The author has been described by News Ltd as an "iconoclast", "Svengali", a pollie's "economist muse", and "pungently accurate". Fairfax says he is a "Renaissance man" and "one of Australia’s most respected analysts." Stephen Koukoulas concludes that he is "85% right", and "would make a great Opposition leader." Terry McCrann claims the author thinks "‘nuance’ is a trendy village in the south of France", but can be "scintillating" when he thinks "clearly". The ACTU reckons he’s "an enigma wrapped in a Bloomberg terminal, wrapped in some apparently well-honed abs."

Friday, June 29, 2012

Media supports free press and democracy--when it suits them

It was comforting to see Malcolm Turnbull immediately declare the LNP's opposition to both a "public interest test" on the owners of otherwise unencumbered private media businesses, and to any censorship and regulation of private media output.

I find a few things odd about this debate. First, much of the Australian media wants to be free from influence, and "editorially independent" of their owners, and presumably clings dearly to the notion of a "free press". Yet they also seem comfortable exempting these same principles from the owners of media businesses. How convenient.

So when the elected government of the day proposes to introduce new laws restricting certain types of people producing private media in this country because the government says these folks may use their communications capabilities to oppose government policies, there is scarcely any discussion. 

I can find no editorials in The Australian, SMH, Age, or the AFR on the active political debate surrounding the government's desire to introduce a public interest test, censorship, and a universal media regulator. 

There are Malcolm Turnbull's remarks reported in The Oz, and my op-edRichard Ackland also has a good op-ed in the SMH where he concedes that any public interest test is impossible to define in practice. 

Most revealingly, Ackland concludes that the only way to properly implement a public interest test is by black-balling a list of Australian from free enterprise. Reflect on that for a moment. 

Since we are only talking about citizens starting new companies, or buying into existing ones, that rely on no form of taxpayer support or subsidy, any such constraint directly conflicts with all the central tenets of democracy. 

This mirrors the so-called "inequality" debate. Apparently there is an arbitrary level beyond which people are "too successful", "too powerful", and "too rich", and, in a Leninist sense, a threat to an idealised community, where the complexion of said threat is able to be unilaterally assessed by a small governing elite.

All these judgments are autocratic statements on what characteristics society should encompass in the eyes of the elite. They do not conform with the principle of an open civilisation functioning freely, organically propelled along by the interactions of its liberated members. 

I, for instance, emphatically support governments combating extreme poverty and promoting equality of opportunity. Advocating a battle against "inequality", on the other hand, is dangerously destabilising to democracy. It overlays entirely non-objective yet absolutist opinions on what "more equal" communities should look like. 

I thought the whole point of democratically open societies was to foster differences and diversity across all forms of intellectual, physical, and professional endeavours. 

When students compete at school or university, we don't deliberately seek to shove the brightest performers back to the mean because they got lucky in the genetic lottery. Democracy strives to celebrate academic success. 

The same principle applies to our physical accomplishments. Imagine if somebody proposed handicapping athletes at the Olympics because their exceptional gifts were deemed to be unfair to their peers. 

Yet for some reason when it comes to the sphere in which we invest most of our energy--our vocational lives--the lawful inequality of outcomes, which is an ineluctable result of different human endowments, becomes a bad thing. 

Inequality is something many argue we should legislate to mitigate. As Andrew Leigh acknowledges, there is scant empirical evidence to validate the idea that having some exceptionally successful people sitting in the right-hand-side of the income distribution is especially bad for the rest of us. In fact, many find their achievements inspiring, as they should do. Of course, the converse is not true: public policy should be unequivocally motivated towards minimising the number of people that experience extreme poverty (ie, on the far left-hand-side of the income distribution).

The delicious inconsistencies between editorially independent journalists reporting to non-free media owners subject to public interest tests is highlighted in Richard Ackland's solution to the problem of defining what we mean by the latter:

The handmaiden of ''public interest'' is ''fit and proper'' - another fertile field of conjecture. A majority of members of the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee thought Murdoch was not fit and proper to run newspapers. Others did not have a problem with him...

Would Rinehart be fit and proper to control Fairfax? She is perfectly entitled to have off-the-wall ideas and start her own rag to propagate them. It's another thing altogether if she wants to force them down the gullet of the second biggest newspaper chain in the country. [Editor: Is it??]

Maybe a direct, uncomplicated way of defining the public interest in media legislation is a one-line act that says: ''These people cannot control a press or broadcasting business in Australia - see minister's regulations for the full list.''