Wednesday, 14 May 2014

The Ashes of Egalitarian Australia

Written by

The fraught relationship between politicians and the electorate is distorted by the media sitting in the middle setting the basis for discussion. Often this isn't outright bias, it is simply a by-product of the professional desire to achieve “balance”. So, as frustrating and dangerous as the avowedly biased media can be, it is often the journalists who claim the high middle ground who are distorting the picture even further. It is all part of why our politics is broken.

It was as predictable as cat videos on the internet. On Monday morning, The Australian editorialised that political dishonesty was suddenly okay by them:

Unfortunately for the public’s understanding of the challenges confronting the economy, much of the pre-budget commentary in the popular media and on supposedly serious programs such as the ABC’s Insiders has concentrated ad nauseam on whether promises are about to be broken rather than on what would be good for the nation. Promises need to be broken because both sides of politics took unrealistic platforms to last year’s election and because Australia has lived beyond its means for too long.

Ah, yes. Promises need to be broken. As if the Gillard Government and media coverage of their broken promises had never happened.

As I say, it was predictable. But it was still sort of shocking to see it there in all its shameless and unexamined black-is-white glory. Promises need to be broken. Pinch yourself.

It is a powerful reminder that the mainstream media do not simply report, they create. For all their pretence of objectivity, they are part of a mediation process that filters and chooses and spins information. Then spits it out on daily basis, in what amounts to a blancmange, not just of facts, but of opinions, angles, nuances, views, truths, half-truths, quarter-truths and outright lies from which we, the citizen public, are expected to make sense.

Bernard Keane had some interesting things to say along these line on the same day. He argued, for instance, that Tony Abbott is on track to be our first post-modern prime minister, describing him as “a leader unencumbered by any belief in the value of truth or consistency.”

Keane went on to say:

[P]arties like Labor….in Australia, and the Democrats in the US, have struggled to find a way to counter how politicians of the Right have freed themselves from the shackles of consistency and evidence.

This is something I think progressives really need to get their head around. I think it is particularly hard for good journalists to decipher because it means rethinking a lot of the norms of their profession.

So let’s start with the contention that “politicians of the Right have freed themselves from the shackles of consistency and evidence”.

There’s seem little doubt about this. We see it in regard to everything from climate change to austerity economics to Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. Ideology trumping evidence. A veritable legion of right-wing commentators and journalists willing to say almost anything in the name of group fealty.

The extract from The Australian editorial at the top of this piece is a variation on the theme. It’s not just that they have backflipped on the matter of broken promises, and are willing to give Tony Abbott a pass on something they would never have given to Julia Gillard and Labor. It’s that the whole piece is predicated on the idea that “cuts are necessary to re-establish the conditions for growth and prosperity”.

This in turn buys into the government’s claims that there is some sort of Budget crisis facing the country and that that is being driven by other crises, most specifically those to do with healthcare and pensions.

In other words, the whole contention that “promises need to be broken” is built upon a range of conclusions about the economy that are simply wrong. The alleged crises do not exist. Even if we wanted to be incredibly generous and allow that the underlying contentions are at least debatable, we would still have to note that they are not actually debated in pieces like that editorial. They are merely asserted. They sit there as the unexamined assumptions fuelling the whole “debate”.

In pointing this out, I am certainly not arguing that the economy is perfect or that everything Labor did in regard to it was laudable or that, like any economy, there are not long-term structural matters that have to be managed. But any sort of realistic discussion of the economy simply cannot make the sort of presumptions that the editorial does.

Keane’s question is really, how do the right get away with it? The flip side of which is: why can’t the left?

The answer is actually pretty straightforward. The public space in which these discussions happen are dominated by right wing ideas and commentators. Huge amounts of money, often filtered through think tanks, are spent on ensuring that certain ideas not only dominate public discussion but are normalised as common sense.

In brief, media commentary skews right, and given this, you can just about guarantee that ordinary, everyday journalism will also skew right, pretty much by default.

Let me unpack that.

It is not just that there is a right wing media that dominates and is biased. It is that the opposite of right wing media isn’t left-wing media, it is sensible journalism.

Sensible journalism is what you get when media organisations or individual journalists try self-consciously to be neither of the right nor the left. They try instead to be “balanced” or “objective”. They see this as being professional. But what they end up doing is simply discounting left wing positions and arguments and thus by default give credence to right wing ones.

To put it more clearly, the middle ground to which they are trying cleave is actually occupied by right wing assumptions.

Look at what happened on QandA the other night. Some protesters managed to infiltrate the audience and make a noise about education cuts. When the small kerfuffle was over, host Tony Jones declared:

We had a little musical interlude there while we get democracy back on track.

That is not what we want to happen on this program. That is not what democracy is all about. And those students should understand that.

I don’t doubt Jones believed what he said, but the sheer adamancy of his assertions speaks to such a conservative understanding of democracy that it can’t help but reinforce right-of-centre preferences. “Protest is bad because it is disruptive and rude” is a totally ring wing cocktail, and Tony Jones had clearly swallowed it in one gulp.

Individual journalists at the ABC may tilt left as some polling suggests, but Aunty is at heart part of the establishment, and Tony Jones, in that outburst, was wearing his establishment heart on his conservative sleeve.

Or look at these comments by Guardian journalist, Katharine Murphy. It is a discussion of Labor’s attempt to censure the Speaker, Bronwyn Bishop. Murphy, who I think works really hard to engage with all her readers, openly states that Labor “has a valid point about Bishop and the speakership” and that “the public would be better served, by the Speaker playing it down the line”.

But then comes the “but”:

That said, Christopher Pyne pulled out a bravura performance on the floor. He neutralised the attack in the moment with his signature blend of truly astounding chutzpah – (misogyny, against Bishop, good grief); a sharp instinct for the weaknesses of his opponents (of course Labor is mourning this transition to opposition, the loss of incumbency – so hit them where they hurt); some precision ridicule and satire – and of course, he had the structural advantage. This was a debate the government could not lose. There was no prospect of a loss.

It's been a bad week for the government. Pyne's job to today was to deliver a Chinese burn to Labor, and lift the morale of his troops by dishing out his arch commentary on the road to certain numerical victory.

A simple mission. His success with that venture could be seen in everyone's body language afterwards: Abbott's grin, Bishop's extra tartness from the chair and her newly squared shoulders. The odour of retribution wafted from the front of the House.

Politics imposes a brutal hierarchy and Labor had been reminded of its place in the scheme of things – taking its lumps, out of power, out of numbers – back to that slow drilling through hard boards.

So what started as a discussion of the rights and wrongs of how the Speaker does her job - clearly a topic of major importance - morphs unexamined into a discussion about parliamentary tactics. Once that happens the government is deemed to be the winner.

And notice that final paragraph. It is simply wrong. Our entire system of government - the whole notion of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition - is built on the fact that you get to have your say no matter what the numbers are, that the rights of the minority are protected. Democracy only becomes the brutal numbers game that Murphy describes because those who help shape public opinion and who help influence the norms of political engagement give that aspect of the contest priority.

So in trying (justifiably) not to be “pro Labor”, the discussion ends up being pro government.

And notice the further upshot of all this: an article along these lines biased towards the right would’ve simply concentrated on Pyne “winning” the numbers game and would’ve presented it as a victory for the government. It would’ve been biased and misleading.

An article biased to the left would’ve highlighted the fact that Labor was correct in trying to censure Bishop because she is not doing her job correctly. But that left-bias would also happen to be objectively correct.

The article we have - the one that tries to balance left and right - ends up favouring the right.

I would contend that this sort of thing is actually built into the way a lot of journalism is done. Trying to be balanced in an environment where the basic thrust is right wing ends up being right wing by default. In such circumstances, “objective” actually means “playing down left wing presumptions”.

So getting back to that original quote from Bernard Keane and the question it raises, we can say that the right have “freed themselves from the shackles of consistency and evidence” because the media spaces in which political debate happen are imbued with a right wing sensibility.

Tony Abbott and other right wingers get away with their “postmodernism” because, on balance, nobody holds them to account. The presumptions shared by the right pervade public debate and are thus normalised, and so inconsistency and lack of evidence are not punished but excused or rationalised.

I mean, how else could right wing politicians get away with being inconsistent and lacking in evidence unless the environment in which they put forward these views was biased towards them?

But let’s go a little deeper.

Take the line about Tony Abbott being our first postmodern prime minister. In effect the label is simply a euphemism, and as such and by definition softens judgement of him and as serial deceiver. He’s not lying, he’s being postmodern.

That’s one part of it.

The other is that, to the extent that the media that supports him has freed him from the need for consistency and evidence, “postmodern” might be a workable description. But at the end of the day, even postmodern Tony is pulled up by reality.

Yes, he is breaking many of the promises he made before he was elected, but the reason he is breaking them is because reality is forcing him too. He simply cannot run the economy as if facts don’t matter. He might’ve promised no new taxes but the reality is, the revenue side of the Budget needed attention too, and so some sort of tax increase is necessary to deal with it.

Think about that: it means that The Australian editorial is right. Promises did need to be broken!

But the truly insane thing is that Abbott is the only person who, in our media environment, can do this.

If Labor tried to increase taxes - and they did - they would be subjected to a barrage of abuse and interference from the media and the opposition - and they were. But Abbott, freed from the constraints of consistency by a media that has his back no matter what he does, can do what he likes.

It’s a variation on the conceit that only Nixon can go to China: the only people who can get certain things done - like raising taxes on the wealthy - are the ones who have sworn black and blue that they will never do it. It is their commitment to never do it that makes it possible for them to do it.

It is all so monumentally stupid. And dangerous.

It becomes stupid squared when the Greens and Labor then turn around and say they will not support the tax increases on the grounds that Tony Abbott is breaking promises or, more likely, because they think they can win support by promising not to raise taxes.

In other words, they are trying to play the very game that was so successful for Tony Abbott in the first place.

The trouble is, this can’t work for them. They can’t get away with it because the media environment doesn’t allow them to. It punishes them in a way it doesn’t punish the conservatives.

So the alleged progressive parties end up delivering themselves a double whammy: they try and play a game whose rules are rigged against them, but worse, they end up abandoning principle, accept the terms of politics as defined by the right, damage their standing amongst those most likely to support them, and ultimately enter into the conditions for their own irrelevance.

As I noted on Twitter the other day, the funny thing is, Labor were so on the nose over their leadership nonsense that Tony Abbott would’ve won the election even he had told the truth about everything.

The fact that he didn’t, that he felt that he couldn’t, that he decided the only way to win was to promise a bunch of stuff he has now abandoned, should offer no comfort to the left or the right, to progressives or conservatives.

Just try and get your head around the doublespeak, backtracking, rationalising, up-is-down, black-is-white “logic” that pervades the entire matter of what we call public debate.

Of course, it goes a lot deeper than messaging problems and a slanted, structurally incompetent media. It all points to something fundamentally broken in our politics, though without doubt the brokenness of our politics can’t be separated from the brokenness of our media and other avenues of public discussion.

Both major parties have become so divorced from the electorate that the only reason they continue to exist is because Australia’s institutional arrangements keep them alive by default. Hooked up to this life support, and with nothing meaningful to say to voters, they construct these ridiculous “campaigns” that the media report as if they were the only viable alternatives available to address complex problems.

As it stands, we are living off our democratic capital and not engaging in the sort of rebuilding that is necessary to maintain a society that is both free and fair. The nature of work and a myriad of other social relations have shifted over the last few decades and our institutions are ill-equipped to respond.

What is becoming increasingly obvious is that this is a situation that we can neither argue nor vote our way out of. More fundamental change is needed.


CODA: The Budget was brought down just as I finished this piece, and you didn’t have to look hard in the coverage to find examples of the sort of journalism I am talking about above.

This piece by Ross Gittins is a classic of genre.

Gittins increasingly seems to see his role as taking some sort of “sensible” middle ground, offering himself as a savvy wiseman observing and commenting on the comings and goings of the rest of us with detached, gentle weariness.

He goes straight for the faux balance, the killer line to establish his savvy credentials:

This budget isn't as bad as Labor will claim and the Liberal heartland will privately think.

The next line is an explicit rebuke to all those out there (unnamed and unquoted) who dare to suggest that the government might be moving in the direction of other right wing governments around the world and to those who, by implication, worry about the undermining of the welfare state:

It's undoubtedly the toughest budget since John Howard's post-election budget in 1996, but it's hardly austerity economics.

Notice the intent is always to calm the horses, to reject Labor’s views, to reject any interpretation that might suggest we are moving too far to right. As I noted above, what happens isn’t explicitly right wing commentary, but it establishes its (alleged) fairness and reasonableness by setting itself against left wing positions.

He then he offers this overt rebuke to anyone silly enough to have taken Tony Abbott at his word:

Anyone surprised and shocked by the budget can be excused only if last year's election was their first. Any experienced voter who allowed themselves to be persuaded that ''Ju-liar'' Gillard was the first and last prime minister ever to break an election promise should pay their $7 and ask a GP to check for amnesia.

If you thought a man who could promise ''no surprises, no excuses'' was a man who could be trusted to keep his word, more fool you.

This is the ultimate savvy position and it is just dripping with condescension. It is not so much directed at any particular group - I mean, who out there really does think that politicians will keep their promises? - as it is about asserting his own insidery superiority for understanding how these things work.

The insidious thing about it is that invites us in to share in his savviness rather than to actually try and analyse what is going on.

That Gillard was crucified for her change of position on pricing carbon, while Abbott is applauded for his reversals is not considered. Savviness is its own reward and once again, this allegedly objective and reasonable discussion of politics ends up providing a soft landing for the conservatives.

And then there is my favourite section:

I give Joe Hockey's first budgetary exam a distinction on management of the macro economy, a credit on micro-economic reform and a fail on fairness.

...Only those people right at the bottom of the ladder have been hit hard – unemployed young people, the sick poor and, eventually, aged and disabled pensioners – but who cares about them? We've been trained to worry only about ourselves, and to shout and scream over the slightest scratch.

Just think about all that.

The entire article is predicated on this smug mentality of playing down broken promises, of telling us that things aren’t really as bad as that nasty Labor Party would have us believe, of insisting that this isn’t really austerity, and then it has the audacity to imply that people don’t really care about the disadvantaged?

I mean, FFS. You just told us that the Budget wasn’t that bad. Do you really not see the connection between your attempts to play down the consequences of this sort of economic management and what you allege is a lack of care for the disadvantaged?

You say we’ve been “trained” to worry only about ourselves, but it rather begs the question, doesn’t it? Who trained us, Ross?

It is precisely this sort of pathological “balance” that is facilitating the country’s rightward drift.

Tim Dunlop

Tim Dunlop writes regularly for The Kings Tribune, The Drum and other publications. His new book, The New Front Page: New Media and the Rise of the Audience, was released on August 26.

Follow him on Twitter @timdunlop