You’ve got to love the chutzpah of Mitch Fifield, the Arts Minister whose simple act of growing a beard made him heir to the entire genuine moderate tradition within the Liberal Party, and was his sole contribution to it (Chris Kenny has a beard too, but that’s because his chin was shot off in the culture war).
The Nine-Fairfax deal shows media can survive, he said, which is along the lines of “Shark-surfer merger shows it’s safe to swim here”. Most of us are still taking stock of the deal, the past, the future, the country and the world we live in. For many that involves first separating out nostalgia, sentiment and loss, from real structural change. We are living across the greatest transformation of the relation between knowledge circulation and the material world since the invention of the printing press, and both effects are prominent.
Thus, for about 300 years, one could be born and die, with a notice of each event in the paper one read every day in between. The type may have been movable, but the form was relatively fixed. Publications were bound and finite, media was scarce and “channeled” by control of the means of communication. In the 1980s, we were trying to introduce laws to force News Limited and Consolidated not to refuse contracts for use of the spare capacity of their vast web presses from any new publication who wanted it.
The newspaper and the magazine, with their bounded form, their channeled, curated, edited content, their regular sections, their internal structure, their capacity to be expansive without feeling exhausting have been, for anyone readerly over about the age of 45, one of the great joys of existence. Were the Nine-Fairfax deal to be occurring in an environment with a wider range of readable papers, there’d be less melancholy.
But we know that the weekday print Age and SMH will go, and maybe the Saturdays as well. We know that the online versions of these mastheads are post-newspapers, organised around consumption, clicks, hyperindividual, atomised existence, near-intolerable to read. That will only get worse. The Guardian, though good and useful in many respects, is part of the same circular consumer cycle — at its worst, the armed wing of Marie Claire, deliberately chaotically organised, stuffed with ludicrous op-eds spinning off endless virtue up-bidding from everyday micro-events (“So long as cartoon puppies in toilet roll ads remain heteronormatively cis-gendered there will never be peace in Rojava”).
That leaves the Telegraph, turning itself into the Weekly World News to deal with its circulation free-fall, and the Herald Sun and The Australian, both now organs of explicit mob-priming anti-black racism — the Oz is actually worse than the Hun — achieved by the simple technique of reporting and recycling every African-Australian crime, and ignoring the roll-call of European-Australian committed crimes (most of which, by any person, are minor and non-violent in any case).
Well maybe Nein will keep the papers rolling on for a while. But I doubt it. So what we are mourning is the actual departure of a newspaper you can dive into, and be in dialogue with. For anyone of the left, Fairfax papers could be infuriating, and the column op-ed model — there were almost no freelance voices in the core op-ed pages until the ’90s — elitist and exclusionary, but at least there was a strong social democratic voice in play, especially in The Age. In the early ’80s, we were fighting to save The Age from Fairfax, which expanded its controlling interest to total ownership in 1983. It was argued, correctly, that The Age’s social liberal traditions were well to the left of the SMH. For The Age, the decline began with Fairfax.
That would matter less to many of us — the actual paper experience now feels more contrived than it once did — if there were online publications that preserved the principle of addressing you in the bounded and ordered fashion of a newspaper, with some sense that major national and global political news leads, the world and the nation are covered, then the city, and explicit opinion, features and culture bud off that. Major national/global events may well be socio-cultural — the wave of homophobia in Eastern Europe, the legal abortion struggle in the US — but what it’s not is a celebration of Lee Lin Chin, or the “Missing Ingredient from Apple Since Steve Jobs’s Death”, which are leading Fairfax and The Guardian today.
Such ordering and editing, chosen for short-read clicks, grabbing extra attention minutes, essentially abolish the idea of discursive medium speaking to discursive reader. There’s no reason that an online publication has to do that; but the online, rapid-shifting medium makes it possible. And in taking up that possibility, media organisations treat us not as citizens and subjects to be addressed and reported to, but as ensembles of psychological responses endlessly tested by experts for best response. The mainstream media has become a vast Skinner box.
There is also a lot good that’s happening in terms of real-time dialogue, openness, etc, but that gets spoken of all the time. What is crucial now is to make visible to ourselves what exactly is being lost by the twinned processes of technological transformation and culture-image-self-capitalism, and to distinguish nostalgia for passing contingent features, from critical awareness of necessary features of an open and reflexive society that are being lost. For what we really need to confront is the grand historical shift that has made the loss of Fairfax, as Fairfax, even possible.
To sketch it as simply as possible is that in the 1930s the Western world was faced with a depression that capitalism itself could not end and which was moving towards a series of civil wars between left and right (and within each) — which was then interrupted by it occurring on a grand scale: the Allied v Axis section of WWII (the Pacific war was just a turf war between empires). The containment of Nazi Germany became a grand left-mainstream-right unified struggle against radical evil — consecrated as such, however accurately, when a film crew went with British troops into the recently opened Belsen concentration camp, which had become a de facto disease-based death camp.
The films that came out to a shocked world serve as a neat single point for a liberal humanist era of moral seriousness and ethical orientation that lasted for four decades. Fighting the war had shown that an organised state could get things done. Millions of people were politically radicalised. Industry boomed creating a literate mass working class. For four decades, social liberalism — of the sort that says that reporting, synthesis, reflection, prioritisation and a call to seriousness about collective existence — reigned.
The failure to create a genuine liberal-social democratic society allowed capitalism — both as historical form and ideology — to offer itself again, and thus, from the 1980s onwards, the collective, serious historical urge that had been turned into a mass process by WWII was cracked open by a process that invited people to be hyper-individuals, to believe there was “no such thing as society” and that collective entities were simply a set of contracts between individuals. The law of entropy takes over in such circumstance: hyper-individualism is easy to set in motion, hard to reverse.
Had history gone a different way, had we had a different content, then we would have a different set of forms. The personal computer almost arose as a networked entity in California in the late ’60s; the ’70s recession killed that, and the isolated PC box, the Apple, arose. A precession of Reagan-Thatcherism, which in turn shaped the way the internet and the web came to be for us. In the ’70s, social democratic governments might have been able to mobilise state and social capital to dominate the private sector. Had that occurred it would seem obvious to us that there should be 10 major outlets of a daily nature, that private wealth should not equal greater voice, and the takeover and dissolution of one ancient newspaper dynasty would not be a disaster.
That didn’t happen either, but the point of reminding ourselves of such is not for lachrymose mourning, and an absolution from struggle, but to make visible how different orders of possibility can be achieved, and how rapidly things can change when they do. That is more difficult in Australia since it is now clear that though we thought we avoided the worst of Thatcher-Reagan, we got something, in some ways, worse: we are a banana republic of interlocking power cliques, that somehow broke off the coast of Panama and drifted west, and the grinning arseholes who dissolved a company based on news, language and commentary into a giant reality TV outflow pipe, without any pressing need to, are as much an effect of the corrosive cynicism that is eating away at the ground on which we live, as much as they are a cause of it.
Tens of thousands of printers and journos have been “banged out” of Fairfax, the long-obsolescent lead typesetting trays clanged together. Now Fairfax is being banged out itself, and many of us, mourning as much the passing of life, youth and the field of our dreams, are also mourning the easier possibilities that history once appeared to offer. In countries deeper in crisis than ours, a new appetite for collectivism — socialism — is emerging. So, of course, is something which cannot unreasonably be called fascism, attended by a forward guard of reaction, authoritarianism, ethno-nationalism, etc. Perhaps one positive from the dissolution of Fairfax is that nothing now hides from us the fragility of our position, or the need to create the new institutions and structures to fight the forces we thought we had defeated three-quarters of a century ago.