Media in the middle

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Thursday, 2 August 2012 18:34 by Ad astra
Older readers will recall the days when news was purveyed only via newspapers and the radio. Although that was a long while ago, and memories of those days are dimmed by the efflux of time, my recollection of that era was one where reporters ferreted out the facts from wherever they were hidden, verified them by cross-checking against other sources, and promulgated them in unalloyed form untainted by the reporter’s opinion, unadulterated by ‘he said, she said’ reporting, and free of ‘press release’ propaganda. Reporters ‘wore out boot leather’ or ‘played the phones’ to bring us the real news. Of course during wartime some of the ‘news’ was subject to censorship and state propaganda designed to keep morale high, but we accepted that as appropriate.

How different it is now. Apart from the multiple media outlets that exist, the style of reporting has changed so that the consumer of news now has to refine the slivers of gold from the heavy overburden of dross. And in fact it’s worse than that. If it were only a matter of refinement, many readers are perspicacious enough to find the gold, but we now have another layer of overburden – propaganda, a deliberate intent to persuade, to deceive, to cajole into believing whatever the writer, or more sinisterly the editor or proprietor, wants us to believe. News outlets have become a powerful means of persuasion, of bending consumers to the will and the beliefs of the authors. There is no more flagrant example of this than the Murdoch media, and should Gina Rinehart get control of Fairfax, we should expect the same.

How many times have we heard political commentators say: “Labor never seems to be able to get its message across”. Or “Every time Labor has some good news to announce, it is drowned out by some mishap or disaster”. Or “Whenever Labor has a success or has achieved a legislative goal, leadership speculation overwhelms it.” Or “They just can’t seem to throw off speculation about a change of leader, or Kevin Rudd’s return.” Or “Labor can never get any ‘oxygen’ or clear air”. And who is to blame for this? Labor of course – it is hopeless at communication they say. It amazes me that those who say that with a straight face either cannot see, or refuse to acknowledge, that it is the media that consistently ensures that Labor’s attempts at communication are thwarted. It is the media that can always find a negative story, a downside, a contrarian view to counter anything positive the Government achieves, any ‘good news’ stories it has to tell. How many times have you heard Barrie Cassidy, Leigh Sales, Chris Uhlmann, Tony Jones, Emma Alberici, Fran Kelly, or Karen Middleton utter those very words? Cannot they see that the Murdoch media particularly, and much of Fairfax media too, deliberately runs interference to counter Labor’s good news so that the adverse news gains prominence over the good. These journalists can easily see the phenomenon, but are seemingly blind to its origin.

This piece asserts that one of Labor’s intractable problems is that ‘the media is in the middle’, in between the actual news, good and bad, and the public, that the media filters the good news about Labor out, and replaces it with the bad, albeit too often constructed out of little or nothing at all. It is part of the media’s strategy to run a continual campaign of obstruction so that Labor gets almost no ‘clear air’, no ‘oxygen’ to disseminate its good news. There are hundreds of examples of this.

Before someone comes here insisting that once again I am unfairly ‘blaming the media’ for the contemporary state of news dissemination, for Labor’s current position in the opinion polls, let me quote from David McKnight’s book Rupert Murdoch An Investigation of Political Power (Allen&Unwin, 2012). He describes how in the US Murdoch has used Fox News “…to pioneer a new form of political campaign - one that enabled the GOP to bypass sceptical reporters and wage an around-the-clock, partisan assault on public opinion. The network, at its core, is a giant soundstage created to mimic the look and feel of a news organization, cleverly camouflaging political propaganda as independent journalism”.

McKnight goes onto say: “In Australia, the desire by Murdoch’s news media to shape the agenda of Australian politics shows no sign of diminishing. Its two most powerful weapons, the Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun, run regular campaigns against Labor and its policies, but are particularly venomous towards the Greens. The flagship Australian, as Robert Manne said in his prescient Quarterly Essay, remains an ideologically driven newspaper ‘unusually self-referential and boastful, with an extreme sensitivity when it is criticized. Its most distinguishing stance is its ‘loathing and contempt for anyone who thought radical action on climate change was needed’.”

McKnight concludes his book: “Given his oft-repeated rejection of retirement, Rupert Murdoch is likely to remain a powerful figure capable of influencing world politics for a considerable time to come.” So unless the Leveson Inquiry brings him undone, we have much more Murdoch interference to come.

If anyone is still sceptical about Rupert Murdoch’s preoccupation with commercial power and the exercise of political and ideological influence over governments on three continents, please read McKnight’s book. Page after page documents how he has become involved in high-level politics for many years.

He was a great supporter of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Regan, George Bush and John Howard, a strong advocate for the Iraq War, a promoter of the now-debunked ‘weapons of mass destruction’ story, and the supposed connection between Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, one that never existed, one for which there was never any cogent evidence.

He was an opponent of closer relationships between the UK and Europe, and editorialized strongly to push his views on this. Through his US Fox News he has supported the Republican Party and its extreme right wing extension, the Tea Party, running a virtual propaganda machine that is venomously anti-Obama, strongly pro-Republican, and aggressively anti-global warming.

We know he has ‘courted’ national leaders in several countries, and indeed they have ‘courted’ him for his support politically. This has come out in all its ugliness in the Leveson Inquiry. Tony Blair flew halfway round the world to a News Corporation meeting at Hayman Island to curry favour. Anyone who doubts that Rupert Murdoch has an anti-Gillard, anti-Labor, anti-Green agenda should look at the overwhelming evidence that this is so. His editorials have called for ‘the destruction of the Greens at the ballot box’. His media outlets are pro-Coalition and pro-Abbott, who is never put under scrutiny by his media, never challenged, never questioned about his policies or costings, never corrected when he utters lie after lie about the carbon tax, the minerals tax, asylum policy, or for that matter any Labor policy. Abbott gets a free ride. And he knows on which side his bread is buttered: “I hope he liked me”, said Abbott after their one and only meeting in the US. I’m sure he hopes just that, and is now convinced that even if Murdoch doesn’t like him much, he will support him, because he wants a change of regime, a change all his outlets promote day after day.

Now I know any newspaper proprietor has the right to pursue his or her commercial interests, and to hold any ideological or political position, even to use whatever means that are available to pursue them. But is it right, is it fair, is it moral for just one man to be able to exercise such unbridled power on three continents, such that he can change governments or keep them in office through the power of his media?

Should one man have this disproportionate power to persuade the electorate to his own views? And should he have the unfettered capacity to do this by disseminating untruths, distortions, and downright lies? Should one man have the power to poison the minds of the voters against the nation’s PM and her active and productive Government, the power to mount a disingenuous campaign, Fox News style: “a new form of political campaign - an around-the-clock, partisan assault on public opinion”, in order to dislodge an elected Government?

Folks, this is serious – this is exactly what News Limited is doing; it will not stop until it succeeds, no matter how long that takes.

Let’s look at a few examples of how this is being done.

Murdoch regards The Australian as his treasured flagship even although it is said to not turn a profit. Its modest weekday circulation of around 100,000, with weekend patronage a little larger, does not lessen its value to him. It is aimed to influence opinion leaders in commerce, industry, agriculture, banking and politics. And it does.

Murdoch journalists know the ‘party line’ and readily toe it. Maybe they subscribe to it, but even if they don’t, they know that their continuing employment depends on pleasing Uncle Rupert, or at least not upsetting him. Although one reads the occasional ‘no one tells me what to write’ from News Limited journalists, everyone knows what the corporate line is, and dutifully complies. In his Quarterly Essay Bad News – Murdoch’s Australian and the Shaping of the Nation Robert Manne documents how editor Chris Mitchell makes it clear in his weekly meetings with his columnists how he wants stories to ‘come out’. And so they do.

Paul Kelly is a doyen of Australian political comment, has written tomes about it, and is a Walkley Award winner. One might imagine that he would be fiercely independent and not subject to editorial strictures. Yet his writings are compliant with the Murdoch line. In his review of Kelly’s book The March of the Patriots in Crikey Guy Rundle points to: “…the great flaw that runs through his work - an almost visceral dislike of some amorphous group, variously known as “progressives”, “the Left”. People from this group are rarely, if ever, quoted – they’re an amorphous chorus of noises…” This visceral dislike contaminates his weekly columns and TV appearances. He argues against the carbon tax, castigates the Government over its asylum policy, the minerals tax, and its style of government. And because of his aura of authority, his word is gospel to many. It is a pity that someone of his journalistic stature is such a Coalition sycophant.

There is little point in spending much time on Dennis Shanahan, who is unashamedly pro-Coalition, who can extract any drop of good news for the Coalition from Newspoll results, and any amount of bad news for PM Gillard and her Government, not that this takes much effort at present. He joined with Matthew Franklin in the News Limited campaign against the BER and HIP, which ran unabated for months, even after three Orgill Reports showed over 97% satisfaction with the former.

Neither is there any point in discussing the partisan contributions of Christopher Pearson, Tom Dusevic, Judith Sloan or the editorial writers at The Australian. Just glance through the last issue of The Weekend Australian to see what I mean. Find if you can anything that is complimentary to PM Gillard or her Government.

In his desire to establish himself as a columnist and TV commentator, Peter van Onselen prefers to follow the party line, often to his detriment. He sarcastically derided Julia Gillard over her opposition to a levy to fund the NDIS, a move that would have given Tony Abbott another GBNT slogan. Even Abbott discarded the idea of a levy, leaving PvO exposed as naive.

Don’t be deceived by his innocent baby-faced appearance. This man is a venomous enemy of the PM and her Government. This is what Uthers Say had to say about him in a piece: Enter the Australian all spin zone – a News Corporation duplication “Australians are seeing Fox News channelled in Australia by News Corporation’s Australian operations and particularly in not too subtle form on The Contrarians hosted by News Ltd’s Peter van Onselen.

“The practices of the Fox News Channel revolve around keeping the audience afraid and enraged. Those who stand between the very wealthy and greater wealth must be labelled, vilified, and dismissed. The tactics of its “news folk” and commentators include stacked panels, name-calling, talking over or shouting down any opposition, having a ready supply of villains that the audience will have Pavlovian responses to, and of course feeding the perceptions they create that suit the narratives that serve their corporate masters so well.”
The Bolt Report uses similar techniques.

Do read the whole piece to gauge the extent of van Onselen’s malevolence, and how the tactics used in the US Fox News, which is nothing more than a propaganda machine for the Republican Party and its extreme right wing manifestation, the Tea Party, are replicated here. Fox uses the disingenuous slogan ‘fair and balanced’ and its dishonest catch cry is: ‘We report, you decide’.

In searching for even one non-partisan writer for this newspaper one is left with just George Megalogenis, who writes well on matters economic, and at least backs his assertions with facts. But even the much-respected Mega at times seems to be avoiding conflict with the party line when he writes his columns.

In my view The Australian is patently partisan in its opposition to the Gillard Government and its support for the Coalition. Almost everything it publishes is designed to replace the Government with a Coalition one.

The same could be said for the rest of the News Limited stable. It is fruitless looking for a non-partisan writer there. Bolt, Akerman, Lewis and McCrann are conservatives with a vitriolic hatred of Labor, and the others largely follow their lead.

Let’s look at the Fairfax stable, where one could once reasonably expect to find better-balanced journalists. Ross Gittins and Peter Martin are standouts in that they present the facts as they are. They write mostly on matters economic, and do it well. At the Australian Financial Review there are some sound writers, chief among them Laura Tingle, who seems to be able to see things others can’t, and express them in clear prose.

But the Fairfax journalists that are most read are a big disappointment. The grande dame of political journalism, Michelle Grattan, who once could be relied upon to write balanced articles, has got her knife so far into Julia Gillard that she can scarcely say anything good about her at all, even when the PM has a substantial success to her credit. There is always a down side that gets the emphasis. Any acknowledgement is given begrudgingly. Why she is like this she alone knows, but it shows, and reflects poorly on her.

Phil Coorey seems a reasonable sort of fellow, especially on Insiders, but even his articles are tainted with the disparaging remarks about the Government. Peter Hartcher, whose well-written book, The Sweet Spot, I reviewed a little while ago, too gets on his high horse to vent criticism against the Government.

To read their columns a visitor could be left with the impression that Australia had an incompetent, leaderless Federal Government that had no vision, no narrative, and no accomplishments, that does nothing but fight over leadership, and that is headed for certain electoral wipeout at the next election, from which recovery would take a decade, or more.

They, along with many other commentators, are so certain of this electoral tsunami that they speak as if it were a foregone conclusion. Discouragingly, their dire predictions seem to be based on contemporary opinion polls, to which they wrongly attribute predictive capability, even this far from the next scheduled election. How these columnists have been conned into assigning such power to the polls is beyond me, and I suspect to some of the better pollsters too.

And it’s not just regular journalists that indulge in the perpetual ‘Gillard is doomed’ rhetoric. Crikey’s Bernard Keane is regular knocker, and recently the usually supportive Mungo MacCallum has joined the doomsters, basing his assessment on a discussion he had with half a dozen mates at a pub. Even Labor politicians are gloomy. We are used to Richo rabbitting on about the PM’s political demise as a matter of when, not if, but when Steve Bracks joins him and talks about Labour being wiped out around the nation, Labor supporters despair. Mind you, he retreated from this line when he recently launched his book, A Premier’s State.

Indeed it’s hard to find many who support the Government. NAB chief executive Cameron Clyne was one in an article by Ben Butler in the SMH Let’s stop the negativism, says Clyne Read it for a psychological boost!

So there it is – a media in the middle – interposed between the political reality of Federal politics and the public. Most of it is malignant; intent on spreading widely its cancerous message about PM Gillard and her Government, absorbed with metastasizing to every part of the electorate. Truth is irrelevant – bringing PM Gillard and her Government down is all that counts. The Murdoch media now reflects the strategies employed by Fox News in the US – an around-the-clock, partisan assault on public opinion – and the Fairfax media, and to some extent the ABC, is following suit. It is subversive and dangerous.

Can you imagine a football match where one team is playing well and scoring freely, while the other is floundering? Imagine now a clique of TV and radio commentators whose focus is on every real or trumped-up misdemeanour of the winning team, savaging their players and their coaches for ‘unfair’ play, rough tactics, poor strategy, incompetent ball handling, timid tackling, hopeless defence, pathetic attack, and lack of leadership.

Imagine the commentators overlooking the dirty tactics, the behind the play assaults, the lack of any visible game plan, the foul leadership, and the low scoring of the other side, glossing over these misdemeanours as inconsequential. Imagine as the game progresses and the score mounts, the commentators predicting, even at half time, a massive loss for the winning side based upon Sportsbet odds.

Imagine the umpires punishing every small or imagined infringement of the leading side with a severe penalty, while overlooking the gross violations of the other.

Imagine the supporters of the losing team hurling abuse, cans and bottles at the players, threatening to jump the fence and assault them. Imagine them endlessly chanting lurid slogans until they became deafening. Imagine this going on from the very beginning, and continuing even as the superior side piles on goal after winning goal, to the very end.

Imagine even some of the winning side’s supporters turning on them, criticizing their tactics, even the colour and design of their gear.

Imagine all that and you will have an image of what is going on with the media in this country. The media is in the middle, determined to shield the public from the truth, the real score, the real promise of greater things to come; determined to distract the electorate, to misrepresent the progress the Government is making, to promote the losers and paint them as in an impossible-to-lose position, but never prepared to expose their hollowness, their policy paucity, their costing dishonesty, their sinister agenda for our nation and its people.

Labor’s most pressing problem is the ‘media in the middle’.

What do you think?