Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Media Diversification and the Question of ‘Neo-Racism’

above:  The meaning of the Hijab is largely a matter of personal perspective

In this latest article, Tristan Ewins examines further the arguments around media diversity and the Media Inquiry in Australia. But what is more, he engages with recent arguments made at ‘The Drum’ to the effect that there is a ‘new form of racism’: ‘neo-racism’.   Ewins disagrees with the Greens’ position on media reform – but we would definitely welcome sincere and respectful debate on all these issues here at the blog!!

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Tristan Ewins


Aurelien Mondon makes some interesting points  in his recent article over at ABC’s ‘The Drum’ from 19th September 2011.  

In this article we will be considering the issues of ‘free speech’ and ‘neo-racism’ – both developed in Mondon’s piece..

To begin with a couple of select quotes, Mondon writes:

“What is interesting in today's so-called battle for freedom of speech is that it does not come from minorities who are oppressed. It comes from white (mostly male) 'radical' conservatives. The question is: why has the conservative right so suddenly decided to defend freedom of speech?” 

And then with a heavy tone of irony:

“Of course, these writers and politicians would tell us, as Howard did, that it is because the left has imposed a political censorship and stifled debate. Indeed, everybody knows that the 70 per cent of the Australian media owned by Rupert Murdoch [Ed: in fact 70% of print media] has been unashamedly left-wing over the past decades, leaving little space to debate without an outright socialist bias.”

For the whole of Mondon’s article see here:  

Mondon is ‘spot on the money’ when he identifies the hypocrisy of so many on the Right – of effectively opposing media diversification, and so in effect opposing practical and meaningful pluralism – on the basis of ‘freedom of speech’. 

Both Fairfax and NewsCorp are provoking unwarranted fear when it comes to the issue of censorship.  Overwhelmingly – from Labor – there is talk of diversification and stemming undue concentration of ownership. 

There is also talk of protecting personal privacy.

But while some from the Greens had considered more thorough-going regulation of content, even including licensing for newspapers, Labor’s response has been far more cautious, and Labor is not likely to bow to Greens pressure on this issue.  See:

 Indeed – it is difficult to understand how some of the proposals put forward by the Greens ‘gained traction’ within that party in the first place.  (Yes the Murdoch press has been conducting a blatant campaign against the Greens; but surely opposition to censorship is a ‘fundamental’…)  Given the party’s location on the relative Left, the threat censorship has historically posed to the Left itself, and the possibility therefore of setting a dangerous precedent, one would have expected a more cautious approach on the part of the Greens as well.

But as we have considered at ‘Left Focus’ before, freedom of speech is a complex issue.  In the context of a public sphere dominated by private wealth; where ‘cultural gate-keepers’ determine the bounds, terms and tenor of debate – ‘positive’ freedom of speech is limited.  By this we mean the capacity of diverse and otherwise marginal voices to be included authentically in the mainstream.

Indeed, in Australia the public sphere is increasingly manipulated, insincere and exclusive .  The dominance of the monopolists and their billions in the Australian mass media makes this increasingly so.  And where public-owned media has in the past helped provide a counter-balance (eg: in the case of the ABC) conservatives have responded by enforcing their own notion of ‘balance’ - which in fact has undone the tendency towards meaningful and effective pluralism.

‘Freedom of speech’ as a ‘positive and enabling liberty’ ought to mean inclusive and participatory pluralism in the public sphere.  Only the worst of extremes should be marginalised – for instance, Holocaust denial and race hatred.  For some liberals, the Habermasian principle of the ‘Perfect Speech situation’ may serve as a guide.  (although conflicting values and interests cannot necessarily be resolved by rational exchange) 

Where wealth inhibits this, it is the duty of governments to intervene: not to censor – but to provide the means and support for the development of that inclusive, diverse and participatory public sphere.  (including but not limited to online)

Tokenism or half-measures here are not sufficient.  We need an inclusive and participatory mainstream: and robust public support for diversification towards this end.  Ample public funds need be provided such that inclusive, democratic and participatory media challenge the existing mainstream meaningfully, comprehensively and deeply.

 And again without censorship, principles of honourable journalism ought to be promoted.  Publications which maintain the pretence of presenting opinions, events and policy authentically and inclusively ought attract robust and high-profile public criticism where they fail to live up to their own self-proclaimed standards. 

 These issues need to be considered in depth in the coming media review; and Labor would be well-advised to implement a robust policy - not just half-measures.

Returning to the Aurelien Mondon article, however: Toward the end of his commentary Mondon develops a concept which he calls ‘neo-racism’.  This in of itself is a separate issue: but one no less worthy of criticism. 

Specifically, Mondon argues:

“As opposed to crude biological racism, widely discarded after the Second World War and whose use remains political suicide, neo-racism is a lot harder to outright condemn, yet it is no less damaging to society, democracy and ... freedom of speech. Neo-racism does not rely on biological superiority or inferiority, or even any form of hierarchy. Instead, it states the incompatibility of cultures and the necessity to keep such cultures apart. Cultures are equal in their inability to cohabitate; therefore the neo-racist can even appear tolerant. Of course, the use of neo-racism, like the use of common racism, is always to the benefit of the powerful.”

Even in France today individual liberty is increasingly pressured by an assertive secularism.  Properly, the rights of both secularists and faith communities ought to be protected in the context of liberal and democratic pluralism. Attempts to ‘ban the hijab’, for instance, themselves set a dangerous precedent – and abrogate the liberal rights of minorities.  Some secularists may think of the hijab as a by-product of women’s oppression. But in a society where women are empowered to choose - not just legally but culturally - surely the right is that of the woman to decide for herself.

The same principle ought to apply to both socially conservative and liberal faith communities – which on the principle of voluntary and free association determine their own internal rules and doctrines.

But are all cultures compatible in all contexts and on any scale?; And should the contention they are not attract the tremendous stigma involved with the charge of ‘racism’? 

Liberal democratic pluralism infers acceptance of difference: and of the right of individuals to move freely between voluntary associations.  But has political liberalism the potential to become so open as to leave exposed its own roots? 

 Even in socialist Yugoslavia – where the principles of internationalism were openly and sincerely proclaimed for decades– ultimately there proceeded a degeneration into nationalist chauvinism, brutality, and the settling of historical vendettas.  Even with the passage of decades conciliation had not been achieved.  A more robust truth and reconciliation process over those decades may have been able to prevent this: but now we will never know.  The point is that we ought not deny and be closed-minded about the risks.

Like socialist internationalism, liberal democratic pluralism is not incapable of being eroded or even uprooted.  As socialists learned during the 1980s, history should not be seen inevitably as a ‘Forward March’.  Political ideologies are also cultures; and that includes the nationalist-chauvinist political cultures of the far-right, including the religious far-right.  Political Ideologies – including nationalist, ‘ethno-nationalist’  and religious varieties – as cultures – are not universally compatible: and to point to this is not to engage in racism.  In fact – to ignore these forces could be to court disaster.

And on a brief partial-tangent: integrationism should not be considered to be the same as assimilation either. Every society needs a social contract including minimum assumptions regarding human rights and the rights and duties of citizenship. (including personal liberty and at least a minimum of social solidarity) And this cannot work if not invigorated by communication and exchange made possible by common language and social engagement.

 But yes: Mondon is correct to infer that these debates will be exploited by the powerful. During the 1980s the West supported the Mujahideen against the Soviets in Afghanistan for geo-strategic purposes: ostensibly against tyranny.  But today the West is again involved with a war in Afghanistan for geo-strategic purposes – legitimised by some as being for the sake of the rights of women.

And by the same token unfair and warped cultural prejudice can be deployed cynically to justify policies of colonialism and imperialism.  Perhaps this is the reality Mondon is alluding to; but nonetheless it does not follow that all cultures are compatible in all contexts.

 Let us maintain the principles of liberal democratic pluralism, including a meaningfully participatory, inclusive and authentic public sphere.  But let us also be aware of the dangers. Liberal pluralism (and tolerant/harmonious multiculturalism) is not necessarily eternal and unassailable. The future depends upon the political and cultural choices we make now.

Tristan Ewins

This author has also considered issues of culture and nationalism in-depth before

So also see: 

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Media Bias Systemic and Rife

above: Rupert Murdoch- Absolute Power?

In this new article Tristan Ewins holds that Australia's monopoly media is widely encouraging fear and resentment of refugees to create a 'wedge' against Labor.  Change is needed to genuinely promote the principles of inclusive and democratic pluralism in the Australian public sphere.  A media-democratisation fund - equally empowering all Australian citizens - could be part of this picture... 
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Tristan Ewins, September 4, 2011

Reading Melbourne’s ‘Herald-Sun’ today this author was reminded of just how far the Murdoch media (and other media interests) have been willing to descend in order to destabilise the Federal Labor government in Australia.

The underlying implication is that those who wield real cultural power in this country by virtue of outrageous wealth will not tolerate Labor governments that attempt to introduce real Labor policies: that actually behave like real Labor governments. 

Labor is expected, ultimately, to ‘get the message’, ‘fall into line’ and then somehow we can continue with the charade of supposedly liberal democratic pluralism.  

Most commonly the behaviour of Australia’s right-populist  monopoly media has involved the cultivation of anger, fear, resentment and intolerance via various shades of spin, and sometimes outright lies. 

One core aim of this policy has been to fatally undermine Labor’s core working class electoral base.

 The means to achieve this include monopolisation of the print media market in Australia (approx 70% of the market is controlled by NewsCorp/Murdoch); a monopoly of the dominant tabloid market in many Australian states; and the dominance of broadcast media by concentrated interests willing to abuse their control to promote their agendas.

As this author has already noted on occasion: mildly redistributive elements of the proposed carbon tax have been consistently and repeatedly reviled as ‘class war’ in the Herald-Sun.  Individuals on well over $100,000 a year have been portrayed as ‘working class battlers’; and the government’s policies ‘an assault on aspiration’.

 Apparently, however, the flattening of tax scales, deregulation of the labour market, assaults on trade unions, and the dual phenomena of privatisation and user-pays – which see wealth redistributed from ‘battlers’ to the wealthy - ‘do not count as class war’ for the Herald-Sun, Daily Telegraph – and other vehicles of Murdoch propaganda.

Furthermore, the fiction of the ‘burden’ of any carbon tax is repeated like a mantra in the right-populist monopoly media; with rarely any recognition that the vast majority of revenue is pegged to be returned in one form or another to trade-exposed industry, to taxpayers, to consumers. The writers who beat up fear in this regard know very well the fiction they propagate: but apparently they are without conscience.

And today, on September 4th 2011, there were another two prime examples of propaganda ‘Murdoch-style’ on pages 1, 8 and 9. 

 One headline proclaimed “Flying into Rage grounds refugees”. 

 Much of the monopoly media in Australia – in tandem with the Conservative parties – and especially Tony Abbott himself - has striven to dehumanise and vilify refugees. 

Again the intent has been to create a ‘wedge’ against Labor. 

 The monetary costs of detention, and on one occasion the cost of flying refugees to the funerals of their family members (after the Christmas Island shipwreck tragedy) have been portrayed as a ‘burden upon the taxpayer’. (not for a moment is recognition of their basic humanity allowed, with the sympathy this might engender)  And in today’s Melbourne Herald-Sun refugees who have been incarcerated in intolerable conditions – often for several years – were once more portrayed as ‘violent’.

 And yet there has been precious little mention of the violence of incarceration which has driven so many detainees to the point of self-harm – and on many occasions now even to suicide.  Rarely ever is the question put seriously: In a country of well over 20 million what ‘cultural threat’ are a few thousand refugees supposed to pose?

 Whatever flaws there have been in Labor’s asylum-seeker policies (and there have been many): so much of the monopoly media have chosen to portray the High Court’s recent decision on offshore processing as ‘yet another’ confirmation of the government’s ‘incompetence’; its ‘loss of authority’; its ‘instability’ – and as further cause for an early election. 

These themes have been systematically emphasised - again and again - by the likes of Andrew Bolt and Miranda Devine as a part of a deliberate tactic of destabilisation.  No doubt this has comprised part of a broader strategy by this country’s dominant media ‘billionaire puppet-masters’: Murdoch, Reinhart, Packer and others.  Such that Australia’s media is increasingly characterised by the kind of blatant abuse many thought only occurred in Italy at the hands of Silvio Berlusconi.

Underscoring this assumption: there has been precious little focus upon the accompanying consequence of the High Court’s recent decision that the legality of the Conservatives’ migration policies – and their long history of offshore incarceration and processing – is ALSO seriously in doubt. 

And outrageously: much of the right-populist monopoly media has tried to ‘play the refugee issue from both sides’ – painting ‘desert wasteland’ Nauru incarceration as the more ‘humane’ policy – with Shadow Immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison posing as the ‘staunch defender of human rights.’

Another Herald-Sun Article today (4/9/11, pp 8-9) epitomised the ‘quality’ of tabloid journalism in this country.  The article was presented under two titles: ‘Rudd’s Ambush’ and ‘One Moon, Two Fallen stars’.

 To begin, the authors emphasised the “dysfunctional state of the federal Labor Party”, reiterating the ‘official’ line intended to wear down confidence in Labor, and erode Labor’s core base -via ‘cultural attrition’ over the long term; and promote instability. 

This attempt at ‘spin’ was further emphasised with another suggestion that Kevin Rudd may be intending ‘another tilt’ at the Labor leadership; and with the contention that separate meetings between Rudd and Gillard with UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon were ‘unusual’. In reality such separate meetings might be considered ‘routine’; but nonetheless the ‘angle’ was played for all it was worth.

 That said: again the Herald-Sun attempted to ‘cover its bases’.  With some of the media having been willing to suggest the viability of a Rudd leadership-challenge to ‘revive’ Labor’s fortunes – but only so far as to create instability in the current context - again now the authors attempted also to prepare the ground to meet any such ‘new threat’. While  such rumours are intended to destabilise, Rudd himself ‘would ultimately have to be dealt with’ were they ever to ‘come to fruition’.  

Hence the quote printed from ALP parliamentarian Michael Danby that Rudd is “seemingly devoid of any lightness or humour”; and from other ‘sources’ that “there is…loathing at the prospect of Mr Rudd’s return” and “fear he could seek revenge.” 

 Finally: a brief and isolated quote from Gillard was represented in an attempt to maintain the fiction of balance and inclusiveness: 

“Every day between now and then I will be fighting for Labor values, for the things I believe in, for jobs, for education, for opportunity.”

But as usual this is but a ploy on the part of the Herald-Sun: which includes pretty much every day articles full-to-the-brim with prejudice, misrepresentation and spin: but with a token sentence or two at the conclusion of their articles – to maintain credibility as ‘serious journalism’.  The token nature of such quotes is reinforced by the failure of Herald-Sun journalists to develop them fully: such that they could be interpreted and read as substantial and convincing perspectives.

 So what should Labor conclude from all this?

 To begin Labor needs itself to recognise the increasing tendency that liberal pluralism in this country is becoming nothing but a convenient legitimising fiction.  As is the accompanying fiction that billionaire media proprietors ‘do not intervene’ in the editorial policies of their ‘assets’.

 Just as when - for whatever reason - Channel Ten seemed to be ‘going against the trend’ - adopting a moderately and relatively leftist profile – multi-billionaires Murdoch, Reinhart and Packer intervened. Almost overnight the political profile of the network began to change.  Right-populist writer Andrew Bolt was given his own program; and employed regularly in other contexts as a political and social commentator.   While direct intervention has not been proven surely it seems a credible supposition.

The direct cultural power of big capital was also underscored by the earlier scuttling of the original ‘Rudd era’ ‘Resource Super-Profits Tax’ (RSPT); assaulted by a massive media propaganda campaign by the mining giants to destroy the policy and ‘send a clear message to Labor.’   Somehow the threat of an investment strike has been internalised alongside the fiction of liberal and democratic pluralism – despite the fact that the one is in contradiction with the other.

 The original Resource Super-Profits Tax could have rectified this nation’s “two speed economy”; diverting some windfall mining profits (from the natural resources belonging to all Australians) to bolster superannuation, and support manufacturing, tourism and education.  This at a time when a high Australian dollar is ‘supercharging’ mining industry profits; but undermining other exports. (that is, industries that between them employ many times more people than the mining industry)

At the time other areas of industry would not break the ‘united front of capital’ against any impositions; but surely the crisis is now so pronounced that this must again be questioned.

In the face of such abuses for Labor the challenge is to turn the fiction of liberal and democratic pluralism in Australia’s public sphere into a reality. 

 Attempts to promote media-diversification would no-doubt be (ironically) depicted as ‘assaults on free speech’.  But the tendency towards monopolisation in Australian media – and the abuse of that power - is itself an assault upon the inclusiveness of our public sphere.  And such inclusiveness is itself a precondition for genuine democracy.

Labor has nothing to lose at this point by going ahead with a full media enquiry.

 But in the process the government must be careful not to reproduce the same kind of abuses as those they would be seeking to challenge.  Rules regarding “fit and proper” people to own media could set a dangerous precedent.  Today the power of wealth contracts and shackles the public sphere: backed by state recognition and enforcement of the ‘rights’ that accompany wealth.  But EXCESSIVE or inappropriate state regulation of media could also set a dangerous precedent which could ‘come back to haunt’ the Left; providing a pretext for ideological censorship. 

The aim of a media diversification policy ought to be the creation of an inclusive and pluralist public sphere.  This is not compatible with the domination of the industry by a handful of billionaire puppet-masters. Nor is it compatible with the monopolisation of sectors of the industry – for instance the tabloid market in Melbourne where the Herald-Sun has no real competition.  (and in the broader market has a readership of about 1.5 million as compared with ‘The Age’ with a “Monday to Friday readership average of 668,000” – source: Wikipedia)

 Cross-ownership laws need to be tightened and effective monopolies broken up. 

 Certainly that would be a start.

 We need at least two major players in every significant market: effectively representing a wide and inclusive spectrum of viewpoints.  This includes more specialised markets: for instance whether we speak of tabloids or broadsheets.

 But we need a more pro-active policy as well.

To that end: a ‘media-democratisation fund’ could be a visionary solution to the question of representative and inclusive media in this country. 

A fund – perhaps $5 billion to begin at a very rough estimate– could be established and then distributed equally in the form of non-tradeable shares – to all eligible Australian voters regardless of personal wealth. (ie: as a right of citizenship) Shareholders would then be encouraged – and a framework established – for them to organise their investments collectively, equally and democratically in new media intended to create genuine diversity and inclusion of perspectives and viewpoints. 

All profits would be returned to the scheme to be reinvested: the motive being diversification and inclusiveness – not private financial gain.  This would not be an effective expansion of the state sector, however: as all citizens would have individual rights to determine their investments as equal and private shareholders.

 But to achieve the end of real and effective diversification – a real shift of cultural power – and in favour of diversity and inclusion - the scheme would need to apply in the billions - or at least hundreds of millions.  A ‘token’ scheme would not achieve that.  (Pls note again, though: I am providing only very rough estimates here as the author does not have access to such modelling as to accurately determine what would be necessary)

Maintaining and bolstering existing public media such as ABC and SBS undertakings: and ensuring a genuinely pluralist, participatory and inclusive outlook in these – would also serve these crucial ends.

If we’re serious about liberal pluralism: about democracy and inclusion – the time has come for change.

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