Reading the bleatings of the media, particularly those of the News Limited outlets, about the rather modest proposed Conroy reforms it was impossible not to be reminded of Samuel Johnson’s response to Americans objecting to British taxes.
Johnson said: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?” Johnson, it should be said, can perhaps be excused some PC deficit given the times and the moral superiority of his position to that, for instance, of Thomas Jefferson. Equally News Limited management are not slave owners, like many of the US Founding Fathers, but their defence of the ‘freedom of the press’ and the historic virtues of press liberty would be more convincing if any of their outlets actually resembled some principled fourth estate voice.
Personally I think the media should be allowed to be as irresponsible as they like – given workable defamation laws which are less about financial recompense and more about providing equal prominence corrections such as the system recommended so long ago by George Orwell. Some reasonable privacy laws would also be useful. The media also have a profound right to be factually incorrect and hopelessly biased (within the bounds of reasonable and rational defamation laws) just as the News Limited papers (with the honourable exception of The Times Literary Supplement) are most days. The News Limited’s response to the Conroy proposals are a good example of this – reminiscent of the 1987 UK election campaign when The Sun editorialised under the headline: ‘Why I’m backing Kinnock: by Stalin’. Indeed, one might conclude (at least a Freudian would) that the News Limited coverage of elections and the Conroy reforms is a classic case of psychological projection in which News denies its own faults and failings and instead projects them on to others.
But the serious questions, as opposed to the News version of reality, about the media and its future are about diversity and consumerism. Ideally a media system ought to offer the diversity for the opportunity for inaccuracies and hypocrisy to be exposed. In the Australian system where one group dominates print coverage and, in which TV news is more about entertainment than information, that is more difficult than proponents of online news and social media believe. In terms of consumerism we need to recognise that the media is no longer some fourth estate entity (if it ever was) and is instead a set of commercial enterprises which are more like lifestyle products or propaganda outlets for proprietorial and dominant interest group opinions. The Age is probably more the former and the Australian and AFR more the latter.
What impact such diversity might have is a bit problematic. As Thorstein Veblen first observed most people’s media habits are driven by their desire to consume ‘news’ which confirms their prejudices and suits their tastes and beliefs. However, anyone wanting fairly unbiased coverage of world events can easily read The Economist, Financial Times, De Spiegel and various online outlets. For Australian news there is the ABC online news – still the most trusted Australian media source – even though its commitment to independence and balance infuriates Liberals and others who think anything which doesn’t reinforce their world views is left wing. The Fairfax media, while generally boring, has people like Tim Colebatch, Ross Gittins, Greg Baum and John Silvester who are both informative and entertaining. It is also a bit less boring now that Michelle Grattan is not covering politics. On the other hand it also has the AFR which, given its new cover price, is a sort of rich person’s Australian.
Print media issues are also a bit like some private argument within a small elite club. Increasingly the print media is mainly read by the politicians and business and public service leaders it largely writes about and it is significant more because important people care what it says about them than anything else. In a great scene in the Danish TV series, Borgen, one of the main journalistic characters breaks off her relationship with her hunk of a boyfriend because he doesn’t know who the Minister for Justice is. In fact the boyfriend is more in tune with public attitudes than the reporter is. Perhaps that’s why so many reporters and politicians intermarry or cohabit temporarily or for longer periods with each other.
But at root the issue with the media regulation debate (putting aside News Limited’s hysteria and hyperbole) is fundamentally about the idealisation of a mythical media past and present supported by false consciousness among practising journalists. The media has always been mostly biased and open to manipulation by the powerful. As I have mentioned before, George IV tried PR and other tactics to stop the constant attacks on him. Then he discovered it was cheaper and easier to bribe journalists to stop saying nasty things. It didn’t do much for his debt levels, but it did stop some of the coverage even if it didn’t stop Londoners from showing what they thought of him during the Queen Caroline affair.
Nowadays, of course, we don’t bribe journalists. We just employ PR people. But to make it more interesting perhaps we could also persuade mobs to jostle newspaper editors’ cars just as the rival Royal consorts’ carriages were jostled by Londoners in Georgian times. And would one of the editors be quick witted enough to come up with a reply as good as that of an earlier Royal mistress, Nell Gwyn, whose carriage was jostled by an Oxford mob: “Good people, you are mistaken, I am the Protestant wh…e”?
Mob vengeance is, sadly, probably not a great idea. After all we have the experience of that exemplary Murdoch editor, Rebekah Brooks, whose newspaper inadvertently provoked an attack on a paediatrician’s home as a result of her campaign to name and shame p…philes. Paediatrician/p…….phile – who expects the average punter or foot in the door tabloid type to know the difference?