Do the mainstream media have much influence?

[Published today 8th Nov at Pearls and Irritations.]

The other day political commentator Mungo McCallum remarked in passing that ‘the influence of the media on public opinion has always been greatly overrated’. I beg to differ, along with quite a few other commenters on his article. Here is a longer case for profound media influence.

It seems journalists in the mainstream political bubble tend to share the disconnection  of the politicians from the rest of us, which is understandable if their perception of the world is mostly the bubble. And if your measure of the problem is the distance between the mainstream media and ‘public opinion’ you might miss something important. After all, the perceptions of most punters include the highly selected pap the media choose to serve up to them, so there’s not usually going to be a big difference.

But what would a well-informed polity, or just a polity sketchily informed with a rough balance, think? What would ‘public opinion’ be then?

So I wondered if I could come up with a few examples that might suggest the disconnection is real, and very large.

In the last Federal election, the media spent very little attention on the record of the incumbents: the multiple policy train wrecks, borne of rank incompetence or grossly misguided ideology, the overt corruption, the systemic corruption of policies favouring big donors and mates, and the stagnating economy (before Covid) are just a few examples. Instead we got daggy dad and they’ll steal your weekend utes. Any one of those disasters would have doomed Labor, but the spivs got back in. How did they manage that?

The commercial media keep re-running the line that the Coalition is the better economic manager. The record is otherwise.

Where ever Murdoch operates, democracy is in crisis. Most other democracies are not so stricken.

The whole privatisation, market-fundamentalist regime instigated by Hawke and Keating has never been popular. Yet over almost four decades our public service has been gutted, we keep having enquiries into why privatised services don’t seem to have worked,  we had the (until recently) worst recession since the Great Depression, the price of housing has gone stratospheric, unemployment rarely goes below 5%, unions are crushed, wages are stagnant, job security is a diminishing memory, the rich are obviously getting richer, and so on.

You think the average punter doesn’t know things are not going well, and does not connect them with policies they have never much liked? Most voters, evidently, have felt there was no real alternative to voting for TweedleLib or TweedleLab, but there is much discussion of the alienation of citizens from politics, and the primary vote of the old parties keeps falling. How do the political mainstream keep getting away with corrupt, unpopular garbage, if it is not the saturation messaging that pours out incessantly from the mainstream media?

Forty years ago Australian society was far from perfect, but there was a sense of it getting better over the years. That was reversed, and we are now more divided, acrimonious, fearful and alienated than we used to be. The sad thing is a whole generation, or more, is probably unaware we were not always like this. 

The central reason for the unravelling of our relatively easy-going society has been a relentless message that we must be selfish competitors. That is against how Aussies thought of ourselves, and against well-established and abundant knowledge that human beings are highly cooperative. How was that message conveyed?

It is heartening to see we have not lost all of the social cohesion we used to have, in our easy-going way. We rallied through the Black Summer and we have been, mostly, willing to pull together to get the virus under control. That is more like the society I remember. It is also in stark contrast to society in the US, which our masters want us to be like.

Politically we are very far to the right of where we were back in the day of Menzies and Calwell. Labor is well to the right of Menzies and the Coalition is moving through extremism to simply being captured by its sponsors, as Michael West and associates have been documenting. Menzies would not abide much of what passes as normal now. How did this happen? Did we all read Hayek and decide the market should rule? I don’t think so.

Why does Pearls & Irritations exist, along with several other little internet discussion sites? Because important news and important points of view are not presented in the mainstream media. Would Australia be different if the informed comment available here were widely available? Would it be different if the news you can pick up if you go looking were widely available?

There are none so blind as those who will not see, so I don’t expect Mr. McCallum’s views to shift, but the claim that the media don’t have much influence is just one of the distortions they put about, when convenient, to further their ambitions.

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