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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

media, politics, democracy « Previous | |Next »
December 9, 2004

There have been several opinion pieces on the relationship between the big media/political party currently floating around cyberspace. None explore the relationship between the media, democracy and political parties in a post election Australia; the role of the media vis-a-vis democracy with the Coalition controlling the House of Representatives and the Senate after June 2005, a deregulated media market after the abolition of the cross-media laws and the media wars.

None of the op-eds engage with the insights developed through Margo Kingston's Webdiary about the concentration of media ownership, the political connections between the elites of Big Parties, Big Business and Big Media, and the implications for our democracy.

The significance of these opinion pieces is their acknowledgement of the reality of a partisan media in Australia. The fiction of a neutral, objective media has well and truely gone. What the opinion pieces do is begin to explore the consequences of a partisan media.

A couple of days ago Tony Abbott wrote about a partisan media in The Age. He observed:

"It's not odd that journalists should favour Labor when the ALP is politically ascendant. What's odd is that political journalists should support Labor even when the federal parliamentary Labor Party looks like a bunch of professional losers. If it is self-evident that an Anglo-Saxon police force can't deal with ethnic crime, or that English-speaking-only administrators can't mastermind the reconstruction of Iraq, or that a celibate priesthood can't fully grasp the stresses of family life, why isn't it equally self-evident that a left-leaning media will never really understand the workings of a conservative government or the instincts of a conservative electorate?"

Abbott says that as recent elections show, media partisanship does not stop the Coalition winning elections. Instead, the media taking sides rebounds on the liberal media because it deprives journalists of contact with the "enemy" running the government.

This account is coy, as it overlooks the politicans media management of a partisan, media that will become even more deeply split between conservative and liberal over the next decade. Abbott neglects to say that the Coalition has fostered this division; that it has a very clear strategy of favouring, and working with, the conservative print, radio and television media; and that its media management involves attacking and undermining the independence of the ABC as a public broadcaster.

The relationship between the big media and political parties is more complex than Abbott makes out. Thsi is indicated in this account by Derek Parker of how the Canberra Press Gallery works in The Australian. Parker says:

"Politics may be a game of swings and merry-go-rounds but at the moment Mark Latham must feel that it is mainly about slippery slides.Only a few months ago, key members of the Canberra press gallery -- the self-appointed judge and jury of Australian politics -- were among his biggest backers, some even proclaiming the race all but over and consigning John Howard to the scrapheap of history. Now the only real division in the gallery is between those who think Latham's leadership is in serious trouble and those who think he is, to use Michael Costello's phrase, a 'dead parrot'".

Parker refers to the herd mentality of the Canberra Press Gallery. He characterises this as operating in terms of consensus (groupthink); making a distinguishing mark by going a bit further than everyone else but in the same general direction; and simple momentum of each step being a bit more extravagant than the last. So Latham is on a downward slide and the Canberra Galley keeps pushing him down.

Canberra is a hothouse bubble and the Press Gallery has become an inhouse echo chamber with the focus on the nuances and rumors of the politics inside the hothouse. What is lost is the idea of the media defending our democratic freedoms.

The other opinion piece is this one by Peter Murphy in The Age. He says that left-leaning media bias is hurting the Labor Party, and that media bias is irrelevant to electoral outcomes.

A left leaning media hurts the ALP because:

"Parties need tough love. Yet friendly media live off hope. Rather than unsentimental assessments, we get sly assertions of faith. If the faith is questioned, the price is excommunication....That's the problem with media bias. If only your friends write you up, you'll always be a shining knight - until you crash and burn. What are required are lots of contrary devil's advocates to test whether you have the right stuff."

He is right. But then politics is the conflict between friends and enemies.

Murphy assumes the media has the capacity to play devils advocate. That is questionable. We have the deskilling and dumbing down of the corporate media in Canberra. Many hack journalists in Canberra do not understand the policy issues of the day; whilst those who are interested in, and do understood policy issues, face editors who do not allow them to be too controversial. Being too critical means that the editors face presusre from, and the wrath of, big business and big government.

Murphy's reason for saying that media bias is irrelevant to electoral outcomes is this:

"Mark Latham was the media's candidate. John Howard won the election - and the Senate. The brutal fact is that media gatekeepers matter less and less in elections. In the internet age, people prefer information to opinion. They make their own judgements. They smell a rat when opinion is wrapped up as news."

True. But being inside the Canberra hothouse means that the public issues that concern ordinary citizens are not on the radar of the Canberra Press Gallery. The Canberra Press Gallery has problems. It is in need of reform. It has to find ways to reconnect with informed citizens.

The significance of a partisan media is that there need to be a shift away from the closed mentality partisan media to political deliberation in a democray-- to a deliberative conception of democracy, not just a liberal one. We need to find, and create alternative spaces for political deliberation by citizens concerned about the fate of our democracy.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 11:36 AM | | Comments (3)


Very interesting post.

We all have been discussing about the 'Average swinging voter with mortgages' in the outer suburbs. The ones that Mumble have shown to swing to the Coalition big time.

My suspicion is that most of them have little interest or time to read the opinion pieces in the papers.

However, their influence is in how the leader is reported on TV. If the Press Gallery has a 'groupthink' that a leader is gone, nothing that he/she will do will change this. The Kelly example is a good one. Reports went on the line "just a second of respite for the besieged Latham etc." It is like a dog and his bone. This in turn does influence the voter who the perceives Latham as a 'loser'. And then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Howard can do no wrong while Latham can do no right.

Considering I'm limiting access at present its probably not the brightest idea of what I'm about to do. Here goes anyway.

My thoughts on cross-media ownership can be found here

Vee's post refers to this article by Trish Bolton in The Age.

Bolton argues that Howard Government's gaining absolute control of the Senate will lead to a relaxing of Keating's cross-media ownership rules that allowed the media moguls to be princes of print or queens of the screen, but not both.

Rightly said.

The easing of this restrictions poses a threat to press freedom and diversity, will lead to a concentration of media ownership in Australia, and it will reduce the public sphere to a marketplace where the chief concern is to make a profit.

Democracy suffers. If Fox in the US is anything to go by, then we we are going to have partisan spin, not news, mass deception not enlightenment.

That scenario means we need to pioneer new ways to use the Internet to bypass big politics and big media to reach those frustrated citizens; to empower them in terms of political deliberation, and to help them become activists in a movement to revitalize democracy.