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The end of the fourth estate?

Webdiarist Dr Scott Burchill is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the School of International and  Political Studies at Deakin University and the author of highly regarded books, chapters and articles on international relations. Scott wrote Counterspin: pro-war mythology for Webdiary in January 2003: this is his first piece for the independent Webdiary.

The end of the Fourth Estate?
Observations of an end user

by Scott Burchill

Scott Burchill

I make extensive use of the print media to keep abreast of current events in international politics. I listen to and watch ABC Radio National, ABC TV and SBS TV, and I subscribe to The Age, The Australian and The Australian Financial Review six days a week. I have an online subscription to the Financial Times (UK) and look at the free access websites of The Guardian (UK), The New York Times (UK), the Washington Post (US) and the Los Angeles Times (US) every day. When there is time I will also look at Ha'aretz (Israel) and The Jakarta Post (Indonesia).

I am a member of a small group of scholars and activists who have been exchanging information about subjects of mutual interest in international politics since the mid 1960s - instigated in response to the Vietnam War. I joined more recently in the internet age, but in the past huge quantities of documents and information were sent around the world by airmail, contributing significantly to the coffers of various national postal services. This exchange of ideas and information also contributed to the research behind the definitive history of the war and a range of other published texts (ie Gabriel Kolko's Vietnam: Anatomy of War 1940-1975 Pantheon, New York 1985). Helping to maintain this network is considerably easier these days thanks to recent developments in information technology funded by the US taxpayer (the internet), though it still takes about an hour out of each day.

I mention this only because the following remarks about the Australian print media stem not from a professional interest in journalism but out of the daily habits of an end user who is in a position to make comparative judgements across both the national and global spectrum. I will confine my comments to the state of the opinion-commentary and editorial pages in Australian newspapers which - apart from the letters pages - are the only places where non-journalists can get space. Since 1998 I have written 96 times on these pages for various Australian newspapers so I have some sense of recent trends, at least in the broadsheet press (see http://scottburchill.net).

In what is sometimes called the 'age of culture wars' there are three aspects of contemporary political commentary and reporting that deserve attention. None of them are especially new but all are now noticeably prominent. In my view they contaminate political discourse and significantly reduce the value of newspaper commentary. The first is the misunderstanding of bias and corkscrew journalism, the second is political apostasy and the third is the intoxication generated by proximity to power.

Bias and corkscrew journalism

It is important to start by exposing some common misperceptions about the conceptualisation of media bias.

Information managers in modern industrial societies accrue power by controlling and organising knowledge. They have the skills to process and direct information, and the influence to mobilise public support for decision-making by government. They are in the business of lobbying, cheerleading and opinion management, though they routinely masquerade as independent commentators.

These managers are commonly classified in 200 year old ideological terms such as "left" and "right", positions on a linear spectrum which are then paired with political parties which are said to formally represent these approaches: in Australia - ALP = left, Coalition = right. Many commentators are in fact former party functionaries and apparatchiks.

The idea of political "balance" - usually only invoked as an attack on ideological adversaries who apparently lack it - assumes that both halves of the political spectrum (left and right) are equally represented in the political process and that a natural mid-point or "centre" between the two exists. This median point, which is apparently free of political bias and often described as "moderate" or "mainstream", is where taxpayer-funded media organizations such as the ABC are supposed to locate themselves. No such discipline is expected of privately owned media outlets, and none is provided.

There are fundamental problems with this schema.

The assumption that a moderate, responsible and "natural" balance can be found on each and every political issue is self-evidently untrue. Are there two sides to the Holocaust or indiscriminate terrorism where a balanced view in the middle can be found? Obviously not.

The persistent use of terms such as "left" and "right" to characterise media opinion in Australia grossly exaggerates the diversity of views on offer. It is still widely assumed that the two party system (Labor-Coalition) encompasses the full spectrum of legitimate political thought in Australia. Ideas or arguments which do not fall neatly within the policy parameters of the major parties are by definition said to be "extreme" and beyond the bounds of respectable opinion. Debate, discussion and choice is effectively circumscribed by defining the intellectual boundaries within which legitimate political expression is possible. There is no need for formal censorship, which is usually clumsy, resented and easily resisted.

When the range of legitimate political ideas moves as a bloc to the right while simultaneously converging, the terms used to describe their respective philosophies become misleading. Voters looking for meaningful differences in the two party system are presented with an illusion of choice. All but the narrowest of proposals becomes "radical" or "extreme". The so called free market of political ideas narrows and discourse becomes stale and repetitive.

This is the primary danger of bipartisanship, a view of politics which avoids robust debate and disagreement believing a consensus should and can be achieved on most issues. It also explains the revolving ideological door used by columnists such as Gerard Henderson and Paddy McGuinness, who are equally comfortable at Fairfax and News Limited.

Of the reasons to feel depressed about the state of the Australian media, it is this tendency towards repetition and set-piece ideological battles - what has been described as "corkscrew journalism" - which is most deflating.

According to Fred Halliday at the LSE, the term "corkscrew journalism" originated in the film The Philadelphia Story directed by George Cukor in 1940. Halliday defines it as "instant comment, bereft of research or originality, leading to a cycle of equally vacuous, staged, polemics between columnists who have been saying the same thing for the past decade, or more."

This is an accurate description of much broadsheet commentary in Australia. Predictability and unoriginality is rife and compounded by its growing distance from the concerns of media consumers who have little, if any interest in cheerleading for one media conglomerate or another.

Readers are often surprised to find columnists placing themselves at the centre of these ideological battles, frequently defending either their former party affiliation or the commercial prerogatives of their employer, against other columnists. It's often a dialogue between self-declared insiders - movers and shakers - who seem increasingly removed from their readership, which looks on expressing occasional curiosity about a system which handsomely remunerates people with a grossly inflated sense of their own importance.

There is frequently little that is considered or thoughtful and much that is repetitive, but everything seems designed to provoke - usually other columnists. The tyranny of concision ensures that complex and detailed ideas cannot be properly explained, so much commentary is little more than personal sniping, the airing of petty grievances and the championing of long-standing obsessions.

There is one golden rule in political commentary, especially for in-house regulars, which is unfortunately honoured more in the breach than the observance. If you have nothing interesting or original to say, say nothing.

 

The default position: political apostacy

If there is a common position adopted by Australia's media commentariat it is not a shared ideological conviction - although the spectrum of opinion has sharply narrowed to the right in recent years - but political apostasy. Reflecting a trend set in the United States and the United Kingdom by David Horowitz, Paul Johnson, Christopher Hitchens and others, Australia's political apostates such as Keith Windschuttle, P.P. McGuinness, Piers Akerman and Imre Salusinszky, appear equally motivated by a need to cleanse themselves of the ideological sins of their youth by adopting diametrically opposite views to those they once held so dearly. In the case of Robert Manne, the transition from liberal to conservative has been reversed.

Political apostates have about as much credibility as reformed smokers who lecture others about the risks of lung cancer, and are equally insufferable. By renouncing their earlier faith and converting to its polar opposite they display a deep psychological need for devotion to some cause or belief system. This enables them to courageously challenge the orthodoxies of the "elites," "the left" or "chattering classes" that they were once a member of, without explaining their own current immunity from such a contagion.

There is often something fundamentalist about their behaviour. They inhabit the extremes of both the ideological position they originally held and the one they have more recently shifted to. The move from Stalinist to free market zealot is remarkably seamless. But why do they reinvent themselves so radically, as if the extreme is their only comfort zone?

Most political apostates, such as the neo-conservatives in the US, are victims of the 'God That Failed' syndrome. They began their political lives as commissars on the left but soon changed tack when they realised that real power, wealth and influence lay on the opposite side of the ideological fence. Once established as servants of state capitalism - and usually defenders of state violence - these rugged individualists devote much of their time to exposing the sins of former comrades who haven't yet seen the light and shifted like magnets to the true centres of modern political power.

Reconstructing themselves as faux dissenters who would prefer their earlier liberal incarnation to be forgotten, political apostates adopt reflexively contrarian positions of the risk-free kind, often portraying themselves as persecuted dissidents in a liberal dominated industry without noticing that they are in fact surrounded by a stable of like-minded conservatives, statists and reactionaries. Ensconced in the heartland of corporate media, ideas such "risk", "opposition to power" and "dissent" are rendered meaningless. Conformity and obedience rule the day. This is why on the Op Ed pages of the Murdoch press, a "range of voices" translates to a "range of conservative voices".

Proprietors normally don't need to issue ideological edicts, although Mr Murdoch apparently instructed his editors to support the war in Iraq. They select editors who have already internalised appropriate views and values.

On the Op Ed pages it is now common to read strident posturing and contrived provocation disguised as thoughtful opinion. Aping the modus operandi of commercial talkback radio, in-house commentators make deliberate but often unsubstantiated criticisms of their counterparts in rival papers (and sometimes their own), hoping to trigger outrage, controversy, and an equally malicious response which can then be presented as a "public debate." Examples abound: Alan Ramsey v Paddy McGuinness, News Corp v Media Watch, Greg Sheridan v Robert Manne, Imre Salusinszky v Phillip Adams, Gerard Henderson v John Pilger and "the left", etc, etc.

Much of what passes for "debate", however, is remarkably shallow and ill-informed, seemingly motivated by personal or ideological animus and utterly boring to most readers who remain indifferent to insider breast beating. It's largely a closed discussion between people who share an exaggerated sense of both their importance and influence. Civility and serious debate have been replaced by infantile point-scoring and a quest for 60 Minutes-style celebrity, where the presenter/commentator is more important than the story.

A number of columnists assume the role of self-appointed media vigilantes who patrol the frontiers of Op Ed pages, the ABC and SBS, looking for ideological transgressions or views which they would rather not be aired. Regrettably this also appears to be the modus operandi of many political blogs. Espousing nonsense about Australia being an "empirical society" (Gerard Henderson), they seem oblivious to their own ideological postures, mistakenly believing that the market capitalism they promote is some kind of normative assumption rather than an ideological preference.

The curse has also infected editorials, where columnists on the opposing page get a second chance to stage their attacks anonymously - though often in identical language. Important contemporary issues deserving serious discussion become a thinly-veiled cover for petty spats in imaginary culture wars. This double dipping short-changes readers who are entitled to more than duplication.

Editorials in The Australian praising the Iraq war have been regular and monotonous since March 2003, but the virtues of invasion and occupation soon give way to snide criticisms of the war's opponents - vaguely termed "the left" - especially commentators in rival media outlets such as the ABC and Fairfax press. Assuming their readers are actually interested in such a dialogue of the deaf, it is not surprising that the circulation figures of broadsheets continues to decline. How can organizations which depend on the market for their lifeblood - selling advertising space and readership demographics to other corporations - be so out of touch?

 

Intoxicated by power

Writing at the birth of industrial society, Adam Smith identified a major weakness in the moral condition of the species:

"The disposition to admire, and to almost worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments."

Little, if anything in this regard has changed in 250 years. Proximity to power remains intoxicating for impressionable journalists, particularly those who hold few inhibitions about ideological alignment with government. Whether its guided tours of the Pentagon for the foreign editor of The Australian who can barely disguise his giddy mind, or the foreign minister launching a book on terrorism in Southeast Asia which he should be the subject of - or appearing as a regular on current affairs programs, scepticism and independence has been sacrificed on the alter of co-optation. It's about being "a player" and "a confidante" with insider knowledge, rather than merely being "an observer".

Whereas in the past the independence and integrity of journalists could be measured by the extent to which they upset the men of power, popularity amongst the political elite is widely seen as a badge of honour for contemporary commentators. In fact it is sometimes craved, as if old fashioned research and hack-work can be replaced by official drip feeds and PR handouts. Government spin is assessed for its success or failure instead of being evaluated for its impact on democratic processes. Serving power, traditionally the vocation of state intellectuals and the commissar class, is an aspiration for too many in the Fourth Estate.

Defending the state - whether its Israel's occupation of Palestine, the US-led invasion of Iraq, the persecution of asylum seekers, the abrogation of common law rights for political opponents or rooting out left wing bias in the ABC - is widely seen as an important responsibility for culture warriors who see no reason to distance themselves from government in any way. In fact they often berate conservative governments for not winning these battles against what are misleadingly called left wing elites. Framing ideas and debates, telling people what they should think about public issues and defending doctrinal orthodoxies is what lobbying on behalf of power is all about today. This is why journalists can so easily reinvent themselves as industry spokespeople or ministerial staffers. Scepticism towards power, essential to the armoury of modern journalism, has been forgotten or lost and is widely seen as a bad career move.

This situation isn't hopeless. There are many fine journalists who have thought seriously about the ethics of their profession and retain a healthy scepticism about power. There are also many fearless commentators who are prepared to speak out openly about the abuse of power by governments.

My concern, however, is that the invertebrates, the wholly-owned and the magnets to power are in the ascendancy. If we wish to remain a liberal-democracy this trend needs to be reversed.

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re: The end of the fourth estate?

This is an enormously interesting article and when, if, I have time I would like to write a longer response.

But for now a question or two. Would not a mirror image of this article be at least as plausible? Could what you have said of the culture warriors who what you describe as "defend the state" also be said of those who attack the state? Or defend a different state? Mutatis mutandus, could you not substitute Hitchens for Pilger, Horowitz for Finkelstein, Fisk for Johnson and so on without significantly impeding the flow of your argument? Why does The Australian have blood on its hands and not SBS, ABC and Fairfax?

Why is changing one's opinions, even dramatically, such an intellectual crime? Or giving up smoking for that matter? Have you never changed an opinion? Not since Vietnam? Do you still smoke? If so, stop.

And after rightly denouncing the obsolete linear spectrum of "left" and "right" have you not merely substituted "liberal" and "conservative"?

re: The end of the fourth estate?

Apologies for not commenting on the above article. I came across something I think you should know. As this is about the press, this seems the right place to ask a question.

Early Friday morning I was reading Robert Fisk's new book when I came upon something Webdiary readers might be able to confirm. When Fisk left the Times of London after it became part of the News Limited stables, he did so after copy he would send in from abroad was being re-written, moved around, context changed etc. He talked to the man who was in charge of the Foreign desk at the Times but it continued to happen. It was after this that Robert Fisk and other journalists left in droves. The name of the man on the foreign desk?

Piers Akerman.

Is it our Piers, the hard man from Insiders and the Dailey Tel???

See The Great War for Civilisation, Pages 328-331?

re: The end of the fourth estate?

About a wk ago, I posted on a message board, "What has happened to the media?". I was asking if they were being gagged by their bosses, because the political reporting in this country, with the exception of a few, is practically non-existent. I see them on the commercial stations, giving air time to the govt. but it's the same thing that has been reported all day. I find myself screaming at the TV ask him this question, he didn't answer that question. Around the last election time, when I became a screamer at the TV, I decided to do my on research into the interest rate argument. Needless to say financiers were saying something opposite to what the govt. was saying, but this was not being reported to a great degree. The question I ask myself is why wasn't the Govt. put to task by the media. You have answered some of my questions.

re: The end of the fourth estate?

Ed Price asks: "Was it the same Piers Akerman?" I really doubt that Ed. Piers Akerman is a dreadfully common name.

Also, bullying and censorious behaviour like Fisk describes would be quite out of character for the smug, arrogant manic-Zionist prat called 'Piers Ackerman' who for some reason best explained by others is deemed suitable as a TV talking head (perhaps it's to put us off snack foods?)

re: The end of the fourth estate?

I just assume that as mass media ownership is concentrated homogenisation of it’s content is inevitable. While the homogenisation is nauseating, and the use of the medium for the propaganda of the power elites into whose control it has been concentrated is frightening, I see an opportunity here.

Being thoroughly disenchanted with all flavours of traditional media I have been forced to look elsewhere. Having invested the effort to find alternative sources I have all but abandoned the old. I reckon that I'm a pretty average bloke so I can only assume that there are many others like me and, as the monotonous drip from media institutions bereft of integrity continues, many more to come. I see the continual fall of circulation numbers as evidence of this. The dilution of the power enjoyed by these sources as their markets contract is a huge opportunity for others and my personal great hope for a reinvigoration of the 4th estate. Surely the effect of the three points you discuss, if continued unabated, will be the atrophy and eventual demise of the existing media landscape?

As an 'alternative' media consumer I am currently happier with the content but frustrated with the fragmentation of the sources. I would prefer to have two or three outlets that I trusted give me a comprehensive rundown on the issues that matter to me. I guess this will happen over time, mergers will occur and markets will coalesce, as is the natural business cycle. As the new players emerge they will be facing a weakened competitor still trotting out the same boring old tripe with no idea on how to do anything different.

I’m kind of encouraged by all the puerile games that the existing commentators indulge in, I reckon it hastens the change I impatiently await.

re: The end of the fourth estate?

A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it.
- Kathleen Norris, novelist

As someone who was born in Czechoslovakia I was pleased to note that Norris described my exile journey so succinctly: Czechs singled out for a thriving and independent press

Every nation needs more journalists and less reporters ... This thought-provoking article is a rare read these days ...

As Terry Heaton notes: "A journalism degree has become an MBA with perfect hair, a self-centred job instead of a community-centric vocation, and it's terribly sad. And the thing most of us refuse to see is that our viewers and readers know it."

re: The end of the fourth estate?

I am very, very disapointed to read that Scott Burchill should include the likes of PP McGuinness or the Murdoch tabloid Press, in the same breath as reputable people like Alan Ramsey, or Media Watch.

I would suggest WD participants read the nonsense written by that useless limb of satan, Miranda Devine (as reasonable substitute for McGuinness, while he is off at his uni grants quango censoring funding applications for academic research projects he ideologically disagrees with) on hapless Robert Jovicic; in comparison to Ramsey's acute article on Robert Gerard, the SA Liberal party and Costello.

The Ramsey article devolves at a time when all political parties in this country are frantically purging the remnants of left liberalism within their ranks. I hope desperately that South Australians will contribute to this thread concerning their impressions of the veracity or otherwise of Alan Ramsey's article.

Burchill's stuff is as tired and lazy as some of the journalism he purports to criticise, and I expect exponentially better of this bloke than this disappontment on previous (better) form.

re: The end of the fourth estate?

Geoff Pahoff, the role of the Fourth Estate is to be independent of the State, and therefore be in a position to hold it accountable. As I see it, this is the essence of Scott's argument.

Of course, often that independence and "accountability seeking" will lead to an appearance of attacking the State - usually I guess because those are the most interesting and newsworthy stories. That's fine, The State can live with it as far as I'm concerned - we're paying for it, and they use plenty of our money to defend themselves (what was the IR ad campaign worth again?).

The Australian (and the rest of News Ltd) has blood on its hands (and SBS and the ABC don't) because it actively supported, and promoted an aggressive war in which many on both sides have died, whereas the ABC and SBS did not support or promote, but reported - that's the difference Geoff.

Whether the war was right or wrong in an objective sense is beside the point. Whether the reporting appeared biased or not probably depends on how you viewed the war subjectively.

Changing opinions is not an "intellectual crime" when it occurs in the light of facts. Too often what we see are attempts to change the opinions of others by hiding the facts, rather than shining a searchlight on them, and its News Ltd that's most guilty of that.

re: The end of the fourth estate?

The tribalism in our commentariat is remarkable, and a little sad. These guys are canny enough to know that their livelihood depends on establishing a consistent "brand". They write one totally unsurprising column after another, all the better to keep the fans happy.

I remember when Andrew Bolt bravely dared to criticise the federal government over some minor matter earlier this year, he took the precaution of beginning with words to the effect of "now I normally agree with everything you do, Mr Howard, but...", so as not to alienate his loyal readers. Surely anyone who agrees (or disagrees) with 99% of government policy has put their brain into neutral and become a mere audience-pleaser.

While both extremes are disappointing, commentators like Bolt and Akerman who, as Burchill nicely puts it, "see no reason to distance themselves from government in any way" (federally at least) are a particular concern. They seem to be, as he suggests, seduced by power.

In the blogosphere, where monetary reward is not a factor, we might expect to see more freedom of thought, but sadly the pattern repeats, and bloggers tend to imitate their heroes and favour one or other of the political extremes. It's all very tribal and typically degenerates into ritual point-scoring.

re: The end of the fourth estate?

Interesting followup here to the story I posted about Pat Forsythe's pre-selection defeat.

It would have been common knowledge before the elections that new Independent MP for Pittwater Alex McTaggart owned a boarding house. So why is this story surfacing now? How many boarding houses in Sydney would be facing similar problems? Probably all of them.

Does the story have legs? Or is this yet another Uglies beat-up?

re: The end of the fourth estate?

Very thought-provoking piece Scott. I wonder whether there might be a fourth factor contaminating political discourse... excuse me while I put my tin foil hat on: surely Operation Mockingbird has a talon or two here in Australia?

In the US there is speculation that Bob Woodward and Robert Novak among others are CIA assets and it would be naive to assume there aren't quite a few others, especially given the massive funding, most of it unaccountable to Congress, the national security apparatus receives. Some of that largesse might find it’s way to these shores. I’m a bit leery of that friendly society in which American apparatchiks like Robert Zoellick and Richard Armitage get to wine and dine our wide eyed scribes. This must surely assist in the picking of ‘low-hanging fruit’.

I don't suppose the ideologues and power-junkies you allude to in this country need such an impetus to go all the way with the USA, but again, I feel to dismiss the possibility (I would say probability) of some analogue here, would be naive.

Then there's the pay for comment angle; not Jonesy and Lawsy at the commercial trough, more your Armstrong Williams selling government policy for a fee, unknown to his readers, or your Jeff Gannon placed strategically to soften coverage, or your Rendon Group or Lincoln Group, hired for hundreds of millions of dollars to create dummy Iraqi propaganda and grease the wheels for it’s reception back home.

My gut feeling is that our small pond might produce the odd leech or patch of scum, but that the monsters above are at this stage out of it’s league. Probably safer to blame fear, conformity and sheer dimness than conspiracy.

Geoff Pahoff’s questions are illustrative of the absurd demand for ‘balance’ that infects modern journalism. Your question ‘Are there two sides to the Holocaust’ is a particularly apposite query, given that anyone who tried to make the opposition case for such an atrocity would be shot down immediately by the very same people who demand that any observation or comment that might conceivably be termed ‘progressive’ (such as criticism of the terror or IR legislation) must be ‘balanced’ by someone singing the establishment’s song. I’m reminded of the title of a recent Richard Dawkins article arguing against intelligent design... ‘One side can be right’. Following Mr Pahoff’s logic would lead to a stasis or stagnation in which the very idea of the possibility of objective truth is at risk.

This is not to say that one side is always right; normally one side is, but the identity of the side changes with the times. Sensible people forty years ago knew that, despite the heady promises of socialism, the prudent course was a conservative outlook and gradual change which had to prove itself before acceptance. This perspective was informed by growing knowledge of the murderous results of a rapid alteration of the basic social contract in Russia and China. The fear of ‘the left’ that we still live with today can be traced right back thru the last century and there has always been very good reasons for it.

Having said that, it is obvious to anyone with half a brain that the most dangerous of our recent problems and future scenarios are almost all directly attributable to the right side of the spectrum, which is perhaps why Paul Walter got so exercised by your lumping Alan Ramsey in with P.P. McGuinness. I understand the point you were making but agree with Paul that you sail close to Mr Pahoff’s faux balance territory with such a pairing. The difference is that Ramsey does at least hold government feet to the fire, Liberal or Labor, while McGuinness would only ever shooting from right to left.

Poor old Gerard Henderson was wringing his hands the other day about the lack of decent right wing commentary in Australia, bemoaning the fact that most of the nation’s leading intellectuals were pinkish in hue and that cogent defences of the raft of recent legislation were so thin on the ground that Amanda Vanstone has been reduced to virtually conceding the argument under the cover of a few tired witticisms. What he overlooks (or refuses to look at) is that cogent arguments in aid of such awful legislation are difficult to make and that any intellectual with a heart as well as a brain could not in all conscience endorse ideological law which has a net benefit only for the constituency of the government and is positively harmful to the interests of those in our country whose interests most need looking after. But for Mr Henderson the lack of nobility or even decency in pro-government rhetoric (as opposed to some of the impassioned but closely argued opposition, quite a bit of it from stalwarts of the old Right) is a real head-scratcher, an enigma.

It’s this establishment-friendly cluelessness (real or feigned) which is turning off readers from ‘gatekeeper’ media all over the world. I’ll close with a quote from Eschaton’s Atrios, one of the new breed of bloggers who are cutting off the major media’s air supply by giving readers subjective opinions on objective facts without first looking over their shoulders for approval:

It isn't blogs that destroyed the Gatekeepers. It wasn't blogs that put Rush Limbaugh on as an election analyst. It wasn't blogs that gave Bill O'Reilly the flagship show on a major cable news network. It wasn't blogs that gave Michael Savage his own television show on a cable news network. It wasn't blogs that put Ann Coulter on the cover of a major national news magazine. It wasn't blogs that created all of the various and often fact free screaming heads shows. It wasn't blogs that gave syndicated columns to numerous conservatives with little or no experience in journalism. It wasn't blogs that devoted the summer of 2001 to Gary Condit (uh, ok, well, maybe Josh helped a bit) and the summer of 2005 to a missing girl in Aruba. It wasn't blogs that invented the New York Post or Washington Times. And, it wasn't blogs that were responsible for all of the errors that this wonderful organization tracks on a regular basis.

Gatekeeper media may be dead, but to a great degree they dug their own grave and dove right in. Blogs didn't really get there until after the funeral.

Some of the smaller blogging fry have suggested that a popular blog like Atrios runs the risk of becoming a Gatekeeper himself and may in time come to be regarded as standing in the way of the real story as the Gatekeepers currently do. But at least on the web (for the present anyway) there is the certainty of organic renewal, as info shoppers decide in their millions who is shooting straight and who isn’t. This trend (or perhaps more accurately the means which allows it) arrived in the nick of time in my view.

Atrios’s real name is Duncan Black and he’s an economist in Philadelphia who is well regarded enough to get the occasional on air comment gig. My recipe for mainstream media renewal would be for them to make appearances by independent or original thinkers such as Mr Black regular rather than occasional.

As you say, the two party two-step means the acceptable range of public opinion is narrowed to the extent that significant community feeling about issues is marginalised. Some papers have begun blogs but so far as I can see most of these tend to toe the same party line as the op-eds. The MSM must realise it can’t resist people rejecting their not so subtle water carrying; they will have to go with the flow to survive. This means perhaps giving John Pilger a voice in this country, or Robert Fisk, even as they hold their nose.

I’d be delighted to see your name too, Mr Burchill, gracing a regular by-line in say the Fairfax press. Jeez, I might even by the hardcopy paper again!

What are the chances, do you think?

re: The end of the fourth estate?

Excellent points raised in the article and here in comments.

Adding another, citizens were always sitting ducks for abuse of the media system under the described narrowing effect. It was easy picking for our current PM to dream up ten buckets of crook legislation, and present an added two buckets to make it twelve on first push. Watch the outcry for how crook it all is, then withdraw the two. The end result? Headlines and comment all about how reasonable and compromising the bloke is. Punters everywhere fall for it time and time again. They see the comment on the two, not the ten.

Meanwhile, ten buckets have been dumped on the electorate. And bit by bit the nation moves into a vision without the creator having any need to explain it, other than in a two phrase grab, usually "good for the economy" - with that phrase not fully explored.

But it's only abuse if you expect something better than just that. As 'consumers' the citizenry get their daily dose of sugar. Until they want more, that's all they'll get. Policy only gets discussed more fully when it all goes wrong. And a knee-jerk reactive response is often enough to sweeten up the punters.

In the end, it is up to each citizen to change all this.

A classic example of how the media serves itself more than it serves the citizens can be found in the imposition of the new twelve bucket dirty-word-sedition laws. The two crook buckets that will be withdrawn will serve the media, and the punters are left unserved. The sugar dose? "Protecting you".

Protecting you nothing.

Understanding the processes outlined in this article and through commentary highlights the clear need for citizens to seek the changes we want ourselves. The responsibility resides with us. In the modern era of internet publishing and on-screen information, comes the opportunity for that to happen. Of course it takes time, and may not happen, but there it is.

re: The end of the fourth estate?

I think the story on Alex McTaggart's boarding house Dee Bayliss is as good an indication as any of the depths the Fourth Estate has plummeted to. Alex Mitchell's link here take on it was extremely disappointing. One expects better of Mitchell than his piece writing off McTaggart so soon on the say so of the police who rival soap stars these days with their love of the gutter press and often present sensationalist and inaccurate information to any hack with a space to fill or a headline to garner.

One only has to read the Sun Herald's sensational "revelations", as Mitchell calls them to see what bunkum they are. The oddly named Kings Cross "intelligence unit" claims it sends plain clothes and uniform officers everyday to monitor the place while the Sun Herald writers say they arrange to meet a drug pusher from the boarding house in nearby lane. Mitchell misses the big story here. If it's such a den of iniquity then the Kings Cross police must rival the AFP in the Keystone Kop capers. It's about time these journalists returned to proper investigations instead printing whatever rubbish is fed to them by someone with an agenda. And they wonder why there credibility with the public rivals second hand car dealers which is surely a slur on the good business folk of Parramatta Road.

re: The end of the fourth estate?

Glenn, the ABC and SBS news reporting does take the same line as the rest of the mainstream media - that is, blind obedience, subservience to, and support of them what has the power. (To be fair, I don't think they even know they are doing it).

Eg. SBS newsreader: "The trade talks were 'marred' by protests."

NOT: "The protests were 'marred' by the police."

This way of reporting events is repeated day after day, night after night. One good reason to be alert.

re: The end of the fourth estate?

Glenn Condell. I "made a demand for balance"? Where?

My point is that what the self proclaimed "left" or "liberals" say of their villains in journalism could just as easily be said of their heroes if you used their logic. Personally it does not worry me that The Australian might take one editorial line on Iraq, terrorism, the Middle East etc and SMH or The Age takes another. Also I don't care if they aim for "balance", faux or not. They can aim for Mars for all I care.

I do care if the ABC or SBS take a particular line to the near exclusion of any other. That's because they are public bodies.

I agree that there are some issues that are beyond argument. Scott Burchill gives the example of the holocaust. Not much room for a middle ground there. Either you accept that it happened and that it was a terrible thing or there is something strange and sinister about you. What about his other example? Indiscriminate terrorism. This confuses me. Why the word indiscriminate? Is there such a thing as discriminate terrorism? If so what is it and is it somehow OK? There are plenty of people around these parts who are prepared to argue that "terrorism is the weapon of the weak."

Is it really true to say that the state is the only source of power and that journalists, and only those journalists, who take a position that the Government would be pleased with are intoxicated by power or lack independence? I don't think so. Some journalists may well be trying to please Mr Howard or Mr Murdoch. Others may well be trying to please Mr Beazley or Dr Brown or Ms Irwin or their editors or old university professors or their mates in the pub for all I know. But it is a bit rich to accuse only one section of this profession of having a secret agenda or being motivated by improper considerations, cowardice or having surrendered independence.

Similarly I cannot accept that it is only one section of the profession that could be accused of being "oblivious to their own ideological postures" or "telling people what to think" or "defending doctrinal orthodoxies" or "rooting out bias" or engaging in what Orwell would have called "orthodoxy sniffing", while the rest of the profession is as pure and innocent as a new born baby.

Very similar things can be said about International and Political Studies academics.

re: The end of the fourth estate?

Intelligent and accessible piece, at this rate you'll have your own column! Thanks for setting up such a complex context for discussion.

I would just add a tincture of political economy to go with it. Opinion pages are highly popular parts of the paper, as witnessed by the fact that newspaper websites moving into paid or registered mode often make them one of the first non-free sections.

Moreover I suspect the popularity of the columnist is most often measured crudely by editors by the reaction their columns garner. Either from other heavy hitters or from simple feedback in letters (and not just the published ones).

This determinant then functions as it does elsewhere in the media/entertainment industry, rewarding the gravitas of age (since when did baby boomers want to listen to anyone but themselves?) and/or capacity to stimulate strong emotion (normally outrage) in equal measure.

Moreover, as fewer papers chase fewer readers a certain narrowing and dumbing down can be expected as more of a catch-all strategy is adopted. Thus opinion pieces have gone from being closely aligned cousins of arguments and essays, to being more straight polemics. Why suggest a symphony when a quick riff will sell as well or better? These days opinion, not argument, is frequently the centrepiece of the column. It looks like argument because it follows a logic but it normally rests more on prejudice than not.

In addition contracting media budgets make in house journalists more attractive than buying in talent, whether it be for op-eds or book reviews. Australia doesn't lack intellectuals but it does lack outlets for them.

Out of all this you get more columns with less space in each. Columns by both old hands who've said it all before ad nauseam, and underdeveloped and often severely out of their depth (but perhaps otherwise competent) journalists.

In all of this a lack of diversity in major media ownership remains a core problem, creating a vicious circle of narrowing outlets and opinion. A circle that current government policy wants to stimulate further.

Public media do present some counterpoint to market and vested interest problems in the private media. Witness who won most of the Walkleys. However, they live in far too much economic dependence on their political masters to be truly free (which is not the same as being "balanced" in the simplistic way Scott rightly criticises). An ABC and SBS that did not have to worry about ratings or funding, but simply about best providing for many different audiences would be a wonderful boon to our cultural life and our democracy. (These audiences should include the average to below average in intelligence and/or education. IE those sectors of the population currently watching mostly Channel 9).

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