Australia’s lesson for the media in democracy

James McDonald

I think the breakdown in political and media standards may not be so much a matter of collusion between politicians and media where “news” is mere propaganda, although it clearly is in the Murdoch sector. Nor do I think it is inherent in the nature of the short-term news cycle. It has to do with on the one hand a loss of democratic idealism by politicians and on the other hand a failure of media in upholding the basic principle that a democracy needs a population that is informed and not conned.

Political parties do seek to manipulate the media, Ministers bald-facedly lie and deceive the public, and media have forgotten their obligations to a system that relies on open access to information. In that sense Trump’s “fake news” meme has an element of truth in it, but he has turned it into a tool of attempted censorship on reportage of his dreadful presidency while apparently rebutting censorship. But he goes further in declaring the media as “the enemy of the people”. This is a ploy that has inherent dangers for the survival of democracy in the superficial coverage that characterises much of US media and outright propaganda in the case of Murdoch’s Fox News. The dumbing down of politics and media is the precursor of the demise of democracy. That depends, of course, on other manifestations of authoritarianism that plague the Trump White House, the Republican Party and sections of US society, which has been undermining democracy for decades, and which are evident in the ranks of the Coalition Government in Australia.

With the Dastyari issue, the Turnbull Regime distracted everyone from their own issues with massive foreign donations to the Liberal Party from the same source with Goebellian efficiency. It was a brilliant ploy. It’s not just an example of politicians playing the short news cycle. Look at the legs in the story about the mowing down of Melbourne pedestrians, a horrible act. But that incident had been pre-dated 10 days earlier by a smaller but nonetheless horrific crime, for which she has been charged, where a drunk white woman deliberately drove into a handful of pedestrians in inner-city Brisbane with hardly a flutter of the national media and silence, I believe, from the politicians.

It’s the media that collectively fail their duty in what they report and how they report it. It’s not just the attention span of politicians who so often relegate their idealism to pragmatic opportunity and their success in selling out is aided by an uncritical, populist media. The extremists among their party display outright malevolence towards democracy, which underwrites so-called neo-liberalism and even leads to fascist policies and behaviour such as we have seen in the past decade in official violations of human rights.

And the media display a very patchy understanding – often with naivety and the opportunism of sensationalism – of the issues and the implications and consequences of politics that ought to be important to media in a democracy. Selling advertising space is an integral part of the media business but when it supplants the news objective and when ideological proprietors subvert truth-telling and the journalistic ethics that point to the democratic obligations of the business, our liberties, shaky enough in this age, are in a clear and present danger.

James McDonald
Edited piece originally written
23 December 2017

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