt that the seminar will prove the exception to this rule with sessions being devoted to ringing endorsements of Blanchett and Caton’s right to appear in the ads and support a carbon tax.

Third The Economist Australia supplement was sadly right. The standards of political debate in Australia are simply embarrassing. Of course it’s not only that the debate is superficial, over-heated, misleading and negative – it’s also unoriginal. Tony Abbott’s “great big tax on everything” is, for instance, an uncredited lift from a US Republican and Tea Party slogan on carbon trading.

The physicist Wolfgang Pauli, once said about a theory proposed by someone else: “Not only is not right, it’s not even wrong.” (To be précise: Das ist nicht richtig, es is nicht einmal falsch according to Wikipedia).

The radio producer this morning wanted to do an interview within such a framework – one which was not even wrong.