The left and the Murdoch press in the election

One of the enduring themes of this election campaign, particularly from the left side of politics, has been the influence of the Murdoch media. The left was outraged from day one when the Daily Telegraph ran its headline stating that “finally you have the chance to kick this mob (the ALP) out” and it continued when the Telly officially endorsed the LNP declaring “Australia needs Tony”. It has now lead GetUp! to run a campaign about the influence of Murdoch, which has caused controversy after the three commercial television stations refused to run their ad.

Whilst discussion about the media is needed and a valuable part of our public debate (and in many ways I think the GetUp! campaign manages to do this well), the way many in the left have approached the discussion has potentially been very destructive. One theme seems to dominate; that Murdoch is unfairly ‘duping’ the general public to vote for the party that he wants. The activist organisation Avaaz encapsulated this best for me in an e-mail last week:

Murdoch’s media is using all its might to influence the Australian election, and unfortunately —  it’s working. His plan is a simple one: create credible newspapers, gain the trust of readers and then bombard them with propaganda that furthers his own agenda. It’s deceptive and it works — but we can make sure it backfires this election.

In other words, Murdoch is using his newspapers to deceive the public to vote for his man.

I’m not here to defend the actions of some of Murdoch’s newspapers. The Daily Telegraph’s headlines are way over the top (although I don’t have as much concern about bias as others do) and the focus on gossip items (was Rudd grumpy at a make-up artist? Is Rudd getting fat? etc.) isn’t the sort of journalism worthy of the some of the most read newspapers in the country.

But the approach many on the left have taken to attack the Murdoch media is problematic and has the potential to have a real impact on how the left reacts to what seems like a looming defeat for the ALP.

The approach is one that we see commonly in the left-wing movements (Note that I think these sorts of trends appear on the right side of politics as well, but I am more connected with the left so can only comment from that perspective). It is one that treats ‘regular people’, or in other words, the working class, as complete morons. For example, left rhetoric often focuses its campaigns about ‘educating the public’ and ‘raising awareness’ – as if we just need to give people the facts and they will suddenly ‘get it’. In politics you will often hear questions such as ‘how could people be so stupid as to vote for Tony Abbott?’, because voting for our opposition makes you a moron. With Murdoch running his agenda therefore it is easy for us to make the next leap – people are being deceived by the media and we need to save them from it. Clearly the only way one could be stupid enough to vote for Tony Abbott is if they were influenced by the Murdoch media to do so.

It is a very destructive approach to politics. I’ve written about this in the past when it came to media regulation, and it is worth revisiting some of the arguments. Firstly, the assumption that right-wing views are ‘stupid’ is well, just stupid. Often this is based on the idea that the left has the evidence on our side, but this is inherenty subjective. As I said in my previous post:

Ideas of what are true and correct are subjective, and so our understandings of what is right, wrong, and who is smart and who is stupid are too. We all understand these ideas differently, and just because we read evidence differently to others doesn’t make us inherently smarter than them.

Fundamentally, political decision making isn’t about facts or evidence.  It is about values and ideologies. Again, as I argued:

Whether we like it or not, people, including those on the left, engage in politics through their emotional brains. We engage in politics through values. We may not like other people’s values, we may campaign against them, but they are not based on intelligence levels. This is really important for understanding how destructive this rhetoric can be. The left is often so focused on talking about facts and evidence that it forgets that people actually connect through values, meaning that our campaigns are often useless.

It is with this in mind that we can see how elitist and classist this approach is. I think that is relatively obvious – treating people like morons because they have a different value-system to you is pretty elitist. It is classist because it is often targeted at the ‘bogans’, those who we say should understand that they are actually better off under progressive policies, but don’t realise that because they are being unfairly influenced by the media.

This is not to deny the influence of the media in our election (although I agree with Barrie Cassidy that his influence is overstated) – there is a reason so many resources are focused on getting good media attention from parties across the spectrum. But we cannot assume that people who read and absorb right-wing press are simply morons who don’t know any better.

And this is important not only because of its elitist overtones, but also because of what it will mean for the left if and when the ALP falls on Saturday. Instead of opening up a discussion of how the ALP and the left have faltered and allowed Abbott to win Government it will create a discourse that we were robbed by the evil Murdoch empire. It will create a discourse that doesn’t challenge our own techniques and question the ALP’s/left’s approach to policy and governance.

Question the Murdoch press and their actions over the election campaign. But don’t assume that just because people agree with Murdoch that they are idiots. We need to get off these elitist high-horse and tackle ideas and ideologies – not the intelligence of people who have different views to us.

12 responses to “The left and the Murdoch press in the election

  1. I sort of agree with some arguments you make, in that we on the left should stop moralising heavily (especially on matters like asylum seekers) but to say we’re not based in evidence is just a ridiculous assertion. Before I return to that point, right-wing views *ARE* stupid.

    But anyway, there is no serious social psychologist or cultural anthropologist that would argue with the entirely evidence based assertion that humans are defined by our social interactions, that our connection with other humans is what differentiates us evolutionarily from earlier primates. We became humans BECAUSE we needed to get along with people. It then follows from that society is pretty fuckin important. Many ideas and policies (that are commonly perceived as “left-wing”) are developed from that pretty evidence and science based viewpoint. There are still many on the right of believe and base their ideas on the discredited Randian rhetoric of the past and simply refuse to recognise that we now know far more about the human mind and the human condition than we did in the 50’s and guess what, us lefties got the predictions right. Continuing to propose their policies on ridiculous ideologies that ignore developments in behavioural psychology and experimental economics IS THE VERY DEFINITION OF STUPIDITY. (Work-for-dole comes to mind.)

    I also ask you another question, other policies the right proposes like ignoring climate change is simply stupid. If proposing that we should act to save the existence of human civilization is considered “emotional” then I should really relook the definition of rationality.

    As Jon Stewart once said, “Reality has a left-wing bias.”

    The left has changed. We’ve moved on from socialism/communism of the 50’s and 60’s. Those ideas were trialled and were found to have failed. Like any rational person, they were then discarded by most on the left and other ideas that were trialled and succeeded were looked at as ones we should adopt. That’s why the left has a hard-on for Scandinavia. It’s because they tried a bunch of stuff and it worked and HEY PRESTO, highest standard of living in the world. Other countries also tried out the right’s policies, in America and in the UK. That went spectacularly well didn’t it, with intergenerational poverty locked in and extreme social inequality.

    I’m tired of people recycling tired tropes about how it’s all emotional and the right are just as right and we should seek a middle ground. There is a centre. It’s called evidence and reality. Right now, the left occupy it. Once upon a time the right did (1940’s to 1970’s.). Eventually their ideologies will fade in the face of overwhelming evidence (as communism once did and then faded.).

    • Hi Vikraman,

      I agree with some of what you say, and disagree with others. Unfortunately I don’t have the time to go through all your arguments right now (there is a lot in there), but I just wanted to comment on that thing. You said:

      “I’m tired of people recycling tired tropes about how it’s all emotional and the right are just as right and we should seek a middle ground.”

      I’ve never actually proposed that we ‘seek a middle ground’. That is certainly not my argument. I am a strident left-winger and will fight vigorously for left-wing ideology. My argument however is about how we do this, and I don’t think treating people like morons because they believe in something different to us is a useful way or the right way to do it. Not only is it elitist, but it actually sticks us into a box – if right-wingness is stupidity, then it sort of seems impossible to be able to change right-wing views of our determined ‘stupid people’. My main point is, yes, let’s argue for left-wing policy. I will do that until my death. But we can’t do it through treating people on the right as morons.

  2. Great article.
    It struck me reading your piece that the Greens entire approach to political campaigning resolves around the “you’re an idiot” strategy. Although in Grayndler they also add “you’re immoral” to really improve their effectiveness.

  3. Ask not that a bad government should go, but ask, is there one better to vote in?
    We should be careful what we wish for, as the distant fields are not always greener.
    It is easy to believe 5% of what is in the media. The hard part is sorting the 95% to ignore.
    With the election in 3 days time, I’m 50:50 whether to NOT vote for Abbott, or NOT vote for Rudd.
    The election will solve very little, but it will sharpen our enthusiasm for a nice cold beer.
    Now is the time to buy shares in a Brewery.



  4. I agree with you that the power of the press (Murdoch press in particular) to sway votes directly is overstated. However there is still a real problem in that media attention plays a very large part in defining the set of issues that are in the forefront of people’s minds – one talks about the things one saw on television or read in the paper, because the likelihood that the person you’re talking to saw or read the same thing, and that makes for easier socialising.

    Commercial TV leads with car crashes and dogs attacking old ladies because they believe it attracts eyeballs for advertisers. Murdoch papers lead with garbage about the supposedly crippling effects of the carbon tax for ideological reasons (I think it’s silly to pretend otherwise at this point.) Either way, there are a certain set of issues that simply don’t get a mention. Big one for me is the effects of climate change, but there are others.

    Particularly when the Murdoch press dominates the newspaper market to the degree it does, you do end up with a distorted discourse, if you consider that wise stewardship of the country involves working out the best responses to the things that will have the greatest effect on the country’s future. Climate change is undeniably one of these but because it’s not part of the common discourse – which the various media in large part define – it’s much harder to discuss it without seeming like the crackpot uncle with an obsession.

    In other words you don’t need to think that other people are stupid for a biased media to still be a real problem. Though I agree with you in that it’s very hard to articulate the issue without implying otherwise, and that’s not smart.

  5. “The most effective check and balance on government has been an independent press which maintains its credibility by ensuring that its criticism is balanced and based on fact – based indeed on solid journalistic work.” – Malcolm Turnbull

    “Broadcasters or politicians or writers who think that they are respecting Struggle Street, the battlers, by dumbing things down into one-line sound bites are not respecting them, they are treating them with contempt.” – Malcolm Turnbull

    Lift the tone, defer your Liberal vote. Vote Malcolm Turnbull PM in 2016.

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