Death To The National Media

THERE IS AN ASSUMPTION THAT TV and radio… provide a means of expression and self-expression for a tiny group addressing a vast multitude. That assumption is no longer technically valid, and it is doubtful whether it ever really was. …
All the political problems arose with the realisation that the contours of society did not, or did no longer, follow the contours around which the broadcasting institutions had been built.1

That’s a description of the destruction of the older institution of broadcasting in the 1970s, from which we got the current landscape of broadcasting and print. The simple problem was that older organisations—like Lord Reith’s BBC in the UK, and the older commercial networks—had been built to service a society the founders imagined as a relatively homogeneous, happy mass, in need of education and communal entertainment everybody could share and enjoy, in a community of shared recognition of mutual meaning. The social movements of the late 1960s and 1970s destroyed that happy illusion and print and broadcasting industries profoundly altered themselves to match the new world: in Australia, we got SBS, campaigning city-based tabloids, vicious and ruthless talkback, the short-lived Nation Review and the greatest still-existing fossil of the era, Rupert Murdoch’s Australian.

They’re all now institutionally reconfiguring themselves to the internet; or more accurately, a newer realisation of the new social contours of an increasingly atomised society, without masses or great grand social movements. The News Limited print titles are putting up paywalls to fund what they do. The next five years, I think, will see if they’ll survive. They’ve got a challenge that’s easy to articulate but wickedly difficult to pull off: make themselves relevant to the way people in an increasingly individualistic, massless, nationally disengaged live their day to day lives.

Tim Dunlop’s article (about which I’ve been having a back-and-forth on Twitter, that instant and inconvenient platform) provides for two clauses in support of News Limited’s paywalled titles, and by implication, their part in our national media institution:

I’ll be happy to support a News Ltd paywall: changes are afoot and I suspect things will improve.
The second reason is more compelling. It is that, if you want a functioning democracy, there is no choice but to pay for your news.

It’s a variant on the traditional Fourth Estate justification for an institutional press, one which exercises political power on behalf of ideals and as part of a system of checks and balances. It’s entirely dependent on the idea that an audience forms a part of a national civil society, a population of Australians who inform themselves, alter their opinions accordingly, then behave democratically—and on the idea that these two forces, “power” and “press” then serve a greater public good.

I don’t think that’s the case now. I don’t think it’s been that way for a very long time. My own experience as a political staffer, the job which led directly to my current underemployment, taught me the firm lesson that the members of the Press Gallery see themselves as players in the political game equal to any elected Parliamentarian, with the added privilege of having to answer to a market instead of an electorate. Public affairs are so irrelevant at the moment to the way most people outside the loop—the relationship of broadcaster and State with the audience as an uninvited third party—live their lives, that many individual journalists simply aren’t capable or structurally inclined to identify political or public affairs issues. (Lindsay Tanner’s Sideshow is better evidence than I can give in this blog entry).

I’m sympathetic to the idea, in Dunlop’s words, of “constant, day-to-day, up-to-minute, comprehensive, fair, balanced, accurate and compelling journalism that can hold power to account”. I’d love to see it and it’d be a great product in a media market. Would I read and watch it? Sure, and I might even pay for it, if I thought my money wouldn’t be squandered. It’s not necessarily a requirement for democracy, though, nor is it necessary for civil society to continue.

In Australia we’ve had powerful institutional print since well before democracy and self-government was granted in the 1850s, certainly well before actual democratic franchise was extended in the last decade of the nineteenth century. Like the Police and the other powerful arms of the State, it pre-existed democracy. Nor is a free, powerful press really required to promulgate democratic ideals: the greatest social movements of the late twentieth century, the people’s resistances that threw off the ossified Soviet and Eastern Bloc dictatorships, obtained their democracy in spite of their media institutions, not because of them. From a historical point of view, powerful media institutions respond to social movements from below, and are central bulwarks of power, not checks or balances. When Four Corners or the 7.30 Report busts open a scandal, or when an Ellsberg gets grumpy and visits the photocopy room, the resulting expose should be seen in the light of institutional conflict—not functioning democracy.

Do I think that non-mainstream media outfits like poor New Matilda and occasionally reprehensible Crikey can take the place of the mainstream? Certainly not. If they did they’d be merely taking the place of a dying institution, not reviving it.

I want to bury the media institution, not to praise it. The Australian is going down the tube, our newspapers need to find a new model, television news is dying a trivial and spectacular death, and there is no obvious replacement for national civil society’s tedious simulacra discourse—that is to say, the last forty years’ model of print and broadcasting. Australia’s media institution of the press has become a barrier to citizens talking about political ideas, not a platform.

As a country and as citizens, the challenge is really on us to find new ways of thinking about political ideas and discussing them amongst ourselves, not imagining we can depend on a class of institutional powerful media professionals to do it for us.


1 Anthony Smith. The Shadow In The Cave: A study of the relationship between the broadcaster, his audience and the State. London, George Allen & Unwin, 1973, p278.



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Alicia · 24 October 2011, 19:00 · #

I would like to use this alternative platform of civil-social discussion to whinge about the fact that I can’t even register for the Australian’s 3 month free subscription, because they have some bug in their website; rendering today’s Breakfast Politics mostly useless. Shame, capitalism, shame.

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Liam · 24 October 2011, 20:04 · #

The Australian needs a drastic shakeup in its productivity arrangements starting with thorough and ongoing management-level workplace reform.

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Death Camp for Cutie · 25 October 2011, 13:55 · #

That new Oz website is utterly shambolic. What a colossterfuck.


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