For all the fuss over the Murdoch crimes in Britain, there has been very little discussion of media ownership, and how it might be reformed to take the power away from a few rich egotists. So here’s another from my archive, from 30 Oct 2002, soon after the Bali bombing. Gee, the CT didn’t publish it.
“America, like Australia, needs informed and critical citizens rather more than it needs unthinking flag-wavers” editorialised The Canberra Times recently, and I thoroughly agree. Further along, it opined that “ . . . many [politicians] are in the process of tearing down many of the established institutions and conventions”, and I applaud.
Yes indeed, these are tough and welcome words. However I think we would be hearing both sentiments a lot more often if our media better reflected the current spectrum of public opinion. I think also that the editorial’s words carry some even tougher implications that perhaps The Canberra Times, and all Australians, could reflect more upon.
For example, if many of our politicians are tearing down our institutions and conventions, what does that make them? Radicals? Perhaps even anti-democratic? If a gang of leftie extremists hijacked the parliament and the civil service and trampled our democratic institutions, there would be a hue and cry, and possibly civil insurrection. However if a gang of righties, no less extreme, accomplish the same by stealth, what happens? Nothing. We shrug lamely and make a few cynical comments to our friends.
Is it not polite to speak such thoughts? I have tried before to argue in these pages that the Prime Minister of Australia is in fact an extremist and a subversive, because his policies are an extreme and simplistic parody of once-defensible ideas, and because he tramples any democratic institution that interferes with his grasp on power. That is an issue that I might explore further on another occasion.
Regular readers will know that my opinion pieces have been published occasionally in these pages, and my batting average over a long period is probably something over fifty percent of the articles I have submitted. So far my batting average on the subversive Prime Minister thesis is zero out of three. Perhaps I had three bad days in a row.
Perhaps I had another three bad days in a row when I wrote letters to the editor that questioned the ownership structure that dominates Australia’s media, and proposed an alternative, neither socialist nor capitalist. None of those letters made it into print either. Why would they, because I argue directly against the interest of the present owners of The Canberra Times. How dedicated are they, really, to the fine sentiments of the quoted editorial?
Would you let some stranger from another town control your family’s dinner-time conversation, deciding whose comments will be heard and whose not? Would you tolerate him adding his own comments, and those of other self-serving strangers, whether you want them or not?
I pose these questions in this way because conversation is a distinctively human attribute. Language is fundamental to who we are. Talking is our social glue, our social medium, our way of organising ourselves into groups, tribes, societies, civilisations. And what are the media but a technological means of extending the human conversation to accommodate millions, however imperfectly.
So, why ever have we allowed our larger social conversation to be “owned” by a few individuals? There are some social functions that are deemed too important and too sensitive to be left to the free-for-alls of commerce or politics, and they are given special status, processes and protections. The courts are an outstanding example. Our social conversation, it seems to me, is at least as fundamental and sensitive as our legal system and deserves similarly special treatment.
The crucial feature of the social conversation is that it is OUR conversation, not Rupert Murdoch’s and not the government’s. Therefore WE should own the media, directly. How could we accomplish this? There will be no perfect solution, but a much better approximation would be to disperse the ownership of each media unit widely through the community it serves.
For example, The Canberra Times could be owned by people resident in the ACT, or some defined local region. No individual could own more than a very small percentage, such as point one percent. Shareholders and stakeholders would thus be in the same community.
The ACT community could then directly influence the balance between, for example, information and sensation, or between subscriptions and advertising revenue. The Canberra Times could be much more of the community organ that it has generally made some effort to be, at least in the past.
There would be risks and difficulties in this ownership model, but they pale before the absurdity of our social conversation being controlled and severely distorted by a handful of rich men.
If the bottom line for our media was to inform and comment rather than to profit through sensationalism, then unworthy politicians could not so easily divide us and drive us to extremes. How much of the destuctively adversarial nature of our politics is due to media that thrive on and profit from trumpeting the most extreme views and cultivating conflict at every opportunity?
If Australians and Americans knew more about the malign consequences around the world of financial and corporate globalism, or of the sordid dealings of our foreign and secret services acting in their name, would they support the oxymoronic “war on terrorism”? Would they be more alert to the real motives – oil, empire and revenge – behind President Bush’s prospective invasion of Iraq?
At home, would legal asylum seekers have been so readily demonised as illegal queue jumpers, undesirables and potential terrorists, if our media were not run for the profit and power of a few? Would our Moslem Australians sleep easier at night?
Would the decent voices of decent Australians be heard again, over the self-serving posturing of moral and intellectual midgets, people who have never had a glimmering of understanding of the real depth and implication of the word “democracy”?