The Australian press has spent much of the past two weeks bitching about the government’s proposed media reforms. The Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has been likened to all manner of despots, from Stalin to Mao. The word ‘censorship’ has been used beyond rhyme and reason. And the ‘media barons’ descended on Canberra to protest this threat to an “invaluable part of our democracy”. But all this overlooks the fact that Australia’s mainstream media spends the vast proportion of their time on sensation, and little on advancing the type of debate and transparency a democracy requires. If the proposed media reforms really do amount to censorship of Australia’s mainstream media, how much will this affect our democracy?
As an example, if we look at the headlines and front pages of the Sydney Morning Herald from the last week; Julia Gillard is there four times, Eddie Obeid is on there once, and there is one each on Australia’s affinity for drugs and alcohol, and the threat of midwives walking off the job. Now, let’s break this down further. The coverage of the Eddie Obeid corruption inquiries are undoubtedly a valuable public service, exposing corruption at high levels. So too is the coverage of the understaffing of hospitals. But the drugs and alcohol report is the coverage of a survey of just 22,000 worldwide (only 6,000 of whom were Australian) and presents such startling revelations as the amount of Australians taking prescription drugs. And of the four Julia Gillard piece only one or them isn’t to do with speculation over an ALP leadership spill. So, in seven days, in one very politically important week and on the most important real estate of one of Australia’s better respected newspapers, only three days were devoted to covering stories important for public debate and our democracy. We poor plebeians are obviously in the SMH’s debt.
The coverage of the media reforms was a golden opportunity for the Australian Press to contribute positively to public debate – a task at which they have utterly failed in recent times (Google ‘mining tax’, ‘carbon tax’, or ‘boat people’). I agree that the fourth estate is an important part of a democracy. And normally I would agree that the media should be given wide latitude in order to raise public debate and shine a light. But the simple fact is that Australia’s mainstream media are not as concerned with advancing democracy as they would have us believe. They are more concerned with poll watching and speculation over Kevin Rudd than properly scrutinising the Government. Even now, when they have a reasonable case to make against the governments policies, the media are resorting to vitriol and hyperbole in order to kick up a stink, sell papers, and defeat a proposition they dislike. When we could have had rationed debate, we have photoshopped images of Stephen Conroy as Stalin.
The best coverage of Australia’s democracy consistently comes from the ABC (including the coverage of Eddie Obeid and the media reforms), which is already under more draconian rules than what the media reform proposes. Truly, in the scheme of things, the Australian mainstream media are nothing more than political paparazzi. Why the hell do we need that protected for our democracy to be safe?