12Nov2011

Is the Australian community served well by its media?

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The independent inquiry into the Australian media is looking at a range of issues affecting how the media operates in this country.  Australian Labor politicians' complaints about the Murdoch-owned media are, of course, a constant source of news.  They are, perhaps too, an expression of fears regarding the disproportionate influence of News Limited (owned by Rupert Murdoch) in how news and information are presented to the Australian public via its newspapers and other media holdings.

Whatever your view, we should question the sincerity of the media in presenting information to the public and whether opinions expressed by journalists are an abuse of the power of the press and actually constitute an attack on Australian democracy.

This is a huge subject, and I will only touch on a few aspects of it, but I hope to show that there are clear indications of undue influence by the Australian media on the way we think and how we exercise our democratic rights.  I've addressed this topic in the outline below:

  1. A comparison between the media in Australia and overseas
  2. Is Australia truly a democracy?  What are the threats to Australia remaining a free, enlightened democracy?
  3. The War on Democracy
  4. Freedom of the press vs "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness"
  5. Is socialism bad?  Is conservatism good?  What's all the kerfuffle about anyway?

On the whole I think Australia's media is of a better quality than what we've seen first-hand elsewhere but I'm concerned that, unless we keep an eye on our media, Australia could find itself in as bad a situation as what we're seeing elsewhere around the world.

A comparison between the media in Australia and overseas

Our recent trip to the USA was quite an eye-opener in terms of how we got news and information about what was happening in the world and how news events were affecting the places we were in.  Without going into specifics, we got the impression US Americans were obsessed with local sport, local weather or entertainment news.  Or, maybe, that's all the only "news" that sell newspapers rather than the kind of news that people seemed to want?  The Americans we met were actually very curious to learn more about what's happening in the rest of the world.  US media coverage of world events was scarce or non-existent.  Even when it came to coverage of national political events - and a lot of those have worldwide impact (e.g. the US Congress' inability to manage the national debt crisis) - we were left scratching our heads wondering if anyone was actually running the country.  People seemed to be more interested about floods in New York, who was going to win in the opening rounds of the NFL or who was seen with whom at some film expo.  American newspapers and TV - and I include Canada in that, too - are appallingly bad when it comes to news and current affairs coverage.

While we were overseas, our best source of news and information about what was happening in the world (including in the USA) came from the internet ... when we had the chance to access the internet.  It was our experience that the US media is second-rate for variety of information, the quality in how that information is presented and the balance of opinion that was contained in the newspapers and television programs that we saw.  Australia's media is of a much higher quality.  That's just my opinion.

Is Australia truly a democracy?

Of course Australia is a democracy.  Why would would anyone question that?  The USA is a democracy, too, and the governments of Indonesia or Malaysia or even China might claim that their countries are - in their own ways - democratically-run.  But we know that in these other democratic countries, there are not the same freedoms to express your point of view if it's different to the government's.

The danger is when the freedom and the opportunities to express your views are removed by those who hold power; that's when we know that true democratic ideas and ideals have vanished.  These things can happen if we're not vigilant and we allow tyrannical despotism to have its way.  We saw some signs of this happening in our recent trip to the US.

As I wrote earlier, we obtained our news in the USA from local newspapers and television.  From our sampling of the local media (newspapers like USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle and even the Wall Street Journal) it was apparent that news was presented with a hefty dose of right-wing politics.  Sure, there was nothing overtly said or written, but we were suspicious because new reports lacked balance, analytical depth and quality.  Most news commentary was critical of the failures of the Obama administration (and many other Democratic Party-led State governments for that matter); the darling of the media at the moment is the Tea Party movement.

I've always said, and I will say it again, a democracy is not just having a government that was elected by the majority of voters; it's not even about having a government that represents the majority view.  Every democratically-elected government has a duty to look after the needs of minorities, too:  the unemployed, pensioners, indigenous people and migrants ... people from all walks of life, not just those who voted for the government of the day.  I believe it's an important role of the media to represent those minority interests:  to give a balanced perspective on the issues so as to to educate and influence broader public opinion.  It's unfortunate that the media often chooses to represent the views of only a few elite minorities, like those who own the newspapers, those who run the country's largest businesses or just to provide us with a daily dose of entertainment.

Yes, for the most part, Australia is a democracy but I'm not impressed by the way that the media has failed to uphold the democratic ideals I've mentioned in its hunger to grab a larger slice of the economic pie.  I'm concerned that the power of the press may unduly influence the way people think and vote unless we're given better balance in covering news and media commentary on the news.  That's why I wrote this article and that's what I want people to think about.

The War on Democracy

Some time ago I read a book entitled The War on Democracy: Conservative Opinion in the Australian Press, by Niall Lucy and Steve Mickler (University of Western Australia Press, 2006).  In this dry academic treatise, the authors tore apart the writings of a number of prominent Australian journalists:  Miranda Devine, Janet Albrechtsen and Andrew Bolt  to name three.  As I suggested, this was fairly heavy reading (written when John Howard's [conservative] Liberal Government was at the height of its power) and the arguments were difficult to follow without some understanding of the work of Jacques Derrida!

The book's conclusion is clear even if it's difficult to find the right way to express it.

In the public sphere today (and not only in Australia), the interests of power and privilege are represented [in the conservative media] to have won out over the different interests that democracy represents.  From asbestos to big drugs, from the church to commercial broadcasting networks, from right-wing political movements to insurance giants:  the interests that most, if not all, conservative "opinion" writers advocate are those of powerful organisations. They are not the interests of ordinary, non-elite Australians.  Those interests have been largely under-represented in the public sphere for more than a decade now because the electoral failure of federal Labor across this time has been used increasingly as proof of a conservative counter-revolution.

The Labor party is continually wrongly characterised in the conservative media at the party of the left.  The defeat [or winning by the narrowest of margins] of Labor at the polls is represented as proof that real and ordinary Australians have rejected the political agenda of the left in social, economic and public life!The War on Democracy: Conservative Opinion in the Australian Press

Is this proof that, because of Labor's lack of electoral success, ordinary Australians don't want progressive social reform?  That's what we hear from the Liberal party but it's not necessarily a view shared by the media or, in particular, of News Limited.  The media's agenda is not motivated by what's true but by what sells.  The question that we need to answer is whether the media's agenda serves the community in ways that inform, educate and encourage our democratic ideas and ideals or whether it serves its own interests or the interests of those to which it is allied.

Freedom of the press vs "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness"

The so-called "freedoms", in documents like the US Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, do not exist in Australia.  Australia has no legislation guaranteeing such things as the freedom to do, write or say anything, whether or not it's in relation to the way we live or the way we are governed.  Many people have called for Australia to introduce a Bill of Rights but no federal Australian Parliament has ever legislated such measures because, it's been said, there is no reason to do so.  That's a debate/discussion for another time.

Notwithstanding the lack of a formal position on the right to a free Australian press, the Australian media has always felt that it has a right in "reporting" what governments, businesses or individual people may have done, written or said (or failed to do, not written or not said, as the case may be) in any way they choose.  In general, the Australian media have consistently behaved - with some arrogance I might suggest - in accordance with this belief.

Is the media right to claim some kind of higher authority in being allowed to make comments about government, business or individual people?  Fortunately, also, that's a debate/discussion for another time and place.  When disputes arise between what the media reports as "matters of public interest" and when those reports attack or impugn the character of individuals, those are matters for the courts to decide.  When the media acts recklessly or illegally in making certain allegations about individuals, those people can use the courts to settle these questions and take the media to task over their abuse of "privilege".  What I am saying, in effect, is that there is no fundamental "sovereign" right of the media in Australia or, for that matter, anywhere in the world.  The media may publish whatever they like as long they can get away with it.

Are there different rules of conduct for the media when it comes to what is reported?  Is it fair, for example, to write stories about what celebrities may be doing, or with whom they've been seen or sleeping with, or whether prominent business or government leaders are misleading the public simply because these are figures in the public sphere?  Does it mean that, if you rise to the top of your profession you're a prime target of the tall-poppy syndrome and you can be characterised in any way that the media sees fit because you're now a matter of "public interest"?  Evidently the media thinks so.  I'm not saying that there aren't genuine public-interest stories, nor am I suggesting that the media does not have a responsibility to keep us informed, but sometimes I think the media goes overboard.  Sometimes the media's actions are not in keeping with its role to observe and report; sometimes the media, itself, becomes an active player in the story, too.

I know that the courts have the power to protect the rights of the individual.  I'm not sure whether government and/or business have "rights" that warrant a similar degree of protection from a reckless media.  Does that make government, business or "celebrities" fair game when it comes to how the media is able to characterise them?

The laws of different countries may put more weight on the "right" of the government to govern the people before the rights of the individual.  We would like to think that Australia takes a civilised, balanced view - and it general it is more balanced - except in cases of national emergency.  Fortunately, these cases are rare.

I respect that media has the responsibility to report the stories that matter; the media is not only entitled but also has a duty to offer opinions about those things, too.  But, in undertaking this solemn duty, the media has a responsibility to act with care.  Media opinion/coverage of "events" needs to guard against reckless, needless endangerment of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  The danger lies in the deliberate evocation of public reaction to those stories.

Perhaps the best example of where the media behaved with reckless abandonment of those principles is in the recent phone-tapping scandal that occurred in the United Kingdom.  It was, in fact, this particular incident that prompted the Australian Government to act in setting up the independent media inquiry here.  I hope the outcome of that inquiry will be better self-regulation [by the media] to ensure probity in how information is obtained, how stories are reported and whose interests are really being served in media coverage of the news.

Conservatism vs Socialism

What has this discussion about the "worth" of the Australian media got to do with politics?  Not a lot, really.  The media's main interest in politics is how it can gain a business advantage at the expense of whichever side of politics is in power at the time.

Australia and Australians, as a whole, in the present day are middle-of-the-road, moderately conservative.  Change comes slowly here.  Governments that try to introduce radical reforms are usually told quick-smart when they've gone too far.  Some reforms have been good (like our universal health-care system, floating the dollar, removing trade barriers and introducing a broad-based consumption tax) and some reforms haven't been so good.  Overall, though, Australia is a very good place to be in the world and is a model of success other countries would love to have.  We're still the lucky country ... or maybe it was good management on our part.

The media will ally itself with any side of politics, left-wing or right-wing, that gives it a business advantage.  Generally-speaking, conservative political parties have more in common with business interests than politically progressive political parties

One favourite piece of conservative rhetoric is "the problems we have today are because of the socialist reform agenda of this government".  In this context, conservative commentators hope to spread fear among the public because, "as you all know", socialism is a code-word for communism and communism means Stalinism!  In reality, Socialism is not communism and certainly is not Stalinism.  Socialism is about giving everyone an equal opportunity to contribute to and share in the country's economic prosperity.  What conservative commentators mean, when they say that it's the fault of "the socialist reform agenda of the government", is that there are too many influential intellectuals who should be rooted out and replaced by influential businesspeople who would be more sympathetic to a conservative political agenda.

Big business thrives when governments create conditions favourable to business (or stay out of the picture completely).  The news media is big business.   No-one particularly likes governments interfering in business but, when businesses behave in excessively bad ways governments are compelled to intervene to restore order.  We saw examples of these in the failure of US banks that led to the global financial crisis a couple of years ago, the media phone-tapping scandal in the UK recently or the very recent dispute involving the grounding of Qantas aircraft.  That's what good government is about.

The success of a business is proven by its profitability ... and I will leave it to you to decide who takes home the greatest shares of those profits.  Just look at some of the remuneration packages paid to company CEOs.  I wonder in what ways can we judge the success of the news media?

As far as people who hold political influence are concerned, it's better not to tackle the "other side's" position head-on but, instead, distract people for long enough so that they won't be interested in knowing what is the other side's position.  There you have it in a nutshell:  the reason there's so much noise in the debate between conservatism and socialism (whether an Labor-led government is pathologically obsessed with reform or whether a Liberal-led government hasn't had a new idea about what needs to be reformed since Bob Menzies was in short pants) is because of the games played across both sides of the political divide.  The debate will not be decided on the merits of each side's position but, instead, on how much noise one side can make to drown out the other.  In that sense, the media definitely has a role in the never ending debate between the two sides of politics and, as we know, takes sides or contributes to the noise in its own way.

The struggle between conservatism and socialism is held in balance because if either side obtained absolute power the result would be extreme totalitarianism (either fascist or Stalinist).  Pivotal to this argument is the Orwellian prediction made in the novel Nineteen Eighty-four regarding the control of people's thoughts.

Conclusions

I wrote this article because I believe that there are indications that the Australian media has, over the last decade, not assisted the cause of our democratic ideas or ideals.  I have shown examples that indicate the concern that some sectors of the community have with the Australian media.  Indeed, if there were not these concerns, there would not be the need for an independent inquiry into how the media operates in this country and whether there is a need to reform the media.  I don't, however, think that things are as bad as the media makes them out to be nor are things necessarily as bad as politicians and academics would assert, either.

If I were asked would I trust the Australian media in giving us a balanced views of news and current affairs here and abroad, I could just as easily ask "would would you buy the Daily Telegraph or the Herald-Sun, watch A Current Affair or Today Tonight or listen to the populist cant of radio shock jocks like Alan Jones or Ron Casey?".  Tabloid newspapers, like the ones I've mentioned, are cheap.  As long as you know that you get what you pay for then you can accept that some stories contain elements of the truth and some stories are pure fiction.  In the end it's your dollar that drives the motivation for what stories are written and what stories are not written or discussed.

I don't trust a lot of what I read, watch or listen to, knowing the motivation that's driving the stories.  Like everyone else, I like to find out what's going on and, sometimes, I like to be entertained, too.  If I doubt those stories, I check them out to see what other news sources have to report.  Sometimes there are several versions about the same issues and, in the end, it's what I'm more likely to believe than what someone else expects me to take for granted.  That's something everyone has to find out for themselves.

There are those who benefit by having the media take sides.  I suggest that the media chooses it's own side based on its own self-interest.  It seems logical to conclude that there is a lot of fierce lobbying occurring to curry favour and form alliances with the media as well as within the media.  It is also logical to conclude that these alliances involve some degree of power and influence.

I hope this article has been interesting and I hope people will have something to discuss here.

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sozzled replied the topic: #1 7 years 6 months ago
I saw this on the TV a couple of days ago. Very interesting interview with Ray Martin who offers his own opinions about the quality of Australian media journalism today: www.abc.net.au/news/2011-12-30/one-plus-...ecember-2011/3752942
SweetNess replied the topic: #2 7 years 7 months ago
The news isn't the news anymore. People are more likely to quote topics from Today Tonight and A Current Affair. Those aren't real news! The more sensational the article, the more people will believe it. I don't know whether to be insulted that the media thinks they can feed me this crap and I'll swallow it, or to despair over the fact that so many out there do swallow it.
ConcertForGeorgeNut replied the topic: #3 7 years 8 months ago
Hi all,

Sozz asks whether the Australian community is served well by its media. An excellent topic for discussion.

My response, in a word, is NO.

More from me on this later.