Protest is an important feature of robust democracy. Historically, it has been an arm of society evoked to keep government and those in power accountable, a potent reminder to the incumbent of promised election paths. But it seems to me, that a great deal of the venomous protest I see in relation to Covid-19 is misdirected, aimed at the head of the beast instead of the heart. I contend in this piece that such wasted energy ironically enervates the desired change.
Society has always been polarised by certain topics, from religion to politics to taxation to welfare and even animal rights, but hostility in debate was usually able to be held at bay, perhaps because of the perception that such discussion was more philosophical in nature. Now however, the debate has real tangible and immediate universal consequences, and everyone is talking about it, often with hostility. Never as much have our predilections been on such visible display.
Central to these conversations, lockdowns and mandatory vaccination have understandably provoked serious consternation in the some sections of the community. It is understandable not just because of the financial implications for those directly affected, but also because the mandating of anything will always evoke legitimate vexation by conscientious intellectuals. Insistence by force from an organisation such as government naturally engenders a sinister tone: as we historically understand democracy, we also, through schooling and media, historically understand the origins of radical authoritarianism. Rarely a day goes by where we are not reminded of it too, the propogandist discussion about China’s intolerance to free speech, or of Russia’s malevolent worldly intentions, for example. If public health orders such as mandatory vaccination are enforced in a democracy, the very nature of the ‘understood’ democracy is changed, and it would seem that serious debate about what this means and how society would alter as a consequence should become a strong focus of inquiry between government and media – but that hasn’t happened. However, the government is not entirely to blame for this, and protesting only their behaviour weakens the chance of change. Here’s why:
The usual and well precedented political play of enacting policy to benefit associates or funders of party politics is not what is driving government presently. It most likely would have been if more time had presented itself, and probably will in the future, but the reaction to the pandemic thus far has not been driven by that type of opportunism. Government policy has been driven by an enslavement to popular opinion, and that opinion is most certainly generated from one dominant source: the media. Quite interestingly, the lack of debate about the consequences of mandatory vaccination is not compelled by a suppression of media, such as would be the case in an authoritarian regime. Rather ironically, it would seem it is the other way around, with the media acting as the suppressors of government.
Government enslavement to popular opinion is not a new notion. Getting re-elected has long been the modus operandi of Australian and indeed most western governments for decades, but Covid-19 has indentured party politics like never before. The endemic virus was certainly interesting news, but a pandemic virus offered prime time viewers with a blow by blow account of the nation’s response, with particular focus deployed on the death rate. Each death, regardless of context, became an impossible situation for decision makers. Elimination was the only acceptable outcome. Sweden’s utilitarian pathway to allow deaths to occur as a natural consequence to herd immunity was presented by media as an outrageous proposition to an Australian society besotted with the rights of the individual.
The irony of the situation appeared to be lost on those so clamorous in protestation: hard fought legislature protecting and supporting accessibility to a normal way of life for all, meant that the vulnerable had to be protected, and it would have been political suicide for a government to not enforce lockdowns that ultimately served to protect those whose deaths would become media fodder. (In fact, it appears that society is trapped by the making of its own paradox: it is the winning of an individual’s rights that has taken them away.)
The necessary journalism required to challenge and question decision making was and is completely absent, with mainstream media foregoing any ‘journalism’ and resorting to ‘reporting’ only, cherry picking information most suitable to sensationalise. Such behaviour forces those delivering the content to close up shop and deliver platitudes, mainly because anything that is said is sure to be used against them at a later date, when context is deemed redundant. Uncertainty too, is a sign of weakness and so decisions that eventually have to be made are backed to the hilt. Once the decision was made to vaccinate the society as a means to prevent death, the policy makers had no choice but to take the decision to its natural conclusion. This conclusion includes preventing the debating of the decision. Previously, conscientious objection to vaccination has always been accepted by government, but never before has the conversation been a mainstream media money maker, and so the playing field is vastly different: the government has been backed into a corner. The unprecedented positive levels in opinion polls during lockdowns however, meant that such a corner was very desirable.
This inevitability also dictated the lack of conversation about treatment of Covid-19. The various alternatives were taken off the table, not as conspiracy would suggest because of their impotency in making money, but because they drifted too far into the utilitarian. The difficulty in regulating their use and providing a consistent level of efficacy provided too much opportunity for error, too much opportunity for death and thus too much opportunity for media to sensationalise any consequences. The larger pharmaceutical options provided a level of security against potential backlash, but even these were not immune to the sensationalism of media, whose voracious appetite for a storm seriously affected the AstraZeneca rollout, and most certainly had a large impact on how quickly Australia could re-open.
Before mass rollout, the Australian government wisely waited to see some results from vaccine efficacy from across the world, but was then punished for acting too late in beginning vaccine rollout. They would have been equally as crucified if they had gone early and people had died from side-effects. The damned if you do and damned if you don’t dilemma is a direct consequence of media.
But like politics being a function of media, media is also a function of those who consume it. Awareness of the business model of sensationalism still seems to evade a majority, those who hold onto the belief that news services are objective and provide a service to community. It’s not so much a naivety, although there is a lot of that, but more a virtuous level of trust in those who say and promote themselves to be in our service. Such conditions for consumption are then rife to be exploited, and media wastes no time in capitalising on the true inhibitor of change: the insatiable desire for sensationalism.
At every turn, the need for our senses to be heightened consumes us. Our entire culture is centered on stimulating any of our 5 senses, and often in combination. It is no coincidence that television shows during lockdown like Squid Game and Tiger King became worldwide smash hits, both capitalising on extreme stimulation, albeit in very different ways.
In news, we seek entertainment. We are not content with the objective. We prefer the spin, the shock, the gossip, and we perpetuate it in our office and social media conversations. We point fingers and criticise, and assume we could and would change the situation if we had the opportunity. But the reality is that if we rose to such positions where we could influence decisions, we too would be shackled by the same forces that plague current and indeed future government. We too would become a function of re-election, which means we would become a function of media, which means we would become a function of the human desire for sensationalism.
Make no mistake, this conversation is not letting government off the hook. All the way through this pandemic we have seen a startling lack of leadership, the allowing of communities to be ripped apart by labelling discerning discussion and questioning of policy as mutinous, being perhaps its most insidious indictment. But, directing our venom wholly in this area is energy misdirected. Greater focus should be placed on the media outlets that turn news into entertainment, that ask vacuous questions in press conferences that inevitably make them pointless exercises, and that prevent interviewees from speaking freely for fear of future decontextualised recrimination. It is these behaviours that force government direction, that stifle debate, that turn us closer to the authoritarian state we so desperately want to avoid.
But we too must play our part. We have to vote with our feet. We have to reduce the ratings that prove the business models true. As long as we crave the sensational, and as long as we feed media business models that exploit it, we will remain at the mercy of the logical consequences of such behaviour. In the end, the question of how to reverse such a dominant thread of our culture has no simple answer, but directing more energy into this conversation seems to me to be a good place to start.