Er wird di anschauen und du weißt warum… Obligatory conservative take on the protests

The temporal aspect of the ‘false balance’ problem in journalism is often overlooked.  You see that with the protests that have occurred over the past week; it’s not enough that the media can present footage of the protests, they also need somebody at the same time to tut tut and explain why the protesters are wrong.

The part I emphasise there is ‘at the same time’.  A protest isn’t given the luxury of developing a voice, or cohering around a particular message.  The message needs to be clear, coherent, and cogent straight out of the box so that the antithesis can be aired.  The phrase ‘antithesis’ is used lightly.  It was appalling to see so many hot take merchants denigrate the protesters without first demonstrating any attempt to engage with the thesis.

Some further care is needed there when describing the ‘thesis’.  In any protest, there is an uneven distribution of knowledge and engagement.  A core group of the protesters have been engaged with these messages for decades and have very sophisticated arguments.  Your average protester, on the other hand, has a sign and a belly full of rage.  The rage is good and proper, but it further shows why the media framing is often atrocious.  The main vehicle for the protester’s message is home made signs and chants.  The establishment, on the other hand, tends to write column articles where they can (but frequently do not) present a nuanced, careful argument.

In other words, the media framing of the ‘debate’ is systemically designed only to make it more difficult for the protester’s message to be taken seriously.  It is manifestly unjust to present a ‘balance’ where one side of the debate has its hands tied behind its back, and then to use the fact that its hands are tied as a reason to think it’s not intellectually serious.

There is no reason why the best voices from the different views on the debate can’t be put into dialogue.  No reason at all.  But it is difficult and intellectually demanding, and so we see the usual blowhards blowing hard instead.

And now to expand on the ‘dialogue’ aspect.  There is a basic confusion about how balanced arguments are presented to audiences.  A balanced debate about the protests is not whether or not police should be at liberty to murder minorities.  A balanced debate about the protests is not whether or not we need to address the horrific problems related to Indigenous Australians and the health and justice systems.  We do not need to ventilate these debates.  No two reasonable people can look at these issues and find grounds for disagreement.

The disagreement is instead in how to respond to the urgent need to reform policing and the justice system.  There are multiple options on the table, each with pros and cons.  Importantly the same pros and cons swap sides depending on the perspective.

There has been a tendency for media commentary to view the police abolitionist approach only through its most riotous guises, especially the ‘All Cops Are Bastards’ sloganeering.  And, as is common during popular uprisings, there is some purity policing going on of those activists who want outcomes that don’t involve radically defunding the police or that don’t sing from the ACAB hymn sheet.  This results in two kinds of inane commentary.  First, it results in the hyper-smug chortling ‘Who are you going to call when somebody steals your iPhone?’ from establishment types.  Second, it results in a public discussion that piles on to activists who are joining the discussion with anything less than ‘Burn everything then burn the ashes.’

Taken at their highest, there are a lot of sensible, rational, thoughtful views in play — you just need to get a long way away from the media both corporate and social to hear it.

The best police abolitionist views, for example, are not arguing for perfect but, instead, for less bad.  The argument is that the current system is bad and it’s particularly bad for vulnerable minorities.  Defunding the police and changing the justice system would not be perfect, but it would have fewer negative outcomes for vulnerable minorities.

Even that presents it too monolithically: we should be asking if the same organisation that handles traffic congestion should also be tasked with critical incidents.  We very likely can have reasonable disagreements along the spectrum of policing activities (yes, yes, A<–CAB, yes, yes, but seriously…).

Ultimately, the big obstacle in a lot of these debates is public opinion.  IPSOS has the police as one of the most trusted professions in Australia; journalists being one of the most distrusted.  This is also the global experience.  Roy Morgan has similar resultsThe ABC reported that only Greens voters trusted journalists more than the police, and only very slightly.

There is no question that there is a problem with policing in Australia and worldwide, but presenting the debate in the least constructive way possible means that the public is not given a fair opportunity to develop and articulate its opinions on the options up for discussion.

Author: Mark Fletcher

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

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