Much of the opposition to the federal government’s tame media reforms stems from a now ritual assumption among journalists and others that “free markets” are synonymous with “free media”. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Following the now infamous photoshopped front pages in the Murdoch tabloids, comparing Communications Minister Stephen Conroy to mass murdering dictators like Stalin, came this screeching meltdown by News Ltd columnist Piers Akerman on the ABC Insiders program.
The hysterical view of Akerman and others, mainly in the News Ltd stable, is that by insisting on a public interest test for media mergers and requiring self-regulating newspapers to live up to their own standards, Conroy is starting the process of “putting back the bricks back into the Berlin Wall”.
The Australian people need to understand that this Randian vision of a free press being synonymous with unfettered free markets has been pushed by News Corp across a range of constituencies, most hilariously by Glenn Beck (who showed the way in comparing Obama to Mao and Stalin).
In the UK, following the report of the Leveson inquiry into press corruption, bullying and bribery, hyperbolic claims by the Murdoch media and others about the consequence of more effective regulation has had the predictable effect of politicians turning to water.
For a media trumpeting the public interest and acting in self-interest, it is easy to make mischief by conflating attempts to improve press accountability with a threat to free market capitalism. But they are two different things, a point made by philosopher Gary Sauer-Thompson:
“One implication of the Australian media’s very hostile reaction…is the notion that democracies must conform to markets,” Sauer-Thompson writes. “This market democracy, which is contrasted with political democracy in which the economy is fundamentally subject to democratic authority, has become increasingly ingrained amongst right wing politicians and the media. The further implication is that capitalistic institutions are the best way not only to respect political and economic liberties, but also to achieve a just society.”
Thus, the idea of “freedom” has been co-opted by the Right as inseparable from the free market. No freedom can exist, by this definition, within the social institutions of democracy – because governments and regulation on this view of the world are anathema to freedom. It is the language of the unhinged Tea Party Right and it is now firm established as a middle-of-the-road view here.
What’s striking to this writer, as a former journalist, is how younger colleagues in the media industry have begun to assume this correlation. They no longer work for the public, they work for the media institutions that employ them. And their primary role, as they see it, is not to reveal the truth, but to package a version of events in such a way as to help their employers maximise profit. So their job is serving up what “the public” (in actuality, “the market”) demands. And accountability is achieved by and through the market. This is the “if-you-don’t-like it-don’t-buy-it” defence of lousy journalism.
“The language we use has conflated free markets and free media,” writes Dr Cherian George, a research associate of the Asia Research Centre at Murdoch University. “The ‘marketplace’ analogy has had a powerful influence, encouraging us to equate the sharing of human ideas and experiences with the commercial transaction of goods and services for profit. When we forget that it is a mere metaphor, it is a short step to believing that any obstacle to the profit motive is a violation of the god-given right to free expression.”
This gets to the underlying truth of the media’s exaggerated reactions to the Conroy reform bill. The real issue is not freedom of the press, but the ability of profit-making enterprises to use the privileges of the Fourth Estate to continue to dominate markets (and dictate public policy). In the case of News Corporation, it is clear it’s main focus is not on the defence of the dying technology of print media of today, but on the potential to monetise and dominate the broadband future.
Anything, or anyone, that stands in its way risks being demonised as a relic of the Cold War.