In the long struggle to found and maintain democracy as we know it, an understanding, or a compact, has emerged about the place of the media. In return for the considerable deference, status and freedom the media enjoy, their one great duty to the people is - as The Times long ago described it - to obtain the earliest and most correct intelligence of the time and instantly, by disclosing them, to make them the common property of the nation. In doing this there is one golden rule: while comment is free, facts are sacred.
A clear distinction must always, always, be made between the objective search for the truth, the news and opinion. In return, and with the obvious exception of the taxpayer-funded public broadcasters, the media are free to express their opinion however robust and partisan that may be.
While the media rightly demand that all other institutions in the nation be accountable, it is a supreme irony that by their very own standards Australia’s elite media are constantly found to be seriously wanting, for example in the annual surveys on trust and integrity of various professions.
When the president of an English teachers’ association, who chairs a government curriculum committee, recently editorialised that his English teachers had failed because generations of former students had re-elected John Howard, he well and truly let the cat out of the bag. This was that much of our children’s tuition has been requisitioned to promote a left-wing political agenda, even in the teaching of English.
This is only part of that same long march by the left-wing intelligentsia, the elites, through so many of the institutions of our nation. This includes much of our elite media, which remain a significant agenda setter for all the other media. David Marr, the former presenter of ABC TV’s Media Watch has decreed that if journalists do not come from a “soft-leftie kind of culture” they should “get another job”.
Accordingly, instead of objectively investigating and reporting on the great issues of the nation, the elite media now serve the public a never ending diet of partisan opinion disguised as facts based comment, often indistinguishable from the news, the items of which are regularly selected to be consistent with their agenda.
A corps of campaigning political journalists has descended into the political arena as participants who are both unelected and unaccountable, unashamedly advancing an agenda that is out of touch and alien to the overwhelming majority of Australians. To put this takeover in context, what would the reaction be if instead of a left agenda, the elite media campaigned for a far right agenda, key features of which enjoyed the support and interest of only 10 per cent of the population?
The problem is clear. What are the solutions? They are certainly not in the remedies proposed by the professional media watchers. As American media observer Steve Brill famously told one of them, rather than offering a solution, they are part of the problem. They believe that journalists must see the world through a left-wing prism, as David Marr puts it, a “soft-leftie culture”. Their targets are of two classes. The first are their very own competition, the popular alternative media - especially that derided and persecuted medium, talkback. The second are those few media proprietors who remain, whom they deride.
The problem with the Australian media is not in the robust opinions on the peoples’ forum - talkback radio - it is in the wider issue of the conversion of a once respected apprentice based trade, under firm editorial direction, into a buccaneering, uncontrollable commentariat, freer than ever before from editorial and managerial control. This malady dominates the columns of those once dignified, restrained and objective newspapers that formerly served as respected journals of record. It has also resulted in the elites requisitioning far too much of the national news and current affairs on the taxpayer-funded public broadcasting spectrum, thus demonstrating a suicidal tendency. Experience indicates that the axe, when it comes, is more likely to be wielded by a conservative Labor government.
The solution to the malady in the elite media is not in that universal palliative invariably proposed by the elites - more laws, more government regulation and even more taxpayer funding. Instead the solution, in part, is in enhancing freedom of speech through the winding back of Australia’s excessively restrictive defamation, contempt and vilification laws in return for greater responsibility. Freedom of speech does not mean, it has never meant and it was never intended to mean, freedom for greater violence, for abusive language and for gross indecency in the media. The villain in this has above all been the unelected and unaccountable US Supreme Court, which in this and other fields has unashamedly usurped for itself a legislative role.
While part of the answer here lies in more freedom from overbroad laws, in return for more responsibility, another part of the answer is already being provided via the market by readers, listeners and viewers. They are losing confidence in the elite media, relying more and more on alternatives such as talkback, tabloid and the internet. The power of the internet was well demonstrated in the US when a humble blogger exposed a fraudulent attack on the reputation of George W. Bush, which led to the downfall of Dan Rather.
The solution is in the hands, essentially, in the hands of the readers, listeners and viewers so that the elite media can again fulfil its role in our democracy.