Bread and circuses

This afternoon, idly watching some TV while waiting for my hamburgers to fry, I caught a station break that brought my blood to boiling point and dissolved the reserve I promised myself I would maintain about my contempt for, and disgust with, the way the entire Queensland flood disaster has been turned into a self-serving media circus, of benefit only to grandstanding but ineffective politicians getting free PR, and indolent, narcissistic ‘journalists’ looking to trivialize and cheapen the whole emergency by packaging it into a repulsive reality TV spectacle rather than reporting news.

The advertisement was for one of the commercial breakfast chatter shows nobly offering itself as the coordinator, in partnership with the ‘Queensland Government’, of mobilizing an ‘army of tradies’ for the State’s reconstruction.

Just in case it isn’t plain enough to anyone but me, it’s a crass and nauseating stunt. The ‘army of tradies’ will naturally flock to where the work is without any coordination effort. It’s called supply and demand and it’s worked without any help from the media or government for hundreds of years.

Those who nevertheless participate in the circus will be motivated mostly by the offer of getting their 15 minutes of fame. The TV channel will get endless hours of cheap and nasty programming — no talent or production values needed or paid for. The Bligh Government gets free publicity for ‘supporting’ the ‘initiative’, thus appearing to be doing something when it really isn’t.

I hope this repulsive trivialisation fails miserably to attract the audience numbers being angled for, and that both the TV channel and the State Government get sued if and when shonky work is done by tradespeople whose only goal is to get onto TV.

The whole things reminds me again of how the entire disaster was turned into a sickening media spectacle by politicians, from whom that is to be expected, and by ‘journalists’, a profession that seems these days to be comprised largely of individuals who have had consciences, judgement and any sense of professionalism surgically excised.

During the emergency, when I was actually looking for useful information relevant to avoiding harm, helping others and planning ahead, I was struck by how little difference there was between the commercial news media and the public broadcaster, the ABC, in how tragedy has been trivialised by being abstracted into a series of cameos about heroes, villains, battlers and ‘courageous’ leaders. Looking at that abstraction it becomes clear that the nation’s journalists are unable to make sense of the disaster without drawing on trite stereotypes. What is missing entirely is a sense of proportion, realistic assessment and reflection on the difference between rhetoric and clichés on one hand, and stark realities on the other.

In that way, ordinary people doing relatively sensible things, the way they always do, become heroes. No gripe about that so much as the contrast that inevitably becomes necessary with ‘villains’. People who dared to venture out into flooded streets despite being ordered not to by police. The idea that we have all become passive bystanders paralysed and ineffective in the face of adversity clearly beyond anyone’s control, particularly that of the police, is a dangerous myth that creates and perpetuates that other self-serving myth: only the police are equipped to handle any kind of emergency, and therefore we need to fund ever greater numbers of them.

If there were villains, they all work on George Street and should be held to account for poor decision-making and leadership in the crisis. And there are a small number of other villains, who deserve that label even when there is no emergency: opportunistic looters, who are most probably petty thieves and vandals even when there is no emergency to offer the opportunity.

Most irksome of all the myths drawn on was that of the great ‘wartime leader’. Premier Anna Bligh invoked that myth with reference to herself, and the news media played along uncritically. And yet, she never quite got her feet wet or ever acted to prevent or remediate any part of the disaster. She has done absolutely nothing yet disclosed publicly to indicate that she showed any leadership at all. Quite the contrary. She has single-mindedly pursued her persistent goal of removing herself from responsibility or quick, decisive actions by establishing a statutory authority with an interim reporting deadline six months away, by not immediately recalling Parliament, and by deferring the intervention of a reconstruction taskforce until February. It is a triumph of bureaucracy over rationality, and dithering over decisive action.

In this surreal environment of fairy tales, my personal vote for the most disgusting, but nauseatingly oft-repeated TV actuality of Bligh failing to lead was the day she blubbered about ‘they breed them tough North of the border’. What was that? We are supposed to define ourselves according to some standard set in NSW? It’s pretty obvious that Queenslanders are a little less ‘urbane’ (or ‘pansy’, if you live in Bob Katter’s electorate), and, perhaps less likely to whinge than Sydneysiders. But why was it necessary to bring up that comparison under the circumstances? Perhaps because the Premier has an inferiority complex about being a Queenslander, maybe underscoring her ineffectiveness as a real leader rather than as a media show pony.

Pretty noticeable, too, in the media reportage, was that all the hard-nosed assessments of the flood crisis came from overseas journalists and agencies. What we got at home was melodramatic pap without any critical analysis at all, and, as I remarked at the outset, so little information that might have been of real value to people about to be swamped, or having just survived being drowned or crushed by debris, that one wonders whether our journalists didn’t actually prefer death and destruction to resilience and survival.

With media attention returning to the expected circus in Canberra, where the Prime Minister is massaging the public to prepare the ground for higher taxes and charges, I can only hope that there are still some journalists left who are not too inept to distinguish between those lies and subterfuges than the ones about the flood.