When I joined Twitter with the Preston Towers account, it was a politically intense time, with the Gillard spill having just occurred and the election about to be called. In that time, I wandered onto the #auspol hashtag and saw awful mistruths continually hawked by a range of people about the BER, pink batts and the like. Continually repeated, usually with personal attacks made about Gillard. The worst of this crew were @Correllio and @Bulmkt – unapologetically vitriolic and cunning in their way of “engaging” with opponents.  In that time, I repeated the same lines again and again, as I remembered back in time to various union campaigns that underlined the importance of sticking to the message and repeating it.  It’s a tactic borne of the times when union members would stand outside corporate offices and workplaces with megaphones, chanting the same messages for hours.

This megaphone technique was one of the tactics that worked back in 1993 with the Hewson “Fightback” election. I am frequently annoyed that the election was called the “Unlosable Election” by journalists. It wasn’t. Hewson made a set of promises and embarked upon a campaign to sell those messages. The difficulty for Hewson was that he was trying to sell new ideas. I was at one of the rallies Hewson conducted about Fightback – in retrospect, a doomed idea.  Surrounding him was a well drilled set of union members, peppering him with learned lines and, in other cities, eggs.  It’s therefore little wonder that his staffer Tony Abbott is so scared of being under scrutiny that he is avoiding Lisa Wilkinson on Today.   In short, Australia is a country where attempting to sell Change is a difficult idea – a fact John Robertson and the Your Rights at Work campaign seized upon when attempting to call WorkChoices a “change” instead of a “reform”. They won the battle of the word.

This tactic, however, doesn’t work long term, especially on a medium on Twitter, where a lot of the regular users have been members for a long time.  In the world outside Twitter, the same message repeated time and again, gains a tinny resonance and eventually evaporates into irrelevance.  However, there are groups of Megaphone users who don’t understand this principle. They are the ones who continually bark about the same narrow set of topics and concepts, attempting to change the conversation, grasp the agenda.  I am not talking about Liberal supporting tweeps here – most I have spoken with over the years are universally terrible at using social media and having conversations with people in my experience.  Block first, have no discussion later.  I am talking here about “progressive” tweeps.

There’s two distinct groups of progressive megaphones, though with major overlaps. There’s the Party Megaphones, who talk about; the way Tony Abbott is represented, the failed actions of James Ashby, the fact Malcolm Brough is managing to avoid all journalists.   They tweet the same positive lines about their party and won’t hear anything against it (from the ALP and the Greens); or are from the Labor Left and they will criticise everything the right wing do, but continue the belief that everything would be ok “if only Julia would listen to us”.  These people’s views are often neatly represented in the “Independent Australia” online newspaper, whose pages are filled with Labor Left Megaphone articles defending the ALP (even Craig Thomson) or offering advice – both friendly and blunt.

If only Julia would listen to us. It’s that same belief that drives the Media Megaphones, who continually complain about the “MSM” and especially the ABC.  For them, it’s “if only the media would listen to us”. Again, Independent Australia is at the forefront of the megaphone media, talking about the ABC or talking about the IPA continually appearing on The Drum.  They aren’t the only ones, however – there are many blogs that continually loop around the same issues and themes, making long assertions about people and issues without a great deal of supporting evidence.   It’s not a good thing to read a blog about politics that doesn’t have a lot of hyperlinks to evidence or detailed commentary on specific articles that show a pattern.  Some of the blogs about Michelle Grattan’s recent departure from the Age illustrate this point.   These blogs and their megaphone authors run the danger of becoming one note, repetitive and disengaging.  This is the reason I highlight the problem for Independent Australia – I really like the idea of a central point for bloggers and the like. It does run the risk, however, of irrelevance because it is far from being truly independent. One sees far more Labor members and tweeps than genuine independents writing for it.

I have spoken of these issues of problems in the media in the past at length – having a look at my Twitter account and a trip through the pages of the Preston Institute can reveal that. It’s true the ABC do make mistakes, it is probably fair to say that the quality of Michelle Grattan’s work was uneven towards the end and it’s fact that the “balance” on The Drum isn’t even. It’s also the clear case that commercial media outlets like The Australian and Daily Telegraph have shown a clear bias towards the opposition.  However, continually repeating that mantra is getting the megaphones nowhere.  It also makes them sound like Gerard Henderson, Chris Kenny and the “Their ABC” crew from the other side of politics, who make their assertions frequently and without reasoned support.  It gets them nowhere because after a while, people stop listening.

The next step for many of these progressive megaphones, unfortunately, has been to target ABC journalists with Twitter accounts and pepper them with criticism and barbs. Even bloggers / tweeps that have deserved respect and attention through their work think nothing of tearing into an ABC journo engaging in a conversation – something we see much too often in recent days.   I’m not entirely sure that gets anyone anywhere.   This is not to say that it’s a bad thing to make comments about media bias / balance / competence and even make them to a journalist’s Twitter account.  I would suspect most journalists, having a degree of professional pride, would appreciate a bit of constructive feedback.  There is a line, however, between constructive criticism and harping on about a point and having no respect for another person attempting to engage in a conversation.

I know I have personally made many mistakes in this regard – crossing the line, being repetitive, being a megaphone – in my 2 and a half years of being Preston.  It’s easy enough a trap in which to fall if you are passionate about an issue or idea. And then there is those things about pride, stubbornness, arrogance – all those things that unfortunately drive some of us.  It isn’t constructive, however, to just continue to act in the same way without considering the long term impacts of your actions – to not accept criticism and grow from it. Being a megaphone abusing journalists and other Twitter users continually is not an especially sensible move if you want to deliver a sensible, considerate message.

I appreciate the passion and support for an issue that these megaphones possess.  Nor do I begrudge them the desire to tweet support for their political party. After all, I often tweet support for the party of which I am a member.  I have, however, had great discussions / arguments / battles with members of other political parties which included mutual respect and recognition of the desire in the other to make a positive difference in society.   Through this style of Twitter usage, tweeps and bloggers can discover the difference between genuine engagement with ideas and the views of others and just shouting the same notes.    As the election hots up, I hope more people sit down with the virtual coffee rather than reach for the megaphone.

Preston Towers is the nickname given to an apartment building on Preston St, South Penrith. It’s also the pseudonym of a teacher who used to live in that apartment building. He tweets under the name @prestontowers, has a blog called The Preston Institute – prestoninstitute.com, which is a tribute to the King of Institutes, Gerard Henderson.