Over on his substack, Jonathan Green wrote:
This gets to the core of conservative conduct over the past couple of decades: the capacity to promote a set of ideas you know to be simultaneously damaging and untrue purely for the sake of short-term advantage. It’s a corrupt and malignant combination and one that is both a prevailing political method and a media business model.
It’s one thing to argue from conviction. That’s laudable, and despite the abundant and growing evidence of conduct to the contrary it is the foundation assumption in our politics: that people are attempting to advance some kind of truth, some kind of honestly held version of events, prosecuted with an eye to the public good.
That’s just a fantasy notion. The deceit, the cynicism, the capacity to argue for a lie, is now so ingrained, so breezily self-evident, that even Rupert Murdoch is admitting it.
There’s nothing wrong with the observation, but I want to pull the lens back out for a moment and ask if the observation about conservative conduct is part of a deeper illness with our political culture?
In the lead up to the last election, a prominent Centre-Left Twitter account mused that the then Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, was surely asking for advice on how to delay the election so he could rule longer. When the Australian Electoral Commission social media team advised her that it was an implausible view, there was an outpouring of rage towards the AEC: why wasn’t the AEC treating Centre-Left Twitter with the respect these iPad Warriors deserved? Why weren’t they admitting that there really was a possibility that Scott Morrison was going to turn Australia into a full blown fascist state? Could it be that the Commissioner himself was biased because he’s former military?
Disability advocacy Twitter also turned its mind to batshit conspiracy theories. Perhaps there was a D-Notice issued to prevent the media from reporting the true fatality numbers during the pandemic, mused one prominent figure. Another–as recently as last week–suggested on Twitter that a semi-secret group of public servants in Treasury had designed a plan to wipe out the elderly and the disabled in order to balance the Commonwealth Budget.
If you want media that services these delusional thoughts, Australia’s New Media Landscape has you covered. You can read The Shot and get David Milner incorrectly attribute documents from the Victorian Premier’s Office to a News Corp journo. Last year, The Shot published semi-regular content from Ronni Salt, a ‘citizen journalist’ notorious for deranged political claims on Twitter. If you like your prejudices confirmed by more mainstream writers, you can read The Monthy‘s daily newsletter The Politics by Rachel Withers where she will tell you, unfailingly, that the Coalition is still tremendously powerful despite losing the last election, even being the ‘main reason’ why the Referendum on the Voice is on track to fail. If you already agree with Nick Feik, then you are going to love Nick Feik telling you why you’re right about the current discussion about emission caps; if you don’t already agree with Nick Feik, don’t bother with that link because the article is objectively incomprehensible. If you like your prejudices confirmed by spicier voices, you’ve got Michael West Media, Independent Australia, and a plethora of other news outlets barely distinguishable from blogs.
What these outlets have in common is their opposition to the News Corp media. Indeed, it’s the link they have with their audience. If you think News Corp is bad, come read our articles where we confirm your view that News Corp is bad.
And then we get to the ABC which gets whipped by everybody and then behaves as if it is afraid of being whipped by everybody. As Leigh Sales wrote, there was a horrific level of abuse directed towards journalists from the ABC regarding the pandemic coverage. Not only was the ABC enduring criticisms from the News Corp crowd (largely unreasonably), but presenters who seemed too critical of the ALP are regularly singled out for abuse by the Centre-Left iPad Warrior crowd: horrible, horrible things. The view from senior management (certainly from former senior management types like Alan Sunderland) was that if you were upsetting ‘both sides’ of politics, you were doing a good job.
The result was that nobody was able to engage in serious criticism of the ABC because it was all getting drowned out by the freaks. The ABC’s stable of journos continued to get things wrong about the pandemic. One senior journo was even criticised by Bret Walker in his report into the Ruby Princess event for just getting their facts wrong. And the less said about Norman Swan, the better.
But, even when there is legitimate criticism, we get the Centre-Left iPad Warriors defending ‘their’ team. For example, it was simply unreasonable to criticise Louise Milligan… even when there were legitimate criticisms about her actions. Jonathan Holmes and Dr Chris Wallace put it simply in terms of whom they believe: Holmes and Wallace believed Milligan and a senior journo who hadn’t read Milligan’s speech; Holmes and Wallace did not believe the complaints of the women who heard the speech. Another really appalling example of this was when ACMA very reasonably criticised Sarah Ferguson and the ABC decided to publish articles smearing ACMA. I understand that Phillip Adams and the ABC apologised to Kamahl for Adams declaring Kamahl to be an ‘honorary white’, but there seemed to be a distinct lack of condemnation from the Centre-Left iPad Warrior crowd for the racist claim in the first place. There is still no sign of Paul Barry apologising for claiming that the ABC should platform more transphobic voices. Criticism of the ABC is only seen in the public as a dichotomy between Friends of the ABC types and News Corp types.
So this is the political culture landscape we are in. If you want to have your views repeated back to you, the Australian media has you covered. If you want to engage in serious criticism of the largest media outlet in Australia, you’re going to get shouted down by the same rusted on Centre-Left types… who will also say some pretty nasty things if they think the ABC is being ‘too right wing’. Any challenge to the media environment is immediately reframed into a ‘Culture War’ dichotomy.
It’s not just News Corp fueling the toxicity: all of these outlets are direct beneficiaries from the toxicity. With audience sizes shrinking, the strategy is to pander to the readers who remain by giving them exactly what they want: their own views repeated back to them in a suit and a tie.
We don’t have serious disagreements in our political culture any more. I can’t consume Australian political media to find two sensible, intelligent voices having a serious, intelligent disagreement about a topic. It just doesn’t exist. And whenever you see prominent conservative voices arguing for a more reasonable political debate, it’s invariably a cloak for ‘Could the “pronoun people” please pipe down? I can barely hear myself express my own horrific views.’
Seen through this lens, it’s obvious why conservative media behaves the way that it does. It’s the same marketing strategy employed by the rest of the media: have big, bold uncompromising political content that engages the primal motivations of the reader. That way, they’ll stay. That way, they’ll pay a dollar or two for the thrill and spill of being outraged by some imagined political enemy who secretly wants them to disrupt their life a little bit.
And, framed this way, it’s clear what the solution looks like: we need a political culture developed by people who are genuinely interested in engaging in ideas and persuading others, instead of in repeating the audience’s views back to it. But that’s a commercial risk. Audiences do not want to be told that they’re wrong or that the people with whom they disagree might have a reasonable point.
If you’re tired of News Corp lying for commercial gain, promote disagreement between reasonable people. Give Centre-Right publics options other than News Corp. Don’t continue the current approach of having public debate dominated by people who aren’t interested in persuasion.