We squabbled over newspapers each morning at our school. We were boarders, desperate for access to the information and entertainment that danced tantalisingly beyond the walls that enclosed us within dreaming paddocks outside the country town of Hamilton, Victoria. With breakfast done, burnt buttered toast and gooey egg staining our shirts, we stampeded across the quadrangle to fight our way to the nearest pile of papers in the common room.
Plenty of the boys wanted the sports section, the wonks grabbed pages dealing with politics, a few had favourite columnists, most lingered over underwear ads and pictures of girls and I couldn’t resist the foreign pages.
The papers were torn apart and shared around. We sank into the world of beyond, muttering disbelief here, bawling outrage there and nodding in agreement with those writers who shared our varied prejudices.
A few of the smarter masters recognised that the daily papers could be employed in the fraught business of trying to engage us in class. The day’s news would be discussed, opinions explored and we were challenged to defend our views of current affairs. Occasionally, someone would feel so impassioned they’d write a letter to the editor. With a pen on paper.
It was another time. No iPads then, no mobile phones, smart or otherwise, no Twitter, no Facebook, no emails. Not even a computer, and fax machines were still in the future. The closest approximation of immediate information came from a fuzzy black-and-white TV and the transistor radios we hid beneath or pillows, which were almost always tuned to stations that played pop music. News could be digested in a measured manner, and there was time enough for a leisurely reaction and a chat about it.
This week in Parliament House, Canberra, hardened hacks and politicians of all stripe reacted as if a bolt of lightning had fried their brains simultaneously. Somewhere within the great house’s warren of offices, a merry prankster, mischievous mole or poorly informed activist had set a rumour aflame that Prime Minister Julia Gillard was about to be given the heave-ho by forces unspecified.
The most delicious version of how this might have occurred concerns an innocent visit to Parliament House by the Israeli ambassador, who dropped by on Thursday to farewell the former attorney-general, Robert McClelland, who is retiring. McClelland, to grant a little context, was dumped from the ministry by Gillard last year and is no friend to her at all.
When some excitable soul, identification unknown but likely from the Coalition, saw the ambassador’s security detail milling outside McClelland’s office, he or she mistook the bodyguards for Gillard’s protectors.
A mighty leap of logic was made: a spooked Gillard had rushed to Mr McClelland’s office, presumably to plead with him to stop a coup he might be involved in, or at the least to find out what was being hatched. Within a nanosecond the twittersphere was sparking, mobile phones were buzzing and trilling, email servers were in near meltdown, journalists were calling McClelland and camera crews were bolting towards the prime minister’s suite.
The rumour took wing far beyond Parliament House, for the electronic world knows no boundaries. Half of Australia and anyone with an interest anywhere in the world was alerted almost instantly. Were the Rudd forces involved? Why, Bill Shorten was plunged into the rumour mix, with some twits suggesting he was about to tap Gillard on the shoulder. In fact, he was in Melbourne, unwell.
And then, like a summer storm, the whole thing died, for it was nothing but a rumour, and the communications networks duly began killing it off. Nothing to see here.
The internet and instantaneous data transfer have granted us wonderful and almost unimagineable democratisation of information. All of us can have our say, and we can find and pass on news, views, pictures and video from anywhere. This very second. Grab the smartphone and get the fingers tapping.
But there is another side to the ledger. We have also been burdened by an age of impatience and a culture of overreaction. Everyone with a beef, a half-formed idea or no idea at all can toss a grenade into the ether. No need to sit and labour over a letter to the editor, to take 10 deep breaths and consider whatever thought may have popped into the mind before joining a debate. No need for discussion. Just do it. Now.
It is barely a step to the infection of conventional public discourse. Argue hard and fast. No time for courtesy, or even the checking of facts, for someone with faster fingers might beat you to the punch. The louder and nastier regularly win this race.
Traditional, or ‘‘legacy’’, media feels the itch to join in or lose out. The Murdoch-owned Sydney Daily Telegraph outdid the shrillest this week when, in the alleged defence of freedom of speech, it depicted Communications Minister Stephen Conroy as a tyrant comparable with Joseph Stalin, Chairman Mao and Robert Mugabe. Dimwitted demonstrators searching for space in the modern tumult that clearly frustrates their understanding donned T-shirts outside Parliament House condemning Gillard as a ‘‘psychotic bitch’’.
It is too late, and meaningless anyway, to mourn a simpler age when schoolboys squabbled and yabbered over the daily newspaper as their singular window to wisdom. Yet even the Twitter-verballed Bill Shorten romanticised yesterday the idea of a place in which to take refuge from the new clamour. Opening a pub named Hogan’s Hotel at Wallan, 50 kilometres north-west of Melbourne, Shorten ruminated that a local pub was what poet Les Murray called ‘‘The common dish, around which we break bread and commune and know who we are in the neighbourhood, the valley, the region we live in’’.
‘‘The small act of sitting down and sharing a drink is a pressure valve in our democracy and in our society,’’ Shorten declared. ‘‘Because in the end a pub is not about food or drink or what is up on the screen or the menu, it’s about conversation. And conversation with peers, with mentors, with pupils, with parents, with sons and daughters, is the rite and passage of our humanity, our hellos and goodbyes, our grudges and redemptions, our making up when scalded in love, and saying sorry when we are in the wrong.’’
There’s a thought for our age. Next time we whip out the smartphone, it may be worth taking a breath and cogitating on the idea that it’s not about ‘‘what is up on the screen or the menu, it’s about conversation’’.