Thursday, 17 November 2011

Left press, like avant garde fashion, has oblique influence

As the Media Inquiry trundles along, a well-oiled machine under the confident, guiding hand of Ray Finkelstein, a number of journalism company managers and their underlings have written denunciations against any form of regulation of the media whatsoever. But most journalists are keeping their heads down. Even on social media they do not express an opinion about things like whether there is pressure from advertisers or whether their newspaper engages in campaigning journalism. It's not worth their jobs to do so. So all we get are blanket rebuttals from the top dogs. These often centre on the notion of freedom or liberty to publish being critical for the functioning of democracy, and the online dribblejaws repeat their claims endlessly, like windchimes. The forces at work here that are producing those winds are, largely, unexposed, hidden, and invisible.

It's a bit Harry Potteresque. You know, you go to platfom four at Paddington Station and shunt your trolley toward the second-last column from the end and - presto! - you're in a parallel universe. Suddenly you have to worry about things that never troubled you before. Or, alternatively, it's like in Murakami's recent novel, 1Q84 (this analogy is for adult readers). One minute you're stuck in a traffic jam on an elevated expressway. As soon as you descend the emergency exit to the street, however, there's something subtly different. There are things in this place that your grandmother never dreamed of. The truth is that, in that parallel universe, journalism managers are deeply worried about government regulation because it would have a material impact on their ability to do what they like to do. What the troops think of it, we can only guess. There might be a few News Limited journos, still, who have not bought into the corporate ethos. It might be true, but probably not.

One News Limited journo who has completely bought into the corporate ethos is David Penberthy. So complete has been his personal investment that he has been promoted within the company. Penbo has weighed into the Media Inquiry debate by expelling a bit of his own wind and attempting to trash the Left press. It's so easy, right? Who is going to defend the looney Left against a senior journo from the most powerful press media company in the land? And, anyway, why would you want to? The Left press does nothing for us! It's bad! People don't like it and that's why it isn't successful. There are myriad dribblejaws online who have used this argument against those who question the balance and transparency of the mainstream media. It's a default argument, but it's a straw man. Like Penbo, they say that Left newspapers are poorly designed, contain articles that push a radical agenda, have nothing to do with everyday life, and are badly written besides.

It's like having a go at designers of haute couture for creating garments that you cannot wear on the street, or to work, or to a Saturday afternoon barbeque. But this misses the point. Haute couture influences the mainstream in subtle ways, and not always direct ones. Young women reading Vogue might never aspire to buy the most modish, outlandish design they see in the magazine. But if something appeals to them they might accessorise differently or make a purchasing choice that takes their wardrobe in a new direction. It's not about saying, "Look, this is cool. Wear it, babe!" It's about creating a tone that can influence choices made over the following year so that ordinary people can engage with the avant garde in a meaningful way, and so find a modicum of happiness in their otherwise routine lives.

Why would we want the Left press to be like, say, the Daily Telegraph? The reason why Left, or progressive, media is unpopular is because it doesn't flatter us. Rather than delivering tired narratives (more police are always good, free trade is always good, the Greens are never to be trusted, royalty is good; there's a longer list on David Horton's amusing blog) that do nothing to challenge our learned biases, the Left press explores alternative ways of viewing the world. Rather than talking about stuff that you can buy, the Left press talks about stuff that you can learn more about. It's a big difference. It's always easier to buy something new than to actually spend time to learn something new.

This is why it's called progressive media. For the same reason, the Greens are called a progressive political party. They are not out to flatter the electorate - which is the perennial practice of the Liberal-National coalition, and of the Right of the Labor Party - but, rather, they are thinking about what's going to become normal in the future. Maybe they're not always correct. Can they be? Will the latest outrageous Vogue centre-spread artifice actually be something that you can usefully wear in two years' time? Who cares? It's not important. What's important is the effort of looking, the urge to predict, the far-distant aim of the quivering arrow that challenges you by making it harder to reach your mark. Trashing the Left press is like bludgeoning a puppy to death with a ball-peen hammer. Yes, it's easy to do. But does that mean you should?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hey Matt, excellent, I am enjoying our interaction over #mediainquiry
I like your subtle approach - better to bludgeon the dribblejaws* with satire, irony, strong argument and good humour.
You can beat them to death with a ball peen hammer, but it wouldn't be as satisfying.

*I've been trying for a while to get this adopted. Those that get outraged and self-indentify give the game away.