Manne Overboard


I recently attended the Sydney launch of Robert Manne’s edited collection, Do Not Disturb (Black Inc Books, 2005) about the failing state of Australia’s media. ABC veteran Quentin Dempster, academic David McKnight, media commentator Catharine Lumby and Manne all spoke on the current malaise within the media environment and the rightward lurch of the country during the Howard years.

Thanks to Scratch

Thanks to Scratch

The full house at the launch appreciated a forum in which they could vent their frustration over the inability or unwillingness of the media to challenge and hold governments accountable. A number of people also demanded a more responsible press.

The last desire was important but probably futile, as the recent controversy over the Daily Telegraph‘s coverage of former NSW Liberal leader John Brogden suggested. The tabloid media – after all, what most Australians consume on a daily basis – are not looking to instil ethics in their journalism. Online magazine Crikey‘s editor Misha Ketchell put it best: ‘Of course the Tele went too far – because it always goes too far. That’s what attack-dog tabloids do. That’s why they exist.’

But back to the launch. I felt like I was in a parallel universe that night. All of the billed speakers talked about Rupert Murdoch, his influence, his power, his dishonesty, his ideology and his ability to profoundly shift the political reality of the country. Neither Packer nor Fairfax was mentioned. Although it is perhaps comforting to believe that Murdoch is the source of all evil in Australia – or indeed, in many countries around the world – this analysis is both misleading and lazy.

In America it is often suggested that Murdoch’s Fox News channel, with its continual pumping of pro-Bush propaganda, is the all-powerful network. Fox News, however, is a cable news network and holds far less influence than the main TV networks such as NBC, ABC and CBS. Murdoch’s New York Post newspaper is an incendiary tabloid but holds far less sway than the New York Times, Washington Post or USA Today. A true media analysis, therefore, cannot simply demonise Murdoch – despite all his faults – but rather, must examine the contribution of the so-called ‘liberal’ press and other mainstream outlets to the dire state of the Australian media.

During an interview on ABC Radio National in August, Manne outlined his thesis:

The Australian is not noticeably a worse paper than the other quality papers. It is however, a more ideological paper, with much more explicit agendas, than its natural rivals, the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. And I think that gives it an importance in the balance of opinion in the society, because a lot of intelligent people read The Australian, and because it has a neo-conservative agenda, and the other papers don’t have much of an agenda.

Does Manne really believe that the Fairfax press is free of ideology? The Murdoch press may have a more transparent agenda, but Fairfax believes equally in the same ideology: privatisation, deregulation, the US alliance and free markets. To suggest otherwise is a far too convenient way of understanding the mainstream media’s failure.

In Do Not Disturb, Dempster rightly catalogues how the ABC ‘is slowly self-destructing in response to political and funding pressure and its government-appointed guardians do not wish to see it [maintain independence].’ He writes how ABC Radio has tried to convince its employees to reveal their political affiliations or voting habits. ‘In response,’ Dempster quips, ‘some wag suggested that all 4200 employees of the ABC should now form an Ultimo branch of the Liberal Party.’

The over-riding feeling at the launch, however, was a forlorn wish for the ‘good old days’, presumably under a more caring and benign Labor leadership. The mostly middle-aged Baby Boomers in the audience may well have remembered the Whitlam, Hawke or Keating years through rose-coloured glasses, but they’d clearly forgotten how ABC funding had been falling for years (long before Howard grabbed the prime ministership), and the constant political attacks by any number of Liberal and Labor leaders.

I am not suggesting that Australia’s media isn’t in dire straits. Australia is a small media pond with a handful of giant sharks and the possible changes to cross media laws will only worsen the equation. Editor and publisher Eric Beecher chronicles in Do Not Disturb the rise of tabloid journalism, the decline in newspaper readership and increasing public cynicism towards the media. He offers few solutions (few of the contributors do) but suggests publications like the New York Times and Washington Post are the benchmarks for trail-blazing writing and investigation. Manne does similarly in his chapter about Murdoch’s enthusiasm for the Iraq war. It is a grossly naïve assertion from both writers, however, and belies the major faults with the ‘leading’ American broadsheets.

Were Manne and Beecher unaware that the Times, for example, was one of the major conduits through which the Bush Administration pushed its WMD case for war?

Take a read of The Record of the Paper: How the New York Times Misreports US Foreign Policy (Verso, 2004) and discover the paper’s consistent deference to US military might and American government power. From Vietnam in the 1960s to Nicaragua in the 1980s and Iraq since the 1990s, writers Howard Friel and Richard Falk document the newspaper’s illiberal principles; it is, with noble exceptions, a handy tool of the establishment. In other words, not something the Australian media should be imitating.

This history doesn’t stop the almost religious re-printing of Times copy in the Fairfax press on a daily basis. For these editors, the Times represent ‘quality’ American journalism, in contrast to the vulgarity of Fox News. The only problem is that the Times is way more influential than Fox News has ever been, and also backs the use and abuse of American power, only much more subtly.

We are currently being treated to an onslaught of media attention on the so-called terrorist threat. When a professor of strategic studies at ANU, Hugh White, writes in The Age that our political leaders are grossly exaggerating this threat, we know cracks are beginning to appear in the establishment façade (although I wonder how much responsibility White himself takes for his previous bellicose statements).

White explains that ‘few if any people in government seriously think that terrorism – even nuclear terrorism, appalling though it would be – poses a threat to the existence of our society, to our fundamental values or our way of life.’ The media has been content to hype this threat because it suits their agenda, namely to shadow and covertly support government spin. What mainstream media organisation wants to be labelled unpatriotic during a ‘time of war?’ What kind of reporter would dare ask Howard how he feels about the likelihood of Iraq becoming a theocratic state closely aligned with Iran?

Fear perpetuates fear and Australians are only fearful of terrorism because our media tells us we should be. We need to ask many more questions, such as why our journalists and editors have elevated Islamic fundamentalism to the level that they have.

Our media does need major reform and answers are scarce. Let’s not be seduced by the myth that Murdoch’s departure from the landscape would greatly improve the situation. Progressive audiences need to stop simply looking overseas for answers; Australia has a long history of parochial thinking and now is the time to create space for fresh voices.

The next time you read an article that simply rehashes business or government spin, write to the journalist in question and demand more. You may be surprised with the results.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.