Category Archives: Media

A year of contradiction

It has been a good year for modern conservatives. With the Murdoch Press and in particular The Australian completing its slow transformation from a grumpy, cruel but fair conservative masthead to a ruthless ideological manipulator of truth,  it has been easy for neoliberal ideology to seep into daily discourse, and from there into government across the country. But the sheer ubiquity of neoliberalism has brought its internal contradictions into sharp focus: 

This year, conservatives have insisted that free speech is so overarching that it includes a right to racially vilify, yet sought to crucify whistleblowers like Assange and Snowden and academics like Jake Lynch and Larissa Behrendt whose speech offended them, and to neuter what little of the media they cannot control, like the ABC.

This year, conservatives have claimed to despise elites, yet sided with the powerful. They freed global money to circulate, yet fortified borders against human movement. They opposed democratic state action even to soften harsh markets, yet thumped their chests for imperial wars and Orwellian surveillance. They upheld rights to property, but not to drinking water.

This year, conservatives have mouthed Enlightenment values like reason and personal autonomy, yet have rejected science and decried secularism. They have denied equal rights because of religious dogma. Of the three pillars of democracy, they have commandeered liberty for the purpose of commerce and even claim to have invented it, but discarded equality and fraternity.

Modern conservatism is a Frankenstein’s monster: radical-authoritarian, theocrat-capitalist, anarcho-imperialist. Traditional conservatives were consistent at least in holding that things were better in the old days. As far as conservatism goes, I’m inclined to agree.

Don’t mention the boats

Just two weeks after the election, “Stop the boats” has become “Don’t mention the boats”. The Abbott government hopes it can make the asylum-seeker issue go away by media-management. But keeping inconvenient reports out of the press is not as simple as, say, purging uppity public servants. Like every other regime that has tried to rule by disinformation, the Coalition will quickly learn that suppressing the free flow of information makes stopping boats look easy.


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.

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.

Fear, favour, or both?

Ben Macintyre (“Reporting the news without fear or favour”, The Australian, 6/7) is surely right to assert that fiercely independent former Times journalist William Howard Russell would have been “shocked … by the politicians and lawyers now swarming to control and regulate the press by law”. But it is equally likely he would be appalled by corporate or proprietorial interference in press content. A case in point: the recent secret recording of Rupert Murdoch, which has been a prominent and ongoing news story across the globe – except in media outlets he owns.

The Australian, for example, buried a small story in the Media section (“Murdoch dubs hacking probe a ‘disgrace'”, 4/7) which failed to canvass the key issue that the recording revealed the insincerity of Murdoch’s contrition before the Leveson Inquiry. Instead, it reproduced News Corp’s official line that Murdoch was motivated by “empathy” for his staff. Other News Corp outlets carried the exact same story, and not a single opinion piece on the subject.

Was this a result of fear, favour, or both?

Sheridan breaches standards

What is the story with Greg Sheridan’s persistent assertions that asylum seekers are illegal immigrants (most recently on 8 June)?

These assertions are inaccurate, as it is not illegal to seek asylum in Australia, and are derogatory, inflammatory and unfair.

They also violate press standards. The APC has made several adjudications to that effect (for example, No. 1525), and the relevant Standard of Practice states that ‘[d]epending on the specific context … terms such as “illegal immigrants” or “illegals” may constitute a breach’. An example of such context is “if the terms can reasonably be interpreted as implying criminality or other serious misbehaviour on the part of all or many people who arrive in this manner”. This closely matches the context in Sheridan’s recent column and others he has written on the subject.

The assertions also infringe corresponding internal News Ltd policy instituted in February 2012 in response to complaints to the APC, raising the related question of why Sheridan has been permitted to persist.

How to keep Hendrickx happy?

It is difficult to divine exactly what  the ABC could do to satisfy Marc Hendrickx (“ABC lacks balance in its climate coverage”, The Australian, 5/6).

His first gripe concerns Karoly et al’s 2012 “1000-year study”, which was found by its authors (not “online climate sceptics”) to have a subtle methodological error and is currently under review (it was not “short-lived”). He complains that the ABC did not sufficiently emphasise this on their “online website”. However, it does not seem to bother him at all that The Australian’s only coverage of the ground-breaking research concerned the error.

Hendrickx is also bothered by the ABC’s publication of dissenting views alongside recent reports of a Canadian paper which posits CFCs as the cause of warming. In this case he seems to prefer The Australian’s approach of reporting the controversial theory with no balancing view (“CFCs ‘are the real culprit in global warming'”, 3/6).


Nick Cater is entitled to his opinion of the recent Whitlam doco “The Power and the Passion” (“Warning: this program contains sexed-up history and very few facts”, The Australian, 4/6). He is entitled to accuse its makers of being too young to remember the events it covers, even though he himself arrived in this country fifteen years later. He is entitled to question its historical neutrality, even though his own book (“The Lucky Culture”) attempts to shoehorn the distinctly collectivist history of Australian egalitarianism into his preferred but quite alien neoliberal view.

But Cater crosses the line by belittling participant Andrew Denton on the basis of his educational background. This is especially demeaning coming from someone who, although tertiary educated himself, has written an entire book complaining of educational snobbery.