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The new media laws: a fig leaf to conceal bargains among thieves

By Peter West - posted Thursday, 20 July 2006


Helen Coonan, Federal Minister for Communications, has announced some media reforms. Unfortunately the word “reform” has an unpleasant edge to it. One recalls the doubtful democracy of the Democratic Republic of East Germany (in which people were paid to inform on members of their own families). Or the excesses of the Peoples Republic of China (in which ordinary people, teachers and intellectuals, were terrorised by their own students). Will the changes “reform” the problems we see in the Australian media?

Let’s look at each sector in turn.

Australian newspapers offer us conventional views of the world. They have become dominated by their advertisers. Snip out the advertisments from the first few pages and you aren’t left with a lot.

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The opinion pages of the Sydney Morning Herald, for instance, have sadly declined from what they were. All we get is a trail of instant experts with conventional views: people who know all about feminism one week, atheism the next, Christianity the week after. Add some politicians, some token academics, and this, apparently, makes up educated opinion. Mercifully, the paper occasionally has some useful or amusing comment from Peter Fitzsimons, Mike Carlton, or others. There might be an in-depth piece about some research that’s provocative or thought-provoking. But these pieces are few in number.

In many Australian papers, we often read about expensive clothes and restaurants when all we want are basic ones. One journalist wrote sadly that people were turning away from meals at $75 a plate. Who do these people imagine they are writing for? The same applies to luxury travel, when most of us want something cheaper.

There is little depth in many of the arguments: often a serious reader looks in vain for content that is well-researched. As a researcher whose work is reported in the papers, I have spoken to countless journalists pushing their own barrows and indulging their pet interests. “What would you like me to say?” I am tempted to ask.

They are not investigating a story: they have the good guys and the bad all worked out already. Here as elsewhere, “freedom of the press” means that journalists should be allowed to say anything they feel like. Wrong!

There are individual journalists striving to do a decent job among many who have given up. But one looks in vain for the insight and gravitas of the New York Times or Washington Post. Score: 4 out of 10; needs to improve.

The commercial TV stations outdo each other for crass silliness, and an endless parade of fake celebrities. How many more celebrity shows can we endure? It’s one kind of boofy stupidity “competing” with another, as we can see from the news programs.

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The stupidly matey “Roscoe” and “Freddy” on Seven are only outdone by similar people doing equally tedious things on Nine. Style reigns over substance: attractive people in expensive clothes mouth truisms and platitudes. Often the Sydney TV news shows simply re-hash what was in the morning’s Sydney Telegraph.

Who could forget the infantile, flag-waving “Aussie Aussie Aussie” coverage of the Commonwealth Games? On most of the current affairs programs, brainless journalists offer critique at about the level of a poor fifth-grade class. Someone presents one view, and the TV show hurries to confront us with the opposite. This means the show is being fair and balanced in the juvenile mind of the producer.

Even TV weather misleads us: almost every day reporters urge us to go to the snowfields, but those who do so find that they have hidden the fact there is little snow to ski on. Meanwhile Ten usually manages to outdo the others in trite comment and breathless detail about trivia. Big Brother only shows us to what depths commercial media will sink.

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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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