Holding the Truncheon

It was like night and day, from one hour to the next the national conversation took a hard right turn, where it has languished since the May election. Cowed and kowtowing, even the ABC shifted from talking about the worthiness of income tax cuts for the rich to discussing how consumers might best spend their “newfound fortune.” In the aftermath, the government has found uninhibited freedom in its agenda. Whereas a mandate to Labor may have provided room to move on economic redistribution, the mandate to the Liberals has instead meant the whipping out of the truncheon and the beating down of the poor, foreign, and queer, all with the acquiescence of the media who grant them this freedom.

In a recent editorial penned by Kevin Rudd, the former PM argues the power of News Limited and now Nine/Fairfax to shift the national conversation and win elections for their apparent partners in crime — the Liberal Party. Whist this is true, notwithstanding the undue influence of right-wing ideologues in our media, a progressive Labor agenda managed to secure 48% of the two-party vote. In truth, News and Nine are only able to significantly influence low-information voters who have only a passing understanding of national affairs, making them easily duped by a bit of fearmongering and rhetorical flourish, and who consume only a limited media diet which leans heavily on the right-wing commercial media. I am not attempting to downplay the issue, but there is more going on than a vicious octogenarian American.

It is obvious the tremendous impact the movement of only a small number of voters can have, mostly owing to our exaggerative voting system for the House of Representatives. Having disproportionate intellectual power over a volatile segment of the electorate can a kingmaker make. One caveat I wish to address is the further complicity of the non-Murdoch media. There are alternatives, such as Ten, Seven, the ABC, the Guardian and…well that’s about it as far as national influence is concerned.1 That segment of the media, however, can play its role in keeping the national conversation in a sane and fair region of play, in keeping the Overton window firmly rooted to a moderate centre. The Guardian makes a fair run at this, as being the only mainstream Australian outlet with an editorial agenda that isn’t right-wing, but they limit themselves to an online presence only.

The capacity of the ABC to play ball is limited, but it still has some flexibility, such as in its chosen foci. It doesn’t necessarily need to follow the national narrative, but can forge one of its own, within reason. I of course applaud the ABC for being one of only a few serious and independent investigative media sources in this country, but that applause is mitigated by the fact that this journalism is in part mandated by statute. Additionally, there are plenty of journalists ‘stuck’ at other news organisations just trying to make a living who would undoubtedly prefer to be doing something more than tabloid trash with their career. The issue is that these other organisations elect to keep an editorial agenda which largely follows rather than forges the national agenda. Complacency, therefore, forms part of the problem of media bias in this country. If you’re going along with the national agenda then you might as well being writing the right-wing editorials which direct it. The commercial outlets are particularly egregious in this regard, with Seven mostly being a carbon-copy of Nine but with a red logo instead of blue. If only those colours were tied to political leaning.

One can argue, and I certainly would, that the problem is deeper than just Murdoch or Nine. It is the fundamental problem, as Rudd rightly identifies in his editorial, of being able to buy elections, either through donations, or as concerns the present topic, saturation media coverage. Though it is maintained by News that The Australian runs a profit, there’s little public evidence to back up this claim, and the Oz is only one of a number of Murdoch vanity projects intended to ‘buy’ political influence. Not everyone can afford to set up a national broadsheet or 24/7 news station in order to disseminate their personal views. Likewise, we aren’t all rotund mining billionaires capable of shifting the political disposition of a state through systemic economic exploitation, direct political influence through networking, and of course $60 million of campaign advertisements. The porous borders between corporate and political Australia, the unfettered access and influence that a market-fetishistic economy can allow one to buy, are the foundational issues at play here.

Unquestionably, we need stronger antitrust laws, any kind of media regulation, including media freedom regulation, to both provide the freedom to report and the freedom from reporting on topics bought with monetary influence. Use the sovereignty of the state as imparted upon it by the people it supposedly represents: break up News Limited, increase funding to the ABC and SBS, unleash the beast of the ABC by allowing more freedom in editorial expression, entrench in law a prohibition on intimidation attempts by law enforcement towards whistleblowers and those who work with them. Revealing the fundamental injustices of the system is part of what sustains it, it encourages reform and keeps the elite on its toes. The goal is thus: let the polity seize back control from the corporate masters who would seek to steer the state as if it were their Sunday car.

Let’s be realistic, however. Rudd calls for no more than a Royal Commission into the media as his solution. This in part owing to the gargantuan complexity of the problem which could surely only be disentangled by a well-resourced national inquiry, but it speaks also to Rudd’s own realism. He knows, I know, we all know what is and isn’t achievable. That laundry list of breaking up News etc. is really just fantasy and couldn’t realistically be achieved in the current situation. Getting there will be a long and tough fight that will involve pushing back on that same front where sanity is losing, by attempting to redirect the national agenda. Elections are one way this can be done, and will be necessary in getting there, but a Labor government without a plan might as well be a Liberal government with one, because there will need to be massive exertion to move the ostensibly immovable object. Rudd’s answer is a royal commission, which could only be set up by a Labor government. I agree with this, but I also add this contribution:

Stop holding the truncheon. Like I said, “If you’re going along with the national agenda then you might as well be writing the right-wing editorials which direct it.” If you aren’t stopping the truncheon then you’re the one holding it. You are an accessory for not fighting back against the aggressor as they pummel their victim, as the only one in the room with the power to do so. The non-Murdoch media needs to get off its arse and try harder, especially the commercial and tabloid media. It is not strictly necessary that tabloid media must be right-wing. It is not strictly necessary to beat down the poor and the foreign in order to sell papers and get clicks. There is another enemy, far more powerful and deserving of a good beating, whose beating is not only palatable but will draw in those same clicks. Turn the truncheon on the rich. Expose those in the backrooms working against the national interest. Use any leverage and space that you have to change the national conversation. That’s journalists and that’s people too. When the topic comes up, don’t just shrug off your friend’s inadequate understanding of the world. Help them to understand who the real enemy is; be part of holding back the truncheon.

  1. Ten is only part owned by News. ↩︎