Sunday, August 5, 2012

The cost of free speech, It ain't cheap mate!!

Tony Abbott is warning the creation of a "media watchdog" as being a "political correctness police". This is indeed interesting rhetoric from a man who calls himself a former journalist.  Abbott’s misinformation, character assassination, obstructionist political divide and concur strategy defines his leadership. The opposition is the beneficiary of a tide of lies and propaganda never seen before in Australian politics in what can only be described as unchecked commentary masquerading as journalism.  Everything from the economy to social reform, infrastructure to the NDIS is blatantly misrepresented in an orchestrated assault on anything that differs from neo-conservatism.  Its a non stop political opportunistic football match that forgets the rules and fair play. Its win at any cost playing the man not the game. This mis-information war, fuelling every conceivable prejudice furthers his political agenda by the consistent use of one word “NO”. All the hallmarks of Edward Bernays 1928 book “Propaganda” are at play here. Spruik the lie enough times so as to create doubt and even the smallest amount of traction sets the wheels spinning and mud flying. . Insecurity, doubt fear, hatred and mis-information all followed to the letter, but how much sticks? In a progressive multicultural society, social dialogue has plummeted to the lowest ebb in Australian political history.  Fuelled by Abbott’s election promise to repeal legal recourse under section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which prohibits statements that offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people on grounds of race or ethnicity you have effectively eroded the last line of defence. Abbott is far from sorry and so obviously out of touch with the people such legislation is designed to protect. This is a dangerously regressive act that is more at home in a totalitarian power rather than in Australia’s multicultural egalitarian society.

As we have seen dating back to the 1800's the media has become a law unto itself, incapable of and uninterested in self-regulation. I am not in favour of more regulation of anything, however as with guns there needs to be rules, responsibility and accountability for ones actions. Today’s changing media landscape is at odds with traditional information powerbases. The requirement for news outlets to embrace technological change has seen democratisation of media with archaic legislation out of step with the new models of media consumption.  Currently media is cheap so agenda based political, social and commercial campaigns have blurred the line between opinion and fact, opinion and reporting and my favourite, journalism and entertainment. The standard modus operandi in media outlets is to weigh up commercial gain over litigation. That is, how much advertising revenue do they make over how much they may or may not have to pay if they are sued or fined. This gamble has proved lucrative and commercially successful for Australian media generally as the current systems of complaint recourse is virtually non-responsive to any concerns “average” people have. In short, self-regulation provides a firewall between the media organisation and the regulator as the complaint has to go through the organisation first. “We believe we are compliant with the act” responses are the norm and 90% of frustrated people take the matter no further. So if you get no joy, then you complain to the toothless tiger ACMA who “may” rarely impose an infringement that is a ridiculously disproportionate monetary fine compared to the advertising revenue earned. Subsequently, why wouldn't media outlets take this gamble? They have a better than 90% chance of getting away with it outright and if they do get fined, the talent is still making a fortune with little or no consequence other than a by-line or retraction.

So how does this work you may well ask? Good examples are carefully constructed inflammatory comments to create a “rise” amongst less informed audiences, cash for comment and stating erroneous facts to push an agenda. The term “Shock Jock” defines a very murky area of media debate around the world. Alan Jones, Andrew Bolt, Ray Hadley and Steve Price have all predicated a format based upon their outspoken views on a range of topics designed to fuel outrage in public opinion. This strategy is lucrative in selling advertising as former advertising executive and owner of Radio station 2GB John Singleton can attest. Jones has constantly come under criticism for his defamatory, inflammatory and inaccurate comments on a range of issues and has maintained when the subject of legal action, he is an “entertainer” not a reporter or commentator. "I'm not a journalist" people listen to me for entertainment he proclaims. This illusion of a "Man for the people" providing a "spleen vent" for the less educated and uninformed is a format formulated to maximise income not social discourse. Jones breaking “Stories” that were no more than press releases for advertising clients erased the line between advertising and reporting until it was indistinguishable, forcing ACMA to make disclosure mandatory law. Jones and Bolt are the Australian poster boys for the marketing arm of the neo-con movement “The Tea Party”. Jones has unsuccessfully tried to get up a Bill ORiley type program till he was unmercifully dumped for bad ratings. Bolt has succeeded with the help of Mining Magnate Gina Reinhardt thanks to her financial interest in network 10. Bolt does not need to rate, just parrot the message and collect the cash. Gina is on a media buying mission and has very deep pockets convinced that its her say on the information super highway. Interestingly after her foray to own Fairfax without agreeing to sign up for editorial independence,  she has since suggested that Fairfax sell its radio assets and the most likely bidder is Singleton. Well surprise, surprise what a coincidence.  What a sweet deal, she still gets the net result as Singleton will run the same Shock Jock formula for success and Singleton (that great Aussie bloke so in touch with the common man) makes more money. 

Abbott and traditional media vendors have much to lose from reform. The main stakes are money, power and influence. Disproportionate representation of the perception of fact in social debate is a dangerous situation. Lies; masquerading as qualified fact to further political traction and generate revenue is immoral and at odds with Australian ethos of “Fair Dinkum”. When discredited, scientifically unqualified, self-promoting charlatans like Christopher Monkton are paraded on equal footing in the media as Professors of Science; public debate is well and truly broken. At what point did people just give up in ambivalent acceptance that an auctioneer turned entertainer like Hadley (He is by far the worst sports commentator in Australia) had any credibility to inform political debate in Australia? When did the “opposing everything to get a rise” opinion of Bolt (a base level educated, company indoctrinated journalist) hold weight over a Professor of physics, climatology or the head of the CSIRO? These people are the good guys who have dedicated there life to furthering scientific advancement of the human race. So when did society stoop so low as to attack them because it’s inconvenient?  I’ll tell you when, when despite being presented with factual truth that the Australian economy is one of the best in the world, people believe lying talking heads we are broke.  I’ll tell you when, when money and the egocentric lust for power in a cult of personality within an attention deficit news cycle holds greater currency than the factual truth itself. What is offensive and ridiculous is the assertion that when people like Bolt and Jones are subject to account under the due process of law they assert that their “Free Speech” is being stifled. Stifled they proclaim; whilst being syndicated nationally in print, radio and television. Their speech is far from free; it’s big business generating millions of advertising dollars. Is that the same “Free speech” a disenfranchised public would enjoy if they ever rang up these authoritarian egomaniacs to debate or question todays “designed topic” and are don’t get past the switchboard? I think not.

I once met Stan Zemanic. He was a surprisingly gentle, attentive intelligent man. I asked him “do you believe half of that stuff you say because you sound like the world’s greatest stirrer to me”. Stan looked me in the eye with a cheeky grin and said, “it’s all show business”. Unfortunately, show business is affecting the real business of social debate, freedom and equality in Australia.