During a time of great conflict in England between the Crown and the Parliament, John Dunning had carried a famous motion in the House of Commons (in 1780) – ‘that the influence of the Crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished.’ We see the same issue in relations between the government and the press in Australia.
A lot of Passing Bull draws on the Murdoch press. I have been asked whether I thought that The Age had a left wing bias. My answer is as follows.
I have trouble with the premise. The left and right split started in Paris after 1789. The left came to stand for terrorism. Since then it has been associated with socialism. The right was associated with fascism and various other ‘isms’. I sought elsewhere to see the difference.
The ‘left’ tend to stand for the poor and the oppressed against the interests of power and property and established institutions. The ‘right’ stand for the freedom of the individual in economic issues, and seek to preserve the current mode of distribution. The left is hopeful of government intervention and change; the right suspects government intervention and is against change. The left hankers after redistribution of wealth, but is not at its best creating it. The right stoutly opposes any redistribution of wealth, and is not at its best in celebrating it. The left is at home with tax; the right loathes it. These are matters of degree that make either term dangerous. Either can be authoritarian. On the left, that may lead to communism. On the right, you may get fascism.
In the result, I don’t think that this outworn terminology helps to throw any light on any current political issue in Australia or elsewhere. The ‘left’ is a word generally applied as a term pf abuse by people who would not be happy to be called ‘right’ wing. Writers for The Australian are serial abusers.
Nor do I think that the Liberal and Labor parties stand for any doctrinal differences. Take for example the economy, taxation, education, health, and the aged – what differences in policy driven by the different platforms of the two parties do you see?
If I’m right about this, and most people agree with me, our party politics look unprincipled. This is one reason why people are going off political parties. The politicians scrabble around for the middle ground. They are too scared to take a stand on principle – just look at the invasion of Iraq and offshore detention. Principled opposition across the community on each issue got almost no reflection in Parliament. In the eyes of many, this nation stands diminished as a result. That is a reason why people have gone off politics as a whole.
I don’t read The Age for politics. The only people in the mainstream press that I read on our politics are Laura Tingle and Philip Coorey in the AFR. They are in my view both professional and sensible in ways that I don’t see in The Australian. Anyone who says that they are left wing is mad. (Anyone who says that the editorial is left is beyond madness.) I don’t regard The Age political reporters as unprofessional. They just seem to me to be anaemic or bland and predictable. If anything, I don’t think The Age goes in hard enough. I may be quite unfair in saying that.
But I do get the impression that writers and readers of The Age are more willing to confront the Coalition than those at The Australian. That is not saying much. The readers of The Australian who write to it overwhelmingly support the Coalition and the status quo. And they do so with fervour. (Two litmus tests of the different attitudes of readers of the two papers are John Howard and renewable energy. I see no ideological link there.)
But to some extent, I suppose that The Age may be said to be partisan. I don’t see it that way. I see the role of the press as being to watch and criticise government, and I don’t see The Age as being inhibited in discharging that function when Labor is in office. Indeed, I have friends in that party who never forgave that paper for savaging it at both state and federal levels during various phases of my maturity. One thing you won’t hear alleged is that the Murdoch press has a more principled position on Australian political parties than the Fairfax press.
But let us say that The Age may strike some as partisan. The difference remains. It does not suffer any of the three defects or vices that run through contributors to The Australian and which provide such a ripe source of bullshit. As I have remarked: ‘The political commentators in The Australian fall into three categories – former staffers, mainly Liberals or defectors; people who subscribe to think tanks; and journalists who are close personal friends of Tony Abbott.’ Those factors appear to me to drive the failures of professionalism in the journalism of that paper. Do they not all come together in Mr Mitchell’s breathtaking accounts of confidential discussions between a Murdoch editor and our fawning and insecure prime ministers? What could be better guaranteed to nauseate us against our leaders and our press?
The ABC is commonly referred to as a fellow traveller of Fairfax. I have a bias here. I acted for the ABC for more than 25 years. I did not see political bias. On the contrary, they were terrified of such an allegation. They went of their way to present both sides. The ABC is a very large body that has no commanding editorial voice. It is unthinkable that it could openly endorse a political party as organs of the media run for profit do as of course. The notion that the ABC is somehow left wing, whatever that means, has always told me more about the accuser than the accused.
People in the Murdoch press are wont to say that the ABC is taxpayer funded. That adds as much to the discussion as saying that the Murdoch press is funded by capitalists. Both rely on funding by the public, but there is always likely to be a massive difference in culture between those who own and work for the ABC and those who own and work for News or Sky. That is a fact of life for which we all may fairly thank heaven. If the national broadcaster were one quarter as partisan as the Murdoch press, it would have been wound up decades ago. And when will we get a poll that tells us which of the ABC and Murdoch press most Australians put more faith in? To my mind, it is just silly to suggest that Aunty might be as slippery as Rupert.
The attributes of the writers for The Australian that I have referred to make that paper susceptible to bullshit that in many quarters makes it just laughable. The nostrums about ‘classical liberalism’ that they salute are pure bullshit. The tendency to descend to ideology is of itself enough to put off most Australians.
Currently, there are three aggravating factors. First, those on the side of reaction are fixated on four issues that they find it hard to discuss rationally – climate change (their reaction to the South Australian blackout has been hilarious), gay marriage, extremism in Islam, and s 18C. On each issue, they look like bad losers and it is hard to see history smiling on them. It is hard to see any ideological foundation for their obsession.
Secondly, the personal relationships that some writers have with Tony Abbott and the failed rump of the Liberal Party produce exactly the same effect. As a result, they now threaten to do to the Liberal Party what the DLP did to Labor – with the keen support of a loaded press.
There is a third aggravating factor. The constant harping and bitching about the ABC and Fairfax is grossly unprofessional. Grossly. I have never seen Q&A but The Australian can claim credit for putting its ratings through the roof. If a doctor or lawyer spent so much time slagging off at others, you would fire them.
You can see all these factors in play to a degree that is comical on various programs on Sky twenty-four hours a day. It is like listening to a Magpie supporter after another losing Grand Final. It would be childish to suggest that these cheerleaders are behaving like professional journalists. They must get sick of hearing the same old tune as soon as the needle settles into the groove. And they love talking about the ordinary bloke of the street being alienated from the system when they are an integral part of both the system and the alienation. Some of the Abbott mourners on Sky still keep re-enacting their own passion play every night. You don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
That is why I think that the Looney Tunes have in the last generation moved from Labor to Liberal, and that is why the Liberal Party is now suffering more internally than Labor. Paradoxically, Murdoch is undermining Australian conservatives.
And that’s also why I’m so bloody glad that most Australians think that all this is just so much bullshit. The downside is that we put up with it.
Poet of the Month: Verlaine
Give me your hand, still your breath, let’s rest
Under this great tree where the breeze dies
Beneath grey branches, in broken sighs,
The soft, tender rays of the moon caress.
Motionless, and lowering our eyes,
Not thinking, dreaming. Let love that tires
Have its moment, and happiness that expires,
Our hair brushed by the owl as it flies.
Let’s forget to hope. Discreet, content,
So the soul of each of us stays intent
On this calm, this quiet death of the sun.
We’ll rest, silent, in a peaceful nocturne:
It’s wrong to disturb his sleep, this one,
Nature, the god, fierce and taciturn.