Our deathly suffocation by the mainstream media


It’s accepted as an article of truth that the mainstream media (MSM) is supposed to hold those in power accountable. But there are two problems with that in modern Australia. The first is that the MSM are those in power ..

The second is that most journalists are unable to distinguish between critiquing aspects of the existing system (and those that run it) and critiquing the system itself. These are very different questions but, so far as I can see, without exception, there is not a single prominent journalist that actually critiques the system itself. 

No one asks “Are these issues (corruption, abuse of power etc) a natural product of a failing system?” Prominent journalists such as Leigh Sales, Kate McClymont, Laura Tingle and Katherine Murphy frequently critique the abuses of power but rarely ask what needs to change to address this. Proposals such as a Federal ICAC will only address the symptoms of the problem not the causes. 

Corruption on the massive scale we have seen recently in both Federal and NSW Governments are not flaws in a good system but are natural products of a system where the inherent design will produce not only such corruption but, inevitably, self selects people most likely to be open to being corrupted, as I argued, previously here in my post “Democratic Follies“.

There are a vast range of issues that rarely get addressed because they “about” the system and not “of”. Where is the critique of the neo-liberal economic system, of trickle down economics? Where is the critique of the Parliamentary system? Of the inequity of the electoral system that gives the National Party representation 12 times that of the Greens with half the vote?

Do we hear any regular critique of the obsession with growth? Of a system that says that someone working one hour per week is “employed”. We get a nightly report on the stock market, but no daily reporting on the state of the natural capital (the environment). There is no daily report on the single most important thing affecting the economy, namely the climate crisis and the associated demise of our ecological systems.

In 1995/6 when Peter Thompson was presenter of Radio National Breakfast I asked him why there was a stock market report daily and no environment report . As a result for a few weeks, when I had time, I provided a daily round up of major environment stories from which he and his editor decided which were newsworthy. But the dominant paradigm has always been around GDP, trade figures, employment and similar 

Few, if any, journalists appear to see this, today, if they ever did. Which is scarcely surprising because the journalists are products of the very same system. It’s a bit like growing up and being educated in a privileged private boys school. You don’t realise you are privileged and wealthy. You don’t see your own misogyny because you have nothing to compare yourself against. So far as those boys are concerned their privilege and attitudes are perfectly normal and reflective of society as a whole.

I worked for two years in Parliament House, in 1982 and again in 1989. I worked with, socialised with and listened to the press gallery journalists frequently. For most press gallery journos It’s impossible to be an effective reporter if you alienate the politicians that “feed” you, by asking too many hard questions. 

There are exceptions to this rule of not asking hard questions and these are the handful of very high profile presenters and reporters who politicians can’t afford to ignore or alienate. For the rest it’s a ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ relationship with the denizens of parliamentary offices, be they politicians or staffers. 

Each party will have their favoured journalists who they can expect to ask Dorothy Dixers as we’ve seen repeatedly in recent times with those such as Chris Uhlmann. This is a practice deliberately designed to avoid public scrutiny by absorbing time, during media conferences and doorsteps, which could have been used by other journalists to ask harder questions.

And what of the few privileged, high profile journalists? To begin with some, if not most, are products of the same private schools that produce the politicians. University educated, from upper middle class, usually white, Anglo homes. 

By the time they have climbed the greasy pole to the top, these leading journalists are beneficiaries of the very same class and privilege system that produces our politicians and, often with the same character flaws. Egotistical, arrogant, highly sensitive to criticism and not very self-reflective on any of these issues. 

Leigh Sales, for example, while arguably one of our best presenters and one who sometimes asks relatively hard questions is notoriously sensitive to even the most gentle criticism and has probably blocked more people on Twitter than pretty much anyone in the Australian media world. 

In 2013, data showed that Q&A host Tony Jones was paid an annual salary of $355,789, while 7.30 presenter Leigh Sales was paid $280,400

Most other high profile figures including our best known investigative reporters, and presenters such as Virginia Trioli, are also likely to figure among the top earners. The average top broadcast journalists with experience of 8 years or more (such as those we hear on drivetime, AM/PM etc) are earning earning an average salary of $157,694. The top earning journalist at the ABC earned over $400,000. 

But these are small beer compared with commercial salaries with Lisa Wilkinson, for example, reportedly earning $2.3 million a year at Channel 10.

In other words all of these people are beneficiaries of the existing system which rewards the elite with salaries many times greater than the average Australian worker and with some receiving salaries some 30 times greater. It’s hardly surprising then that they are unable to see the institutional and/or systemic faults. If they do see them, most would be unwilling to rock the very comfortable boat in which they live.

The conclusion, then, is that we can’t expect virtually anyone in the mainstream media to engage in any substantive critical analysis. Even that of the best journalists is confined within “acceptable” bounds, constrained by their own prejudices, by the dictates or whims of their employers or by the system in which they live and operate.

In this context it’s arguable that we’d, in fact, be better off if the entire commercial media world collapsed under the weight of its financial weakness and that those people currently developing their worldview based on the output of the Murdoch and Channel 9/Fairfax media empires were deprived of this conservative diet. Even the more centrist Guardian, ABC and SBS are hardly radical critics of the system under which they operate.

This would open up much more space for alternative viewpoints, including those to the left of even the current alternatives such as Crikey, the Saturday Paper and the Monthly.

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