Time to think carefully about what media you support
Vote with your wallet
The media is as important to a democracy as the politicians.
It is the institutional representation of our ability to question what governments do in our name, and it is the key way in which we protect ourselves against a corrupt government.
Media require that institutionalisation—from legal protections to social license—in order to be powerful enough to stand up to the other sources of power in society, and this is why, as strong a supporter as I am of social media and citizens using modern digital tools—like the platform you are reading on now—to involve themselves in political discussion, I still recognise that a viable fourth estate is essential to democracy, and I am therefore happy to spend what I can each year supporting various outlets (and individuals).
In the era of digitisation, as the media business model has shifted to a massive reliance on subscriptions and memberships and the like, we-the-people are even more invested in the success of the work of journalism because we are paying for it directly.
In many ways, this is a good thing, and, as I have been saying for years—before it really happened, actually—it fundamentally changes the relationship between media and audience.
It gives we-the-people a power we need to exercise very cautiously.
The media take enormous credit when they fulfil their role as a check on power, as a fourth estate who watch over and hold accountable all the other parts of society, and rightly so.
But they still absolutely rely on citizens respecting and honouring this role, and like our governments, the media work for us, for the democracy of which we are all part.
The sad truth is, we have reached a point where the media—largely because of their own failings—are forcing us to rethink the role we play as citizens who fund journalism and who provide the social license that allows journalists to operate at all.
The decline in quality is palpable, and we all feel it, but we are limited in what we can do.
When, in the estimation of citizens, a government needs to be replaced, we get to vote them out, and in Australia at least, voters have shown themselves to be quite conservative in how they exercise their franchise.
When journalism fails, we have no such recourse. The media endures no matter what their failures, and thus we embed in the midst our democracy, not so much a fourth estate, but a permanent shadow government, that despite declining revenues, maintains its power by its social location.
Some may be inclined to call this sort of talk a conspiracy theory—I might have said the same thing myself in the past—but the truth of it hits us in the face every day, and it has been getting worse.
It is not good enough to say there are a lot of good journalists out there—there are, it is undoubtedly true. The problem is, too many of them are embedded within, or reliant upon, mainstream media organisations that have, for various reasons, become, if not openly corrupt, then at least second rate.
All that institutional power that makes the media the valuable pillar of a democratic society is being distorted by editors and owners and boards who are making it impossible for the good journalists to do the job that we-the-people need them to do.
Something must give.
This isn’t just about political bias and the undue influence of certain factions, including certain political parties, have on how the media report.
Nor is it just about a broken business model.
It is also about a broken intellectual model.
Fundamental journalistic methodologies, beliefs, values, and practices are no longer fit for purpose, things like an unexamined notion of “balance” or “objectivity”; the view that if a politician said something the job is simply to report it; the way a story is framed and presented; what topics get attention and which ones don’t.
It is about the way governments and others with power manipulate media coverage by supplying them with certain information in return for ongoing or “special” access and the unhealthy co-dependency this creates between organisations—estates, if you like—that should be independent of each other.
I used to think that media would change, that they would realise that they can’t just continue with these old methodologies and outdated ideas of what good journalistic practice is, that they would learn to use the new tools of the digital space to improve their journalism.
I thought that, eventually, they would see the advantages of the way in which social media gives them direct access, not just to the audience on whom they rely and for whom they work, but to various other sources of expertise and knowledge—largely for free! —and find ways to use all this to improve the work they did.
How wrong I was.
Not only have most mainstream media in Australia doubled down on the suspect journalistic practices and beliefs outlined above, they also have become even more in thrall to leaked information and an unhealthy collaboration with the Liberal-National Party that has been in power at the Federal level more often than it has been out of power.
Worse, they have come to see the most engaged part of their audience as an enemy. They write endless articles about how terrible social media is, they fail utterly to distinguish between abuse and legitimate criticism, and they hold in contempt those of us who dare express an opinion that is at odds with their own. They call us names.
I was utterly struck by this SMH ad on Twitter that expresses, not just contempt and condescension for their audience, but a total lack of awareness of their own failings, so much so that, even as they chastise their audience for not being open-minded enough and willing to hear alternative views, they blocked the ability of people on Twitter to comment.
The smug is almost unbearable.
We have reached the point where some firmer action is required by those of us who support media as citizens and as customers.
It won’t save us from the looming media fail of the imminent federal election, but we citizens must start laying the ground for best media we can get.
This means, of course, that we must keep using the platforms we have to point out the problems, failings and inconsistencies of political coverage in this country, but we need to go further.
We need to carefully direct the money we spend on media away from certain outlets and towards others.
I am not going to spell exactly how anyone should spend their money, but in broad terms, we need to accept that the entire Murdoch stable of newspapers and television stations has become such a malign force on our democracy that they do not deserve a cent of our money.
We need to recognise that Nine Entertainment, formerly Fairfax, is heading in the same direction. Their chairperson is a former Liberal Party deputy leader, a conflict of interest so egregious and unbelievable that you would barely dare to write it into a movie script. It isn’t their only problem, but it is a hell of symbol of what has gone wrong.
Let us use to power of the market to redirect funds so that that money can be used more effectively elsewhere.
Organisations like The Guardian Australia, Crikey, The New Daily, and The Conversation have consistently shown a willingness to improve and inform and to fulfil their democratic role, and they deserve to be rewarded for this (even as we also continue to hold them to account).
I am sure you have your own ideas about how to spend your media money, but what I am saying is that we must stop being swayed by the idea that the good journalists in a bad organisation will somehow triumph: they won’t. We must stop thinking that a change of government will be enough: it won’t. We must start using what market power we have to reward those organisations that respect democracy and to punish those that don’t.
Think about this: when the election is over, even if the government changes, the same media will still be in place.
And we know—we know!—that sections of that media will be doing everything they can to undermine and delegitimise a Labor Government, if that’s what we have, and I can barely imagine the insane shit they will rain down upon us if we happen to end up with the balance of power resting with a bunch of women independents and the Greens.
Why would we want to support that with our hard-earned money, just because occasionally they might produce a worthwhile article or investigation?
Why wouldn’t we want to give the better media organisations the resources to hire the best journalists?
Media is a check on power in a democracy, not a branch of government.
We-the-people need to use what power we have to ensure they do not forget this.
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