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Getting the media we deserve


The News of the World phone hacking scandal has exposed newspapers, police and politicians to uncomfortable questions about relationships at the top of British society. One question less aired but equally relevant (in Australia, as much as the UK) is the nature of the relationship between the public and the media more generally.

The media often present themselves as lenses on the world, upholding the public's 'right to know'. They can be right. For some time, however, people have suggested that, even in a democracy, media outlets can be quite selective about what they report and how they do it.

In 1988, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman stated that the interests of advertisers, political elites and media owners (among other factors) have a disproportionate influence on the media and its focus. Drawing on an essay by Walter Lippmann in 1922, they used the term 'manufacturing consent' to describe this distortion.

It is certainly true that in this internet age, we rely on the media not only for information ('if it's not on Google, it doesn't exist'), but often also for our opinions about the world around us. In short, the (print, broadcast and electronic) media all too often tell us what to see and think.

On the other hand, it is too easy to wring our hands and blame the media for bias and shoddy practices. There is a symbiotic relationship between media and the public. The brutal fact is that media present to its readers/viewers the world that they wish to view — whether its 'sleb' gossip, football or anything else.

We like our fix of gossip and outrage — viewed, of course, through our favourite political spectacles — and are not always too concerned how we get it. That is notoriously why tabloids sell. As Billy Bragg puts it in his recent song about the scandal, 'Scousers Never Buy the Sun', 'Everyone who loves that kiss and tell, You must share the blame as well.'

The tabloids may try to boost this demand but they do not create it.

Indeed, it was only when the scandal reached a level where the lurid details would sell newspapers (alleged hacking of the phones of relatives of dead soldiers and a teenage murder victim) that it came to the forefront of British national consciousness. Previous enquiries into phone-hacking (and even an apparent admission to a Parliamentary committee of payments to the police for information back in 2003) did not have the same impact.

While we in Australia may not have the same issues as Britain, it is not hard to find media outlets which both manufacture and pander to consent.

A 2010 parliamentary report notes that Australia received 0.6 per cent of the world's asylum seekers in 2009. Fewer than 50 per cent of these arrived by boat. Of those who did, 70–90 per cent had their claims to refugee status upheld. However, rhetoric and policies aimed at asylum seekers have been an accepted part of political life in Australia for a number of years now.

Some of this may be due to media misreporting. But, uncomfortably, there is evidence that the papers and the parties know that this rhetoric both sells papers and wins votes. As recently as 27 June, The Australian reported a Lowy Institute poll claiming that 72 per cent of Australians were concerned about the arrival of boat people; of that number, 88 per cent believed they 'jumped the queue' and 86 per cent believed they were a security risk.

Given such a high level of misconception and mistrust, it would be surprising if there were not media outlets willing to capitalise on it. Doing so, of course, allows them to enhance the mistrust — which, in turn, makes them more popular.

What to do? We live in an age where 24-hour news makes it hard to stop and think critically about the endless stream of sound-bites. Yet, in the final analysis, we have a right to decide what we buy or watch and whether we check facts and question assertions or unethical practice. No-one can take that from us. We allow bad journalism to flourish if we do not demand good journalism. 

Justin GlynJustin Glyn SJ is a first year Jesuit scholastic studying theology and philosophy in Melbourne. He previously practised law in South Africa and New Zealand. He completed a PhD in international and administrative law (looking at fundamental principles of international human rights law and their effects on domestic immigration and refugee cases) in 2008. 

Topic tags: Justin Glyn, Rupert Murdoch, news of the world, news international, phone hacking scandal



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Existing comments

Here we go again! It seems fine to condemn the “media” for being biased and at the same time provide free promotion to the people smuggling industry.

Why not face the fact that every writer has his or her opinions. Opinions often cloud facts and prevent a balanced and fair outlook. The commercial media is not a charity, but a business to make money. A sensational headline always sell better than a boring “in depth academic analysis” of social issues. The key is better education of our children and to make sure they can have a balanced view of everything. I think some form of media study should be an integrated part of education.

Beat Odermatt | 21 July 2011  

In many occcupations there is a conflict between the quality of the product and maximising profit but in the 'professions' the needs of the customer are expected to come first.

This is the accepted conduct of medical doctors, for example, but what of journalists, or, more precisely, those who determine the content of newspapers?
A recent biography of the famous Age editor, Graham Perkin, shows that the owners,together with the influence of advertisers, decide the policy: what is emphasised and what is left out.

In a democracy, the attention of readers should be directed towards significant news and this should be presented with fairness but may be impossible to achieve with the present control of the news media. Any ideas for improvement from Eureka readers?

Bob Corcoran | 21 July 2011  

The conundrum is still the same - do the media manufacture public opinion and priorities, or do they merely reflect them? I go back to WW2 when the massive Fascist propaganda machine dehumanised the Jewish people to such an extent that they were so persecuted and suffer the Holocaust. The German people were no different from any of us, they were not inhuman but were subjected to an unrelenting and highly skilled propaganda that brought success to the racist and the bigots.

In these days of highly invasive technologies, there is an even greater likelyhood that the media will permeate our perceptions and shape our opinions. I have no doubt that there is a practically systematic censorship of certain facts relating to refugees and asylum seekers, which makes it much easier for them to be blamed and dehumanised. The media are powerful and it is not easy to make them accountable, as demonstrated by the tribulations of those people who are trying to get News Ltd to account for their actions in the phone hacking scandals.

Eveline Goy | 21 July 2011  

I don't have a horse in this race. We should indeed be generous in welcoming refugees from regimes that are blighted because they are suffering in that they lack the privilege of the traditional Western values expressed in Christendom (broadly interpreted, including the rule of law and the Westminster system) as we by Providence do.

But I'm intrigued: exactly how does the relevant proposition in the fourth last paragraph ("A 2010...") disprove the two enunciated views of a majority of Australians as expressed in the third last paragraph ("Some of...")?

HH | 21 July 2011  

Just looking in and saw some interesting thoughts here:

Beat: Your idea about media studies looks like a really good one. I think education is crucial. Not sure how this relates to people-smuggling, though

Bob: I think that encouraging critical thinking is important as a first step. If individual readers/listeners are alert to issues of propaganda/manipulation in what they read or see, it is unlikely to sell as well.

Evelyn: Couldn't agree more.

HH: The Rule of Law is certainly an important "pull" factor which encourages people to escape persecution. (Not so sure that the Westminster system is as necessary to a state based on human rights, or even a traditionally Western state - cf. NZ, Germany, Sweden.) As to your question: if comparatively few asylum seekers come by boat and the overwhelming majority are found to be genuine refugees (who, by definition, have committed no serious crimes - see. Art 1F of the Refugee Convention), why should most Australians be concerned that they are a threat to security? (The fact that there is no "queue" to "jump" has already been frequently discussed on these pages.)

Justin Glyn | 22 July 2011  

Well, I don't know how come, but people seem to have not noticed the relentless campaign waged by the Murdoch paper, The Australian and The Weekend Australian, that went on for at least ten years and with great success against the teaching of critical literacy in English lessons in schools. This is where students were being taught to analyse media for bias and reader manipulation....

Anne P | 23 July 2011  

I see the craving for news as a form of addiction. Blot out the image you may have of the heroin or cocaine addict. Think of Joe Citizen who cannot go through the day without his hit of caffeine, nicotine or alcohol. Addiction has tended to be limited to the condition where the desire for the drug of choice, legal though it be, becomes excessive, where craving it sets in, where observable physical and psychological symptoms appear if the drug is suddenly withdrawn.
Different types of news (whatever the media) appeal to different types of people.
Australia does not have a big enough market bear more than two types of newspapers (and media generally), those that tend to be conservatie and those that tend to be progressive.
Whereas in UK there are eight national dailies which cater for the high brow Left (The Guardian) and the high brow Right (The Telegraph); the lower Left (The Mirror) and the lower Right (The Sun) and so on for The Times, The Independent, The Mail and The Express.

These categories are porous and all eight use every marketing trick to increase their circulation, without losing their core readers.
News means business.

Uncle Pat | 24 July 2011  


1. Australia’s Westminster system is a product of Western Christendom. Other governmental systems in Europe and NZ equally reflect the values of Christendom. Refugees wisely seek all these systems as opposed to those of, say, Cuba, China or North Korea.

2. In answer to your question: why is it a question of numbers? Australians could be welcoming of most boat people, but still be concerned that there are threats to security amongst a minority of them. Is that irrational?

In any case, the Lowy report shows those Australians concerned about the influx of boat people to be more positively disposed to them than your quoted figures imply. As the report puts it: “The argument that received greatest agreement suggests those concerned about asylum seekers arriving by boat are most worried they ‘might be badly injured or killed during the boat trip’ (92% agreeing).” So there is a mix of reasons for concern, and the Lowy Report did not seek to quantify the proportions of that mix that individuals held. (For example, concerned Tom Smith may have been 90% worried about asylum seekers being killed, 5% worried about them being queue jumpers and 5% worried about them being terrorists. Or otherwise: we don’t know from this report.)

Moreover, 43 % those concerned Australians nevertheless thought that ‘the attention that the issue of unauthorised asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat receives is not justified by the relatively small numbers that arrive here by boat’ even though most (66%) believed Australia was not obligated by international treaties to accept refugees regardless of how they arrived here.

HH | 25 July 2011  

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