Little men tapping things out – points of view… John Oliver is wrong about journalism

It’s a stale take, but John Oliver has, I’m told, ‘nailed it’ about journalism:

The truth is, a big part of the blame for [journalism’s] dire straits is on us and our unwillingness to pay for the work journalists produce.  We’ve just grown accustomed used to getting our news for free, and the longer we get something for free the less willing we are to pay for it. […]

Sooner or later, we are either going to have to pay for journalism or we are all going to pay for it. […] Malfeasance will run amok.

This appealed to John Oliver’s target audience: uncritical left liberals.  But it doesn’t stack up as a claim.  If anything, we should pay less for our journalism.

As a society, we have decided that we should give a mountain of privileges and protections to journalists.  The argument is that a free press is necessary for democracy to function: people need to know what’s going on in order to make informed decisions at the voting booth.

But this has never been true.  The incentives for journalism have never been to provide us with the truth in exchange for our loose change.  Journalism has always been about entertainment.  Stories have been written to grab our attention.  Journalists are rewarded for getting attention and not for informing the electorate.

This creates a lot of ethical problems.  If an atrocity is inflicted upon a minority, there is a good chance that a journalist will get fame and glory for breaking the story while the people actually affected by the atrocity will remain stuck in their situation after the media has moved on.  News agencies send their journalists off on posts to report about the goings on of far-off places, preventing the locals from telling their own stories unmediated by the fame-seeking of an outsider.  The reason that we believe that the media is essential to democracy is that people in the media keep telling us it is.  This would have come as a surprise to the vast majority of history’s political theorists outside of England.

It’s become so absurd that we end up enduring bloviating lectures from media types when we want to sanction media types for good reasons.  We can’t let journalists rot in jail, even if they did try to kidnap a child and pistol-whip a granny.  We can’t sack a political cartoonist, even if they do have a history of producing racist hate speech.  Freedom of the press!  A free media is essential!

Some jurisdictions in Australia have even given journalists privileges from divulging the source of information in court, even if this means private citizens cannot exercise their rights effectively.

No other private industry gets this kind of rolled gold treatment.

When John Oliver says that the problem is with us and our unwillingness to pay for it, he is saying that, not only do we need to give a private industry a host of protections and privileges, but we should also feel morally obliged to pay them as well.  If we don’t pay them, he argues, they’ll publish crap.  We’ve been paying them for more than a century.  They’ve been publishing crap for more than a century.

But say, for the sake of argument, that you disagree with me about the nature of journalism.  You think that it is, in fact, essential to democracy.  Why, then, should you be made to pay for something that’s essential to democracy?

The police are essential to democracy.  We don’t pay for them.  Politicians are essential to democracy.  We don’t pay for them.  And so on, and so on, and so on.

Our democratic system should not be a for-profit venture.  The profit motive does not rightly belong in the infrastructure of our political system.  Politicians shouldn’t work for private profit.  Judges shouldn’t work for private profit.  News organisations shouldn’t work for private profit.

And don’t give me that malarky about some news organisations being charitable.  Most of the charitable ones run adverts; the ones that don’t are littered with journos trying to establish independent personal profiles.  Both of these are profit motives.

But what about public funding for journalism?  It’s here that I’m conflicted.  I think that the ABC is important for a number of social and cultural reasons, including being a place for discussion about politics.  But comparatively few people watch the ABC.  It would be interesting to know why the broader public does not engage with the ABC like it does with American sitcoms and shows about competing to make the best food.  If public broadcasting is so important (and I think it is), we need a way of reconnecting with the audience.

John Oliver’s position appeals to the sanctimonious types who love jester liberalism, but the diagnosis is wrong.  We should instead ask why we continue to believe that a profit motive is necessary in our democracy model when all evidence suggests this is detrimental to a good society.


Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based blogger and policy wonk who writes about conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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