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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.


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.



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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.

  11. Louis Carruthers

    Speaking of intelligent, truthful and fearless journalism, RNOW has reports that Cory Bernardi has had a meltdown at a press conference.


  12. Edward James

    @ GocomSys Good point, I certainly can’t! That’s why I generally refer to them collectively as bought and paid for media. As such they are the often resented gate keepers of what “gets a run” People need to filter the white noise of 24 hour editorialized news which is hammering us 24/7. I have come back again to pay for access to Crikey.com because Crikey permits me greater access to an engaged readership than those news filters at limited News and Fairfax. I believe Crikey is monitored by our elected reps and hence they get to hear about what I and other disgruntled taxpayers are reviewing in the peoples court of public opinion. Edward James 0243419140

  13. Mr Denmore

    Bernard, I wrote something similar recently on The Failed Estate. The media partisanship is a branding exercise – News Ltd as Ron Bennett, Fairfax as Country Road and the ABC as Big W:


  14. Suzanne Blake

    @ Mr Denmore

    Considering the Chairman of Fairfax is ex BIG W CEO, perhaps you have them switched around!!

  15. drmick

    The real point here is that the Australian runs at a loss, which pretty much pisses on any argument that it is serving some kind of capitalistic purpose for its owners and share holders, or any other populist altruistic purpose.
    It petty much answers the question posed by the article

  16. GocomSys

    @SUZANNE BLAKE posted Monday, 19 September 2011 at 2:18 pm

    You missed the point. I was talking about the NEWS. Opinion pieces are a different story. Don’t mix the two is what I am saying. Alright?

  17. Mr Denmore

    DRMICK: “The real point here is that the Australian runs at a loss, which pretty much pisses on any argument that it is serving some kind of capitalistic purpose for its owners and share holders, or any other populist altruistic purpose.
    It petty much answers the question posed by the article.”

    Err, the fact that The Australian – an insignificant part of the empire in the scheme of things – runs at a loss is NOT incompatible with the notion that Murdoch uses it for capitalistic purposes. His investment in a loss-leader is more than made up for by the politicians he buys for News Corporation.

  18. Arty

    I think I have detected a move at the SMH to more clearly separate news from opinion, at least in the physical sense. However, that does not necessarily remove opinion text from within news stories. And of course there can be news in opinion pieces but how can you know!
    Let there be both. I understand that columnists were invented by newspapers to provide its readers with copy they wanted to read, particularly on bad news days when the ideals of those readers were being trashed by actual events.
    We might grant news reporters special “rights and privileges” via a licensing system. However we might also deny such licenses to non-reporters (e.g. entertainers).
    Modern technology makes available to us the means to access the facts of the news via video, audio and copies of documents.
    WE might start a new news model at the next Federal Budget. Televise the entire proceedings of the lock-down and make it and the budget papers available by down load immediately (or at least coincidently with the tabling of the budget in Parliament.

  19. Oscar Jones

    GocomSys : no I can’t and it drives me batty watching the commercial TV stations (CH 10 is a real offender here) and the ABC race to the lowest common denominator in dumbed down info posing as news, such as puff pieces for future films or TV shows.

    And all this dumbing down is evening out the presentation of information and they are at each other’s necks for ratings because they are all serving up the same old stale stodge.

    The Australian has won well deserved Walkelys and that makes it all the sadder to see their utterly partisan attacks upon Labor at present. However they are probably ruining their own market and I predict will pay a price in lost loyalty.

    Mr Denmore is correct, we all know the Oz is Rupert’s most beloved publication and it is all about influence not profit. Besides, given News Corp’s dodgy tax arrangements, who knows which parts of the empire are genuinely loss-making ?

  20. Stevo the Working Twistie

    @SCOTT – they’ve won far more Wankleys than gold Walkleys since 2007. A bit like ordering the 12 course degustation menu because the sauce on course 5 is high quality.

  21. Laura Hampson

    There is no benefit from a politically affiliated, agenda driven, media in Australia.

    Allow me to point out an example of how the media fails the people. Here it is:

    Look at the Transit Report. Look at the Case Exhibits. Look at the other material being released every few days.

    These are real government cables. They are real emails between ministers. It is real correspondence.

    It is also scandalous… it is government ministers withholding critical primary evidence when approached by Schapelle Corby’s lawyers. It is the government wilfully misleading Parliament. It is government lies. It is cover up.

    One might imagine that this would be on the front page of every Australian newspaper. That there might just be some interest in such shocking conduct at the highest levels, conduct which shames Australian politics.

    But no. The Australian media runs a mile form it. No mention at all. The inner workings of government exposed, with the most appalling conduct, and with terrible consequences for a citizen. But silence. And that includes Crikey.

    It is to the shame of the Australian media that this will be broken overseas, a point which, I am sure, will not be lost on overseas media, nor on foreign governments.

  22. Fran Barlow

    Mr Denmore said:

    [Err, the fact that The Australian – an insignificant part of the empire in the scheme of things – runs at a loss is NOT incompatible with the notion that Murdoch uses it for capitalistic purposes. His investment in a loss-leader is more than made up for by the politicians he buys for News Corporation.]

    Wondering about what it means that The Australian runs at a loss is like wondering why a the mafia employs thugs since they don’t directly generate profit for the organisation. The thugs create the context for the organisation to trade profitably.

  23. Fran Barlow

    Gocomsys said:

    [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?]

    I have no problem in principle with each of the usages you specify (and others too) appearing in the mass media. The problem arises when one crosses over into the other so that the frontiers between each are murky.

    When I eat a meal, I like each of the components to retain its distinctive texture and flavour and so too it is with media content. I also like the content to be of high quality — i.e. have had good production values. Sure you can eat convenience food, but you’ll regret it later. Once again, that’s how I regard the media.

    I don’t much care that it is opinionated. I do care if there is a want of rigour, coherence or salience. Just as I don’t like food with artificial flavour or colour, or excessively sweetened or salty, or likely to breed serious pathogens in my stomach, so too I’d prefer the option of consuming media that offers something that enlarges my grasp of the world, its usages and nuances. Let them put a case to me if they need to, but let them make it explicitly, showing how they got there so that I can make up my mind about how to respond.


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