A friend once found himself waved by police into a line of cars whose drivers awaited breath-testing. As he’d spent all day at the races enjoying a certain amount of hospitality, this development presented something of a problem.
Thinking quickly, he waited until the officer who’d directed him to join the other cars briefly looked away. And then he adroitly swapped front seats with his young daughter, who had not been drinking. When the officer’s gaze returned, he immediately realised what had happened.
A dispute commenced, but my friend held firm. “Oh, no, officer,” he said. “I was definitely in the passenger seat the whole time.” His voice was calm, betraying no anxiety or annoyance. The officer was livid, but in that era—the early 1980s—he had no recall to any immediate video technology. My friend’s daring bluff looked like paying off.
Of course, had he tried that move in 2017 he’d have likely been captured by who knows how many security cameras, mobile phones or whatever other monitoring devices police use in such situations. A few hours later he’d be under arrest and footage of the incident would be trending on social media.
Likewise, bluffing is no longer an option in the one area where it was formerly most prevalent—sport. Cricket was long a playground for the gifted bluffer, who by standing his ground and appearing unconcerned might sometimes convince an umpire that he somehow hadn’t hit the ball directly into the hands of a fieldsman. Similarly, a fielding team’s feigned excitement might persuade an umpire that a batsman who’d swung and missed actually struck the ball with the very centre of his bat.
At senior levels, cricket now permits video reviews. The bluff is becoming increasingly redundant.
But that is not to say it is disappearing altogether. Bluffing has simply shifted to other pursuits. Former Australian Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs, for example, has lately raised the art of the bluff to entirely new levels. We’ve all seen her appearances before various Senate committees and all read the detailed accounts of her mistaken and inaccurate claims. Yet Triggs stepped down from her role still insisting she was absolutely in the right throughout her entire ridiculous presidency.
During a valedictory interview on the ABC, Triggs said of evidence that she had been a little imprecise when answering Senate inquiries: “To a high degree the allegations are false.” Is that not the most beautiful legalistic evasion you’ve ever heard? Imagine if my mate had tried the same line with the copper who’d pulled him over all those decades ago. Matters may well, as they say, have quickly escalated.
The key to successful bluffing is consistency, which is why soccer players who dive for penalties and fake agonising pain only to instantly recover the moment the penalty is awarded are so widely mocked. Behaving consistently, they wouldn’t be taking a free shot at goal. They’d be in a trauma ward preparing for surgery to repair a compound leg fracture.
In 2014, I inadvertently created a consistency test for Australia’s screechy feminist community by publishing an online poll asking readers to vote for the nation’s “craziest left-wing frightbat”. Reaction was wonderfully hysterical. In the manner of a soccer player’s penalty play-acting, feminists dived for the ground in fits of pain. Apparently the word frightbat represented the gravest attack ever made against our delicate sisterhood.
Twitter erupted with demands I be fired from my job at the Daily Telegraph. The ABC actually ran a grimly serious news item on the poll. Multiple complaints, several from ABC staffers, were sent to the Australian Press Council. And then there were several of the nominated frightbats themselves, wailing and howling like common Euro kicky-ball exponents who’d just been gently nudged by a goalkeeper.
Probably the finest response came from Fairfax columnist and journalism lecturer Jenna Price. “I got the phone call about 6pm on Tuesday night,” she wrote. “‘Mum,’ said the voice. ‘Mum, are you OK?’” This breathless account ran beneath the headline: “What It’s Like to Be Called a Frightbat”.
Controversy ran for some months, culminating in a Sydney Opera House discussion among three frightbats who told a horrified paying audience of their poll ordeal. One of them seemed almost on the point of tears. It was a beautiful moment.
Given the language frequently used on social media by these characters, it was a little difficult to believe that a literally meaningless term like frightbat had caused genuine offence. I suspected my frightbat friends were bluffing, just as a fielding cricket team will attempt to bluff an umpire with a dodgy appeal; it seemed they were using a false premise in order to remove an opponent from the field of play.
So the next year, on the anniversary of the first frightbat poll, I ran another one. The format was identical, and several previous nominees were again featured. This time the response was … silence. They knew they’d had their chance in 2014. All of that feigned outrage didn’t work, and now they’d given up.
The frightbat poll remains an annual staple at my Daily Telegraph site. This year’s contest, by the way, is a thrilling battle for frightbat supremacy between Yassmin Abdel-Magied (15,437 votes at the time of writing) and Waleed Aly (14,534). Overall, some 50,000 votes have been cast—around 20,000 more than were cast in the first contentious poll three years ago.
Anyway, let’s return to my friend’s standoff with police. After the officer realised he had no way of proving there had been a driver swap, he grudgingly breath-tested the young female driver (she passed) and had a final word with her father. “I know you did it,” he snarled. “I can’t do anything about it, but I know you did it. Now get out of here.”
The car didn’t move. “Go on,” the furious officer repeated. “Get moving!” But the car remained immobile.
And then the driver, several inches shorter than her dad, reached below the seat, found the lever that would allow it to be shifted, and began nudging the seat forward so she could reach the pedals …
IMAGINE, for a moment, there was no ABC and never had been an ABC.
For a start, Atenolol sales would plummet. But there is always the possibility that, in the absence of the ABC, someone might propose its creation. Picture the scene inside the Prime Minister’s office as one of his enthusiastic moderates bursts in with a great big idea:
Christopher: Boss! Boss! I’ve got it! The key to defining your era! The way to make your mark on Australia!
Turnbull (looking up wearily from the latest Newspoll): What is it now, Chris? Another South Australian subs-for-the-dole scheme?
Christopher: Even better! Now, you know how we have all of these media outlets, right? News Corp, Fairfax, Nine …
Turnbull: … Seven West Media, Ten, Bauer …
Christopher: … and then there’s all the online media: The Guardian, Crikey!, access to every global title, social media. It goes on and on. But here’s my idea—why don’t we fund a massive media organisation ourselves?
Christopher: Just think about it! The government could fund a gigantic media colossus spanning television, radio and the internet. It would be the largest media business in the nation. Multiple stations! Multiple platforms! Offices and studios in every capital and throughout the regions! (Christopher swoons slightly and grabs a chair for support.) We could have that guy from Channel 31, you know, the one who hosts Snow Cone Tone’s Junior Aussie Puzzle Time on Wednesday afternoons. He could present a flagship panel program!
Turnbull (slowly removing his glasses): Christopher, do you have any idea, any idea at all, how much this idea of yours would cost?
Christopher: Yes, boss! We can get the whole operation running for just … (he consults a piece of paper) … for just $1 billion. Bargain!
Turnbull: You want us to give away $1 billion when we’re already billions in debt. Christopher, we don’t have a spare billion.
Christopher: Actually, it would be $1 billion every single year. Nearly $1.5 billion if we add a multicultural component.
Turnbull (following a prolonged, intense silence): Mate, are you out of your tiny Adelaide mind? Australia has never had a more diverse media. It’s everywhere, delivering information from every possible angle. Christopher, the New York Times has just opened an office here.
Christopher: But that’s just it, boss. Our organisation wouldn’t be anything like the others. We could draw up a charter requiring, by law, that it be balanced. Equal time for Left and Right! Just imagine how Australia’s political discussions would be elevated by an atmosphere allowing for absolutely no bias at all. Why, it’d be like the Enlightenment, except even more visionary and beautiful.
Turnbull (pensively): But would anyone watch it?
Christopher: Why, of course they would! Well, just so long as we bought every series of Midsomer Murders.
Turnbull: I’ll think about it. Now get out of my office. And for the love of God, please put on some pants.