Mainstream media – the real question

By | 2011/12/09


Malcolm Turnbull suggests, in a recent speech, that the current media inquiry being held by the Federal Government may be asking the wrong questions:

“Rather than spending too much time on how many newspapers are owned by Rupert Murdoch, we should be asking whether there will be any newspapers left for him, or anyone else, to own at all.”

(Turnbull, in “Media woes a ‘threat to democracy’“, Michael Gordon, The Age, 8 December 2011.)

Turnbull is right, of course – but he’s also dead wrong.

The real question is far more low-level, and far more important:

Does mainstream media deserve to survive?

That’s right – if we look at how the current Australian mainstream media works: print, radio, and television, do they have an inherent right to exist, or do they need to prove themselves to us?

It seems in a lot of ways that a significant portion of the Australian media is oriented towards conflict and friction. Just take a few examples:

  • News Limited seems so far right leaning that some of its papers can look into their own left ears – Miranda Devine, Andrew Bolt, etc., make a living out of writing harsh, opinionated pieces that a casual observer might feel are deliberately designed to stir the pot as opposed to having a meaningful discussion over;
  • Fairfax’s online business seems so obsessed with ad-click revenue that it significantly increases the number of ads per page and uses sometimes wildly at-odds headlines to the content of the stories (they’re also strangely blinkered when it comes to denouncing particular products);
  • Channel Nine used to be the respected leader of news in Australia, but you have to judge it by the lowest common denominator, and that would undoubtedly be A Current Affair;
  • Channel Seven tries to be a respected news source in Australia, but you again have to judge it by the lowest common denominator, and that would undoubtedly be Today Tonight;
  • Channel Ten doesn’t really think much of news, but it does host an Andrew Bolt show – again, lowest common denominator sort of stuff;
  • Australian Radio is full of shock jocks who make a living out of being hypocritically mean. They’re usually little more than “current affairs” shows, but with even less factual backing. They’re also driven by egos that form reality distortion fields far worse than anything levelled at former Apple CEO Steve Jobs, too.

The mainstream media seems almost dedicated to finding the most sensationalist ways of reporting basic details; the moderate opinion seems to be rarely sought because the moderate opinion doesn’t stir heated debate and ratings. You see, commercial journalism is all about ratings, because ratings indicate how much you can charge advertisers. That’s why even the ABC seeks out extremists like Jim Wallace from the “Australian Christian Lobby” to talk about same sex marriage – to the point where even the Victorian Council of Churches has denounced the constant quoting of these sources and requested a healthy debate instead.

The Australian shock jocks seem to lead the way, doing their damnedest to pull Australia to a “Faux News” style of US media coverage, where facts and figures are fast and loose, and denunciations make some people wonder – is that a threat? Of the Prime Minister, Jones said on 6 July 2011:

“The woman’s off her tree and quite frankly they should shove her and Bob Brown in a chaff bag and take them as far out to sea as they can and tell them to swim home.”

(Quoted on Media Watch.)

Now, I’m the first to say that I don’t really have a lot of time for our current prime minister; I’m pretty disappointed in her and I’ve been blunt in saying it; but I’ve equally never gone to the point of suggesting she and other politicians be dumped at sea. Regardless of my personal feelings towards anyone in a debate, I don’t see the point of making any form of threat against them.

Returning to Malcolm’s speech and opinion piece, he suggests that:

“If newspapers die off, we will struggle to remain a free society.”

(“Independent Media Inquiry“, Malcolm Turnbull, The Age, December 8 2011.)

One must ask though – how free a society does the current trend in news, exemplified by various newspapers, allow us to be at the moment? They’re increasingly full of opinion, not fact, and readers aren’t always provided sufficient prompts to know the difference:

“…sometimes comment is indistinguishable from news reporting. The signals or branding that journalists say indicate what is comment and what is news are either not understood or they are just not there … over 60% have difficulty distinguishing fact, news, from comment.”

(“Sources of News and Current Affairs” Professor David Flint, quoted in “The fewer the facts, the strong the opinion?“, Belinda Weaver, 2001 eJournalist.)

Belinda Weaver goes on to quote Tom Koch:

“For democracy to have meaning, its members must be able to act responsibly, and their ability to do so depends, in turn, on the availability of accurate and reasonably complete information.”


Yet, if Australian news in general is increasingly turning to opinion pieces and relying on the histrionic bleating of shock jocks, columnists and others who routinely espouse their own personal views as “fact”.

So here’s the most basic rub – I look at mainstream media in Australia, then compare it to various dedicated online sources, and I find mainstream media news for the most part very wanting. Facts are replaced with opinions, moderate views are drowned out by extremists, and egos and advertising goals seemingly trump integrity. Perhaps never has this been demonstrated so strongly than the overall boganisation of the asylum seeker discussion in Australia.

Malcolm is entirely right in his general premise that democracy needs news and facts to survive, but is he correct that the Australian media gives us this? We get a dumbed down political debate for the most part in the mainstream media because TV and radio news is primarily interested in the 30 second sound grab, which is hardly enough for an intelligent conversation on deep and complicated issues. The equivalent to the 30 second sound grab in newspapers is the pull-quote, and that doesn’t deliver much better. There may be plenty of accurate and factual information out there, but increasingly we have to ask ourselves whether that information is presented by or obscured by the mainstream media.

So the real question isn’t whether there’ll be any newspapers left for Rupert Murdoch (or anyone else) to own, but whether there should be. I’d say they need to work harder at proving an inherent right to a continued presence in our lives.