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Winter 2004 cover

National Observer Home > No. 61 - Winter 2004 > Articles

The Elite Agenda and the Media

Professor David Flint

We have, in the last thirty or so years, seen remarkable change in Australia and throughout the West. The question is, were those changes planned? In a way, yes. Not through some conspiracy, or through a single party operating through cells and guided by a politburo. It was more subtle than that. As Australia abandoned its religious and cultural attachments in favour of an elite libertarianism, a new ideology came to supplant the old Judaeo-Christian beliefs which had been with us from 1788. This particularly involves a doctrine of non-judgmentalism, a denial of individual responsibility and a denial of the primacy of Australian, or indeed Western, civilisation.

In brief, we have the beliefs and programmes typical of the upper middle class, small '1', liberal. The elites soon captured the commanding heights in the arts, in the faculties of humanities, and in so-called "quality" journalism, while establishing important bridgeheads in the leadership of the political parties, the liberal professions, and, surprisingly, the churches.

The elites look back on the Australian story with greater or lesser disdain. This is, as Professor Geoffrey Blainey so eloquently describes it, a black armband version of our history. So when Professor Mary Kalantzis was invited to speak on the story of our Federation in the Deakin Lectures, she said that in its fundamental shape, Australia's big picture ideas were racist and no different to those of Germany in the 1930s and 1940s.

In brief this means admitting to Australia almost anyone claiming to be a refugee, forming a republic and adopting a reconciliation treaty which involves both an apology, a reparations tribunals and a separate status for the Aboriginal people.

What has been the role of the media in the implementation of the elite agenda?

To perform their task in a democratic society, the media must have a wide latitude, usually referred to as freedom of the press.

At the same time it is generally conceded that there must be some restrictions on free speech and a free press. As one American judge explained, no one should be able to shout "Fire, Fire!" in a crowded theatre without good cause. It is generally accepted in international law that any such restrictions should be limited to those necessary in a democratic society, and that they should be proportional to achieving the objects of the legislation.

But apart from legal restrictions, there are of course ethical constraints on the media. To enforce purely ethical constraints on the press by black-letter law is in principle undesirable, and potentially dangerous to democracy itself. It is far too tempting a power for any one to have.

Let us now consider the present state of political reporting in Australia. Obviously this analysis is restricted to political journalism, and excludes reporting about, for example, sport and other areas of non-political journalism.

Although there is always a risk in appearing on a recorded programme, it is better than not having your say. Live or unedited programmes are the best - Sir Garfield Barwick gave his last, very long, interview to the A.B.C. solely on the condition that it not be edited. Broadcasters will hardly ever do this, but having Sir Garfield was obviously well worth the price. So there is a strong preference among seasoned public figures for the live interview which cannot be edited.

Today it is the journalists who decide what is newsworthy, how that news will be presented and what spin to put on it. And, as Professor John Henningham found, your average political journalist is not your average Australian. There is undoubtedly a greater degree of homogeneity in the social, cultural and political values and opinions of Australia's journalists than in comparable countries.

It was interesting for me that in the 10 years from 1987 to 1997 that I was Chairman of the Press Council, I did not receive the abuse that I later encountered. But as soon as the political commentators discovered I supported the present Constitution, the ridicule began. That is not something I am concerned about for myself. If you put your head over the parapet, you have to expect to be shot at. But it indicates how people will be dealt with if they dare go against the elite agenda.

This must have a chilling effect on public debate in Australia. I know from discussions I and others have had that on many issues, that prominent Australians will not speak their minds on certain elite issues. Fearing isolation, opponents of some elite-favoured policy typically retreat into passive opposition, or to silence, and the elites triumph.

Supporting the elite agenda can have its career benefits, and opposing it can have its detriments. A Canadian journalist who interviewed me during the 1999 referendum told me that he sensed that Australians were reluctant to express their support for the present constitutional system because of fear of the resulting opprobrium in essentially elite circles, especially in the arts and the media. He said that there was no such climate in Canada.

The Broadcasting Services Act, unusually, spells out the intention of Parliament, which is in effect this: the more influential the media the greater the regulation. The words are not as crisp as this:

"The Parliament intends that different levels of regulatory control be applied across the range of broadcasting services according to the degree of influence that different types of broadcasting services are able to exert in shaping community views in Australia." (Sub-section 4(l)).

As commercial television is the most regulated medium, Parliament must have thought that this medium was the most influential in shaping community views. Print is not directly regulated, and for good reasons. These include the historical role of the press, and the absence of any issue of scarcity, as there is with the broadcasting spectrum. Almost everyone accepts this. However, several issues arise. In particular, which medium is the most influential? Can we even assume that one medium is more influential than another? And of course, if one medium is the more influential, we must ask ourselves what form of regulation should be imposed.

Perhaps, if a media owner were prone to intervention, you would expect that a foreign-based media owner would be preferred because he or she would obviously be less able to intervene than a locally-based one. Yet Conrad Black's arrival several years ago attracted an extraordinary alliance against him, one uniting those old adversaries Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser! In fact recent evidence of Lord Black's tendency to intervene seemed to be limited to writing robust letters for publication in his own journal, The Spectator.

Where there remains an identifiable dominant proprietor, I suspect his influence is more in style and values rather than detailed intervention, with a sensitivity about the proprietor's other business interests - although this may result more from staff caution than proprietorial intervention.

There is, admittedly, no ideal form of media ownership. Nor should the ideal be that of a non-interventionist proprietor. Intervention by a proprietor can be proper and appropriate. It all depends on the circumstances. If intervention is to insist on ethical behaviour, it is to be commended. I recall on one occasion a chairman of the British Press Complaints Commission, Lord Wakeham, contacting Rupert Murdoch on a transatlantic jet, and obtaining his intervention to ensure that a recalcitrant editor observed proper ethical principles.

Media culture today has changed, and changed irrevocably. First, newspapers no longer restrict comment to the editorial, nor are journalists today anonymous. In the 2001 election campaign some newspapers in the last few days almost reluctantly editorialised in favour of the Howard Government. Hardly anyone noticed, for the vast proliferation of comment in the media has devalued the editorial. Once the editorial was read with trepidation or inspiration, depending on its tone and line. Now it often sinks without trace! What was much more important was that in the 2001 election campaign, most political commentators campaigned vigorously against the Government's and opposition's border control policy. This attitude extended to the news.

The second change in media culture is that the personality of a journalist is now not only revealed - it is emphasised. It is manifested in the press in bylines and photographs. On television, we find the personalisation of the journalist manifested by an introduction, an appearance and a voice-over, even when, say, the President of the United States may be speaking. Then there is also the usual signing-off, and sometimes the journalist's name is repeated by the presenter.

Who is it after all who each day selects what is the news? Who determines day by day, how the news is to be presented? Who decides how much comment is to be included in the statement of facts? Who writes that comment? The answer is the journalists. And whom do they look to for guidance in their decisions? Other journalists.

So what do we know about our Australian journalists? The project confirms Professor Henningham's revelation in 1996, mentioned above: that your average journalist is not your average Australian. This is particularly so, Henningham's research found, with regard to political and social views. While in favour of capitalism and free enterprise, journalists were "bleeding heart" liberals on social issues, libertines in moral areas, and hostile to the churches. Overall, they were further to the left on these issues than most Australians. This would be particularly true of political journalists, who mostly support the elite agenda. Accordingly, if they are given to comment, it is more likely to be comment furthering the elite agenda.

In the 1970s the majority of Australians held conservative positions on social and cultural issues, and conservative positions on economic issues. But so did the mainline media. Only Nation Review (and later, and to a lesser extent, The National Times), and close behind, the A.B.C.'s A.M., P.M., and This Day Tonight, espoused what they would see as "progressive" positions (and what could be called elite positions) on social and cultural matters. Meanwhile, The Australian Financial Review took a pioneering role in espousing free trade, and an enhanced role for the market. All this has changed.

The result is that there is something of a rift, especially between the so-called "quality" media and the public. On one interpretation, they are leading the public into adopting more obviously correct "progressive" positions. Or they are just "out of touch".

There is a widespread view that the media responds as a single group to issues of importance, the so-called "herd mentality". This relates to the "gallery", Australia's political journalists, once all located in Canberra, but now also elsewhere, mainly in Sydney and Melbourne. This has been most evident on the three R's, aspirants for refugee status, a republican constitution, and reconciliation.

So Mr. Glenn Milne argued before the 2001 election that the Gallery wanted Mr. John Howard to say sorry for the past actions of mainly State governments and the Churches. Mr. Howard would not. So the Gallery members decided they would not let him win the next election (The Australian, 22 May 2000).

This is clearly campaign journalism. From being reporters of news, our political journalists in reporting news have become unelected participants in the political arena.

It is fascinating to note that if the gallery hates John Howard it seems to hold Paul Keating in awe. It is ironic then that Paul Keating does not reciprocate. Australian journalism, he says, "consists of fourth-rate minds feeding third-rate newspapers - still spewing out bile".

The 1999 referendum on a proposed republic was a real-life example of media influence. On this W.F. Deedes, the distinguished British journalist, wrote that he had rarely attended elections in any democratic country where the newspapers had displayed "more shameless bias" (Weekly Telegraph, London, 10-16 November 1999). Now, I take it that Deedes is talking about the news, not merely opinion pieces.

Perhaps the public's low estimation of the integrity and honesty of journalists, as assessed regularly by the Morgan Gallup poll and published in The Bulletin, explains a degree of scepticism on the part of the public. Perhaps many of them took The Adelaide Review's advice: "Annoy the Media, Vote No."

Perhaps the better conclusion is that while campaign journalism may be enough to persuade more members of the public on some issue, or even swing an election, Australians are not yet ready to leave the redrafting of their Constitution or the protection of their borders to, say, Mike Carlton, Phillip Adams, Leo Schofield and their peers.

Now of course, not all media campaigns achieve even the limited success of the media's campaign for the republic. An interesting one was The Sydney Morning Herald's campaign over at least two years in the 1990s to change the flag, which even involved a full-colour front page. This seems to have had such little success that it has been either abandoned or perhaps suspended. In the absence of an obvious altemative flag, and with the enthusiastic use of the present one on the return of victorious sports stars, on the return of the troops from East Timor, and above all, during the Olympics, it seems that the present flag will fly over Australia for many years to come. Even if, as Paul Keating complains, it gets up his nose.

One theory which attempts to explain media influence identifies a phenomenon referred to as the spiral of silence. This theory, if correct, indicates that campaign journalism may matter.

It postulates that the more an individual suspects his view on some important issues to be losing ground, the more uncertain he will become of himself, and the less he will be inclined to express his opinion. This may be so even if what appears to be the dominant view is over-estimated because it is more frequently heard.

As Professor Noelle-Neumann demonstrated, fears of being isolated, and also doubt about one's own capacity for judgment, are integral parts of all processes of public opinion. This is the point where the individual is particularly vulnerable. Social groups can punish him or her for failing to toe the line, by ridicule, by isolation, and by other ways. The resulting sense of isolation can create an environment in which the people must increasingly agree, or acquiesce, or just keep their views to themselves.

If ideas do not compete, because one side is silenced, the market place of ideas will surely fail. Well before Noelle-Neumann, de Tocqueville described in 1856 the working of the spiral, without giving it this name. He recounted how the Catholic religion came to be treated with contempt in eighteenth-century revolutionary France. People who still clung to the old faith were afraid of being the only ones who did so. They were in fact more frightened of isolation than of being right or wrong - so they joined what they thought was the majority. A similar phenomenon emerged in Australia's debate over republican change in the 1990s, but the silent majority made its opinions clear in the referendum.

But in Australia we are confronted with an unusual degree of homogeneity in the media, especially in the so-called "quality" media. While this may be acceptable among the commentators, what is truly disturbing is its manifestation in the selection and presentation of the news. This extends not only to today's news, but to our own history and the media's recollection of this.

The phenomenon of campaign journalism in the reporting of political news leads obviously into the subject of the distinction between news on the one hand and comment or opinion on the other. Journalists became excited over the A.B.A.'s inquiry in 1999 into radio talkback commentators and their sponsorships. But these sponsorships were soon made public and well before the A.B.A. mandated this. The distinction between fact and comment is far more serious. It is fundamental to the the media's role in informing the people.

As C.P. Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian, rightly declared: "Comment is free, but facts are sacred."

The division between factual news and comment was once rigorously observed. In the press, journalists were not named, editors presided over newspapers which at least appeared to contain objective reporting, and comment was reserved to the editorial.

All that has changed. This has been encouraged by changes in the formation and training of journalists. Journalism is no longer a craft learned from the master by an apprentice; it is taught in universities, although these are not the only source of new journalists. Universities, once loose communities of scholars, now have officially mandated missions, visions and policies to which teachers must subscribe. Teaching in the humanities seems dominated by post-modernist theory and cultural studies. (Some jaded scientists suggest this is akin to their teaching, say, astrology or phrenology.) Journalists today hardly resemble their predecessors, who were trained rigorously by editors in both English and ethics.

Keith Windschuttle noted in 1998 that there are three characteristics of legitimate journalism. These are, first, a commitment to reporting the truth about what occurs in the world. Secondly, that the principal ethical obligations of journalists are to their readers, their listeners and their viewers. And finally, that journalists should be committed to good writing.

He says that in most of the media and cultural theory that is taught within Australian communications and media degrees, not only are these principles not upheld, they have been specifically denied, either by argument or by example, by the dominant intellectual field that has reigned in media theory for at least fifteen years.

Nevertheless regulators and the public expect a distinction between news and comment. The signals or branding that journalists say indicate what is comment and what is news are either not understood or they are just not there. Sometimes there are even no facts, just comment.

Now, comment is injected into news in a myriad of ways. Once upon a time, a byline, and especially a photograph of the journalist - at least on the opinion pages - indicated that the column was a comment. Now comment is spread throughout newspapers, and throughout news broadcasts. Sometimes it is not at all obvious.

At the time of the negotiation of the Kyoto Protocol, successive news reports in at least one newspaper - picked up in other outlets - were that if Australia persisted in its negotiating position, she would become an "international pariah".

Now our negotiating position was that we were a special case, and needed different treatment. Other participants argued their own special cases too. In fact, the European Union emerged triumphant: the Europeans had secured the most favourable base year for them, as well as the right for individual member states to perform differently.

When Australia's negotiating position actually prevailed, this was reported without any explanation as to how and why the previous news reports were wrong. Or were these original reports just comments reflecting the personal environmental views of the journalist concerned? How many readers, listeners or viewers would have known this?

On any interpretation, this does not seem to be consistent with the M.E.A.A. Code of Ethics (the M.E.A.A. is the journalists' union), which directs:

"Do not allow any personal interest, or any belief, commitment, payment, gift or benefit, to undermine your accuracy, fairness or independence."

The intermingling of news with comment is not restricted to print. In radio the inclusion in the news of journalists' "sound bites", with an introduction and a signing-off allows for this. (Of course even the intonation of a presenter's voice on radio may be comment. On one occasion years ago, an A.B.C. radio presenter of Parliament was punished for the exasperated tone with which he announced the name of the M.P. who was speaking.)

Television news also offers the opportunity for mixing comment with news. Not only are journalists' pieces inserted into the news, but the piece is often against an authoritative backdrop of, say, Parliament. The journalist will tell you what, say, the Minister has said, is saying and will say, and what it means - all over a picture of the Minister speaking something, most of which you cannot hear.

In October 2002, after the Prime Minister decided to fly to Bali after the bomb outrage, one television news bulletin said he was "forced" to fly to Bali: a subtle but powerful comment in an ostensible news broadcast.

There is the use of file tape in television news, a practice researched by Dr. Peter Putnis. A report on indigenous matters could be affected either way by tape which show scenes of drunkenness and disorder. Or alternatively it could show an idyllic way of life. Either seems to be a form of comment subtly inserted. During the 1996 election, John Howard stumbled when getting off a podium - that was the visual setting for several stories on television news about mistakes being made in the campaign.

One thing is clear. The public expects, and ethical standards require, a clear distinction between news and comment. People are not saying there should be no comment. They just want to know when they are seeing, hearing or reading an opinion. The news after all should be as far as possible an objective recital of facts.

Journalists insist, and correctly insist, on the application of civic virtue to others in public life. Surely it is time now that our political journalists should look to their own behaviour. They should apply to themselves the same principles which they would apply to others.

National Observer No. 61 - Winter 2004