February 3, 2015

Reforming the people

By Dominic Kelly
Why doesn't mainstream media write in the interests of its readers?

I am no poetry buff. Some Banjo Paterson, a little William Blake via the film Dead Man, Dorothea Mackellar’s ‘My Country’ – that’s about the extent of my knowledge. But Bertolt Brecht’s ‘Die Lösung’ (The Solution), composed in response to a 1953 East German workers’ revolt, violently suppressed by Soviet troops, holds special appeal to me as a student of politics.

After the uprising of the 17th June
The Secretary of the Writers’ Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

In recent months, I have often been reminded of the poem, less so by out-of-touch governments than by their supporters in the conservative and pro-business press. These commentators seem utterly bewildered by the idea that ordinary people don’t particularly like it when they are asked to carry the burden of “budget repair”, while any criticism of tax dodging by the rich is brushed off as the “politics of envy”.

Paul Kelly of the Australian, so certain of his keen grasp of the political landscape, provided a standout example of this obliviousness in response to Victorian Labor’s state election win:

“The days when ‘good policy is good politics’ are long gone. The nation and its political system remain in denial. Australia resembles an immature country willing to risk its future and impose greater long-run adjustment hardship on the community.”

Now the Liberal National Party’s electoral disaster in Queensland, combined with the increasing acceptance that Tony Abbott is incapable of national leadership, has the conservative commentariat in despair. Though many have criticised Abbott, Campbell Newman and other conservative politicians, their most bitter ire is reserved for the Australian people: immature, selfish and unwilling to recognise what is best for them.

Sydney’s Daily Telegraph best displayed this contempt for ordinary people:

“Voters are evidently turning away from parties that are determined to solve Australia’s budget problems and are instead turning to parties that created those problems in the first place. This is a consequence of living in an age of entitlement, during which many voters are obviously content to keep increasing debts and deficits rather than make even the slightest sacrifices in the interests of long-term budgetary health.”

Following the public’s rejection of cuts to Medicare, universities and workers’ rights, the Australian Financial Review fears that Australia “has lost the capacity to make the sort of difficult policy decisions required to preserve our recent high point of prosperity and hence security”. Meanwhile, the Australian bemoans a culture in which “politicians who sprout populist rhetoric, eschew the need for serious policy and cravenly seek to torpedo a reform program can be rewarded”. (No such complaints, however, when the Coalition campaigned against and then repealed Labor’s carbon and mining taxes.)

Newspaper editors and journalists like to see themselves as having their fingers on the pulse of the nation, always attentive to changes in the public mood. They can then use their megaphones to pass on important messages to governments. But in recent years this formula has been turned on its head, as chummy journalists, on behalf of politicians, try in vain to convince the public of the necessity of “fiscal reform”.

It is difficult not to see this detachment as being part of the explanation for the collapsing prospects of Australia’s major daily newspapers. As their writers have internalised the neoliberal thinking of their friends in business and government, their concerns have appeared increasingly distant from those of the rest of us. This may be understandable for a publication like the Financial Review, which is obviously pitched at business and political elites. But for News Corp’s tabloids and its flagship broadsheet, all of which claim to speak on behalf of the “mainstream”, it is only serving to hasten their descent into irrelevance.

Those in the News Corp stable might be left with no option but to dissolve the people and elect another.

Dominic Kelly

Dominic Kelly is a PhD candidate and tutor in politics at La Trobe University. He tweets from @illywhacker_.

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