Sep 19, 2011

Is there any benefit in partisan media?

The re-emergence of partisan media outlets in Australia raises the question of what sort of impact they have on democracy, and whether it's all bad.

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

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.

Free Trial

You've hit members-only content.

Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial to keep reading and get the best of Crikey straight to your inbox

By starting a free trial, you agree to accept Crikey’s terms and conditions


Leave a comment

24 thoughts on “Is there any benefit in partisan media?

  1. GocomSys

    Bernard, you posed the question:
    Is there any benefit in partisan media?
    My answer is NO. Do we desperately need intelligent quality journalism, YES!
    I’ve made my choice and I am clear about it.

  2. Suzanne Blake


    I think the commercial newspapers and radio stations need to retain their sales / ratings in order to survive, unlike Government owned corporations like ABC / SBS TV and radio.

    Therefore, if the commercial readers or listeners did not like what they were reading or listening to, their ratings would change and they would need to rectify it, or face decline and financial stress.

    In any case, I think I read somewhere a few weeks back that one of the radio stations you mentioned (2GB) was the highest rating station across Australia, let alone where they broadcast to.

  3. Edward James

    Main stream partisan and allegedly non partisan media outlets which can be identified as bought and paid for, and so called quality journalism must be mutually exclusive. If we are to understand quality journalism is reporting “the news” without bias to suit the outlet. While there are any number of exceptions which no doubt can be identified to disprove my assertion. The idea that any journalist including the growing number of internet spawned public trust journalist, will be blocked from promulgating his or her work product by medeia owners who aee pissed off with it. Is no myth! Edward James

  4. Scott

    Two Gold Walkley’s for “The Australian” in 2007 and 2009 would seem to indicate you can be both partisan and quality.

  5. John Bennetts

    1. Suzanne, where ever did you get the notion that ABC/SBS do not need ratings in order to survive? Program by program, ratings either make or break their futures and determine the amount of political currency they earn.

    The difference is only that the food chain takes a bit longer in the public sphere than in the more direct cash-is-king world. Starvation still results in death, regardless of the species.

    2. This isn’t one of your best, Bernard. I found my self having to resist the tendency to skim and then move to the next item. Not been drinking from Margaret Symonds’s cup, have you? Endless navel-gazing about the real or imagined value of other media is not, I suspect, very important stuff to many readers, especially when repetitious and predictable. You know the message: Australian = right wing warriors; Fairfax = Great traditions, slowly slipping off the stage; ABC = good in principal but very little to be positive about… and so on it goes.

    Someone’s Grandma used to say “If you can’t say anything nice about someone, don’t say anything.” I recommend that Crikey adopt this approach to the Murdoch rags for a spell.

  6. GocomSys

    One question: Can anybody name a Newspaper, Radio or TV station that these days broadcasts “straight” news? That means FACTS only (no opinion, no hypothesis, no he said/she said, no political or commercial propaganda, no bias) just plain simple researched facts! I can’t think of any. Can you?

  7. John Reidy

    I recently read 1861 The Civil War Awakening by Adam Goodheart which covers some of this territory – from the pov of the civil war.
    One consequence of the Partisan press was the technique used by readers who disagreed with the line taken by the paper – it literally involved the readers, the editor, tar and feathers.

    There is another interesting analogy from that period – Western Union – which had an effective monopoly on telegraph communications, was the equivilant at the time of Google+Microsoft and the telcos.

  8. SimsonMc

    I honestly believe that the world needs to step back and review what capitalism and current economic theory means in a modern context. What I think is now starting to happen is that the massive expectation gap between society’s expectations on how particular industries should act and how these industries actually carry out their business is now starting to become unacceptable to the world. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want us to drink vodka under the hammer and sickle but it I think Bernard has a point that maybe it’s time that boundaries need to be redefined to match community expectations. As I have argued before, the media are given a privileged position in society and they need to treat it with the respect that it deserves and I think most people believe that currently they are trashing it to the point of no return. Paul Keating made the point about the banks during the GFC where maybe the market needs to be segmented so that deposits, loans and other critical transactions are contained in one particular banking industry which is regulated so that it won’t fail and then all the other dodgy stuff is open to market forces and if they fail – bad luck. But also have the laws in place to make the executives accountable, something that has not happened to any of the financial institutions that brought us the GFC.

    The same thing probably needs to happen in the media industry also. The code of ethics is there so just make them enforceable by law. Media organisations can choose whether they wish to operate in that space or they can operate in the clearly identifiable Alan Jones Talking Shite space. Have similar laws like Canada’s truth in media laws and allow the courts to decide.

  9. Suzanne Blake


    I am sure you would disagree with any suggestions. But if there are none as you suggest, dont you think that is because people want opinion, commentary and hypothesis etc.

    @ John Bennetts

    The ABC and SBS are not focussed on ratings. I have never heard them report them. Some of the ABC TV shows have rated so poorly for years, yet they are still on air. But they have around 500,000 Bowls viewers on Saturday afternoon and decide to delete it? Does not make sence. Even if the Bowls program rated poorly, they should still retain it as it comments with the seniors, albeit younger and younger people are playing Bowls these days.

  10. Suzanne Blake

    meant connects with seniors.

Share this article with a friend

Just fill out the fields below and we'll send your friend a link to this article along with a message from you.

Your details

Your friend's details