Monday, April 04, 2005


On-line Opinion has a piece by David Flint on the subject of--wait for it--the "left-wing bias of Australia's media elite."

Before dissecting it, let's recall the words of fellow conservative Gerard Henderson, responding to Flint's 2003 book Twilight of the Elites:

If words have meaning, Professor David Flint AM would be regarded as the member of an elite. Educated in Sydney, London and Paris, he became a tenured professor in law. In 1997 the Howard Government appointed Flint as chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Authority, one of the most influential positions in Australian public life. According to Who's Who in Australia 2003, he is a member of Sydney's Union Club.
But Flint, notes Henderson, reckons he's not a member of an elite. This because Twilight of the Elites defines elitism as being "left-wing on social and cultural issues." To be more specific, elites are "(i) republican, (ii) favour reconciliation, (iii) are weak on border protection, (iv) oppose Australia's involvement in Iraq, (v) favour a significant increase in Australia's population, (vi) tolerate abortion and (vii) are soft on divorce." As a "conservative intellectual," Flint has "let down the team," according to Henderson, and he is symptomatic of "the inherent weakness of Australia's political conservatives compared with counterparts in Britain and the US."

I don't normally agree with Henderson, and I must admit when I first encountered his review of Twilight of the Elites, I felt he was being a touch hypocritical castigating Flint for using the term elite as "a brand, or label, and is used scores of times in Flint's book as a putdown for those he disagrees with"--when Henderson has his own favourite ad hominem which he routinely hurls at ideological enemies. Nonetheless, if Flint has valid criticisms to make of political bias in the media, he should get on with making them without recourse to a sneer word such as elite which adds nothing to the cogency of his arguments.

Flint's On-line Opinion piece is adapted from a speech he gave at the launch of his new book, Malice in Medialand. Flint is sore about the criticism he received last year that his association with Alan Jones while Flint was still Australian Broadcasting Association chairman constituted a conflict of interests. He's particularly sore at David Marr and ABC's Media Watch, which exposed the scandal. And he's clearly smarting still from a recent interview with Radio National's "Media Report," in which he was made to look a right dickhead as his contentions about media bias were clinically destroyed by the interviewer. Let's look at some of Flint's assertions:
A clear distinction must always, always, be made between the objective search for the truth, the news and opinion. In return, and with the obvious exception of the taxpayer-funded public broadcasters, the media are free to express their opinion however robust and partisan that may be.

This argument suffers from inconsistency. If, so long as the clear separation of truth and opinion is observed, the non-taxpayer-funded media are "free to express their opinion however robust and partisan that may be," there is no reason why the same should not apply to the "taxpayer-funded public broadcasters. Conversely, if taxpayer-funded public broadcasters are not free to express their opinions, neither should this freedom extend to the commercial media. In other words, if as Flint believes it is possible for media outlets to separate truth from opinion, whether they are "taxpayer-funded" or not is irrelevant. Flint does not attempt to justify why public broadcasters should be treated differently from commercial broadcasters (he merely asserts that it is "obvious" that they should), nor does he suggest whose opinion, if not their own, public broadcasters should be expressing.
When the president of an English teachers’ association, who chairs a government curriculum committee, recently editorialised that his English teachers had failed because generations of former students had re-elected John Howard, he well and truly let the cat out of the bag. This was that much of our children’s tuition has been requisitioned to promote a left-wing political agenda, even in the teaching of English.
Nope--this is a hasty generalisation. To establish whether "much of our children's tuition has been requisitioned to promote a left-wing political agenda," there would need to be undertaken a thorough, rigourous, independent and objective investigation of Australian school curricula. Flint cannot leap to such a conclusion on the basis of the opinions of one individual. Even if he's the president of an English teacher's association. (As an aside, there are some interesting exchanges on this topic at Troppo Armadillo).
This is only part of that same long march by the left-wing intelligentsia, the elites, through so many of the institutions of our nation. This includes much of our elite media, which remain a significant agenda setter for all the other media. David Marr, the former presenter of ABC TV’s Media Watch has decreed that if journalists do not come from a “soft-leftie kind of culture” they should “get another job”.
Long March? Spectres of Mao aside, Flint has in another article been generous enough to publish Marr's comment in a (slightly) fuller context: "The natural culture of journalism is kind of vaguely soft-Left inquiry sceptical of authority. I mean, that's just the world out of which journalists come. If they don't come out of that world, they really can't be reporters. I mean, if you're not sceptical of authority, find another job. You know, just find another job. And that is kind of a soft-leftie kind of culture." The Radio National Big Ideas programme from which the comments have been taken is no longer available, so we can't really judge whether Flint is citing Marr judiciously. Marr makes no secret of his political inclinations (mind you, neither does Flint); nor does he make any bones about what he considers to be Flint's "kindergarten notion of balance": "That there is a left and that there is a right and you sit in the middle. That is just simply illusionary. I think all broadcasting must be fair, but the illusion that there is some kind of set spot where you can sit and that's impartial is simply nonsensical." But again, Flint is making a hasty generalisation. Marr's views on what he believes to be the "natural culture of journalism"--whatever their merits--do not by themselves constitute evidence of systemic left-wing media bias, much less the "long march by the left-wing intelligentsia, the elites, through so many of the institutions of our nation."
Accordingly, instead of objectively investigating and reporting on the great issues of the nation, the elite media now serve the public a never ending diet of partisan opinion disguised as facts based comment, often indistinguishable from the news, the items of which are regularly selected to be consistent with their agenda. A corps of campaigning political journalists has descended into the political arena as participants who are both unelected and unaccountable, unashamedly advancing an agenda that is out of touch and alien to the overwhelming majority of Australians. To put this takeover in context, what would the reaction be if instead of a left agenda, the elite media campaigned for a far right agenda, key features of which enjoyed the support and interest of only 10 per cent of the population?
First, Flint offers no definition for "the elite media." We can perhaps safely assume they include the ABC, the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald--given that for Flint, "elite" means "left-wing." (In which case, why doesn't he just say "left-wing?") Well, to use Flint's terms, if the elite media were to suddenly embrace a "far right agenda," they wouldn't be "elite" anymore, would they? He offers not even so much as a single example of what he considers to be "opinion disguised as facts." He curiously describes "elite" journalists as "both unelected and unaccountable"--is he suggesting we should elect journalists? He describes their "agenda" as "out of touch and alien to the overwhelming majority of Australians," enjoying the "support and interest of only 10 per cent of the population"--and he provides no empirical data to support this claim.
The problem with the Australian media is not in the robust opinions on the peoples’ forum - talkback radio - it is in the wider issue of the conversion of a once respected apprentice based trade, under firm editorial direction, into a buccaneering, uncontrollable commentariat, freer than ever before from editorial and managerial control. This malady dominates the columns of those once dignified, restrained and objective newspapers that formerly served as respected journals of record. It has also resulted in the elites requisitioning far too much of the national news and current affairs on the taxpayer-funded public broadcasting spectrum, thus demonstrating a suicidal tendency. Experience indicates that the axe, when it comes, is more likely to be wielded by a conservative Labor government.
Flint's flagrant embrace of double-standards here is breathtaking. Out of one corner of his mouth, he utters pieties about keeping facts separate from opinion; out of the the other, he celebrates the very forum ("the people's forum") which thrives upon not keeping facts separate from opinions--talkback radio. Again: if the "elite" media shouldn't do it, nor should the "people's" media. And how on earth does "firm editorial control"--or more seriously, the threat of the government "axe"-- contribute to the democracy, media freedom and freedom of speech Flint claims to champion?

Then there's this howler:
The villain in this has above all been the unelected and unaccountable US Supreme Court, which in this and other fields has unashamedly usurped for itself a legislative role.
No, David. It's called the separation of powers. Nobody has "usurped" anything.
While part of the answer here lies in more freedom from overbroad laws, in return for more responsibility, another part of the answer is already being provided via the market by readers, listeners and viewers. They are losing confidence in the elite media, relying more and more on alternatives such as talkback, tabloid and the internet. The power of the internet was well demonstrated in the US when a humble blogger exposed a fraudulent attack on the reputation of George W. Bush, which led to the downfall of Dan Rather.

Flint is only partly correct here: people are seeking alternatives--but it never occurs to him that some of this drift can be attributed to the commercial media's predominantly conservative biases (there are a lot of left-wing blogs around too, you know). Which are perfectly fine as far as Flint is concerned: he's only interested in the "elite" media's upholding of journalistic standards. The commercial media, as he says, are free to be as partisan as they like.

(And couldn't the downfall of Dan Rather due to efforts of a "humble blogger" be considered Malice in Medialand?)