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Why bother about trying to communicate?

  • 19 May 2022
  It is unfortunate that World Communications Day is celebrated in the middle of an election campaign. Most of us are thoroughly weary of public communications. We have seen the worst of partisan media coverage, of shouting as a preferred form of communication, of endless experts promising Armageddon if the result is not to their taste, of commentators peering into lapses of memory and miniscule poll shifts like Roman priests into a bird’s entrails, of bipartisan neglect of major issues facing Australia. If we include social media, with its reflex negativity, we may become even more dyspeptic.

And yet we have also seen the best of media informing us of the issues that concern people in different parts of Australia, checking the claims and promises of politicians, and clarifying the arguments for and against particular policies. Without such public communication, for all its defects and excesses, our society would be the poorer. We have also seen more scepticism about political communications. People ask in whose interest claims and stories are being told, and are increasingly asking for something genuine.

World Communications Day invites us to leave the heat of electoral exchanges and to ask deeper questions. Why does communication matter, and what should it be like? We can do worse than beginning with a typically startling throwaway line of St Augustine, who said that the only reason why we communicate is to make one another better. As a statement of what communication should be like, it is powerful. But as a statement of fact it may seem fanciful. If we tease out what Augustine means by making one another better, however, and include being better informed, more aligned with what is true, more encouraged, more amused, having prejudices challenged, and ultimately more richly human, then it makes good sense. The test of good communication at election and other times is certainly whether it respects human beings and builds a good society.

Augustine’s aphorism has the merit of seeing communication as a relationship between speaker and listener. It is easy to consider it only from the point of view of the person who speaks or writes. We focus exclusively on the best ways to address our audience. We see the Media as voices that command our attention, neglecting the part that listeners play in communication. In reality it is a two-way process, involving a speaker and a listener. Communication is effective when each partner is