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
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.