Newspapers Tangled In Politics… That’s Yesterday’s News

Every generation thinks the world they are presented with is unique.

Reflecting on the 1819 parliamentary session, the British conservative Henry Bankes regretted that the government had not done more to “restrain and correct the licentiousness and abuse of the press”. Newspapers are “a tremendous engine in the hands of mischievous men,” Bankes wrote.

Bankes’ complaint was old hat even then. There’s not much new in media criticism. When Ray Finkelstein argued the press fosters “inequality, abuse of power, intellectual squalor, avid interest in scandal, an insatiable appetite for entertainment and other debasements and distortions”, he may not have realised how tired a note he was striking.

The great champion of press freedom, Thomas Jefferson, lamented that nothing in a newspaper could be believed. With obvious disappointment, Jefferson wrote “the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them”. Journalists had welcomed “prostitution to falsehood”.

John Stuart Mill described the London press as “the vilest and most degrading of all trades”. Edmund Burke considered newspapers as a “grand instrument of the subversion of order, of morals, of religion and… of human society itself”.

We could go on. For as long as there has been media there have been complaints that it is biased, unbalanced, unfair, immoral, reckless, unethical, excessively powerful, and untrustworthy. An unhappy Samuel Johnson said too many journalists of his day were political partisans “without a wish for truth or thought of decency”.

So – for instance – it is hard to understand Robert Manne’s claim that in recent years The Australian has “transcended the traditional newspaper role” and become an “active player in both federal and state politics”. Newspapers have always been tangled up in politics. There is no traditional, non-political role for them to transcend.

Manne wrote in his Quarterly Essay that The Australian is a “remorselessly campaigning paper”. Is this description supposed to be damning?

One of the world’s greatest media moguls, William Randolph Hearst, claimed his newspapers “control the nation”. His New York Journal didn’t just report, it participated. It distributed welfare and disaster relief. It launched public interest lawsuits. It even broke someone out of a Cuban prison – “the greatest journalistic coup of this age,” according to the Journal.

Popular mythology reflects Hearst’s self-aggrandisement by crediting his papers with amazing political power as well. But the reality does not reflect the legend. It suits everyone to talk up the power of the media. Proprietors trade on the illusion of clout, and politicians want excuses for their own impotence. Hearst later made a series of failed political runs. Clearly he thought public office a desirable promotion.

Across the Atlantic, the mid-century press baron Lord Beaverbrook famously said he ran the Daily Express “merely for the purposes of making propaganda and with no other motive”.

Beaverbrook was being playful. The occasion for those words was his interrogation by the 1947 Royal Commission on the Press. That Commission had an eerily similar origin to our recent Independent Inquiry. The post-war Labour party was frustrated with press hostility. Labour had won the 1945 election by a landslide. But most papers in that election had editorialised in favour of the Tories. For Labour politicians egged on by the journalists’ union, this was proof the papers and their owners were dangerously out of touch.

Any semblance of historical awareness should lead us to focus our attention not on the repetitive, unchanging complaints about how venal the press is, but on what is genuinely new.
And that is the extraordinary wealth of new information, new sources, and new outlets available to media consumers in 2012; our access to the global press online, social media and ‘citizen’ journalism, the opening up of the journalistic processes, and, even, the democratisation of media criticism.

While the complaints about journalism made today are virtually indistinguishable from those made by Henry Bankes in 1819, the environment in which the media operates is totally different.
The Finkelstein Inquiry was given two tasks. The first was to look how the internet challenges newspaper business models. The second was to look at press standards and quality. One of Finkelstein’s biggest failures was not coherently joining the two tasks together – what the second task meant in light of the first.

Finkelstein’s proposed News Media Council is strikingly similar to the 1947 Royal Commission’s recommendation that British newspapers be governed by a General Council of the Press. (The Royal Commission’s threat of statutory regulation led the industry to form the UK Press Council.)

It’s as if nothing has changed in the meantime.

The Duke of Wellington defeated Napoleon and made it to the office of prime minister – few were more respected and influential than Wellington – but he privately complained to his family that Britain’s real rulers were “the Gentlemen of the Press”.

It is a professional pastime of politicians to complain about newspaper influence and the grubbiness of journalism. We do not have to treat their whining as novel. And we must not believe it is anything more than the traditional antagonism between government and press.