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.

Peter Fray

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