The media’s role in overcoming political propaganda can’t be over-stated, writes Russell Edwards. It’s also high time journalists started fighting it.
What should we expect of those who govern us? We live in a liberal democracy. The legitimacy of any government rests on the informed consent of the public.
Should we therefore expect that governments act in the public interest, with respect for human rights and human dignity, making decisions that reflect those values on the basis of the best available evidence?
Most of us believe they should, in principle, and many of us act as if we expect that to play out in practice. The reality is, it often doesn’t, for a variety of reasons. All of those reasons boil down to a common cause: the possibility of government on the basis of uninformed or misinformed consent.
Sometimes this comes about deliberately, by the application of propaganda, or the engineering of consent, as it was called by public relations pioneer Edwards Bernays.
The topic of medically supervised drug injecting rooms, currently a hot-button issue in Victorian state politics, is an interesting case in point.
Here is an issue where commentators, experts, advocates and activists are in furious agreement. Injecting rooms would save lives, protect the wider community, reduce demand on our over-stretched emergency services, and save money. Rolling out injecting rooms would seem to be a no-brainer for a Labor government with a reputation as the most progressive in the country.
And yet, the Andrews government is declining to do so.
Many of the voices calling for injecting rooms have asked why the government won’t support the proposal, but few seem willing to speak openly about the obvious answer: propaganda. More precisely, the threat of propaganda.
The Andrews government is scared to support injecting rooms, despite the overwhelming factual evidence of their effectiveness, because it fears to do so would invite a propaganda firestorm against Labor that could cost them the next election.
And who could blame them, after the political damage they suffered at the hands of the media and the Coalition over the issue of the Country Fire Authority dispute? Having the facts on their side didn’t save Labor from a withering saturation propaganda offensive when it came to that issue, and neither did the fact that human lives were at stake. Why expect anything different when it comes to injecting rooms?
We’ve barely heard anything from the Coalition to indicate whether or not they believe the evidence and expert opinion in favour of injecting rooms, but that’s irrelevant. Labor knows from experience that cold political utility alone drives the type of propaganda campaign it fears.
Cynically mobilising the forces of rank, ignorant populism against its political opponents is the bread and butter of the Coalition and its media apparatus. These campaigns generally centre around inciting hatred towards a demonised minority, and in drug addicts the Coalition is bound to find a lucrative target. The Andrews government understands this, so it knows to steer clear of policy initiatives like supervised injecting rooms before the Coalition even utters a word against it.
Clearly, we are a long way from the ideal of government in the public interest by informed consent. Instead, anti-social policy decisions are forced upon the public, not only by propaganda but by the mere threat of propaganda – and an implied threat at that!
The response by progressive crossbenchers such as Colleen Hartland (Greens) and Fiona Patten (Sex Party) has been to constantly push the facts, hoping to stimulate the public appetite for evidence-based policy and exert political counter-pressure upon the government. This approach, mirrored by advocates and media commentators, is admirable, but is not enough on its own.
The power of misleading propaganda is overwhelming, and will remain so for as long as its very existence is politely ignored. Politicians of all stripes are loathe to call it out, because propaganda is its own defence. Those who call it out will face its wrath. “Modern political journalism is a protection racket,” in the words of unashamed racketeer Niki Savva.
If not politicians, who will speak out and resist the anti-social force of politically motivated, counterfactual propaganda?
It is the democratic duty of all of us to do so. But some among us are better placed to have their voices heard. I’m thinking especially of commentators and journalists. Journalists — those whose vocational purpose and professional ethics supposedly centre around seeking and disseminating the truth — should be more affronted than anyone else by the political power wielded through disinformation and emotive propaganda.
Journalists and commentators are well aware of the political propaganda games that go on. It is not good enough to commentate from the sidelines as if calling a game of chess or a boxing match, accepting the rules as played and praising the skill of the players. Nor is it sufficient on its own to enter the debate yourself with evidence-based opinion.
Journalists, you need to stand up and call out the misleading and emotive propaganda content of our political process as illegitimate and anti-democratic, and denounce those who employ it or disseminate it (the latter includes some of your colleagues).
You will be accused of bias, probably of left-wing bias. That, too, is propaganda. Ignore it. Your mates over at News Corp might not like you any more. Get over it.