10. The role of the media


The media play a very important role in our democracy, being the main conduits of information from parliament to the electorate.  How they chose to inform the electorate is critical to the publics perception of the government and its policies, and their opposition.  Media sources, whether privately owned, or publicly funded, are accused of bias, though only those publicly owned are currently subject to major external scrutiny, although in the past the boot has been on the other foot.

Progressives and small parties commonly complain of the lack of coverage they receive from the MSM (mainstream media) and what they do get is often critical.  Additionally the line between news and editorial is increasingly becoming blurred such that it is sometimes difficult to know when one ends and the other begins.

If the media plays such an important role in the propagation of political information, how important is it that this should be regulated to ensure that the electorate is able to make their own minds up? Or is it fair game for the media, and in particular media owners, the right to essentially dictate policy through how it prioritises stories and puts appropriate spin on them?

The impact of concentration of media ownership will also be explored, returning to the question raised in Chapter 4. The pursuit of profit.

Moyers journalism

It matters not what political party you support, it is almost inevitable that you will accuse the media of bias as soon as it reports negatively against your preferred political persuasion.  The media have a critical role in the political discourse of any country, given that it is them that actually decides what to communicate to the general public, and what to ignore.  They can make or break political careers, and increasingly certain media barons, recognising the extent of their political influence, play the political game like their own fiefdom.  The blessings and support of Rupert Murdoch, the CEO and Chairman of a multiplicity of media, from local newspapers to national news, from radio, to television (both free-to-air and cable), as well as multiple forays into electronic media, have been recognised as a major factor in winning elections in Australia, the UK and perhaps to a more limited but still significant aspect, the US.

Traditionally news and politics were reported as factually as possible, with opinion limited to those editorial pieces, but opinion dressed has news has been increasingly prevalent for a number of years, particularly where media barons choose to exert their own influence and opinion using the mediums that they control, and this can have a particularly destabilising effect on the way our democracy is run.  The impact on the thoughts and feelings of the electorate can be significant.  Consider the difference between how Australians view Wayne Swans handling of the GFC from the rest of the world.   He was largely portrayed in major sections of the Australian media as profligate, wasteful, driving our economy into a “debt and deficit emergency”.  Yet around the world, economists were congratulating him on having saved the Australian economy from the worst excesses of the global downturn, and giving him awards for it!  So who is right?

The point is that newspapers, television and the radio have for a long time been our main source of information regarding what is happening in our country and the rest of the world.  Increasingly, however, the main source of revenues of such media companies has not been from selling the product, but from selling advertising.  The media’s customers are thus not the general public, but the advertisers.  The general public, the viewers, the readers, the watchers, are the product that the media company are selling to advertisers.  The news, the stories, the content, is just the bait that is required to get us to consume that medium and watch that advertising.   Which means that they will publish material that is designed more to be enticing, rather than necessarily factually accurate.

So what are some of the things that the media gets up to. Lets start with the obvious..

1) Publishes stories to further own agenda (or those of the party that looks after you).   Many people don’t realise that Murdoch’s News Limited conglomerate was given a tax rebate of a cool $880 million in 2014.  That’s a fairly tidy sum no longer that is no longer available to the Australian government.  Apparently the way that Murdoch’s enterprises had set their tax havens up allowed this.  Of course, a government that considered that a sum worth fighting for might have pursued the matter further, but given the support that the Murdoch media provides the LNP government, its perhaps not surprising that it decided against it.  Would a Labor government been so quick to give up?  Who knows.  But it is perhaps challenging to believe that there  might be a little mutual back-scratching taking place.

If you want to check whether a publication is biased or not, simply purchase one, and start reading. Note how many stories support a particular political perspective, often supporting one party, whilst denigrating the others.  A good check on whether an article is a real story or just a political message from a NewsCorp site, is to see whether its behind the paywall or not.

2) Doesn’t publish stories.  Of course, as easy as it is to publish stories that support your preferred party (for whatever larger purpose), it is just as simple to ignore the stories featuring the other side.  Over here in WA, the Labor leader Mark McGowan, is almost invisible. Is that because he is doing nothing worth reporting, or is it because the media simply chooses to ignores him?  Google it!  Being largely a one newspaper state, and with WA largely ignored by the media based in the eastern states, killing the opposing parties message is all too simple.

3) Creating news.  Another great invention of the media is opinion polls.  These “thermometers” of public opinion apparently give a snapshot of how the previous weeks political manoeuvrings have played out in voter land.  And the polls created by one media source are then often reported on in different media sources, thus news creating news.  However, as we know from referenda that have been run over the years, the phrasing of the questions can have a significant effect on the answer.  The effect of opinion polls is considered significant enough on how people may vote, that it is banned during elections in Australia.   And whilst it is useful to know how Australians think about new pieces of legislation, wouldn’t it be better to find out before they are enacted, rather than afterwards?  Usually published fortnightly, it was recently noted that in the week following a very poor performance by the government in dealing with the Bronwyn Bishop expenses scandal, the NewsPoll from the Murdoch press, was conspicuous by its absence.  Was this on purpose? Or was there some other reason?  Either way, its absence, when otherwise anticipated, became news in its own right.

4) Tells blatant lies and untruths.  This is perhaps the most heinous issue with modern journalism, where blatantly false statements are made either without proper research being carried out, or simply lazy journalism.  Of course, if discovered, apologies are written and published, but as these very rarely get the same exposure as the original article (often hidden in the midst of the paper, rather than displayed in the same position as the original article), the impact is somewhat smaller.  And of course there is no guarantee that the reader who has taken the contents of the article and believed them fact, will actually see the apology as it might not appear for days, weeks or even months.  The Murdoch press has been strongly suggesting that man-made climate change is not real for some time, and regularly publishes articles stating costs for renewables will be far higher than reality in order to undermine them compared to carbon intensive fuels, particularly coal and coal seam gas, which seems to be one of the favoured commodities spruiked by the current government.  The fact that Murdoch has significant investments in these commodities, or that he uses his own, and his media’s influence, to affect the way the market, and governments react to such, is of course, purely coincidental.

5) Publishes gossip and innuendo. It is remarkably easy to insinuate misbehaviour. Even easier if you can report that someone else said it. That way you can claim accuracy whilst playing fast and loose with the truth, without ever being wrong.   Stories about leadership challenges are always highly popular amongst the press gallery, and are easy ways to fill column inches, particularly on slow news days.  “Unnamed sources” provide excellent information which is impossible to corroborate without exposing their identity, so scuttlebutt is very easy to manufacture.  The problem with smear is that once published, it is almost impossible to contain, even when proven in court that the facts were false.

6) Incites public disquiet and disturbance.  Targeting minorities is a nasty, but easy means to point score politically.  Divide and conquer is as old a military strategy as you like, but holds equally in politics too.  The fact that such divisiveness was mastered by Hitler’s propaganda team, who declared that Germany’s problems were due to the Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and communists, and it is clearly not particularly difficult to subvert normal law abiding citizens. At the extreme ends these “patriots” will defend the nation physically, but equally the larger numbers who turn a blind eye are as guilty through their own inaction.  Alan Jones used his radio show to incite violence in Cronulla in 2005 using very similar logic against those of middle eastern background.  The current government changed the terminology of those arriving by boat from boat-people, refugees, or migrants, to “illegals”.   Similarly, they have used the terminology of “leaners” to imply that anyone on benefits is taking advantage of the “lifters” whose taxes go to pay for those who apparently choose not to work.  The fact that there are not enough jobs to go round, or that people may be incapacitated, is simply ignored, and the media is happy to play along.

7) Cowed into submission.  The attacks on the public broadcast media, ABC and SBS, have been relentless under the current government.  Wherever a situation that has occurred that could be considered anti-government, the public broadcasters have been accused of bias, being anti-Australian, supporters of terrorists or people smugglers or criminals, you name it.  There is no secret that Rupert Murdoch dislikes our national broadcaster, as indeed he does in the UK.  He resents that it is able to compete for business that he would like, and whenever he gets the chance, his media will attack these institutions despite the fact that the Australian public by-and-large trust the information from these source above almost all others.  These attacks, backed up by cuts in funding (relabelled as “efficiency dividends” to somehow imply that the prime ministers “no cuts to the  ABC and SBS” pre-election promise hasn’t been broken), and the stacking of the board whom appoint ABC board members with those who have publicly stated that the ABC should be abolished, provides further evidence of a government who prefer to look after media sources who support them, rather than those who may not.

The final issue is perhaps less obvious, but its effect is insidious.  Many media consumers despair of the lack of balance in journalism.  Julia Gillard was pilloried in the media for her admission that her Carbon price mechanism was a “tax” (even though the full quote represented it more accurately, it was the soundbite that was reported ad infinitum) which contradicted a promise that she had made prior to the election.  This single reported lie was the breach of trust between her government and the electorate that helped ensure her downfall.  Compare that to the statements made by the present government on the night before the election, “No cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to GST and no cuts to the ABC or SBS”.   Every single one of those statements has been contradicted by the government.   Every single one.  But where is the outcry from the media? Why has there not been the same level of outrage that was heaped upon Ms Gillard?  Where have all the real journalists gone?

So where have all the real journalists gone? The single largest problem with Australia’s commercial media being owned by a very small number of people is that there are, in effect, a limited number of employers.  When one employer in particular is very vocal in his political posturing, and either owns or has significant ownership over the majority of newspapers in the country (as well as tv and radio), it takes a very confident journalist to write what might be severely career limiting articles.  Just ask Mike Carlton – a well respected journalist for a number of years, whose career was cut short due to significant pressure from the Murdoch media fundamentally due to publishing articles about Israeli atrocities in Palestine.

Is it surprising that journalists are wary of writing articles that might exact the wrath of who might be their only other potential employer?  Only when reaching the end of their career, or if they have an equally rewarding career that they may return to (such as the legal or academic careers of Waleed Aly), or when there is safety in numbers, do Australian political journalists appear willing to make comments that might be interpreted as career limiting.  This reach is not only limited to the commercial media, but has insinuated its way into the public broadcaster too.  With the very quickly changing dynamic of the media world, the national broadcaster is seen as a threat, and is thus actively undermined by the Murdoch media.  When the government seems to regularly find fault with the national broadcaster too, it does beg the question as to whom the government is trying to look after?  The electorate, or a very useful media ally?

The new media

Fortunately things are changing.  The internet is a great enabler, allowing people to research, write articles, and share them, at no or low cost.  Other than time, this website has cost me less than $100.  I can promote it to a global audience using Twitter and Facebook.  Of course this hasn’t been missed by the traditional media, who are trying desperately to work out a business model that is as profitable as the traditional media was, but with many still trying mechanisms such as paywalls to raise revenue in addition to traditional advertising.

Low cost operators have set up shop, often providing more insightful articles than the insular mainstream media, unafraid of saying it as they actually see it, rather than cased in concerns over future career stability.  Online news sites such as AIM Network (Australian Independent Media Network) or New Matilda, reflect more progressive views, less dependent on advertisers (and those advertisers preferences!) for funding, or even The Conversation, a site which sources its articles from academics, with a consequently higher level of rigour than now seen in much of the mainstream media.  These new media sources, neither beholden to proprietors, nor political parties, nor stakeholders are able to exert a higher level of integrity than the mainstream media appears now incapable.  Unfortunately, they lack the credibility that the mainstream media has, simply through sheer size and history, but times are changing very rapidly, and newspaper sales, particularly in the eastern states, are dropping rapidly.

With no clear allegiances, the new media will be tougher and more judgemental than traditional media, and a good thing too.  In Great Britain of the 18th century newspapers, were given the title of the “fourth estate” (the first three being the Lords Secular (bishops), the Lords Temporal (Hereditary Peers, Law Lords, and non-Hereditary Lords), and the Commons (MPs of the lower house)).  The fourth estate was essentially there to keep a watch on those first three institutions on behalf of the public interest, reporting on what happened in government so the electorate could be kept informed. Over time, however, the media has moved from reporter to “kingmaker” with Rupert Murdoch playing that role with gusto, and many leaders, and would be leaders of the UK and Australian parliaments happily marching in tune.

But with technology, this media power is starting to dwindle.  Centralised opinions are increasingly less accepted, and with social media, everyone is capable of opinion as well as access to the facts.  But one thing is for sure, traditional media won’t go down without a fight!

 

Since its inception the media has played an increasingly important role in how politics is conducted, to the extent that the media often no longer simply reports the facts, but increasingly takes a starring role.  When the electorates involvement is limited to one vote once every three years, it is a cause for concern when non-elected citizens (and particularly in the case of Rupert Murdoch, a person who isn’t an Australian citizen!) hold so much power and are able to abuse it for their own self interests.  However, with such significant support for one side of politics, don’t expect anything to change on that anytime soon, unless through the ballot box and a government with the fortitude to fight, and defeat, a media behemoth.

 

 

 

 

 


About Steve Laing

Political observer, free thinker and problem solver, Steve contends that the current democratic processes have neither kept up to date with globalisation nor modern business practices, resulting in increasing dissatisfaction with modern politics. However, new technology could be used to not only reconfigure our system, but give the electorate even greater representation than was previously the case. For more background information on Steve, please check his LinkedIn profile.

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