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John Passant

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September 2010



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Me interviewed by Sharon Firebrace on Razor Sharp on Tuesday 18 February. (0)

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Why is the mass media so rotten?

During the most uninspiring election campaign in living memory, the mass media allowed Abbott and Gillard to set the agenda argues Kate Jeffreys in Socialist Alternative.

No mainstream media outlet questioned any of the basic assumptions – that the boats must be stopped; that standing up for big business is paramount; that the unions need to be brought to heel.

Instead of political analysis, we saw inane features on Julia Gillard’s hair and living arrangements. Tony Abbott’s swimwear was analysed in more depth than Liberal Party policy on health, education or public transport.

This raises the question – why is the mass media so rotten?

The most obvious reason for the depressing, right-wing sameness of media coverage in Australia is the structure of the industry itself. The Australian media has been called one of the most centralised in the world, with a tiny number of corporations controlling most of our TV, newspapers and magazines.

For example, with the exception of Perth tabloid The West Australian, all of the daily capital city and national newspapers are owned by either Fairfax Media or News Limited.

News Limited is a subsidiary of the world’s third-largest media conglomerate, News Corporation. On its website, News Corporation boasts of its “more than 110 national, capital city and suburban newspapers in Australia”, and identifies itself as “the globe’s leading publisher of English-language newspapers and their digital brands, with operations in the UK, the United States, Australia, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and across Europe and Asia”.

The trend towards centralisation is visible across the world, with an accompanying trend towards right-wing consensus in the press. Newspapers and TV stations owned by huge corporations generally express views that support their owners’ interests.

But the capitalist press is a mouthpiece not just for the media barons, but for the whole ruling class. It plays a role in promoting bourgeois ideology and suppressing ideas that challenge the system. This is neither straightforward nor conspiratorial, as bourgeois ideas are necessarily fragmented and contradictory.

Newspapers, for example, are divided into tidy little sections that are supposed to be discrete. Politics is separate from the business section, which is separate from “world news”, sport and entertainment. This fragmentation of ideas helps to conceal the class differences embedded in society.

As well, the presence of the “opinion” category tries to make us believe that the rest of the paper is unbiased and objective.

On Media Watch on September 13 this year, presenter Paul Barry rightly criticised The Australian’s vicious campaign against the Greens. But his reasoning is a perfect example of this illusion:

Now call me old fashioned, but I’ve always thought opinion belongs on the opinion pages, and news is meant to be news. And I don’t believe the news agenda should be driven by a determination to attack people whose politics you dislike. The Australian clearly does.

The Australian might be more overt than some publications about its political agenda. But campaigning for a set of ideas is present at every level of the media, even at the supposedly impartial Australian Broadcasting Corporation. The ABC’s editorial policy document contains these words: “All news and current affairs content will be accurate, impartial and objective, and thereby avoid bias.”

Aside from being humanly impossible, this is pure rubbish. The ABC was one of the most enthusiastic campaigners for the racist Northern Territory intervention – there was no sense of objectivity there. Impartiality means, in practice, striving for “balance” between a union-busting, warmongering party of refugee bashers, and the Liberals.

Most political coverage is spurious “debate” within assumed boundaries – that is, support for capitalism, profitability and the “national interest”.

The basic intention of the bourgeois press is to promote ideas that foster the smooth running of the system – not to inform the public. This is evident when you examine the content of most “news”.

Spinning the Media is a joint study by online news site Crikey and the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism (ACIJ) at the University of Technology, Sydney. The study analysed 2203 stories across ten newspapers and found that “nearly 55 per cent of stories analysed were driven by some form of public relations – a media release, a public relations professional or some other form of promotion.”

The worst offender was Sydney’s conservative tabloid, The Daily Telegraph, with 70 per cent of stories initiated by public relations.

Nearly a quarter of stories analysed in the investigation were simply press releases republished with the journalist’s byline, with no extra content or sources.

Spinning the Media commented on the substitution of detailed information provided by public relations companies for actual journalistic investigation. Sasha Pavey from the ACIJ comments: “Tactics include providing direct quotes and appointed ‘topic experts’ on the issue for time-pressed journalists who may be unable to do the interviews or seek their own sources.”

This highlights the shared class interests of media moguls and those who can afford to pay for a never-ending stream of public relations.

It also shows the indoctrination of journalists into the media system. Journalists are taught – in part by formal education, but also by a process of selection – what constitutes news and how it is obtained. But this isn’t the end of the story. With capitalism less profitable overall and the constant pressure of competition, the quality of journalism is degraded by job cuts and the resulting increase in the pace of work for journalists.

In its 2009 Future of Journalism report, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) – the trade union representing journalists and media workers – estimated that the number of full-time journalists employed in Australia across all media fell by 13 per cent between 2001 and 2009.

The report describes a survey of MEAA members in Australian newsrooms, which revealed

deep concerns about staffing levels, increased hours and stress. Workloads have increased but pay hasn’t and there is widespread concern at lack of training. Journalists worry the quality of their work suffers because of the extra demands and the lack of training …

Of the survey respondents, over 70 per cent reported an increased workload. Just under 70 per cent reported longer working hours, including both paid and unpaid time. Many respondents drew explicit connections with the quality of their stories and the increased pace of work, with one commenting: “Most of us are now doing at least four print stories a day, plus online work, so there is no choice but to put in the minimum number of calls and pump the words out.”

In this environment, it’s no wonder “news” is quick and dirty, driven by public relations and press releases. As Spinning the Media put it: “Given the grim state of some of these papers, and the deep cuts to their workforces of late, in some ways it’s surprising the 55 per cent isn’t higher.”

The result is that most people rightly distrust the media. Roy Morgan found in an opinion poll from 2006 that 74 per cent of Australians agreed that “media organisations are more interested in making money than in informing society”; and 59 per cent “don’t trust journalists to tell the truth”. This shows that there is a high degree of media scepticism in Australia.

Socialist Alternative attempts to present a counterweight to the daily dose of rubbish we’re confronted with from the mass media. We have no intention of producing a “balanced” publication – we’re fighting for workers’ rights, and presenting a clear alternative to the gutter politics of The Australian, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.



Comment from Adam
Time September 29, 2010 at 12:52 pm

Yes the scales have been tipped too far and anyone or anything trying to balance those scales is immediately and vehemently labelled a radical ideologue – duplicity at its finest. What to do but just soldier on and fight the good fight until the tipping point is reached. I agree, impartiality can’t exist in the media given the current state of affairs that you highlighted.

Comment from Bradley
Time September 29, 2010 at 5:18 pm

While what has been said is so, some of those articles that are based, or are solely, press releases, they are regarding innocent things such as a marathon or a public event. It’s not much of a point to make, as the majority would no doubt be organisations trying to promote themselves or their agenda.

Also, I have read articles about the growing number of online news and people creating their own news outlets, using blogs or Youtube. This increase of news, which is always being updated as internet users see fit, makes the greater demand for reporters to also create news stories faster. In addition, people are losing interest in newspapers and moving towards the internet newspaper. Because people are favouring alternate news sources, the journalists and associated business must churn out more, lower quality, yet more current, news stories.

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