In what is misleadingly called the ‘age of culture wars’ there are three aspects of media commentary and reporting that poison discussion about politics in Australia. None of them are new, and it is by no means a definitive list, but all of them are now more prominent than they were two decades ago. Each contaminates political discourse and significantly reduces the value of newspaper and online commentary. The first is the misunderstanding of bias, the second is a tendency to political apostasy and the third is the effect of close proximity to power.
Bias and corkscrew journalism
It is important to start by exposing some common misperceptions about the conceptualisation of media bias.
Information managers in modern societies accrue power by controlling and organising knowledge. They have the skills to process and direct information, and the influence to mobilise public support for decision-making by government. They are in the business of lobbying, cheerleading and opinion management, though they routinely masquerade as independent and objective commentators.
These managers – or perhaps more accurately “commissars” – are commonly classified in 200 year old ideological terms such as “left” and “right”, positions on a linear spectrum which are then paired with political parties which are said to approximate these approaches: in Australia – ALP = left, Coalition = right. Many commentators are in fact former party functionaries and apparatchiks who have seamlessly passed through a revolving door between politics and journalism.
The idea of political “balance” – usually only invoked as an attack on ideological adversaries who apparently lack it – assumes that both halves of the political spectrum (left and right) should be equally represented in the political process and that a optimal mid-point between the two exists. This centre or median, which is apparently free of political bias and often described as “moderate” or “mainstream”, is where taxpayer-funded media organisations such as the ABC are supposed to reside – in the interests of both fairness and their charters. No such discipline is expected of privately owned media outlets.
There are several problems with this schema.
The assumption that a moderate, responsible and “natural” balance can be found on each and every political issue is self-evidently untrue. Are there two sides to the Holocaust or indiscriminate terrorism where a balanced view in the middle can be found? Obviously not. There are not always two legitimate sides to every story.
The persistent use of terms such as “left” and “right” to characterise media opinion in Australia grossly exaggerates the diversity of views that are actually presented. It is still widely assumed that the two party system (Labor–Coalition) encompasses the full spectrum of legitimate political thought in Australia. Ideas or arguments which do not fall neatly within the policy parameters of the major parties (eg the Greens) are said to be “extreme” and beyond the bounds of respectable opinion. Debate, discussion and choice is effectively circumscribed by defining the intellectual boundaries within which legitimate political expression is possible. There is no need for formal censorship, which is usually clumsy and ineffective.
When the range of “legitimate” political ideas moves as a bloc to the right while simultaneously converging, the terms used to describe these ideologies becomes misleading. Instead, voters looking for meaningful differences within the two party system are presented with an illusion of choice. All but the narrowest of proposals is dismissed as “radical” or “extreme”. The “free market” of political ideas narrows and discourse becomes stale and repetitive.
This is the primary drawback of bipartisanship, a view of politics which avoids robust debate and disagreement believing a consensus should be achieved on most issues. It also explains the revolving ideological door used by newspaper columnists such as Gerard Henderson and the late Paddy McGuinness, opinionistas equally comfortable at houses of Fairfax and Murdoch.
Of the reasons to feel depressed about the state of the Australian media, it is this tendency towards repetition, recycling and set–piece ideological battles – sometimes described as “corkscrew journalism” – which is most deflating.
According to the late Fred Halliday, the term “corkscrew journalism” originated in the film The Philadelphia Story directed by George Cukor in 1940. Halliday defines it as “instant comment, bereft of research or originality, leading to a cycle of equally vacuous, staged, polemics between columnists who have been saying the same thing for the past decade, or more.”
This is an accurate description of much media commentary in Australia, illustrated recently by the interminable sniping between the ABC and the Murdoch press. Predictability and a lack of originality are rife, and media consumers are no longer buying it – literally.
Readers, viewers and listeners are often surprised to find commentators placing themselves at the centre of these ideological battles, frequently defending either their (often undisclosed) party affiliations or the commercial prerogatives of their employer, against other columnists and their backers. It’s a dialogue between insiders who share a grossly inflated sense of their own importance. The current ABC v Murdoch scrap is little more than competition for market share in the commodity known as news and current affairs, via direct attacks on rival management and journalists.
There is little that is thoughtful and much that is repetitive, but everything seems designed to provoke – usually other columnists. The tyranny of concision ensures that complex and detailed ideas cannot be properly explained, so much commentary is little more than the personal vendettas of ideological vigilantes, the airing of petty grievances and the venting of long-standing obsessions.
There is one golden rule in political commentary, especially for in-house regulars, which is unfortunately honoured more in the breech than the observance. If you have nothing interesting or original to say, say nothing.
A new tendency: political apostasy
If there is an increasing tendency amongst Australia’s media commentariat it is not a shared ideological conviction – although the spectrum of opinion has sharply narrowed to the right in recent years – but a trend towards political apostasy. Reflecting a pattern set in the United States and the United Kingdom by David Horowitz, Paul Johnson, Christopher Hitchens and others, Australia’s political apostates such as Keith Windschuttle, Brendan O’Neill, Piers Akerman and Imre Salusinszky, appear motivated by a desperate need to cleanse themselves of the ideological sins of their youth by suddenly adopting diametrically opposite views. In the case of Robert Manne and Malcolm Fraser, the transition from liberal to conservative has been reversed.
Political apostates have the same limited credibility as reformed smokers who lecture others about the risks of lung cancer, and are equally insufferable. By renouncing their earlier faith and converting to its polar opposite they display a psychological need for devotion to some cause or belief system. This enables them to courageously challenge the orthodoxies of the “elites,” “the left” or “chattering classes” that they were once a member of, without explaining their own immunity from such a contagion.
There is something fundamentalist about their behaviour. They inhabit the extremes of both the ideological position they originally held and the one they have more recently converted to. The move from Stalinist to free market zealot, for example, is remarkably seamless. The neocons around George W. Bush were perfect illustrations of this ideological transition, and they have a mirror image amongst the oligarchs of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Most political apostates in the West are victims of the ‘God That Failed’ syndrome. They began their political lives as commissars on the left but soon changed tack when they realised that real power, wealth and influence lay on the opposite side of the ideological fence. Once established as servants of state capitalism – and frequently defenders of state violence – these rugged individualists devote their time to exposing the sins of former comrades who haven’t yet seen the light and shifted like magnets to the true centres of political power.
Reconstructing themselves as faux dissenters who would prefer their earlier liberal incarnation to be forgotten, political apostates adopt reflexively contrarian positions of the risk-free kind, often portraying themselves as persecuted dissidents in a liberal dominated industry. They accomplish this without noticing that they are surrounded by a stable of like-minded conservatives, statists and reactionaries. Ensconced in the heartland of corporate media, ideas such “risk”, “opposition to power” and “dissent” are rendered meaningless. Conformity, obedience and group-think rule the day. This is why on the Op Ed pages of the Murdoch press, a “range of voices” translates to a “range of conservative voices” all saying pretty much the same thing.
Media proprietors don’t need to issue ideological edicts, although Mr Murdoch apparently instructed his editors around the world to support the war in Iraq in 2003. They select editors who have already internalised the right views and values. Self-censorship is always more effective than orders from above.
On Op Ed pages it is now common to read strident posturing and contrived provocation disguised as thoughtful opinion. Aping the modus operandi of commercial talkback radio, in-house commentators make deliberate and often unsubstantiated criticisms of their counterparts in rival papers, hoping to trigger outrage, controversy, and an equally malicious response which can then be presented as a “public debate”.
Much of what passes for “debate”, however, is remarkably shallow and ill-informed, seemingly motivated by personal animus and utterly boring to most media consumers who remain indifferent to insider breast beating. It’s largely a closed discussion between people who share an exaggerated sense of both their importance and influence. Civility and serious debate have been replaced by infantile point-scoring and a quest for 60 Minutes-style celebrity, where the presenter/commentator is more important than the story.
Intoxicated by power: a supine media class
Writing at the birth of industrial society, Adam Smith identified a major weakness in the moral condition of the species:
“The disposition to admire, and to almost worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.”
The 19th-century Russian anarchist Michael Bakunin concurred with Smith’s observations and understood how easily this moral corruption led to a love affair between the intellectual class and the state:
“…whatever conduces to the preservation, the grandeur and the power of the state, no matter how sacrilegious or morally revolting it may seem, that is the good. And conversely, whatever opposes the state’s interests, no matter how holy or just otherwise, that is evil. … [Machiavelli was right when he concluded that for this class] that the state was the supreme goal of all human existence, that it must be served at any cost and that, since the interest of the state prevailed over everything else, a good patriot should not recoil from any crime in order to serve it.”
Little, if anything in this regard has changed in 250 years. Proximity to power remains intoxicating for impressionable journalists and commentators, especially the ambitious and instinctively obedient. A depraved submission to authority and an ever-ready desire to please those in power may be the very antithesis of an adversarial media, but it is strikingly commonplace in the “mainstream”. Conformity and compliance are too often regarded as normal and natural, whereas dissent is evidence of anti-social tendencies and a severe personality disorder: it’s Stalinism redux, this time in the West.
An inner circle, where journalists are privy to confidences and trusted with sensitive information, is a very seductive locale to inhabit. Flattery yields to feelings of being special and exclusive – becoming a player, even a decision-maker. Loyalty and discretion are rewarded with privileges and access. There might be networking and photo opportunities, a book endorsement or launch, even the receipt of an authorised leak: later perhaps, a well-paid, high-status government job.
Whether it’s being duchessed around Israel with an all expenses paid guided tour organised by the local Israel lobby or an invitation to attend the Australia America Leadership Dialogue where Chatham House rules apply, scepticism and independence are replaced by a socialisation to power. In this atmosphere a journalist may come to believe that she, and the subjects of her reporting, are not adversaries at all but colleagues in a common enterprise. They effectively become courtiers, working to “understand” current problems while preserving the status quo: a patriotic agenda.
The personal hostility of many journalists and think tankers to Julian Assange and Edward Snowden stems from both professional jealousy that they were out-scooped by unorthodox competitors, and an instinctive fear of upsetting established power. Instead of investigating the behavior of governments and welcoming greater transparency about decisions being taken in the peoples’ name, many in the media became complicit in defending state power from public exposure. Along the way the ‘right to know’ about government malfeasance was abandoned and replaced with personal smears, innuendo and outright lies about those were actually informing the public.
Framing ideas and debates, telling people what they should think about public issues and defending doctrinal orthodoxies is what lobbying on behalf of power is all about. The role of journalists and commentators is to challenge and expose these processes, not to endorse or amplify them.