Saturday, 18 August 2018

Extreme views get all the attention

This blogpost started as a reflection on what happened to journalist and academic Peter van Onselen on Twitter earlier this week. It started with two tweets, one from Sky News presenter Paul Murray, who, at 10.43pm on 15 August, displayed zero understanding of history when he tweeted: “The modern culture doesn't understand WWII. Too many of this generation want socialism and don't understand what their relatives fought for and that's why we speak up about it.”

Australia of course fought in WWII in an alliance that included the USSR, which practised a brand of socialism. Realpolitik in the years following WWII led to a turn-around in the priorities of the US, Australia’s ally, and also to the Cold War, which saw the USSR and the US conducting proxy wars all around the world in an effort to counteract the viability of their adversary’s political program. So Murray was sort of half right but probably just seriously misguided due to general ignorance.

Then van Onselen joined the conversation at 9.34pm on 16 August: “There have been plenty of criticisms of Paul I've been reading on social media, pointing out Hitler was a fascist not a socialist. Nazism is national socialism which is considered a branch of socialism.” The reaction from the public was swift and decisive and included learned contradictions pointing out the historical fallacy at work in what van Onselen had tweeted. It did seem strange that a person who occupied the positions he does could be once again so ignorant of basic facts of history, but there you go. In response to the reaction, van Onselen tweeted that he was overwhelmed by the negative response and said he would no longer interact with people on social media.

At 9.06am on 17 August, van Onselen tweeted to Fairfax journalist Jacqueline Maley: “Yours is the only tweet I’m responding to, I said I’m no longer using twitter [sic] for more than posts [because] the vile abuse I’ve received has stunned me. The left right spectrum is more of a curved U leaving extreme left & right with much in common. That’s all I was saying. Signing off.”

On 6 July, I published a blogpost about politics titled ‘People outsource their critical faculties to political parties’ in which I developed ideas about the way stories are deployed on social media, that I had started building the previous month. And it’s true. The van Onselen debacle shows us that people are highly partisan and aggressive when riled to action. They don’t like being made to think. Only the most extreme expressions of opinion are rewarded by attention, and the public sphere is different now as a result of this dynamic.

The appointment this month to the Canberra press gallery of the second journalist associated with ‘Independent Australia’, a partisan, left-wing news outlet, tells us that things have changed forever. In related news, The Guardian announced in July that it had earned more from online revenues than from print ads and events for the first time ever. The company says it will break even by the end of next year. Both of these outlets espouse left-wing views in their journalism.

The sensible centre is being hollowed out as people take sides and reward the outlets that buttress their personal biases with their cash. But partisanship is not good for democracy. What we need are outlets that look at individual policies and judge them based on their merits, not on the basis of whether we support the political party that espouses them. The old left-right tango is a dead end (as I posted on 21 July). If Labor win the election in 2019 they still have to go to the polls again in 2022 and, if they win that contest, again in 2025.

We need to find a way to privilege policies, not pick winners. The old method of newspapers taking sides at election time and backing one horse over the other is a paradigm associated with the bad old days of the past. A new model of journalism and a new type of debate is needed that allows people to dissociate themselves from the policy-making machines that are political parties, and to think for themselves. It is up to each of us to choose our own destiny or else choice might be taken away from us by some demagogue coming at us from the extreme left or the extreme right down the track.

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