It’s time again, once again, for the Monday Message Board. Post comments on any topic. As usual, civilised discussion and no coarse language. Lengthy side discussions to the sandpit, please.
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.
Back in 2009, I made a bet with Bryan Caplan, with the winning condition for Caplan being that “the average Eurostat harmonised unemployment rate for the EU-15 over the period 2009-18 inclusive should exceed that for the US by at least 1.5 percentage points”, my interpretation being that the difference offsets the effects of the high US rate of incarceration. The EU-15 average rate was slightly below the US rate for 2009, and slightly above the US in 2010, so, for the first two years, the difference averages out to near zero.
If I were looking only at labor markets, I’d be grimly confident at this point. Although the eurozone encompasses some very different economies, overall, eurozone labor markets dealt with the immediate consequences of the global financial crisis relatively well. Meanwhile, the performance of the US labor market has been disastrous. The employment-population ratio has plummeted, back to the levels of 1970 before the large-scale entry of women into the labor market, while long-term unemployment is far above any previous level. Unsurprisingly, this is the time the Republicans have chosen to throw the long-term unemployed off benefits. Meanwhile, the collapse of the housing market has greatly reduced labor mobility. The adverse effects of these developments are likely to persist for years, and the 2010 election outcome forecloses any hope of active policy response.
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The meltdown at the Oz continues, with an “offer you can’t refuse” from editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell to academic and twitterer Julie Posetti. Conceding that Posetti accurately reported statements by former environment reporter Asa Wahlquist in two brief tweets, Mitchell is nonetheless demanding an apology, and now offers a re-educational tour of the News Ltd newsroom as part of the deal.
This behavior would be beyond bizarre even from an ordinary corporation. To sue a private individual for reporting, in good faith, a statement made in public represents a threat that could be applied to just about anyone. It’s worth bearing in mind that there is no longer any distinction in Australian law between libel and slander, so the law applies equally to someone who repeats, down at the pub, something they heard at a public event. A company that tried such a thing (the only comparable case I can recall is the Gunns fiasco in Tasmania) would rightly be derided.
But for a newspaper, and one that has repeatedly pushed the bounds of defamation in its dealings with critics (see the sidebar for a relatively mild example), to undertake such actions is a spectacular assault on freedom of speech, one that only the Murdoch press, or maybe the state-controlled media in places like Singapore, would be capable of. It’s hard to see how any self-respecting journalist can continue to work for this deplorable operation.
In this context, it’s striking that Mitchell has apparently not sued Wahlquist or obtained a retraction (he has received a denial of claims that were never made, such as that he personally called or emailed her). Presumably, at least Oz journalists who have been happy to join the hunt against tweeters and bloggers are not yet ready to take on their own colleagues in this way.
I’ve now had a look at the study by Chris and Robert Kenny, Superfast: Is It Really Worth a Subsidy?. Some immediate responses
* The study starts from a presumption that broadband policy is an intervention, which may be compared to a putatively natural market outcome. This assumption is clearly inapplicable to Australia, where Telstra used as a regulatory bargaining chip its monopoly position as the only plausible supplier of new broadband infrastructure on a large scale. The NBN was the only way to move forward
* The study finds a variety of reasons to discount estimates of the benefits of superfast broadband, without giving any basis for lower estimates
* (Very important, I think) The study lacks any sense of quantitative magnitudes. Looking at the (upper bound) estimate of $40 billion for the NBN, what would be a reasonable social return? Allowing for fairly rapid depreciation (say a 10-year lifetime) and a 5 per cent real rate of return, we would want a net service flow of $6 billion per year, about 0.5 per cent of GDP (the right measure in this case, since depreciation is taken into account). If we assume the network is implemented over 5 years, we need additional growth of 0.1 percentage points per year. The estimates criticised in the report are far higher then this
* While the report discounts various possible sources of demand (eg home nursing) it trivialises the obvious commercial benefits of faster and sharper video-on-demand, video telephony, immersive gaming and so on, and disregards the point that, on the basis of past experience, we can expect new uses of high-speed internet even if we can’t yet identify them
The periodic meltdowns at the Oz (see here and here) have been growing ever more bizarre. But it will be hard to top this episode, where editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell threatened to sue academic Julie Posetti for defamation. Posetti’s supposed defamation consisted of two Twitter posts summarising a speech by Asa Wahlquist, for many years the leading environmental reporter at the Oz. As Posetti summarised it Wahlquist found working for the Oz under Mitchell “excruciating” … “torture”, because of the paper’s anti-science stance
What is most amusing here is the way in which a string of Oz journalists spontaneously line up to write articles saying that Chris Mitchell would never tell anyone what to write.
What is most significant, looking at the Murdoch press more generally, is Murdoch’s willingness to trash the credibility of his media assets, built up over a long period, in the pursuit of ideological agendas and (perhaps) short-term profits. The Oz was never a great paper, but it used to be a good one, even if it was pretty reliably conservative. More strikingly, the same process is going on at The Times (of London), once regarded as the world’s ultimate journal of record. The same is true of the Wall Street Journal – before Murdoch took over the general view was that even if the Op-Ed pages were barking mad, the news was always accurate. Now the distinction between news and opinion is disappearing fast.
And the same can be said for the political right as a whole. Their eagerness to see plain issues of fact (WMDs in Iraq, global warming, the existence of a DDT ban) as subjects for political debate hasn’t done them much harm in the short term. But as the “epistemic closure” fuss a while back shows, everyone is increasingly aware that truth and falsehood are no longer meaningful terms for those on the right. This will, I think, entail some big costs for them in the long run.