2012: The Year In Political Outrage

You can still access the Facebook page for the Channel 10 talk show The Circle.

There’s a disclaimer on it now – the show was cancelled in August, and Channel 10 doesn’t want any responsibility for the page – but the page survives, its wall plastered with happy behind-the-scenes photos. It’s all a bit sad, in retrospect, but they seem like they’re having great fun.

Scroll down the Facebook timeline and that joy suddenly disappears. On February 29, a wall post titled “A message from Network Ten” officially apologised for the comments made by Yumi Stynes and George Negus about a Victoria Cross recipient, Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith on the show.

The disembodied corporate voice did not satisfy. There are 1,918 comments on that post and another 6,461 on a follow up.

“Words are cheap!” proclaimed one Facebook commenter.

“You are scum, spineless scum,” said another.

Stynes copped most of it. (The women usually do.)

“When you hear Yumi Stynes you think of stupid, gutless, low, meaningless, un Australian.”

One comment summed up the general mood:

“The nation was offended and it deserves an act of contrition from TEN that involves sacking.”

The nation got offended an awful lot in 2012. Ours was such a year of outrage that all these little episodes seem to have blurred into one: a swirling furiousness against Qantas, Alan Jones, Kyle Sandilands, in defence of Charlotte Dawson, against Charlotte Dawson, Alan Jones again, in defence of Robbie Farah, against Robbie Farah, “Twitter trolls”, Alan Jones again, and then finally, tragically, the two 2DayFM hosts.

By the time the 2DayFM hosts made their prank call, there was already a fixed outrage-on-commercial-broadcasting playbook: shut down advertising before advertisers can shut down themselves, bare your soul to the press.

But, 11 months on, can you even remember what was so outrageous about Yumi Stynes? Don’t Google. It was Negus, not Stynes, who speculated about Corporal Roberts-Smith’s sexual prowess: “what if they’re not up to it in the sack?” Hence the “dud root” comment. Stynes suggested the good soldier wasn’t that smart.

Was this a tasteless? Okay, if you want. But, really, “the nothing hosts of this second rate show MAKE ME SICK”?

The Yumi Stynes saga was a sign of things to come. As episodes of outrage accumulated over the year, they became more overwhelming.

Alan Jones’ infamous comment in September – that the Prime Minister’s father had “died of shame” – shut down political debate for weeks. The Alan Jones saga was like a centrifuge: it dragged in everything, eventually parliament itself.

We forget now that Peter Slipper was not the only “context” for Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech. There was also Tony Abbott’s thoughtless repetition of Jones’ phrase moments earlier. To the extent that Labor’s modest recovery has come by painting Abbott as anti-woman, it was a recovery forged in the winds of the Alan Jones controversy.

Australia isn’t good at talking about more than one thing at once. Our population is too small, our newspapers are too skinny, and our broadcasters are too few.

As with everything else, we are hopelessly constrained by size. When these episodes of outrage occur they submerge our tiny media sector. The Alan Jones comments were first reported on September 29. It was only after Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech 10 days later that the public debate came up for air and was able to discuss something else.

It’s wrong to blame social media for our new propensity to outrage. Certainly (as I’ve argued in the past) Twitter shapes what the media and political class imagine the public thinks. Nobody would defend the proposition that Twitter is representative but, when you’re hit by hundreds of tweets in a row saying the same furious thing, it’s hard not to feel that “the public” is talking back.

Social media and the mainstream press are interdependent. The new and old media feed on each other. We mustn’t pretend that the hundreds of columns and news stories published on Jones or Stynes or Robbie Farah didn’t happen, or to minimise them by saying they’re just a symptom of online activism.

No, outrage suits the times. It’s no coincidence that episodes of outrage have dominated during the greatest contraction in the mainstream press in Australian history. They’re easy to comprehend, they’re easy to write about, and everybody has an opinion about them.

And they are entertaining. What Alan Jones said at a private Young Liberal function is a collective cultural experience in an era where collective cultural experiences are few and far between.
Sure, outrage can be confected. No-one was really offended by Peter Slipper’s text messages. Showy moralising anger is a new weapon in the political arsenal.

But if you want to see genuine anger, take a moment to scroll through The Circle’s defunct Facebook page.

“You have lost me FOREVER Chan 10…… and I will be telling everyone else to dump you guys too.”

“Disgraceful and un-Australian! How about u go over to the gan and fight for your country and then come back and think about flappin your lips!!”

Outrage is politics packaged up for the water cooler: it’s transient, meaningless, forgettable, and, for a brief moment, intensely all-consuming.