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Our media are a national tragedy

By Peter West - posted Tuesday, 16 February 2016


Any system of government is imperfect. In a democracy, government is only as good as the information provided to voters. But according to Robert Michels' iron law of oligarchy, decisions will always be made by a small number of people. The rest are too busy, too weighed down by work and family, too drunk, too tired or too apathetic. And in a democracy we always have to rely on the media to provide good information to the population to have any chance at all of making decisions which might possibly benefit the wider population.

Thus it's essential that we understand the media and be aware of what's wrong with it. The following is just a start.

Once upon a time, journalists reported what happened. This is far from true today. The media try to convert endless events into a kind of opera. And just as in the opera, we're looking for dramatis personae to make those events come to life and reach out to the masses. And this is what we get.

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First, the media are always looking for villains. People are weary from work and the daily struggle to get to and from it. A really evil villain might make them angry. That's good. Villains sell newspapers and make people watch TV. Today social media is great at drumming up outrage; some guy says rape is good. Someone else is accused of being racist. This is always an easy charge to accuse people of, and it puts them on the defensive. Meanwhile the accuser can sit back and pose as victim (as we shall see). Chris Gayle crudely propositioned a journalist. It was boorish and inappropriate, but I felt the continued outrage was largely to get more publicity for the rather dull game of cricket and draw in more money from advertising. Gayle's pattern of behaviour was well known when he was invited. The guy advocating rape? That was just a bit of a nasty joke to get free publicity, sell books and increase his notoriety. Perhaps to get onto talk shows. So we eventually discovered, in this case, that all the outraged people wasted their time. And the media helped them do it. There was no apology, of course. The hardest words for the media to say : "We were wrong".

Second, the converse: the media is hungry for victims. Every day there is a procession of people begging for attention, or saying that governments don't care about them (and they probably don't). Or that some electricity company has shut off their power. Or that they have been overcharged by some store. Or someone has been rude to them. All of this happens every day in any society. TV especially needs victims. Someone said years ago that any child dying in a cancer ward was at risk of having TV cameras sweep in with some sad-faced reporter hoping to get the kid to cry on-camera and boost viewer numbers. Social media seems to have an enormous hunger for victims of all kinds. Imagine what we could do if we harnessed the time and energy spent on this into something productive, like improving literacy!

Third, we all need heroes. Heroes come to save the victims. Heroes can be surgeons. Or heart experts. Perhaps a brilliant teacher. Or people telling us how to lose weight with some new diet (there seem to be hundreds of these). The NSW Premier, Mike Baird, seems to set himself up as hero and he has a lot of people and money churning out propaganda telling us so. There are "information" campaigns- such as TV advertisements telling us why we need fewer councils. And various social media campaigns. One example was that Baird spent hours dressing up as a sloth (yes, really!) for some disastrous campaign against marijuana. It was later canned as a failure. Our taxes at work, I suppose.

Note that these characters are reversible. Thus when a footballer is found taking hard drugs, urinating in public, or running naked through a public place, he is presented as a villain. There is an outpouring of anger and hostility, probably deservedly, in social media and the internet. Experts from various universities come forward and say something like "Oh, we're working to improve this behaviour". Or "yes, isn't this dreadful; it's typical of men because….". Just as this outrage seems to be dying down, along comes the footballer in a nice shot of himself in a clean shirt with cute small daughters and a lovable puppy and says "I'm very upset and my family has been suffering because of all the nasty messages and although I acted badly and I'm so ashamed I let my family down but now they're upset and it's not fair that…". And so the villain does an about-turn, discovers that he has a family, and becomes a victim. Along come more experts and...you get the picture.

Fourth, the media like nothing more than talking about themselves. Someone said this to a journalist, or a shock jock said that. How amazing, that a journalist wants to make headlines and grab media attention! Let's see if we can make a shocking issue of that! What do viewers think? Or we make more publicity for some dumb movie. Thus in the Sydney Morning Herald today (11 February) there are three separate stories about Zoolander 2. None of it is terribly flattering, but as they say, good or bad, it's all free publicity- and for the second number of a movie which was a waste of time in the first place. Movies are promoted on TV. TV is discussed in movies. Radio shock jocks take up fake issues of so-called public concern which really are just puffing up other media and their own self-importance.

Fifth, the use of the first and second personal pronouns are endemic. Take your highlighter for fun one day and highlight in the paper every time you read "I found…" "we went and ate…" the other day I saw…" . It's so often something about what happened to ME. Every issue becomes about ME and what I think and what MY girlfriend did or MY mum or MY budgerigar . Could we have some return to sanity and objectivity, please? Who cares about you? There are many examples, including the travel sections in TV or newspapers, invariably about ME and MY trip and what I looked like, what I ate, or how much I was sick after that curry in Bangalore. And numerous examples of TV shows in which the presenter is in the frame about seventy per cent of the time and talks non-stop. On commercial TV we get tedious Americans and Aussies. On ABC-TV it's even more tedious Pommies. Again, no objectivity.

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Sixth, pious statements are everywhere. I have already mentioned the way that people gleefully accuse others of being racist. We could add to the list misogynistic, homophobic, anti-this or anti-that, etc etc etc. It's become hard to distinguish comments that are genuinely racist from all the ones that seem frivolous. And so we get some people campaigning against all such accusations, which seems excessive, though understandable.

In Australia, the ABC is especially fond of pious statements. We get special sections on the news lecturing us about racism, domestic violence, refugees or any number of causes. I thought this was supposed to be the news – that is, what happened today? The ABC seems so often like a kindergarten teacher. "Now, children, sit up straight, listen to me and I'll tell you something really interesting..." "You must see this issue as really about the unfairness of…." And we are told yet again how to frame things and how to think. Underlying this is arrogance and self-congratulation. "We'll tell those simple peasants something they need to know". And its attempt to be virtuous makes it open to ridicule. Apparently it is a major crime if a current affairs program like Q and A does not have enough Muslims, or women, or transgender people, and so on. All very well, I suppose. But where does this end? Must every program have a Buddhist, or someone under 20, or a Xenophon supporter, or a Pentecostalist, or a person with one leg, or a bald head? Is every person worth hearing? Absolutely not. (For my part, I simply turn off the TV, as I find yapping people tedious and I hate being lectured).

SBS is just as bad in its own way, with its usual stock of pet causes and dislike of anyone unfortunate enough to be a white Australian. Or still worse, a male white old Australian, clearly responsible for every evil anywhere, and oppressing everyone just by being alive. Many of its attempts to set up fake debates have been a waste of public money, to say the least.

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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