Uncomfortable?

Just to see if I was imagining anti-Labor bias in The Australian, I did a little poll of the letters page over the weekend.

Out of 21 letters, 17 were anti-Labor. Three of the others concerned various ongoing right-wing campaigns: the hoary ABC-bias meme, and the bogeyman-academic of the month, currently Jake Lynch.

There was a single non-right-wing letter, but they were forced to publish that as the result of a complaint to the Press Council.

That’s not a good look, and that was just the letters page; the rest of the paper, even the news, followed the same pattern.

The media has a special place and a special responsibility in a democracy. The more powerful the player, the bigger the responsibility. It is not a defence to say that because Rupert legally owns most of the newspapers he can do what he wants, and if you don’t like it read something else. That’s like saying that because Kim Jong-un is the recognised ruler of North Korea, if the North Koreans don’t like his style they should stop complaining and move. Mere brute capability doesn’t confer legitimacy.

The staff at The Australian are journalists; I wonder if any of this makes them uncomfortable? Maybe they just have to do as they are told, or maybe they were hired because they really believe it’s OK to warp democracy to achieve certain ends; I don’t know. I just wonder how they explain it to themselves.

The wig slips

Simon Heffer (“Why anti-media crusader Tom Watson should come down off his high horse”, The Australian, 1/8) reveals in passing what local News Corp outlets have been flatly denying for years: that Rupert Murdoch actively directs his Australian newspapers to pursue his political agendas. In case you missed it, here it is in black and white: “Murdoch has had the temerity to ask some of his newspapers in Australia … to come out fervently against the re-election of Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister”.

To concerns that Murdoch’s interference is commercially-motivated, also hitherto dismissed by NewsCorp outlets, Heffer’s response is shockingly blunt: “so what?”.

Defenders of democracy would see this as more than mere “temerity”. It is an abuse of the responsibility of all media, private and public, to ensure the free and fair political communication which electors need to make their decisions. The bigger the player, the greater the responsibility. To accept anything less is to resign ourselves, as Heffer evidently has, to living under a plutocracy.

Albrechtsen Bulverises

Janet Albrechtsen (“Get ready for Leftist hysteria if Abbott wins the election”, The Australian, 28/8) asserts that film-makers tend to hold left-wing views because they “trade in emotion rather than reason”. We are supposed to deduce from this that left-wing views in general are hysterical, another example of the ancient fallacy which C.S. Lewis called  “Bulverism”.

Be that as it may, there are other qualities that do correlate with left-wing views: intelligence is one, education is another; so it may be unwise for a conservative to pursue this line of reasoning too far.

However, it would be wrong to assume that just because someone has conservative opinions, they are ignorant or stupid. It is fairer and more rational to debate the views and values at stake, rather than the qualities of the individuals who hold them.

Cater Bulverises

Nick Cater (“New cultural cringe fears the eyes of the world”, The Australian, 27/8) dismisses international law as the concern of “denaturalised sophisticates” who worry about what the rest of the world might think of them. This is what C.S. Lewis called “Bulverism”: dismissing a point of view by ascribing a psychological motivation to those who hold it, instead of addressing the view itself.

Australia did not sign up to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to “appease” internationalists as Cater would have it, but because it enshrined rights which have long been fundamental to our democracy. These include the right not to be arbitrarily or indefinitely detained, and the right to know what we are charged with. Most Australians would regard these as essential to the rule of law, domestically or internationally. Yet in our treatment of refugees we routinely violate them, and we have been duly called to account. Contrary to Cater’s assertion, most Australians would see that as a fair cop.

Cater advocates a rugged-individual response: to ignore the law and the views of our global peers, and continue down the “sovereign” path to pariah statehood. Independent self-belief is one thing, but arrogant self-serving is another. If everyone is telling you you are wrong, at some point you have to ask yourself if maybe you are just plain wrong.

Illiberal plan

Des Moore (“Workplace pendulum”, The Australian, 23/8) uncritically accepts predictable industry complaints about labour costs under the Fair Work system.  The big picture tells a different story: over the past 30 years, real GDP has risen by about 80%, real wages by only about 50%. This makes claims of decreased profitability due to wage costs incredible, and represents a market failure to share increased wealth with those who create it; a direct consequence of the decline in collective bargaining.

Eric Abetz’s illiberal plan to forbid “lazy” companies from willingly sharing profit through wages will only worsen this injustice, as will Moore’s proposal to weaken Fair Work.

In defence of non-swingers

The restriction of election debate audiences to swinging voters only dumbs down the debates. The majority who rarely change their votes are sometimes derided as “rusted-on”, but it is often due to clearly thought-out values which do not change on a whim. While some “swingers” may also have strong values and seek a party to match them, many are simply uninterested, uninformed, or even opportunistic. That is their right, but our electoral system all but guarantees a permanent balance of power to this least engaged minority, so the parties address most of what they say to them. This does not mean that the engaged majority should be excluded from public debate – in fact, their inclusion would greatly improve it.

Tide turned, 93 years ago

In the context of Liberal State dominance, it is hardly surprising that Tony Abbott claims to have converted to “States’ rights” (“The tide is turning against centralism in favour of states’ rights”, The Australian, 17/8), although his characteristically eloquent argument that “you’ve got too many cooks fiddling in the one broth” could be read either way.

But the announcement that “[t]he tide for those who favour states’ rights finally seems to be turning” is probably about 90 years too late. The 1920 “Engineers case” in the High Court, reinforced by every subsequent ruling on the subject, established that the Constitution does not guarantee States any powers beyond those it explicitly provides. Since then their residual colonial powers have inexorably shrunk with each exercise of federal power. There is no reason to suppose that this process will reverse itself merely because it suits Abbott’s current purposes.

A bit rich

There is an obvious flaw in the thesis of The Australian’s editorial “Labor’s salvation lies in the suburbs and regions” (16/8). If the political landscape really is divided between the “practical concerns” of suburban and regional Australia and “the moral crusades … of the gentrified Left”, why then do the nation’s wealthiest electorates continue to vote Liberal, and the poorest Labor, as they have always done?

Poisoned well

Dennis Shanahan (‘Climate of fear killing off policy’, The Australian, 16/8) is admirably frank in laying a share of the blame for “crippling sensible policy discussions” in this election campaign at the feet of the Fourth Estate, of which he is a significant member.

Although he clearly does not say it, Shanahan’s observation unavoidably points to the flagrant anti-Labor slant which, since the campaign began, has spread from its legitimate home in the opinion pages of NewsCorp publications to every news story and even every published letter. It is no longer possible, if it ever was, for The Australian and its stablemates to deny a regime-change agenda with a straight face. This distortion of the role of a free press is poisoning the well of Australian democracy.

 

Keeping journalism average

Nick Cater (“Rudd poised to win media land”, The Australian, 6/8) is concerned that journalists as a group depart from various demographic averages. His biggest worry is that they are more educated and progressive than average, because this might “distort the national debate”, which Cater presumably thinks should be conducted by taking a survey.

Mr Cater need not worry, if indeed he really does. With 70% of the nation’s press under its control, News Corp, with Mr Cater’s help, has done somewhat more than is necessary to redress the balance.