Sunday, March 25, 2012

'Freedom' Versus Truth

Judged by the hysterical reaction of the media and its think tank boosters to the modest ideas of the Finkelstein inquiry, journalism's ultimate arbiter is the market. If the press' output is no good, the public will not buy it. Or so the story goes.

It's a neat trick that equates freedom of the press with the notion of an unfettered capitalist free market. Anything that stands between the desire of media companies to make a profit by selling audiences to advertisers must automatically be an attack on freedom.

In opposing the arguments of the apologists for lousy journalism, one is cast as a totalitarian and a meddling statist, as someone endorsing the government interfering in our lives. All this from a sensible suggestion from the Finkelstein inquiry that its proposed News Media Council be government-funded (and staffed by journalists and editors).

Not addressed in all this spittle-flecked hysteria is the question of how public funding would make a media regulator less independent than the current arrangement where the regulator is media-funded. Indeed, as we have seen, the Press Council can be quickly deprived of funding should its paymasters find themselves displeased with its adjudications.

To someone who no longer depends on making a living from the media, it is instructive to observe how much one's former employers are acting like any other self-interested lobby under attack. In fact, it's fair to say there is an inverse relationship between the grubby self-interest of their cause and the high-mindedness of their borrowed rhetoric.

As the Guardian columnist George Monbiot put it recently, the "freedom" championed by the press barons is really a bastardised libertarianism, one in which vague notions of liberty are prostituted to justify exploitation. Monbiot cites the backlash against better banking regulation in the wake of the GFC, but the reactionary response to Finkelstein is cut from the same cloth.
"In the name of freedom – freedom from regulation – the banks were permitted to wreck the economy. In the name of freedom, taxes for the super-rich are cut. In the name of freedom, companies lobby to drop the minimum wage and raise working hours. In the same cause, US insurers lobby Congress to thwart effective public healthcare; the government rips up our planning laws; big business trashes the biosphere. This is the freedom of the powerful to exploit the weak, the rich to exploit the poor."
When reading these rallying calls, it serves to ask: How is "freedom" compromised by ensuring members of the public, the victims of poor journalistic practice, have a prominently published right of reply or correction? Whose freedoms are we protecting here? The truth  is we are being asked to rank the rights of those who own the presses above those with no recourse to the megaphone that mass media provides.
Think of it this way: At its peak, The News of the World was the biggest selling newspaper in the English-speaking world. Judged by the market, this was an extremely successful enterprise. But judged by the principles of journalism, this was a rag staffed by muckrakers prepared to hack the phones of dead children for a story.

Wrapped up in all these self-serving defences of lousy, low-rent journalism is the idea that freedom in the economic market (the idea of freedom that the Right has been espousing as the sole freedom for the past 30 years) is  the ultimate condition for democracy to flourish. Most journalists go into the profession by advocating a belief in the  internal ends of their craft - which is the enlightenment of their readership irrespective of the commercial imperatives of their employers. That quickly changes  under the pressures of careerism and the internalised and clannish cultures of the media institutions that employ them. A good story is a "good yarn". And a good yarn is what sells.

This is at the crux of the breakdown between the notion of a free press - one whose aim is an informed  and critical citizenry - and a commercially successful press - one which commands a certain number of eyeballs looking at the ads of the client base - the advertisers. In a landmark paper written 20 years ago, the English philosopher  John O' Neill showed vividly how devotion to the idea of the "free market" undermines the relation between journalism and democracy.
"The disruption that the market causes to the relationship between journalism and democracy (is that) to survive within the marketplace, the press has to satisfy the preference of its consumers. However, this market imperative is incompatible with the diversity which the market is claimed to engender: Far from encouraging a diversity of opinion, the marketplace encourages the producer to present news in a way which is congruent with the pre-existing values and beliefs of its audience."*
This is another way of saying that the path to success in business is to give the public what it wants. If you're selling refrigerators, that's a good strategy. But in journalism, it's a good way to ensure you compromise what you set out  to do - to give people the Truth irrespective of their individual prejudices. Yes, you can make money the other way, but if profit margin and readership were the barometers of good journalism, The News of the World would still be in business. O'Neill puts it this way:
"While truth-telling might be constitutive of journalism as a practice, the free market entails that in practice it plays quite a subsidiary role. It is rather a function of the perceived market at which the story is aimed. A free market in the press will tend to work against the ideal of an informed and critical citizenry. It rarely confronts its consumers with information, beliefs and knowledge which do not conform to their pre-existing prejudice - because it cannot afford to do so."
 In the end, that's what all this debate is all about. What they can afford to do. They can't afford to do a good job by way of their readers. So they don't. And we're living with the consequences.

(See also similar common sense from Alan Kohler here).

*Professor John O'Neill, 'Journalism in the Marketplace', part of 'Ethical Issues in Journalism and the Media', Belsey and Chadwick (ed); Routledge, 1992.


  1. A hit Mr D. A palpable hit!
    The "media" industry has been in such a frantic meltdown since Finkelstein released his report, that you'd swear the sky had already fallen.
    Normally sane journalists, pouring forth with a piteous outcry about crimes against free speech. Hell, you'd swear the hand of Rupert Murdoch was hovering over every keyboard :-)
    Instead, they appear to want Clive Palmer & Gina Reinhart to uphold their cry for freedom.....Let's call it the 70/30% rule.
    Wankers the lot of them!

  2. Five stars Mr-D. The hysteric pre-inquiry wailing started on announcement of the Inquiry. The embedded media will continue to screech until whatever become the regulations, if anything. We at least can enjoy the entertainment that the Inquiry transcripts provide and the `failed-estate-circus-of-panic` as they try to make excuses about their right to peddle bullshit as the `public`good.

  3. Monbiot did a pretty nice explainer of 1984 `double-think` too. There is a documentary of a young Carl Rove, probably still in college, who really designed a lot of this `double-think` that is going on in the media and politics. I can`t remember the film name but, highly recommend watching. It was about Rove working out how to capture voter segments (christian, firearm) for the Republicans. Very scary/ educational.

  4. Thats a lovely academic quote from Prof. O'Neill.
    May I paraphrase it and simplify it? Albeit with recourse to some jargon.

    In a capitalist society the capitalist media spreads capitalist propaganda.


  5. Another beautifully constructed article and one that resonates completely.

    Thank you


    1. An excellent and much-needed analysis, Mr D

  6. Excellent article. It debunks one of the many flawed arguments that the champions of the status quo employ.

    I believe that some of these champions know that their arguments are flawed but employ them anyway to maintain the status quo that benefits them and disadvantages others.

    I think there are also some champions that have honestly been captured by the ideology of liberalism and the sacred cow called Freedom of the Press and don’t realise that there are many flaws in their arguments.

    It’s time that these flaws were brought to the attention of a wider audience and your article does an excellent job of advancing that cause.

    I’ve also written a couple of articles exposing the logical flaws in the arguments of thaose that oppose sensible media regulation.

    The first one is titled "Freedom of the press argument is deceitful" [] and debunks the argument that says that the public is smart enough to identify biased and untruthful media for themselves and that therefore we don’t need any regulation.

    Here’s a summary of the second post titled "What's better than freedom of the press?" []

    Many of the opponents of media regulation will blindly hold aloft the sacred cow of the freedom of the press as if it's an indisputable truth that can not be surpassed by anything else.

    Well I dispute its importance.

    Freedom of the press is not the essential ingredient that ensures a well functioning democracy - its truth in media that's most important...

    Freedom of the press may or may not lead to a diversity of opinion, and a diversity of opinion may or may not lead to the truth being made public.

    What's important for society and democracy is that the truth is made public; and if we could get to the truth via another path other than through freedom of media and diversity then we should be prepared to take that path, rather than to keep holding aloft the sacred cow of freedom of the press.

    Freedom of the press is a means of getting to the desired goal – it is not the desired goal – but some people have made it so.

    Truth is the goal.

    Sometimes freedom will lead to truth but sometimes it won't... its not the freedom we seek ... its the truth we seek!

    If we make this paradigm shift then the debate will become very different.

    I've written a couple of blog posts related to this subject on my blog and I'd appreciate hearing your opinion of the arguments I put forward there.


  7. Have you noticed that people say " Oh everyone knows the media doesn't inform Duhh !!" But then rarely stops to consider what they're not being informed about !

    I can only conclude this mass cognitive dissonance is due to the brainwashing .