Better Media Is Good For Democracy


In March, some of our biggest supporters are helping New Matilda’s subscriber drive by writing about why they support the site — and why you should too. This week we hear from Julian Burnside.

It is a strange paradox that, while we live in a torrent of information, there is such a limited range of available views.

Media ownership in Australia is notoriously narrow. Mainstream media offer precious little diversity, and such diversity as there is runs along predictable lines. The economics of print and electronic media tend to drive opinion in the direction of populism. This has unhappy results now that both major political parties have, it seems, abandoned their founding principles and form policies by reference to media coverage generally and to news polls and focus groups in particular. It’s the Jim Hacker model: "I am their leader, I must follow them".

But it is also the case that the internet offers a vast supply of news and — especially — opinion. To dive into that pool in order to learn something different is to risk drowning.

Just as mainstream traditional media are full of voices (mostly strident) telling government what to do, so the blogosphere and social media are full of voices — more numerous and diverse, and often more strident — doing the same. Those of us who are torn between the desert of mainstream media and the jungle of the internet need a place where rational but diverse views can be found on matters of enduring importance.

New Matilda is such a place. It would be difficult to agree with every view expressed in the columns of New Matilda, but it would be equally difficult to disagree with them all. And it would be impossible to criticise any of them as irrational or foolish.

It’s an important point. Policy formation is one of the most important functions of government and opposition. Democracy assumes that the governing party best represents the policy choices of a majority of the people. Most people vote for a party rather than for a person, although sometimes it seems that they vote for a PM, regardless of the identity of the candidate in their own electorate. The party is a proxy for the voter’s political philosophy — and there was a time when the policies of each major party was fairly predictable.

The Labor party had its origins in the labour movement and reflected the values of labour rather than capital. The Liberal party had its origins elsewhere: they were not those of Labor, but they were equally distinctive. By voting for one party or the other, a voter could be tolerably confident about how the party would respond to changing circumstances if elected to government.

Those days are gone.

Now it is difficult to see significant differences between the policies of the major parties, except on a few issues. It is impossible to predict with any confidence how either party will respond to changing circumstances. This modern fact of political life (strangely presaged by Kevin Billington’s 1970 film The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer, starring Peter Cook) is a result of new technology which allows political parties to see what policy responses will produce an electoral advantage in key marginal electorates.

The mainstream media are an integer in this process, since the loudest voices in the dominant outlets play a major part in shaping the views which will be expressed in news polls. Founding principles and philosophy have disappeared as significant forces in policy formation it seems.

In these circumstances it is more important than ever to have an outlet which is rational and principled, without being biased to any social or political position.

That’s why New Matilda matters, and why we should support it. Whether it is able to halt the trend to unrepresentative populism remains to be seen. But it’s worth a try.

Sign up as a New Matilda supporter here

This is part of a series of contributions from high-profile Australians on why they support New Matilda.

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.