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Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Odd shots, 02: The media is part of the problem

This is the fourth post in a series about the ways that people online blame the media for society’s ills. The trope is so common it’s unremarkable. The series title derives from an old expression, “Don’t shoot the messenger.” The first post appeared on 24 August but there was an earlier post on 18 February this year titled ‘Don’t shoot the piano player’.

This brief survey is only partial but it demonstrates the existence of certain themes that combine to form a recognisable set of ideas shared by part of the community. The survey started on 31 August and went for about a week.

First, though, a bit of background. Federal government in Australia is currently controlled by the Liberal-National coalition. The Coalition also holds power in NSW, the country’s largest state. The Liberal Party holds government in South Australia and in Tasmania. But Queensland, Victoria, Western Australia, the Australian Capital Territory, and the Northern Territory are controlled by the Labor Party. Despite this even distribution of executive power, there are vocal elements on social media that believe that the conservatives have taken over the joint. And to pin the tail on this donkey, they blame the media for putting them there.

Now it’s true that some elements of the media are loyal to the conservatives, notably the Murdoch press, which appears to be getting worse and worse all the time. This despite the fact that there is evidence that Rupert Murdoch – still in charge despite his advanced years – loves the media business very much.

To illustrate how Murdoch is seen by many in the community, take for example the following, which went up on Twitter on 31 August at 9.25am. In his tweet, investor advocate and anti-gambling campaigner Stephen Mayne (who had earlier in his career established the news outlet Crikey), said, “Old white billionaire fossils like Gerry Harvey and Rupert Murdoch have a lot in common - no wonder Gerry gets such a big run to push his anti-women views in The OZ. Check out these crazy quotes.” His tweet came with a photo of a newspaper article published in the Australian.

On 2 September at 10.22am the activist consumer affairs account Sleeping Giants Oz tweeted, “This is an obscene & unholy union between the Murdoch mastheads & the Coalition government. No democratic government should have the major media organisation in the country on a string to deliver its messages unfettered. And they laugh and point at China.” The tweet came with an image that showed headlines and images taken, it appeared, from of some Murdoch newspapers. In the background behind these clipped sections of text and photographs were words like “propaganda” and “misinformation”. Sleeping Giants was driving the point home hard.

This kind of viewpoint was ironically encouraged that day by an article about the media by the Guardian’s Katharine Murphy that appeared on the company’s website on 31 August and that had the overt purpose of lifting support for the profession she belongs to.  The piece examined some aspects of the media in Australia, especially in light of two public conversations: one about the right of the religious to discriminate on the basis of their beliefs, and one about the government’s apparent disregard for the freedom of the press.

Murphy’s tweet spruiking her article went up in the morning and not surprisingly it drew a quantity of criticism from some quarters. The article was seen by some as a plea for prerogatives based on an underserved reputation as the country’s guard against despotism. For such people, despotism is what we have got.

For example, in reply to Murphy’s tweet, at 10.14am on that day Denise Shrivell (who is often vocal criticising the media) said, “Many of us run to & support journalism which serves the public interest but equally run from agenda-led journalism which seems to occupy the largest parts of Aust’s media landscape & is now damaging our democracy & journalism itself. Could & should be so different.” If this was referring to Murdoch’s newspapers then it might not have seemed controversial, but Shrivell was not just talking about Murdoch’s papers. She was attacking all of the mainstream media.
She was not alone however. At 8.56am, a man I follow named Martin Hirst (he uses the handle @ethicalmartini), had tweeted:
I hear only noisy stones rattling in a can being kicked down the road. 
The road is a dead end. 
The News Establishment is the problem. 
By definition, the problem cannot simultaneously be part of the solution. 
A self-serving sermon on trust, not a solution .
And at 9.23am a man who used to be a Fairfax journalist, named Asher Moses, had tweeted, “Main job of most mainstream news outlets: distract & convince the working class to vote tory [sic] to ensure the capitalist class who own and advertise in said outlets maintain their power. Propaganda in papers is crucial to maintaining control in so-called democratic societies.” This comment was attached to a retweet of a tweet from a man named Tim Dunlop that had gone up at 9.17am on the same day. It went, “Being anti-Labor is baked into the DNA of Australian newspapers. A quick look at the history of this as described in Sally Young's new book, Paper Emperors.” His tweet came with a pink to a piece that had been on the Patreon website, and you need to have a subscription if you want to read a piece published there.

The caravan rolled on all morning. At 10.27am on the same morning Alex Wodak, the president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, started a thread on Twitter that went as follows:
“The aide said that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.' [...] 'That's not the way the world really works anymore,' he continued. ..
.. ’We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors... 2/3 
.. and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do” Believed to have been said by Karl Rove 3/3
This belief that the media are in cahoots with the federal government (conveniently leaving out the states and territories that are governed by Labor) also leads some to suspect the media of going easy on what it finds out about corruption. On 1 September at 11.18am this question arose due to a tweet from an anonymous account with the handle @ultimatequestion and 1259 followers: “Planet Corruption. I hear its rotten to the LNP/IPA core. The atmosphere is completely made up of neoconservative ideology often confusing inhabitants. Some suffer delusions of grandeur while others can't differentiate between malfeasance & self entitlement.”

This perception – that the Liberal Party and certain parts of the media are beholden to the conservative thinktank the Institute of Public Affairs, is not unfounded. In fact, Rupert Murdoch helps to fund the IPA which has, among its many policy demands, the privatisation of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (the ABC). Many Liberal parliamentarians, furthermore, used to be active in the IPA and some are still members.

Certain policies of the federal government are seen as being unthinkingly supported by the media. Such as refugee policy (even though Labor’s refugee policy is almost indistinguishable from the Coalition’s). On 2 September at 7.57am Aaron Dodd, who describes himself as a Melbourne-based small business owner, tweeted, “BREAKING: TV network run by senior Liberal Party member makes strategic decision to be a propaganda broadcaster for the Liberal government.” The tweet also retweeted a tweet from Channel Nine about a boatful of asylum seekers that had been intercepted by Border Force. This tweet went, “The government has announced this morning that Border Force officers have intercepted a Sri Lankan asylum seeker boat in the Indian Ocean.”

The economy is also seen to be something the government and the media agree on uncritically. On 4 September at 10.05am an account named “Innocent Bystander” with 367 followers tweeted, “Ever the reliable propagandist for a shambolic, incompetent, discredited, corrupt regime with no understanding of finance or economics, no policy clues and absolutely no ideas.” The tweet was in response to one by the Australian containing mention of the prime minister’s opinion of the economy which, at that time, was soft.

On 8 September at 11.26am, an account with 263 followers with the Twitter handle @strongisgentle, tweeted, “The LNP are politically wedded to having this surplus. They pretend it matters against all the expert advice to the contrary. When will journos call out the LNP for the ideologues that they are? They [,the journalists,] epitomise the greedy selfish ‘aspirationals’ that are ruining Australia.”

At the beginning of September all of these ideas rolled into a neat package when something happened that seemed to confirm people’s suspicions of collusion between the media and the federal government.

On 3 September at 8.52am, Denise Shrivell responded to a story in the Sydney Morning Herald about the treasurer appointing the former treasurer, Peter Costello, as head of the Future Fund, the federal government’s sovereign wealth fund. The story had been promoted with a tweet and Shrivell was scathing of the boy’s-club nature of the appointment. Costello is, furthermore, the chairman of Channel Nine, which owns the SMH. Channel Nine had just hosted a fundraiser for the Liberal Party (which the treasurer belongs to).

In response to Shrivell’s tweet, a woman named Tina Kulski in her Twitter profile tweeted, “I doubt I'll ever see another Labor government in my life time.” Shrivell commented, “yes - sadly I'm increasingly thinking same. We're heading down a very frightening path under a cruel neo-liberal Govt which has media, business & apathetic voters very much in hand - which any Opposition is struggling to counter.”

The fundraiser soon became the main target of people’s frustration. On the same day at 3.40pm an account named only “Mitch” (with 191 followers) tweeted, “So @9NewsAUS is now the 2nd Media Arm of the @LiberalAus in cohoots with @SkyNewsAust. So shouldn't be long now and we will have that Police State/Country. With MEDIA on tap 24/7 for thier [sic] Propaganda.”

Then at 1.23pm the account of Age journalist Ben Schneiders tweeted, “Letter sent to Nine CEO today Hugh Marks over staff concerns about Nine hosting a Liberal fundraiser. We strongly object to our reputation for independent journalism being compromised. Endorsed by  house committees of Age, SMH and AFR.” The letter included this: “The former Fairfax mastheads have a long history of political independence.” The letter went to ask if this had changed and, if so, expressing a wish that notice of the change should be conveyed to staff of Channel Nine. The fundraiser had, the letter added, made the job of the company’s journalists more difficult. In response to the letter, Channel Nine management said, according to the Guardian in a story on the same day:
Nine management and board have been clear and strong in the support of the charter of editorial independence. 
Editorial impartiality is also integral to the operations of our regulated television business. 
We participate actively in our democracy and speak to all parties to press our case around regulation and other political issues that concern our business and the ability of our people to perform their role. 
We took the opportunity last night to present our case to the Liberal Party at their business forum and today to the Labor Party at their event and dinner with their leader.
Channel Nine’s dilemma stemming from the fundraiser was encapsulated by a visual meme that I saw at around 6.45pm on the Tuesday. It made a mockery of the Sydney Morning Herald’s motto of “Independent. Always.”


Later, at 7.34pm Tom Swann from progressive thinktank the Australia Institute tweeted, “Mining lobby group chaired by ex Liberal senator goes to Liberal party fundraiser hosted by media company chaired by ex Liberal Treasurer.” His tweet came with a link to a story on the Australian Financial Review’s website titled, “Who attended Channel Nine's Liberal Party fundraiser?”

Later in the week as I was listening to the ABC News channel, I heard a newsreader announce that Channel Nine’s CEO Hugh Marks had just admitted that hosting the Liberals’ fundraiser was “a mistake”.

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