When people talk about media bias, they inevitably are referring to the house leanings of particular publishers. What’s often overlooked, though, is the bias generated by the necessity of journalists choosing certain frames and narratives to shape what’s known as “news”.
The March-in-March protests around Australia provide an object lesson in how journalists can be captured by those tired frames and by the tired institutions they report on. While there were some straight accounts of the marches, the general media response was a mixture of sniffy condescension, lazy cynicism or a blank refusal to even recognise this as a story.
The problem for journalists with these community-based movements is they are tough to report on. They require a little imagination, some wide reading and some hard work. One cannot construct a quick and dirty 500 word account by cutting and pasting from a handout. Neither does the event involve established institutions with ready-made sound-bites. And worst of all the big name actors are not in starring roles.
With prefabricated “he said-she said” templates not available, the press resorts to mocking the political naivety of it all, jeers at its hippy-dippy “kumbaya” pointlessness or, when most desperate, actively seeks out examples of vile language so it can exercise a good old bit of false equivalence.
Of course, it was predictable that the media, captured as it is by the institutional circus in Canberra, would write this whole event off as a ragtag bunch of lefty malcontents spitting the dummy at an election outcome that didn’t go their way. But there are a couple of problems with that analysis.
Firstly, the election was six months ago. This protest was about the actions the government has taken since then, many of which (like the nobbling of education and financial advice reforms, the defunding of environmental programs and increasing secrecy) were not raised during the election campaign.
Yes, the public was clearly over the ALP leadership circus, but, no, it is not clear the public voted for the policies of denial and obstruction and pandering to well-heeled interests we have seen since. Perhaps people were naive to think otherwise, but there clearly is a backlash building.
Secondly, we hear so much from the established media about their sacred ‘freedoms’. But as soon as significant numbers of people feel significantly aggrieved as to express their dissent in street protests, the move is on to accuse them of failing to accept the decision of the umpire. The message is you get one vote every three years and you need to just shut up in between.
Thirdly, the media is constantly telling us about how politics is broken and the aging institutions of the two-party system are not reflecting the diversity of views in the community. But when that diversity springs to the surface, it is rejected as pointless and unfocused.
What the public essentially is being told in the underwhelming media response to March in March is that “we will decide what politics is, we will decide where politics happens and we will decide how the story is framed. Unless you can express your views through the institutions that both you and we have decided are bankrupt, we will cast you as naifs tilting at windmills”.
There were other ways for the media to cover this story. One would have involved looking at the international context. The disquiet with institutionalised politics and the attendant media is NOT just an Australian phenomenon. Neither is the unease at the increasing capture of policy processes and outcomes by extremely wealthy and non-democratic groups.
There is a story to be told about the breakdown of democracy in the developed world and how Australia fits into that context. Lest this be considered some tinfoil hat theory, no less a publication than The Economist recently made this the subject of a special edition.
So instead of sitting around and poking fun at people’s banners or chanting “ew, you called Tony a rude word!” perhaps the Fourth Estate might like to provide some analysis that reaches beyond their cosy and simplistic left-right, party political view of the world?
‘Will You Miss Us When We’re Gone?’ – John Birmingham, Brisbane Times
‘The Birth of a New Kind of Activism’ – Van Badham, The Guardian
‘Why I Supported March in March’ – Wendy Bacon, New Matilda
‘To All March-in-March Deniers’ – Peter Barnes, infinite8horizon