New Media, Old Liberalism

In 1955 I joined the army of paperboys who sold newspapers on the suburban streets across Melbourne. Instead of shouting ‘get your Herald’ I was told by the other boys to shout ‘Eenya Herald’ or something like ‘Eenya, Eenyer Herald’.  ‘What does it mean?’ I asked the other boys. But they didn’t know and said that they were merely repeating what an earlier generation of boys had shouted. While I was busy selling newspapers, Herbert Marcuse was defending Plato and reason against distortions propagated by Karl Popper. The Cold War debates over whether the ‘free world’ was actually democratic, or whether we should blame certain classical philosophers for promoting ‘totalitarianism’ are long gone. Instead, today many analysts debate whether the new social media deepen democratic power or help create future dystopias based on total social control. Contributing to this debate, Justin Clemens’ ‘Killer Drones, Dieback and Democracy’ (Arena Magazine no.115, Dec. 2011–Jan. 2012) echoes Marcuse’s critique in his analysis of the relationship between the media and democracy.

Arena Magazine is to be congratulated for publishing two critical pieces on the media: Richard Maxwell and Toby Miller’s revelations (‘Poisonous Media’) on the environmental dangers posed by toxic media hardware such as computers and mobile phones, and Justin Clemens’ article in the same issue. Most Australians are not used to reading or hearing lively intellectually and politically engaged critiques of the Australian media. Rather, we are offered prominent but ultimately conventional media critics such as Margaret Simons or Jonathan Holmes who dish up insipid and often feeble analyses. Clemens by contrast, raises significant questions and prompts readers to think about the state of our media even if his analysis is seriously flawed. To better understand why the dystopian dead-end that Clemens arrives at is no real political alternative to liberalism, I will discuss the two central arguments of his article.

Thesis one: questioning the champions of free speech

In the first part of his article, Clemens deals with the contrasting and complicated roles of three individuals: Andrew Bolt, Julian Assange and Robert Manne. Each claims to be a defender of democracy, reason and free speech. Surprised at what he sees as Assange’s fatuous defence of Bolt in the Fairfax press, Clemens observes that the phenomenon that both Assange and Bolt ‘agree—or at least pay lip service to the same ‘principles’—that is, absolute freedom of speech, open and vigorous debate, and the quest for truth, probably shows that these are now essentially theological terms from which no one is permitted publicly to demur’. (p.23)

What does it mean to criticise the new theology of absolute free speech? Should we do so from a fundamentally liberal perspective or from a radical anti-capitalist perspective? Although Clemens asks how the very structure of the media serves ‘established interests’ (p.23), one is never sure whether he just means vague ‘ungovernable centralised’ global media processes (p.26) or a specific range of capitalist industry sectors, ruling classes and capitalist state apparatuses.

The problematic relationship between free speech, truth and democracy is conducted via an examination of three flesh and blood media personalities, their modes of writing and rhetoric. Clemens’ judgment of their political personas is in marked contrast to the impersonal characterisation of the ‘system’ that informs his second thesis.

Beginning with Andrew Bolt, Clemens rightly derides Bolt’s claim that he is a champion of free speech, a ‘victim’ who has supposedly been ‘gagged’, yet can’t seem to shut up. Bolt is an easy target. With Assange and Manne, the approach is different and far from convincing.

Clemens successfully shows Assange to be an innocuous, dogmatic defender of absolute free speech who, unconsciously identifies with the angry male narcissist (Bolt) when threatened by government legal action (p.23). Yet, in his second thesis, as I will later show, he claims that it is Assange who has not only best understood the politics of the ‘network society’, but who also holds the key to breaking down the ‘system’.

If Bolt and Assange are shown to be far from shining knights defending free speech and democracy, Robert Manne is presented like a modern Don Quixote who will ride into hell for a heavenly cause. Clemens is genuine in his praise and careful admiration of Manne but ultimately rejects his rational method as less effective than Assange’s sabotage of the ‘system’.

Clemens describes Manne as twice voted the ‘most influential public intellectual’ in Australia and ‘an indefatigable critic of denialists of all kinds’ (p.23). Part of Manne’s authority, he asserts, ‘is surely due to his long-term reliability … he has never really deviated from what’s essentially a classical liberal position, constitutively hostile to mass ideologies of all kinds. Like Malcolm Fraser, another uncompromising moral voice in the Australian twenty-first century, Manne remains a Burkean conservative for whom established governmental and non-governmental institutions, the division of powers, the rule of law, free debate and moral discussion remain paramount’. (p.23)

As a Burkean conservative, according to Clemens, it is no surprise that Manne is incensed by the practices of the Murdoch media, especially the campaigning role of The Australian under editor Chris Mitchell. After citing the main arguments in Manne’s Quarterly Essay ‘Bad News: Murdoch’s Australian and the Shaping of the Nation’, Clemens admits that he was utterly staggered by the response unleashed by the right-wing ideologues and editors at The Australian.

Like Clemens, far too many people innocently took the battle between Manne and The Australian at face value and lost sight of the ‘war of position’ in the Australian media and Manne’s historical role in this war since the 1980s.

From both my personal acquaintance with Robert Manne and familiarity with his writings over the past thirty years, I have no hesitation in describing him as a highly ethical and courageous person who has borne the brunt of much abuse from the Right and the Left. While I still believe that his political economic perspective is far too conservative, given the enormity of the domestic and global problems we face, nevertheless, on a range of crucial domestic issues his views are progressive, welcome, and of course, infinitely preferable to those promoted by the Murdoch media.

In contrast to Clemens however, I do not have a naïve appreciation of Manne’s contradictory place in public life. For example, I do not place value on media polls about Australia’s top public intellectuals. For it is not solely the fine quality of Manne’s writing that saw him come top in a Fairfax newspaper poll. If a News Limited paper had run a poll the result would probably have been quite different. Importantly, the very concept ‘public intellectual’ is itself testimony to the absence of mass oppositional political movements and the reliance in recent decades on substitute ‘tribunes of the people’ who wage battle in the establishment media. Like incessant surveys of the world’s top universities—which, we would agree, are more about marketing brands rather than education—polls about influential ‘public intellectuals’ merely tell us who has privileged access to the media, which topics are legitimate or verboten, and which commentators media businesses can promote as part of ‘their team’, rather than the quality of views expressed. It is no surprise to find few radicals on any of the survey lists.

Clemens argues that part of Manne’s authority ‘is surely due to his long-term reliability’. Unfortunately not. Since the end of the Cold War, Manne has flip- flopped on many issues that have nothing to do with Communism and anti-Communism. First he was opposed to multi-culturalism and now he is for it; first he voted for John Howard in 1996 and now champions Paul Keating; first he opposed economic rationalism and now believes he was wrong; first he supported the invasion of Afghanistan but then opposed the equally disastrous and senseless war in Iraq; first he opposed the Pacific solution but now supports offshore processing of refugees on Manus Island.

Part of the reason for Manne’s inconsistency is that he has jettisoned a lot of his old conservative baggage. He is to be admired for being so candid about these changes. However, the fact remains that he has not yet fully developed an overarching perspective that links his passionate environmental concerns to a compatible economic and political position. Witness the consequences of first naively trusting Howard in 1996, then putting his faith in Kevin Rudd in 2007 (then turning highly critical of him by 2010 and yet promoting Rudd again in 2012). Manne now lauds Paul Keating, an advocate of the very neo-liberal policies that continue to wreak pain and havoc globally. These neo-liberal policies are completely incompatible with Manne’s concern for environmental sustainability.

What Clemens does not highlight is that Manne is simultaneously a critic and a player who wants to help shape government policies. Manne is influential precisely because he is an ‘insider’ with an extensive network. This network was built up from early days with Quadrant conservatives through to established columns in The Australian, Fairfax papers and regular appearances on ABC radio and TV. It now extends to the Greens. As an ‘insider’ Manne has never desired to be a radical critic of the system. It is a sign of how far to the Right Australian political culture has moved in recent years that a mild reformer such as Manne can be the target of vilification by market fundamentalists and crazies. Imagine how different Manne’s access to the media would be if he had just started to advocate radical views without his historical network or the support of Black Inc publisher Morry Schwartz? How many people get Quarterly Essays to write or all the space they can use in The Monthly or The Age and Sydney Morning Herald? This does not detract from the genuine courage it took to write Bad News knowing that he would be subjected to a torrent of abuse from The Australian and the political Right across the country.

Imagine, by way of contrast, if by some miracle, I (or perhaps Clemens) had been offered the opportunity to write a Quarterly Essay on The Australian and had requested an interview with Chris Mitchell and senior editors and journalists? We would have been told politely to piss off and the Murdoch press would have largely ignored our intervention. Yet, Manne (accompanied by Schwartz) enters the enemy stronghold and is accorded access to all the top ideologues. Only an insider (like a Papal inquisitor) could gain such access. In fact, Umberto Eco could have updated The Name of the Rose and cast Manne as the modern William of Baskerville who enters the monastery to conduct an investigation into how truth was murdered at The Australian. Like William, who demonstrates the power of deductive reasoning, Manne refuses to accept the conventional monastic explanation that the editors of The Australian are possessed by demons. Instead he undertakes a meticulous forensic empirical analysis of the culprits who killed, and continue to kill the truth.

There are two main reasons why I expected The Australian to launch a ferocious attack on Manne. Firstly, Manne’s Quarterly Essay coincided with the most serious political threat ever experienced by the Murdoch Empire. Following the News of the World scandal, plus public criticisms of The Australian by Gillard government ministers, not to mention Murdoch’s need to secure Sky Television’s tender to run the Australia Network, the stakes were, by any standards, high. News Limited knew that in a war of position, Fairfax, the ABC and other players would seek to capitalise on Manne’s scathing report. It was necessary for the editors to attempt to salvage their reputation against Manne’s accusations of a form of political thuggery ultimately designed to destroy the Greens and the Gillard government.

Secondly, Clemens’ focus on rhetoric and style—The Australian’s ‘unhinged ferocity’ versus Manne’s calm and ‘magisterial’ approach—captures an important aspect of the conflict but overlooks the psycho-political dynamics of Mitchell and company’s fury. As the old aphorism states: ‘familiarity breeds contempt’. Just as factions within the ALP, for example, often hate one another more than they hate the Liberals, so too, the editors of The Australian felt that Manne was a Judas who betrayed his former political colleagues.

Nonetheless, it would be wrong to think that personal feelings are major obstacles to running media businesses. Despite their furious attack on Robert Manne, The Australian would love to have him back in their stable to prove that they are ‘pluralistic defenders of free speech’. In the parochial backwater of the Australian media ‘club’, people regularly circulate between the handful of private and public media organisations. Take for example, Michael Stutchbury. Within a month of attacking Manne as Economics editor of The Australian, he became Fairfax editor of the Australian Financial Review. Does Stutchbury have different views because he now works for Fairfax instead of News Limited? Hardly.

Decades ago, revolutionaries referred to the mainstream media as the ‘bourgeois press’ and assumed that the latter would lie, distort and promote dominant business and government interests at the expense of workers. Despite significant cultural, technological and economic changes during the past fifty years, fundamental power relations remain unaltered even though the term ‘bourgeois press’ is unfamiliar to most people.

Ironically, there is no necessity for The Australian or other Murdoch papers to engage in Fox TV style extreme campaigns. The Fairfax papers, Eric Beecher’s Crikey or Black Inc do a very successful job keeping the main institutions and policies of capitalist Australia going in a polite and seemingly pluralist manner. They know that the Greens and the carbon tax do not threaten the survival of capitalism and neither do most of the Murdoch media’s other pet hates: Indigenous welfare, asylum seekers or the cultural liberal Left.  Similarly, the ABC defines ‘balance’ in such conservative and narrow terms that all its flagship TV and radio current affairs programs do a sterling job on behalf of the status quo by regularly excluding a multitude of alternative voices.

Importantly, what is striking about the key spokespersons across the media in Australia – from News Limited and Fairfax right through to the Seven, Nine and Ten networks, the ABC, Crikey and Black Inc—is not just the narrowness of their political, economic and cultural world-views, but the way they respond to external criticisms. Like other industries that champion neo-liberal forms of ‘self-regulation’ (in other words, a license to resist delivering durable, safe, non-toxic and non-exploitative goods and services), it is no surprise to see the media owners and most commentators singing from the same songbook about the dangers of media regulation. Not for them the need to introduce severe penalties for grossly distorting and fabricating news stories or harassing people day and night with media ‘dogs’. Not for them the loss of their licenses for regularly failing to allocate funds and program time necessary to fulfil their charters, not to mention an extensive list of other malpractices. Oh no, they spuriously claim, this would destroy free speech. If the necessary breakup of Murdoch’s control of 70 per cent of the press ever succeeded, how could it be effective if the new owners (like existing media) were not regulated and allowed to perpetuate current abuses?

Thesis Two: rational critique is futile in a world of excessive ‘ information’.

In his discussion of reason, truth and democracy, Justin Clemens unwittingly repeats Herbert Marcuse’s defence of Plato but with quite different political consequences. Between the 1930s and 1970s, Marcuse attempted to rescue Plato and Hegel from their use by Fascists and Stalinists as well as from Karl Popper’s defamation of them during the decades of the Cold War as ‘totalitarian’ enemies of the ‘open society’. Marcuse devoted much of his energy to exposing how a new form of ‘repressive tolerance’ devalued genuine democracy in Western capitalist technocratic societies that were based on rampant consumerism and market individualism. Conversely, Clemens appears to offer a radical critique, but quickly succumbs to illusions about the power of contemporary technology. Sadly, he espouses a deluded hyper-individualist solution to what he calls ‘the corporate state’ and the ‘network society’. How so?

The article’s second thesis is a modern extension of Plato’s critique of democracy. It is not that Plato is opposed to free speech and democracy because he favours tyranny. Rather, Plato wants reason and truth to prevail but democracy cannot deliver this because, as Clemens notes, ‘democracy is servitude to the tyranny of opinion, that is, to the media’. (p.25) Furthermore, ‘the new media undermine democracy today in ways that go far beyond anything Plato could have envisaged. If ancient democracy certainly had to deal with a variety of media, from public heckling to graffiti, these are small fry compared to the contemporary globalised post-convergent online media environment’. (p.25)

Thus, for Clemens, contemporary media simultaneously: ‘1) transform all forms of interaction into ‘information’ due to their technological conditions, 2) massively proliferate the modes of dissemination of information, 3) massively proliferate the quantities of information, 4) massively accelerate the speed of transmission of information, 5) necessitate that everybody purchase or at least have access to the technological devices for interacting with such information, 6) condition an unprecedented centralisation and control of the ownership of the means of representation’. (p.25)

Echoing writers such as Evgeny Morozov (The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom) on how social media help dictators control protest movements by tracking every dissenting keystroke, Clemens also makes some important observations on the proliferation and dissemination of ‘information’. However, he parts company with neo-Marxists such as Marcuse and moves from potential radical critique to dystopian technocratic pessimism.

In ‘Killer Drones’ Clemens is more preoccupied with the technological transformation of symbols and forms into ‘information’ rather than with how the media shape institutional policies or are in turn influenced by social struggles. Hence, his argument is a variation of the old theme that the medium is the message (that is, endless ‘information’). Clemens, paradoxically, sounds closer to the Catholic conservative Marshal McLuhan even though he places much emphasis on the centralised ownership and control of the new medium of ‘information’. Forsaking the Enlightenment tradition, he ends up pinning his hopes on an anti-democratic and anti-rationalist theory of toppling ‘the system’ by disease-induced ‘dieback’.

Just as Cervantes depicted Don Quixote’s chivalry as being superseded by emerging market relations, so Clemens sees Manne’s rational critique as historically obsolete. Against the new technology, he laments that not even the ‘heroic democratic attempts of Robert Manne’ (p.26) can hold back the ungovernable tide of centralisation of ‘information’. The explosion of ‘opinion/information’ neuters democracy and makes local criticism futile as it is just more fodder for online fibres. Despairing, he proclaims: ‘We now live in a world that is the bastard love-child of 1984 and Brave New World’. (p.26) Clemens’ melodramatic images appear to reduce our options to either accepting our fate as technological cyphers or committing suicide.

But wait, Clemens has an answer to this so-called ‘ungovernable centralisation’. Inspired by Julian Assange, he argues that Assange’s ‘method is not, despite appearances, one of democratic debate, of revelations of embarrassing secrets, of truth against corruption. Rather, it involves a systematic flooding of the system itself … Accelerate the barrage of information, accelerate the resources needed to deal with it—dieback as a non-linear informational tactic in the current war of humanity against the corporate state’. (p.26) He concludes that the ‘odds are that Manne’s classical model of critical debate won’t prove determining for our world, but Assange’s informational practice of dieback will’. (p.26)

To imagine that Julian Assange’s Wikileaks tactics can be repeated to such a degree that they lead to a breakdown of ‘the system’ not only exaggerates the impact of Wikileaks, but also is a phantasy that betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of the dynamics of capitalist societies. Even anarchists are more realistic, as confirmed by the title of an anti-terrorist pamphlet from the 1970s: ‘You can’t blow up a social relation’!  Like terrorists of the 1970s who believed that their isolated actions would trigger a revolutionary upheaval, Clemens advances no theory of mass politics because the social and the economic are either absent or crudely depicted in his analysis.

In fact, social and political movements appear to be irrelevant to his vision of constructing a new society. This is because Clemens sweepingly pronounces: ‘even if every single person seemed to be discussing public events with enthusiasm and energy, democracy has been neutered—for control of the means of discussion themselves have now literally been taken from their hands and mouths’. (p.26) Yet without mass citizen activism how will society be persuaded to give up smart phones, the Net and all other forms of new technology that he says have neutered democracy?  In other words, inducing dieback by flooding or jamming the political system with information is a delusionary authoritarian solution that is both impractical and unreal! Sadly, no new ideas or images of alternative social relations that could seriously challenge existing media businesses are on offer here.

Part of the reason for this technocratic pessimism is that Clemens presents a very conventional notion of democracy (existing representative democracy) which is itself at odds with the potential and actual proliferation of infinite numbers of new grass roots communities and network communities. Of course the new social media are full of inane forms of communication. But that is definitely not their only character or potential. Despite Clemens’ prognosis, no ungovernable centralised media ownership can completely control these proliferating social interactions.

Finally, Clemens no doubt supports the recent upsurge of movements such as the ‘Arab Spring’ and ‘Occupy’. Yet the implications of his analysis can also be read as diminishing the thousands of protesters struggling locally and losing their lives to overthrow authoritarian regimes. If ‘ungovernable centralisation’ is impervious to local criticism, does Clemens also fatalistically advise all kinds of oppositional movements to abandon hope of an alternative to either existing limited forms of representative democracy or to dictatorial regimes?

It is true that within Australia and other OECD countries there are currently very weak oppositional movements. The fact remains, however, that very serious destabilising economic and environmental scenarios confront the world. Only the shortsighted could believe that many existing businesses—whether in the media or other industry sectors—will have guaranteed futures in ten or more years’ time.

One thing we can predict is that neither public intellectuals, nor dieback saboteurs, can change the world on their own. This is precisely the time when a new political imagination and new forms of activism can help construct a more responsive and more democratic media. Hyper-individualist action heroes save Gotham city from corporate crooks, only in comic books. Aside from a few mass protests in the past (such as those outside the Melbourne Herald and The Australian during the 1970s for their anti-Labor bias), the media in Australia has always thought that it is a law unto itself, and untouchable. This contemptuous attitude will only last as long as the rest of us remain silent.

Professor Boris Frankel is the author of several books on contemporary Australia and is an Honorary Fellow in the Melbourne School of Land and Environment at the University of Melbourne.

For a fuller discussion of the media that is still highly relevant, see ‘The Threat of Cultural Enclosure’ in Boris Frankel, Zombies, Lilliputians and Sadists: The Power of the Living Dead and the future of Australia, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2004.


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