Much of the discussion of the Australian’s vendetta against Julie Posetti has focused on the novelty of a lawsuit involving Twitter the latest manifestation of new media. But the real story here is about changes in old media, and particularly those media owned by Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch has revived an approach to journalism that flourished in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the newspaper as propaganda sheet.
As others have noted, Chris Mitchell’s bizarre decision to sue an audience member on the basis of a brief but accurate summary of statements made in public by a former employee, and then widely disseminated, has distracted attention from the actual issue raised by those statements. The Australian has ceased to be a newspaper in the widely accepted sense of a publication in which factual reporting is clearly distinguished from statements of opinion based on those facts. Rather the two are inextricably mixed – what is presented as news is politically-driven advocacy, while much of what is presented as opinion consists of unsustainable factual claims.
These developments are most obvious in relation to climate change, the subject at issue in the attack on Julie Posetti, but the same tendency is evident on any topic that presses the political and cultural hot buttons of the right. The same process is at work throughout the Murdoch empire, but most fully developed at Fox News.
Discussions of the media are still dominated by the conventions of the ‘quality’ press in the second half of the 20th century, based on objectivity, balance, and a clear separation between news, opinion and advertising. So, for example, it is considered highly inappropriate for a newspaper to run stories designed to push the commercial interests or political ambitions of its proprietor, let alone to print deliberate lies motivated by such commercial or political goals. These conventions have typically applied with even greater force to broadcast media, which have historically relied on the free grant of access to limited electronic spectrum.
However, for most of their history, newspapers were bound by no such conventions. In large measure, they were either overtly party-political organs or vehicles for the interests of powerful proprietors like Hearst and Pulitzer in the US or Northcliffe and Beaverbrook in the UK. To readers accustomed to the genteel standards of the decades after World War II, it is startling to read, for example, the vitriolic attacks of the anti-Federalist press on George Washington and other Founding Fathers of the US.
The conventions of objectivity and balance achieved their most complete dominance in the United States,and it is there where there overthrow has been most dramatic. The end of the ‘fairness’ doctrine in broadcasting paved the way for the rise of Fox News as an openly partisan broadcaster, in opposition to the ‘balanced’ centrism of its competitors. More recently, Fox has become a centre of political power in itself, playing a dominant role in the working of the Republican Party machine. Fox donates large amounts of money to the party, puts favored politicians on its payroll and acts as an organising centre for supposedly ‘grassroots’ groups like the Tea Party.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this. The problem is that Murdoch wants to have his cake (a media organisation that will push whatever line is required politically and tailor the facts to suit this line) and eat it too (be treated as a reliable and objective source of information, with a place of privilege in the media hierarchy, sitting above bloggers, twitterers, PR agencies and the like).
In a sense, by engaging in action so obviously inconsistent with the role of a newspaper editor as it has been understood, Chris Mitchell is doing us all a favor. The Australian is printed on paper, and contains what it alleges to be news, but it is no longer a newspaper in the late 20th century sense of that term. Rather, it is part of a political machine, using its power and wealth to crush its opponents and critics by whatever means it finds most convenient.