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

the media: politics v policy « Previous | |Next »
August 3, 2010

I've often argued that the Australian media is pretty bad if evaluated from the perspective of the role of the fourth estate as the watch dogs for democracy. They are content to recycle media releases, engage in a "he said, she said" journalism to represent the complexities of policy debates; and have dumped policy in favour of politics.

Instead of a media that questions and critiques policy proposals we have the media presenting politics as entertainment. This weakens the effective functioning of our national public sphere.

Last Friday Grog's Gamut had a critical post on the way the media operates during this election that added depth to this critique of the media. It indicates how the media have become part of the political narrative. Gamut says:

Here’s a note to all the news directors around the country: Do you want to save some money? Well then bring home your journalists following Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard, because they are not doing anything of any worth except having a round-the-country twitter and booze tour.It is a sad thing to say but we could lose 95 percent of the journalists following both leaders and the nation would be none the poorer for it. In fact we would probably be better off because it would leave the 5 percent who have some intelligence and are not there to run their own narrative a chance to ask some decent questions of the leaders. Some questions which might actually reveal who would be the better leader of this country.

The point he makes is that the media ask about the appearances of politics and ignore public policy issues. Politics rules these days.

He adds:

I think they for the most part ignore it because analysing policy is hard – you actually need to have some understanding of the issues and how they will affect the economy, the people, the Government. It is even harder to then crystallise it in to an informative and interesting 1000 words.Many in the media when they try analyse Government documents get it completely wrong.

The reason the Canberra Press Gallery get it wrong is twofold. First, their conception of politics is a partisan one. A recent example is Jettison super clinics: doctors by Mathew Franklin and Lanai Vasek in The Australian:
Doctors have demanded Julia Gillard scrap her GP super clinics program.They have warned that the taxpayer-funded clinics are stealing patients from existing surgeries.The Australian Medical Association has also questioned whether the clinics are being built in marginal seats for Labor's political gain, rather than in the areas where they are needed.

The medical argument is that the centres the potential to be "very negative" if they were not properly integrated with existing services, that should be built in areas of socio-economic disadvantage and workforce shortage, although such areas already had existing GP clinics that could be built up to provide more services with government assistance.

Are the GP super-centres properly integrated with existing service? That was not explored. Are the centres being built in areas of socio-economic disadvantage and workforce shortage. No research on that. Do the centres offer different kinds of heath services to that provided by GP's? No analysis of that. All that is offered Franklin and Vasek is partisan politics in the form of commentary about health policy.

If Franklin and Vasek were interested in health policy in their campaign journalism they would have introduced ideas of chronic illness, allied health care, integrated team care, and longer consulting times. If it was about politics in a substantive way they would mention the AMA's hostility to this kind of health care; its opposition to primary care reform that undercut the GP as gatekeeper; and its opposition to GP Superclinics. The article is just junk partisan spin functioning as the publicity arm for a particular lobby groupthat is being used to continue the daily attack on the ALP. The Australian's front page is the attack weapon.

However, the critique of the media goes deeper than the partisan bias of The Australian and the Murdoch tabloid Press campaigning to help win an election for the Coalition.

The second reason the Canberra Press Gallery get government policy documents wrong is that they don't have the skills, training or knowledge of policy areas This is really noticeable is in economics. The journalists do not question the Coalition on their mythmaking about government debt and budget deficit; or their implicit denial that the global financial crisis actually happened.

The Canberra Press Gallery just accept the lies that are being rolled out about Australia being ruined by the burden of debt; and are unable to question the claim that the only economic policy is to reduce government debt.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 9:27 AM | | Comments (9)


in his Unleashed article on the role of The Australian newspapers in the mining tax row Michael Gillies Smith observes:

You'd have to go back to Whitlam's sacking or the Vietnam War to come close to such a run of Page 1 leads on one issue. Even then, it's doubtful there was such a run. (I have looked as these papers but didn't record the results.) Was Rudd's tax on mining profits as big a story as the Vietnam War or Whitlam's sacking? Of course it doesn't come close.

This is Big Business fighting any attempt at reform that goes against its interests.

off topic perhaps, but Australian newspaper readership has been generally declining over the last decade, and that that’s accelerated in the last five years.

that means less advertising revenue, staff cutbacks, a dedcline in the resourcing of news and current affairs, more cut and past journalism; a marked decline in locally produced programmes.

the gatewatching function of the fourth estate is increasingly being performed by the vibrant political blogosphere. The networked blogs address the biases and inadequacies of the mainstream news organizations and are seen as an example of the democratising tendency of the Internet.

However, I'm not sure that there is the emergence of local citizen-led online media practices to fill the vacuum left by the retreat of industrial journalism in regional markets/communities. Local regions--eg., Victor Harbor in SA --- have been left with fewer newsrooms, less local news and media production, and less media diversity.

What is left is a consensus politics based on the close relations between council, media and business in which the media toe a pro-business, pro-development line. What is lacking is a critical press/or alternate news voice based on line publishing; or a serious attempt at the curation of locally sourced user-generated content by the ABC

Media's behaviour has been the most interesting thing about this election for me. Neither major party was going to try and get my vote from the start, but it's been interesting to watch just how badly political news media has served the parts of the population the parties have been trying to appeal to.

Grog's post has been published and quoted far and wide and some journalists have tried to defend media's failure, but I can't see anything changing. Every week, alongside the Which Party Do You Trust questions, we should also be told of the levels of public trust in media. That would be an interesting trend line.

Bernard Keane at Crikey reckons that the reason for the media's permanent cycle of spin, conflict and commentary is us. It's not a persuasive argument. This is what Keane says:

We've outsourced running the country because we're too busy. Too busy raising the kids and paying the mortgage and the school fees and working to afford that ever-bigger plasma telly. Too busy chasing our tails in the endless circle of aspirational consumption, all driven by the media which has a vested interest in keeping us convinced we always need to be consuming more. But don't blame the media. That's just the parasite we allow to use us. The fault lies much closer to our oversized, over-stuffed homes, and our own learnt helplessness in the face of the system we've allowed to spring up around us.

We citizens never did run the country!

Keane's argument ignores the power relations of the media --News Corp as a global media corporation--- that has a lot more power vis-a-vis the political class than us citizens. So how could I, or other citizens, prevent News Corp from becoming so powerful? How is that learnt helplessness?

Keane never mentions power relations once!

I agree completely; reporters seldom bother to get evidence any more. John Cole (I think) recently wrote about the oil spill in the Gulf in similar vein. We had reams of excitable "They said/they replied" stories about who was criticising whom but bugger-all factual reporting about exactly what was going on. Now we have claims that it wasn't as serious as people made out, with others saying it was even worse, and again all we get is reporting of what various people are saying without any real effort by the media to gather independent data.

As you rightly say, it's public affairs as light entertainment.

Gone right off Crikey.
Partly, maybe even mainly, cos of Keane.
Lots of fluff, predictable, barely worth reading except maybe for Bob Gosford, and Possum of course.

I read/scan the Crikey Daily whilst having my lunch. I also find it increasingly lightweight.

From my perspective Crikey is not much of an alternative voice to the Canberra Press Gallery these days. Keane is their political reporter who is based in Canberra, and he has a tendency to sees himself as part of the Gallery network. He is arguing that we are to blame because we don't join things because we are watching events (sport?) on the big plasma TV.

I find it strange that he doesn't point the finger at the ALP. It's not our problem that we don't want to join the ALP surely.

The sentence about the msm questioning the appearance rather than the substance took the reader straight away back to the Roland Barthes essay from the 'fifties and was not surprised to see GST refer to current mthologies, therefore.
What's really interesting to me, thinking on the African soldier poster Barthes refers to, is how little things have changed ( paradoxical to all the change ) and how effective the means for reification and social reproduction.