Of all the dangerous ideas raised at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney over the weekend, the organisers seemed to miss one pertinent topic: is the media to blame for everything that’s wrong with our society?

Because, as evidenced by several sessions, that’s what plenty of audience members wanted to hear about, especially when (but not only when) the media was summed up as being the Murdoch empire.

Dick Smith was greeted with cheers when he spoke of “dopey stupid journalists” who claim that if you’ve changed your mind on an issue you’ve “backflipped”. Smith went so far as to compare the Murdoch media to the Soviet Union. “Rupert, come back to Australia. Give some real direction to your troops,” he said.

And Cheryl Kernot, who spoke of just how tiring she found the media following her decision to make the move to the ALP, was again greeted with applause when she urged the audience to find a way to disrupt the “narrow media culture” in order to allow Australia to embrace change. “We’ll never overcome the tyranny of concerted media opinion if we never stand up,” she said.

Even WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange had a dig, blaming The Guardian for last month’s leak that saw access opened to the entire archive of US State Department cables.

“Who is the biggest critic of all of this? … The Guardian, the very newspaper that disclosed the password, that is trying to save its arse from criticism,” he said, via a video link from London exile.

And writer, academic and former diplomat Alison Broinowski took issue with media ownership in Australia. “Italy is the only other country in the world where one person has control over so much media,” she said.

But it wasn’t just the speakers talking up the responsibility of the media on certain issues, but rather audience members who, across a number of different sessions, raised their own questions and concerns about the media.

Simon Longstaff from the St James Ethics Centre and festival co-curator told The Power Index he noted a trend of such questions being raised across the festival. And while Longstaff says it’s not uncommon for audience members to raise questions on the accountability of the media during similar ethical discussions he’s attended around the world, he does believe they are coming up more frequently.

“I think it probably has increased, and there are obvious reasons for that,” he said. “The prominence that’s been given to the discussion of issues around phone hacking [for one] and the fact that within the Commonwealth Parliament there’s been a formal reference to establishing an inquiry.”

Which makes it more surprising that audience members judging the Festival’s IQ2 Debate, The Media Has No Morals, declared the team that debated against the motion (including British journalist Kate Adie, foreign correspondent Hamish McDonald and Julian Burnside QC) as the winning side. Going into that debate only 17% disagreed with the proposition that the media has no morals; after the debate the figure rose to 58%.

“Having put these things on for four years, that kind of swing is a pretty amazing thing to see,” said Longstaff.

Also during that debate, Longstaff, who acted as the chair, noted some discomfort around talk of intervention. “There seemed to be a broad sense of discomfort, within the audience, about the possibility that there might some form of increasing government regulation in the media,” he said.

And, during a later session, euthanasia advocate Philip Nitschke received his own share of ovation upon telling the audience there’s an alternate segment in which to point the blame of current societal woes: “While we’re talking about evil empires, I’ve got one: the church.”

Peter Fray

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