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To DanStan or Not to DanStan – That is Not the Question or the Answer

We have seen a lot of content generated about how being locked down has caused pain, loneliness, anger, frustration. It’s a useful tool to organise it, because too often, people in Melbourne (me included) can be easily whipped into an instant, reactionary response to that content. It’s also useful to suggest a way to keep ourselves happy and positive as we hopefully move towards an end point.

It has been a long time since people living in Melbourne’s metropolitan zone were told to stay at home. We have seen a lot of content. All of it made for consumption in and out of Australia’s second largest metropolis – but most of it consumed by those within it. The nature of that content has taken various forms, that can be organised in a range of categories. So I’ll start with that.

The Miasma of Quiet Despair

There have been beautifully crafted pieces floating from various media outlets catering to middle class professionals like the ABC, Age and Guardian, telling of the despair that rises from being locked down. One of the most haunting versions of this came from Anna Spargo-Ryan in July. One of the most stirring examples of the video form of this content was a video that came from the ABC 730 program, which were designed to galvanise a unified sigh from those of us who are losing their connections with the wider community and other intangible things that data, roadmaps and projections don’t take into account.

We’ve Got This – The Power of Resetting Your Rhythms

The flipside of the miasma of despair in those same media outlets have been the positive pieces telling of the power that having a new hobby or set of goals can have on mental health. The “We’ve Got This” attitude. This started with articles about the rise of hobbies. And then how knitting took hold, how people were “resetting their rhythms“. In these pieces, there was a tone of encouragement – aimed designed to unite and inspire. As the months have dragged on, however, it has been hard to sustain that kind of optimism. Again, Spargo-Ryan captured the flagging spirit of many in September.

Elsworth and Associates

Before March, most people would have struggled to recognise or remember the work and presence of Sophie Elsworth, financial reporter for News, the Herald Sun and occasional contributor to Sky News. During the last few months, however, she has outstripped most people with her outraged takes on the Andrews government. Her twitter feed has become the lightning rod of dissent for those who believe the Victorian Government’s response to COVID 19 has been wrong and dangerous every step of the way. Due to her disingenous and hyperbolic demagoguery, hers has been the biggest rise from obscurity seen on Twitter since Latika Bourke’s. With Elsworth, however, her trajectory isn’t London, it is more the Rita Panahi route, either as a more prominent columnist in the Herald Sun, or more regularly on Sky News. Or, maybe as a media staffer for the Liberal Party, considering how similar her online rhetoric is to that of Tim Smith, James Newsbury and Michael O’Brien.

There have been others who have used twitter to build a questioning tone of the actions of the Andrews government, as well as build their own profile. Most of them aren’t like Elsworth, in that their queries aren’t built on bad faith and strident hyperbole. They also aren’t as obvious Liberal friendly as Elsworth. One such example is recent arrival (like me) in Melbourne, Osman Faruqi, who has from the start of lockdown has sought to question all of the decisions of the government, as well as make suggestions about Victoria becoming a racist police state. It’s been an popular position to take on social media, considering that there has been overreach by the police and mistakes made by the government – so to express dissent is not a difficult act on political twitter, with its critical mass of middle class students and professionals who do like to question government, no matter the side. It has been a fruitful road for Faruqi, whose position as a lightning rod for progressive dissent, as well as having the energy of a skilled dissenter has led to him producing instructive and useful investigations into the mistakes made by the Department of Health and the Victorian Government at large in the Saturday Paper.

Here Come the Media Troops from Canberra and Sydney

That dissent has grown louder as lockdown has continued, with the addition of the hotel quarantine inquiry bringing out revelations of the mistakes made by the government in the early days of this pandemic. The mistakes of hiring private security guards, the mistakes of not making adequate safeguards within aged care facilities, various other mistakes. These mistakes, made under the the pressure of time and included various assumptions, have looked worse with each passing day. Time and microscopic analysis by angry, locked down journalists has exposed the dangers of outsourcing important activities to profit based private companies – the hotel quarantine and private aged care sectors have shown that. This has meant the addition of national news figures and organisations coming in to examine the issue and use their usual tactics of creating an energy of crisis around the issues relating to lockdown. An example of this is the tweet made by 730 host Leigh Sales (shown below). It has all of the hallmarks of any tabloid style sizzle for an upcoming set of stories. The problem, however, with this tweet is in the context of when it was made. At that time, there were demonstrated examples of an improvement in the contact tracing procedures undertaken, as seen with the control of the Casey cluster (which was 10 – 15 kms from our home). Plus, it was explicitly stated that the inquiry into the hotel quarantine structures was designed to help the government make better choices before the system would be allowed to restart. So, the hyperbole here was not all that helpful or relevant to September 23.

It was therefore not a surprise to see this week a spike in “calls” for Daniel Andrews to resign as Premier. At least, calls from the media, couched in “just asking questions” that he was “staring down” those calls. Those calls that essentially came from the media, Sophie Elsworth, the Liberal Party and Sam Newman. At such time, it’s always useful to follow the twitter feed of David Speers – he always knows when to tweet when media energy against a politician is at its height.

“I Stand with Dan” – Stage Four Rage

The problem throughout all of this for Victorians (me included, even though I am new at it), is that all of these types of dissenting voices can elicit the same defensive response. Many people in Melbourne clearly hate the fact we are in lockdown, but also have a trust that governments – especially ones that have a progressive reputation – have our best interests at heart. The combination of Andrews, with the Chief Medical Officer, Brett Sutton, at press conferences, explaining the modelling and justifications for lockdowns has had the effect of reassuring people that the measures do have benefits. The continuing high polling numbers for Andrews, combined with the falling infection numbers backs this up. From what I have seen, what so many want right now is good news about now, and the future. People want to see Andrews say good things, have positive changes in the curve. Not a building of media energy relating to political inquiries and what happened in June. It’s really hard to be in this situation, and optimism and hope is what so many people need.

That’s why it’s been hard at times for people to keep their cool (again, me included), when we see the negative reports pile in on twitter. Over time, it becomes challenging to discern the difference between Sophie Elsworth’s posts decrying the “police state” activities of Andrews with Osman Faruqi’s similar comments. This is absurd, of course, as Elsworth’s intent is to build her own persona, while Faruqi’s comes from a position of concern for members of cultural minorities and the financially worse off who do suffer more in such times. The latter is also not after a profile on the Herald Sun. The responses to both of them, have been similar – which is understandable, but not useful.

It is also not useful for media people with twitter accounts to be gaslighting all of their critics as being #IStandWithDan megaphones. There is a place for critics of media coverage of the pandemic as it applies in Melbourne, just as there is a place for those same journalists to be asking good faith questions. Where we also have a problem is suggesting that, in a blind partisan fashion, that nothing Andrews does is wrong, and that everyone has to #Stand by him at all times. Both are examples of simplistic sloganeering, not mature, reasoned discourse.

The same philosophy to avoid sloganeering and selective cherry picking should apply to online reaction to media reports about Andrews and the hotel quarantine inquiry. Being a #DanStan, angrily responding to everything is a current feature of twitter. It is in the interests of the ABC, the Age, Guardian, Saturday Paper and especially the Herald Sun to generate questions about the mistakes that have led to this terrible second wave. And there is nothing inherently bad about asking those questions. Plus, yes, there is current obfuscation happening from Andrews, just as we see pretty much every time there is any kind of inquiry. Inquiries are set up for governments to be seen to be fixing problems, but they are also convenient because they allow for politicians to deflect questions. Yes Minister, as ever, shows how all governments in the Anglosphere work. The first clip here usefully shows how this was done through the Abbott era of government. There has been little evidence that Morrison’s government has been little different.

This second one outlines the types of excuses given for mistakes. Rarely do we see Anglosphere governments waver from this pattern.

The point here is that the Andrews government is doing the same thing as any number of governments do when at times when there has been mistakes made – they deflect and obfuscate. There have been many supporters of the Victorian government online who point this out whenever there is a criticism of Andrews. They raise the Ruby Princess debacle – which the NSW Government deflected and obfuscated about until they had a report made about it. They raise various mistakes – such as Alan Tudge committing “criminal” conduct in relation to a refugee case.

The problem with doing that is a pointless activity making that deflection. With the Ruby Princess, there was a report in which mistakes were admitted – as seen in the ABC article, language like “serious”, “inexcusable” and “inexplicable” were made about the actions of NSW Health. For all of the online noise about the inquiry, the report did little except saying “health authorities had recognised mistakes made”, and would “do things differently if they had their time again”. It would be surprising if the report into the hotel quarantine system will be much different. With the Tudge issue, it is a legally complex issue, and difficult with which to make a collective media energy. Our national media generally find it easier to pick low hanging fruit than to get out a ladder and some kind of device to obtain fruit that is harder to pick. The bigger reason, however, is that the hotel quarantine mistakes – no matter the intent and the mitigating factors – have led to more material and financial destruction than the actions of Tudge. Hotel quarantine is a much bigger story with more relevance to more people.

The Roadmap for Melbourne Media Responders – Stage Three Calm

What is next for people in Melbourne? How can we act? How can we respond as the restrictions become ever slightly loosened? Because Victorians love a roadmap (I am new to Victorian education, and it amuses me how teaching programs are called roadmaps here), here’s one from me.

1. Be Happy with the NumbersKeep Perspective

The numbers of infections are coming down, due to the efforts and sacrifices of everyone. And they are efforts and sacrifices. The science is telling us that Metro Melbourne needs to stick to the course for the next three weeks, so that needs to be a guide. Media stories about hotel quarantine and calls for Andrews to resign is going to make no difference to our material and temporal lives – so, don’t read them, unless they are useful. This piece in the Conversation outlines why the government needs to stay the course.

2. Keep an Open, Critical Mind – See the Long Game

If you want any credibility as a critic or as a supporter, there needs to be an acknowledgment of fault, as well as an understanding of context. Victoria’s health system does need an overhaul and to be better run after this, as outlined in this piece. We also need to move away from the outsourcing of essential services to for-profit operators that Liberal and Labor Governments have been doing for decades. There does need to be perspective as well – the size and magnitude of this second wave, while large in the context of Australia, is small in terms of most equivalent situations overseas. The public goodwill created by Andrews and Sutton in their messaging has led to good, empirical outcomes for society. Whatever is said at the upcoming inquiries and the fallout from them, the scale of that achievement cannot be seriously challenged.

3. Remember the Bad Faith and Keep the Receipts

There have been a lot of things said by critics of the Victorian Government that has been in bad faith. Same with many who have defended them. The key is – don’t forget the more egregious examples. One of the standouts is the continual Liberal Party criticism of the “police state mentality” of the Andrews government. This from a party that at the last state election lost blue ribbon seats, partially due to a hyperbolic law and order campaign. You really can’t have both. It’s only cool when the likes of Faruqi puts on that jacket. Fortunately, people can now have receipts of the Libs showing that hypocrisy. Take screenshots of their mednacious sloganeering. Use it when they attempt a Laura Norder campaign in the future.

4. Don’t Respond to Journalists on Twitter

One of the continuing phenonmenons that does not change is the angry responses to journalists on Twitter. It may be a great release to be angrily respond to tweets that are designed to sizzle up a story or breathlessly report an #exclusive. But what it does is continue to erode people’s credibility – and at times, gives bad faith journalists material so they can gaslight all of their critics, as well as pose an unspoken danger. If you want to provide a critique, take a screenshot. Plus, swearing at or about a verified account is never a good idea with the way Twitter’s algorithm works. Here’s an object lesson in what not to do.

5. The Rollo Principle – Don’t Put on a Tinfoil Hat

From a place at fury towards the media, there can be a development that steers people towards adopting conspiracy theories about issues such as COVID. For another lesson in what not to do, the Rollison sisters – Victoria and Catherine – are Labor activists from Adelaide, and have been attacking twitter people from NSW about the policies and actions in that state. Having seen their behaviour before, it is entirely reasonable to suggest that the attacks are mostly due to NSW being a Liberal state. To look at their twitter feed, there has been demands about NSW’s sewage system, attacks on Casey Briggs, the ABC’s COVID 19 reporter who has used data as the basis of his reports, and attacks on Anthony Macali, a Victorian who provides the Covid Live service on Twitter, as well as providing a detailed, data based commentary on how information from the Victorian Health Department could improve. Attacking people for tweeting about data and facts and accusing them of having an agenda is not helpful. It casts yourself as a tinfoil hat conspiracy theorist, rather than a reputable source of information.

This is not to suggest that the Rollisons don’t have anything reasonable to say – their passionate support for Melbourne and Victorians is clearly in evidence. There is also an understandable frustration with the way the story of the Victorian Government is being reported. They are a lightning rod for frustration in Melbourne, hence the influence they do have. Plus, one point Rollison has made which perhaps does deserve some attention is in the fact that the original source of the virus in the hotel at the heart of the quarantine case was the night desk operator, not the security guards. Not sure how that affects the situation for the government, except that it does underline just how infectious COVID is.

The problem is with this approach is that any questions that may be of interest or are relevant are obliterated by a partisan approach that erodes the credibility of anything else. Their public attack on NSW and its approach, undermining its data collection and reporting has been shown to be without foundation, rendering the questions to be embarrassing.

So – the Rollo Principle? Check yourself before you go full Rollo.

6. Remember the Start

The final point – if the course is stayed, there isn’t (hopefully) long to go. We could perhaps remember the optimism of the start. I personally like to keep upbeat as much as possible. An example is when I couldn’t help but have a little bit of fun with 730’s “empty Melbourne” video, thinking back to the Late Show. I can’t help but see this in a wider context. It is awful to see the social media feeds of friends in other states, outside, in groups, having fun. But a short time of continuing, and that will be Melbourne as well. I’m also looking forward to reading the creative output of people in this city in a new context.

Ultimately, it’s the best to do whatever it takes to keep staying on a positive mindset. That doesn’t involve arguing with journalists and data reporters on Twitter. Or even reading pieces about hotel quarantine. It’s about connecting with people of good faith on social media, to maintain and treasure friendships. That’s because, if nothing else, we as people have probably discovered these things:

  • Who are building their own careers through this
  • Who are the people to turn off and ignore
  • Who and what outlets are reputable
  • Rabbit holes of new interests, such as my current obsession with the conducting and life of Leonard Bernstein
  • New skills with technology

After all this, there will be a lot of repair that is needed across the community. I feel especially sorry for the secondary students who face an uncertain future. There are a lot of people who will need our collective love, skills and support. And getting angry about what the media are doing won’t help with that important work. They will eventually get bored and switch their attack to something else. That’s what our media do.

By prestontowers

I had been a teacher observing politics and the media from the outside for some time. I became a political insider, didn't like it much, and hightailed it back to watching it again. And still loving teaching.

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