What if the whole rationale for the government’s media inquiry is flawed? What if “quality journalism” isn’t all we all think it’s cracked up to be?

The US, mainly courtesy of Fox News and, latterly, MSNBC, is significantly further advanced in debating partisan media outlets than Australia. It’s almost a staple of that debate that the growing level of partisanship in the US media is similar to the intensely partisan press of the 19th century.

The logic is fairly straightforward: for most of the 19th century, there were low barriers to entry into the newspaper industry, a highly fragmented market, and strong readership growth that could support up to a dozen dailies in major cities and several titles even in regional towns. Newspapers reflected their editors’ world view, and readily aligned with political parties; in the absence of rapid information networks like the telegraph, the emphasis was less on journalism and more on commentary. Also, crucially, neither parties nor many editors felt any compunction about making and receiving undisclosed subsidies — 19th century cash-for-comment.

But by the end of the 19th century, the concentration of newspaper ownership (a recurring theme in media industries), higher barriers to entry and pressure from politicians saw fewer newspapers and greater pressure for “balanced” and “objective” journalism. The first schools of journalism began opening early in the 20th century. Scroll forward a few decades and the mass media — controlled by a small number of print, TV and radio proprietors — has established a single mass media space dominated by professional — thus, trained, balanced, objective — journalism.

That unitary media space is now fragmenting again and, perhaps coincidentally, partisan media is returning from the fringe to which it was consigned by the mass media. It has a distinctive voice and cut-through appeal in a cluttered and fragmented environment, it allows better targeting of particular demographics, and it costs much less to run ceaseless commentary than to provide actual journalism (Fox News, for example, can only cover breaking stories by bringing blowhards in to talk ceaselessly about them, while CNN actually has the resources to cover them).

It’s not entirely a neat fit. If anything, to recreate the same level of partisan rancour that pervades US politics and some sections of its media currently, one might need to go further back to the late 18th century, when America’s founding fathers engaged — invariably pseudonymously — in newspaper wars of staggering personal vituperation. Next time someone suggests the internet has lowered the tone of public debate, or that anonymous publication does the same, remember that anonymous slander was good enough for Hamilton, Jefferson and Madison.

Australia has its own history of partisan media outlets, particularly from the Left, in deliberate opposition to a mainstream media seen as anti-worker. That began dying out after World War II, although as late as 2000 the NSW Labor Party still owned the 2KY radio licence, established in 1925 to “educate and guide the workers towards the fulfilment of the common objective of the workers the world over — the Socialist Commonwealth.”

But without necessarily substituting the history of US newspapers for our own, it’s easy to see the same pressures at work here in The Daily Telegraph, The Australian, 2GB, and 2UE (demonstrating that partisanship is by no means some purely Murdoch-related phenomenon). In a fragmenting media environment, a clearer brand cuts through better, and cost pressures mean cheaper forms of content like comment and partisan reportage are ever more appealing. The now much-dissected Telegraph carbon price-transport article is a splendid demonstration of partisan media economics — beyond even the normal use of media releases as the basis for a story (a near-ubiquitous phenomenon across the media), that was the virtual outsourcing of research and preparation of a self-initiated story to a political party and taxpayer-funded resources. The 19th century habit of hidden subsidies from parties to newspapers hasn’t died out entirely.

But let’s go back a step. What are the lessons of a partisan press in the US — apart from being the first demonstration of Tim Wu’s argument that media markets inevitably evolve toward oligopoly?

Plainly news values came a poor second to partisan commentary. “The power of the press consists not in its logic or eloquence, but in its ability to manufacture facts, or to give colouring to facts that have occurred,” one mid-19th century journalist wrote, sounding positively contemporary as far as some Australian outlets are concerned. But some historians argue a partisan press was far more effective at engaging citizens in political debate. Partisan commentary does far more explaining than 20th century “objective” journalism, because its goal is to illustrate its argument that one side is good and the other bad, to link together examples to illustrate points not readily apparent from straight reporting. It also treats its readers as fundamentally political beings, rather than assuming they will find politics boring and irrelevant. The result may have been a far more engaged electorate — voter turnouts in US presidential elections peaked in the middle quarters of the 19th century and declined thereafter; the peak was in 1876 (like 2000, another stolen election) with just under 82% of the voter age population; the 2008 election — the best since ’68 — saw only 57.4% voting.

But as others point out, the 19th century also saw a civil war and, towards the end of the century, extraordinary political corruption, a genocidal indigenous policy, savage racial repression and labour unrest that bordered on revolution. The electorate may have been more engaged, but did it result in better governance?

Still, the lingering question for advocates of quality journalism — which is all of us, really — is whether there really is any link between the traditional, expensive 20th century media model of high-quality, balanced, objective journalism, and democratic disengagement. Are the much-maligned echo chambers of the internet a model for re-energising democratic engagement in a way that traditional journalism, which insists it has no voice, partisanship or ideology, is not?

And the question for the Telegraph, The Australian, 2GB and 2UE is whether they understand that partisanship and the “quality journalism” tradition are incompatible. The Telegraph is already the least trusted newspaper in the country and commercial radio the least-trusted mainstream media source. If you think moving back to the old partisan model is a good business decision — and it may well be — you can’t pretend to still operate under the 20th century “quality journalism” model. Make your choice and be clear about it.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey