Limits of liberal critique: Murdoch, the media & the Manne Quarterly Essay

by · September 20, 2011

Not so omnipotent anymore

Cross-posted from Overland Journal‘s blog and ABC’s The Drum

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.

— Karl Marx, The German Ideology (1845)

Robert Manne has done everyone who hates the right-wing, hysterically partisan and mendacious editorial approach of The Australian a considerable service. In the latest Quarterly Essay he has compiled a dossier of some of the Murdoch paper’s most egregious crimes. It is a testament to his scrupulous attention to detail, wide-ranging knowledge of the issues involved and commitment to concretely uncovering systematic (rather than incidental) biases that the paper’s collection of responses by its editorialists and opinion writers limps along using isolated anecdotes and non sequiturs against mountains of evidence marshalled by Manne.

The jury is in, and The Australian is indeed a thoroughly one-eyed beast. It is happy to create the news rather than report it; prepared to sully the names of academics and bloggers and to bring down Prime Ministers; keen to prosecute ideological wars in the service of military adventures as well as to whitewash historical oppression. And it is a newspaper eager to undermine the case for climate action by promoting irrational, anti-scientific denialism. It has not only run highly partisan campaigns against the ALP but also committed its resources to having the Greens “destroyed at the ballot box”.

Having been a former subscriber and still frequent reader of the paper, many of the stories Manne tells in Bad News: Murdoch’s Australian and the Shaping of the Nation were not “news” to me. Indeed, I can say that I’ve twice had the honour of having my writing subjected to the paper’s ridicule in the Cut and Paste column, which Manne calls its “daily compendium of spleen and schadenfreude”.

I was, however, left feeling sick to my stomach by his detailed exposition of the vicious campaign run against Indigenous academic and activist Larissa Behrendt after her inopportune tweet was held up as Exhibit A in a character assassination of almost incredible proportions. I had heard the outlines of the story at the time, but not realised the depths to which reporters (especially former Leftist Patricia Karvelas) had sunk to smear Behrendt both professionally and personally.

The liberal view of media in crisis

Yet, and there has to be a “yet”, the power of Manne’s factual deconstruction of The Australian’s trajectory is not matched by his explanation of why it is the way it is. So when he comes to the conclusion that it needs a new owner and editor-in-chief he does so because he has abstracted the paper’s behaviour from any wider analysis of how the news media works. Of course Manne is a Professor of Politics, and not a lecturer in Media Studies, but his account is remarkably atheoretical not just in terms of analysing media behaviour but the also social circumstances that have provided the backdrop for the paper’s aggressive interventions. More correctly it is not “atheoretical”, but lacking a theoretical toolbox sufficient to navigating what has been happening.

In one of the best reviews of Manne’s essay I’ve read, Tim Dunlop suggests that a series of weaknesses — the oddly limited “solution”, the softness of any critique of other mainstream media, and the paucity of analysis of the “political class” that Manne identifies as disproportionately reading The Australian — are related to Manne’s position as a member of that class. Maybe the problem with the media is not specifically about The Oz, but the nature of wider relations of influence and power in Australian society.

Manne decided to write the essay a year ago. He could not have foreseen the massive crisis into which Murdoch’s empire was to plunge more recently, although he does cover it in some detail. What is telling is how the phone hacking scandal has had quite different impacts in the UK and Australia. 

Here the response from the Left — the charge led by Bob Brown — has been to raise questions about issues of “privacy and ownership and bias” within calls for a thoroughgoing parliamentary inquiry. But in the UK, while these three issues have been important, what has been more important is the exposure of the cosy, practically incestuous, ties between the tabloid press, the corporate elite, politicians and the police. This has caused serious damage to the legitimacy and stability of those institutions.

The crisis has enveloped Murdoch and his cabal, but also cast a pall over the Cameron government and directly contributed to the leadership vacuum in the Metropolitan Police during a major outbreak of rioting. For politicians more generally, with their image already sullied by a parliamentary expenses scandal, their willingness to submit to a constant quest for approval from Murdoch as the only sure pathway to electability exposed just how impotent they considered themselves in the face of corporate power.

There is little sense of such links being drawn by Manne, and indeed little sense of why The Australian under Chris Mitchell’s editorship would so dramatically break from the “usual” function of a newspaper in a liberal democracy. But herein lies the rub, because Manne is operating firmly within the limits of his implicit theoretical framework, a type of political liberalism. To use Dunlop’s words, a newspaper is normally understood as “a vehicle for the objective dissemination of news and information”. But there is good reason to believe that not only is this no more than superficially true in general, but that in a prolonged and worsening organic crisis it is more likely that the media will increasingly shed such a veneer and openly take sides.

Their bias and ours

Any serious study of the mainstream media in Australia soon comes across the question of how much it lives up to liberal ideals of objectivity and news-gathering. Indeed, not only were most newspapers fiercely partisan for most of the last century, they were mostly hostile to the Labor side of politics. That may have shifted somewhat from the late 1960s, but it never changed the fact that, whether privately owned or state run, the mainstream media has always tended to present a view of society that overwhelmingly favours the interests the ruling elite, or at least important sections of it.

This is not to say that the ruling class has produced a crude reflection of its interests through the media. Nothing could be further from the truth. For the media to have any ideological purchase in relation to the lived experience of a variety of social groups, it has to in part reflect that experience in order to then cement the status quo.

Take an example from the liberal Fairfax organisation yesterday, an article on the Qantas pay dispute, “Qantas strike to hit more than 6000 passengers tomorrow”. There is no partisan political bias here and the tone of the article is not antagonistically arrayed against the unions. But notice the themes that immediately emerge. It is the union that is “refusing to call off” a strike that is “set to cause major disruption for air passengers”, not the company refusing to back down on its lousy pay offer that will disrupt the livelihoods of thousands of its employees. Similarly, there is a presumption that “last minute talks” would best end in a “resolution” without considering that perhaps industrial action may be a good thing by putting workers in a stronger position. This frames some unremarkable quotes and paraphrases from company and union representatives, setting out both sides of the dispute, but then in case we missed the point about how terribly disruptive this will all be, the story helpfully lists the airports affected.

I point to this article because it is a banal example of how most instances of industrial action are portrayed by the liberal media. Such a passive articulation of the elite view is practically ubiquitous, as if it represented some kind of neutrality. It remains completely unquestioned by Manne, who lets Fairfax and the ABC almost completely off the hook — as if their only error was not to take on Murdoch more openly.

One attempt to come to terms with the roots of such systematic biases has been Chomsky and Herman’s “Propaganda Model” of the private media. Rather than starting with the liberal ideal, they start from the material reality of most mass media in liberal democracies as large private businesses, and then identify five “filters” that ensure these media remain deeply tied to powerful interests. Chomsky and Herman understand that making a buck is not just about advertising and sales (funding), but the maintenance of a social order where making a profit in the media is the preserve of a tiny, unaccountable corporate elite (ownership). Information gathering tends to rely on powerful sources such as corporate PR departments, cashed-up think tanks and government and/or state bureaucracies because of a confluence of economic necessity and reciprocity of interests (sourcing). If a media organisation strays too far from acceptable views there are plenty of ways in which they can be put under pressure through public or more surreptitious campaigning (flak). Finally, media outlets tend to initiate or perpetuate campaigns against perceived enemies, external or internal, to bind ordinary media consumers to elite interests (fear). 

The Propaganda Model remains probably the most serious modern theory of the operations of the mass media in capitalist democracies. Its central features have yet to be seriously empirically challenged. However, one recent review has pointed to areas where the model could be strengthened to account for finer nuances. In particular it suggests incorporating elements accounting for: How economic competition creates divergent interests within the corporate elite (e.g. between polluters and others in the carbon tax debate); how the functioning of democracy means that there can be serious strategic differences over how the national state should be run (e.g. splits over the invasion of Iraq); how economic considerations mean that media outlets may have to find specific segments of the population to which to appeal (e.g. the Telegraph/SMH or Herald-Sun/Age demographic divisions); how the existence of strong state broadcasters ostensibly committed to “independence” can shift the balance (e.g. the role of the ABC); how there can be conflicts of data provided by different sources (e.g. between different NGOs, corporations and think-tanks on environmental issues); and how the social position of journalists means they can fight back against the editorial line of their bosses (e.g. the newly asserted independence of Egyptian journalists).

Such refinements help us understand how the media can be an instrument of elite rule and at the same time reflect tensions and contradictions that emerge, although still contained within a certain framework. They also help us understand that while we can take advantage of the splits within the mass media, unless we tear it from elite control it can never be “on our side” or even “neutral” in its functioning.

The veneer loses its sheen

It is here that we can more clearly see how Manne’s implicit liberal ideal cannot be obtained through either deftly crafted exposés like Bad News, nor through changes of editorial personnel or ownership. Murdoch’s media represents one wing of a wider network of institutional power, one that uses varying approaches to both sell its product and maintain those power relations. Because Manne cannot see the thoroughly material basis for the politics of these outlets, he resorts to an frankly unconvincing critique of ideas and people.

Thus, when he lambasts The Australian for its promotion of climate denialists, he argues that it has “broken with the values lying at the very centre of the Enlightenment, namely Science and the authority of Reason”. Or when he describes the paper as “catalyst” in the ousting of Kevin Rudd, he puts it down in part to a personal enmity between Mitchell and Rudd, and in part to the PM’s refusal to conform to “the neoconservative and neoliberal Murdoch house philosophy”. All these points are true, but they are merely surface phenomena of something else — Murdoch’s long-term project to use certain key outlets to influence the political class in favour of his interests. Manne correctly identifies that political class as the key target of The Australian yet, as Dunlop observes, fails to draw the conclusion that Murdoch may have pitched his product correctly to gain their ear and influence them so powerfully (if only to make them feel impotent to resist him). Perhaps The Oz is the paper this social layer wants and deserves.

It is the growing disconnection of the political elite from any social base that has allowed Murdoch to play such a disproportionate role in influencing its ideas. Yet at the same time social trust in the media is at a very low ebb. Far from the media being “all powerful”, it is the perception that democratically elected governments are more answerable to corporate power than the popular will that reinforces Murdoch’s apparent power. The UK phone hacking scandal shows that when institutions are undermined by economic and political crisis, the most powerful can suddenly appear weak, divided and ineffectual.

While one can agree with many (but not all) of Manne’s political positions throughout Bad News, his fundamental approach is of arguing for a more civil and constrained debate within elite circles, in contrast to the wars being waged by The Australian with hyperbole, invective and falsehoods. Yet as I have previously argued at Left Flank the incursion of extremist partisan rhetoric in the mainstream debate is the product of two inseparable developments: an almost complete convergence of policy within the political class, and at the same time growing economic and social polarisation, both key features of the neoliberal period. As austerity bites and greater resistance to the crisis emerges, we can expect such rhetoric and combativeness to increase rather than resolve. It’s war, after all.

Murdoch and Mitchell’s strategy with The Australian has been to break from the niceties of liberalism and wage a hard Right campaign for what they want. In this they have both reflected and encouraged similar trends within the political class, perhaps most concentrated in the Coalition but hardly absent from Labor’s ranks. The veneer of “civility” has been discarded as politicians and the media have gradually lost their institutional legitimacy. The great strength of Manne’s essay is how clearly he lays out the evidence of this process.

Manne seems to believe that we’d have a better country if The Australian was somehow reined in, but this gets things the wrong way around. It is because things have gotten worse, and because elite hegemony has been unravelling, that we have been blessed with The Australian we have today. Better to stop obsessing about Murdoch’s apparent omnipotence and figure out how our side can more effectively prepare for the battles ahead. 

I want to acknowledge the influence that my Left Flank co-blogger Liz Humphrys and The Piping Shrike had on my thinking while writing this review. Naturally the responsibility for the formulations above lies with me alone.

Filed under: Bob Brown, media, neoliberalism, UK