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Oct 8, 2010

Hey liberals, muscle-up

Rather than lamenting the lies told by many in the mainstream media, progressive groups need to follow the ACTU's lead and start investing in the tools of public policy debate. Bernard Keane weighs in.

One of the particularly cute themes being strongly peddled by some conservatives at the moment is a narrative of persecution.

The least subtle, and certainly most amusing, version of this has emerged from The Australian in recent weeks, marked by a series of missteps from the national broadsheet that have served to put on unusually prominent display the various wars that outlet is engaged in — the war against Labor, the war against the Greens (the “Stalinist, pot-smoking, paranoid” Greens as one Australian press gallery journalist calls them), the war against bloggers, the war against the ABC … on the list goes.

But a particular theme of The Australian’s extended bouts of self-justification on these issues — the extent to which it realises it has mishandled an issue is in direct proportion to the column inches it gives over to justifying itself afterward — is that it is the paper itself that is under attack from others. Bob Brown was bullying The Australian, editor Chris Mitchell lamented to Media Watch. Was Brown “running a campaign” against the paper, its impressively witless media editor Geoff Elliott demanded to know in an email to the Greens. Laura Tingle and Barrie Cassidy were ganging up on The Australian, an editorial declared, raising the prospect of some unholy alliance between Fairfax and the ABC.

All of that you probably know, but I mention it by way of context for yesterday’s effort from The Australian in which various business worthies chorused they felt intimidated and threatened by the government.

Gatherings of business leaders always yield much the same thing for whatever media outlet brings them together to provide an uncritical and unbalanced platform for their views — this one was the ‘Australian and Deutsche Bank Business Leaders Forum’, although it’s the Financial Review that usually pulls business leaders together and writes up what they opined over a three-course lunch and wine. The gatherings invariably produce material about a ‘bold reform agenda’ that is being urged on government. On closer inspection, the ‘bold reform agenda’ usually consists of the same things — lower corporate taxes, more IR deregulation and more industry-specific infrastructure paid for by government — but that’s par for the course.

But to engage in a collective act of self-delusion and construct a joint fantasy about being persecuted by the government is a wholly different thing. Particularly less than four months after a prime minister was removed from power as a direct result of the campaigning of several powerful foreign transnationals, illustrating the power of plutocracy — or, more accurately in the case of the mining companies, of kleptocracy.

But however deluded, this fantasy takes on a reality of its own when backed by the mainstream media, which can inject a story into the news cycle and then keep it there by running follow-ups, fueled by denials prompted by the original piece. So it was today with Matthew Franklin, that Joe Friday of the press gallery (just facts please ma’am, and none of that commentary stuff), and Annabel Hepworth. “As revealed in The Australian yesterday, respected chairpeople claim…” blah, blah, blah, although annoyingly they forgot the “as exclusively revealed”.

It looks a lot like an echo chamber, a nice image now appropriated by conservative commentators to describe their new media enemies, though sadly without any attribution to those of us who’ve been pointing out for some time that the entire media landscape is fragmenting into what I originally preferred to call ghettos of agreement. Still, a particularly loud echo chamber nonetheless.

This isn’t just an example of the fantasy world apparently inhabited by senior business figures and journalists, or for that matter yet another example of how The Australian routinely lies — ho hum, man bites god — but a miniature example of what public debate has devolved to from what was an under-appreciated high point in the 1980s and 1990s. Public policy debate has become a simple contest of narratives in which the mere fact that something may be true, or better evidenced or more rational than something else, is no grounds for it to be preferred over other, more convenient stories that serve the interests of the most powerful participants.

T’was ever thus, I hear you say — when was mainstream political debate anything but a competition of vested interests in which power rather than quaint notions of truth and logic determined the victor? But not so fast. I’ve argued before that public policy debate in Australia has been damaged over the last three decades by a range of factors, from the politicisation of the public service, the explosion in ministerial staff and lobbyists and the growth of a professional political class to the proliferation of economic consultants ready to provide independent modeling showing black is white.

For the progressive-minded, this presents a great challenge. Successfully shaping public debate, or even just having visibility in debate, requires tools like economic modeling, polling and access to a friendly media outlet. Online networks, for example, aren’t enough — it is salient that the remorselessly self-promoting GetUp has only had real success once it moved beyond its online campaign roots and become involved in real-world action in the courtroom on voter enrolment.

It is a wholly uneven contest if an issue pits you against corporate interests, against which even governments — especially governments with as few communication skills as this one –struggle. Even large community groups, NGOs or trade unions can’t exercise the same influence as the alliance between corporate Australia and mainstream media outlets.

For this reason it was interesting  that Ged Kearney, almost at the end of her speech to the National Press Club on Wednesday, announced the ACTU would undertake a survey of all union members, partly with the intention of “improving the quality of our national thinking” and “nurturing a willing and active support base for new policy and campaigns”. Kearney spoke of the need to shape a “unified national agenda”.

The ACTU is currently the only entity of the progressive side of politics capable of significantly influencing public policy debate. Its WorkChoices campaign, after all, played a key role in undermining the Howard government — in a manner that has been compared (unfairly in my view, but it’s worth thinking about) to the mining industry’s campaign to remove Labor from office.

Its willingness to invest in the tools of public policy in an effort to influence debate is one that smaller progressive organisations, such as NGOs, should take heed of, if necessary by putting aside differences with other groups and collaborating to fund the sorts of investments in public policy research that will enable them to compete more effectively against the narratives being pushed by corporate interests and the mainstream media. Some NGOs are already taking this approach, but they remain the exceptions when it should be the rule.

The alternative is sitting round complaining about the lies being peddled in places like The Australian, which in part means you allow the agenda to be set by your opponents anyway. As the ACTU is showing, progressive groups have to take the time and money to properly tell their own stories and drive their own agenda rather than letting their opponents dominate debate.

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42 thoughts on “Hey liberals, muscle-up

  1. shepherdmarilyn

    It’s not only the Australian – the ABC has decided that pointing out the law is irrelevant when they talk about things like refugees and seeking asylum for example.

    Again today we have Aunty letting Bowen babble about “regional processing” and Morrison babble about “losing control of our borders” without once mentioning that under the law anyone is allowed to seek asylum and under the law we have zero right to try and stop them doing so.

    They call it “balanced debate” but all we get is this mindless “he said”, “he said” and people are none the wiser.

    “Processing” refugees is nothing more than an interview and application form 866 which can only be applied for in Australia.

    Which of course is the point the morons aren’t getting at all.

    I can only conclude that our media are as ignorant of the law and as racist as our scummy leaders.

  2. Acidic Muse

    Excellent article Bernard.

    I have no doubt the union movement is the institution best placed to facilitate this kind of discussion but I suspect it will continue to be outdone by the forces of fascism and/or economic rationalism.

    The greatest advantage the Right will always have over those of us to the left of Atila the Hun is their capacity to massively out spend us in developing the tools to successfully promote the public policy that best serves the interests of their corporate sponsors

    The money they spend funding right-wing stink tanks, PR firms and other corporate proxies to come up with ever increasingly creative rationalisations as to why it’s in all our interests that people like Clive Palmer and James Packer pay less taxes on their total income than the average working stiff. They get an almost direct return on investment on that outlay because Clive and James et al save literally billions of dollars on their tax bill every year – providing them with a huge incentives to ensure a reasonable proportion of those savings flow straight back into the political machinery that perpetuates their prosperity.

    It’s an unfortunate fact of life that the same thing cannot be said when the centre-left wins it’s policy arguments. Yes, living standards and quality of life generally are improved , but there will never be the same level of direct investment back into funding the institutions that created the benefit.

    Unions have undoubtedly fought , and in many cases won some of the most important battles waged on behalf of working Australians over the past couple of decades. Despite this, union membership has continued to dwindle as a proportion of the total workforce and the left has continued to fracture and divide as a consequence.

    That said, the battle to stop the rot has to begin somewhere and this is an excellent first step. What Australia needs now more than any ever is more centre-left voices of reason being heard more often by larger audiences. As long as large corporations remain the gatekeepers to mainstream media access, we will undoubtedly be thwarted at almost every turn.

  3. Harvey Tarvydas

    Dr Harvey M Tarvydas

    Fabulously stimulating, worthwhile and worthy BK.
    I am going to think about this to see how I can assist with such a profound call or maybe just comment usefully.

  4. shepherdmarilyn

    Harvey a useful call to Bowen could go like this “I have just heard that Pakistan likes the idea of a regional refugee centre so they are sending their 1.9 million Afghans to Australia”.

  5. joanjett

    Well some of the smaller players who lack the spending power to get their message across could do worse than strike up a friendship with the person over at the Gruen Factor who decides The Pitch content every week! Seemed to work for the Greens and VE. Perhaps they could lobby Todd Sampson & co directly and bypass the pollies? Just a thought 🙂

  6. Jimmy

    The economic modelists are the real problem. How many “independent” models are quoted showing things that are clearly untrue but are taken seriously because they are independent and therefore better than the biased public service when in fact the “independent” anaylsis was paid for by an interest group. The Libs budget figures are a great example.
    As I have said previously the Libs since the election have claimed the Treasury, Finance Dept & Defence chiefs can not be trusted and they know better.

  7. asdusty

    Prof Fred Block’s excellent 3rd annual Ted Wheelwright lecture on tuesday at the Uni of Sydney offered an alternative to the current trajectory of globalisation/neoliberal dogma/free market capitalism. Transitioning to a truly green economy, providing a universal basic income, expansion of ’empowered particpatory governance’, and the democratization of the corporate form. However, significant change must be driven by the grass-roots, and Prof Block saw a coalition of progressive groups (unions, religious groups, NGO’s) as the catalyst for prompting this change. Heres hoping we can make it happen.

  8. Rush Limbugh

    What, more Liberals winging about the media….nothing to see here.

    You blame the media for bias, look at the some of the BS in the current Climate Change debate.

    You want BS, look in your own backyard.

  9. john2066

    Lets not forget the campaign started on this very website, the fact the Australian receives millions per year in government recruitment advertising, advertising that should be removed from this ‘news’ paper forthwith and just placed on a govt. website for free.

    Every taxpayer should be carefully keeping the job ads from the weekend Australian, and writing letters to the contacts named therein demanding to know how much public money is being spent on these ads and demanding that they stop.

    No. more. government. advertising. for. The. Australian.

  10. Stevo the Working Twistie

    You’d think Rush Limbaugh would know how to spell his own name. But then again, maybe not.

    But you are right – in the name of “balance” every crackpot denialist gets their 15 minutes against reputable scientists who have spent entire careers studying the climate (think Monckton). Yes, there is some major BS in the climate change “debate”.

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