Bob Brown has named it, the media are being precious. First, they whine, people complained about Gina Rinehart buying a few media shares, then Treasurer Wayne Swan got stuck into the gang of three miners for using media as their personal megaphones, then the Finkelstein media review recommended some actual, semi-government enforcement of abuse rectification. Oh, the outraged howls of injured innocence!
“Independent” media, they assure us, are the soul of democracy, everyone has the right to free speech, this is government censorship and where would it all end? We have some of the highest-quality media in the world and the occasional transgression is already dealt with by self-regulation. Our media are not biased and this is just an attempt by a wicked socialist government to bury us in left-wing propaganda. And so on.
There are some questions the media apologists aren’t asking. Why is it bad to have big government influence the media, but not bad to have big business and big money not only influence, but own and control the media? How are the commercial media unbiased when they are peppered with products of far-right organisations like the Institute for Public Affairs, the Centre for Independent Studies and the Sydney Institute?
If speech is free, how come it costs so much to reach a large audience? Although the internet allows many more voices, the big three still dominate it: Murdoch, Fairfax and the ABC. Anyway most people still get their impressions of the world from TV. So the commercial media are still dominated by the rich, and news and commentary is selected according to their world view.
As for supporting democracy, everyone knows politicians are afraid of the Murdoch press, and that Rupert Murdoch has an agenda to further his own interests and the interests of big money in general. Politicians are afraid of any bad press, so Fairfax and the commercial TV networks are implicated too.
Regarding quality and responsibility, commercial media have always thrived on sensationalism, and that has always been a baleful influence on society. However sensationalism has reached new extremes.
The Australia Day demonstration at The Lobby restaurant was grossly misreported by virtually all media as a violent riot, and as a shocking betrayal of Australia and of indigenous people. In fact it was a rowdy demonstration with no injuries and no property damage. The sensational images were the result of spooked security and police over-reacting. The reports essentially were defamatory lies, and this is far from an isolated example.
Shock jocks, at first confined to radio, have now spread to the print media and TV. Many are overtly political and some are politicians. By not only tolerating but promoting their demagoguery, the commercial media have sanctified the ignorant rant as legitimate political discourse.
The commercial media not only thrive on conflict, they actively cultivate it by routinely seeking out the most extreme views on any topic, and by using inflammatory words for any disagreement: attacked, clashed, hit back, bitter dispute, and so on. This does great harm to our society, because it is nearly impossible to have a calm public discussion of sensitive topics in which people actually hear and appreciate each other’s point of view.
So our society is highly polarised over many issues, prominent examples being legal asylum seekers and global warming. In such issues public perceptions are very far from the facts, so for example few seem to realise that asylum seekers account for less than two percent of our immigration and they are almost all found to be legitimate refugees who become an asset to our country. Boat people are a non-problem.
Responsible media would present such information clearly instead of pandering to those who exploit such emotive issues for their own narrow and selfish ends. Worse are those that indulge their own irrational reactions.
All the recent bleating about free speech, independent media and democracy thus reflects very selective vision and is highly self serving. IPA Fellow Chris Berg appeals to an alleged “liberal principle” that no government should have power to decide what constitutes ”fair” or ”balanced” speech. This might be a principle for the anarchist far right, but for the rest of us it is just their paranoia about all government.
If the government can’t restrain excesses, then who will? Government at least is accountable at the polls, however imperfectly (and much of that imperfection is due to the same commercial media). It is a government’s job to balance competing claims on behalf of the people, so a relatively arms-length body is a reasonable, if imperfect, solution.
All the pleading by media apologists overlooks the simple fact that ordinary people are caught in a battle of the titans, government on one side and big media on the other. Although there are nominal requirements for a broadcasting licence, in practice the media are almost totally unaccountable. Media “self-regulation” is a joke.
There is another, more fundamental principle. Being able to speak to a large number of people is a great privilege. It should carry a requirement for responsibility. We, the people, have a right to demand that media do not persistently propagate falsehoods, and that large media do not behave unduly in their own self interest. Currently the commercial media fall far short of those standards.
We might also expect that generally anyone regularly broadcasting, through whatever medium, reflect before mouthing off. In other words we might expect them to be aware of their gut reactions and to move through them to a more considered expression. This is known as emotional maturity, an increasingly scarce quality it seems.
Such an expectation would seriously crimp the style of people like Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones, who specialise in the unbalanced, ill-informed rant, or in dog-whistling rants from their followers. They incite the howling mob.
It is laughable for the commercial media to don the mantles of virtue, high standards, independence and democracy. They are base, they are self-serving, their news coverage is deficient and they demean and diminish Australian society for their own profit.