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The debasement of public debate

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

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”.

The worst offenders in this debasement of public debate are quickest to denigrate their critics. Alan Jones, criticised by the ABC’s Media Watch over years (they broke the cash for comment affair), recently labeled these critics as ‘losers’ and ‘just nasty small minded people on the ABC.’ He defended his right to ignore criticism by stating:

It’s called the Alan Jones show. Much of my stuff is opinion. I’m a broadcaster. I don’t pretend to be a journalist and I don’t know what that means anyway – they’ve got a certificate or something. If those opinions lack validity or if those opinions are extreme or if they are overly provocative, they won’t listen. I’ve stood the test of time.

This is deviously deceptive, to say the least. But Jones seems immune from both commercial radio regulations and any sense of responsibility.

In the wake of Anders Breivik’s atrocity in Norway, and comments on his admiration for named Australian conservatives, even Gerard Henderson opined that ‘Right-wing extremism forces rethink on civil liberties.’ He wrote that there was ‘room for a thoughtful discussion’ about major issues from all perspectives, but concluded with a mealy-mouthed defence of the current tactics of public debate:

There is an obligation on all involved in the public debate to moderate their language, to desist from exaggeration and to disavow symbolic or real physical violence. However, mass murder in Norway should not be allowed to inhibit free speech. That would be counter-productive.’

As is his wont, Mike Carlton went straight to the point with the statement: ‘Curb the hate mongers, for all our sakes.’ Commenting on the ways in which Anders Breivik’s 1500-page diatribe reflected admiration for all sorts of ‘heroes of the political right’, including some Australians (Howard, Costello, Pell and Windschuttle), Carlton wrote of Breivik:

His words and actions were a seamless, linear progression of right-wing rage and loathing. At one end, you start with the anger and paranoia fomented by rightist politicians, demagogues and commentators for their own cynical political ends, the bigotry and racism that is daily grist to the talkback radio mill.

At the other end is a clear-eyed fanatic with tonnes of fertiliser, automatic weapons and an ubermensch mission to save the world. The dots join up.

Carlton went on to point out: ‘The temperature of hatred has been rising in Australia for most of this year. Lately we’ve reached critical mass, with public calls for the murder of Julia Gillard and senior ministers.’ A list of contributors to this culture of vituperation include Joe Hockey, Murdoch’s Herald Sun, Alan Jones (a serial offender), Brian Wilshire and Chris Smith. The last three are all broadcasters on 2GB, which regularly breaches both Australian hate speech laws and the Australian Communications and Media Authority’s commercial radio Code of Practice. The very first clause of ACMA’s commercial radio Code of Practice states: ‘A licensee must not broadcast a program which, in all of the circumstances, is likely to incite, encourage or present for its own sake violence or brutality.’

That clause then says ‘there must be nothing likely to incite hatred against, or serious contempt for, or severe ridicule of, any person or group of persons because of age, ethnicity, nationality, race, gender, sexual preferences, religion, transgender status or disability.’ But hatred, ridicule and contempt are standard right-wing weapons in politics and the media. Joe Hockey and Christopher Pyne act like schoolyard bullies (primary school, at that) by trailing Julia Gillard in the corridor and taunting her with derogatory songs and sledging. Allan Jones, when asked a question he didn’t like at the Convoy rally in Canberra on 22 August, ‘spluttered with rage and verbally abused’ the female reporter, Jacqueline Maley, then took the microphone on the stage, named her, shouted abuse at her and incited the crowd to boo and jeer. She wrote: ‘I then left because I feared for my safety.’

At the same rally, Jones and other key speakers loudly denounced the stopping of part of the truck convoy at the border, despite knowing in advance that it was simply not true. There is a bumper sticker on a few cars around Sydney at the moment, asking ‘Is that the truth? Or did Alan Jones tell you?’ There should be more of them. But the debasement of public debate is an issue that goes to the very heart of the workings of a democratic society. When significant sections of the media abuse the standards for their own ends, they are exercising the worst type of power. As Stanley Baldwin put it in 1931, criticizing the media barons of his day, they exercised ‘Power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot through the ages.’

First published on The Online Opinion, 24/08/2011