Quality Media?

[I haven’t been completely idle, just focussing on other things.  This article hasn’t been placed yet, but here it is for now.]

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Whenever it is proposed to enforce the most minimal standards on commercial media, they erupt in righteous indignation at the supposed threat to free speech, and the need to preserve “independent” and “quality” media.  The recent screening of First Contact by SBS and NITV, and the proposed cuts to ABC and SBS funding, bring the issues of quality and independence into sharp relief.

If the commercial media’s offerings had some serious quality, then shows like First Contact would not be so remarkable, and so much remarked.  Many more of us would already know the gist of what the five participants learnt, in the course of a month’s immersion in Aboriginal Australia.

The five participants who stayed the course began with a range of attitudes, from sympathetic to hostile.  The point of the show was that they had little or no prior direct contact with Aborigines.  All of the five gained much greater knowledge, and all of them ended with more empathy for the difficulties faced by Aborigines everywhere in Australia.

The hostile attitudes some of them began with seem to be common enough among Australians.  Not uncommonly, Aborigines are regarded as dirty, lazy freeloaders who get huge amounts of financial assistance that they dissipate in booze and partying, while refusing to make the effort to find a job.  If they’re often in jail it’s because they won’t make the effort to break bad habits.

The show’s participants got some glimpses of how past traumas resonate down the generations leading, for example, to alcohol abuse and its attendant violence.  They learnt of cultural and social pressures that make it extra hard to break out of the destructive patterns, and of the lack of consistent support from outside if anybody did try.

Some of the participants found they had experiences in common with some of their new indigenous acquaintances.  They realised similar things can happen to blacks or to whites, that skin colour doesn’t matter that much.  They recognised they had only been able to rise above some early difficulties because of support they got from family, friends or community.  They met leaders who have been helping their communities, against great odds, and replacing despair with hope.

None of this is so hard to find out, but you have to go looking for it.  The question here is why so many of us are so ignorant of such a significant group of our fellow Australians.  A fair part of the answer is, unfortunately, pretty obvious.  The media, especially the commercial media, specialise in sensationalism, superficiality, conflict and short attention spans.  Reports that go into greater depth are uncommon, especially on TV.

The result is that ignorance is rarely challenged, negative stereotypes are exaggerated, gut reactions are triggered, and hostile and destructive attitudes are thereby encouraged.  When shock jocks and partisan attack dogs chime in, propagating misinformation and fanning fear, the damage is compounded.

Why do the commercial media take such a superficial and unhelpful approach, particularly to a subject so replete with sensitivities?  The answer, fundamentally, is because it sells papers, and attracts viewers and mouse clicks.  In crude simplicity, they do it for profit.

Enter the ABC, which isn’t constrained by the competitive imperative.  It’s job is to inform and entertain, and especially to fill in the large gaps left by the commercial media.

At least that used to be its job.  For the last three decades or so, both major parties have heavily criticised the ABC and both have cut its funding, the Coalition more so but Labor has done its share.  One reason has been the neoliberal ideology that dominates our political mainstream and is hostile to any government role.  Another has been governments’ sensitivity to criticism, though informed criticism is part of the ABC’s (and all media’s) job of holding governments to account.

A more recent reason is that commercial media’s revenues are plunging, as the internet takes over, and those most hostile to the ABC (notably including the commercial media moguls) want the ABC cut back so it won’t have an “unfair” advantage.

The result of these attacks, of stacking the ABC board with right-wingers, and of putting a former Liberal staffer in charge of daily business, is that the ABC is more timid, more superficial, and takes its measure of “balance” to be mid-way between right-wing Labor and far-right Liberal.

The commercial media’s complaints might have some shred of validity if they indeed regularly delivered “quality journalism”.  However it is hard to find “news” reports these days that do not also include judgemental terms and interpolations, thus failing the elementary requirement to separate editorial comment from news reporting.  Much so-called reporting goes further, and flagrantly injects a point of view.  The biassed selection of news also leaves much of our world unreported.

If our commercial media really did deliver “quality”, then most of us would have some understanding of the special difficulties faced by Aborigines.  Most of us would know asylum seekers are legal, small in number, mostly genuine refugees, and mostly potentially excellent citizens.  Most of us would know that only a tiny minority of climate scientists think we are not causing global warming, and that it is not a dire threat.

As for independence, apologists for commercial media bang on endlessly about sinister government intentions and the threat of totalitarianism, but they never mention that media ownership in Australia is among the most concentrated the world.  Would that we could have more independence from Rupert Murdoch.  Nor do neoliberal campaigners note that political attacks on the ABC, including cuts to its funding, have the clear goal of reducing its independence from government.

Almost never mentioned in the brouhaha is that anyone who wants the right to broadcast (by any means) to large numbers of our citizens also ought to have responsibilities.  Those responsibilities ought to include not being consistently misleading or factually incorrect, clearly distinguishing opinion from reporting, and not promoting discord.

Many Australians may not realise how unusual and valuable the ABC is.  Try living in the US for a while and you realise the ABC’s grounding of relatively balanced news and informed comment, plus quality and diverse minority entertainments, gives our culture a firm floor that keeps us from sinking into the worst forms of triviality, ignorance and delusion.  Or at least it used to.

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