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The debasement of public debate

By Ken Macnab - posted Wednesday, 24 August 2011

John Stuart Mill argued in On Liberty (1859) that it was 'imperative that human beings should be free to form opinions, and to express their opinions without reserve'. Moreover, they should be free to act upon these opinions, subject only to the limitation that they do no harm to others. Implicit in Mill's emphasis on freedom of opinion was the necessity for civil public debate in pursuit of the truth, a calm and systematic contest which acted as a check on power and authority.

In the 1820s the English press came to be conceived as 'the fourth estate', and credited with an important role as a 'check' on the various arms of government. A similarly crucial role is given to freedom of speech and the press in the First Amendment to the American Constitution (1791) and Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).

The modern media often claims the same role as facilitator of constructive public participation in democratic politics and society. However, the media largely fails to provide either the full information or informed commentary necessary for it to be part of genuine public debate and a check on adversarial polemic. Instead, it is mostly servile and partisan. When media moguls like Rupert Murdoch set out to make more money by blatantly serving narrow political interests, through media such as the alleged 'world's greatest newspaper 1843-2011' (News of the World) and the 'Fair and Balanced', ‘We Report, You Decide’ network (Fox News), the role of the 'fourth estate' becomes a cynically manipulated and exploited façade. Moreover, and equally insidious in its effect on the quality of public debate, the tone and language of both much media communication and public response has become aggressive, personal and abusive.


Some recent Australian examples illustrate the point. At the end of July, Mia Freedman wrote a column in the Sun-Herald describing a recent experience. She was appearing on the Today show in her regular ''What's Making News'' segment when Karl Stefanovic asked her to share his intense jubilation over Cadel Evans's victory in the Tour de France. She wrote: 'I replied I was happy for Cadel but ambivalent about the over-the top adulation we lavish on sports stars and the way we're so quick to laud them as heroes.' When she was jeered at by the studio floor crew, she tried to explain 'how I wished we afforded the same praise and glory to those doing amazing things in other, non-sporting fields.'

Attempts to elaborate and give examples only led to further aggravation with her interviewer. But the subsequent public response brilliantly exemplified the current shallow nastiness of much public commentary in Australia. Freedman wrote:

The backlash was immediate. As the waves of online abuse turned into a tsunami, I was in tears before breakfast. By lunchtime, I was physically afraid to go outside. Cyber-bullying is like that. The anonymity makes you paranoid and fearful because you don't know who your abusers are.

Freedman went on to describe what went on:

The responses fell into a few categories, including many who agreed with me and many who politely didn't. But the overwhelming majority hurled outright abuse. I was called every name you can think of - bitch, dog, skank, mole, idiot, loser, cow, slut - and many you can't. Hundreds and hundreds of times. They denigrated my parents, my children, my appearance, my voice, my weight, my religion … it was endless and still hasn't stopped.

Richard Glover recently came in for the same kind of abuse. In an article using 'some comic hyperbole' about both 'environmental zealots' and 'climate-change deniers' he jestingly suggested for the latter either tattooing their beliefs on them (to prevent later denial) or in 2040 tying them to a pole in the shallows off Manly. When the article was noted by a right-wing website in the US, he became the focus of 'an internet hate campaign'. Physical threats of mutilation and murder were common, as was abusive labeling. Glover thought 'you f---g commie bastard' was 'charmingly retro'. But the intolerance and nastiness of the 'wave of hate' was overwhelming.


Internationally acclaimed cartoonist Robert Crumb recently decided to cancel his invited appearance at the Sydney Graphic Festival because of media intemperance. The Sunday Telegraph manufactured an abusive tirade about him to use as part of their ongoing campaign against liberals at the City of Sydney. They solicited derogatory comments about some of his images from 'anti-child abuse campaigner' Hetty Johnston, and used them to assert that his visit 'has sparked outrage with sexual assault groups describing the France-based American artist as "sick and deranged".'

Crumb wrote that he 'had no clue that there were such nasty right-wing media manipulators there', that he feared being attacked if he attended, and made the point:

One can see in this example how skilled media professionals with low standards of integrity are able to mould and manipulate public opinion, popular beliefs and, ultimately, the direction of politics. The majority of the population in most places is not alert to this kind of deceptive manipulation. They are more or less defenceless against such clever ''perception management''.

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About the Author

Dr Ken Macnab is an historian and President of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPACS) at the University of Sydney.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Ken Macnab
Related Links
The Language of Derision: targeting Noam Chomsky

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