Friday, August 9, 2013

News Corporation, an Australian election, discourse

Media scholars and their colleagues in political economy have often considered the behaviour of the owners  media to be one of the most fundamental tests of democracy. In the dominant western model of representative democracy, the prevailing view is that journalists have been entrusted with a level of objectivity in reporting that embodies open tolerance for diverse views of society. Of course, there is a limit to the tolerance which reflects the ideals of the Enlightenment - civility, maturity (of debate), individual self realisation, emancipation, rationality, respect for the law. All of which are open to negotiation. Media scholars, sociologists, philosophers, in fact pretty-well everyone refers to this as social discourse.

When media owners allow their privately held beliefs to overstep the bounds of that discourse and to directly control it, then the discourse is no longer characterised by tolerance. It becomes a directed channel to a limited, (immature) conversation.  As I noted in Uprising and elsewhere, the Internet serves to reinforce immaturity - that is the narrowing of public discussion, in some cases facilitating "ideological grooming." If you have one set of values reiterated over and over on an appealing delivery system (all the bells and whistles of the Internet) why bother with tolerance?

This is where fundamentalism finds its richest nourishment.

Following this logic, media ownership has been freighted with unique responsibilities in democracies. These "responsibilities" emerged with the liberalism of the Enlightenment and despite protestations from pedants, are the values that underpin tolerance and about which there is always active debate. What should de tolerated?

What happens when a media proprietor in the Internet era sees his responsibilities as being about the defence of his empire, not about the discourse? To complicate matters, what happens when that mogul's business interests are primarily shifting to new media, even while he has established near-dominance over old media?

Enter stage right - Rupert Murdoch.

These and similar questions have moved into sharp relief with the announcement by the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd of a Federal Election, September 4, 2013. Indeed, Rudd accused Murdoch of collusion with the liberal (conservative) leader Tony Abbott. Collusion quote, comment 

Suggestions that Murdoch is a serial government-influencer have been well established in media history. His support for Margaret Thatcher was the first major international move by News Corporation and Murdoch to influence the outcome of an election. He had previously supported the Australian Labor Party's Gough Whitlam in 1972, and later turned on him in 1975.

After two weeks of the official election campaign, Kim Williams CEO of News Corporation, Australia resigned. This followed the appointment by Mr Murdoch of Col Allan to oversee the election coverage by News Corporation in Australia.

Williams is the person who made the strongest possible case against media reforms in Australia, arguing against the Public Interest Advocate. (See my blog March 2013 Australian hysteric). Chief of News Corporation Robert Thomson thanked Williams for his efforts - especially on this front:

"He has been a powerful, eloquent and effective advocate for media freedom and freedom of speech in Australia. His leadership against hastily conceived 'reforms' ensured that the vigorous and vital debate that has characterised our country will endure.We all owe him a debt of gratitude for that strong and principled stand." Regulation fight

Taking a principled stand against Public Interest ideals is what Robert Thomson means. He also means that taking one side in a debate, where News Corporation is often the only source of news in Australia, is acceptable and can be defined as "debate."

Media scholars would probably agree that the Enlightenment includes the quest for emancipation from oppression. Oversight of Public Interest ideals is not an offence against freedom, nor a type of oppression, which is what Thomson seems to be suggesting. What he and News Corporation want is freedom to do and say whatever is in their own interests. That hardly rises to the level of responsible media ownership in a democracy.