Wednesday February 27, 2013
Nothing is certain in politics
Along The Watchtower by M. VEERA PANDIYAN
Both sides of the political divide may be confident of victory in the next polls but politics is a highly unpredictable business.
HOW time flies. This week marks my 30 years in The Star and 33 years in the news business.
Looking back, the memories in the passage of three decades seem so surreal.
The values were so different when I started out as a cadet reporter in the now defunct National Echo.
For one thing, it wasn’t advisable to be outspoken in front of one’s seniors.
Among the common putdowns then was: “I have eaten more salt than you have eaten rice.”
Of course, those were the days when telephones with dials and telex machines were the only electronic links for communication.
It was an era where stories were tapped out fast and furiously on typewriters (with two carbon copies).
And they were crumpled and thrown back at you if deemed not good enough.
It was the time when newspaper pages were manually typeset painstakingly, letter by letter, before being mounted, etched and rolled into print.
Today, thanks to the Internet and advances in technology, news, photos and videos are sent in an instant.
The scope of gathering and disseminating news has changed drastically and so has the perception of the profession, especially with regard to upholding its basic values and being fair.
Newspapers, TV and radio channels and news agencies face bigger competition than ever before from social media, blogs and Twitter.
It’s now a minute-by-minute struggle to deal with the profusion and overflow of information.
As Markham Nolan, the managing editor at Storyful, a news agency created specifically for the social media age, puts it: “Being first to the news is old hat. The scoop is dead. The ‘sift’ is what it’s all about.”
But no, journalism hasn’t keeled over yet, although the way the media operates now has changed tremendously and continues to adjust rapidly.
The challenge is to break the news via SMS and online sites 24 hours a day in addition to making the published version of stories as fresh as possible.
The technology, expectations and perceptions may have changed beyond recognition but the basic rules and ethics remain the same – journalists must be fair, objective and be able to tell the story.
But with the amount of misinformation and political spin being churned out in cyberspace, being objective and keeping to the rules of libel and slander might be seen as boring.
Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism and co-author of Blur: How to Know What’s True in the Age of Information Overload, said: “Truth is a process, it’s a search.”
But then again, with people’s attention span having shrunk, isn’t it far more convenient to ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ according to their partisan views?
As for the game of politics, little has changed. Technology and cyberspace has only made it much more cutthroat than it was 30 years ago.
And the ruthlessness is getting worse as the 13th general election looms.
The next election will be the eighth that I will be covering as well as voting in.
Based on the experience of the 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1999, 2004 and 2008 polls, one thing is certain: Politics is a highly unpredictable business.
Veteran politicians in the country, especially those who have tasted the bitterness of defeat, can vouch for this.
Just when you think everything is sorted out and you are on your way to triumph, the tide can turn at the very last minute, as it has happened so often before, leaving you with egg on the face.
Among the disadvantages of being in the media these days is being repeatedly asked about the outcome of the elections.
Saying the truth as in “I really don’t know” provokes supporters on both sides of the political fence into accusing you of supporting one camp or the other.
With grey eliminated as a colour in Malaysian politics, offering an objective view or an analysis that does not gel with the listener’s confirmation bias can be an exasperating and somewhat futile exercise.
But there are some pointers to watch out for if people care to look. The results of previous polls, for example, show that the pendulum always swings, albeit not all the way.
Since the first general election, the power of the country’s swing voters has determined which party would rule. We can safely bet that this would still be the case for the next.
Another indicator is the psychology behind ethnic voting patterns. If one major ethnic group supports the ruling party, the other would back the opposite.
The 1999 general election, when the Chinese threw their support behind the Barisan Nasional while the Malays swayed towards the Opposition after the “Reformasi” protests, is a case in point.
But by now, most Malaysian voters have already made up their minds, including those in the silent but potent swing bloc.
So the simple message to those who have been gloating over perceived strength and predicting impending victory is: don’t be too cocksure.
As Germany’s first Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck said 150 years ago, politics is not an exact science.
■ Associate Editor M. Veera Pandiyan likes this observation by George Bernard Shaw: 2% of the people think; 3% of the people think they think; and 95% of the people would rather die than think.